Living Large on Lebanon’s Ski Slopes

It’s been a while since I last posted. But ski season is finally at its end in Lebanon, so I finally have a little more free time on the weekends…

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As you might imagine, this snow has been pretty irresistible.

When I say “ski”, “Middle East” may not be what pops to mind for you. Yet Lebanon’s ski season started mid-December this winter, and lasted a full three months. Smaller than the state of Connecticut, the country has five ski stations, one of which still had a couple of lifts open last week. Not bad.

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At the Mzaar ski station near the village of Faraya, it’s a scene like no other. Snow bunnies forgo gloves or goggles in order to show off their fake nails and lashes. The “après-ski” scene starts warming up at noon. Crowds mob the baby slopes while there’s no line at all for any other lift.

I know, it’s not sounding very much like a serious ski scene. There is, however, a small group of elite skiers, and Lebanon has sent skiers to the Olympics since 1948.

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According to the Lebanese Ski Federation, the first skier in the country was a man named Ramez Ghazzaoui. After studying in Switzerland, Ghazzaoui returned to Lebanon in 1913, determined to recreate his Alpine skiing experience on Lebanon’s snowy slopes. It didn’t much catch on. When the French arrived a decade later under the post WWI “mandate”, they brought their love of skiing. The country’s first ski school was established in the Cedars region of northern Lebanon in the 1930s.

Skiing in central Lebanon, where the Mzaar station is located, took a while longer. An hour from Beirut, the village of Faraya sits on the flanks of the Mount Lebanon range, and the peaks of what is now the Mzaar ski station are an additional twenty-minute drive up a narrow road of hairpin turns. Drawn to the beauty of the peaks and undeterred by the challenges of summiting, European visitors in the 1950s hired locals from Faraya to lug their skis to the top of the slopes.

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These holiday decorations remained in place for the entire ski season.

Mahmoud Khalil of Faraya was one of those locals. Paid to do the work without the chance to share in the thrills, Mahmoud decided that he wanted in on the fun. Chopping down a tree in his front yard, Mahmoud hewed his own pair of skis.

Mahmoud passed his passion for skiing on to his three sons: Nabil went on to represent Lebanon in the Olympics, while Tony and Louis became ski instructors. While Tony and Louis share their father’s story on their website Lebanon Slopes, the best way to get the inside scoop is by booking one of them as an instructor. I know, because that’s what I did.

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Tony Khalil, ski instructor at Mzaar

Despite growing up in Seattle, an hour from the snowy slopes of the Cascade mountain range, I had never skied before arriving to Lebanon. After years living far from any ski resorts, my husband Luca was thrilled to end his 20-year skiing hiatus. Our first winter in Lebanon, Luca organized a fortieth birthday bash for me in the mountains: a family weekend where the kids and I learned how to ski and Luca got to rekindle his old love of skiing.

After the first weekend, the kids rarely took an instructor, but as might be expected of a not-especially-athletic-40-year-old, it took me a little longer. Now finishing my fifth winter in Lebanon, I still hire an instructor occasionally (I’ll make it to the advanced slopes one day!). Tony is by far the best instructor I’ve hired. First and foremost for his skiing and teaching skills, but it’s a nice bonus that he has good stories to share during those long lift rides up the slopes.

The first lift was installed at Mzaar in 1959 or 1960 (depending on who you talk to), and Tony says that he and his brothers were “born with skis on our feet.” They learned to ski the way most of us learn to walk—as a basic expectation for getting through life. His brother Nabil went on to become a national champion, and represented Lebanon in the Olympic Games in Sarajevo in 1984.

Nabil’s accomplishment is all the more noteworthy given that it occurred while Lebanon was in the midst of Civil War, which stretched from 1975 to 1990. The airport runway was shelled as the plane carrying Nabil and other Olympians was departing. (Read this incredible article from 1984 for more details.) One of the hotels at the base of the slope was occupied by a militia.

“You see that stretch right there?” Tony said, pointing to a slope nearby as we rode the ski lift. “For the most part we could ski without problems, but in that part right there, we were visible to snipers from the other side. So we just went as fast as we could and hoped for the best.”

Unlike Beirut, where the destruction of war is still visible in buildings punctured by bullet holes, there are few vestiges of the war in Faraya and Mzaar. One exception is at the top of the eponymous Mzaar peak, at 8,087 feet (2,465m), the highest point of the ski resort. On clear days you can see the sea from the summit.

