The Lebanon Mountain Trail (LMT) is a fragile symbol of unity in a country better known for its divisions. It is also one of the most spectacular - and least well known - hikes in the world. Inspired by the world famous Appalachian Trail, the LMT is a 440 km (270 mi) path that stretches from Qbaiyat in the north of Lebanon to Marjaayoun in the south via altitudes ranging from 600 to 2,000 meters (3,000-5,600 feet) above sea level.
Each year the Lebanon Mountain Trail Association organises a hike along the whole trail, which takes a month, but it also caters for those who just want to spend a few days exploring the path. I joined them for a two-day hike from Baskinta to Hrajel.
After assembling in Beirut on a Friday afternoon, our group of hikers - mostly Lebanese, plus a few Germans, a Dutchman, and an American - were taken by bus to Baskinta, where we spent the night in Maronite convent. The following morning began, of course, with a traditional Lebanese breakfast of man'oushe (a sort of pitta bread topped with thyme, sesame seeds, salt and olive oil), labneh (yoghurt cheese), jam, tomatoes, olives, and strong coffee. Then we headed out across rocky terrain, to a sculpture of Mikhail Naimeh (1889-1988), one of Lebanon's greatest writers, who celebrated the beauty of Baskinta's surroundings in much of his work. A smaller, separate pathway passes by here too - the Baskinta Literary Trail - punctuated by dozens of landmarks related to the many acclaimed poets and novelists from the region, including Amin Maalouf, Abdallah Ghanem, Suleiman Kettaneh, Rachid Ayoub and Georges Ghanem.
At this point, we were joined by six commandos from the Lebanese army who accompanied us for the rest of our hike, not to protect us (Lebanon is, in fact, one of the safest places for tourists in whole region at the moment) but - it would seem - as a kind of team-building exercise. It's a curious experience, hiking with a bunch of guys with M4 carbines slung across their backs, but it does add to the excitement.
Also on the hike was Hana El-Hibri, author of A Million Steps, a beautifully illustrated guide to the LMT that had caught my attention in a Beirut bookshop a few days previously. Hana told me something about the history of the trail - how it was designed and implemented in 2005-2007 with grant funding from USAID; how it survives on a shoestring budget now those funds have run out; how the designers had to be careful to avoid any sectarian associations in order to avoid being sucked into Lebanon's treacherous politics; and how it therefore unifies the country both geographically (it runs almost the whole length of Lebanon) and metaphorically. Hana's passion for the LMT is infectious - and was evidently shared by the other hikers, many of whom turned out to be regular visitors.
From the Naimeh sculpture we headed uphill along a snowy track with spectacular views of Mount Sannine to one side and the Mediterranean sea to the other. Then we skirted along the base of the dramatic Bakish cliffs before reaching the high point of the day, some 1700 meters above sea level. Then we descended via a pine forest to the village of Kfar Aqab, where we eagerly snapped up cold bottles of beer from the local supermarket, before heading off to a local youth hostel, where we slept like angels.
The second day of the hike began with a visit to the site of the Patriarch's Ambush, where Abou Kishk and his son Tanios kill the Catholic patriarch in Amin Maalouf's novel, The Rock of Tanios.
From here, a guide is essential, as the trail crisscrosses a river and cuts through private terraces and pastureland. After an hour or so the path begins to head uphill, via an enchanting waterfall, to the Roman ruins at Faqra. These comprise the Temple of Adonis, with its six Corinthian columns, and a smaller temple dedicated to the Phoenician goddess of fertility, Astarte, and a few other structures. With the last remains of the winter snow thawing on the ground, and the snowy peaks of the mountains in the distance, these ruins are a reminder of Lebanon's ancient past, its importance in classical antiquity, and its rich cultural pedigree.
From Faqra, the trail is mostly downhill, via an increasingly rocky landscape, to the so-called "natural bridge" - an impressive arch-like structure of rock that spans a small valley and a raging waterfall. It was here that our bus awaited us to take us back to Beirut after our two-day hike along the central section of the LMT. As we left the mountains behind us, and followed the winding road down into the haze of a hot Sunday evening in the city, I knew that some time in the not too distant future, I would be making my way back to this hidden treasure of the Middle East.