Take a spiritual pilgrimage

Forsake your search for the perfect beach or spa and become a true seeker, says Stuart Watkins.

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The Deir Mar Elisha monastery in theQadisha Valley: one of Lebanon's secret treasures

Taking its name from the Aramaic word "holy", the Qadisha Valley in Lebanon has served as a site of meditation and refuge for millennia, drawing Sufi mystics and Christian ascetics, says India Stoughton in 1848 magazine. Trees, wildflowers and animals flourish within the shelter of its cliffs, making it one of the most ecologically diverse places in the Middle East. It was designated a Unesco World Heritage site in 1998 in recognition of the many monasteries and hermitages hewn into its sides or hidden in caves, some of which date back to the earliest centuries of Christianity. It is "one of Lebanon's secret treasures".

Nestled at the base of the valley below the village of Bsharri is Deir Mar Elisha, one of the few monasteries accessible by car. Pilgrims head there to see the eighth-century icon of St Elisha and the local miracle, a rosary-shaped pattern on the rock. A few kilometres further on lies Our Lady of Hawqa monastery, a tiny sanctuary built into a natural cave. Visitors may be engaged in conversation by the resident hermit, an 80-something Maronite Christian who has lived alone in the cave for 20 years.

A healing at Lourdes

One doesn't hear so much about Lourdes these days because people don't really know what more there is to say, wrote William F Buckley Jr in an account of his visit for the National Review (in a piece republished to mark the tenth anniversary of his death).

Scepticism about the claims made about the place began when Bernadette Soubirous's mother spanked her and put her to bed for claiming, on 11 February 1858, to have seen an apparition of the Virgin Mary, says Buckley. But even then it was clear that something worth investigating was going on, even if it turned out to be nothing more than Bernadette's mental health. The stream of water that sprang out when Bernadette dug a few feet away from the site, as instructed by her apparition, continues to flow today, and fills the thousands of receptacles in which it is collected by pilgrims in the hope of receiving a cure for infirmity or merely to perform a devotional act.

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People go to Lourdes for many reasons, says Buckley, and "if my own experience is representative, they leave profoundly affected". Pilgrims make up their own schedules in cooperation with the administrative office there, "but I cannot remember when last I felt so little concern for timetables". An "odd sense of tranquillity settled on us". There's lots to see, but "one tends to choose to walk about and to take keen pleasure in casual encounters".

The road to Santiago

Traditionally a pilgrimage was about more than just flying in to see some movingly beautiful sights. It was an often gruelling, perhaps once-in-a-lifetime journey to a sight of particular religious significance it was a "metaphor for life", as Sean O'Driscoll puts it in The Sunday Times, and a journey where you could expect to learn a lot about yourself along the way. O'Driscoll, who was walking the historic Camino Portugus, the ancient pilgrim trail from Lisbon to Santiago, mainly learned that "I am lazy, have bad knees and like petting turkeys". One of the highlights of the camino is leaning over fences to feed turkeys, hens, ponies, cows, lambs and llamas, "all of which seem to have perfected the art of guilt-tripping hikers into collecting apples and grapes for them in exchange for petting time".

Another highlight is what the guidebooks call "the alternative river route" that takes you into the city of Pontevedra, the capital of the region. This is one of the places where Sister Lucia had visions of the Virgin Mary in the early 20th century. "No matter what one's beliefs, it is deeply inspiring to talk to the nuns at the sanctuary where Lucia prayed. They live simply and happily, and greet visitors with a welcome in many languages."

But the main purpose of walking the route is, of course, to arrive at the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela, claimed as the burial site of the Biblical apostle St James. "Nothing in the guidebooks prepared us for the scale and grandeur of this sprawling, dark cathedral," says O'Driscoll. Following such a long walk to get there, some hikers kneel on the stone floor and weep. At least two days are needed to take in all of the remarkable sights. But whatever one's spiritual beliefs, "this astounding city is, at least, a kind of secular miracle", says O'Driscoll. "For that, with the sun setting and good wine on the table, let us give praise."

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