Sunday, January 13, 2013

Ski Through History in Lebanon

Ski Through History in Lebanon.

For many New Zealanders Lebanon may seem to be an unlikely place to consider for a Northern Hemisphere ski holiday but, despite the ravages of the 1975-92 Civil War and the brief 2006 Lebanon war, there is a thriving and well developed ski industry high in the Mt Lebanon range above the coastal town of Jouneih.

We were introduced to the area by our guide, Khalid, who, when he wasn’t guiding, was a professional ski instructor based in his home town of Kfardebian with a dream of skiing in New Zealand.

The ski fields were developed in the mid 1960s and, after the Civil War, expanded into the present 20 lift, 42 hill resort with over 80 kilometres of slopes which are hugely popular with the local Lebanese who drive the hour from Beirut for a day of great skiing.

We drove up from Jouneih through villages dotted along the ridges, past snow shrouded Greek and Roman ruins, cliffs with waterfalls cascading down their sheer faces and rock arches carved from the mountain sides by years of wind and erosion which span gorges at the bottom of which houses crouch huddled in snow to the ski fields of the 2465 metre Faraya Mzaar. Here, the car park and the lifts buzzed with activity as cars and vans filled with well bundled families pulled in, parked and unloaded excited skiers and snow boarders heading off for a day in the snow.

Khalid told us that during the four month ski season (December - April ) the mountain villages are bustling with activity as hundreds of cross country skiers, downhill skiers and snowboarders enjoy the many opportunities the fields offer.  For those who prefer a less physical form of activity on the slopes there are lots of snow mobiles and toboggans for rent from the numerous stalls dotted around the village.

We rode a lift to the top of one of the fields from where we were able to gaze out over the wine producing Bekka valley towards the impressive Phoenican, Byzantine, Greek, Roman and Crusader ruins of Baalbek until, wind and sun burnt, we descended for hot coffee and food at the Austria cafe and Bar. Khalid told us that the highest mountain, Jabal el Mzaar (2465 metres), had had a small Roman temple on its summit until it was destroyed during the Civil War. The temple area was reputed to be used by the Romans as a fire signal point to communicate between the coast and the temple complex of Baalbek or Heliopolis as there is a line of temples that stretch up the range from the coast to the Bekka valley.

We drove, from the cafe, to the private ski resort of Faqra with its ski fields reserved for the hotel guests and chalet owners,  which nestles among the remains of Greek tombs, temples and the ruins of homes from an ancient township dedicated to the worship of Adonis. Here you can take time off skiing and send time exploring the semi-restored ruins before heading back to the slopes for more exhilaration!

Khalid took us to meet his family who welcomed us with warmed cider, Lebanese coffee and apples chilled from the snow covered storage shed before we headed off, down the mountain, to Harissa, the religious centre for the Maronite Catholics, where the huge, white painted bronze statue of “Our Lady of Lebanon” stands, judging from the number of monks and large modern Maronite Cathedral, as a pilgrimage site, on the hill above the town. We climbed the spiral staircase around the base to grab some spectacular photographs of the bay curving from Jouneih around to Beirut which could be seen in the mid afternoon light.

We finished our day sitting, enjoying the warmth of the late April sun, at a cafe-bar that sprawled along the narrow ridge beside the road and ate deep fried whole sardines, hummus, bread and tabbouleh washed down with local beer and coffee amid groups of chattering locals celebrating a family birthday while we watched the little fishing boats and merchant ships plying the bay far below. Perfect!!

( We flew to Lebanon with Emirates. Our tour was organised by Atlas Tours. )

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