I decide not to spend the rest day in Falougha. I miss my bed and need to get my clothes washed and dried, so when we arrive at our stop for the night, a summer resort not far from the freshwater springs at Saha, I call a cab and return to the comfort of my own home.
It turns out to have been the right move as shortly after I arrive, the skies open and it rains heavily and steadily throughout the night and for much of the following day, and I fall asleep to the reassuring thunder of rain on my roof.
Rising at five, I catch a cab back up to Falougha but end up running late due to congestion caused by overflowing drains and flooded roads. Concerned that the group might set off without me, I call Joseph to assure him I am on my way and to ask if he can delay the start of the walk by ten or fifteen minutes if necessary.
I shouldn't have worried, for once the traffic clears, the driver makes up for the delay by hurtling up towards Dahr el-Baidar at breakneck speed. Hopping out as we pull in to the resort, I race up the steps to the designated meeting point only to discover to my amusement that the other walkers are still having breakfast. After offering up silent thanks for the flexible nature of Levantine scheduling, I manage to have the breakfast I’d skipped at home; a feast of sumac-sprinkled fried eggs, kishk and za’atar manaqeesh, fresh vegetables and homemade cheeses and yoghurts.
As usual, our walk begins with an ascent, made trickier today by the rain, which has turned the track into a sloppy, slippery and very muddy slog. Circumventing what looks like a particularly tricky patch, I slip anyway, and as I try to regain my balance, I step into a chilly rivulet of rainwater and promptly sink up to my ankles.
Dirty brown water floods into both boots, soaking my socks and the bandages around my infected nails. Our packs have already gone on ahead of us, so I don’t have anything dry to change into. Grimacing, I squelch over to a rock, sit and wring as much moisture out of my socks as I can.
The light is magnificent. It often is in Lebanon, which seems to be especially blessed in this department, perhaps because of the proximity of the sea. The wind, which seems to carry the scent of herbs, blows clouds across the sky, dappling the hills in a dramatic play of shadow and light.
The rain may have turned the ground into a soggy morass but it has also scrubbed the air and the land clean, refreshing and revitalizing the world, making colours richer and bringing far-off objects into focus. The going may be sticky, but it’s a glorious day to be on the trail.
We pass a couple of the small reservoirs farmers in the mountains dig to trap the winter rains, several of which are in the process of overflowing messily, but as we enter the outskirts of a pine forest, the ground finally firms up a bit. The pines are lovely, their rich, reddish trunks stained black by the rain and as we walk amongst them, breathing in their scent, the trees frame spectacular views over the Lamartine Valley and later on, of Jabal Kneisse, Church Mountain, possibly named after a temple that once occupied its summit, and Beirut, which suddenly appears on the horizon much as I saw it that first day, spot-lit through rents in the clouds.
Abruptly, clouds blow in from the sea and rise up the flanks of Mount Lebanon, and close in around us. Partially hidden by drifting mist, the forest is transformed. As the views disappear and the temperature drops, a silence descends. Birdsong gives way to the whisper of wind and sound of running water. The forest becomes a place of mystery, a nebulous realm that verges on the supernatural. It’s a transcendent moment, a subtle reminder that there is more to this world of which we consider ourselves master than we usually permit ourselves to see.
Then, like that, the moment passes. The wind picks up, scattering the mist and suddenly, it begins to hail, though thankfully not the golf ball-sized stones we sometimes get along the coast. As we soldier onward, the hail morphs into rain, which quickly becomes a persistent, almost English drizzle that will last the better part of the day.
It’s become very cold. Through a gap in the clouds, I notice that there is a thick, downy mantle of fresh snow up on my favourite mountain, Sannine, which helps explain the chill. Not that there’s much time to think about that, for after a couple of hours walk, we begin a descent of 700 metres down to the bottom of the valley that lies between us and our stop for the night, the old feudal capital of the Abilama princes, Mtain.
I’m very glad I’m doing this part of the trail in reverse, and in much cooler temperatures. The descent is quite steep and rocky and long sections involve clambering over and even along the ruins of farm walls and terraces.When I first came this way with a couple of friends in the middle of an especially torrid August, the then dry, dusty and very prickly 2-hour climb came complete with lethal expanses of thorn bushes and the sweaty, ankle-turning climb nearly sapped my will to live, darkening our little group’s collective mood so completely that we quarrelled over nothing, halfway up.
