Beirut: The real flavour of Lebanon

Conflict may have scarred Beirut's recent past, but Katy Guest discovers that the Lebanese capital is a vibrant, welcoming place. Just go easy on the snacks...

It's a hot, humid Wednesday afternoon, and I am facing west with a cold beer as the sun begins to set over the Mediterranean. Behind me is a glittering terrace of cool, blue swimming pools, ahead there is nothing until the north coast of Tunisia, and I'm sharing the beach with only one sunbathing lizard and the footprints of a wading bird. For the 15th time today, I congratulate myself for ignoring the people who told me I was mad to holiday in Beirut.

For those of us who grew up with footage of Terry Waite, "war-torn" Beirut and the bullet-riddled Holiday Inn, the Lebanese capital is not what we might expect. Sure, there are still soldiers around the Frenchified area of Downtown. One of them strolls with us towards the Corniche, pointing out tourist sites. Another is amused by my utility belt/handbag, pacing around me unzipping pockets and discovering "Camera... maquillage... d'argent..." Oh yes, most Lebanese are trilingual, educated in Arabic, French and English. They receive any attempt to speak their language with a torrent of delighted congratulations – in yours.

Like the rambling wild jasmines that scent its courtyards and streets, the city has blossomed since it was cut back hard during the Civil War. Many of the old Ottoman and French era buildings in Beirut's Central District have been carefully restored. New restaurants and bars flourish in the nightspots of Monot and Gemmayzeh. In Downtown, a project is under way to build a walkway through the Phoenician, Hellenistic, Roman, Arab and Ottoman archaeology – in the combined shadows of St George's Cathedral and Al-Amin Mosque. And another long-term project, which shows the Beirutis' commitment to optimism and good fun, has bulldozed the war's rubble out to sea to create a spit of reclaimed land.

The massive Sky Bar, at the Beirut International Exhibition and Leisure Centre (BIEL), whose roof terrace opens to the stars during dusky, summer nights, has been the place to be this year. The Commodore Hotel, once the iconic war correspondents' hangout, has been rebranded as the Meridien and now contains a trendy sushi bar.

Most evenings in Beirut start and end with food. And there is no better place to start than at Café Gemmayzeh, also known as the Glass Café for its huge, etched windows and the antique Art Deco lanterns around its yellow walls. During the day, old men linger over date juice, smoke hookahs called narghiles and play backgammon for enormous stakes. By 9pm, its little marble tables are filled with groups of young people drinking Almaza beer, munching salty pumpkin seeds and flirting with the waiters. At 10.30, the house band starts up on oud and tambour, wailing songs about their "habibi" and provoking a spate of inspired dancing. There are few proper dancefloors in Beirut, I'm told, which is why you will often find people grooving on the tables. Through the warm nights, the doors of cafés and bars are flung open and the streets are perfumed with sweet grape tobacco as a hundred bubbling narghiles release their aromas.

When smoking in a group, it is polite to order an extra bis (either a disposable mouthpiece, or a nipple, depending on your adherence to Freudian principles) per person. It is also wise to tip the coal boy, who will top up your fuel from an elaborate metal basket, which he whirls around insouciantly as if it were a Bic lighter. Apparently, there is a number you can phone for emergency coals – which explains why you see wobbly scooters speeding through the streets carrying buckets trailing soot.

When dining out in Lebanon, the important thing to remember is: do not finish the snacks. It is difficult not to. Every drink comes with a glass jammed with carrot sticks in lemon juice. Every meal is preceded by nuts, delicate pickles and steaming flat breads with rich, tahini-heavy hummus. Every puff of grapey tobacco makes it that much easier to cram in another mouthful. But you will regret this when the grilled-meat course comes along.

I discovered this to my cost during iftar, the meal at which Muslims break their fast during Ramadan. It was the last day of the abstemious festival and perhaps a month of hunger pangs had left room in many for the vats of hummus, salads, couscous, grilled meats, sharp pickled chillis and a pile of stuffed vine leaves the size of Mount Lebanon; all I know is that I had to beg them to stop bringing more courses when it came to the dessert. "It's only fruit," complained the waiter. But it wasn't: there was also blancmange covered in pistachio nuts and a local delicacy that most resembled slices of halloumi cheese, sugared and deep-fried.

Although Beirut has large Sunni and Shia Muslim communities, it is one of the most liberal and religiously diverse cities in the Middle East. Women dress right up in skimpy, designer gear for a night at the pub, leaving the covered-up foreigner feeling like a frump. Plastic surgery is a mark of sophistication – one bank even has a special loan for it – and headscarfed women stroll down the Corniche proudly displaying their bandaged noses.

