Glitterati on the ski slopes and a whistlestop tour of downtown Beirut show that the country is as concerned with urban renewal and building for the future as with lingering divides from the past.
Lebanon: from green runs to the Green Line
On a good day you can see the bay of Beirut and the Bekaa Valley. On a really good day, you can apparently see Cyprus. But when I was there, I couldn’t see more than 100m ahead of me. Even the lift to the highest peak in the area, Dome du Mzaar, at 2,465m, was closed due to bad weather.
The snow was bad too. It hadn’t snowed for almost a month and the absence of snow machines meant the resort’s workers had been reduced to collecting snow from other parts of the mountain to make this year’s winter season viable. Even then, the snow on the heavily used lower slopes was both patchy and slushy. The temperature in the resort was five degrees and what snow there was, was melting.
Lebanon’s main ski area (official name: Ouyoun El Simane – Kfardebiane) boasts some 80km of runs on Mount Lebanon. There are 18 ski lifts and an impressive selection of slopes. It doesn’t compare to European playgrounds such as L’Espace Killy in France, both in terms of infrastructure – Mzaar’s ski lifts are sound but aged – and its overall size is far smaller. But for the Middle East, it’s a benediction.
Having left Abu Dhabi at 10am that morning, I was on the slopes by lunchtime. After taking the lift up to Dome Jabal Dib, at 2,296m, I was caught in a swirl of fog. After a plate of chips and a can of Pepsi from the café at the top, I braced myself for the descent.
Apart from a Saturday morning spent at Ski Dubai, I realised I hadn’t skied in six years – not since the start of the invasion of Iraq – when a trip to St Anton in Austria had left me feeling underwhelmed at my friends’ appetite for the heady après-ski scene. Yet then, at the end of March 2003, I had learned to ski in bad conditions.
Apart from the bombing of Iraq, which made a skiing holiday seem horribly inappropriate, there had been a severe lack of snow. Combined with St Anton’s ferociously steep slopes, I felt happy to leave not having broken anything. Luckily, this time, my Lebanese ski guide Michelle had the right attitude. "We will ski, but not too much," she said.
The top of the blue run was empty. It looked steep, until I realised that it was black. "Our runs are slightly different here," Michelle said nonchalantly. "Instead of all blue, all black, or all red, most of these slopes are a mix of colours."
As I ruefully glanced at the impending mezze of ski experiences, we were met by an intrepid group of three Swiss skiers,Freddie, Roger and Stefan. Freddie, a ski instructor and ski shop owner from Wattwil, a winter sports town in Toggenburg, eastern Switzerland, was, like the others, unperturbed by the bad weather. "I wanted to try something different," he said.
"Nobody back home knows you are able to ski here. They think it’s a desert. I’m surprised by the variety and steepness of the slopes and although it’s a very old lift system – I think they got it second-hand from somewhere – it’s clear that if there is enough powder snow you can go off-piste."
Not today though. When the fog subsided, I could see that the off-piste areas were strewn with boulders. And, in places, the ground poked through on the main slopes. Still, there was nothing for it. If there was one thing I had learned in St Anton, it’s that steep slopes have to be dealt with quickly and aggressively.
I crisscrossed the slope and was just getting a rhythm before I noticed the drop on the right-hand side. I came to a skidding halt. "Don’t look!" advised Michelle. "You were doing really well." We carried on, slipping, sliding and scraping our way down. After a trip up the main ski slope of Jonction, we traversed across to Refuge, the point below the ascent to Mzaar. The lift to the top was still closed, so we did the inevitable. We skied down to the terrace outside the InterContinental hotel and smoked a shisha.
The InterCon is the heart of the après-ski action in Mzaar. On a sunny day, its terrace is packed, thanks to the swanky restaurant serving food far more appetising than that found in any of the other cafes. The heart of the hotel is a cavernous lounge and bar area, cosily finished in timber, with fireplaces to make it look and feel like the Alps. It does a good job and on the weekend that I arrived, it was packed with well-to-do Lebanese customers tucking into plates of charcuterie and French onion soup after a hard – or not so hard – day on the slopes.
But the best thing about the hotel is that it has its own ski slope, giving access to the whole network, not to mention its luxurious rooms overlooking the mountain. As I looked out from my chalet-style balcony over the snow-topped roofs of the village below, I could, just about, have been in Europe. Yet under an hour away, down a winding mountain road that takes you through terraced hillsides and past the Roman ruins of Faqra, is Beirut. With the bad weather continuing, a citybreak beckoned.
I stayed at the Phoenicia in downtown Beirut, a hotel which has seen the best, and worst, of the city’s recent history. Most of its front windows were blown out by the force of the car bomb that killed the country’s ex-prime minister Rafiq Hariri in 2005, but, luckily, all of its guests and staff emerged unscathed.
Although the road on which Hariri was killed has only recently been reopened, the Phoenecia is now a sparkling ensemble of rich carpets, gleaming marble and boutique shopping and is still a central meeting point for the city’s glitterati. Yet the first point on my round-city walking tour was the Corniche.
A photograph in the Brownbook Beirut guide had made it look faded and forlorn, like Brighton, England, in the 1980s, so I was surprised to find that it, too, was sparkling. A team of men was using a pavement-cleaning machine to polish its litter-free new promenade and stylish, stainless-steel railings that ran all the way along it. I walked on, past palm trees and smart, Art Deco-style apartments and hardy swimmers diving off rocks near the lighthouse. I walked all the way to the Lunapark, several kilometres south, stopping at a seaside café before continuing round the headland to Raouche and Pigeon Rocks, before circling back through Hamra.
