Our hotel didn’t have much to recommend itself, but there is little accommodation in the region this early in the spring, so we were happy that there was somewhere to stay. The owner was very friendly and ordered up a delicious Lebanese meal for us, which we ate in front of a roaring fire. It had been a long day of touring and driving unfamiliar, winding roads and we turned in early. It would have been lovely to stay longer by the fire but we couldn’t keep our eyes open.
The next morning we spoke with the owner about our wish to hike in the valley and he pulled out a photocopy of a map showing the hiking routes. After getting a feel for our level of fitness, he suggested a hike that would start near the rim of the valley in one hamlet and lead us to two monasteries and then up a different route to another hamlet. He said it would be a pleasant walk through the orchards along the rim back to where we had parked our car.
He also suggested that because we had a car, we could drive to another monastery deep in the valley, and then begin our hike on our way back. We should have written down his instructions instead of relying on our memories and the simple map he gave us. We found the first monastery with little difficulty and enjoyed touring the museum there.
Deir Mar Antonios Qozhaya (hermitage) was founded in the 11th century. It’s a major place of pilgrimage but the day we were there it was deserted except for another foreign couple who came with a car and driver. The monastery established the first printing press in the Middle East, in the 16th century. The press was used to print the Psalms in Syriac, the language still used by the Maronites in their religious services. Nearby is the Grotto of St. Antony, a cave where the mentally ill were brought and kept in chains, in hopes of a cure by the saint. There are several artifacts of interest, but the most captivating of all is the monastery itself.
We had a great deal of difficulty locating the start of our hike and wasted over an hour wandering around trying to find the steep rock-cut stairs that would take us into the valley. At last Anil remembered him talking about the church in the hamlet of Hawka, and we headed there. When we arrived we found a large van filled with backpacks and labeled with an adventure company logo. This looked promising, and as we walked past the van, the driver waved to us and pointed to a path that led off from the church’s parking lot.
At last we found the stairs and the first sight of their steep descent, and absence of handrails, was a little disconcerting. Not to be put off, I started down the steps and Anil followed, warning me to be careful. We didn’t need another fall and another broken arm. The stairs descended lower and lower and seemed to go on forever. I kept thinking about the stairs we climbed at Petra, in Jordan and felt that we could manage these for sure. Besides, we would be coming out by a different route and I remembered it being described as a path and not a set of stairs.
About halfway down the stairs, we came upon hikers on their way up. They were mostly in their 30s but had one woman with them who seemed to be our age. She was really struggling with the climb but the others were helping her and they were all taking it really slowly. I asked one of the young men if it was worthwhile and he replied that the monasteries were amazing, but that the hike was tough. We had the opportunity to turn around, but we both felt fit and ready to continue. We had plenty of snacks and a moderate amount of water, but the day wasn’t hot so thirst wouldn’t present a problem. Besides, we were hiking to what was described as a working monastery in our guidebook.
At last we finished our descent and found ourselves about halfway down the valley’s walls, where the sheer rock face ended and the valley narrowed and we found ourselves standing on a flat ledge with a solitary cedar tree and a huge wooden cross. We could see a narrow path leading off along the edge of the valley and a lone hiker walking on the path ahead of us. It was comforting to know we were not alone. We set off at a leisurely pace, enjoying the sunshine, the light breeze and the beautiful scenery. We were told we would pass through a grove of pine trees and then an olive orchard before we come to the monastery. It should take no more than half an hour to reach our destination.
At last the monastery came into view, nestled against the rocks, surrounded by trees, with the valley falling away gently to the right. There was evidence of recent construction activity, but when we reached the monastery itself, there was no sign of life at all. The person who had hiked ahead of us had already been and gone.
Deir Qannoubin, derived from the Greek kenobion (monastery) is a very ancient site, some say it was founded by Theodosius the Great in the late 4th century. Legend has it that the Mamluk Sultan Barquq escaped from imprisonment in Karak Castle (we visited Karak when we were in Jordan!) and found refuge in Qadisha before returning to Egypt to reclaim his throne. He was shown such warm hospitality that he paid for the restoration of the monastery. From 1440 to the end of the 18th century, Deir Qannoubin was the patriarchal seat of the Maronites.
I was pleased to see that the door to the chapel was left ajar because I wanted to see the frescoes that were painted on the walls. Thank goodness we were able to get inside, because the frescoes were magnificent. It was cool and quiet inside the chapel and we sat for a while on the pews and took in the beauty of the paintings and the simplicity of the room. I took a number of photos and they turned out very well, but it wasn’t until later that I discovered that I had somehow turned on the date stamp and all of my beautiful pictures were marred with a jarring orange 24/01/2010. What a shame!
