It's not everyday your taxi driver invites you back to his house!

Bcharre Travel Blog

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We woke up in the morning, or should I say afternoon, since we slept for about 14 hours... and were ready and energized to take on a hike.  We had read in Lonely Planet and on the internet about the amazing Qadisha valley, home to monasteries cut into the side of a cliff that can be reached by this amazing trail that has recently been refurbished called the Lebanon Mountain Trail.  We live near the mountains, and consider ourselves to be above average hikers- at least we're well acclimated to trekking multiple hours at altitude.  When I announced to Tony, our hostel owner that we were planning on doing the hike today, we asked if he should call a taxi for us.  Sure I said, thinking that we would get dropped off at the trailhead and then start our day. 

Michel pulls up at the hotel within minutes with his wife Antoinette in tow.  He is francophone, definitely not to the level of Tony and his wife is passable as well.  Hardly any English at all though.  He produced a map and proceeded to explain to me how we would drive down into the canyon and then visit this monastery, then drive to the next one, then hike to the last one.  Immediately my are we getting scammed radar is going off and I try to explain to him, no- we want to do it on foot!  OK, he says- but he definitely gives me a weird look.  Moments later I find out why...

We drive into the canyon- it is one of the most breathtakingly beautiful places on earth- with Bcharre perched on the rim of an insane cleft in the earth.  But you don't realize just how deep it is until you start going down.  I'd say half mile to 3/4 mile deep.  There is a trail, but as far as I could see it only picks up at the bottom of the ravine or at least half-way down.  The top half you have to walk on the road, which I would judge as extremely dangerous.  Blind curves, cars whipping around way too fast for my comfort, no rail... pretty much a perfect storm for an accident.  We did see a western couple taking the walk down- or at least we barely saw them before the driver swerved around them.  They were looking pretty fresh, but we saw them again after visiting a couple places and eating lunch and it looked like they were miserable.  We on the other hand, were doing great- and a bit drunk as well,  but that's later!  I can't even think what misery they were in when they were obliged to hike up the canyon.  So on this point, I'd have to call LP out- I would not recommend the hike except for experienced hikers.  Furthermore, it will take you ALL day to see a couple of sites, so pack provisions and/or have a working knowledge of French to get waters and food at the restaurants in the valley.  A guided taxi tour, although not our intention, happened to be perfect.

So Michel was energetic to say the least, but grew on us to the point where we became excellent friends with him and his wonderful wife at the end of the trip.  Michel and Antoinette are the epitome of hospitality, of gentle openness that has come to define the Lebanese people.  They not only wanted to guide us around the canyon but to show us why these churches are so important to the people of the region and share their stories and the story of their persecuted faith.  It was very moving and powerful.  Even Jeff- who is definitely not big on the religious tours- appreciated their devotion and enthusiasm.

We visited a couple of monasteries in the canyon, both breathtakingly beautiful.  We learned about the history of the Marronites and how they hid from the Turks by climbing down the canyon and hiding in caves and carving these churches out of the rock face and into grottos. 

Will finish later- I've got a plane to catch!

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We arrived at Bcharre after our 5-hour travel ordeal pretty exhausted with the goal to stay awake until 9 so that we wouldn't doom ourselves to jet-lag for the rest of the trip. As the day wore on, we kept lowering that number: 8 o'clock, no--7, ok we can't go to sleep until 6, and so on. (We ended up passing out at 5!) We had planned on hiking in the Qadisha valley, but quickly nixed those. 30 hours of traveling was not the best preparation for a day of full of hiking. Additionally, we were quite intimidated by the steepness of the valley below. Bcharre is a pretty little village perched--and I mean perched--on the side of cliffs that plunge (and we're guessing on this one) half a mile straight down. It is breathtakingly beautiful here. It is a savage beauty that constantly reminds you of the original intent of the valley; the thousands of caves and grottos that dot the cliffs were used by the villagers to hide from the Turks who would sweep through the countryside, killing the Lebanese, and in particular the Maronite Christians who lived down in the valley. Seeing this place instantly reminds me of Afghanistan. I don't know if it resembles this part of Lebanon, but when I think of the locals fleeing to the caves for generation upon generation, caves that have been carved out for hundreds or thousands of years, and when I see our guide hopping around on rocks that I tread on very carefully, and when I think about what this area looked like before the tiny one-lane road that whips around curves was installed... I can see how there is NO way that foreigners could have followed one of these locals into the valley or found their hiding places among the thousands of caves. I can only imagine the people of Afghanistan have similar defenses after generations of invaders and attacks, and no wonder no foreign entity has EVER won a war in Afghanistan.

