So today was a day devoted to seeing the gorgeous scenery of the ancient region of Mount Lebanon. We headed north and up into the mountains to the small village of Afqa within the Jbeil District of Mount Lebanon. Now the Mount Lebanon range extends along the entire length of Lebanon running parallel to the Mediterranean coast. The area has some very high peaks including one peak reaching over 10,000 feet. In addition, the mountain range and the villages within the range receive a lot of precipitation, including up to 13 feet of snow annually. As a result, there are a lot of rivers and waterfalls in the area. Unfortunately, climate change has reduced the annual precipitation and as result, by September and October a number of the waterfalls are dry.
Bad news for me as our first stop of the day was the Afqa waterfall. Now I was warned in advance that the waterfall was dry, but was nevertheless we decided to go since the area surrounding the waterfall was supposed to be rather pretty.
The drive took us up, up, up along a narrow, windy road through tiny villages and past olive groves. The road became a little bumpy at times, but overall was in decent shape. As we approached Afqa, little fruit stands popped up with locals selling bags of apples. Elie warned against buying the apples because the locals inflate the price for tourists, so we passed by the stands and parked at the entrance to the Afqa waterfall. As we started to walk up the stone staircase, a gentleman appeared out of nowhere carrying a bag with four huge jars of honey.
Romeo set about translating and explained that the man climbs a ladder up into the rocky limestone hillside and harvests the honey from hives built into the rocks. And as proof, the fellow pulled out his phone and showed me a video of him on the ladder harvesting the honey. Yikes! Tough way to make a living.
Now Romeo apparently has bee hives so he asked a bunch of questions of the guy and then asked to let us sample the honey. The fellow pulled out a little toothpick, pulled the wrapper off and let me taste it. YUM!. Romeo did the same and concurred that the quality was superb. So after a bit of haggling, we ended up with two large jars (about 1 litre in each jar) for $15. Elie was going to take one and I was going to take one.
Anyway, after the honey purchase, we finished the climb into the cave to see where the waterfall would have been if there had been any water. Now the area inside the cave is quite big so I can only imagine how pretty the waterfall is with the water flowing out of the cave and down the rocks below. Ah well.
So after the short little hike, we walked back out of the cave running into a Chinese man who was dressed in fatigues and travelling by himself. He told us he was heading next to the Beqqa Valley where he was going to be spending two nights. Now I thought this was just crazy. The Beqqa can be a dangerous area as the Hezbollah are known to populate the area and while it is quite safe in parts, you have to know where to go and you should travel with locals.
And, once in the car I mentioned that if we hear of a Chinese man kidnapped by Hezbollah tonight we will know who it is. Elie and Romeo started laughing and could not stop. Apparently as we were walking away from the Chinese fellow, Elie said the exact same thing in Arabic, hence the laughter. Fingers crossed for the dude.
Anyway, we next headed a bit further north along more windy roads and past hundreds and hundreds of apple orchards. The area we were travelling through is known in the Mediterranean for its apple exports and right now is harvest season so the trees were laden with apples and immigrants harvesting the apples. We also passed huge transport trucks where locals were loading crates of apples for export and trucks transporting apple pickers. We even passed one truck where the riders had stuck their feet out the back, but kept their face and arms covered by a canvas covering hanging from the back of the truck. As we passed, they lifted the canvas and waved.
As we continued on along the very dry, high mountainous region, our next stop came into view. High up on a distant mountain was a cross standing over the village of Laklouk. We were going to hike up to the top of the mountain… yikes!
Anyway, we soon reached the base of the mountain and quite frankly, it didn’t look nearly as bad as it did from the distance. The hike took us up a series of limestone steps, past a shrine and eventually to the top of the hillside where we had spectacular views over the valley on either side of the mountain. Everywhere we looked, we saw irrigation lakes (huge ponds that fill with snow during the winter and then melt to provide irrigation for the nearby farms), orchards, little homes dotting the landscape and lots and lots of rock.
The views, quite frankly, were spectacular and was the epitome of the description … “ancient lands”. Dry, rocky, mountainous land filled with farms and little tiny villages. Gorgeous.
