Off the Beaten Track



The trip to Bcharré and The Cedars, about 30km (19mi) inland from Tripoli, passes through some of the most beautiful scenery in Lebanon. The road winds along mountainous slopes, gaining altitude and winding precipitously above spectacular gorges. Villages of red-tile roofed houses perch atop hills or cling precariously to the mountainsides and there are vistas of olive groves, vineyards, lush valleys and mountain peaks at every turn.

The village of Bcharré is home to the Gibran Museum - the famous author/artist was born here and is buried in an old monastery overlooking the town. The museum has a large collection of his oil paintings, drawings and gouaches, as well as many of his manuscripts. You can visit his coffin in the monastery's former chapel: in the same room are a table, chair and other things he owned.

Above Bcharré the road climbs to Lebanon's last remaining forest of Biblical cedars, known locally as Arz Ar-rab (God's cedars). This is only a small forest - although the tree once grew throughout the country, it has been heavily exploited. Some of the trees here are 1500 years old, and the site is classified as a national monument. Below Bcharré, the spectacular Kadisha Gorge holds the tombs of the early Maronite patriarchs, as well as rock-cut monasteries. The gorge is a hiker's paradise, with paths along the top and bottom.


Baalbek, 86km (53mi) north-east of Beirut, was originally named after the Phoenician god Baal. The town was renamed Heliopolis by the Greeks and still later it was made a centre of Jupiter worship by the Romans. During its Roman era, Baalbek was the premier city in Roman Syria. In more recent times, the anti-Western Islamic fundamentalist Hezbollah made its headquarters here, and the town has only reopened to tourists in the last couple of years. The modern town is very small, but its Roman ruins are probably the best archaeological site in the country.

Baalbek's acropolis is one of the largest in the world. The complex is about 300m (984ft) long and has 2 temples with porticoes, 2 courtyards and an enclosure built during the Arab period. The Temple of Jupiter, completed around 60 AD, is on a high platform at the top of a monumental staircase; only 6 of its colossal columns (22m/72ft) remain, giving an idea of the vast scale of the original building. The nearby Temple of Bacchus, built around 150 AD, is pretty well preserved. Outside the main area is a tiny, exquisite Temple of Venus, a gorgeous circular building with fluted columns.


About 40km (25mi) inland from Beirut, Zahlé is a charming, attractive resort town set along the steep banks of the Birdawni River. There are literally dozens of open-air restaurants lining the river in the upper part of town. During summer, these are full of locals and Beirutis enjoying some of the finest Lebanese cooking in the country. Zahlé is also the spot in Lebanon for downing arak, the local firewater. Arak is an aniseed-flavoured brandy fermented from the leftovers of wine making. It's a clear, pure alcohol which will get you drunk very quickly but leave you blessedly free of a hangover. After a few hits it even tastes drinkable.