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The Valley of Saints

May 24, 2010
Chalet in La Reserve

One of the chalets at La Reserve Horsh Ehden

I woke up at about 5am to the light streaming through the uncurtained, windows in the eaves of our log cabin and the dawn chorus.  It was very pleasant to doze under the warm covers and I finally emerged when I heard voices.  It was very nippy – my guess is no-one showered that morning – but soon warmed up as the sun hit the patio.  The brazier was relit for good measure.  Breakfast was a lively affair; the Lebanese men all shared a table and tucked into fried eggs with gusto.  The eggs were served in little terracotta dishes and liberally coated in butter and salt – the guys kept asking for more and more.  On our table it was the appearance of tea bags and hot water that had us excited.  Iman, who had skipped supper to retire early with some painkillers the night before. emerged looking immaculate as usual.  We constantly marvelled how anyone could look that stylish in hiking gear and she earned her nickname ‘the style guru’.  We were all pleased to hear that her knee had recovered enough for the day’s trek, as had Gemma’s.  After lugging our bags down to the bus, filling up our hydration packs and swiping some cherries from the tree on the way, we were soon leaving Ehden and being driven on mountain paths around the most incredible scenery we’d seen to date – and that was saying something.  We were thankful that Charbel was such a good driver due to the hairy hairpin bends.

Door to chapel in monestary

Entrance to the chapel at the Monastery

The villages looked very prosperous in this area – we even saw some houses that were finished (the lack of completion and the amount of buildings which were concrete shells had intrigued us).  Passing some stations of the cross we followed a small, road that zig-zagged down to the  Deir Mar Antonios Qozhaya monastery.

The Qadisha valley has plunging sides of stone calcified in swirling patterns of ochre, terraces carved out for planting and deep green forests.  Its remoteness meant that it was the perfect place for monasteries and hermits wanting to remove themselves from the world or religious persecution, particularly the Maronites in the 5th Century.  The view from this  monastery built into the cliff would inspire anyone to prayer to its creator.  We visited a cave where the mentally ill were chained to wait for a miracle cure and petitions for prayers were made to the monks.  A food offering was made in return for the holy intercession and the empty pots were stored on the rocks.  The amount of pots indicated that those monks rarely went hungry.  The little chapel built into a cave was peaceful and we wandered off around various parts of the monastery, including a museum with the first printing press in the Middle East.  Some of the party met a monk who took them into the wine cellar; my group conducted a conversation in very bad French with a lady from the little cafe  and had a tour of the very lovely rooms that you can stay in there.

Qadisha valley

Calcified cliffs in the Qadisha Valley

We started our trek in a village with yet more shrines.  A lady waved from her upstairs terrace covered with vines – she was hard at work on her sewing machine.  The way into the valley was via 400 steps built by many volunteers – Chamoun described how everyone had taken the materials down in sacks.  Many of the group with knee twinges were a bit apprehensive about going down them but imagine the descent prior to the building of the steps; no wonder the valley was cut off.  We stopped on a plateau under a lone olive tree and marvelled at the view; when we continued, Michel ran ahead going helter-skelter down the rocky steps while we continued to plod down carefully.  Even speedy Chamoun thought he was mad.

We were going to visit Father Dario Escobar, a hermit from Columbia who is now in his 70s.  We made a few attempts at questioning Chamoun, “Aren’t hermits supposed to shut themselves away from people?” but the answer was lost in translation.  Intrigued we entered his simple hermitage built into the rock – climbing upstairs through a central courtyard with a lemon tree.  Chamoun didn’t think he was at home and reached in to turn the light on in the chapel, so it gave Karen quite a shock when she went in to see him sitting there in silence, staring ahead, dressed in black with a long, grey beard.  We sat on the balcony and overlooked Father Escobar’s neat little vegetable garden.  He eats one meal a day, is self-sufficient and has no heating in winter according to Chamoun (although we spotted evidence of an electic heater in the second chapel!).

Tradtional drinking vessels

Traditional drinking vessels in the Hawka Hermitage

He showed us how to drink from the traditional terracotta water vessel which was very funny so I hope the noise of our laugher didn’t test the hermits concentration too much .  On leaving we met another group of walkers coming in and tried once again to get an answer to our question, “Chamoun, doesn’t the hermit mind people coming into his house?”  He answered as though this was no problem, “He can’t mind, he has to let them in as it’s an open monastery.”  It revealed as much about the local community as it did about the hermit!

Walking along a path, although narrow and winding, was a completely different trekking experience and although, as always, we bowled along at a swift pace it meant you could really take in the magnificent surroundings.  It was the hottest day so far and the less-demanding terrain was welcome.  The dynamics of the group order changed – Chamoun chatted to people at the back, there were different leaders.  Unable to stop taking pictures I became distanced from the front-runners but ahead of the rest, meaning I had some solitary walking time.  Finding my own pace, keeping my own thoughts and absorbing the dramatic view gave me such a warm feeling of contentment.

Altar and frescoes

Altar and frescoes in the Monastery of Our Lady of Qannoubine

We passed more shrines and visited the Santa Maria Sanctuary and the Monastery of Our Lady of Qannoubine where we stopped to eat our packed lunch.  What luxury – benches to sit on and a loo!  The churches were each beautiful in a simple, homespun way with peeling frescoes on the walls, their jewelled colours still bright.  I was glad of the rest, I couldn’t find my usual “umph”, maybe it was because of the heat.  I couldn’t face eating much lunch but enjoyed listening to everyone’s chatter especially when Karen phoned her 6-year-old daughter to wish her happy birthday.

