My accidental trip to Lebanon, part two: Bsharri

So, like I was saying in part one, there was one other reason behind us being so cheap. We couldn’t come all the way to Lebanon and just stay in Beirut, so we booked our first tour since the Grand Canyon in 2010. Fawzi from Explore Lebanon Tours was our guide. Within less than an hour of leaving Beirut, seeing the hills layered with mist; we knew saving our money for this was worth it.

Our first stop was the St. Anthony Monastery of Qozhaya. Nestled in verdant slopes of the Qadisha Valley, its monks are credited with the abundance of wheat, vines, cedars, olive trees and mulberry trees surrounding it. In 1584, it housed the Middle East’s first printing press. Hermits lived in rocky cells in the cliffs surrounding it. Strangers and pilgrims came from afar, seeking its generosity and shelter. It was passed to its current owners, the Lebanese Maronite Order formed in Aleppo, in 1708. In the light morning mist, it was ethereal.

St. Anthony Monastery of Qozhaya | دير مار أنطونيوس قزحيا

Tourists gathered with bowed heads in St. Anthony’s Church of Qozhaya. A display with a silver cedar honoured saints from Lebanon. Fun fact: St. Anthony is also the patron saint of my half-hometown, Lisbon.

St. Anthony's Church of Qozhaya

The monastery was quiet inside. No one occupied the polished reception desk. My footsteps echoed. It was so peaceful I felt like I was intruding.

Inside the St. Anthony Monastery of Qozhaya

Fawzi directed us to the Cave of Qozhaya. Despite the mumble of chattering tourists outside, inside it was utterly silent. At its centre was a stone altar. There was a faint, strangely comforting musty odour. I could have sat there for hours just enjoying the serene quiet.

Cave of Qozhaya

The cave is famous in the Middle East for miracles, especially curing mental illness. Unfortunately, I’m still bipolar.

Leaving the monastery

We got back in the car. I stretched over the back seat to take photos. The views of the Qadisha Valley were just too beautiful not to!

The car stopped on an unassuming suburban road. ‘Here,’ Fawzi said, ‘The Cedars of God!’ There was no fixed entrance fee, but donations were welcomed. In return, we got some cute postcards.

Cedars of God postcards

It was around 10am. Paths were quiet. The air was refreshingly cool and pure. Soothing stillness reigned amongst the trees. I was glad for a guide as Fawzi explained which cedars were 1000, 1500 or 2000 years old. It was difficult, yet amazing to even try to comprehend their age and vastness.

Cedars of God | أرز الربّ

Atop a hill, in a serene clearing, a cross sat before a log altar. It belonged to an unmarked church. Fawzi explained this was the Church of God. The surrounding cedars, 2000 years old, were supposedly planted by Jesus himself.

Clearing used for services at the Church of God

The Church of God at the Cedars of God

Inside the Church of God

Bible in Arabic and Amharic

2000+ year old cedars, supposedly planted by Jesus

The surrounding mountains reached the clouds. As we walked back down, Fawzi pointed out the oldest and hugest tree of all – at 5000 years old. I was tiny beside it!

The oldest Lebanese cedar at 5000 years old

Walking back from the Cedars of God

Hills around the forest were arid. It was incredible to see the cedars surviving regardless.

Back on the road

Sunflowers in the Qadisha Valley

We stopped at a quiet café in Bsharri for lunch. Fawzi picked a labneh wrap for me and meat for my mum.

Labneh wrap in Bsharri for lunch

View from the cafe

Bsharri streets

Our final stop was the Khalil Gibran Museum in Bsharri. The views it offered of the town and its surrounding green hills were stunning.

Gibran Museum, Bsharri

Gibran was an artist, writer and philosopher. Before the museum was purchased by his sister in 1931, it was the Monastery of Mar Sakis (St. Serge). His wish was to be buried in its hermitage and have the monastery converted to a museum. It houses 440 paintings, letters, drawings and Gibran’s furniture and belongings, as well as his tomb. The museum opened in 1975. Entrance fee is 8000 LBP. Photography isn't allowed.

Leaving Bsharri

I was sad our tour was over, but excited to see more beautiful views on the way back to Beirut. Fawzi showed us photos of the same roads and the cedars in winter. Untouched snow was piled high. It was difficult to imagine this hot and humid place ever buried in snow!

Leaving the valleys of North Lebanon

Passing by Byblos and Jounieh

Back in Beirut

The Egg, an unfinished cinema damaged during the Civil War

Fawzi dropped us at our hotel. It was around 4pm. We walked down to Ramlet al-Baida, Beirut’s last public beach. At this hour, Beirut was tinted bronze. The sun was golden, then deep red, spreading a pink glow that faded to pastels.

