BEIRUT: Ancient, Alive, and Kicking
A weekend in Beirut offers relaxing café culture, great nightlife and a fascinating insight into the oldest continuously inhabited place on Earth
Soaring over the snow-capped Lebanon Mountains, it was clear we were far from the arid Arabian Gulf. Looking down, it was unclear as to whether we were even going to make it to Beirut. The mountains seemed close enough to touch, close enough to feel, close enough to land on, making the descent into this Mediterranean city that much more enthralling.
Naturally the pilot knew what he was doing, or was doing a fine job of pretending, but either way, we safely circled the city and landed at the prime real estate location of Beirut’s beachside airport. From the aircraft you can see the idyllic setting the city claims, surrounded by the mountains, with hillside villas, a modern downtown area, sprawling residential tower blocks and even a small shanty town near the sea. I emphasise the arrival to Beirut, banging on about the aircraft like a 747-chasing plane spotter, because your arrival introduces you to the nature of Beirut — sitting between the Lebanon Mountains and the Mediterranean, both of which have played a large part in its past.
Not wanting to boggle your mind with details of Lebanese history, I’ll sum it up by saying that Byblos, on the north side of Beirut, dates back to the Phoenicians 3,000 years ago and is considered to be the oldest continuously inhabited place on Earth. The Crusaders came here — you can still see their cannonballs in the fort’s wall — the Romans dropped by, the Egyptians left their mark, and today you can browse the shops in the Historic Quarter or have a drink in the ancient port. Leaving your own mark may be frowned upon.
In Beirut itself, it’s hard not to notice that the city was affected by more recent history. The central area is known as the Beirut Central District (BCD), or Solidere. Here, you’ll see over 900 buildings that were rebuilt following the 1975-1990 Lebanese Civil War. It’s a remarkable feat, recreating the heart of a city, and is the best place to stay. To add panache to your trip, check into Beirut’s recently opened boutique hotel, Le Gray (www.legray.com), in a fine location on the edge of Solidere, albeit with a high-end price tag. It’s a stylish retreat and well located to explore the central district.
The style of Solidere is firmly European and walking its streets is like taking a relaxed stroll in Barcelona, people-watching in Paris or meandering the lanes of Milan — Beirut is often called ‘The Paris of the Middle East’ for just this reason. The finish on the buildings is picture perfect and you can shop, eat, drink and amble for hours on end. The café culture is alive and well, the shops, like in the UAE, are wide-ranging, the streets are safe and the best thing to do is just enjoy relaxing outside, not cooped up in an air-conditioned shopping mall. Whilst I loved Solidere — a charming, even stunning area — at the same time I felt that the true heart of Beirut must have shifted elsewhere, for Solidere is not where the locals live and play.
Venture a little further out, and by little I mean literally just cross over Martyrs’ Square — scene of the Green Line that separated Beirut during the civil war — and you will find the infamous Gemayze neighbourhood. Best visited at night, it truly comes alive with a restaurant and bar scene that equals or beats any of its European rivals. This is where the Lebanese come to hang out most nights, see and be seen, enjoy a few drinks, meet friends and maybe take in a nightclub at the end of the night. And I truly mean end of the night, as some clubs will stay open long after the sun has risen. Why would you want to party so late? As our talented tour guide explained to me, “You must profit” from these good times, and make the most of your stay. This was another part of my time in Lebanon that was truly unexpected. I’ve met many Lebanese in Dubai who love to party, but seeing it in Beirut was a whole different dancefloor. Going out is not an optional extra to life in Beirut, it is life, and Gemayze is the centre of that life.
If nightlife is not your thing — try it anyway when in Beirut — then culture vultures can enjoy a visit to some of the remarkable religious buildings that stand near each other, just quietly minding their own business. The Al Amin mosque and St George’s Cathedral should both be seen, found near to the Roman Cardo Maximus ruins. Don’t be put off by building works in the area (at time of writing) — it’s part and parcel of a city in constant renewal and regeneration.
On a weekend break, you may not have the time to explore outside of the city, or may, understandably, just want to relax in a café or bar, or visit the beach in the summer, but there’s much to see in the mountains just beyond the city limits. Inhabited by the Druze, an Islamic Unist reformatory sect (by their own description), Maronite Christians and Sunni Muslims, the Chouf Mountains are dotted with ancient towns, with Beiteddine being a must-visit place, as it features the Beiteddine Palace — a huge, hilltop structure that took 30 years to build.
Back in town, just wander around, soaking in the fresh air, maybe trying desperately to grasp how the Druze and Maronite Christians fit into the complicated tapestry of tribal power struggles in the region. Or, just switch off, admire the view, the native Lebanon cedar trees and the beautiful part-European part-Middle Eastern mountain villages that neatly sum up the building blocks of Lebanese life.
For many people, the history of Lebanon actually puts them off visiting the country. They seem to believe that problems will flare up, that there will be dangers in visiting Beirut, that the old enemy to the south will invade. It’s possible, but if you’re looking for a 100 per cent safe holiday, I hear Disneyworld is nice. Good luck getting there for a weekend. Misconceptions need to be put aside. Beirut’s history is part of what makes it so fascinating and exciting to visit. At only three-and-a-half hours flight from the UAE, travel is easy and after leaving the office on a Thursday, you could be in Gemayze by midnight enjoying life, Lebanese-style. Don’t let a little history put you off.
WHERE TO EAT
Karam Restaurant, Solidere, Beirut. The best Lebanese food in town. Remember that cold mezze, followed by hot mezze are just the starters! Save space for the main course.
WHERE TO STAY
Le Gray Hotel, Martyrs’ Square, www.legray.com, 00961 1 971 111.
FIRST PRINTED IN 2010