October 24, 2010

Biking in the Beqaa

This could be Holland. But it is not. T0 remedy nostalgia, one rents a bike,
and bikes all over Taanayel, in the Beqaa Valley.

When I lived in Holland, my secondary school was 7 kilometers away from home. We did not have parents that chauffeured their kids to school (not then, at least), nor did we have school busses; we had to bike the 7 kilometers, every morning, and every afternoon, come rain or shine. Friends of mine had an even longer stretch to ride to get to school. I remember sunny summer days on the bike, along the poplar lined roads, but I also remember rain and hail, and blizzards, and days it was so cold you couldn’t feel your fingers anymore, and you couldn’t articulate your speech the first 30 minutes in class because your lips were so cold.

I was reminded of those days last Sunday when I went biking with my SIL in Taanayel. Not of the cold though, just of the biking along the poplars. Several people had already mentioned to me that you can bike on the Jesuit farm, but I don’t get to the Beqaa Valley very often.

But near Taanayel, which is right in the middle of the road from Beirut to Damascus, is a Jesuit Monastery with farmland and a small lake. The land, some 200 hectares, was given to the Jesuit fathers in 1860 by Napoleon III. Originally it was marshland (nice guy, this Napoleon, handing out crummy land for free), but the monks, with their proverbial patience of a monk (That’s a saying in Dutch; ‘monikkengeduld’), transformed the area into agricultural land. They established a large farm, a school, a seminary and a church.

It is nice to walk there, because they way it is set up is very European, and thus feels like home (see my last post). The Jesuit monks planted poplars and willows to help dry the marsh land, and dug irrigation ditches to dry the fields. Everything is in neat rows, and with little tree-lined lanes in between the fields and the orchards and the vines.

These days they have some 75 milk cows, a herd of goats, pigs, they produce milk and cheese and they cultivate wine, nuts and honey as well. The farm also serves as a teaching facility for the Faculty of Agriculture at the Saint Joseph University in Beirut.
I know, it borders on animal abuse, but I'm afraid she insists he goes everywhere with her.

Actually, there is an interesting story about how these Jesuits ended up with the land. Apparently, in 1857 they discovered that the Bekaa Valley is an ideal place for growing grapes and producing wine. Business was good, but somewhere at the end of the 19th century, some French priests were killed. The Ottomans, the rulers at that time, did not want to have problems with France, so they compensated for the death of these priests and offered the Taanayel property. (source)
Popping wheelies with the Lebanon Mountain Range in the background

The farm is still in Jesuit hands, and as such, nothing has changed much in the lay-out of the land. No trees have been cut during the war, no ugly buildings went up, and it was not used as garbage a dump. These Jesuits are old school, and very much into the ecological side of agriculture. A Dutch priest, Father Brouwers, has been part of the agricultural team on the farm for as long as I have lived in Lebanon.

The farm has seen its fair share of sadness during the war. I remember visiting them one December, and was told that over Christmas someone had stolen the major bull. “It’s probably someone’s Christmas dinner now,” said Father Brouwers, “but I doubt it’s very tasty. The beast was old. Why would you want to steal an old bull? It’s clear the thieves do not know much about the meat business.” Another year they got stuck up with a small trainings camp of young Palestinians which the PLO had set up on the domain. There was nothing they could do about it. It wasn’t anything really serious, more like a Boy Scout venture, but the Israelis didn’t want any of it, and dropped an airplane bomb on the 4 some ram shackle tents which housed the boys. This saddened the priest greatly. “They were just young boys; it wasn’t worth an airplane bomb.” An even sadder event was when another Dutch Jesuit priest from Taanayel, Father Kluiters, was shot twice, hanged and impaled during the war, in 1985. He’d been in Lebanon since 1974. (source)

A. and cousin O. on the lanes of Taanayel

These days are more joyful however, and the farm is open to visitors. You can rent bikes on the farm (go through the gate, park your car near the church and walk to the milk farm (laiterie), where they rent them in the courtyard), and bike all around the farmland. If you are around the milk installation around 4, you can see them milk the cows.
More on Taanayel here.

PS. You can even sleep there: Deir Taanayel Jesuits, Tel 08 543 101 // 961 3 469 620 (Father Samir). The eco-lodge is located in the heart of the Bekaa valley, at a distance of 50 km from Beirut. Prices starting from 12 USD per person per night (Source)


Anonymous said...

So sad to hear about the Dutch father. I listened to a Moth podcast not that long ago about the sheer brutality of the Lebanese war (His name was Phil Caputo if you're curious... and the story ended well).
I love how you always have a pack of children with you. Where do you round them up?

Anonymous said...

From your home to school was 5.1 kilometers, not 7. And I am happy I did not read your other post recently...