Air fares to Lebanon have just been slashed - but does that make Beirut somewhere for the weekend?
Wednesday 05 February 1997
Ironically, M Chirac was in town that morning. The French have been here for more than a century, leaving a legacy of political instability, blue enamelled street signs, and pastry. Chirac was preaching democracy to an auditorium of students. "In other words," said one world-weary Lebanese, "he wants Arabs to buy more Peugeots."
Cynicism aside, the message is that the city is again open for business. Liberal, lotus-eating Beirut once again has fashionable cafes and night- clubs, exotic dancers and clip joints, gold-stuffed jewellers and Benetton outlets.
The road from the airport takes you through the southern suburbs, the Islamic area where Western hostages were held during the civil war. If you carry on to the old city centre, you find an empty space where a whole quarter has been demolished. The gutted Holiday Inn looms like a giant tombstone, and wandering the streets around the "front line" makes for a weird kind of tourism. Exploding shells have made gashes with delicate aurorae of pitted stone, bullets have pocked a white apartment block. The top half of a minaret has been blown away, leaving a cage of metal rods pointing at the sky.
If you want to see any of this, you'll have to move fast. Beirut is under urgent construction. The ground shakes from mechanical diggers. The foundations of skyscrapers are being poured into giddying holes.
The energy with which Beirut is reinventing itself is making fortunes for a new stratum of property developers and business people. Their increasingly decadent lifestyles recently led to the city being rocked by sex scandals. Divorce levels among this nouveau riche are unprecedented. There's a joke currently going round: "I hear that George is getting married." "Oh yes? And to whose wife?" I learnt this from a Californian named Celicia, whose lawyer husband had been lured from their Scarsdale mansion by the fortunes to be made in his native city.
Beirut's Promenade des Anglais is the palmy Corniche. The palms have mostly survived the war, but promenading has not. Courting couples sit in cars and look not at the sea but at each other. Anglers whip six-metre rods over their heads and hurl their hooks into the foam. Old men smoke, and stare at the horizon. It feels more like Cromer than Cannes. But all along the Corniche apartment blocks are rising, marble-clad, 20, 30 storeys high. And what is that shiny chromium object at the far end of the Promenade? It's the Hard Rock Cafe.
Behind the Corniche is Hamra, currently serving as the city centre. Built around the American University, it has dozens of fast food outlets, stylish shops, hotels and upmarket restaurants. Be careful to check the prices on the menu: it's easy to spend pounds 80 on a meal for two. Quite apart from its French influences, Lebanese cuisine is delicious. To sample it affordably, it is better to leave the city centre.
It's quite feasible to drive out of Beirut. Car hire is cheap, and driving is a less life-threatening experience than in, say, Cairo. A three-hour trip into the Bekaa Valley brings you to Baalbek, a huge complex of Roman ruins. Further north is Bcharre, the last remaining forest of the legendary Lebanese cedars, and birthplace of the prophet Kahlil Gibran. Closer to Beirut is the port of Biblos, one of the oldest continuously-inhabited towns in the world.
Jounie, on the coast road back from Biblos, is one of Beirut's northern - Christian - suburbs. What with its film hoardings, cafes and designer clothing stores, you might be in Naples or Miami. Well-dressed men and women park their Mercedes and BMWs and step into plush restaurants.
Down the hill, on the beach, is a mile-long strip of fish restaurants and night clubs. As I walked along the street a car pulled up and four high-heeled, scantily-clad, Russian-speaking girls tottered into a "special night-club". There is much talk in Beirut about the influx of prostitutes, mostly said to come from the former Iron Curtain countries.
In the hills above Jounie is the little-known attraction that makes Beirut unique among capital cities. I would argue that it alone justifies a visit here. Jeita is said to be one of the most extensive grottoes in the world. Millions have recently been spent on lighting, engineering and a superb cable-car to the caves. Once inside, you can walk for a mile through a vast cavern where giant stalactites a million years in the making hang down from the roof, 100ft above your head. A lower cave complex is flooded by an underground river. Electric boats glide through over pea-green water, filtered through limestone and, they told me, very drinkable. I scooped some up in my hand and sipped: it was sweet as a berry
Getting there: Middle East Airlines (0171-493 5681) has cut its Heathrow-Beirut fare to pounds 250 return, including UK and Lebanese taxes, for February. MEA operates on Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday. British Mediterranean (0345 320100) flies daily except Tuesday and Wednesday; British Airways (0345 222111), flies on Sundays and Wednesdays. Red tape: British passport holders must get a Lebanese visa in advance. Apply to the consular section of the Lebanese Embassy, 21 Kensington Palace Gardens, London W8 (0171-229 7265), with two photographs, a statement from an employer confirming your occupation, and pounds 12. More information: Travellers' Survival Kit: Lebanon by Carole Cadwalladr and Anna Sutton (Vacation Work, pounds 9.99).
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