Despite the somewhat terrifying experience of my first trip to the Valley of the Saints it is such a beautiful place that when my aunt Chantal, who loves hiking in the mountains, came to visit me I simply had to take her there.
We spent the first couple of days of her visit in and around Beirut, drinking tea and eating biscuits and smoking argileh on the corniche watching the sunset. We went on a day trip to Byblos, which, along with Damascus, claims to be the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world, believed to have been founded in 5000BC. It is a very picturesque little town, with a tiny port, nice beaches, a traditional old souq – now catering to tourists rather than locals sadly – a ruined crusader castle and some ancient ruins from various civilisations over its long history.
All in all a very satisfactory place to spend a day, in spite of the man who followed us down to the beach, across about a kilometre of shingle, over a series of hotel walls and onto another beach, only to hide behind a rock and emerge when we were in the water, so as to watch us swim and make the most of the glorious moment when we got awkwardly out of the sea and wrapped ourselves in towels. An afternoon well spent, I’m sure.
Before heading home we also went to see Byblos’ very own waxworks museum, a wonderful series of warren-like tunnels full of glass cases depicting stills from Lebanese history in waxform form. It was both hilarious and terrifying – some of the waxworks appeared to have terrible skin diseases, and all of them had the most horrific devastated, vacant stares. That said the history was rather wonderful. My favourite was the mermaid which appeared somewhere between the Crusades andKhalil Gibran, with a tag which simply said ‘Mermaid’. There’s no arguing with that!
On the third day of her visit we left Barbee behind to get some work done, and headed north. After the bedbug experience in Tiger House we decided to give it a miss and instead got ourselves a room in a new hotel on the edge of Bsharri, called Bauhaus, a huge concrete block of a building with, bizarrely, a hairdressing studio serving as the reception. We spent our first afternoon walking up to the grotto, followed most of the way but a stray, but very friendly dog. In fact it was far too friendly, if walking under people’s feet and jumping up at them insistently even after getting accidentally trod on twice can be considered friendly. It was more like being stalked really. Once again just before dusk clouds started to pour down into the valley from all sides, but this time it was like a meteorology lesson. I remember being taught at school about cloud cycles and how water circled in the air, but I’d never actually seen it in action. The view from the grotto where we stopped for a mid-hike coffee was extremely educational however – we could actually see individual clouds sinking into the valley before rising into the air, circling around and sinking down again, like deranged Catherine wheels.
Once again we walked to the chapel to see the sunset, again amazing, though completely different from the last time, with dramatic clouds piled against the horizon. We then made our way to the grove of ancient cedars further up the road towards the Bekaa valley, but by the time we reached them the sun was long set, and all we got was an impression of their incredible size in the darkness. We hitched back to Bsharri with some Saudi guys on holiday in Lebanon, who were very chatty, tried to teach me lots of Arabic words I already knew, and offered to take us with them all the way back to Beirut.
It rained heavily all that night, and when we woke up at 7.30 the next morning we walked out into a think, wet mist which made it hard to see 5 metres ahead down the road, let alone the view of the valley. Luckily by the time we’d had a cup of tea in a little roadside cafe, and a stale doughnut from the ‘Kangaroo’ supermarket the sun was out, and within half an hour the sky was blazing blue with not a cloud to be seen. We managed to hitch down to the bottom of the valley in two stages, first with a gas man, squeezed into the front seat of his van, and then with a car full of Turkish girls from Beirut who played Lady Gaga loudly and giggled a lot.
We followed much the same path that Everitte and I had taken, visitng Deir Mar Elisha and then Deir Qanoubbin, with only one small detour on the way which involved climbing a very steep, slippery slope covered in prickly bushes to make it back to the correct path – a short scramble but extremely reminiscent of my first trip to the valley. After getting so terribly lost on my first visit I was determined that we were going to get very precise directions this time around, so we asked a man working in the monastery the correct path to take, and got him to point it out to us, before confirming it with one of the nuns, and buying a map to go with our equipment, which much to my excitement included a torch as well as some warm clothing, just in case. It turned out that instead of going back down to the path we had arrived on, as Everitte and had done, we needed to take a path from directly beside the monastery, and all became clear when after a couple of hundred yards the path divided and we were able to take the left fork, which must have been the path the original nun had referred to on my first trip.
The path we ended up on lead us across the side of the valley and was a truly beautiful walk, though at times almost as scary as the fake path I’d been on the first time, as it ran alongside various precipices and was equally free from any kind of marking, other than some large crucifixes make from branches roped together at intervals along the route. Eventually we came to a set of rough stone steps, obviously the ones the farmer boys had tried to direct us to the first time and, after making our way across a particularly scary almost sheer rock face with no hand or foot holds other than a flimsy metal railing attached more as a psychological than a physical aid, we made our way up and back to the road via the tiny village of Hawka.
Rather than continue our walk to Deir Mar Antonius, another ancient monastery, we decided to hitch back to Bsharri and take a taxi up to the cedars before dark. We spent an hour or so wandering in the grove among the three thousand-year-old trees, which looked incredible in the dusk light with the clouds just starting their evening descent into the valley. In the centre of the grove was one old dead tree with an amazing bronzy sheen to its polished wood. We were admiring the shape of the dead branches which looked like enormous antlers against the sky, when Chantal noticed that there was what looked like a man’s face coming out of the wood. On examining the tree more closely we realised that it has been beautifully carved with faces in many places, but so subtly that we looked at it for 10 minutes or more and found we were constantly finding new figures in the wood, disappearing and reappearing in the corners of our eyes.
We made it back to town just after sunset and had a lovely dinner of saj, a sort of Lebanese cross between a pizza and a crepe, made with very thin dough as a crispy base and topped with thyme, cheese, meat spicy tomato or even chocolate and banana. We were in bed early and up in time to make it back to Beirut by lunch, so Chantal could pack while I went to my Arabic class, and we had a lovely dinner and few beers before bed. All in all a wonderful week, with no near-death experiences. Just to prove to me that you can have one without the other!