We dawdled for some time and then I stood and went to look for someone who could direct us to the path that would take us up and out. There was one sign in English over a set of double doors that indicated it was the sister’s quarters and they were not to be disturbed. I still hoped to find someone, but no one answered when I called out quietly and so we set off to look for the path ourselves.
There were plenty of signs in Arabic, but none in French or English at all. Our map showed that the path to the valley’s rim started just beyond the monastery, and then doubled back above it as it climbed higher and higher. We headed out towards the east, as we had come from the west, but it wasn’t clear which way we should go. I was a little disconcerted, but we carried on a ways and then came to a fork in the trail.
Our map showed that the trail carried on towards the end of the valley, but we wanted to go upwards. At the fork in the trail, one path led upwards so we chose to take it. Before long, it seemed to peter out, but we carried on. It climbed up, and up but became more indistinct as we hiked along. The rock wall towered overhead and I had a hard time imagining the way up on its sheer face. Something just didn’t seem right. I began to feel like I did when we got lost on Grouse Mountain in Vancouver many years ago, and I didn’t want that to happen to us again.
We finally got to a point where there didn’t seem to be any path at all, and I felt that perhaps the path we had been following had been created by animals and not people. They are much more sure-footed than we are and it seemed the best route would be to return to the monastery and hike out the way we had hiked in. The thought of facing those steep stairs, climbing up and up, at the end of a long hike was a little daunting, but it was either that, or spend the night in the monastery with only a little water and not much more food.
It was only 2:30pm but we were already very tired from the fruitless climbing we had done and we knew we had only a couple of hours to get out of the valley before dusk would start to set in. We passed the monastery and after a short distance, near a large tomb, we saw a well-travelled train start up the valley, while the path we had come on carried on along the level ahead. There were two signs with arrows, both in Arabic. I was sure this was the place we had been seeking, but it was BEFORE the monastery and not AFTER it. So much for the simple map we were carrying.
Still, as we couldn’t be sure that this was the route to take, we decided to carry on back through the olive orchard, the pine forest and on to the single cedar tree and face the stairs once again. Anil was very worried that I wouldn’t be able to manage the climb, but I told him I was getting out of the valley even if I had to crawl up each step on my knees. I could see him go a little pale when I said that, but somehow the fact that we could return to shelter at the monastery gave me the comfort I needed to continue. I also knew that we had left our luggage at the hotel and not in the car, and that if we didn’t return that evening, the owner would ‘send out the posse’.
The stairs were as difficult as I imagined them to be. I had to stop every few steps and catch my breath. The climb was difficult, but what made it more so, was the fact that each step was quite high and very uneven. I was happy that we had plenty of light as we climbed, though a heavy mist was beginning to blow in from the coast and the temperature was dropping rapidly. I worried that we would be enveloped in the clouds before we got to the top, and that would be almost as bad as the dark.
To our surprise, we arrived at the top of the stairs by 4:15pm and it was nowhere near dark. The clouds made it seems much later than it was and I was glad that we had brought sweaters along with us because it was getting rather nippy. When I climbed the last step and reached level ground I knew that I was at the end of my endurance, thank goodness we only had a small incline to walk along to take us back to our car. The sense of elation I had was invigorating and I rejoiced at making it through. While we weren’t in serious danger, I didn’t fancy getting myself into a rescue situation.
On the way back to Bcharré, I suggested to Anil that we collect our luggage and drive back to Byblos. If it was only late afternoon, we could be in our hotel by dark and we loved the hotel there, while the one in Bcharré, held no charm for us at all. There wasn’t much to see in the town, though I wouldn’t have minded wandering around the town if we were staying longer. There were some more monasteries that I would have liked to see, accessible by car, and of course I really wanted to see the Cedars Reserve. We had learned that we wouldn’t be able to cross the high mountain passes due to the snow and that we would be forced to return to Beirut and drive to the Bekaa Valley through a southern pass, if we wanted to visit the ruins at Baalbek.
And so, with the disappointment of not seeing the ancient cedars, but with the satisfaction of completing our hike unharmed, we headed back towards the coast via a different route and surprised the Victory Byblos Hotel manager by arriving for another stay at the hotel. We asked to stay for two nights knowing we would need some time to recover from the efforts of the hike. We looked forward to sitting in the hot tub and soaking our aching legs. The hotel was a great place to stay, but we were almost the only guests and to our dismay, they hadn’t kept the hot tub heated needlessly.