In retrospect, much of today is awful, though it begins pleasantly enough.
As we stroll through the sleepy village of Aaqoura, which we learned the day before has more churches than inhabitants, at least during the week, we’re treated to an explanation for the surfeit, which apparently has less to do with devotion than it does deep pockets and family feuds.
Apparently there are 42, in addition to rock-cut chapels, one of which was originally a Roman temple, that pepper the surrounding hills and the village is known for having one of the oldest churches in the country (and hence, the world), the 4th Century chapel of Sts. Peter and Paul, which was built into a tomb once reserved for Astarte’s priests. It’s also home to a cluster that date back to the Middle Ages, though the process of constant renovation and repainting, as well as the forced whitewashing of many church murals during the Ottoman period, means that few Levantine churches look their actual age. Most of the 42 are more modern though, built in the last 200 years.
Like many Lebanese villages, Aaqoura has a long history of emigration and it was remittances flowing in from far-off lands that first fuelled the church building. As in many other faiths, one way a sinful Christian can guarantee themselves a better place in the afterlife is to build a house of worship; a chapel or, if they have heavier amends to make, a church.
It isn’t unusual for even the smallest village to have several churches, as Lebanese Christians come in 12 officially recognised denominations, and each prefers to have their own church. Intractable divisions, another feature of Lebanese and particularly Lebanese village life, also helped add houses of the holy as families splintered, building their own church or chapel, so that they didn’t have to bend head (or knee) with cousins, brothers, aunts or grandparents to whom they no longer spoke. Throw in a dash of remittance-fuelled ‘keeping up with the Khourys’ and you have on your hands a boom.
Regardless of their reasons, the church-building Aaqourans of yesteryear have left quite the architectural legacy, everything from the traditional to the contemporary, though I imagine that come Sunday, when its bells start to toll, the village isn’t as quiet as it is this morning.
We’ve barely left the last houses behind when we’re forced to find a new route. The trail has been completely washed away by a winter landslide, when one of the medium-sized water reservoirs that dot the apple orchards above the village to burst its walls.
Our only option is to take to the old road out of town. Not only will this add 4km to what is already going to be quite a long day, but it's mostly tarmac and concrete and very, very vertical. For a while, the gorgeous views back across the village and the massive escarpment that towers above it help but even so, we’re off to a gruelling start.
Once we get back into the apple orchards, the going become more pleasant. Still, we’ve got close to a two-hour climb ahead of us, as we are headed for the outskirts of the ski resort up at Laqlouq, which is 800 metres above Aaqoura. When we finally make it to the top of the mountain, (in my case, without my favourite sunglasses, which I manage to lose somewhere along the way) dusty and sweaty from a relentless uphill slog on what is the hottest day so far, we are treated to a last, utterly breath-taking view over the lovely Afqa Valley, by far my favourite stretch of the trail since we left the Beka’a.
As we enter the outskirts of Laqlouq, I notice a brightly painted truck parked outside a shuttered house. Lebanon has its own tradition of painted trucks, neither as spectacularly decorated or as large as their South Asian counterparts, but still quite endearing. Most look similar and I’ve often wondered if they’re the work of the same small group of painters. The paintings are a mixture of warnings to keep one’s distance and naive tableaux, the most popular of which are sunsets, the seaside or nature in all its glory, the latter especially ironic when the truck is being used to haul rocks from the illegal quarries eating up the mountains. Most are also emblazoned with supplications to the Divine, perhaps in the hope that however recklessly one drives, God or at least one of their saints, will be flattered into co-piloting.
Inside the cabin, the religious décor often continues with miniature qu’rans, crosses, amulets, prayer beads, nazars (the blue eye), hamsas (the Hand of Fatima), zulfikars (the sword of Ali ibn Abi Talib, a Shi’ite symbol) and Druze stars, which depending on the driver’s affiliation and fervour, hang from the rear-view mirror and sometimes decorate the dashboard, as well.
Common to them all is a panel painted in the colours of the national flag, complete with a lovely cedar in the centre. Though clearly an expression of vehicular nationalism, as I walk past it today, the panel serves as a subtle reminder that were it not for incredible initiatives like the Shouf Biosphere, which we spent three days walking through earlier, and the Tannourine Reserve, which we will reach in a day’s time, as well as the Million Tree Corridor, which will eventually link the cedar grove of Al Arz with the forest in Tannourine, we would all be that much closer to a future in which, thanks to climate change, pests and reckless environmental degradation, a panel on a painted truck may one day be the only place to see good old Cedrus Libani in its country of origin.
We’ve barely crested when we’re taken on another short climb up a steep, and in my opinion, entirely avoidable hill. Muttering under my breath, I’m momentarily appeased when, as we crest the hill, we’re faced with a glittering expanse of white, a large and very deep drift of snow that has somehow managed to linger. We crunch our way across, occasionally sinking to knee height and crossing the road at the drift’s base, reach the spring at Ain al-Abiad.
