War and piste ...
Now the bullets have stopped flying, Lebanon's sun, surf, snow and Phoenician ruins are becoming a tourist draw.
Saturday 15 February 1997
I had long wanted to go skiing in Lebanon. Partly because it seemed a loopy idea, partly because the country's main resort, Faraya-Mzaar, is only about 25km from the Mediterranean, meaning that you can ski and swim on the same day, and partly because I love Lebanese food. The special offer on Middle East Airlines flights to Beirut - cut to pounds 250 including taxes for departures in February - provided an irresistible opportunity. I did check that there was snow at Faraya-Mzaar before booking my ticket. But I didn't inquire about national holidays. If I had, I would not only have found out about Fitr but also about last Sunday's feast day for the patron saint of the other major religious group in Lebanon, the Maronite Christians.
Travelling to the Lebanon for a skiing trip last weekend was as wise as going for a quiet stroll in Pamplona on the day of the Bull Run. The whole country was on holiday. And the Lebanese who had been waiting months for the chance to go skiing were all heading for the slopes.
According to the guidebooks, Faraya-Mzaar is an hour's drive from Beirut. Not last Friday afternoon it wasn't. The journey took me three-and-a-half hours - most of that time spent edging out of Beirut in a traffic jam of epic proportions. When I finally arrived at Faraya-Mzaar, it was full, of course. But the resort's director took pity on me, and put me up in the basement beneath his office, with the chef from the restaurant at the foot of the ski lifts as my flatmate.
The following morning I was woken by the rumble of Range Rovers and Jeep Cherokees as wealthy Beirut headed up the hill for the season's first skiing weekend. I followed them, and took two chair-lifts from the 1,850m base to the Dome Jabal Dib at 2,296m. A gentle blue traverse led me to the chair-lift up to the Dome du Mzaar, the top of the resort at 2,465m.
The snow was superb - a metre had fallen early in the week - but the views were even better. On a clear day, the brochure promised, you can see Beirut jutting out into the sea; this was a crystal clear day, and from the two peaks I could see almost the whole of Lebanon (which is only half the size of Wales), from Mount Hermon in the south to the Tripoli coastline in the north, and inland to the mountains on the other side of the Bekaa Valley.
By Alpine standards, Faraya-Mzaar is a very small resort, with pleasant but unchallenging skiing. For US$26 a day at weekends (ski and boot hire cost US$6.50) the ski-pass gives access to 12 main pistes serviced by eight lifts; six of them are easy reds, and there are no blacks. Even the off-piste area ("between-piste" would be more accurate) is suitable for intermediates. The nursery slopes were the most difficult: the high proportion of beginners in the bank holiday crowd made it hard work to pick your way through the accidents that were about to happen, and those that already had. By mid-morning, the queue at the bottom of the lifts was 25 minutes long; by late afternoon, the resort estimated that 4,500 people had been on the slopes; by the evening the exhausted chef (he had processed 1,300 orders during the day) added another 1,000 to the estimate.
Near Faraya-Mzaar is another of Lebanon's handful of resorts, the much quieter Faqra. It has the unusual attraction (for a ski resort) of extensive ancient ruins - and the Phoenician temple turned out to be a lot more interesting than the skiing. Faqra is quiet because it is a private club, where only the villa owners normally have access to the slope, but a letter of introduction from the Ministry of Tourism saw me past the gatepost and into the set for a high-altitude Lebanese Dallas, where even the Cadillacs wear chains - steel snow-chains rather than the gold ones hanging off most of the residents.
The ski area made Faraya-Mzaar seem huge. No piste map was available, I was told, since what could be seen from the bottom - a sort of extended nursery slope - was all the skiing there was. Rather than putting on my skis, I headed back down to the coast. I had hoped to visit Lebanon's oldest resort, The Cedars, but the main road was still full of bank holiday traffic, and I wasn't confident that I had time for a "three-hour" journey. So I went down to the sea instead.
You can ski and swim on the same day in the Lebanon. But despite the beautifully warm weather, the Mediterranean was chilly, so I contented myself with paddling. I'd never paddled in thermal underwear before: I recommend it. And the Lebanese food? The menus in the resorts were disappointingly international, but I'm not stupid - I didn't share my evenings in Faraya- Mzaar with a chef without asking a few pertinent questions. He directed me to the Jdoudna restaurant on Beit Meri, one of the hills overlooking Beirut. For an exquisite Lebanese meal (in surroundings like a mock-baronial Beverly Hills folly), I can recommend Jdoudna. And after lunch, relieved to be a pedestrian again, I took a stroll - all the way across Beirut. If you are looking for the experience of a lifetime, I recommend that.
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