Stalactites and Stalagmites… and bedbugs
The Qadisha Valley in Northern Lebanon is often referred to as the Valley of the Saints, due to its enormous concentration of monasteries and hermitages, some of which date back to the 4th century AD. It is an area of outstanding natural beauty, the valley itself rising steeply upwards from the river, its lower slopes covered in pine forests, fringed with a high rocky cliff above which small towns perch precariously on the edge of the deep gorge. Above these rise Lebanon’s highest peaks, reaching heights of 3000m above sea level.
On our first trip to the valley Everitte and I took a minibus from Tripoli to Bsharry, the birthplace of the famous Lebanese artist, poet and writer Khalil Gibran. With a population of 13,000 Bsharry is one of the biggest towns in the Qadisha valley, but it is nevertheless possible to walk from one side of the town to the other in under 10 minutes, passing two huge churches on the way, with spires and crucifixes and chapels visible in the surrounding mountains from almost every side.
We stayed in dorm beds in a place called the Tiger House Hostel, which seemed like a lovely place initially, decorated like a traditional Swiss ski lodge, with lots of dark wood and cosy fires in winter. Unfortunately when we woke up in the morning after our first night there we found that I had been bitten by bedbugs in the night so badly that every inch of my arms, feet, hands and face was swollen and red. When the landlady saw me covered in angry red spots from head to foot she simply observed: ‘Ooh, you’re allergic’. No sign of surprise or even embarrassment at what sleeping in her hostel had done to me. Perhaps for $10 a night I shouldn’t have been surprised either.
In spite of the less than ideal sleeping arrangements we had an amazing time hiking in the mountains, in our totally unsuitable footwear. The first afternoon we climbed up a narrow disused mountain road, alongside a stream, which curved its way steeply up towards Lebanon’s highest peak and the Cedars, a small group of restaurants and hotels which in winter becomes the hub of the famous cedars ski resort, so named because of its proximity to a grove of protected cedar trees, some of which are over 3000 years old. It was a hot day and a lovely surprise when we came across an icy cold waterfall by the side of the road.
We were heading to the Qadisha grotto, a natural cave and spring extending 400m into the rock high above the head of the valley, but due to the heat the 4km walk took us nearly two hours, as we stopped several times along the way to drink water, eat doughnuts and admire the spectacular views from the roadside. The Grotto itself is not as famous as the larger Jeita Grotto, but is still pretty spectacular, beginning with a huge icy cold natural pool of clear mineral water which is safe to drink and tastes delicious, and following the course of the underground river up to the spring, through a series of caves filled with stalactites and stalagmites in an extraordinary range of colours, shapes and sizes. The air was icy cold, and after the heat of the day outside walking into the caves was like being in a giant fridge, and we could see our breath rising in little puffs as we walked.
Once out in the air again we decided to sit and have a coffee and admire the incredible view, only to find that in the 15 minutes or so that we had been in the caves clouds had appeared from somewhere, and were literally pouring down the sides of the mountains in a viscous mass, an the bottom of the valley and the mountains in the distance were already hidden behind a think, swirling mist. As we continued our walk up the mountain towards the cedars the clouds continued to pour down past us until at dusk the valley was completely full of clouds, which rested in it like liquid in a bowl, while above the sun continued shining in a blue sky.
We had intended to walk up to the cedars and see the ancient trees, but the map, a photocopy of a hand-draw series of dotted lines provided by the hostel, was not easy to follow, having neither scale nor altitude, nor all the roads or paths on it by which to judge where to find the main routes. Consequently we were unable to find the cedars when we reached the top of the hill where we thought they should be, thought we later realised there were only a kilometre or so further along the road. Instead, we wandered along a footpath on the top of the mountain, hoping it would connect up with the main road back to Basharry, as the sun was setting. We followed the path through some straggly pine trees, covering ourselves in a fine, red dust which was disturbed by our steps and hung around us in a cloud as we walked, and after 15 minutes or so we came to the edge of the plateau we were on, and realised that we had come to a dead end at a tiny chapel, perched on the edge of a cliff overlooking the whole valley and we saw Bsharry, its lights already twinkling, far below us. We watched the spectacular sunset from the chapel, then made our way back to the road, reaching it just as it got dark.
