Seemingly a world away from the hustle and bustle of Beirut, the Lebanon Mountain Trail, less than an hour's drive from the capital, winds through the mountains that extend from the country's northern to the southern borders. The trail showcases colorful foliage in the autumn, snowy summits in the winter, waterfalls in the spring and a respite from the hot summers on the coast. It is home to Roman ruins, temples, mosques and churches dating back over a thousand years.
Mr. Cazalet first hiked the Lebanon Mountain Trail, known as the LMT, in its entirety from north to south in April 2010. A year later, he tried it again, this time reversing directions. He returned last November. Autumn, he recalls was completely different from his previous springtime hikes, with apples, pomegranates, persimmons, grapes and pears still ripe on the trees and with the countryside in autumnal shades of brown and gold. He's now planning his third trip for May, when he will hike a small section of the trail.
Rotterdam, the Netherlands, contractor Wim Balvert hiked the entire trail in 2010, returning with his family in 2011 for a weeklong trip. "The trail,'' he says, "goes through a very varying landscape, some of it empty and wild, some of it cultured, all of it beautiful. It is nowhere more than a few hours from Beirut, making it easy to get to it. My family was really impressed with the Qadisha Valley, where a donkey was used to carry our luggage to the guesthouse. The quietness of the area in the evening, and the sense of remoteness was amplified by visiting the hermits' church in the valley."
Modeled in part on the Appalachian Trail in the U.S., which spans from Maine to Georgia, the LMT similarly covers a rugged part of the country that is largely undiscovered even by many Lebanese.
The idea for the trail came about in 2002. Joseph Karam, a Lebanese expatriate based in Washington, D.C., envisioned an ecotourism project that would help the economic development of rural Lebanon and would also help preservation efforts in the country. The following year, through his environmental consulting company Ecodit, he submitted an application for a five-year funding program, receiving $3.3 million from USAID and $1.1 million from private donors.
"I woke up and said maybe we can do something like the Appalachian Trail," he says. "People take months to walk it. I always had that fascination. The terrain was right for something like this."
And so was the timing. Just a decade after the country's 15-year civil war that lasted until 1990, Mr. Karam says that many Lebanese were returning home to rediscover their heritage. At the time, buses were taking groups of Beirutis to the mountains on day trips. But at that point there was no plan for a unified trail.
“It doesn't matter if you're Druze, Christian, Sunni or Shiite. You're on trail and you feel like you're part of larger destiny.”
Working on the proposal, Mr. Karam and his 10-member team knew Lebanon was 220-kilometers long. Their initial idea was to make a 250-kilometer-long trail, but by the time the team finished drawing the route through the small country's winding valleys and mountains, the trail had grown to 440 kilometers, providing a meticulous tour of Lebanon's hidden archaeological treasures and wild beauty. In delineating the path of the LMT, the team carefully looked at security and safety considerations. The resulting LMT path was finalized in 2007.
One route that has been given special attention because of its cultural significance is the Baskinta Literary Trail. The 24-kilometer hike, going through the neighboring villages of Ain el-Qabou, Kfar Aqab, Wadi el-Karm, and Boqaatat Kenaan, showcases 22 literary landmarks related to celebrated novelists and poets, including Amin Maalouf, Suleiman Kettaneh, Rachid Ayoub and Georges Ghanem. A cultural center is dedicated to renowned author Abdallah Ghanem and a mausoleum commemorates Mikhail Naimy, who was born in Baskinta at the end of the 19th century and whose work was inspired by the surrounding mountains.
"I began my journey with a song in my heart and a firm determination in my soul," Naimy wrote in "The Book of Mirdad," his international best-seller. "But when, after a long a joyous march, I reached the lower end of the Slope and attempted to scale it with my eyes, I quietly swallowed my song. What appeared to me from a distance a straight, smooth and ribbonlike roadbed now stretched before me broad, and steep, and high, and unconquerable."
A sculpture at the Mikhail Naimy Mausoleum;
A sculpture at the Mikhail Naimy Mausoleum;
If the route had been made any shorter, Mr. Karam says "it would have defeated the purpose of the LMT. We had criteria—economic growth, spending time and money in the villages and going to the guesthouses. That's what tourists are looking for—scenic views and exposure
Indeed, for many visitors who hike the LMT, a highlight of the journey is their stay at guesthouses. Hikers get to see an intimate piece of rural Lebanon that they wouldn't otherwise see, and the local hosts get the chance to showcase their villages, often for the first time, to visitors.
"I thought I knew Lebanese cuisine pretty well, but not in the villages," says Beiruti Hana el-Hibri, author of "A Million Steps," a memoir of her monthlong walk of the trail in 2009. "The thing about staying at a guesthouse is the cooking is different. Most of the food is from their gardens and their pantries. In the first house where I stayed, the woman said, 'Everything you see is from my house and my garden—the eggs from the chickens, the yogurt from the cow, the vegetables.'"
Mr. Karam acknowledges that the path to acceptance of the project itself faced a winding road. "A lot of people were surprised and skeptical about what we were doing," he says.
Just more than five years on, the positive response from the communities has surprised even Mr. Karam, with additional communities now applying to be connected to the trail. The LMT Association, which organizes guided hikes, is now reviewing the applications of six villages that wish to be connected to the trail, including Andkit in the north and Deir Mimas in the south, which would further increase the total length of the LMT. In addition, "the LMT is becoming a magnet for conservation," Mr. Karam says, with some local municipalities legally protecting the path from construction and paving. Despite these developments the LMT remains in danger of development, with a three-kilometer stretch between Baskinta and Mtain having been paved over for a roadway. (The LMT Association is testing an alternative route for the part that was paved.)
Still, Mr. Karam hopes that as the LMT unites Lebanon with the international community, Beirutis with Lebanon's rural population and the country's various communities with one another, so too will the winding trail unite people in its protection.
"The idea is to spread the word beyond us. It doesn't matter if you're Druze, Christian, Sunni or Shiite. You're on trail and you feel like you're part of larger destiny."