Hiking in Lebanon's 'Valley of the Saints'
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because your trek upward is rewarded with 3,000-year-old trees.
By Charlotte Buchen
The OZY Top 25: Each week we share an irresistible vacation hideaway, chosen by OZY staff.
The quiet beauty of Lebanon’s Kadisha Valley is a setting that feels holy in and of itself — but it’s much more than a pretty postcard. The region is a sacred place revered by the Lebanese for many reasons, and a visit here will refresh you in mind, body and spirit after the grit and glamour of Beirut.
Only about an hour and a half’s scenic drive from the noisy sprawl of the city, Kadisha Valley has stony bluffs that are home to dozens of small caves — refuge to Maronite Christians who first settled the valley in the seventh century to escape invasions. “It’s considered like a Jerusalem for the Christians of the region,” says Charbel Tawk, an agricultural engineer who hails from one of the region’s oldest families.
For the tourist, hiking in the “Valley of the Saints” means beautiful timeworn paths that take you through monasteries and sacred caves, where even today a few hermits still meditate. Let your mountain meanderings lead you to any one of the restaurants by the cool riverside at the bottom of the valley, and savor the typical Lebanese feast spread before you: deliciously fresh meze and the regional favorite, kibbe nayeh, which is similar to steak tartare. Take a few hours to relax at the table and let time slow down as you sip a few glasses of arak (a traditional spirit made from grapes and flavored with anise).
Follow the road that continues up the mountain and find another sacred site: the cedar groves.
At the heart of this area is small, fairy-tale-like city of stone perched above the deep valley at 1,500 meters above sea level: This is Bcharre, hometown of poet and artist Khalil Gibran and the capital of the district, also called Bcharre. The dozens of smaller stone villages in the surrounding mountains all have something to offer. Follow the road that continues up the mountain and find another sacred site: the cedar groves. Cedars have long been the nation’s symbol, but few of the ancient trees remain. Above Bcharre, in a grove of about 360 trees, are some of the last remaining giants, known as the “Cedars of God.” Tawk says some are more than 3,000 years old, and that, at last, they are being fiercely protected. “There’s a lot of mythology around the trees,” he says. “One story says that when someone tried to cut a branch to boil some milk, the milk turned to blood.” Today, Tawk helps run a sponsorship program that has resulted in the planting of more than 12,000 trees — sponsor your own for $100 and receive a plaque and GPS coordinates.
Bcharre has just enough amenities for the tourist without feeling touristy. It mainly hosts Lebanese visitors, drawn here in summer to escape the humidity of the seashore, and in winter for the snow and skiing. You won’t find much open in fall or spring. The area suffered during the long civil war, and things are generally a bit run-down. A brief comeback has been slowed by the war in Syria, and many of the restaurants and hotels remain shabby. Still, you can feel safe in Bcharre; it remains a quiet refuge from the threat of violence.
What it lacks in amenities, Bcharre makes up for in friendliness and unique character. The area is famous for welcoming those seeking sanctuary, and the people are fiercely proud of their heritage. They are “attached to the land, and their character resembles the mountains around them,” says Tawk. “They have survived many difficult circumstances.”