Different political and religious groups warily tolerate each other. Churches rub shoulders with mosques, as Christian quarters do with Muslim areas. But I think it must have been one of the atheist quarters where we started our post-iftar bar-crawl. Pacifico's for cocktails, Mexican food and malt whisky (Britain's third-biggest export to Lebanon); Podium for karaoke, where a beautiful British expatriate belted out of Bonnie Tyler's "Total Eclipse of the Heart"; 961 bar and microbrewery, where the beerophile owner Mazen Hajjar brews some of the best real ales I have ever tasted; Cocktails and Dreams for a nightcap. At the bar, a girl was sobbing over some lost love. The shy barman brought napkins and, when she continued crying, provided tequila on the house. She left at 4am looking much cheered.

Lebanon's geography is such that most activities can be done somewhere in the country. In spring, it is possible to ski in the mountains and swim in the (chilly) sea on the same day. If you haven't drunk till dawn, a hike in the mountains is a fantastic way to spend a day. During one hilly afternoon I found an ancient convent where they grow chillis and olives on the sunbaked mountains, and met a grey-bearded hermit who accepts visitors in his chapel-cave in the mountain.

The following day, I took in the spectacular ruins of Baalbek, and went across the border to Damascus for an evening's feverish shopping in the souk (thank goodness consumerism isn't banned during Ramadan). For an easy ride, I booked a driver for the day. The unfeasibly handsome Elie picked us up in his air-conditioned BMW and steered us chivalrously through Syrian customs without a hitch.

After an all-nighter sampling Beirut's legendary café culture, however, a relaxing day was called for. Which is how I found myself lounging on a beach beside a birthplace of civilisation, sipping iced water and watching dragonflies. Byblos, just north of Beirut, is thought to be the world's oldest continually occupied town. It costs the equivalent of £2 to visit the Phoenician sarcophagi and the Crusader castle, where pomegranates and date palms grow, a little black cat darts between the stones and an ancient, maple syrup-scented breeze blows off the sea. In the fishing port next door – whose stone gates mark what remains of the centre of the Phoenician trading empire – the Bab el Mina restaurant serves a cheap set menu of olives, fresh pistachios, and a spicy oil called za'atar, along with enough fried fish to feed an army. Half a mile up the coast is the Eddé Sands beach club, to sleep it all off. All three swimming pools are blissfully cool on our dusty feet. The beach is empty. Even better, after 1 October (when the temperature just drops below 27C and winter is declared), the club is free to use – and deserted. I'm glad that the tourists are boldly returning to revitalise Beirut, eating, drinking and merry-making in its restaurants and bars, but right now, it's nice to have the entire beach to myself. Scampering away, the sunbathing lizard agrees.

Traveller's guide

GETTING THERE

The writer flew with Middle East Airlines (020-7467 8020; www.mea.com.lb), which serves Beirut direct from Heathrow. BMI (0870 60 70 555; flybmi.com) flies the same route. Many other airlines can get you there; the widest range of options from regional airports is available with Air France/KLM (0870 142 4343; www.airfrance.co.uk) with a change of plane in Paris or Amsterdam. To reduce the impact on the environment, you can buy an "offset" from Equiclimate (0845 456 0170; www.ebico.co.uk) or Pure (020-7382 7815; www.puretrust.org.uk).



GETTING AROUND

ProTaxi (00 961 5 468 046) will negotiate a price for an air-conditioned car and driver for a few hours or a full day. The writer paid US$160 (£80) from 11am-1am.



STAYING THERE

Le Meridien Commodore, Commodore Street (00 961 1 734 734; www.starwoodhotels.com). Doubles from US$122 (£61), with breakfast.

EATING & DRINKING THERE

Gemmayzeh Café, Rue Gouraud (00 961 1 580817) and Rue Monot (00 961 1 204 446). Bab El Mina restaurant, Byblos Old Harbour (00 961 9 540475; www.babelmina.com).



VISITING THERE

Liban Trek (00 961 1 329975; www.libantrek.com) claims to be Lebanon's "first ecotourism company" and can organise hiking in the hills, picking up at various points in Beirut.

Eddé Sands Hotel and Beach Club, Byblos (00 9619 546 666; www.eddesands.com).



RED TAPE & MORE INFORMATION

British passport-holders require a visa to enter Lebanon, and these can be obtained on arrival for around US$40 (£20). Anyone with evidence in their passport of a visit to Israel runs the risk of being sent straight back home. The Foreign Office (0845 850 2829; www.fco.gov.uk) advises against all but essential travel to Lebanon. But some insurers will cover you, for about £30, provided that you stay north of the Litani River. Lebanon tourist office: www.destinationlebanon.gov.lb

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