Bsharri, Quadisha Valley and Bekaa Valley
After leaving Tripoli, we drove east, away from the sea towards Bsharri and Quadisha Valley. The geography of Lebanon is such that there are 2 parallel mountain ranges (Lebanon Mountains and Anti-Lebanon Mountains) that run north-south, with the Bekaa valley in-between.
The Bekaa Valley is in fact, at the start of the Great Rift Valley that starts in Lebanon and ends in Mozambique, passing thru Kenya and other African countries.
Bsharri and Quadisha Valley, where we were heading, is along the western slopes of the Lebanon Mountain range. So the road started climbing from the coast, and we passed through some very pretty countryside.
This area is predominantly Christian, and you can see lots of churches, and monasteries in the least likely places. The theory is that monks used to hide in caves to escape persecution, and so these hermits’ locations were where Monasteries were built when the persecutions stopped.
Quadisha Valley is one of the most important settlement sites of the first Christian monasteries in the world, and its monasteries, many of which are some of the most ancient monastic communities in the Middle East, are set in an extraordinarily rugged landscape.
See video below of the Quadisha Valley
Some monasteries that we drove by as shown below
See video of the landscape near Bsharri
We pulled into Bsharri, called Tony, and met him at Bauhaus Chalets, and rented a room from him for the night for $70 (per Tony, the $50 we had been quoted by the Tourist office in Tripoli was valid several years ago 🙁 ).
We settled in and cleaned up, showered and madam went to get her hair done by Tony, who turned out was a French trained Coiffure Createur, a rung above a normal hair stylist. Tony’s assistant was a Philipino lady; turns out that there are many Philipino people here (Ethiopian’s, now Philipino’s). We then went out for the evening; Tony had recommended the Mississippi Restaurant in town, owned by Aisha.
The Mississippi Restaurant was located next to the Abou Ali river under a bridge, at a small waterfall; the restaurant had 3 levels and we went to the lower level where the river falls was.
Aisha came by, & joined us for drinks. Alcohol was no problem in this Christian majority area 🙂 . Aisha talked with us, mostly in French and some English, and then said desert and fruit was on her; another very nice gesture by a total stranger. Lebanese people are very nice indeed.
Since this is a small town, there was no excitement in the night, so we took the opportunity to get a good night’s rest after a long day. Checked the Amex situation, and still no change.
Next day, woke up early; Tony had a small breakfast & coffee laid out for us. After breakfast, plan was to go visit one of the oldest and continuously inhabited hermitage in this area; the Monastery of St Anthony Qozhaya (Der Mar Antonios Qozhaya). To get there, we drove west from Bsharri for a few miles, and then turned left to drive deep down into the Valley of the Saints.
A few scenes on the way
We drove down a narrow steep road, and climbed down to almost the bottom of the valley when we came upon the St Anthony Monastery, after passing a lot of small monasteries and churches or monuments to saints along the way. That is why this area is called the Valley of the Saints.
After parking here, first stop was to check out the actual cave the St Anthony occupied while escaping persecution and leading his monastic hermit life
We then went into the main monastery on the pretext of looking for a bathroom, and came across a monk who was passing by. So we stopped him and talked to him; he spoke perfect English, and explained that 12 monks live in this place full time, and showed us around their common area, prayer area and the eating area and kitchen.
He explained that they lived normal lives like normal people, and take a lot of time to pray and contemplate the Lord. They did seem to have large buildings and grounds outside where they grew their crops; and did appear to have a decent number of staff to take care of them. He kindly allowed us to wander around (except where their living quarters were); the area was quite large and had been built up at different times, presumably as funds became available. For example, check out the dining room below; which is only used by the Monks and their benefactors.
The kitchen staff kindly offered us some fruit when we visited the kitchen. Very hospitable people everywhere
There was also a museum in this complex, where they had a lot of old artifacts from the area, and after checking this out, we left to go back to Bsharri. On the way back, once on the main road, we stopped at a small roadside restaurant for a small lunch of Kibbeh, and were walking to our parked car which was parked a short distance away, when we were invited to join a family having coffee on their patio outside their small shop.
