Sofar: Lebanon’s historic hub of luxury

In addition to the many villas and old houses built by the high society of a bygone era, Sofar boasts two churches dating to the 19th century.
Sunday 07/10/2018
A view of Villa Donna Maria in Sofar.(Sofar Grand Hotel)
A view of Villa Donna Maria in Sofar.(Sofar Grand Hotel)

SOFAR - It was the summer retreat of the Lebanese bourgeoisie and its majestic Grand Hotel, the meeting place of celebrities, famous artists, politicians and dignitaries from Lebanon and the region.

Sofar, a village nestled in Mount Lebanon 1,300 metres above the sea, is known for its architecture, luxurious villas and rich history.

The village owes its celebrity to the railway, built by the Ottomans in 1880, that linked Beirut to the Bekaa Valley. The easy access and its stunning scenery overlooking the beautiful Lamartine Valley attracted Beirut’s Haute Bourgeoisie, who built lavish villas and the Grand Hotel.

“The Grand Hotel was built by the Sursock family in this very location because it is just across the road from the train station. It was the main attraction in the area and easily accessible,” said Carlos Habr, the hotel warden who inherited the job from his father and grandfather.

When it opened in 1892, Sofar’s Grand Hotel included Lebanon’s first casino. It was a hub of luxury and sophistication luring the business of kings, emirs, artists and politicians. It was looted and damaged in the early years of the civil war (1975-90) and remained closed until it reopened in September to host the exhibition, “Grand Hotel Sofar,” by Beirut-based British artist Tom Young in tribute to the hotel’s rich history.

Built on an area of 30,000 sq.metres, the hotel was a hub of luxury as well as gossip and political intrigue.

“The first Arab League summit in Lebanon was at the Grand Hotel in the 1950s. It was a destination favoured by Arab leaders who came here for vacationing,” Habr said, “Celebrities like Oum Kalthoum, Asmahan, Farid al Atrash and Abdel Halim Hafez stayed in the hotel more than once. Even Omar Sharif used to gamble at the casino.”

Today, the Grand Hotel is a pock-marked effigy of its former glory with broken stairs, faded poker tables, peeling walls and what remains of the “piano a queue” in a corner of the reception area. However, Young’s 40 artworks on canvas depicting scenes of the hotel’s heydays transport visitors to a time when the place was bursting with life and glamour.

The paintings were drawn from stories of the hotel, as well as postcards, letters and the memoirs of people who spent memorable times there.

“I got inspired also from talking to the local old people and to the Sursock family. The stories in this place are about all of Lebanon and the whole Arab world and Europe,” Young said.

“The fate of Lebanon was decided in the garden of this hotel,” Young said, explaining the painting “Generals” that he drew on memoirs of General Edward Spears, a British-French liaison officer who frequented the hotel in the 1940s. The painting shows Spears, French mandate General Georges Catroux and British General Henry Wilson negotiating Lebanon’s independence from the French in 1943.

In other paintings, drawn from Lebanese writer Amin Rihani’s account of the hotel including his story “Dancehall and Casino,” dancers sway under a once-glittering chandelier and gamblers gaze expectantly over roulette wheels.

On a hilltop overlooking the tree-lined Sofar corniche, once a popular afternoon promenade, stands Villa Donna Maria, a fairytale castle built in 1909 by a member of the Sursock family.

Like the hotel, it was severely damaged and looted during the civil war. It stands today wrecked and uninhabited but forms a majestic and dramatic backdrop to the events that took place in the front esplanade, which has been rehabilitated, a first step towards restoration of the villa.

In addition to the many villas and old houses built by the high society of a bygone era, Sofar boasts two churches dating to the 19th century.

“The village, once too small to be noticed, grew quickly at the end of the 19th century under the pulse of the Haute Bourgeoisie, due to its natural beauty and cool summer weather. Even the French ambassador had its summer residence in Sofar for many decades,” Habr said.

“The Grand Hotel, however, was the main attraction. Visitors were not admitted if not dressed appropriately… Amin Rihani was thrown out of the hotel once because he was not wearing the right cloth,” Habr added with laughter.

Samir Khoury, 87, said he remembers childhood summers in Sofar. “Every Sunday after church my family used to go to the Grand Hotel for a snack,” he said. “It was a time of happiness and joy. Lebanon had just gained its independence.

“I remember the whistling of the passing train. It moved so slowly that as kids we used to try to catch up with it. It was a different era. These were the good old days.”

A general view of the exterior of the Sofar Grand Hotel. (AFP)
A general view of Sofar.(Sofar Grand Hotel)
A view of the corniche in Sofar.(Sofar Grand Hotel)
A visitor looks at paintings by British artist Tom Young at the Sofar Grand Hotel. (AFP)