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My husband at the summit of Mzaar with the sea in the background.

Mzaar means ‘shrine’ in English, and the peak was named for a Roman temple that once sat atop the mountain. The temple had been converted into a chapel, but the structure was destroyed during the civil war. All that remains is a bell that skiers love to ring when they reach the summit.

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After five years I finally became a good enough skier to try the Mzaar slope. Okay, truth be told, they opened a back route down from Mzaar this year that is easier than the front descent.

Indeed, the Mzaar of yesteryear would scarcely be recognizable today to Mahmoud Khalil. While there were only three lifts by the end of the civil war in 1990, there are now more than 20. The four chalets that were built in 1960 have multiplied into dozens of hotels and vacation apartments.  Mzaar hosts Red Bull challenges (jump and freeze anyone?) and lingerie fashion shows (yes, seriously) on the snow. (Lebanese Olympic skier Jackie Chamoun scandalized the nation by appearing in a 2014 pre-Sochi photo shoot at Mzaar with nothing but her skis and a pair of pink panties.)

Thousands show up every weekend to join the party. So next winter, if you’re still skiing on the bunny slopes, as cute as those bunnies might be, follow my lead and hire an instructor. You’ll get away from the beginner slope mobs, and have the chance to admire views of the Mediterranean Sea from the peak of Mzaar on a clear day. If you’re lucky, you’ll get Tony, and have the chance to hear a little more about Lebanon’s unexpected skiing history.

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Burkinis, Bikinis, and the Best Family Beach in Lebanon

It’s been a long time since I last posted, mainly because I joined the flood of expat spouses that desert the duty station for the summer. Since we don’t see family most of the year, those golden months are our chance to spend quality time with cousins and aunts and uncles and grandparents.

I’m not sorry to miss out on the hottest days (more than the temperatures, it’s the humidity that’s a killer in Beirut mid-August), but for those who stay behind, there is plenty to do. Summer in Lebanon is filled with concert series that take place against the backdrops of millennia-old ruins. This summer, pop superstar Sia sang at Byblos, and the Baalbek Festival was reinstated after a four-year hiatus.

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Carcalla Dance Theater performed at the ruins of Baalbek in July.

But Lebanon’s biggest summer attractions are, of course, its beaches.

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San Stefano resort near Batroun.

I thought a lot about Lebanese beaches this August, as I read about the burkini battle raging in France. I got comfortable wearing bikinis after marrying an Italian and spending time on Mediterranean beaches where few women under the age of sixty wear a one-piece. But growing up in Seattle, I wore one-piece suits, and there are still plenty of days I prefer a swimsuit that covers more as opposed to less. During a visit this summer to a waterslide park in the Seattle area, I noticed that some boys wore sun shirts along with their trunks even though the waterpark was indoors, and while plenty of teenage girls were in bikinis, most younger girls and adult women wore one piece suits. A bit more coverage is our cultural norm in the Pacific Northwest.

When I visited southern Portugal as a teenager, I was surprised by how many women went topless—even grandmothers. In Italy, young girls go topless—most swimsuits for girls under the age of five or so are just bikini bottoms. I don’t have a problem with those choices, but they aren’t ones I would want imposed on myself or my daughter.

Although the ban has been overturned by the French courts, this week’s news of another woman in burkini being forced by angry locals to leave a beach in France made me realize that this story is far from over.

In Lebanon, standard beach attire depends on where you show up to swim. There are a few public beaches, but most are private, with resort establishments set up similar to the lidos of Italy: lounge chairs, sun umbrellas, lifeguards, a restaurant, often a swimming pool (or two), and sometimes a hotel.

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Edde Sands, a posh resort near Byblos.

Lots of these private beaches are quite posh, and entrance fees are priced accordingly. Some are distinctly designed to be a place for Lebanese in the 20-40 age range to see and be seen. High heels, make-up and jewelry with a bikini are just not for me. Other spots are more kid-friendly, but still have entrance fees that can cost up to $40 per adult and $25 per child ($130 for a family of four!). And that’s before you even get into the shish taouk sandwiches, French fries and cold beers that our family tends to order. It feels exorbitant for a day at the beach.

So I was happy when, on a recent weekend, a friend proposed meeting at my personal favorite, Al Jisr beach. It boasts one of the widest swathes of sand that I’ve seen in Lebanon, a huge swimming pool, and entrance fees of a mere $13/ adult and $7/child. And, no one looks at your funny no matter how much (or how little) your swimsuit covers.

