ANCIENT CEDAR TREES, QADISHA VALLEY AND A SAINT'S VILLAGE


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Middle East » Lebanon » Bcharre
October 22nd 2010
Published: December 9th 2010
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Bekaa KafraBekaa KafraBekaa Kafra

statue of the revered Lebanese saint, Charbel Makhlouf
Got up early to catch the bus to Bcharre, 1st from near the Charles Helou bus station I hailed a passing minivan to take me to Darwa, I specifically told the driver to let me off there, but he forgot and only realized we passed it when he looked worried asking me where I exactly need to go, sorry Darwa is over there behind us, I was so pissed, he dropped me off at an overpass to cross over the other side and head back, I told him I ain't paying cause he screwed up, I heard him mutter but I didnt care. Now I have to deal with traffic going into the city again! Beirut traffic in the morning to town is horrendous and took ages to get to Darwa. Once there I asked passerby where is the bus station, but they always ask me where are you going? I guess they have different locations, honestly I did not really see a station, bunch of taxi drivers mill around just below the overpass highway, I asked for directions and pointed me to find Total gas station couple blocks away, I did find it but don't know where the bus is,
Bcharre Bcharre Bcharre

pimp my ride
One toothless taxi driver told me to get into the restaurant next to the petrol station, so I did, and it turns out to be the Estephane bus company office as well.

I left my backpack in the restaurant to find breakfast, then waited for the bus to turn up at 10am, I just missed the 9am bus because of traffic. The cook was very nice to me he let me sit inside and when the bus came the driver talked to me and asked me where I was going and welcomed me to his country, very kind. The drive was about 2 1/2 hours, we have to deal with traffic, people get on and off passing Byblos, and some small towns, then it slowly went up the mountains, passing quaint villages, the road became zig zaggy, nice view of Qadisha valley below. The driver dropped me off at the Tiger House hostel even though it's past and above the main square of town.

The place is nice but the dorm room is very crowded, I mean on a tight space they fit 4 double decker beds, hardly a space to put your packs, but management is nice and clean toilet, they wanted to keep my passport for the duration of my stay and I dont know why, then they made me pay up right away, its not like I will run away! 12:30pm I have the rest of the afternoon to do some hike, the Ethiopian caretaker recommended me to hike to the Qadisha grotto and to the Cedars. 3 hours RT she said. So following the map I slowly went uphill occasionally asking locals for directions as the only sign was when the road splits between the new and old road, I followed the main road and one woman stopped me and gave me 5 apples, very kind as I was really hungry, maybe to keep me from picking on the orchard fruits nearby!

The walk was tiring, winding up but great views of the Qadisha valley and Bcharre itself. I found the grotto, cool location but did not expect I have to pay to go inside, anyway it's 5,000 LL, its ok nice clean stream inside a cave, and it's cold there bring warm clothes. From there I went straight up to the Cedars, finally getting to the top of the mountain, no sign where the trees are so iI just guessed and went straight into town which looks abandoned, like a ghost town, very quiet, hardly anyone there, off season , winter its kickin'! I asked some girls to point me to the forest, 10 minutes away they told me and I walked some more, my feet are tired, then I saw from a distance a hilly area where a clump of greenery is, I assume these are the trees.

At the entrance you have to give donations to enter, I gave 1,000 LL and I was given a postcard. Hardly any tourist, nice small forest, the trees are enormous, I felt dwarfed by some of them, I could just imagine in the olden days when this area is covered by them must be a sight to see. After half an hour wandering around I came out and started my walk back down the road I started from, sore sore feet and steep walk down, I was so relieved to see the town in the distance and nearly collapsed very tired in the hostel took me 4 hours and I wasnt slow at all. I took a rest before going to dinner, I chatted with the Ethiopian caretaker, she's very nice, then she told me where to get some dinner in town. Had a pizza and a beer then headed home to sleep, tomorrow big hike down the valley. 3 backpackers checked in and now the dorm is crowded, hardly any space to put your packs the bunk beds are so close together, the dude next to me is only inches away from my face, ridiculous! I tried to sleep but had a difficult time, a Chinese/Canadian girl in the dorm was talking loud, the TV in the living room is full volume, the owners watching some soap opera, somehow I passed out eventually from exhaustion.

I was the 1st one up at 8am, beautiful day, the Ethiopian girl was already up and sat in the reception desk in the lounge room, I again reviewed the trail route with her going down Qadisha valley, she seem to know the route but problem is she had never done it herself and is speaking from other people's experience, so I just thought I'd wing it. I walked slowly down to the center of town and a car pulled over and invited me in, his name is Tony and he owns a hostel in town called Bauhaus, he is promoting it to me, unfortunately I already have a place to stay the night but promised him to pass along the business cards to fellow travellers. He was kind enough to drop me off at the beginning of the trail near the Al Reef restaurant like the map said. The way to the valley is a deep canyon and its amazing to see the towns atop it including Bcharre.

