24 Hours in Kfardebian
Come for the skiing, stay for the lahm baajine
The mountain peaks that pierce the horizon of Lebanon’s Kfardebian village, rising between 650 metres and 2,500 metres, have been considered a sanctuary for centuries. Atop the highest peak, the Dome du Mzaar (meaning sanctuary in Arabic), a church stands beside the remains of an old Roman temple – proof that the mountains have been inhabited since ancient times.
Driving up from Beirut, passing through Jeita and Faitroun, the village can only be reached by a thin and winding road, bordered by steep cliffs and sculpted karst rock formations. The road snakes between towns and villages along the way and passes through the neighbouring village of Faraya.
Faraya has accidentally eclipsed Kfardebian for decades – with visitors often mistaking one for the other. The confusion began in the 1970s, after the opening of the area’s first ski lift and hotel in Kfardebian. The owner of the resort, who hailed from Faraya, proudly named the hotel ‘Faraya Mzaar’ in reference to his hometown. Confused? So are the many visitors who drive up to ‘Faraya’ every winter, while the popular ski destination is actually named Mzaar Kfardebian.
Kfardebian, a Syriac Aramaic word meaning ‘the village of deer’, is known for its abundance of water, gushing from its two natural springs. An agricultural village, its mountains were once piled with lush apple orchards. It’s also naturally endowed with agricultural products and honey.
At the entrance to the village, the rock formations are seen again as the road passes a natural limestone bridge with a 38-metre wide arch opening. Just beyond is a welcome sign that reads ‘Kfardebian’; drivers tend to stop on the road side for a quick stretch or photo opportunity, before continuing for a day on the slopes.
‘I grew up with this ski culture,’ says Jean Najib Akiki, the mayor of Kfardebian and locally referred to as rayyes, or boss. ‘[Because of the skiing] it isn’t an isolated village. We get to meet people from all over Lebanon, all over the world,’ he adds. ‘You always feel like it’s alive.’
The ski resort started humbly in 1964, after the village’s first piste, the Refuge, was built. ‘This was the beginning. Foreigners – mostly French delegations who brought the sport here – would ski and teach the Lebanese. It was a shy sport. Those who practised it were few,’ says Akiki.
An après-ski culture began to grow around the Refuge, with hotels and restaurants opening in Kfardebian and the surrounding villages. Nowadays, the InterContinental Mzaar prides itself in having access to the slopes directly from its sun deck. ‘I think skiing in Lebanon probably started here, and by the 1960s, it was already the place to be and that continues until today,’ says Joost Komen, the hotel’s general manager. ‘This is where the jetsetters come, and people love to affiliate themselves with that.’
Akiki insists that although the ski stations drive activity in Kfardebian, the village’s vast landscapes provide for a variety of outings, whether simply taking in the fresh air or sitting at a café. ‘I can go on a walk to an empty grove with no one around,’ he says. ‘ Or, I can stumble upon a shepherd – it’s a variety of people at the same time.’
The Emperor of Lahm Baajine
Afif Zgheib is well known among most Kfardebian locals. His quaint bakery is in Hrajel – a quick 10-minute drive from the heart of the village. Formerly known as Zouade Mar Charbel, Zgheib’s small shop is now simply referred to as the Imbaratoriyet Lahm Baajine, or the Empire of Lahm Baajine, which has earnt him the title as the local ‘emperor’ of the classic Lebanese wrap.
Making a name for himself from the special dough he uses to perfect his lahm baajine, Zgheib attracts visitors to his dimly-lit shop by shouting out catchy slogans. Passersby are familiar with his ‘One lahm baajine a day keeps the doctor away,’ motto, yelled from behind the counter.
‘I have an audience – we don’t discuss politics here. Let’s talk art,’ Zgheib says, before reciting a verse of Iraqi poetry to a customer travelling from Basra.
The menu at his counter offers Lebanese favourites like awarma (lamb confit) and eggs, and the classic zaatar and cheese manousheh, all baked on the same pillowy dough that the emperor is famous for.
His hearty laughter and the humble shop’s buzzing energy can be heard from across the street. Customers of all ages, young skiers just off the slopes and hungry families come to the emperor’s for the same recipe he’s been using since he opened shop in 1989.
‘I’ve been making lahm baajine for 27 years, how can I change it?’ he says. He keeps his ingredients simple: meat, tomatoes and onions (all baladi, or locally produced). ‘You can say it’s like kibbe nayyeh,’ Zgheib says, referring to the soft minced meat that melts in your mouth. ‘With every bite – gharam.’
A Balloon Ride
According to Raja Saade, a hot air balloon pilot, not many visitors in Kfardebian opt to enjoy a bird’s eye view of the mountains. ‘The best view is as we take off,’ he says. ‘Those who ski don’t see these things, but when you take off, you notice these holes, like volcanoes. When it snows, they look like brown and white zebra patterns.’
Saade, an entrepreneur who has been operating hot air balloons in Lebanon for almost 16 years, learned the trade in Brussels after meeting a group of Belgian balloonists. Today, he’s the founder of Club Thermique, a company that specialises in hot air balloon rides, as well as paragliding near Jounieh Bay.
The ride starts near the Warde peak in Kfardebian, and travels toward Yammoune in the Bekaa Valley – a 45-minute ride that flies over neighbouring villages like Faraya and Chabrouh. In addition to Saade’s ‘zebra patterns’, the view from above exposes uneven terrain, reminiscent of sand dunes, with mounds of white snow. Organic patterns garnish most of the snow-capped peaks.
‘As soon as we head east, the view starts to remind you of the moon, with the desert-like landscape and strange volcano holes,’ he adds, before noting that soon enough, the team (which includes two other pilots) will be adding new trips to the itinerary, including flying over vineyards further into the Bekaa Valley. ‘We’re not sure of the exact location,’ says Saade, ‘but it will be somewhere around Kefraya.’
Much of the trip is left up to chance – while you can influence the balloon, external elements have much control over the flight. ‘You always know where you leave from,’ he says, ‘but you can’t drive a hot air balloon, you never know where it’s going to land – you just go with the wind.’
The Ski Lesson
‘I love everything about this place. The weather, the climate, the landscapes and the nature – it’s my hometown.’
Shadia Moubarak has been providing ski lessons for the past seven years during the winter season in Kfardebian. ‘It’s such a good feeling to be in control of your technique,’ she smiles. ‘Plus, the view of the snow as you’re skiing down the slope gives you such a relaxing feeling.’
At the top of Mzaar Kfardebian, vast fields of treeless slopes stretch away into the distance, and experienced skiers often gather here to capture views of the Bekaa Valley and its vineyards in the northeast, as well as other peaks such
as Laqlouq and the Cedars. On a clear day, those in the mountains can glimpse the coast of Beirut.
A popular sport in Lebanon since the early 20th century, the country’s ski and snowboarding scene has economical advantages as well. There are around seven established ski resorts – from the Cedars Ski Resort to the Faqra Club – often hiring locals from neighbouring towns to run the ins-and-outs of the businesses.
Dozens of Lebanese skiers have participated in the Winter Olympic Games and other world championships, too, and all train with Kfardebian’s countless instructors.
Kfardebian’s slopes offers the locals a sense of pride. ‘Hayde manta’ti,’ says Moubarak. ‘This is my territory.’
This article appears in the issue56 Buy Now