Which brings me back to the battle of burkini versus bikini. Even in Lebanon there are places where sporting either may be uncomfortable. I know of one posh beach resort where a few customers complain any time a woman shows up in a burkini. (I’m happy to report that their complaints go nowhere.) And I myself wouldn’t feel comfortable wearing a bikini to Beirut’s public beach Ramlet el Bayda. But this picture taken on a beach near the northern city of Tripoli recently went viral, precisely because it captured the laissez-faire attitude of most Lebanese. (Photo by Jad Ghorayeb, who has lots more great shots of Lebanon on his Instagram feed.)

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His shot is way better than my iPhone snap at Al Jisr:

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I wore a bikini to Al Jisr, and was one of many women there wearing one. There were also plenty of women in one-pieces, and several more in burkinis. Everyone out to enjoy the warm weather and play in the sea with their families.

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You can see one lady swimming in a burkini, in between her two children with red and blue water wings.

It was actually one of the few times this summer that I have worn a bikini. In March, I discovered a cancerous spot on my skin and had it removed. Most of the summer I alternated between tankinis (covering my midriff), or a bikini with a short-sleeve sun shirt over the top.

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Me, ready for a day in the sun.

I’m only in my early 40s, so maybe I’ll need to move to a long-sleeve sun shirt in the future, something like this:

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Sun shirt for sale at swimoutlet.com

I think it´s safe to assume that this sun shirt would pass muster on any beach in France, but who’s say, given that the line drawn in the sand seems to keep moving. After activists (and slacktivists) posted countless pictures of Western women wearing long sleeves and head coverings on beaches across Europe:

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Vildana Maisa/Twitter

the deputy mayor of Nice declared that nuns in habit wouldn´t be allowed on the public beaches either.

What’s next, a wet suit ban?

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These Speedo wetsuits are designed for triathletes.

There are many reasons why I think that Al Jisr is the best family beach in Lebanon. It’s cheap, it’s clean, the swimming pool is big and the lifeguards are alert and, as I discovered after one of the kids suffered a minor injury playing “soap soccer” on our last visit, they even have a doctor on duty.

But Al Jisr is also a place where you can sport a bikini or cover up fully without anyone batting an eye. And after this summer’s burkini brouhaha, I am more grateful than ever for beaches where I can wear whatever I want.

Check out my earlier post on Beirut Beaches.

 

Baalbek, Ksara, Anjar: Lebanon’s Top Tourist Circuit

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Baalbek: once an epicenter of Roman religious life, a temple complex dating back two millennia, boasting the world’s best-preserved Roman temple.

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Ksara: a 159-year-old winery and Lebanon’s largest, producing some 2 million bottles per year.

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Anjar: a sprawling 8th century complex of ruins from the Umayyad caliphate, the first but most short-lived of the Arab dynasties.

Each a remarkable place to visit. None of which I had heard of before living in Lebanon. I was in Beirut two years before visiting Baalbek and Ksara. And it wasn’t until recently that I returned, and visited Anjar as well.

Baalbek/Ksara/Anjar is a standard day trip sold by travel agencies in Beirut, but the long shadow of war stretches across the Antilebanon mountain range that separates Syria from Lebanon, casting a gloom across the businesses of Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, tourism most of all.

My family and I arrived to Lebanon in May 2012, and skirmishes near the border made a visit to the famed ruins of Baalbek out of the question. Although war continues to simmer in neighboring Syria, Lebanon has clung to its fragile peace, and by the spring of 2014 we felt it was safe enough to finally visit the World Heritage Site temples.

I recently returned with my parents, who just ended their second visit to Lebanon. Not much had changed since I first saw Baalbek in 2014. Arriving just after 9am, we were the first tourists in town. Someone must have alerted the ticket seller, who pulled into the parking lot just after us and sprinted ahead to open up the ticket window. In turn, he must have given a call to another local, because we’d been inside the complex only a few minutes when a guide materialized to offer his services. It was just us and our guide Khalil. Extraordinary to have these magnificent world class ruins all to ourselves.

Magnificent and heartbreaking. Our guide recounted that three to four hundred tourists used to arrive daily. These days they were averaging ten. We tried to spread our few tourist dollars around: a generous tip to our guide, a couple of souvenir guidebooks from one merchant lurking outside, a few replicas of ancient coins from another merchant. We couldn’t bring ourselves to take a ride on the camel someone had trotted out to the ruins though.

Before leaving Baalbek, I insisted that we stop by the Palmyra Hotel, intrigued by this fantastic two and a half minute video which I had recently seen.

Political leaders Charles de Gaulle and German Kaiser Wilhelm II once stayed at the Palmyra, singers Ella Fitzgerald, Fairouz and Sabah (both Lebanese legends) were guests, and the French poet and painter Jean Cocteau lived in the Palmyra for a month. In continuous business since 1874, it was if time had stopped 75 years before our visit. The bellhop (the same one who appears in the video) has been working for them more than 40 years, and proudly showed us the rooms and the spectacular view from the terrace. For another detailed article about the Palmyra, check out this one from a couple of years ago on the Beirut news site Al Akhbar.

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the view from the rooftop terrace of the Palmyra Hotel, Baalbek

After admiring the view, we headed on to Ksara, the first official winery to build on Lebanon’s 5,000-year old winemaking tradition. The winery was founded by Jesuit priests in 1857 (a few years before the Palmyra opened in nearby Baalbek), and sold into private hands in 1973, after the Vatican encouraged its monasteries to sell off any commercial activities. The ancient Roman tunnels under the winery’s chateau were expanded by men that lived in them during a war, explained our guide. (I wish I could remember which war! The Ksara website mentions that the winery was occupied by soldiers 1982-83, during the Lebanese Civil War, maybe it was then…) There are now just over 2.1km (1.3 mi) of tunnels, housing oak barrels of aged wine and special collection bottles. The tour ends with a generous tasting. I was pleasantly surprised to find a couple of wines that I hadn’t had the chance to taste before and liked a lot – I bought a Cabernet Sauvignon to take home.

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wine barrels in the tunnels of Ksara winery

To soak up some of the wine, we made a quick stop for a man’oushe (baked dough with toppings such as cheese, ground lamb, or dried wild thyme), then drove on to Anjar, the ruins of a trading center that is estimated to have flourished roughly 700-750 A.D. It was built by the Umayyads, the second of the four major Islamic caliphates established after the death of the prophet Muhammad. Like Baalbek, it is a World Heritage Site.

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the ruins of Anjar

Although Anjar turned out to be only 10 kilometers (6 miles) from some restaurants and wineries that we had visited in the past, it is only 10 more kilometers to the Lebanon-Syria border, and we hadn’t dared get quite that close in the past. The lack of tourists was even more acute here than Baalbek. While the ticket office was staffed by a friendly Lebanese who had returned to Anjar after years of living in Nashville, he told us that we were the first tourists to arrive to the site in a few days. Sure, the ruins of Anjar pale next to Baalbek, but frankly even the Forum of Rome isn’t as impressive as Baalbek, so that’s a hard neighbor to keep up with. There are still crumbling walls of palaces and a mosque, scraps of mosaics, elegant archways and towering columns. Anjar was a marketplace of an estimated 600 shops, and was an important stop on the Baalbek-Damascus trade route.

My parents told me that the day was a highlight of their month-long stay in Lebanon. “Top tourist circuit”? Not in numbers. But Baalbek or Anjar are extraordinary world treasures. (And Ksara was just plain fun.) This Beirut day trip is, without a doubt, a “top tourist circuit”.

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three happy tourists

Beirut’s Sursock Museum and the Art of Resilience

After nine long years, Beirut’s Sursock Museum reopened this weekend.

Opening night at the Sursock Museum

Opening night at the Sursock Museum

The museum houses modern and contemporary art in a setting as elegant as the artwork within: an Italianate villa located in a well-heeled district of Beirut.  First opened in 1961, the Sursock was long the reference point for contemporary art in Lebanon, hosting an annual salon, or exhibition of emerging artists, as well as a permanent collection of renowned painters from the region. The museum managed to stay open through most of Lebanon’s 15-year civil war, but closed in 2008 to undergo seven long years of renovation.

Emblematic of the resilience of the Lebanese themselves, the museum reopened this weekend, amidst a garbage crisis, a political crisis, and a refugee crisis of historical proportions.

Fittingly, the museum’s director, Zeina Arida, has curated opening exhibitions that share a theme of identity.

In “Picturing Identity” photographs summon the past of the Lebanese people.

