June 05, 2017

Get on the Rail Road

The stretch between Sawfar and Bhamdoun (is paved). The sea looms in the distance (you are looking at clouds here)

If you’re into hiking, then you know that can be a bit of a challenge in Lebanon. There are no hiking maps (other than the LMT), and virtually no trails that are blazed. The GR system is nonexistent, and unless you know your way around , or are adventurous, you are dependent on the outdoor companies (which invariably include long breakfasts or lunches, or you are joined by people who haven’t hiked in 20 years, or who shouldn’t be hiking) or you have to hire your own guide. (The Dutch, by the way, do not like guides).

If you continue this way, you will eventually end up in the Beqaa Valley. Mind the smoke, that is where Hamana burns its garbage :(  Highway on your right, valley on your left.

But I have figured out a way around it; Follow the railroad tracks. 
It’s been a trend for quite some time now in other places, converting old railway tracks into bicycle paths. It’s happening all over in the States and Europe. In Lebanon, we’ve got over 140 kilometers (or so I have read) of abandoned tracks. So far, not one kilometer of it has been allocated for pedestrians of bicyclists, but the tracks are there.
Granted, we’re not much of a bicycling nation, but if you can get an entire town to walk a 10 K on a marathon day, I dare say you can organize a 140 K hiking path through Lebanon. It would be a fantastic trail.

It doesn't look like a rail road track, but it is.

There’s already something like similar - the LMT -  a 470 kilometer hiking trail through the mountains from north to south, with guest houses along the way. But following the railroad has a historical value, it would be a fantastic trail.  There have been talks about reviving the railroad system in Lebanon, and I am all for it, but I think converting it into a bicycle path is just as likely to happen.

Fantastic villas (some old railroad sign in front of it). This one reminds me of Villa Villekulla, the house of Pippi Longstocking.

Anyway, if you know the neighborhood a little, following bits of tracks makes for a fantastic and easy) hike. I walked the track from Dahr el Baidar to Bhamdoun last Sunday morning (at 7 AM no less) It is about 8 K, downhill, and although the rails are gone, and some parts are paved, it does give you some idea of what passengers in the old days must have seen as they were looking out of the windows of the passenger wagons.

Another beauty
and the glimpses of another one

This bit of railroad was the first to open in 1895, a 147 km trip from Beirut to Damascus, passing through Baabda, Araya, Aley, Bhamdoun, Sawfar, and Dahr el Baidar before it descended into the Beqaa Valley and then towards the Syrian border.(source)

The tunnel under Dahr el Baidar is still open, and you can basically walk into the Beqaa Valley, avoiding the highway alltogether. 

I started in Dahr el Baidar, and took the direction to Beirut. The rails are gone, and the army closed up the tunnel before Sawfar, not sure why, but the tracks runs parallel to the main road and follow one of the upper ridges of the Lebanon Mountains.

The Chateau Bernina Hotel has seen better days . . . 

. . .  and so has the Sawfar Train Station .

Walking that railroad gives you’ve got fantastic views across the Beirut River Valley (Lamartine Valley) to the Metn region, until it enters Sawfar. Sawfar was, a long time ago, where the upper class lounged in summer. Their  monumental villas, dating back from the 40’s and 50’s and older, many of them abandoned and in various states of disrepair, lie on both sides of the track. Their architecture remind of the villas around Lac d’Annecy and the lake of Geneva.  They are a sharp contracts with the incredibly ugly monstrosities that the Arabs have built after the civil war.

You walk past the back of houses and you encounter not-so Chien Mechants. This one was really cute

And beautiful flower gardens

There’s the back of the Hotel Bernina, another pre-war icon. The sign above the gate says it is “Under German management.” I have always wondered what that implies. I envision a Von Trapp kind of family. Someone told me that the guests are still received by someone in tuxedo, and that the atmosphere was reminiscent of Basil in Fawlty Towers.
You pass by the old station in Sawfar, past the Grand Hotel, and leave town, along the ridge, and again you have a fantastic view across the Lamartine Valley . This is a paved section, until you reach the outskirts of Bhamdoun.

Leaving Sawfar

Here you pass through the Jewish quarter, past the synagogue, until you reach the highway where Bhamdoun station used to be. You can continue from there, because the track goes all the way down to Beirut, but the hike is along a bit of highway here, and difficult to follow. I’ll try that bit later.

Cut for the train
So if you like hiking on your own, get on the railroad.

Enjoy the views

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

absolutely beautiful, thank you for sharing your beautiful day with us.