I slowly made my way down the winding road downward, great view from here and I quite enjoyed the walk, a few cars passed me took my time and I discovered blackberries on the side of the road that kept me preoccupied, they are smaller but sweeter than the ones in the Caucasus, a few grottos along the way I found a path towards a monastery but the name is different from the one in the map I assume it was Mar Lichaa but it said something else, anyway looks nice but quite a trek to the side of the cliff, after starting the trail I decided to stop and head back to the main road as I dont want to waste my time, if it's not in the map it must be unimportant. Further along the road an old man offered me a ride down but I decline the kind offer as I can see I am almost there anyway. I passed the Qadisha Inn and around it are orchards of different fruits, grapes, apples, persimmons, then further down to another restaurant are heaps of persimmon trees ripe with fruits! If there was no one there I would pick some but a few bystanders kept me from stealing!

The path was clearly marked and it turns out the monastery I saw earlier and which I started to hike into but retreated was the Mar Lichaa! there are 2 ways to get there turns out. Anyway I followed the steep road to get there and it was a disappointment, it's a cave church with some graves, a chapel, a cafe, nothing interesting, one thing I liked is the clean toilet I perused with pleasure, no one was there I am the only tourist. On the way down I met the Polish-German couple I met in Beirut they were staying in Hasroun. I kept on with the trail the brown sign says to Qannoubine monastery, it's a dirt road but big enough for vehicle traffic, my foot is now sore from the asphalt and the dirt road was not a relief as it is very rocky. The trail was about 1 hour walk, nice scenery, the river runs along on the left side a restaurant called Greenland is set next to the river but it's shut, I was alone and it's past 10am, one van came from the opposite way he must have dropped some people I thought.

Along the way there were more of the blackberry shrubs, I stopped a few times to snack on the sweet yet small fruits. then finally I saw a small village and I walked past a few houses and a restaurant, then a sign to the Qannoubine monastery appeared,next to a set of steps going uphill again, why do they build these monasteries on side of cliffs I would never know, there's plenty of ground on the valley! Muttering to myself I made it to the entrance only to find a bunch of retired elderly English speaking tourists with their guide. The chapel is small and simple but quite nice, with a few old looking frescoes, I like this one. The oldies started to hike down and I caught up with them as they were slow, the young guide chatted with me and he gave me tips on how to get to the next monastery, he told me it is quite far and will take me 2 hours to reach the village of Fradis and another hour or so to the Mar Antonio monastery, and the trail is unclear etc, not really encouraging so I had to think know should I go back or keep hiking until I had enough and return? I contemplated my next move while sat at the foot of the monastery eating my lunch. Then as I start to walk I found a fig tree along the path ripe with sweet juicy fruits. I helped myself to it, they are small but delicious, I took my beanie hat and used it as a receptacle to put the fig fruit stash, I am building quite a reputation here as a fruit stealer but hey to my knowledge they are all growing wild!

Then I continued to walk the scenery is nice across the gorge, lots of abandoned houses made of rocks and terraced fields, I wonder what they plant there before as it looks abandoned as well. The trail is made of cement and along side it are pine trees, really nice change, then as I walk further I found an olive orchard, the trail went down the gorge, there are red paint markings on rocks and trees and the ground at times, so I knew I was on the right track, I was alone yet again, no other tourists.The sun is intense so I try to walk faster, some area is sandy so I stopped to take off my shoes and expel the sands and pebbles.Along the trail surprisingly I met 2 people, one looks like a monk going the opposite way, 5 minutes later I reached a village which I later found out was Fradis,here in this area, a few houses define a village, I stood there and looked at the map again, it is now past 1pm and I knew I have a long way back, if I continue to go towards Mar Antonio Qozhaya, a big monastery It may take half hour or 2 hours I haven't a clue and the map is quite vague this town is not even on the drawn trail! It is marked in the map but on the other side of the trail, hmmm what to do.. I decided to head back, I am tired and my feet are killing me so I went and backtracked on the trail, I met the 2 guys again sat resting.

I sat with the 2 guys, a middle aged veterinarian who lived a year in Kentucky and thus speak decent English and a nice monk with long beard and wearing the habit as he trek. We chat as we exchanged snacks, they told me I could still make it to the monastery of Mar Antonio maybe an hour then try to get to the road and hitch hike to a town called Ehden then another to Bcharre, oh so complicated to me I made up my mind I am done for the day, by the way from the Qannoubine monastery it took me only an hour to make this far, the guide said 2hours, well if he is judging from his tourists' pace then it would! Finally making it back to the Qannoubine monastery i bid goodbye to my new friends as they sit in the restaurant to have lunch, a huge crowd of young university kids on excursion is everywhere, very loud and boisterous, I passed most of them as I walk the trail, the quiet walk earlier is now tampered by this big crowd, it feels like ages to get back to the 1st monastery, finally I made it back, I picked one persimmon from an orchard to snack on. I did not stop to rest, I still have a tall task of climbing the steep winding road up the valley.

