Beirut

Air fares to Lebanon have just been slashed - but does that make Beirut somewhere for the weekend?

It was like perfume on the Champs Elysees, only the scent was of chocolate. The boy carried on his shoulder a tray of patisserie, rolled wafers of black chocolate under a sheet of greased paper. Twisting on a heel he entered a gorgeous, gilded patisserie. It was a street not in Paris, but in Beirut.

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

Beirut basics

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).

Suggested Topics
Sport
sportSo, how closely were you paying attention during 2014?
Arts and Entertainment
Dennis speaks to his French teacher
tvThe Boy in the Dress, TV review
News
One father who couldn't get One Direction tickets for his daughters phoned in a fake bomb threat and served eight months in a federal prison
people... (and one very unlucky giraffe)
Arts and Entertainment
Joel Edgerton, John Turturro and Christian Bale in Exodus: Gods and Kings
film
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
The Plaza Theatre in Atlanta, Georgia was one of the 300 US cinemas screening
filmTim Walker settles down to watch the controversial gross-out satire
Arts and Entertainment
Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz in Tim Burton's Big Eyes
film reviewThis is Tim Burton’s most intimate and subtle film for a decade
Life and Style
Mark's crab tarts are just the right size
food + drinkMark Hix cooks up some snacks that pack a punch
Arts and Entertainment
Jack O'Connell stars as Louis Zamperini in Angelina Jolie's Unbroken
film review... even if Jack O'Connell is excellent
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Recruitment Genius: Personal Trainer / PT - OTE £30,000 Uncapped

    £25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The fastest growing fitness cha...

    Investigo: Finance Analyst

    £240 - £275 per day: Investigo: Support the global business through in-depth a...

    Ashdown Group: Data Manager - £Market Rate

    Negotiable: Ashdown Group: Data Manager - MySQL, Shell Scripts, Java, VB Scrip...

    Ashdown Group: Application Support Analyst - Bedfordshire/Cambs border - £32k

    £27000 - £32000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Application Support Analyst - near S...

    Day In a Page

    Aren’t you glad you didn’t say that? The worst wince-and-look-away quotes of the year

    Aren’t you glad you didn’t say that?

    The worst wince-and-look-away quotes of the year
    Hollande's vanity project is on a high-speed track to the middle of nowhere

    Vanity project on a high-speed track to nowhere

    France’s TGV network has become mired in controversy
    Sports Quiz of the Year

    Sports Quiz of the Year

    So, how closely were you paying attention during 2014?
    Alexander Armstrong on insulting Mary Berry, his love of 'Bargain Hunt', and life as a llama farmer

    Alexander Armstrong on insulting Mary Berry and his love of 'Bargain Hunt'

    From Armstrong and Miller to Pointless
    Sanchez helps Gunners hold on after Giroud's moment of madness

    Sanchez helps Gunners hold on

    Olivier Giroud's moment of madness nearly costs them
    A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

    Christmas without hope

    Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
    After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

    The 'Black Museum'

    After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
    Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

    Chilly Christmas

    Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
    Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect