High in the hills north of Beirut, we are treated to a most spectacular day. Here in Gabby’s ancestral village, we fall in love with a new side of Lebanon. The landscape is open and expansive, with views all the way to the Mediterranean, twenty miles or so to the west. These limestone hills were once covered with forests of magnificent cedar trees, nearly eradicated a millennium ago to supply the wood to build the ancient empires of Egypt, Persia, Greece, Rome and the Phoenecians. There are small, scattered groves of the ancient trees still left on the hillsides. They grow directly out of the limestone, firmly rooted in the porous rock, carpeting the thin soil with a fine layer of needles, providing shade from the intense Mediterranean sun, and cleansing the air with a faint perfume. From the trees, we can see the line of clouds in the distance that marks the edge of the sea, the blue sky otherwise empty of any sign of moisture. From here, the ground falls in an unbroken descent to the sea, miles away. There is a constant shore breeze even this far from the water that cools the dry air.
In the cedar grove, there is a small, Maronite chapel, which dates back to the turn of the century. For the first time in the week that we have been here, we are in a Christian-dominated corner of the country. The Maronites have populated this region from the 5th century – one of the earliest branches of the Christian church, they were present at the council of Nicaea when Constantine established the basis for the Catholic faith. Interestingly enough, the Maronites still perform their services in Aramaic, and have retained the right of their priests to marry (much to the pleasure of the western Catholics in our group).
There is a remarkable difference in the general atmosphere in this region. While the politics that separate the factions are still present, for me there is a sense of greater safety and familiarity. The military checkpoints and Lebanese and UN armed presence that had been everywhere the day before are nowhere in sight. To look at the countryside, we could be in Monaco or southwestern France. This area of the country was completely untouched in the 2006 war, and was relatively safe throughout the civil war. Beirut families retreated to their family homestead in these hills, and, ironically, even enjoyed the fact that the war had spawned a resurgence of the area as the urban population abandoned the cities and returned to the countryside for refuge.
And so, we enjoyed a day of rest and relaxation in the mountains. True to form, the hospitality of our hosts Gabby and Joanna was extraordinary – a guided tour of the countryside, drinks and conversation on the terrace, a multi-course meal that couldn’t be beat, interesting company and engaging conversation. We feel like family, and are treated as such by people who were strangers and were a world away a week ago. This truly is an extraordinary country.