"Muslim Sheikh", from The Fouad Debbas Collection

“Muslim Sheikh”, from The Fouad Debbas Collection

In “Regards sur Beyrouth” paintings evoke the history of the local landscape.

View of Beirut, 1893 by Henry Andrew Harper

View of Beirut, 1893 by Henry Andrew Harper

And a multimedia exhibition entitled “The City in The City” explores modern-day Beirut. The piece that most struck me in this exhibition was a map created by Mona Fawaz and Ahmad Gharbieh pinpointing visible security deployment in Beirut in 2009: it was cluttered with symbols for checkpoints, army tanks, military vehicles, barbed wire, road spikes and more. (If you can’t make it to the museum, the map and its background essay can be accessed on the website Academia.edu, with free registration to the site.)

Head of programs, Nora Razian, has designed a robust public program of tours, talks, walks, workshops, films and family programs to accompany this last exhibition. I was lucky enough to get a spot on a night walk entitled “The Streets Beneath the Streets,” led by the writer Lina Mounzer. The stories she narrated on Friday night, as she led our group from one hidden corner of the Ashrafieh neighborhood to the next, centered on the famine the country faced during World War I, which killed an estimated 100,000 to 200,000 persons in Mount Lebanon alone, 500,000 in Greater Syria. According to the BBC, “As a proportion of the total population, more people died in Greater Syria than anywhere else in the world during the First World War.”

Commonly attributed to a blockade by Allied forces seeking to cut off supplies to the Ottoman empire, the reality of the famine was a far more complicated scenario, also involving environmental factors (such as a locust invasion that carpeted the countryside, some say knee-deep), wartime mismanagement and war profiteering. (This article touches on some of the heart-rending details that Lina shared with us, accompanied by equally harrowing images.)

Foreign influences, environmental degradation, profiteering….

Lebanon’s present has disturbing echoes of its past, and serves as a reminder that only by studying history can we grasp how things might change or remain the same.

All of which circles me back to the reopening of the Sursock Museum, its exhibitions and public programming. Yes, the garbage crisis remains unresolved, with hills of refuse blighting Lebanon’s landscape and clogging its riverbeds. It’s true, Lebanon’s longstanding political crisis (including a 15-month-and-counting presidential vacuum) has deepened the garbage crisis. And while the number of officially registered Syrian refugees in Lebanon has dropped in recent months, there remain more than one million, for a staggering statistic of 1 in 5 people in Lebanon is a Syrian refugee. Much of the system in Lebanon seems to be held together with aging Scotch tape, threatening to peel off at any moment.

Yet the Sursock Museum, Zeina Arida, Nora Razian, Lina Mounzer, and all the others involved with the Sursock’s reopening and public programs, are the embodiment of resilience. They remind us to step back to see more clearly who we are and where we came from, so that we can better see where we want to go next.

Culture is not a luxury.

Culture is part of us. It’s what constitutes a person, it links generations and gives meaning to history. Knowing one’s culture is knowing one’s self. Identifying and preserving one’s heritage allows reaching out to the others.

-Zeina Arida, to the Prince Claus Fund

For details about the Sursock Museum and upcoming events, visit their Facebook page at www.facebook.com/SursockMuseum

Quaffing Lebanese Wine

The weather remains above 85°F (29°C) every day, but for the Lebanese, beach season is over.

Now is the time for hikes and mountain lunches and other fall activities – such as grape-harvesting. Yet one more surprise when I moved to Lebanon. The country is home to a prospering wine industry.

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Wine production in Lebanon dates back to Phoenician times (3200BC to 883BC), and was an important part of their trading. According to Wikipedia, the Phoenicians “either introduced or encouraged the dissemination of wine knowledge to several regions that today continue to produce wine suitable for international consumption. These include modern-day Lebanon, Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Greece, Italy, Spain, France, and Portugal.”

So the Phoenicians brought wine-production techniques to the Romans, who turned around a brought their love for wine back to the region when they arrived around 64BC. It was under Roman rule that Lebanon’s greatest cultural attraction – the temple at Baalbek, dedicated to Bacchus, god of the grape harvest and wine – was built.

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The Temple of Bacchus, Baalbek

In the 1860s, Jesuit priests in Lebanon recommenced wine production, and the industry blossomed during the French occupation (1923-1946). It is said that the French soldiers just couldn’t imagine life without “un coup de rouge” (a glass of red). As with just about everything else in the country, the industry lagged during the civil war, and only five wineries were operating at its end.