This time though, there are no quarrels. The thorns, cut back at the end of summer, have yet to rebound and although the rain has made the ruined walls slightly slippery, they prove easier to navigate this time. At the bottom, we stop for a quick lunch at a picnic spot in woods at the bottom of the valley and then refreshed, make our way over a rather beautiful Roman bridge at Bzibdine across what is currently a small, rubbish-choked river – the winter rains also tend to scour improperly maintained dumps higher up in the mountains, and not all of what they wash away makes it out to the sea.
In the distance, we can see our destination up on its hilltop, glittering in the afternoon light. Chrissy, a sweet Golden Retriever we picked up just outside of Falougha, is still following us as we begin to climb towards Mtain. I wonder if she will follow us into town, or whether she’ll turn back and head home, as even for a dog, the 15 or 16 kilometres we’ll walk today is not inconsequential.
The Roman bridge eventually leads us to a section of Roman road. It’s not the first we’ve walked along, but it has been kept in good condition and the irregularly-shaped cobbles haven’t been torn up or tarmacked over. It winds up the slope towards Mtain through a mix of scrubland and pine, and now that we are at a lower altitude and the sun has come out, the feel is positively Mediterranean.
Centuries of carts have worn deep grooves into it in places, though for the most part, the road looks pristine, and with few modern intrusions in sight, it’s easy to imagine that walking here is much the same as it would have been 2000 years ago, albeit in our case, in more comfortable shoes.
Well, perhaps not exactly the same. Though it is uninhabited now, the hillside below Mtain was much busier in the past, and we begin to pass the remains of rock-cut tombs, water reservoirs and stone presses - basins and runnels cut into the rock, which would have been used to make olive oil and grape molasses. Alia, our fellow walker and archaeologist, left us the previous day, but Robin tells us that the earliest ones found in the area so far are Byzantine, and date back to the 5th Century, though the tombs may be much older.
Just below Mtain, the Roman road peters to halt and the trail leads us through old farming terraces, dotted with the remains of water-powered grain mills before a final push up a long and exhausting flight of stone stairs that wind through pines to emerge at the top of the hill beside the ruins of an 19thcentury silk factory.
Silk was once a mainstay of Mount Lebanon. At its peak, it produced almost half a million kilos of raw silk each year, a trade that accounted for 80% of Lebanon’s economy.
Today, all that remains, apart from the ruins of old factories, are swathes of mulberry trees, the leaves of which were used to feed the worms. Though most have been cut down since the end of the silk trade – which was destroyed by cheaper imports from China after the First World War – enough remain to fill markets with their berries; sweet, slightly watery fruits that are most delicious when turned into a sugary syrup, perfect poured over ice cream, or mixed with iced water in the summer.
This factory is apparently one of seven built by the Abilamas in the 1850s and the only one still standing today. Former silk factories elsewhere in the mountains, which all seem to have been built to a similar design, have been turned into boutique hotels, restaurants, family homes and in one case, a museum, but the ruins in Mtain have yet to be repurposed.
An elderly Druze woman passes by on her way to the stairs and is clearly unimpressed by Chrissy. I’m reminded that despite their growing popularity in Beirut, dogs are not loved in the Middle East, presumably because of the unfortunate reputation they enjoy in Islam. Still, at least she doesn’t scream and run away, like the hysterical middle-aged woman we encounter a bit later.
We poke around the mill a little longer and then head towards our destination for the night, an old Abilama palace, crumbling and in need of work, which has been turned into an absolutely delightful hostel. Mtain was once a wealthy capital, as the knot of elegant 17th and 18th century sandstone palaces clustered around its main square attest. Properly restored and tarted up, this sleepy but rather neglected village could become quite the summer hotspot. Though on second thoughts, and considering the swarms that throng the very pretty historic cores of villages like Deir el-Qamar and Batroun each season, Mtain may be better off remaining under the radar, and finding some other way to make its architectural charms pay.