Sunset at Ramlet al-Baida | الرملة البيضا

While my mum rested on benches, we were entertained by the groovy pop booming from cars. It was that day a man screeched to a stop, leapt out of his car and began washing it while blasting Caramela Sexy Lady. That is, I've decided, full Beirut.

Night on the Corniche

In the supermarket, I got a cute bag of rice. The world should expect me to get on planes with random foodstuffs by now. I once took half an onion home from uni. Anyway, I used my rice for pumpkin curry and lentil dhansak.

It was our last day. Our flight departed the next day at 4am, so we left our luggage at reception and walked to Hamra. We needed souvenirs!

As the internet promised, there were good old tourist traps opposite the Commodore Hotel. We bought magnets, a shirt and keyring.

Lebanon souvenirs

Souvenir shops in Hamra, Beirut

I thought this cheap manakish I'd heard about was a myth. Then we stumbled on Abou Issa Bakery. Cheap manakish did indeed exist, starting at 1000 LBP, and it was delicious! We even found a nice broken bench to sit on at a building site.

My lunch, vegetarian manakish from Abou Issa Bakery

Other than the wraps on our day trip, this was our first ‘proper’ meal. When I got home, I found I’d lost 14lbs (6.4kg). My mum lost 7lbs (3kg). Next time I need to lose weight, I guess I’ll just go to Lebanon with no money.

And my mum's lunch, cheese manakish

Religious decorations in Hamra

Religious and political posters in Beirut

With no strict plans, we wandered through Ras Beirut. Colourful apartment blocks, balconies draped with striped cloths, lined upmarket streets.

Ras Beirut | رأس بيروت

Straying down intriguing back streets, we came to the old Manara lighthouse. Its black and white stripes reached over apartment blocks.

Old Lighthouse, Beirut | منارة بيروت القديمة

Like so much of Lebanon, this lighthouse is steeped in history. Passed down for over 150 years and once deemed the highest point in Beirut, on a hill it shared with only a few buildings; the Chebli family have dedicated their lives to keeping it running despite shipwrecks, war and modernisation. For 15-17 years during the Civil War it was untouched. Victor Chebli repaired it and in 1996-1997, it shone once again. As tall buildings sprang up, its view was blocked. Check out this short film by Nay Aoun about the lighthouse.

My mum had a rest while I wandered up a hill. Stray cats peered through railings. Many were injured, with eyes and ears slashed or missing. But they were adorable! I meowed at one. They cautiously approached. Then a friend followed. Then another and another until I had a crowd of cats stalking me. I wanted to take them all home. Now I’m trying to convince my mum that we should adopt a cat. After all, Annabelle’s cat Roscoe will be doing the California-England move eventually, so we’d better get used to it, right? RIGHT?

I knew Maison Rose was somewhere around here. But I couldn’t see it on Google Maps, it was 40°C and my mum really was exhausted from our nonstop walking. Pungent scents of sewage blew from loose drains. We were both tired of the sewage. Giving up, we headed for the Corniche, where my mum could sit and maybe we’d get a good view of the lighthouse. Along the way, there were more signs of the Civil War, from a bullet-grazed wall to a partially abandoned pink apartment complex. It was like time had frozen on its rosy paint, cracked by bullets and its smashed windows; but men running a makeshift garage on the ground floor proved it had not and that life, instead, went on.

Partially abandoned apartment complex in Manara, Beirut

Damaged wall in Manara, Beirut

New Beirut Lighthouse

As soon as we turned on the seafront, we saw Maison Rose, nestled between palm trees and the old Manara. Oh. But how did we get there?!

My mum said she might have to skip this. Then our motto for the trip, ‘it’s not every day you accidentally go to Lebanon,’ came back and she decided she had to try. The only way up became clear – a steep hill and steps. I ran up to check it was the right way, but my mum was determined not to give in now and followed regardless.

Atop the steps was the old Manara. It rose from a squat house. This had to be the right way. Streets were empty but for a man eating his lunch on the steps. Down an alley was an open barrier. It was so quiet we felt like we were trespassing. Then we saw pink. Success!

The Maison Rose, or Rose House, was built in 1882. In 1965, it was leased to architect Sami El Khazen and his family. Sami and his sister Fayza left for Paris when the Civil War broke out, but their mother, Margot, remained through the war. Fayza returned in 1997 to take care of her. She operated a publishing house, Terre Du Liban, on the first floor. The owner of the house passed away and after Margot died in 2011, its new owner Hicham Jaroudi requested that Fayza left.

Peering through the front door of Maison Rose

In early 2014, Fayza invited British artist Tom Young in to paint. Once Fayza left, Young decided to honour the house’s glory days with an exhibition. It was opened to the public for the first time, displaying paintings and memories of the house, its residents and surrounding area. He hoped to save the house. Sadly, once Young left, it was abandoned. Repairs were planned but are yet to happen.