Slowly growing through the 1990s, wine production has taken off since the turn of the millennium, expanding from the traditional growing areas of the Bekaa Valley, to Batroun, Mount Lebanon, and even near Jezzine in southern Lebanon. An estimated 7 to 8 million bottles are produced annually, with much of going to the export market (primarily Europe). A drop in the wine glass compared to, say, France’s annual production of 7 to 8 billion bottles, but a respectable figure nonetheless.

The wineries and their leafy rows of grapes make for gorgeous settings to spend a couple of hours or a day, and our family has visited several: Massaya, Chateau Kefraya, Chateau Ksara, Ixsir. We loved our weekend lunches at Ixsir and Massaya Bekaa, while my kids’ favorite parts of the visits were the underground tunnels at Ksara and the train ride through the vineyards of Kefraya. Ksara and Kefraya are Lebanon’s biggest players, accounting for roughly half of the country’s annual production, but there are currently around 40 producers in this postage-stamp country.

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Kefraya’s vineyards

A week ago our family had the opportunity to spend a day with the gracious owner of Cave Kouroum and his family. Located in the village of Kefraya in the Bekaa Valley, this lesser-known winery has been an important player in the industry for decades, first as a grape middleman and eventually producing its own wine. We toured the winery, which has an impressive capacity of 7 million bottles of wine. The wine-maker is taking it slow, however, and the estate currently produces 700,000 bottles annually.  Our group especially enjoyed the estate’s Petit Noir and 7 Cépages.

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Two lovely Lebanese wines: Cave Kouroum on the left, Iris Domaine on the right

This past weekend we worked our way backwards in the production line, from the processing of grapes to their harvesting. This time we headed to the hills near Bhamdoun, where we joined the owners of Iris Domain on their final day of the grape harvest.  Owner Salmad Salibi explained that the recent heat wave (thank you sandstorm) meant that the different varietals of grapes had ripened all at once, so there was an urgency to their harvesting. To that end, paid laborers had started the hard work at 6 a.m., so guests like our family who rolled in at 8:30 or 9 and later had the chance to clip just a few crates worth of grapes before cutting the kids loose to explore the vineyards and fruit groves, while the adults snacked on man’ouche and sipped the winery’s excellent red blend.

You don’t have to be well-connected to enjoy a vineyard visit. The website Beirut.com has a comprehensive listing of wineries in Lebanon with links to their contact information. Several are regularly open to the public, while others accept visitors by appointment.

To try all the wines in one place, head to the upcoming Vinifest, October 7-10 at Beirut’s Hippodrome. This wonderful event brings together winemakers from around the country, offering tastings with bottles (as well as olive oil and snacks) available for purchase.  (Tickets L. 25,000 and can be purchased at the entrance or ahead of time at Antoine.) With around 40 producers showcasing their wines, take my word for it that it’s impossible to try them all. But my husband and I have had fun trying.

My husband and I were caught by The Daily Star photographer Mahmoud Kheir in this image from Vinifest 2012.

My husband and I were caught by The Daily Star photographer Mahmoud Kheir in this image from Vinifest 2012.

Lebanon is no Napa. (Nor is it even close to say, the wine-growing region of Columbia Valley in my home state of Washington.  I have yet to meet a winemaker here in Lebanon that has heard of Washington wines, despite the fact that Washington State is home to more than 850 wineries and produces 180 million bottles of wine per year.  I’m allowed a little hometown pride, aren’t I?)

But enotourism in Lebanon is on the rise. Chateau Khoury has opened a restaurant, while Domaine des Tourelles and Cave Kourom are developing theirs. Chateau Belle-Vue hosts both a restaurant and a hotel. Wineries near Batroun in Northern Lebanon have worked to develop a wine trail.

The Romans may have left Lebanon ages ago, but clearly the devotees of Bacchus remain alive and well.

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Resources for the wine lover in Lebanon:

  • Special reports on Lebanon’s wine industry and developing wine tourism were recently published in Executive magazine.
  • The 2012 Zawaq guide to Lebanese wine has tasting notes for over 100 wines. The bilingual (French/English) book is currently 40% off on Antoine’s website.
  • Michael Karam’s Lebanese Wines (2013) offers tasting notes by the owner of Jezzine’s Karam Winery.

