GHABAT BOLONIA, Lebanon: The Grand Hotel Bois de Boulogne is by no means the luxury hotel it used to be. The rooms are not equipped with the latest technology devices, the furniture is shockingly old-fashioned and the beds are not especially comfortable. Yet there is history to be discovered at every turn, and the homey feel of the cozy salons at the lobby level and the laid-back ambiance of the outside terraces are incomparable.
This 83-year-old hotel, located in the Metn region near Dhour Choueir, has a peculiar charm that makes a stay there a worthwhile experience.
One of Lebanon’s oldest mountain hotels, the Grand Hotel Bois de Boulogne has weathered two occupations and two civil conflicts.
Despite the major blows dealt to small- and medium-sized businesses in the post 1975-90 Civil War era, the family hotel – nestled within Metn’s pine forests – continues its unyielding fight for survival.
“This is our property and we will never allow it to collapse,” says George Ghostine, the hotel’s owner. “If we wanted to shut down this hotel we would have done so a long time ago.”
But the chic Ghostine is realistic and admits that in light of the difficulties the country and the tourism sector are facing, one needs to be “pragmatic and learn to accommodate.”
“The hotel is not in the best state,” he confesses. “We compensate with the good food we make and the good services we offer.”
Every Sunday for decades, the dining area has been jam-packed with a faithful clientele who come to enjoy the chef’s luscious offerings as part of the hotel’s famed buffet banquet.
A student of one of Lausanne’s prestigious hospitality management schools, Ghostine has devised a crisis strategy to keep his business alive amid ever worsening political and economic conditions.
And it has worked. By employing limited yet efficient and courteous staff and effecting a gradual plan for renovation, he has safeguarded one of the Metn area’s most significant vestiges of the past.
It took Youssef Ghostine – George’s father – two years to build the three-story hotel on a plot of land he owned right at the intersection linking the Metn villages of Dhour Choueir, Khanshara and Mrouj.
Construction works started in 1928 and wrapped up in 1930, when Lebanon was still under the French mandate. With a great view over Metn’s pine-tree woods, it was the French Tourism Commissary at the time who suggested to Youssef Ghostine that he name his new hotel “Bois de Boulogne,” in reference to the famous large public park on the outskirts of Paris.
Former French President Charles de Gaulle even spent seven days at Bois de Boulogne during a trip to Lebanon years before he came to power.
“Unfortunately we don’t have the exact dates of his stay in our records,” George Ghostine says. “You know at the time we didn’t ask for the papers of French officers.”
A commemorative plaque hung in the hotel’s lobby bears witness to a large-scale meeting held at the hotel in 1944, when representatives of Greece’s warring factions gathered under then-Prime Minister Georgios Papandreou to mull a deal to end the civil war in their country.
The Ghostine family’s hotel became so famous that Lebanese authorities even took lands from the nearby villages of Khanshara and Mrouj to create a new village, which they named “Ghabat Bolonia,” the Arabic for Bois de Boulogne.
Thanks to its offerings and strategic location – about 35 kilometers away from the Bekaa Valley and a 15-minute drive from the Zaarour ski resort – the hotel has also gradually become a favorite weekend and summer escape spot for Lebanon’s bourgeoisie.
The hotel underwent a major facelift and acquired its current façade in 1973, only two years before Lebanon’s bloody civil war erupted.
George Ghostine recalls that during the first phase of the civil war, “it was business as usual here at the hotel.”
“We were actually doing good. We were fully booked for several months because people believed that just like in 1958 it’ll be a temporary conflict that will end sooner or later.”
In the fall of 1976, when Syria deployed its Arab Deterrent Force in Lebanon, the Metn region, including Ghabat Bolonia, was cut off from the rest of the country. Militias affiliated with Christian right-wing parties withdrew from the area, which fell under the direct control of Syrian troops.
Ghostine was the only one who stayed when everyone else fled.
The refined hotelier could be described as the keeper of that era’s secrets; he cans till detail the war’s shifting alliances and remembers his relentless efforts to adapt to the political changes in a bid to protect his hotel.
“The Syrians intervened in Lebanon upon the request of the Kataeb Party, but soon after the alliance was broken,” he says. “Do you think it’s easy to manage a business in such circumstances?”
“I did not abandon the village in the most difficult circumstances,” he adds. “I will not give up now.”
Ghostine owes his resilience and determination not only to his negotiation and managerial skills but also to his loyal clients.
As if the war instantly became a distant memory, immediately after the end of armed clashes in the early 1990s Bois de Boulogne was again bustling with activity despite the heavy weight of occupation, and even as the Syrian army was turning Dhour Choueir and Ghabat Bolonia’s villas and mansions into barracks.
After the withdrawal of Syrian troops in 2005, when residents could finally recover their properties, the road linking Dhour Choueir to Ghabat Bolonia quickly became lined with elegantly renovated homes as well as brand new structures.
The management of the Grand Hotel Bois de Boulogne has also launched an operation to renovate the quarters, but due to state neglect and a reliance on personal funds, renovation is being undertaken in stages.
“We’re doing it slowly but surely,” Ghostine explains. “This hotel is all we have and we want to preserve it.”
He laughs off a question about what keeps him optimistic and motivated despite the hardships.
“You’re too young to understand. The younger generation just does not get it,” he chuckles. “I am an old man and I witnessed this country’s golden age and I believe we can revive it because we’ve made it and lived it.”
For reservations, call 04-295-100 or visit www.hotelboisdeboulogneliban.com.