Despite a morning warning from Joseph that today would be a harder walk, it turned out to be much easier, although it would finally clock in at a kilometre longer. But with less mud, better trails and less gaining and losing of altitude, our walk, which today was taking us from Baskinta to Kfardebian, was both smoother and faster.
As usual, we got off to a slow star, derailed this time by the irresistible scent of fresh bread wafting out of Saj Charbel, a small bakery by the side of a long flight of stairs that lead down to a tumbling brook at the far end of town where we’d rejoin the Baskinta Literary Trail we’d briefly walked along the previous day.
Still rolling after yet another lavish breakfast, we watched mesmerised as the baker, a young man in his early 20s by the look of him, expertly flipped the thin, coffee table-sized rounds of marqouq bread, a mountain delicacy that resembles a cross between a pancake and bran flatbread, from arm to arm before depositing it on top of a griddle-oven, or saj, with the aid of a plump white cushion. The slightly nutty bread, which takes seconds to cook, comes off the saj hot and chewy and so naturally, we were powerless to resist the proffered rounds, which we tore into strips and wolfed down, as though we hadn’t just finished stuffing our faces minutes before.
We wandered down to the brook, where we were greeted by a young Syrian refugee, who waved at us and happily took a piece of fresh marqouq one of the other walkers offered him, as his mother looking on shyly from a nearby doorway. Once we were across, we began a long but relatively shallow climb that followed a series of watercourses up through terraces of trees long but relatively shallow climb began until we reached the wide bowl at the base of Mount Sannine, which as we emerged onto the plateau, was revealed in its full panoramic glory.
As much wall as peak, Sannine rises elegantly to a height of just over 2600 metres and is clearly visible from Beirut throughout the year, a counterpoint of white in winter, stained pink by the setting sun in summer and from the moment I first saw it, it became my favourite of all of Mount Lebanon’s peaks, and my eyes would often wander upwards as I navigated Beirut’s busy streets, straining to catch glimpses of it between the forest of towers and confusion of cables.
Close up, it’s almost mystical. Though the skies are clear today, the peak is often shrouded in cloud and I’m reminded of a black-and-white photograph I once saw of an old silk factory taken by one of Beirut’s most talented photographers and ruin porn aficionado, Joe Kesrouani, in which the ruins of the old stone building are set dramatically against the mountain wall and lowering skies.
In cloud or full sun, Sannine projects a powerful physical presence and it’s little wonder that people once believed it was home to two pagan gods, San and Nine, (hence the name) who were said to live up in its snowy heights. This year, after a crap winter, those heights are only lightly dusted in snow, a symphony of greys, browns and greens, with hints of ochre and yellow from the swathes of wildflowers that meander up its lower slopes. With Spring having sprung, the fields are shin deep in lush, shiny grass, and the fruit trees, almonds, apples and cherries, are breaking into blossom. Wisps of cloud trailed off the mountain, blown into long trails by high altitude winds we can’t feel down here in the bowl, where it is warm and sunny, the sound of birdsong and running water everywhere.
Continuing onwards, we stop briefly at the rather impressive grave of Mikhael Naimy, a well-known Lebanese poet, philosopher and author, who together with the Khalil Gibran (yes, that Gibran) co-founded the first Arab-American literary society in New York in the 1920’s. A Baskinta native, and just one of the area’s many literary figures – Amin Maalouf comes from Ain el Qabou, nearby - Naimy did much of his writing in hut not far from where he is buried and his face, carved into the rock above his tomb, looks out forever towards the glorious Sannine.
There’s a trail that links a series of sites related to Naimy and other writers, but it’s not the one we’re following today and so, just past the tomb, we turn off and climb up through meadows to about the 1700 metre-mark along a muddy farming road that leads us past workers busily pruning fruit trees. It’s badly rutted and quite marshy, as seasonal springs created by the snowmelt above emerge all over the landscape.
The road loops back on itself, and as we continue back towards the direction we came from, but at a much higher altitude, Sannine is lost to view. We make good time, stopping for an uncharacteristically early lunch in thick grass above Baskinta, which sprawls along the mountainside below us.
As we eat, faint music wafts up on the breeze from the town below, the unmistakable opening strains of Spring from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, an unexpected, if rather appropriate choice of music that has the peculiar effect of making me feel like I’m in the Lake District, not Mount Lebanon and a little later, as we scrabble along a narrow pathway that barely clings to the hillside through the yellow gorse and pines, the scrubland reminds me powerfully of the heathlands around Bournemouth.
