From Tripoli, we turned inland and drove up through a steep valley, into the coastal mountains. We had enjoyed a full day of touring, but the town of Bcharré was our destination for the night and we wanted to get there before dark. We were entering the region widely regarded as the most beautiful in all of Lebanon, the Qadisha Valley. It’s a long, deep gorge that begins near Batroun in the west and ends just beyond Bcharré in the east. It has long been a place of escape and tranquility, and for many wanting to retreat from the hectic life of the city, it is a favorite vacation spot, both summer and winter.
The holy valley of Qadisha was the refuge of hermits and monks, and is classified as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. The limestone cliffs above the valley floor are riddled with caves and water-carved formations. The ancient monasteries built into the cliffs have become part of the valley’s natural beauty. The caves provided safety for many different religious communities fleeing persecution. In some cases, solitary individuals still live in small nearly inaccessible buildings set into natural caves and grottos.
Picturesque villages have grown up around the rim of the valley, where snow falls in the winter months and fragrant wild flowers and aromatic plants bloom in the spring. There is water in abundance, with falls, and dropping down the cliffs are natural springs bubbling up near the roadsides. We drove to the eastern end of the valley and checked into one of the few hotels open so early in the season, only 4km from the famous Cedars Reserve. I was looking forward to seeing some of the few remaining trees. There are four cedars, estimated to be between 1,500 and 2,000 years old.
Qadisha comes from the Semetic word for ‘holy’ and although visiting the ancient monasteries is a tourist draw, hiking the trails along the sides of the valley and on the valley floor itself is an added attraction. There is another reason to visit Bcharré, it is the birthplace of Khalil Gibran (1883 – 1931), Lebanon’s most beloved and celebrated literary figure. Gibran emigrated to the US with his family when he was only twelve, but when he died of TB at the age of 31, he asked to be buried in his homeland. His body rests in a former monastery that has become a museum displaying some of his personal possessions.
He is most remembered in the West for his collection of 26 poems-essays, The Prophet. I was intrigued to learn this because we had included one of his essays On Marriage in our Canadian wedding ceremony. As interesting as this was, we didn’t plan to visit the museum, but wanted to devote our time to hiking in the valley and enjoying the natural beauty surrounding us.