Out of season, winter prematurely over and summer yet to arrive, Laqlouq feels post-apocalyptic, with boarded-up buildings and uncollected rubbish drifting across flyblown streets. We refill our bottles from the spring, the water, fresh from the slopes above, barely a degree or two above freezing. Though it would be difficult to describe the stop as picturesque, it is welcome, and I take the opportunity to wash off the dust and thoroughly soak my hat and t-shirt, to cool off.
As we relax for a while by the spring, Robin trots off and returns with a carrier bag full of snow, which he’s dug out from beneath the icy crust of the drift. He breaks out a bottle of rose syrup and adds a glug to the snow and voilà, we have our first taste of a traditional delight known as Ba'sama.
The syrup, which turns a bright orange when mixed with the snow, is far too sweet for my tastes, but I can imagine that made with Mulberry syrup, or a bit of pomegranate molasses, it might be quite lovely. I notice that everyone else is just as delighted as I am by the experience. Ba'sama is a forgotten treat in these days of refrigeration and ice cream, but there's something quite exciting, renegade almost, about eating and drinking from the wild, and we’ve happily munched our way north, snacking on herbs, fruit and other edible plants on our way. I’m reminded that much as the UK used to import chunks of Canadian lake ice in the 18th and 19th centuries, the snows of Lebanon were once wrapped in straw and shipped from Byblos and Batroun to the imperial courts of Memphis and Thebes, where the Egyptian god-kings used it to keep their honeyed drinks cool. Though the illusion is difficult to maintain when tattered plastic bags and discarded cigarette cartons skitter across the road in the breeze, I do briefly feel like a pharaoh.
Leaving Ain al-Abiad, we walk through a plantation of sickly young cedar saplings that look like they might not last the summer, and then through limestone uplands to reach what until the previous year had been a very old Maronite church. Recently renovated to within an inch of its life, the evocative traces of centuries of devotion have been comprehensively erased, taking with it the building’s erstwhile charm, so that we are left with yet another ancient building that looks like it was built yesterday - a curious irony in one of the longest continually inhabited regions in the world.
We set off towards the stunning sinkhole at Baatara, where a waterfall plunges through a partially collapsed three-layered cavern. The trail to the sinkhole is quite steep and follows a fairly narrow path but after a number of pauses, we get there just before two in the afternoon and after having a quick look - Baatara is one of Lebanon’s natural wonders and I’ve been a million times, but it never fails to impress - I use the opportunity to sprawl beneath nearby trees and have a quick snooze.
After lunch, the going gets really tricky. We clamber out of the valley the sinkhole lies in along a rocky goat track, which soon leads us into a treacherous, ankle-turning landscape of sharp karstic limestone rocks, over and between which we are forced to scramble. After an hour and a half, during which we barely cover a kilometre, the track finally opens out and descends sharply into a lush, grassy valley.
As the rest of the group is still picking its way through the limestone maze, we pause to allow them to catch up, enjoying the gentle flicker of the cool breeze across sun-redenned faces and limbs. As I lounge in the flower filled meadow, my eyes are drawn further down the valley to an old Lebanese home or rather, to a new Lebanese home, complete with triple arched mandaloon windows and Marseilles tile roof, which has been built in traditional style.
Perched on a rocky outcrop, it has the air of a castle, dominating its surroundings as completely as any Crusader, Assassin or Mamluk fortress and that looks quite capable of controlling the valley below it. Joseph later tells us that it belongs to an officer in the Lebanese army. A rather well-paid army officer, judging by its size.
The rest of the walkers arrive and we set off again through a narrow, plunging river valley. The scenery is stunning but the track is awkward and slippery, and I fall twice, adding to the ma of cuts and bruises spreading across my body.
Having wound our way slowly down to the river, we cross it carefully and then inevitably, begin the steep climb the other side, to emerge in Chatine, another one of those mountain villages that only fill up at the weekend. It’s packed full of lovely old Lebanese homes, a number of which are abandoned and falling apart and as usual, the sight of them gets me to daydreaming about buying one and doing it up, which of course I could, if I had a million or so dollars to spare. Decay, in Lebanon, inevitably comes with an eye-watering a price tag.
One though, a spectacular ruin at the end of a narrow dirt track on the far edge of Chatine, might almost be worth the money. Removed from the rest of the village, it sits in splendid isolation on a spur of land formed as the side valley Chatine occupies joins the main valley that runs up to the town of Tannourine el Faouqa, where we’ll be stopping for the day. Jutting out into the void, the spur commands uninterrupted views out over the steep, thickly forested valleys and up to the snow-capped mountains that rise above Tannourine, the ruined house sailing on a sea of green.
Thankfully, for as we paused briefly in Chatine, there had been dark talk of still having nine kilometres walk ahead, our stop for the night comes into view. All we have to do is wind our way down to the bottom of the valley and then back up the other side, and we’re done, the by now traditional end to the day, which inevitably begin and end with a steep ascent. It’s been a long, hot day and I’m exhausted, but with the pinkish glow of the setting sun on the snowy mountains ahead lighting our way through the deepening dusk, I feel a sudden burst of energy. Today has been endless and I’m grimier than usual. I’m in need of a shower and a nice cool drink, and I can’t wait to free my poor feet from the Iron Maiden embrace of my battered boots.