It had already been seven decades since his death when I first became aware of Khalil Gibran in the early 2000s. His books, translated into Indonesian, were on display at a narrow section of a department store in the small city where I spent my teenage years. Several years later I found out that he was Lebanese, and that was the first thing about Lebanon which was not related to the civil war that I had ever learned, for like most Indonesians, I grew up reading about the bloody conflict that engulfed the Middle Eastern country and based my perception of it solely on this unfortunate chapter of the nation’s history.
During a lunch break three years ago, I learned about the town of Bsharri from a travel book that I read at a bookstore in a mall next to my office. The short article mentioned how this tranquil part of Lebanon was the home of the great writer, poet and artist whose books have been published in more than 100 languages. I have never read any of his works, but the prospect of traveling to this far-flung location with breathtaking vistas that also happens to be the birthplace of a world-renowned figure was something I could not resist. So when the opportunity to visit Lebanon came, I made sure to include Bsharri and its surrounding areas in the itinerary.
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James and I passed Bsharri yesterday on our way from Beirut to Al Arz, home to the Cedars of God. However, everything looked dark and gloomy as Wafik drove through the fog-shrouded town. I could point out the cathedral, but not the deep, canyon-like valley Bsharri supposedly overlooks.
On our second day in Al Arz, we wake up to a pleasant surprise – probably the best one throughout our week-long sojourn in Lebanon. I open the curtains and can’t believe my eyes and my luck: clear, blue skies allowing the sun to shine brightly, its rays brilliantly reflected by the thick snow that hasn’t melted since the day before. Bsharri is about half an hour away downhill by car from Al Arz, if we can find any to begin with. Fortunately, Rafael, the hotel owner, was very kind as last night he offered to take us to the town this morning on his way to pick up his daughter for a regular medical check-up. Rafael himself is the embodiment of Lebanese hospitality. In the late afternoon on our first day in this cold corner of the country, he provided us with all sorts of treats, including apples from his own farm, assorted nuts and fried snacks, freshly-cut carrot sticks dipped in lemon juice, and hot chocolate, all on the house. He doesn’t smile a lot, but his determination to send us to bed with full stomachs was very heartwarming. Before we retreated to our bedroom, he gave us one more thing to try: pita bread stuffed with homemade fig and walnut jam. At this point I was already so full, but that jam was so good I wished I could take it back to Indonesia.
As we step out of our room and walk to the resort’s common area to have breakfast, we are surprised (the second pleasant surprise we get so far) to find a feast of cheeses, manoushe (Lebanese-style flatbread) with a generous amount of za’atar (a mix of Middle Eastern herbs) drizzled on top, omelettes, fresh tomatoes and cucumbers, cakes, and a few other dishes. “This is all for you,” Rafael emerges and convinces us to savor all of them. We eat as much as we can, but in the end we can only manage to finish a little over half of everything. With our palates satisfied and our stomachs happy, we are ready to go.
Leaving the hotel, it becomes clear how sunny the day is. I look around and am mesmerized by the snowy wonderland stretching as far as the eye can see, but this very moment I also realize what people mean when they talk about the danger of snow blindness. There is, however, another imminent danger I should’ve paid more attention to. As I walk toward Rafael’s old SUV, thin sheets of ice immediately crack when I step on them, thanks to my complete unawareness of the presence of these transparent land mines. After almost falling several times, I successfully hop into the car without any embarrassing incident.
Rafael drives us toward Bsharri over mountain roads that meander through the peaks of this part of the Mount Lebanon range. Halfway to the town, he takes a right turn down a narrow road that goes to a house where a man has already been expecting him. Rafael turns off the engine and goes inside the house, and we head toward the edge of the cliff for what is laid before our eyes is a jaw-dropping view of the Qadisha Valley (Qadisha means holy in Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke) which, together with the forest of the Cedars of God in Al Arz, was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage list in 1998.
I thought the view from Al Arz was amazing, but this is beyond words. From where I am standing, blue skies, snow-capped peaks, verdant slopes, and steep rocky walls all fit into one frame. Making it more dramatic are waterfalls running down the tall cliffs, as well as churches and cathedrals with bright orange roofs scattered all over the valley. I can’t help but think of Rivendell, the abode of some of the elves in the fantasy world of The Lord of the Rings which is depicted as a lush and peaceful valley where waterfalls flow into a river. It is believed that J. R. R. Tolkien might have been inspired by Lauterbrunnen when he created Rivendell, but since I’ve never been to Switzerland, the Qadisha Valley is the closest thing to this fictional place I have ever come across. This was the view we failed to see on the day we arrived from Beirut. This was the landscape that piqued my interest in this part of Lebanon a few years ago. And now it’s showing its majesty to us.