The front doors were firmly protected by a shiny new padlock. I surveyed the rickety outer steps leading upstairs, thought ‘well, I have travel insurance’ and climbed up. From the steps, I could see the dusty kitchen’s blue tiles. The upper doors were locked, too, but just standing on the ornate balcony was like a recollection of the mansion’s grandeur.

My mum noticed the basement door was wide open. We weren’t sure how steady the floor was, so I crept in alone. ‘If I scream, it’s 112,’ I called back to my mum. Now I really felt like I was trespassing – but the door was open, so...

Maison Rose | Rose House | البيت الزهري

Work tools were piled up in an enclave. I faced a broken mirror. On my left was a grubby bathroom.

Under a curved ceiling was a main hall. There was another broken mirror. With lockers, a white board and bench presses, this was like a random gym preserved amidst post-apocalypse rubble. Even my flash struggled to illuminate the dim basement. No access to upstairs, sadly.

The Maison Rose basement's main hall

We walked back to the barrier. The sea glimmered through buildings. We wandered a bit, admiring another pink apartment complex, Villa Manara, where a man asked if I was going to put my photos on Facebook. I am, actually. Check out my Westbound Sign: Travel Photography & Stories page.

Al Salam School

Villa Manara, Beirut

On our walk back down, we saw Maison Rose from another angle – the closest we were going to get to the front. It was caught in that golden Beirut afternoon glow.

Maison Rose from the front

The sun set behind the new lighthouse. As I walked up, its light caught a Lebanese flag.

Another beautiful Beirut sunset

Families and resting joggers occupied benches. On one, a man fell asleep. The flashing balloon men patrolled. A fisherman, stood on the rocks, hauled in and recast his rod.

Families on the Corniche at sunset

A fisherman on the Corniche

Long exposure of the Corniche at sunset

Out of things to do, we just sat and enjoyed the sunset. Once it was gone, we caught the bus back.

Our last Beirut bus! Sad!

There were still six hours until we left for the airport. So we knocked around for a while sitting on benches, having a last look at the Raouche Rocks and getting my mum a well-earned vanilla latte in Starbucks. The staff in there (Fursan El Haykal Street) were the sweetest Starbucks staff ever!

By 11pm, we’d been on the seafront for hours. We went to collect our bags and sat outside the hotel. It was about two hours until our (pre-booked, this time) taxi arrived. I watched as skyscrapers turned to apartment blocks turned to glittering hills, wondering if I’d ever come back.

Many flights ran through the night. The airport was busy. We were glad we bought our souvenirs in Beirut, since a shirt was $25+ at the airport. Still, after all our saving, we had quite a bit of LBP – which is worthless outside of Lebanon, although we didn't know that – left over. So for the first time in my life, I splashed out on overpriced food and bought a fancy box from Douaihy Sweets. They were worth it, but my maamoul is better.

This is like £20 worth of LBP but it's worthless in the UK. Sad!

Our flight left on time. We connected in Belgrade, Serbia. Hiding behind a tourist trap was the legendary airport goldmine – comfy seats with no armrests! They made up for the gate taking everyone's water.

My high quality bed at Belgrade Airport

I woke up to a pink sunrise over the airfield.

Sunrise at Belgrade Airport

We arrived at Heathrow around noon. Cheapo airlines don’t fly out of Heathrow, so I hadn’t been for years. 11 hours of waiting and buses later, we arrived in Nottingham. Somewhere along the way, our suitcase wheels broke, so we were just lugging this overweight block for 1.5 miles. When our local bus came in I was like, ‘FRIEND! HELLO FRIEND!’ My own bed was my best friend, though.

When I arrived in Beirut, I didn’t love or hate it. At times, I was tired of it. Yet now, if you asked what my favourite thing in Lebanon was, it’d be hard to say. The Cedars, Bsharri and Qadisha Valley were breathtaking and made me want to come back. I loved our evenings laughing on benches, enjoying the Arabic pop booming from cars. I loved visiting the mosque. I loved seeing the gritty reality of suburban Beirut behind Downtown’s polished but vacant facade. The biggest impression left on me, though, was by the scars of the Civil War around Beirut. Even when there appeared to be none, I glanced twice at an apartment block to find it bore bullet holes. It was chilling, sometimes making me feel sick, yet I couldn’t look away; because the history of these remnants, either in use or forgotten and strewn with garbage, was so compelling. Beirut is more than its wars. It’s much more. But that history is part of its identity as a city with countless layers and stories.

... ‘Oh, look, there's an £82 return to Beirut!’

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© 2019 Maria Gloria Harvey

 Fine art and self portrait photographer.

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