There are many clichés one can spew about Lebanon. It’s the ‘Paris of the Middle East’; the women are stunningly beautiful; you can ski and swim in the Mediterranean on the same day. The first statement is Orientalist jibberish, the second is true (and how), and the third I’ve always suspected was a lie, or if not, a case of pneumonia waiting to happen.
But at the end of March, as the weather on the coast warmed up and elbows, followed by shoulders, began to appear regularly on Beirut’s streets, the mountains still had a good metre of snow. Two friends from Dubai surprised me with an impromptu visit, one of whom — Noah — is an avid skier. He convinced the rest of us that waking up early on a Sunday morning and driving up to the mountain resort of Faraya in order to pay money to tumble down icy hills was a fabulous idea.
First, for some breakfast
When we arrived in the parking lot of Faraya-Mzaar at around 10:30 am, the party had already started. Skiers and snowboarders were stomping around the parking lot, a nearby café was playing dance music, and the avant-ski scene was in full effect.
We decided to get half-day tickets for around $20 (that’s around Rs 1,000), which would begin at noon and last till 4 pm. Till then we’d do a little breakfast of our own.
The café we chose, Le Refuge, sits on a little patio with a 180 degree view of the evanescent white slopes. A woman makes saj (flatbread) to order, with a variety of toppings, like the regional favourite zaatar, a blend of thyme, sumac and sesame. Hot drinks (skip the cocoa) are available inside.
Also available was the liveliest dance party I’ve ever seen going at such an early hour, fuelled in equal parts by the bottomless energy of a group of around 30 giggling teenagers, and terribly loud Top Forty Arabic and dance hits.
Be warned that the saj is expensive by Lebanese standards — $4 (Rs 200) for one with zaatar and cheese, plus an extra $2 (Rs 100) for a little plate of cucumber and tomato to go with. But Faraya is a playground for the rich, and anyway what’s $35 or Rs 1,740 for breakfast for three people when it comes with the priceless view of a young man in a sleeveless T-shirt flexing his muscles for several admirers in the parking lot?
Getting up the slope
All the different ski rental establishments possess a motley assortment of used gear; it’s the luck of the draw to find something in decent shape that fits (skis, boots, gloves and snowpants came to $20 a person.) With a little bad luck, you could wind up like the memorable character we saw in a neon salmon-pink snowsuit, which he claimed was rented, but looked more likely to have been inherited from his mother two decades ago.
He, and about three dozen other people were all ‘lined up’ to get on the bunny slope in what my experienced skier friend said was the most chaotic lift line he’s ever seen. It was my first time and I could barely stand up, stand still, move forward, or stop myself from moving forward. In some ways, I resembled a force of nature, only far less poetic. I clung to my companion, who assured me that getting up to the lift amidst these hooligans would be the hardest part of learning to ski.
And coming down
In fact it was — after taking a few spills on my first run down the bunny slope, I aced it the second, third, fourth and fifth times, using the smattering of slow-moving toddlers as an obstacle course on which to practice my turns. I decided to try something a bit more challenging, and headed for a less-crowded hill.
As I quickly learned both from experience and from a number of concerned strangers, I had chosen the fourth most difficult hill in the entire mountain range, skipping a number of intermediate levels that are apparently hidden somewhere else nearby. By falling every five metres, I eventually made it down to the bottom, but not before half a dozen friendly men offered to help me down, stopped to give me tips, lifted me up by my armpits, asked me what in god’s name was I doing on that slope if this was the first day I’d ever skied in my life, and cheered me on from the lift above (‘Don’t give up!’) as I lay back on my elbows in the snow.
Just as I was beginning to despise skiing (soggy cold underwear will make you despise just about any activity of which they are part), the clock struck 4: closing time. Large snowmobiles came out and removed all traces of that day’s triumphs and disgraces, although the snow melting in my underwear was mine alone to deal with. After returning our gear, we trundled down the hill munching dried figs and nuts that some enterprising Syrians were selling out of the back of a car for several times their market price.
By the unlit fireplace
In the warm lobby of the Intercontinental Mzaar, we sat in front of an unlit fireplace and drank hot chocolate that just about compensated for the fact that no one had lit the fireplace. Unless you’re a die-hard skier, a half-day of skiing shouldn’t take more than two hours spent with a warm beverage to recover.
Although Faraya has been a ski destination since the late 1950s, the Intercontinental was only built in 2000. Along with the recently-opened ‘Onze,’ or ‘Eleven’ hotel, it is considered the nicest place to stay in Faraya. On the drive back down, the sun setting over the Mediterranean warmed the snow-covered hills to a gentle glowing pink. If I had had the energy, or the inclination, or a death wish, I’m pretty sure I could have jumped into the sea for a swim, just to prove a point. But a hot shower and dinner sounded much better.
(Anna is a freelance writer based in Beirut, whose work focuses on human rights and women’s issues, the environment, food and travel)