The lady at the hostel had mentioned hitch-hiking as a way to get around when walking as though it was a standard way to travel, and we debated whether or not to try it as we started down the road, empty except for one old man a little way ahead of us, and two little boys in the distance. As it happened, much like my other experience of hitch-hiking in Jordan, the decision was made for us. A car coming past us at high speed screeched to a halt beside the two little boys up ahead of us, but rather than picking them up it then reversed at a similarly high speed all the way back along the road to pick up the old man, and as we came level with them the driver asked us where we were going and when we said Bsharry he told us to climb in. We were driven back in style, arriving just in time to find some dinner before all the cafes shut at about 8.30, and were in bed by 10, tired but happy.
The nun, the shepherd and the little farmer boy
The next morning we decided to hike down into the valley itself, and walk some of the way along the valley floor. Our map had a vague dotted line representing a 14km walk which takes you via multiple monasteries and hermitages, but given that we were ill-prepared for real hiking, what with my New Look sandals with a slight heel and Everitte’s worn out leather flip-flops with the big toe missing, we decided just to walk part of the way and then come back. The hostel owner gave us a lift down the steep winding road to the valley floor, saving us a 5km trek before we could even start the real walk, so we began our day at Deir Mar Elisha, a monastery accessible by road at the Bsharry end of the valley, which has been converted into a museum. From there we set out towards the second monastery, 7km or so up the valley, intending to walk and enjoy ourselves and turn back when we got tired. It was a beautiful day and we had a great time walking along the footpath on the sunny right side of the valley, smelling the pine in the air. We stopped for lunch at a little restaurant with incredible views in both directions up and down the valley, where we were seated next to a wasps’ nest and so enjoyed our mezze with a side-order of buzzing, flinching and swatting.
A little further on from restaurant we were surprised to find that we had reached the second monastery, Deir Qannoubin, rumoured to have been founded by Theodosius the Great in the 4th century. It is a beautiful place, built into the rock of the mountainside, with a simple chapel painted with beautiful 18th century frescoes, and is still a working convent. It is perched at the base of a cliff halfway up the side of the valley, and to reach it from the path we had to climb a small winding path through the pine trees. Bizarrely speakers have been attached to the trees at intervals all up the path, and played ‘soothing’ music seemingly from the sky as we climbed. For some reason this music was not Arab but sounded more Chinese, and was interspersed with a message spoken in a strange, ‘spriritual’ sounding voice in Arabic, English and French, asking visitors to respect the silence and peacefulness of the monastery. Personally I preferred the sign at Deir Mar Elisha which said in French: ‘If you are a believer: pray; if you are an atheist: admire; and if you are STUPID: write your name on the wall’.
Given that we had already done half of the walk without really meaning to we decided we might as well carry on as turn back, and it was at the second monastery that the fairy-tale part of our journey began. Where we met the first of our guides in the form of a nun, who spoke to us in French, gave us a book to look at and water to drink, and urged us to rest in the shade before carrying on, then told us that to get to the final monastery on our trip we should take the left fork and continue on.
We made our way back down to the original path and continued onwards, along the aqueduct we’d been walking on. The only path to the left was a tiny footpath snaking down to the rover, and we were sure it couldn’t be the right path, so we kept going, only to find that after an hour the aqueduct ended, and the only way onwards was an even smaller path, which looked like it was made by and for sheep, rather than people. We decided to continue on rather than going back, as it was about 4.30 by then and we knew it would be dark in another two and a half hours. The track wove its way through trees and along cliff edges, and by several ruined old stone cottages, but we saw no sign of any other human activity, until finally we saw an old man approaching us on a donkey. This old shepherd was the second of our guides. He offered us cold water, and spoke only the local Arabic dialect, but directed us to continue along the path and eventually we’d come to the third and final monastery on our journey.
An hour later we came to a farm, and the track we were on lead us past several horses and a few chicken coops and into the farmyard from the back. A group of surprised farmer boys immediately gathered around us, obviously wondering how and why two foreigners had appeared in their midst out of nowhere. I was relieved to the see that a road lead to the front of the farm, and they had several large farm vehicles in the yard, and asked them if the quickest way to get to the main road back to Bsharry was to continue along this road. After some very complicated instructions in Arabic they called a boy who spoke French, and he explained that the road would take us a very long way round, and that it would be quicker to go back the way we had come about 500 metres and look for a little ‘hard to see’ path up the mountain which would take us to some steps up to the road.
We backtracked, looking for a small path, and after what we thought might be 500 metres we came to a little sheep track heading up towards the cliff above through the trees. We followed it some way up the mountain. It was very steep, and ran across large patches of loose scree, and after a while we realised that while going up was possible, if dangerous, going back down would be lethal, and we had no choice but to go on. The path lead us back towards the farm, but climbing upwards all the time, until we found ourselves on top of a bare patch of mountain overlooking the farm hundreds of feet below us, with no idea if we were on a path any longer or not. A series of small tracks seemed to cross the mountainside where we stood, but they were so ambling and criss-cross that it seemed obvious they had been made by sheep rather than people. The sun was about to sink behind the opposite side of the valley, and the light was greying, so we carried on as quickly as we could, following the sheep tracks which lead us round to the right side of the mountain we were on into a narrow valley which bisected two peaks of the mountain, with cliffs on either side. We couldn’t go back, so had no choice but to soldier on, even when it turned out that the valley was a dry waterfall bed, and even sheep could not penetrate it, as it involved rock climbing up several vertical inclines, as well as wading through a series of plants all of which had long spikes, spines and bristles, and made progress extremely slow for us in our unsuitable sandals. We hoped that when we got deeper into the valley and the sides got lower we would be able to climb out, and although we had no idea what was at the top we knew we’d have a better view at the very least, and hoped that there would be houses or at least a road which we could follow to get back to civilisation.
Unfortunately the sun had completely disappeared by this time, and we knew it would be dark in half an hour or so. I began to panic, not because we might have to spend the night in the valley, as we had water and although we would have been freezing cold and at risk of snakes and scorpions we would probably have been fine, but more because the valley seemed impossible to climb out of, and even when we did we had no idea if we’d be in a better position or simply lost on top of a mountain. We began to go as quickly as we could, no longer even attempting to avoid the spiky plants, until our legs and hands were scratched all over, and poor Everitte, who had the backpack, was drenched in sweat. About 15 minutes before dark I started to feel horribly claustrophobic, and couldn’t bear to be stuck in the valley any longer, so we struck straight up the side, which was no longer a sheer cliff, but was still extremely steep and covered in large areas of rock which could not be circumnavigated, but had to be climbed.
As we reached the top of the steep sides and it started to level out we saw headlights approaching and realised two things: we had found a road, and it was dark. I have never been so happy to see a road in my entire life. By the time we reached it the valley below us was in total darkness, and we were hysterical with relief as we started walking back in the direction on Bsharry, which we estimated was probably about 15km away by road. We had only been walking a few minutes when we were able to hitch a lift from a local family who took us to a town about halfway to Bsharry, and from there we got another lift back into town to food and lights and people (and bedbugs!)
All in all we had a scary, but rather wonderful time, seeing what the mountains are really like when you stray off the beaten track. I can’t say I’d do it again, but it was certainly an experience. And it taught me to be a lot more careful the next time, and that a torch, proper footwear and warm clothing are always a good idea when going on a mountain expedition.