Again, great warmth and hospitality from complete strangers. One woman spoke English (lived in Australia) and translated for us. The Lebanese (Arabic) coffee was way too strong and bitter for me 🙁
We then drove into Bsharri to check out Khalil Gibran’s house museum. Khalil Gibran was a famous writer, poet, painter and philosopher, and was born in Bsharri, into a poor family, living in a one room house, which is now a Museum. Not much to see here, so we started driving further west towards the Bekaa valley and Baalbek; we were climbing higher to reach the top of the Lebanon Mountain, with the Bekaa valley on the other side. On the way, we stopped at the “Cedars of God” ; which was a small Cedar forest. The Cedar is the symbol of Lebanon and is prominent on their flag.
We kept climbing to 2600m (8500ft) and crossed over the ridge, onto the other side of the mountain overlooking the fertile Bekaa valley and the Litani river that provides water to this valley. The view was breath-taking and photographs cannot do justice to it
Short video of the Bekaa Valley view from the Lebanon Mountains
We drove downhill admiring the splendid views. We also saw this interesting sign, maybe a remnant from one of the wars?
We reached the bottom of the mountain at a small town; where we saw the first presence of the Lebanese army; there was an army post, built up with sandbags, and manned by armed soldiers who were checking the cars going in and out of the Bekaa valley towards Baalbek.
The road was blocked with spikes and concrete barriers, so one was naturally forced to slow down to zig-zag one’s way through these obstacles. Behind their office, was a camouflaged tank and an armored carrier. We were waved through like most cars in front of us, and we drove towards Baalbek. No photographs allowed. We kept wondering why this heavy army presence here.
We arrived in Baalbek, and the plan was to visit an extensive Roman ruins site here, and stay overnight. The GPS took me somewhere in Baalbek, but no ruins (GPS had failed me again), and the neighborhood seemed dirty, rough and seedy. So we turned around and went to a gas station in the town center and filled up, and asked the attendant for directions to the ruins. This was the only time we could not communicate.
In addition, what we had seen so far of Baalbek was that it was a dusty, dirty town, with few women to be seen, and most of them were fully covered. As we drove along, we saw several (Syrian) refugee camps, which were basically a large collection of round white tents. We also saw several billboards with pictures of the Ayatollah’s of Iran, and that is when we realized that this was Hezbollah territory, and the reason for the military presence we had encountered.
I wanted to stop and take photographs of the camps and the town in general, but this place had spooked Dilshad, and she did not want us to stop here as she felt unsafe, and forbade me to take pictures of anything, lest it landed us in jail; and she felt taking pictures of the refugee camps was disrespectful of the refugees. So we simply drove south from Baalbek; which was the general direction we were supposed to go to next. We again had to pass through another military roadblock checkpoint as we left Baalbek, complete with sandbags, spikes and concrete barriers, the camouflaged tank and armored carrier, and heavy weaponry on display. So no pictures of Baalbek, or the refugee camps 🙁 .
Dilshad researched, and decide that we should drive to Zahle, the capital of the Bekaa valley, which according to the guide book, was supposed to be a nice place to visit. Distances are not large in Lebanon, so we drove till we reached Zahle by early evening. Zahle appeared to be a nice place, no army roadblocks, with people walking outside, both men and women liberally, with plenty of café’s everywhere. We stopped at one such café to get internet, but there was no internet there, and the staff or customers did not know of any other internet café nearby.
So we used the poor internet on our local SIM card phone, and were able to do some research, and found a B&B which seemed reasonable. So we called and the lady who answered, did speak English :). She had a room available for us in her B&B, and wanted $50 (but no internet). I successfully negotiated her down to $35 (no breakfast), and drove to her place, which was nearby the café we were at, and in a nice part of town. When we met her, she turned out to be Philipino, who worked for the owner of the old house (complete with nice old furniture), and ran the B&B for her. She also agreed to do our laundry for us, for a very reasonable fee of $5; ready next day 🙂 .
After freshening up, we went and walked briefly in the main street in town, and it seemed quite lively with many people enjoying the evening. There was a party going on at a hotel nearby, which we were able to observe. One couple stopped us on the road, and talked to us in good English. When they found out we were in Lebanon to explore, they thanked us for visiting Lebanon, and said they were very happy we had come to visit Lebanon, as “Lebanon is very beautiful, and is sadly misunderstood by America”. Very interesting.
Dinner was at the Maaje restaurant nearby, where they had internet, but it was rationed, and you had to get a unique password, which expired in a short time. Not very usable and not high speed. After dinner of middle eastern food, we walked into the Bardouni area nearby, that had family entertainment places, coffee shops, and restaurants, and had desert there, before calling it a night.