We’ve been put up the Karam Hotel for two nights, as we have our second day off walking. Built back in the days when the Lebanese, and many other Arabs used to take to the mountains to escape the summer heat, sometimes spending weeks, even months at a time in their cooler confines, it doesn’t look like it has been redecorated much since 1975.
Lebanon is chock full of hotels (and bars and restaurants and offices) that exist in a timewarp, although many fewer than when I first arrived, when it was still possible to scour rubbish dumps for almost pristine 60’s and 70’s furnishings, chucked out by families that had spent the 15 long years of the war abroad and recently returned, wished to bring their homes up-to-date.
Such were the pickings that some of the savvier local and European antiques dealers employed scouts tasked with finding thrown away Retro gems, which by the late 90’s, had once again become fashionable. A friend of mine found a warehouse full of carpets and prints by Verner Panton, which were still in their original packaging and another lucked upon a pair of mint condition Elephantau Chairs by Jean Royère, who became the subject of renewed interest after a retrospective of his work was arranged by Tom Ford. I don’t know how much he eventually sold the Royère chairs for, but the French interior design boutique that bought them from him put them on sale for $20,000. Each.
By the time I arrived in ‘98, most of the really big finds had been found, at least the ones that were in good condition - though I did stumble across a dusty old shop in Hamra selling vintage Adidas. My own forays to the dumps netted me a set of locally-made copies of a famous late 60s Danish sofa set that were all but indistinguishable from the originals, a gorgeous pair of Finn Juhl lounge chairs (which heartbreakingly broke shortly after I had them refurbished) and a pair of low, rotating fibreglass veranda chairs straight out of Space Odyssey.
The Karam is less 50’s fabulous than 40’s Fine, with the odd anachronistic touch from the 70s and 80s thrown in for good measure. The rooms are spare, but spacious and although the dining terrace overlooks the main road – even today, many Lebanese restaurants tend to face towards the flow of traffic, rather than the view, to make them look more popular and enticing – it proves to be a pleasant enough place to while away the hours.
Not that I get much chance to do that, as the following morning, just after I’ve finished washing my clothes and tended to my emails, my friend Mouna arrives with camera crew in tow. We are going to fake part of the walk up around Al Arz, and then shoot an interview, which we plan to add to the shots I’ve been filming along the way, in the hopes of making a short documentary, a taster that we can later use to see if there’s any interest in turning the walk into a TV series.
On the drive up, Mouna tells me about a local family, the Aridas of Berqasha, who owned silver mines in Mexico in the early decades of the Twentieth Century. In her declining years, the matriarch of the family, who had remained in Bsharreh, summoned her descendants back to Lebanon, where they disembarked some time in the 1940’s laden with so many belongings that they had to hire a mule caravan to carry their luggage up the narrow, twisting trail to the village. Fresh out of Mexico City, a wealthy and cosmopolitan city at the time, and returning in the style to which silver barons must have been accustomed, the long, dusty trek up into Mount Lebanon probably had Arida fils wondering what the hell kind of hick country their grandmother called home. Clannish even today, in the 1940s, this part of the country must have been suffocatingly close, especially to people brought up in a bustling city, and one can only imagine the whispering that must have accompanied (and succeeded) such a theatrical arrival.
I experience a faint echo of that notoriety as I return to the Karam late in the afternoon, trailing clouds of glamour, as the appearance of a film crew that morning had not gone unnoticed, but any baronial pretensions I may effect are quickly quashed by the discovery that tonight, I will have roommates, from the looks of them, an older, closeted gay couple.
I wake slightly tired, as the older half of the couple spent much of the night loudly, if mellifluously snoring. Breakfast is unusually sparse, or possibly just normal. If one thing has been a constant along the trail, it is the effusive hospitality of our hosts, who have always presented us with far more food than we could possibly consume.
We get off to a delayed start, and as it is Friday, we have been joined by a number of day walkers, and so we are now a group of 20-odd. I still haven’t quite managed to get used to these weekend influxes, which dilutes the dynamic built up during the week, when we return to our core group of four. But it is fun to see fresh, eager faces and now, 21 days in, watching them strain impatiently to get going reminds me of that first, bright morning in Marjayoun, which already feels like a thousand miles and many years ago.
Thankfully, we skip the long climb out of town along the tarmac and are bussed to the start of the trail. Having walked down that part of the trail, I can't say I'm heartbroken. It is very hot today, and nothing would be less fun than walking with cars for the first twenty minutes.
We’ve been told to be careful with our water, as there are few potable sources of water along today’s route, which begins deep in farmland, where we walk through terraces of cherries, apples and pears. The trail is good and surprisingly flat, once we’ve made our ascent, but as it is quite hazy, the normally stunning view is somewhat diminished. We can already see the entirety of today’s trail, which will lead us around the high cirque at the top of the Qannoubine Valley before swinging around the other side of the valley, where we will drop down to Bsharreh, which is almost directly opposite Bazaoun.
The view for most of the day will be of the wall of brownish-grey peaks around the cirque, which give onto a stark and otherworldly high-altitude plateau and the underwhelming ‘peak’ of Qornet el Sawda, the highest point in the Middle East, which tops out at 3088 metres. Mind-bogglingly, the Martian-like terrain of the plateau is being touted as the future location of an überdeluxe ‘resort’ for the überwealthy – the kind of people who travel everywhere by helicopter. Naturally. The fact that should this ‘resort’ ever be built, it would pollute one of Lebanon’s main water sources, not to mention ruin the pristine landscape, just to permit a clutch of billionaires to ‘live’ there for a couple of weekends a year, apparently is not a consideration.