Facebook tends to be the best place to find out about events and visits at most wineries in Lebanon, with more current information than the winery websites.

Is It Safe to Travel to Beirut?

This question has been popping up on my radar recently. Some friends cancelled a plan to visit because of concerns over safety. A US-based reader of my blog contacted me to ask me if I found it safe. On the Facebook page of a fellow expat in Lebanon, I saw the same question posed by one of his friends. Every time I’m back in Seattle, it’s the first question my mother’s friends ask, clucking over me and my family with worry.

Here’s my short answer:

If my posts are still coming from Beirut, I still feel safe here.

The seaside restaurant we ate at our first evening in Beirut. We dined here again last night, to commemorate our arrival to Lebanon.

Yesterday my family celebrated three years of life in Beirut (!!!). To date, the situation felt really dicey only once so far in those three years, back in the fall of 2013, when Obama was threatening Syria with air strikes (everyone was worried what the spillover into Lebanon would be).

The rest of the time, life is surprisingly normal, almost mundane. We go to restaurants and the movies, take hikes in the mountains and swim on the shore. The kids go to school and gymnastics classes, I write, hubby heads to the office. For the most part, incidents that make headlines happen far from central Beirut, where we live.

A friend of mine recently post to Facebook a video of people dancing in the street at a festival in the hipster neighborhood of Mar Mikhael. This was how my friend answered the question:

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While some cities and countries are safer than others (of course!), there is hardly anywhere that is perfectly safe all the time. We’ve seen mass shootings everywhere from a movie theater in Colorado to a youth camp in Norway, terrorist attacks in cities from Mumbai to Nairobi to New York, and “regular” violent crime, well, nearly everywhere.

Beirut’s violence is infrequent, but when it occurs, it is headline-grabbing spectacular. Like airline accidents, a car bomb is incredibly unlikely to occur, but the dramatic and heartbreaking results leave their imprint on us and, as terrorists hope, instill fear.

So is it safe to travel to Beirut?

Here is how the American who found my blog expressed her fears:

“My concern is primarily risks that I would face because I’m American. The crazy stories of kidnappings are the biggest fear factor, though I know those kinds of things are rare, especially in Lebanon.”

And my answer:

“While there are never any guarantees, Beirut is really totally fine, as is much of the country.

Kidnapping of foreigners is not an issue in Lebanon. So don’t stress about that. Not even pickpocketing is an issue. The worst case scenario is to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. But things are calm enough now that even that is not a reason that I feel is worth getting dissuaded over.

There’s plenty to see in Beirut – the downtown area has a couple of nice mosques, the Robert Mouawad museum and the National Museum are interesting, and you can’t miss a night on the town in Mar Mikhael, the current hipster center of Beirut. Rooftop bars are opening soon too, and those are world-famous. Byblos is a must-see, and not far from Tripoli. As I mentioned, your colleagues would be best suited to tell you how safe Tripoli is. They know their own city well, and would be able to ensure to keep you out of the sketchy neighborhoods. If there is any kind of flare-up in Tripoli, an alternative could be to meet them in Byblos, which is only a 20 minute drive away, but VERY safe at all times.

If you have a day to spare, you may want to consider visiting the Roman ruins of Baalbek. They are absolutely amazing, but a 3-hour drive away. If you’re on your own, you can book a day trip through an agency like Nakhal or Kurban travel.

And if you’re traveling in the next few months, pack a swimsuit, because it’s beach weather here now!”

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Staff prepare a waterfront cocktail bar for the evening guests.

So if you’re thinking about visiting Beirut, here’s my advice: leave your fears behind, and come!

We’ll be here, soldiering on. 😉

Note: No matter where in the globe you find yourself, it pays to seek out and heed local advice on safety questions such as where to go and where to avoid, how late at night to stay out, and how well you need to hide valuables when out and about.

Lebanon, the Safe Haven – for Armenians too

This month marks 100 years since the Ottoman Empire initiated systematic massacres of the Armenians in its midst.

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Armenian civilians, escorted by armed Ottoman soldiers, are marched through Harput (Kharpert), to a prison in the nearby Mezireh (present-day Elâzığ), April 1915. Source: Wikipedia

I don’t remember ever hearing of the Armenian Genocide before moving to Lebanon. It was all over the news, however, when I was in Italy last week. Pope Francis referred to the tragedy as a genocide during a special mass of remembrance. His pronouncement was all the news could talk about for the remainder of the afternoon, bringing the history of the Armenians back to my attention.

