I often claim that the reason I love the “backpacking” style of traveling so much is because of its liquid nature, where random happenings and encounters are encouraged to flourish in the absence of structured itineraries.
My entire time in Lebanon was no stranger to the above.
One particular afternoon I left my hostel in Beirut’s downtown Gemayze district to grab a bite to eat from “Le Chef” after reading its cracking review in my trusty Lonely Planet guide.
I got talking with the restaurant’s “charismatic Head Waiter” (quoted from the Lonely Planet’s accurate review of the restaurant) and he suggested that while I was staying in Beirut, I should visit the Teleferique cable car that links the north Beirut suburb of Jounieh with the waiter’s home village, Harissa.
After leaving the restaurant I did some research and found that I could link a visit to Harissa in with seeing another of Beirut’s historic sites, the Nahr al-Kalb, which was a stop on the highway to Jounieh.
Setting aside a full day for this little adventure, I left my hostel early in the morning and made my way down to the Charles Helou, which was about a five minute walk from the part of Gemayze where my hostel was, and found a service van that was heading North towards the city of Tripoli.
Soon enough I was in one of Lebanon’s trademark vans for my first stop, the Nahr al-Kalb (a story I’ll leave for another time). Seeing as the Nahr al-Kalb is situated on the main highway that runs north, once I was finished with my visit here, I waited on the highways side and within 30 seconds I was in another service van heading to Jounieh, which is literally 5 minutes away.
Despite the language barrier, the driver knew exactly where I wanted to go and dropped me at the Teliferique’s entrance in Jounieh a few minutes later.
Jounieh And It’s Teleferique
The town of Jounieh hugs the Mediterranean about 16km north of Beirut. Known for its bustling nightlife which goes hand in hand with its seaside holiday resorts, the town is also home to a stone souq which plays in contrast to the modern high rises that now flood the town.
Without a doubt, Jounieh’s drawcard attraction remains to be its retro-era Teleferique – A cable car that takes its passengers to the nearby mountain village of Harissa.
Jounieh’s Teleferique was built in 1965 and if you haven’t got a fear of heights, a ride in this aged gondola lift will definitely put that claim to the test as it takes you 650meters into the air across its 1.5km course.
While buying my ticket (approx. $US6 by the way) I was tapped on the shoulder by a Lebanese lady who asked me in an Australian accent where I was from. Eventually it turned out that Josephine an I were from neighbouring suburbs in Sydney and eventually, as in line with the theme set by my opening sentence, I would end up being a guest in her family’s village in the mountain’s of Northern Lebanon in the coming days after this chance meeting.
While the age and sounds made by the teleferique can at times have you holding your breath and clenching your butt cheeks, the nine minute journey is generally a smooth one and most worries are quickly distracted by the incredible views over the Mediterranean.
Eventually your cable car brings you into the heart of Harissa.
The mountain top of Harissa is dominated by a 15 tonne statue of Mother Mary, known as Our Lady of Lebanon, which has stood here since it was built at the end of the 19th century
Harissa is of particular importance to Lebanon’s Maronite Catholics, many of which make regular pilgrimages to this mountain village. Just next to the Mary statue is a huge modern Cathedral and further south from this site is the Greek Melkite Basilica, St Paul’s. St. Paul’s Byzantine architecture makes it a remarkable site as you look south towards Beirut from the viewing platforms at Harissa.
After eventually being contempt with the million or so photo’s I must have took while at Harissa, I made my way back to Beirut, much the same way that I got there.
Visiting Harissa via the Teleferique at Jounieh was a great experience and gave a unique insight into Lebanon’s Catholic heritage. If you are traveling through Beirut, a visit to Harissa would be a great experience, especially if you are traveling on a budget.