Written by William Dobson
So, we’ve talked about where to eat and where to stay but, of course, there is so much more to a trip to Beirut than just epicurean delights and comfortable beds. Known as the ‘Paris of the Middle East’ back in the 60s, the city continues to emerge from the dark shadows of Civil War and offers so much as a tourist destination…if you ever manage to drag yourself from the dining table, of course.
Perhaps the unexpected highlight of our recent trip was Walk Beirut. As someone who likes neither walking nor group excursions, the idea didn’t instantly appeal. However, this three and a half hour meander around the Capital, with bohemian tour guide Ronnie, who assured us he was 100% Lebanese despite his flowing red locks and thick American accent, was excellent in every respect. We started off outside the Bank of Lebanon, which added a fitting historical context to the journey as Ronnie explained, with an amusing and light-hearted use of props, the financial implications of the Civil War. Prior to its beginning in 1974, there were two Lebanese pounds to the US dollar; now, there are 1,500. Furthermore, it was an appropriate place to talk about the most complicated side of Lebanese politics. As with the country’s parliament, the president of the bank has to be a Maronite Christian, based on a system which aims to represent fairly the 18 different religious groups present in the country. When the last consensus was taken this made some sense, with the Christians representing a 51.4% majority. Of course, though, when you consider the fact that this was back in 1932, the issue becomes somewhat more complex.
From here, we were taken through some of the older areas of Beirut towards Downtown, with Ronnie, in the manner of a modern day Moses, calmly leading us across side streets, roads and motorways, traffic seemingly parting like the Red Sea. His knowledge of the city is insatiable, whether talking about the Ottoman, French and Arab architectural influences in the traditional quarter of Kantari or elucidating us about the Cedar Revolution while sitting in Martyrs’ Square. In between, we also passed the infamous Holiday Inn, where interestingly Ronnie’s parents had first romanced; the heavily guarded Jewish Quarter (now devoid of Jews after the death of Liza); the ruins of the Roman bath house, discovered during Solidere’s renovation (although the company has been heavily criticised for their scant regard for the archaeological findings); and ending next to the statue built to commemorate history professor and journalist, Samir Kassir, who was killed by a car bomb in 2005, one of a series of assassinations which included former Prime Minister, Rafik Hariri.
Next, despite cloudless skies and balmy spring time temperatures of 23 degrees in the city, we headed to the mountains, just a short (but hair raising) 45 minute drive out of the city, to the ski resort of Faraya Mzaar. Although people here seem constantly surprised by the notion, Lebanon is proud of the fact that it’s eminently possible to ski in the morning and swim in the sea in the afternoon (or vice versa of course). There is a phrase in the Middle East which goes ‘kul shi ma’mnua, bas kul shi ok’ (or, ‘everything is illegal, but anything is allowed.’) It’s a philosophy they adhere to when they drive; one way streets are never taken too literally, traffic lights are a mere suggestion and roundabouts are a petty annoyance that can be tackled in any number of ways (including driving the wrong direction around them). This idea clearly applies to their skiing too but, once you’ve got used to it, the slopes and the snow rival those in Europe. Faraya is small but provides ample opportunity for a couple of days entertainment and is worth it alone for the awe-inspiring view of Beirut and the Mediterranean Sea from the top of the mountain. Just beware of the sun, which is harsh and unforgiving as I unfortunately found out, resulting in odd stares from locals. A mixture of compassion and fright, on account of my parched, leathery and cracked face, they were often followed with the well-intentioned but, ultimately, useless advice, ‘you probably should have worn sunscreen.’
Wine tasting is another activity which isn’t instantly associated with the Middle East, but Lebanese wines are becoming more and more popular in this country, and for good reason. Indeed, Marks & Spencer now stocks Chateau Ksara, which is where we headed for an afternoon. Located in the infamous Beka Valley, just off the road which wends its way towards the Syrian border, this is the oldest vineyard in the country. Wine making in Lebanon dates back some 5,000 years to the times of the Phoenicians and is said to be the place where Jesus turned water into wine. Ksara itself was founded back in 1857 by Jesuit monks and is still going strong (even if the 150th anniversary celebrations had to be postponed on account of Israeli invasion). The Chateau is magnificent and is home to 70,000 visitors a year including, recently, Oz Clarke. While the winters in the Bekaa are harsh, they are also short and quickly turn to long, dry summers with little to no rain after the flowering of the grapes, resulting in perfect conditions. As we’re told on our tour, ‘there are only good years or excellent ones,’ and their oak matured Chardonnay is consistently voted into the Top 10 of its kind in the world. However, as well as presenting an opportunity to imbibe their wonderful produce, even for non-drinkers the trip offers fascinating insight into the company’s history. Underneath the main building are a serious of subterranean caves, discovered by chance after the monks followed a fox through a hole in 1898. Over 2km, and probably dating back to Roman times, as well as providing perfect storage for close to one million bottles, these caves housed 100 families hiding from the Ottomans during World War One.
For more opportunities to drink a couple of bottles of Lebanon’s finest, a trip to Jbeil (or Byblos in English) was ideal. Back in the sixties, this quaint seaside town was the place to come for the rich and famous, with the likes of Marlon Brando, Brigitte Bardot and Frank Sinatra regular visitors to the Don Pepe’s Fishing Club restaurant and bar, located just above the port. Vieing with a number of other Levantine cities for the title of ‘oldest continually inhabited city in the world,’ and reputedly the birth place of the alphabet, now it’s more a museum of its former glory. Yet, after a quick wander around the souk, and a brief glance at the 12th crusader castle, there can’t be many more relaxed places in the world than the harbour to enjoy a few glasses of rosé, some shisha and a plate of deep-fried fresh bezre (similar to our whitebait).
As Thursday approaches, Beirut starts to wake from its mid-week slumber and it becomes clear why it has garnered such a reputation as the party capital of the region. BO18 holds some appeal, mainly due to the novelty of its retractable roof and the unique experience of suddenly looking upwards, with alcohol-induced confusion, and seeing the stars glittering above. Sky Bar too is understandably famous but was unfortunately closed until the summer months. However, for a truly Lebanese experience, Music Hall is what it’s all about. Having made sure to book a table well in advance, this converted theatre – part-cabaret, part-live music venue and part-night club – seemed to epitomise Beirut. It’s glamorous, gaudy, slightly seedy, full of exuberant culture with a heady mix of different influences and an incredible zeal for life. Live bands, ranging from traditional Arab musicians to others playing, of all things, gothic rock covers of Abba, perform at regular intervals, interspersed with a resident DJ playing a standard range of cheesey, sing-a-long classics. All the while, the clientèle break into seemingly random and spontaneous dance. Gemmayze is also awash with people come the weekend, when this street lined with dinghy bar after dinghy bar is the place to see and be seen, while nearby Rue Monot offers a more relaxed and ‘chic’ location, with the option of karaoke of course!
If it seems like we spent a good deal of our trip to Beirut drinking, it’s probably because we did but, as they say, ‘when in Rome…’ However, rather ironically for a country with such a history of violence, the nightlife has a calm and relaxed air to it. People are there to enjoy and express themselves, not to get drunk and there is none of the aggression that is sometimes associated with our drinking culture here. The real partying is also generally limited to the weekend, leaving the week free to explore such a vibrant and eclectic city, to enjoy the wonderful cuisine or spend an evening relaxing with a shisha pipe at Grand Café, perched above the Mediterranean with views towards the Pigeon Rocks. When Samuel Johnson said ‘if a man is bored of London, he is bored of life,’ he might well have been talking about Beirut instead.