I return to the car where Rafael and his friend have finished loading crates of freshly-picked apples. “My friend, take a photo of us,” the other guy says to me while pulling Rafael closer to him. They both grin and afterward we are given four apples – two for each of us. Where else can you find people who ask you to take photos of them, don’t expect anything in return, and give you something for free instead? We thank him for his kindness and hospitality, and in no time the three of us are back on the main road toward Bsharri.
Bsharri (also spelled Bcharre thanks to the strong French influence in this part of Lebanon) is a town of 24,000 people and the capital of an eponymous district that is predominantly Maronite Christian. Its location near the Cedars of God and the Qadisha Valley – the latter being home to among the oldest Christian monasteries in the world – makes it an important place for the country’s Christian community. In addition to dozens of monasteries in the valley that date back over 1,000 years, Bsharri is also known for its many churches, with Saint Saba Cathedral and Our Lady of Bsharri Church as the most prominent structures of the town’s otherwise modest skyline.
Rafael drops us across from Saint Saba Cathedral and points at a narrow path near the large orange-domed structure which, he tells us, will lead us to the valley. We follow his directions and take the stairs to go from the town all the way down to the road that links Bsharri to Tripoli on the coast. We cross the empty but well-maintained asphalt road, and after taking a short detour to a curve where it bends to get a different vantage point of the spectacular landscape, we return and descend deeper to get a closer look at the valley.
A lush tapestry of green and yellow stretches all the way to the bottom, as well as to the far end of the gorge, interspersed with small man-made terraces on which vegetables are grown. Opposite us is an imposing wall of steep cliffs capped with buildings big and small, beautiful and modest, bright and drab, religious and secular. A visit to the Qadisha Valley typically involves an hours-long hike across the valley with stopovers at some of its oldest and most famous monasteries. But we think to truly appreciate the valley and everything in it, we would need another day, or another visit, for the precious few hours that we have this time won’t do this place justice. Still, it’s enough for us to confidently say that this, of all the places we’ve been to so far, is definitely among the most marvelous.
We return uphill to the town with a few short breaks in between. We’re more than 1,400 meters above sea level, so our lungs – more accustomed to the polluted air of low-lying big cities – need to do some extra work. Bsharri itself exudes a relaxing, Mediterranean vibe, and when we walk toward our next destination – the Gibran Museum – to the east of the town’s center, we get curious looks from the locals probably because not many East/Southeast Asians travel to this part of Lebanon, or the country itself in general. I smile at them and they smile back, a universal way of communication that works almost everywhere.
The museum itself does not look prominent as it was in fact a monastery dedicated to Mar Sarkis (Saint Sergius) with its chapel and a few cells hewn into the limestone cliff. Prior to his death in 1931, Gibran expressed his wish to be buried in Lebanon (at that time he was living in New York), and this was fulfilled by his sister who, a few months after her brother’s death, purchased the Mar Sarkis monastery from the Carmelite Mission in Syria which was responsible for the compound. Today, the Gibran Museum is a small but intriguing museum showcasing the artist’s work which, to my surprise, encompasses not only literature but also paintings. It’s actually the latter that take center stage at this museum, occupying a series of chambers where monks once resided.
By the time we finish exploring the museum, with a visit to the crypt some people may find spooky, we head to an open-air canteen adjacent to the building. Three cats are rubbing their bodies against some tourists from India who are feeding them, and as soon as they leave, the friendly felines turn their focus on us, which I absolutely don’t mind. Behind the counter of the sole stall there is a lovely lady who introduces herself as Darene. With her limited English, she tries her best to explain some of the dishes on the menu we’re not too familiar with. We try to use French as well which she can speak better, and we end up ordering one that we didn’t get to try in Beirut. Moments after she brings the food to us she curiously asks us a question.
“Where are you from?”
“Indonesia,” we both reply. It would probably too complicated for James to explain where he’s actually from, so he chooses the easy answer.
Then she grins and her face lights up. She then recalls how a few weeks earlier a group of Indonesians organized by the Indonesian embassy in Beirut visited the museum and ate at her stall. She continues by saying how kind and friendly they were, and solely because of that reason she’s thinking of traveling to Indonesia with her daughter. We share some recommendations with her of places in the country she may find interesting, and we also explain that due to its size, Indonesia is not a country that can be ‘done’ in just a few days.
As a token of gratitude and a hospitable gesture, she hands us several cookies that she made herself, and as if that’s not enough, when we walk back to Bsharri she gives us a lift. “I’m going to pick up my daughter from school,” she says – the third nice surprise we get on this one day alone. She leaves us near where we were dropped off that morning by Rafael, but this time we’re visiting the house where Khalil Gibran was born. There is nothing fancy about the childhood home of the great artist. On the contrary, it showcases the hardships he and his family had to endure under Ottoman rule.
The day is beginning to get dark, and we’re looking for a taxi to take us back to Al Arz up in the mountains. Then, one stops by right in front as the driver sees us. His name is Waleed, and after agreeing on the price, we hop in and let him drive us back to the snowy wonderland to spend one more night there. We couldn’t have wished for a more satisfying day.