Pacing myself I slowly made the difficult climb up, there were no cars passing I can hear the loud noises from the young people across the valley, there were 4 or 5 buses waiting for them parked on the narrow road. I kept going hardly stopping, halfway thru 2 cars passed going up, I did not hail them, decided to make it on my own, my legs were achy and my feet were dead but I love the challenge.Finally I made it back to the top, I found grapes across from a convent and I picked a few as I need a sugar rush, wow they are very sweet grapes, back on the main road, and cramping a bit, I walked on the direction of Bcharre, a car stopped for me, he told me to get in so I relented, nice dude, he dropped me off just below the town center and I walked around, gingerly for a bit, and like before, young man in cars would honk at me I don't know why, then they asks where I am going, I ignored them and instead visited the Marsaba church, they want to befriend you then ask for money like yesterday.

I found a place to snack on, they have fish sandwich and it was marvellous, I ordered another one to go for later and promised the old man to come back again tomorrow. I went to check out the Bauhaus which is 700m from the town center, it's a tall building/apartment, I did not go in though. then back at the hostel I had a long hot shower, my legs were cramping. Then minutes later a French family checked in and took the dorm next door, oh god 4 young kids loud and noisy bless them but they dont belong in a dorm! there are private rooms they should be there! one of my roommates came back and told me the day before they did the trek as well but they cheated as they could not find a way to get to the last monastery so they hitchhiked on the main road, took them 9 hours!

Next day I took the bus near the Marsaba church to get to the town of Ba'qaa Kafra, the highest village in Lebanon apparently. It was not that far from the beginning of the Qadisha valley road really, but anyway I got dropped off after 5 minutes driving, I paid the driver 1,000 LL, 2 women that got off from the same bus pointed to a road going uphill, yup that's my destination, another climb. I took my time and along the way, what do you know, wild blackberries and grapes growing on the side of the road, have to snack you know so it took me longer, but actually the village is about 15 minute walk uphill from the main road. Lots of construction going on, everywhere something is being built, hotels, apartments, houses.

At the village, I visited a church and to then to the home of Charbel Makhlouf, a well respected and beloved hermit saint that was born here in the 19th century, his house is small and very simple but is now a chapel, there is a bigger chapel next door and a church service is going on, I sat a bit to listen though I could not understand it, I think it's in Arabic. When it finished I walked around the church and took some photos of the huge statue of Charbel just outside, with a great view of the Qadisha valley and Bcharre. Then I walked around the village, it's very small but like I said lots of construction, it wont be long till it becomes a boom town, everywhere I go I noticed the saint's photo or statue, every house, store has to have his image for goodluck I guess. I found a route to the grotto, inside is another chapel and a grotto where legend has it Charbel used to gather water when he was young, you can see a well but there is a lid, shut with a padlock and only the nun on duty can open it and gather water, there are water containers on the side of the grotto for everyone to drink the "miraculous water" the jugs have this spout thing and I tried to drink without touching the lip like locals do and I poured water all over the floor, totally embarassed, I quickly made my way out.

That really is it nothing else to do, the village is not picturesque, if not for the saint this will be clearly missed by tourists, amazing view of the canyon/gorge of Qadisha but you get that from every high place here anyway. Slowly made my way down, suddenly a car stopped and gave me a ride back to Bcharre, I did not even put out my thumb, nice people here. I asked to be dropped off at the Gibran museum, this guy was born here and lived his life in Boston, my hometown so I thought I ought to visit his shrine, first up a Phoenician tomb up the hill, shaped like a chimney, quite intriguing, when you get up there all you see are holes on the wall, carved from the rock, not impressive. Then I made my way to the museum, quite expensive, 5,000 LL to visit, although I must admit the collection is neatly organized , the guy gave me a brochure/pamphlet to follow, it's number coded and describes the paintings and stuff you are looking at, this guy is a poet, writer and painter, but most of his paintings are of naked people showing different types of emotions, I did not dig it and went through the exhibits quite fast, his tomb below though was cool, a cave, big space with his bed and belongings on exhibit but smells of must.
On my way out I was reminded by the caretaker to leave the brochure, it's not free! damn for the money I paid for, I should take it home.

Walked back slowly to town, my feet are killing me again, stopped at my favorite sandwich place, no fish today so I asked for taouk chicken sandwich, wow superb all the same! there is a Filipina woman working as a caretaker to the hostel owner's father and I met her on my last day while waiting for the bus back to Beirut, she loved it here quiet and clean air, anywhere I go I meet Pinoys, hardworking and reliable that's why they are employed all over the world, anyway that was my time in the mountains of Lebanon.


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