If you’re arriving in Zahlé after some temple-gazing in quiet, conservative Baalbek, you’ll probably find it a sharp and extremely pleasant contrast. Lively, bustling and even quite glitzy, this attractive resort town, enjoying a cool altitude of 945m, shares more in common with Beirut than with Baalbek. Known locally as Arousat al-Beqa’a (Bride of the Bekaa), it’s set along the steep banks of the Birdawni River (locally known as ‘Bardouni’), which tumbles through a gorge, cutting a burbling channel through the centre of town, down from Jebel Sannine to the north.
Zahlé is a predominantly Greek Catholic town, with the highest concentration of this denomination in the entire country, and its beautiful, ornate Ottoman-era houses, lining the riverside Rue Brazil, survived heavy bombardment during the civil war. The town is probably most famous for its open-air restaurants, known as the Cafés du Bardouni, that jostle along the river on the town’s edge. During summer weekends and evenings, these are packed with locals and Beirutis enjoying some of the finest Lebanese mezze in the country, washed down with generous quantities of arak.
The town’s merry modern aspect, however, belies a darker past. In the 19th century, Zahlé was hard hit by communal fighting between Druze and Christians and many of its inhabitants were killed in the 1860 massacre. Some 25 years later, the opening of a railway line between Beirut and Damascus (which is no longer in operation) brought some prosperity to the town. At around the same time, more than half the town migrated to Brazil (after which the main street is named), from where they sent remittances, further increasing the town’s prosperity. Zahlé’s gracious stone houses date from this time.
In 1981, Zahlé came under fire again, bombarded by Syria after the Phalangist party attempted to build a road linking the town to the ski resort of Faraya. Since, by that point, the Phalangists were closely aligned with Israel, the road represented a serious threat to Syria, whose troops were stationed in large numbers throughout the Bekaa Valley. Like the rest of Lebanon, however, Zahlé proved resilient to the damage, which was quickly repaired, and no traces are evident today.
Keep in mind when planning a visit that from November to April most of the restaurants are closed and the town is relatively quiet, except at weekends and Christmas. In summer, it makes a pleasant lunch stop en route from Beirut to Baalbek, and is an ideal place to stay if you intend to spend a few days exploring the valley.
Last updated: Feb 17, 2009