Fleeting psychic translocations aside, the rest of the walk is pleasant, if not particularly inspiring. We pass a trio of rock-cut graves, full of thick, green rainwater, which legend has it were carved for the remains of three ancient (and apparently rather thin) princes and a nunnery, uncloistered since the 1940's, which features in Amin Maalouf's novel about 19th Century mountain politics, religion and imperial power-jockeying, The Rock of Tanios.
Eventually, Kfardebian comes into view. Naturally, it’s on the other side of a wadi and so once again, we have to descend to the river and climb up the other side, but thankfully today’s wadi isn't as deep as the one we navigated on the long climb up to Baskinta the previous day.
We arrive at our lodgings for the night exhausted. Here at halfway point, the two teams that have been doing the throughwalk, ourselves from south to north, the other from north to south, are in the same place at the same time. As ouds appear, tales of trails yet to come are swapped, dinner is laid out and bottles of arak are cracked, I realise that it is going to be a very long night.
Thankfully, I sleep well and the following morning, we take a side excursion into Wadi al-Salib, the Valley of the Cross, at the bottom of which lies the original town of Kfardebian.
I briefly consider staying in. Our throughwalk meet up has coincided with the weekend and by the morning, we have swelled from a group of 6 to a horde of closer to 200. The idea of walking in such a large group of people doesn’t appeal at all, especially as I notice that several of the new women arrivals are wearing high-heels.
Still, I’m a sucker for ruins and can’t countenance passing up a chance to see an abandoned village down in the valley, which is supposed to be quite beautiful.
Because this side trail is relatively new – well, new as a hiking route, it’s been used by travellers since pre-Roman times – we are required to listen to series of heartfelt but largely missable speeches by the mayor, a local historian, the principal of the town’s main school and someone from the LMTA. I chafe, irritated as much by the desire to get going as by the crowd. I understand the importance of the weekend walkers to the LMT, which is still largely unknown by the wider population, but as a throughwalker, I can’t help feeling their presence as unwelcome.
As we wind through the town to the top of the old stone staircase that leads to trail, I stay close to the front to avoid getting stuck behind slower walkers. It is steep but not difficult, our special guide for the day, however, insists on stopping every five minutes, sometimes to say something vaguely interesting, mostly to catch his breath, which swiftly becomes irritating. I’m tempted to forge on but keep getting called back every time I stray too far. Halfway down to the bottom, the pauses end as we stop by a large rock that seems to bear the faint outlines of a cross. It’s a natural formation, though and the reason the valley has its name, and naturally, there’s a legend that one night a year, the cross phosphoresces, emitting a light that can be seen on the other side of the valley. While I’ve heard stranger things before, given the contemporary trend towards erecting large illuminated crosses in Christian areas of the country, which appears to have gathered steam since the horrific depredations of the IS and its ilk just across the border began, the rock would have to shine pretty brightly to be seen, these days.
The valley is quite narrow and as the trail drops down into the forest that grows thickly on either side of the river, we begin to see abandoned stone homes and then a 19th Century silk depot. Though there are ruins running up and down the river bank, the main village is on the other side, which we cross on a beautiful Ottoman bridge, itself built from the remains of a Byzantine or Roman precursor.
Wadi el-Salib used to be one of the main thoroughfares up into the mountains, and there have been tracks on both sides of the river for thousands of years. The Romans left staircases and, further down the valley, close to where it opens into the the Nahr el Kalb, the valley of the Dog River, which debouches in the sea just north of Beirut, there are some nice cliff tombs, as well.
We continue on to old Kfardebian, which was abandoned slowly over the course of the early 20th Century, when a series of disastrous flood persuaded villagers to move onto the plateau above. Most of the old village is in ruins, including the original riverside church of Sts. Peter and Paul (Butros and Boulos) but a few of the 25 or so homes that still stand have been lovingly renovated with EU funding.
It’s hard to believe now but in the 1910's, Kfardebian produced 5000 kilos of silk cocoons a year and while it wasn’t wealthy, the quality of the homes indicates the villagers made a decent living. Down here amongst the trees, it's cool and green, the light filtering through the branches casts a tracery of light and shadow on the ground and far from the town above, the only sound is of the river and the occasional bird. It is quite lovely, a far cry from the bustle above and while the new town does better in terms of views and gets more sun and so is considerably warmer in the winter, I can’t help feeling that a certain quality of life was sacrificed in the move, but then convenience often comes at a price.