But I digress... I would have to say the Christianity of this region is the one element that defines it. There are small alters built into the sides of buildings with statues of Mary on nearly every wall, framed pictures of Church patriarchs hanging in every store, and a picture of Jesus proudly displayed in every taxi cab. This was pretty surprising. I knew there were Christian areas of Lebanon and read it in the Lonely Planet guide too, but to see the intenseness with which they live their religion is pretty incredible.

But back to our first day (as we decided to save the intense hiking for tomorrow), we just poked around the town a bit, trying to kill time until we could thankfully fall asleep. We tried to visit the Khalil Gibran museum, but it was closed on Mondays. We ate lunch at a beautiful restaurant next to a waterfall. We had a quite impressive spread of hummus, baba ghanoush, dolmas (don't know the lebanese word), tabouleh and fatoush. Thank God I speak French! Everyone here speaks French, and only very broken English, if any. We had been told that English was understood with equal frequency, but that could not be further from the truth in Bcharre. French, however, has opened up every door in this city. Poor Jeff, for he has had to sit patiently while I throw him the translated bits of quite animated conversations. This would have been a completely different trip if we had only been able to communicate with the broken phrases of English that I have heard so far. Supposedly Beirut is a much more anglophone friendly city, but that remains to be verified.

For example, after hiking back in the direction of our hostel, we stopped into a little mini-market to buy some water because Bcharre streets run an average of a 10 % incline (at about a mile up!) Being from Denver, we thought we would be at least a little prepared for altitude hikes, but man, we were pretty winded after a while. We stop in and the old man looks at us and says "Fran├žais?" and I respond back to him yes. In French he tells us to sit down at the two chairs next to his table. So we sit there and I have a conversation with him, about nothing really, how the world cup is going and pretty much just shooting the shit. But after a while he gets up and goes and grabs us two amazingly delicious coconut cookies. Everybody is just amazingly hospitable. They are truly nice people who welcome strangers with open arms, no questions asked, no one trying to sell you anything, just plain nice. It's been that way since we arrived, actually since we got on the plane to come here!

We continued our walk towards the hostel and pretty soon we realize we're on the wrong road. The road we're supposed to be on is the one probably 500 ft below us. It doesn't seem that steep, I said, with Jeff looking at me like I was crazy. Jeff wandered off to go check out the climb from a better angle while I stopped to get a rock out of my shoe. After a minute, Jeff came back and said, "Best case scenario: it's the most difficult hike we've ever done. Worst case scenario: it's impossible." "Is it really that steep?" I asked. "Well, it's pretty much vertical, but it's terraced so it's worth a try, right?" Whatever, I thought. He always exaggerates. So we walk together to the edge where we would begin the downward hike. Alright, it WAS pretty vertical with tiny terraces cut into the side of the hill. But we really didn't want to walk back 20 minutes where the road forked, so away we went. We jumped down 10-foot terraces, picked our way over piles of rocks, slid down hill sides, and were almost at the bottom when we realized the only way forward was through a barbed wire fence into someone's private garden. Well, we've come this far... So we climbed through the barbed wire and were picking our way through apricot and apple trees when we hear two people talking. Three terraces down we see the old farmer and his son, looking at us like we are aliens, laughing and pointing. Hoping they spoke some French, which I don't think they did, I shouted and gestured to them that we were lost and trying to get down to the road below. They understood and directed us down the terraces, to them. When we got up to them we got smiles and handshakes, and lots of arabic--I wish I knew what they said. The son was evidently glad to see me for he wouldn't let go of my hand and was grinning and spouting off what sounded like Arabic sonnets as he led us through their garden to their patio. They waved as we headed out their gate to the main road.

The treacherous hike energized us a bit, so we decided to hit up the bar next to the hostel for what we thought would be a beer, a light snack and a puff at the hookah. As soon as we sat down, they laid the table with salted pumpkin (?) seeds, roasted peanuts, and then two types of peanuts covered with some sort of a crispy layering. Lebanese bar snacks! We got some Lebanese beers and ordered a strawberry narguila (hookah). As we are sitting down to rest, our friends the farmers walked by and we waved and laughed at each other. I guess there is no such thing as trespassing here! We decide to order a bit of a snack, and since Jeff's lactose intolerance has mysteriously disappeared, we order the cheese. We get three huge chunks of homemade mozzarella, one huge tomato and a bag of pita, plus a bowl of carrots in lemon juice. So much for our small meal! So we ended our day, on the patio, munching on cheese, sipping on beer and leisurely smoking our hookah. Not a bad start. We then went back to the room and crashed, falling asleep at 5 pm and not waking up until 11:30 the next morning.
Bcharre Hostels review
Bauhaus is a bit on the outside of town, so it can be a bit of a walk, but the owner Tony more than makes up for it. The rooms are large and beautifu… read entire review
62 km (39 miles) traveled
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photo by: ken2010