As we climb steeply up through the fields above Bqaa Kafra, at 1650m, Lebanon’s highest continually-inhabited village. Al Arz/The Cedars (or to give them their full name, The Cedars of the Lord) come into view as a patch of dark green in the middle of the vast bowl-like cirque, and we begin to drop down, reaching the outskirts of the reserve at almost the exact spot where Mouna and I were filming the day before. Today, we have to circumnavigate a broken main, which is spewing water wastefully into the air. Ageing infrastructure accounts for almost 50% of water loss in Lebanon, a country that increasingly runs dry each summer, despite being most water-rich nation in the Middle East.
The reserve is still protected by a stone wall that was paid for by Queen Victoria, who had a soft-spot for Lebanese cedars and is credited with starting the craze for them in Britain, where the wetter, cooler climate results in faster-growing, though much shorter lived trees. The ones here in The Cedars are amongst the oldest in Lebanon, the largest of which are several thousand years old.
While the wall looks almost as ancient as the tress, it does keep the reserve tidy, which is more than can be said for the area immediately around it, which is awash in rubbish and rubble from construction and new roads. As sights go, this one is sad and desolate and I can only hope that the next time I visit the Cedars, I won’t have to hunt for them in the middle of some flashy, gated country club.
Inside the reserve, ur-Lebanon reasserts itself and as we are directed to a spot to sit and have lunch by the ghastly Rudy Rahme statue carved out of the remains of an ancient cedar that died after it was struck by lightning in the 90's (an ignominious end for such a venerable elder, on both accounts), the glimpses of snow-streak mountains between the trees, the chatter of birdsong and the delicate scent of cedar on the breeze makes it possible to forget the chaos that surrounds us.
After lunch, we wander around the reserve. As one of Lebanon’s top attractions, I’ve been to The Cedars countless times with friends and visitors but despite this, it’s even more beautiful than I remember. The only source of irritation today is our local guide, Georges, who doesn't seem to be fully in control of the gaggle of hikers he’s inherited for the next two days.
We’ve been joined by local guides periodically along the trail. Most are fairly new at the job and so getting them to lead allows Joseph and Robin to determine whether they know what they are doing, where they are going, and what they are talking about.
Georges does not and we are repeatedly forced to wait for him to show us the way, not because he is a slow walker, but because he is easily distracted by the sight of bouncing breasts, of which today there are a surfeit. One particularly galling wait occurs as we are forced out of Eden and onto the busy, ugly road outside the reserve, where for no discernible reason we stand waiting sullenly until Georges remembers he’s supposed to be in charge and finally leads us into the rolling hills on the other side of the row of roadside shops, all selling things that were probably recherché in the 1850’s, but which today, no one seems to want. How any of them make a living is anyone’s best guess.
Like the low hills on the other side of the reserve, the land here is disfigured by new roads and plots for holiday chalets, and we discover that last year’s track has once again become a freshly-tarmacked road. Hot, dusty and for some reason full of flies, it feels like we’re walking through the Valley of Death but after a while, we follow a trail beside a sign pointing to Cedar Heaven, a restaurants/resort above us that somewhat ironically, turns out to be located next to a new industrial estate.
Perched on the edge of a cliff, the rather melancholy restaurant may not be the first place I’d go to have a meal, but it is blessed with an absolutely jaw-dropping view out over Qannoubine and what appears to be half of the Middle East.
As we wait for all the hikers to catch up, we sprawl in the deserted rockery-cum-garden and I strike up a conversation with one of the day-walkers, an English woman called Lauren, who has apparently chosen to study Arabic in Tyre. As we chat, she tells me that her landlord is convinced that she’s a spy. Having been accused of that myself on a number of occasions – though mostly for being a journalist, rather than for being a foreigner - I can see why a man from Southern Lebanon, a place that has seen more than its share of suspicious foreign visitors in the recent past, might make such an assumption, especially with the presence of a large corps of UN staff and soldiers billeted in the town. His frank appraisal of her doesn’t seem to have put him off and Lauren credits much of her Arabic ability to the conversations she’s had with his family at the many home-cooked meals to which she has been invited.
There is a large metal cross at the far end of the garden, which apparently marks the trail down to Bsharreh. It is a steep and in places rather tricky descent, that leads past a large, heavily eroded obelisk that sits above four rock-cut Phoenician tombs, but half of the trail has been obliterated by a massive landslide, so we are forced to make a short, and even steeper detour along rocky goat tracks.
When we reach the bottom of the trail, we follow a rocky riverbed down to a dirt road, at the end of which waits our bus. From here, the only way into the town is along a busy main road, and while getting onto a bus does feel a bit like cheating, it beats dodging traffic.
We stop off at the Khalil Gibran museum, a collection of the writer’s personal belongings; books, minor antiquities and furniture, as well as a rather nice Armenian tapestry of Christ, and a collection of the author’s paintings, a few of which are interesting in a Blakeish kind of way. Gibran, a native of Bsharreh, is also buried here, which is surprising given the disdain for the town and its people that is evident in his work, but when one is the author of the second biggest-selling book in the English language (The Prophet is beaten only by the Bible), one can be snippy, and still end up a hero.