We hung around the top of the mountain for a few minutes taking in the views and pictures without another human in site. Eventually, the sun made it too hot to stick around for long (although it was much cooler at this elevation than at sea level) so we made our way back down the limestone steps to the car just as two groups of locals arrived to make the same hike we had just finished.
We then made the short drive along the same windy road we had just travelled to the Baatara Gorge, the location of another waterfall, that has dried up. Nevertheless, the scenery was supposed to be spectacular so once we reached the site, I followed the path before picking up the rocky trail that cut through the rocks and wound down into the gorge. At times, the trail was nothing more than a bunch of crushed rock and at other times, there was actual stone steps. And I had to be careful because the crushed rock was a tad slippery so at times, it was a bit slow going as I hiked down the hillside.
Now, despite the fact that the waterfall was not flowing, the gorge turned out to be magnificent. Beautiful coloured stones and holes carved in the rocks from the water flow made the site something really special to see. And once I reached the bottom of the gorge, I was surrounded by huge limestone hills. Definitely worthy the hike down.
And unfortunately, as much as I enjoyed the hike down, the hike back up in the hot sun kinda sucked. I must have stopped five or six times on the way back up, not because I was tired, but because I was so hot and sweat was dripping in my eyes.
Eventually, I reached the top and stopped and sat on a chair underneath a tree and allowed the lovely breeze to cool me down. Elie came and found me and suggested that we stop in the little bakery on site for a couple flatbreads. Count me in.
So we walked along a short little trail to a small shed like building where an older woman was in charge of making the flatbreads. Elie suggested that I order kechek, a flatbread covered in a mixture of yoghurt, tomatoes and onions and zaatar, a flatbread made of olive oil and wild thyme. Since I always go with the local suggestion, I quickly agreed.
And the lady even invited me into her kitchen to watch her make the flatbreads over a flat round cooking stone heated by natural gas. She threw two flatbreads onto the cooking surface and then covered each of the flatbreads with the mixture. We then went and sat in the little seating area and she brought out the folded flatbreads that she had cut into three pieces. I tasted the kechek first and it was absolutely delicious. The bread was crispy and the filling had a bit of a cheesy taste. The zaatar was also good, but came in a distant second to the kechek. Always great to try local food by a local lady.
Anyway, we finished up our snack and began the trip back to Byblos, but Romeo suggested that we take a different route back through a mountain village known as Douma. Apparently, Douma is one of the oldest villages in the mountain region we were in, with a traditional souk and buildings that are hundreds of years old. Even better, the village, when viewed from above, is in the shape of a scorpion. Cool! I thought it was a great idea to see the village and the view from above, so off we set.
Now as we drove, Romeo also suggested we stop at a nearby village where a natural spring flows and local villagers come by to fill up water bottles. So when in Rome … Anyway, as we made our way along yet another narrow road, passing more orchards and little stone houses, we eventually reached the spring with the water flowing out of a rock and damned if it wasn’t the freshest, coldest water. Delicious.
And not far from the spring, we turned into the little village of Douma only to discover … the entire village under construction. Apparently they are redoing the souk and a number of the buildings so … not much to see, but it does appear that it will become a very popular tourist village once complete.
So after the quick stop, we got back in the car and drove up the hill to get a view of the village below, and the village indeed did have the shape of a scorpion. And in order to preserve the shape, new construction is not permitted. OK then.
We then drove along the mountain hillside and made one more stop in the village of Bchaaleh, the highest village in the world producing olives and olive oil and home to the oldest olive trees in the world. Apparently legend has it that when Noah released the dove after the flood, the dove came back with an olive branch from those trees, hence the name Noah’s for these 2,000 year old trees. And … yep the trees still bear fruit. In fact, the trees were laden with olives. Simply incredible.
Anyway, after this last stop (really this was our last stop), we made our way out of the mountains, through the northern checkpoint and back to Bylbos. Tomorrow we are of to Lebanon’s famous cedars as well as a monastery and a museum up in the mountains. Hopefully, less climbing tomorrow!