On the evening of Obama’s inauguration, I met an acquaintance at the American University of Beirut campus on Rue Bliss and felt a tinge of relief that here, at least, American ideals were bringing people together.
The next day I explored the downtown area and what were once the predominantly Christian areas of Gemmayzeh and Achrafiyeh.
The downtown area is known as Solidere – not for its solidarity with the people of Beirut but for the name given to the company charged with rebuilding and restoring the city centre devastated by the civil war. As I view the few remaining buildings riddled with bullet-holes and consider the very recent bombing of the city’s infrastructure by Israel, it’s almost surreal to stroll past a flash Elie Saab fashion boutique and see new, luxury developments with slogans such as "Convivium: adding another remarkable touch to our city," and "Stratum: redefining business luxury".
Large parts of the downtown area have clearly been transformed. The renovated area around Place d’Etoile is gorgeous but almost sterile in its newness. The streets off it are slowly filling with charming Parisian-style cafes, guarded as they are at each end by armed soldiers.
I walk down Rue Ahdab and around the corner to Place des Martyrs, a still down-at-heel piece of scrubland where even the statue to the country’s 1921 patriots is still riddled with bullet holes. I pay a visit to the grave of Rafiq Hariri – now a virtual tourist attraction in a marquee, with an image of the ex-prime minister somewhat tackily superimposed onto official photographs of each of his seven dead bodyguards.
Yet even in strife, there is style. The pavements heave with parked Maseratis and Jaguars, and even the police drive Dodge Chargers and Jeep Cherokees.
Turning a corner again, I encounter a triathlon of culture: the recently-completed Al Amin Mosque, St George’s Cathedral, dating back to the Crusades, and the Roman Cardo. And fourth in line, back in the development zone next to the Roman ruins, is a new branch of TGI Friday’s.
After viewing the well-presented Roman baths, around the corner again, I double back across Place des Martyrs, passing the still-ruined, battle-scarred carcass of an abandoned cinema. Part of the site has now been acquired, the flags around it denote, by the Abu Dhabi Investment House, and it is soon to become "Beirut Gate". Just beyond this is the Saifi Village, a pocket of gentrification next to Gemmayzeh. Outside the Ferrari showroom and adjoining Fiona’s (the chichi glass front boasts "una cucina veneta de tradizione"), I see a man busily dusting bollards and lamp posts.
I meet a friend in the Torino Express on Rue Gouraud, a tiny cafe-bar further along, before continuing past the super-slick Segafredo Zanetti espresso house and less salubrious-looking nightclubs: Sinners, Hank’s Bar and Flirtini. The end of the street marks the end of the semi-gentrification; turn off the main street and you find packed, rundown apartment blocks and men selling bags of potatoes and onions out of the back of old bangers. "Rue à caractère traditionnel" states a heritage signpost outside a dilapidated building.
I climb up the St Nicholas steps, past grand colonial mansions and graffiti which reads "I’m past the stage of being a rebel" to Achrafiyeh, a chic, Parisian-style neighbourhood complete with fashion boutiques and a Bread Republic. I follow Rue Abdel Wahab el Inglizi to Rue Monot, passing the Facebook Pub before walking under a flyover back to Place des Martyrs.
"You just walked through the site of the Hizbollah tented village," a dining companion said to me back at the Phoenecia, referring to the scruffy, makeshift site of sit-in protest which paralysed downtown Beirut in 2007. "Until recently no-one could pass through there." I secretly hoped I could have seen the Hizbollah tented village, although the owners of the adjacent Plus Tower I – tagline: "building lifestyles" – must be relieved it has moved on.
I was impressed, as so many people are, by the warmth, energy and generosity of almost everybody I met in Beirut. I was awed by the resources the city has mustered and the attention to detail paid to every stage of the rebuilding process, and by the open hostility towards politicians. "If politicians would just stop their stupid egos we would all be fine," one woman told me. "The show-off is a disease." Back on the ski slopes, however, showing off is, of course, allowed.
The good thing about Beirut is that you can see the mountains from the city, so when the weather improved, I went back to Mzaar. The car park outside the Jonction slope is filled with Hummers and hulking BMWs and the InterCon lounge is packed again. I meet up with the three Swiss skiers who have been whiling away the worst of the weather in local restaurants in the village of Faraya, further down the mountain. Stefan Giger, a production manager for a sports products company, said he was impressed with the range of ski gear on offer in Lebanon.
"They have better stuff here than we have in Switzerland," he said. They have Bognor and Kjus, which are much more expensive brands than we have back home." That night a friend arrived from Abu Dhabi and we called into Below Zero, a comfortable, funky cafe near the Mzaar car park run by Johnny Yammine and his English wife Lisa. We had dinner in Le Fondue, a French restaurant opposite the InterCon, and later moved on to Igloo, a restaurant which later turns into a nightclub.
The next day was my last day in Lebanon. Although the weather is still cloudy, we can see a panorama of brown, stony terraces, and, in the distance, the sea. It’s not a view you get very often when skiing. I take the 700m-long Nabil chairlift to the top and am rewarded with a wonderfully easy, scenic traverse down the mountain to Refuge. It’s a vast improvement on my last experience – a rolling confluence of snowbowls and unworn slopes. In the four times I made the run, I only met one other skier. The last time I disembarked the lift, however, I was greeted with panic by the lift operator. "Go fast!" he said, pointing downhill. At last, the snow was coming.