ZAHLE, Lebanon: Summer’s last days bring extra magnificence to Lebanon’s eastern city of Zahle, when the light refreshing breeze caresses the leaves of poplar trees before reaching nearby vineyards, where succulent golden and burgundy grapes await their time to be harvested. A jaunt to Zahle during the month of September promises to be an unforgettable one and a pure delight for the all the senses.
Nestled in the center of Lebanon’s celebrated Bekaa Valley, at the foot hills of Mount Sanine, Zahle is located 52 kilometers east of the capital.
While the majority of travelers will opt for the international highway linking Beirut to Damascus through the areas of Dahr al-Baidar and Chtaura to reach Zahle, more patient ones who are eager for discovery might want to consider the more pleasant and less congested Dhour Choueir-Tarshish- Zahle road.
Once in the “Bride of the Bekaa,” as Zahle is commonly referred to, the visit can take on a multitude of dimensions as the city offers a wide range of attractions suitable to all ages and tastes. A visit to Zahle can be considered a mere city break but can also transform into a culinary escapade or a pedagogical trip for the kids.
Despite an eventful history, Zahle is one of the few areas in Lebanon where traditional Lebanese architecture is best preserved. Red tile roofs dominate the city’s skyline, with limestone exteriors and window arcades still widely abundant across the city.
To get the whole family acquainted with 17th century Lebanese architecture and the époque’s interior design trends, stop at Zahle’s 24-room Geha House, a private residence that welcomes visitors for a quick tour of the dwelling.
The owners of other roomy traditional Lebanese houses in Zahle have had the brilliant idea of turning them into cozy guest houses, where tourists enjoy traditional Lebanese hospitality.
With the temporary closing down in February of Zahle’s prestigious Grand Hotel Kadiri following administrative feuds, the guest house business boomed and the rates for one night at the Akl Hotel, for example, now range between $30-60 including breakfast.
A trip to the small Bekaa city is never complete without a late lunch or dinner at one of the numerous restaurants lining up the banks of Zahle’s famous Berdawni River. The area, which has come to resemble a bustling bazaar, is dubbed Wadi al-Arayesh (Valley of the Vines), and remains one of Zahle’s most attractive venues.
Shaded by vines and leafy trees, restaurants such as Casino Mhanna serve Lebanese mezze, namely stuffed vine leaves and a wide selection of raw meats, as well as other specialties such as mushroom kebabs or mashed baked potato topped with caramelized cloves of garlic, fresh basil leaves and a drizzle of olive oil.
The Wadi al-Arayesh restaurants also serve locally produced Arak, a Levantine anis-based liquor that is the perfect accompaniment for mezze.
AroundZahle, numerous vineyards can be found that furnish the city’s arak and world-class wine industry.
Wineries of the area such as Chateau Ksara, Domaine Wardy, and Domaine des Tourelles allow free of charge guided tours of their locales.
Feeling a sudden craving for a snack after a tour of one of the wineries? On the way back to Beirut through Chtaura drive by Laiterie Hadwane in Mrayjat and order a sandwich of labneh sprinkled with dry mint in crispy markouk bread.
For breakfast the next day you might consider buying halloumi cheese, arisheh (a sort of cottage cheese served with a generous dollop of honey) and a bag of Zahle’s legendary kaak bi halib (milk bread), which matches deliciously with olive oil-soaked labneh.