With a 50-year history, Jounieh’s Teleferique continues its journey up and down the Harissa heights – remaining an important Lebanese landmark. LT meets Joe Boulos, whose family was responsible for its heritage.
“The joke going around at the time was that Boulos is crazy. There’s a guy who wants to create an aerial train over the mountain,” laughs Joe Boulos as he recounts the anecdote when his late father, Fouad Boulos proposed the idea of a teleferique to Fouad Chehab, the Lebanese President of the time. “The President could not understand what a teleferique was, and in fact there was no-one in the Middle East who could. The closest description my father could give was of a train in the air.”
Sitting in his office, at the base of the teleferique in Jounieh, which this year celebrates its 50th anniversary, Joe Boulos was eight years old when he took one of its first rides. He now stands as chairman of the board of directors of the Teleferique company, presiding over what’s become one of the country’s most cherished icons. His office walls are lined with framed black and white photographs; some of which show the teleferique’s construction back in 1964 in an altogether greener Jounieh.
Founded by the Boulos family, along with a small group of investors, of which Joe’s father, Fouad was chairman; the ambitious teleferique project was the result of a dream to make the Lebanese pilgrimage site more accessible. The white statue of Virgin Mary, known as Our Lady of Lebanon, which stands on the peak of Harissa, remains one of Lebanon’s most visited tourist sites. “My father was inspired by postcards he had seen from Switzerland and the Alps,” Joe says. “They struck a deal with the German company, PHB, the inventors of the cable car concept worldwide. It took a couple of years to construct and opened to the public in 1965. It’s since become a landmark for many people in the Middle East.”
The story of Fouad himself is one connected to the very idea of Lebanese identity. Coming from what Joe says were “extremely modest origins,” he dropped out of school and worked to the top by himself. “He’s a totally self-made man, with limited education. He learned from life experience and worked his way up the ladder to become one of the leading figures of Lebanese entrepreneurship,” recounts Joe.
For many, there’s nostalgia attached to the teleferique; its distinct 60s-style brightly colored pods associated with the golden age of Lebanon. “It reflects the genius of some entrepreneurs who go ahead and do things that are beyond the regular scale. To have a small country like Lebanon leading the whole region with a project like this is a feat,” says Joe. The only cable car in the Middle East at the time, the teleferique, has attracted numerous TV and film crews over the years. Traveling high above luscious green forests, with a view over the bay of Jounieh and turquoise blue seas, it became the setting of many iconic romance productions from Egypt and Lebanon featuring legendary Arab film stars. It’s an important part of the region’s heritage. “Many people still go up the teleferique with nostalgia,” Joe says. “It has a lot of movies associated with it. When things are unique and beautiful they are the perfect setting for love stories.”
The teleferique continues to attract close to 400,000 visitors per year and though the destination is an important Christian pilgrimage site, Joe notes that around two thirds of its tourists are non-Christian; “It’s a place for everybody,” he says. In its 50-year history, the teleferique has rarely come to a stop. It continued to run throughout Lebanon’s long civil war, only stopping briefly during its worst moments. “It has a lifetime of memories – the teleferique keeps going up and down, day in, day out, war or no war,” Joe says. “It’s always been there, it’s a witness to Lebanon’s history over the past five decades. It witnessed the beautiful golden age of Lebanon, it witnessed the destruction of Beirut and its reconstruction and it is now witnessing the resilience of Lebanon.”
Though the teleferique has suffered in recent years with a decline in the number of visitors to the country, it has shown its own resilience. They have managed to stabilize and even increase the number of tourists over the last few years, which Joe puts down to small improvements they’ve made – creating a food court with a view over the bay that offers Lebanese cuisine and fast food snacks and a landscaped promenade that offers a scenic walk through the woods.
Though the teleferique has reached 50 years of existence, there are no big plans for celebration. “We don’t want to make a big splash. We believe that we should remain a stable landmark with a relatively modest outlook,” Joe says. “It worked for us for 50 years, and its unlikely that it is going to change anytime soon.”
Round trip on the teleferique, adults 9000 LBP, children 5000 LBP
Haret Sakher, Jounieh
For a high-end lunch eat at renowned seafood restaurant Chez Sami (09 646064, Chez Sami, Old Seaside Road, Maameltein), for old school Lebanese service, seafront seats and a mezze buffet at reasonable prices go for Manuella (09 832480, manuellarestaurant.com, Ghazir) or grab a pizza at the recently refurbished Margherita Mare (01 571572, Old Souk).
Stop by the humble Café Toni (09 914576, Old Souk) in its atmospheric stone-arched interior for fresh fruit juice, popular Mexican restaurant-bar La Habana (09 638166, Sarba) for an excellent cocktail menu and the atmosphere to match, or head to Bar National (03 181763, Facing ATCL) for a regular program of live music and DJs.
The Old Souk of Jounieh, made up of traditional stone buildings with vaulted ceilings, was renovated fairly recently and offers an atmospheric walk through cafes, restaurants, boutiques and artisan shops.