Back to the path and the view – this was a place I could imagine coming back to with my family.  Looking out at the cliffs across the gorge revealed many caves – Chamoun said there were about 800 in total.  He had found a secret cave on one of his journeys crisscrossing the trail where he discovered the bones of a forgotten hermit which he gave to a museum.

It was nice to catch up for a chat with a few people as it was something I hadn’t been able to do when tackling the slopes on earlier days.  I then felt I had to push myself a bit more and caught up with the dynamic duo of Karen and Susie and became their shadow once again.  We came to a waterfall and Chamoun told us to look up – hundreds of metres up the cliffs was a hole in the rock through which you could see a white cascade – a glimpse of its source.

waterfall in the cliffs

The source of the waterfall glimpsed through a window in the cliffs

We reached a small cafe by a stream near where the bus was parked.  We had a choice to either get on the bus or to tackle the hardest challenge of the trip – by all accounts a near vertical scaling of the cliffs up to the village.  It had not been a really, demanding day’s hiking but from early morning I felt I had no reserves of energy.  Maybe it was lack of sleep, the heat, misplacing my dried fruit rations (great portable fuel) or not eating lunch.  I wanted so much to join the “up” group but felt I just didn’t have it in me.  I told Karen that I was thinking of going on the bus.  “Of course you can do it Sally” she said and gave me a dried apricot.  I took superfluous things out of my backpack and got ready.  Then there was a potential change of plan meaning no one would go – relief in a way.  Then we were back onto the original plan.  I just didn’t know what to do – I was not confident in my energy levels and didn’t want to let the group down.  Rani was advising strongly that it was a really tough climb and under no circumstances to do it.  This swayed Jo.  I was so torn.  I put my backpack on and it felt like a stone.  I asked Chamoun “do you think I can do it?” he was non-committal.  I made the decision to stay and felt stupid as I turned away to wipe the tears that had sprung to my eyes.

It was a jolly band on the coach and they were handing out delicious manouche from a little hut where it was freshly made.  I regretted my decision already and looked back – the group had gone.  “We’re the losers on the bus” joked Michelle – I tried to laugh but my spirits fell a little further.

View across to Bcharre

View across to Bcharre

The road up in the bus was narrow and I once again blessed Charbel’s fantastic driving abilities.  We could see the route that the other group would take – it looked impossible.  Charbel laughed, “I have taken over 200 groups to this place, not one has ever taken that route.  Crazy.”  As we climbed higher we could see the group reaching the monastery.  We could see across to our hotel in Bcharre, pretty red roofed houses and a church clinging to the mountainside and got out of the bus to take pictures.  What views were the others seeing? I was so despondent – my own stupid fault.

Bcharre had an instant charm – a bit haphazard but radiating life.  We unloaded the bags and then went out to explore finding the Kangaroo supermarket for supplies.  I love exploring food shops in other countries so had a good snoop round.  We soon found out that lots of people have emigrated from Bcharre to Australia so there is a strong familial link – Sandra was soon comparing notes with the friendly, lady owner.

Sitting outdoors next to the rose beds and, of course a shrine, sipping some cold drinks with the sun lowering over the valley casting a pink light, we were astonished as the intrepid group came into view.

Sign for shawarma in Bcharre

A sign in Bcharre

My heart sank like a stone and Jo exclaimed “they only took 1 hour 20 minutes.”  In England we have one word for how I felt – “gutted”!

We went to a restaurant by a waterfall for our evening meal (the hotel didn’t serve food outside the ski season) and all sat at one long table.  The usual feast arrived and the realisation that only one more day’s trekking remained had an effect on everyone.  ‘What happens on tour, stays on tour’ suffice to say there was quite a lot of exuberant merry-making led from the front by the male Lebanese contingent.  I was sad that another day had ended but glad that my bed was so supremely comfortable as I sank into it.

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3 Comments
  1. May 24, 2010 7:36 pm

    An extremely moving installment. Poor you, I can just imagine the dilema and how you felt. However, if you were so energy less, you were probably safer not to attempt a steep dangerous climb. Px

  2. ghassan nakad permalink
    May 11, 2013 2:30 am

    It happens i incidentally read this article, and i have some answers for your question concerning father Darios! Yes he is a hermit,and at the end he will isolate himself, but the monastery orders him to go through different stages to test his ability to sustain a lonely spiritual life. At first he has to live in the community with the monks for around 10 years before being able to move to the hermitage(Father Dario was allowed to do so after 5 years). After that he lives in his hermitage, but still cannot refuse to meet people. The 3rd phase will make him restrict himself to seeing just a couple of friends and visitors, the last phase will be him being completely isolated (but from contact with some monks) and so his hermitage will be closed to public. Father Dario is a Colombian clinical psychologist, he holds a PhD from the university of Miami, he is specialized in marriage. He speaks around 10 languages. He taught at university before retreating to prayer. He lives a very humble life, witch he would have desired to be more restricted, but the head of the order of monks ordered him to have electricity to fit what they judge as life basic needs,and so he has to comply to the orders of his superior. The electric radiator you noticed has been left behind form a monk who was in spiritual retreat for a couple of weeks. Again the superior ordered for this radiator to remain there and be used,and so the monk has to comply. Hope this answers your question!!

    • May 11, 2013 8:38 pm

      I really appreciate you taking the time to share this information. It was difficult to understand how my idea of a hermit fitted in with what we saw. It was a very special experience – one I’ll never forget – and I now have a greater appreciation of it. Many, many thanks. I hope I’ll return one day.

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