My lack of knowledge about the genocide prior to living in Lebanon turns out to have been no accident. The massacres are now widely recognized internationally – and even by some within Turkey (the former Ottoman Empire) – as a genocide by historians and scholars. But Turkey has always denied that the targeting and killings were systematic, and take umbrage at the term genocide. The Turkish government has run an effective and proactive campaign to keep it from being officially recognized by the US national government (despite its recognition by 43 of our 50 states), discussed at the UN, taught in Canadian schools or acknowledged in London museums (see this piece from the Los Angeles Times for a more detailed discussion).

For a quick history lesson (in case you, like me, missed it): the traditional Armenian homeland was once split between Eastern and Western Armenia – the former conquered by Russia, the latter under Ottoman rule. Armenians were also concentrated in Cilicia, an Armenian Kingdom in the Middle Ages, and a region of modern-day Turkey which borders the Mediterranean Sea.

Between 1915 and 1922, an estimated 1 to 1.5 million Armenians were killed in the Ottoman Empire.

According to Wikipedia, “The genocide was implemented in two phases: the wholesale killing of the able-bodied male population through massacre and subjection of army conscripts to forced labor, followed by the deportation of women, children, the elderly and infirm on death marches leading to the Syrian desert. Driven forward by military escorts, the deportees were deprived of food and water and subjected to periodic robbery, rape, and massacre.”

Survivors fled. The Armenian diaspora is now estimated at 8 to 10 million people (triple that of modern-day Armenia’s population). Many of the diaspora are direct descendants of genocide victims.

And the reason I started hearing about the genocide after arriving to Lebanon? As it has done for Syrians over the past few years, Lebanon opened its borders and provided refuge to countless Armenians. There are an estimated 230,000 Armenians in Lebanon today. Uniquely, they were granted Lebanese nationality in 1924 by the French mandate, and became a vibrant part of the fabric of Lebanese society. They are renowned in particular for their craftsmanship. Lebanon today is home to the only Armenian university outside of Armenia, and to the Catholicosate (Holy See) of Cilicia. The Catholicos (head of church) fled Cilicia in 1921.

When my parents visited me in 2013, we took headed just north of Beirut to Antelias, to visit the Catholicosate, which we knew had a museum.

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The main church (right) is surprisingly small. (c) Amy E. Robertson

A young woman in her twenties greeted us, told us the museum was free of charge, and accompanied us to unlock the rooms housing the Armenian treasures. The three of us were the only visitors that morning. We asked a couple of questions as we entered, and she offered a guided tour. We jumped at the opportunity.

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the Cilicia Museum (c) Amy E. Robertson

Room after room housed beautifully displayed artifacts from Cilicia, primarily relics and religious art of its churches. Richly woven tapestries, liturgical garments threaded with gold, delicately illustrated Bibles, silver wrought into chalices and crosses, and more. Some had been smuggled out as refugees fled the genocide; more has been recovered by devout Armenians who travel to Turkey to track down their historical treasures from antiquarians and collectors. The third floor of the museum houses its painting and sculpture collection, described on the museum website as follows: “Primarily as a post-Genocide phenomenon, the collection stands as a witness to the special circumstances and experiences of Armenians in exile.”

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the seminary (c) Amy E. Robertson 

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priests (c) Amy E. Robertson

Pictures were not allowed inside of the museum, so I cannot share with you the treasures. I can only urge you, if ever in Beirut, to find a few hours to visit the museum.

And you may be well-versed in Armenian history, but if, like me, you are not – I would also like to urge you, whether you are in Beirut or anywhere else around the globe, to find a few minutes this week, as we mark the centenary of the Armenian Genocide, to learn more about the history of the Armenians.

Official Observation of the centenary of the Armenian Genocide on April 24, 2015.

Museum Information  and official website of the Cilicia Museum

For a taste of Armenia when in Beirut, here are my favorites:

Mayrig – Traditional Armenian cooking. Cozy restaurant with stone walls, stained glass lamps and impeccable service. Now with a branch also in Dubai,

Batchig – Mayrig’s more stylish younger sister, with twists on tradition and a more casual atmosphere. Located in the Beirut suburb of Dbayeh.

Badguer – homey restaurant and cultural center with homestyle cooking, located in the Armenian quarter of Beirut, Bourj Hammoud.