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Monday, November 29, 2010

Hiking In Bkassine And Jezzine

First of all, pictures of the hike are available here.

I convinced Nicole to join me on a "Vamos" hike in a part of South Lebanon just below the Chouf and the Cedars. The villages of Bkassine and Jezzine boast cool, green pine forests and the hike promised stops at an olive oil press and pine nut producer. So Nicole signed up...and survived a 6 kilometer walk, a full 2K longer than the distance suggested on Vamos' website. Although in the mountains, the region was warm and sunny and we ended up having a really nice time. I'm not sure when I'll be able to talk Nicole into another hiking excursion--especially after the steep, challenging declines and narrow/ancient stone staircases through Bkassine--but I'll keep trying.

In nearby Jezzine, we explored an old palace that had been damaged by frequent fighting in the region but still maintained much of its opulence. You can explore, take photos, pretend you live in the massive palace, or just wander around. Like many historical sites in Lebanon, little fanfare surrounds the place. It just is. This particular palace has Roman statues, great halls, checkered stone and tilework, and other breathtaking features. The main road up to the palace was closed, so we climbed a thorny hill, crawling onto one stone wall at a time (Nicole passed on this part of the experience), all the way to the top. Well worth the effort.

Villagers in Bkassine cooked a lunch comprised of many Lebanese favorites: kibbe, salads, rice with pine nuts and pistachios and a bit of ground lamb, hummus, and fresh fruits, including local bananas, which are grown in the southern part of the nation. Nearby was what turned out to be one of the nicest churches we've seen in the country. St. Thecla's. St. Thecla is revered very much in most eastern rite churches. She is the subject of a non-canonical text (a book of the Bible that didn't make the final cut of Catholic or Protenstant versions) called the Acts of Paul and Thecla. In the earliest days of Christianity, Thecla was sentenced to (and miraculously spared from) death several times, once for fighting off an aristocrat who was trying to rape her. It's believed that after being sentenced to having wild beasts eat her, the female beasts decided to spare her life. St. Thecla's in Bkassine had little baggies containing q-tips with blessed oil that visitors could take with them and apply to parts of the body that were hurting or injured in some way.

We walked through Bkassine and found the oil press. Though it was Sunday, the family-run press was in full operation. Happily olive-picking season is upon us, so the presses were crushing locally grown olives in huge, industrial agitators and presses. A little room off to the side had a mattress and chair, so clearly the family spends a great deal of time very, very close to the machines. One of the producers talked about the process, though of course he spoke in Arabic. No matter, I was too busy watching the oil production. Naturally I thought of the great scene in Godfather II when the Don takes his young family back to Sicily and tours the Corleone oil press (Michael, a little boy, tastes the oil and then puckers his lips) before he shoots the Don who killed his father.

I tasted the oil but didn't pucker my lips. The producer poured some into a paper cup and we all dipped our fingers in to taste. Then, he poured the remaining oil back into a big ten-liter container. Again, we Americans are so obsessed with germs. The oil was so fresh that it tasted sweet. Sadly, they only had ten-liter containers at the press, so, thinking that was a little excessive, we didn't buy any. Nearby, we also stopped at another family-run business--a home where the family extracts pine nuts from cones and sells the nuts. Pine nuts are used in a lot of rice and meat dishes (e.g., sautee some pine nuts and maybe some raisins in olive oil and use as a topping on big platters of rice with chunks of lamb) and are one of those foods that's a source of pride. The family operates the extractors in a little garage-like room behind the "main house." Burlap sacks full of pince cones line the driveway and fill the backyard. A little room in the front of the house has 1) a blanket and toddler toys for the kids, and 2) a card table set up with a scale and a money box. That's the "store." Also sampled the pine nuts (of course!) which were, well, nutty and fresh, as you'd expect.

Speaking of things that taste good, no, and I mean NO trip to the south is complete without stopping for ice cream or sweets in Sidon. Thing about crowded spots in Lebanon is that lines are, at best, suggestions. You have to elbow your way to the cash register, pay, and then take a receipt to a clerk near whichever "baklaway" or "bouza" that you want. Good way to end the day. Good way to end the post. Ma'Sallam.

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