The Lebanese capital knows how to party, with stylish hotels, sizzling nightlife and plenty of bling – and Bentleys – on show. But equally distracting are the cultural landmarks that surround the city.
Saturday 30 October 2010
If you want a weekend of the purest hedonism, it might seem poor taste to choose a city which has endured more misery than any of us could imagine. On the other hand, what if that same city has – between militia mayhem, bombardments, and assassinations – always been somewhere that knows how to party? Beirut is just such a place.
Michel Trad is a man whose business mirrors these extreme oscillations: he is Beirut's only Bentley salesman. Through civil wars and bombings Trad's showroom on the Rue Corniche has never closed; and to mark the 50th anniversary of its Anglo-Lebanese relationship, Bentley invited a group of speed freaks, myself among them, to spend a weekend roaring around Beirut and its environs in a turbo-convoy – or whatever should be the collective noun – of Flying Spur Speeds.
I shall admit it at the outset: when I saw how the Lebanese themselves used the roads, I chickened out, and sat in the front passenger seat while one of Mr Trad's burly drivers demonstrated how to stay exhilaratingly alive in a 600 brake horse power, three-ton stately home travelling at speeds of up to ... well, suffice it to say that the Flying Spur Speed can, on paper, hit 200mph.
The precipitous route from sea-level Beirut up to the ski-resort of Mzaar would be reasonably hair-raising even if it had road markings; but the Lebanese do away with such niceties and everybody just seems to hurtle up and down the winding 2,000-metre climb as if they were slaloming – which, I suppose, is what many of them intend to do on the slopes when they arrive.
I just about managed to keep my coffee down when I arrived, ears popping at the speed of ascent, at the Mzaar InterContinental. In fact there is snow only during the winter; at other times this spa and resort complex, built in a kind of Tyrol-on-steroids style, looks strangely out of place. On the other hand, if you wanted a respite from the intense humidity of Beirut, this eyrie is the place to come; and the quiet of the mountains provides an equally refreshing change for anyone tiring, just a bit, of Beirut's incessant buzz.
But if it is buzz you want, the place to stay in is Beirut's newest hotel, Le Gray. This latest addition to the growing portfolio of Gordon Campbell Gray – he of One Aldwych in London and Carlisle Bay in Antigua – opened less than a year ago. It had been scheduled to open in 2006, but that was the year the Israeli Defence Force bombarded Beirut in its war against Hizbollah; and the year before that the political architect of Beirut's revival, Rafic Hariri, had been blown up (along with 21 other people) by a ton of TNT.
When I chat to Campbell Gray in the lobby of his new hotel, this impeccably elegant Scot insists that he never considered pulling out. He clearly adores the city, extolling "the joie de vivre of the people ... after Beirut, London seems joyless". It does seem – impertinent as it is for me to judge on the basis of a mere weekend – that it could be the very fact that they have lived through such traumatic events which has given the people of Beirut an almost frenetic hunger for partying and fun of every sort. The phrase "Eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow you may die" is attributed to Epicurus, and epicurean is as good a word as any to describe life in the Lebanese capital.
In the interests of furthering my understanding of this phenomenon – and for no other purpose – one evening I walked the 100 metres from the Le Gray to the White Beirut night club, one of the hottest tickets in town. This was not a ticket to which I would have had access on my own: I doubt I would have got past the doorman had I not been vouched for by Michel Trad. White Beirut is in fact the vast roof garden on top of the An-Nahar building; An-Nahar is the country's leading Arab-language newspaper, whose editor, Gebran Tueni, was also blown up by a car bomb in 2005 – his portrait dominates the building's lobby.
Yet again, the almost unbearably close link between tragedy and pleasure: up on the An-Nahar roof terrace the sight of so many young Lebanese exuding sheer happiness is itself hugely uplifting. It's also hugely expensive to share in the fun: to take even the smallest table you must order, at minimum, a £200 bottle of vodka. Yet unlike similar clubs in London – not that there is anything quite like it – there was nothing approaching paralytic drunkenness. Despite the pounding beat of the music, everyone seemed to be making an effort to talk to each other, rather than engage in competitive drinking (although at those prices, perhaps such English-style behaviour would have been prohibitively expensive even for Beirut's booziest jeunesse d'orée).
The women were, needless to say, startlingly beautiful. One of my English companions, no slouch in the beauty stakes herself, snapped me out of my reverie by declaring that "they've all had the same nose-job". But then she conceded, more appreciatively: "If I ever wanted one, I'd get it done here."
At this point, a worry will have crossed the minds of attentive readers, which has nothing to do with the suffering demanded to achieve fashionable standards of beauty. No, you are concerned about how you would get to sleep in your room at Le Gray if there is an open-air night club 100 metres away. All I can say is that it didn't impinge on my sleep; and in any case, if you are sensitive to noise of any sort, Beirut is probably not the place for you.
Some of my companions were more bothered by a holier type of din. Opposite the Le Gray hotel, on the corner of Martyrs Square, is the colossal Mohammed al-Amin Mosque. This was one of Rafik Hariri's most grandiose construction projects, and its 72m-high minarets dominate the skyline. In particular it makes the neighbouring Catholic Cathedral of St George look absurdly small; the two buildings are so close they could almost be described as terraced. The muezzin's calls to prayer therefore clash antiphonically with the cathedral's bells, sometimes at quite anti-social hours. Again, this did not bother me; I found it rather thrilling.
You will perhaps not be surprised to learn that the local Maronite Bishop is preparing an architectural counter-strike against the Brobdignagian mosque, which opened for business (so to speak) only two years ago. I have it on good authority – Campbell Gray, no less – that the Catholics have commissioned the construction of a colossal campanile to augment their overshadowed Cathedral; it will, apparently, be 30cm taller than the golden minarets of the Mohammed Al-Amin mosque. There's something peculiarly medieval about this form of architectural competitiveness among religious institutions – think of the skyline of San Gimignano – and yet it is gloriously harmless compared with the old civil war between Beirut's Christian and Muslim militias.
Gordon Campbell Gray, consummate fixer as I suspect he is, could not dream of asking the muezzin to tone down their electronically enhanced nocturnal broadcasts; but in every other respect he has done his utmost to guarantee Le Gray's patrons a blissful night's sleep. The bed-linen is as voluptuously smooth as any I have ever slept in (the secret, the owner tells me, is "a very high thread count") and the curtains are lined with black-out, so not a glimmer of Middle Eastern sunlight can disturb the habitual late riser. When this person finally emerges from slumber, he should head straight for breakfast in the Pool Lounge, on the roof of Le Gray.
It was while enjoying fresh orange juice and platefuls of halloumi in the Pool Lounge that I fully realised how fashionable this spot has already become. Models galore – or at least, women with the figures of models – were dotted around the pool, enjoying their nourishing glasses of water. Both Burberry and Louis Vuitton were opening new stores in Beirut that week, which might also explain it. The infinity pool, with its stunning view of the centre of Beirut, has an interesting design twist. The side facing inwards to the Pool Lounge is entirely transparent, so everyone can see the bodies of those in it as they do their lengths: a good way for the beautiful people to show just how beautiful they are.
Going downwards from the roof (and reachable within seconds in astonishingly fast and similarly transparent lifts), there are no fewer than five basement floors. Campbell Gray assured me that this was not some gloomy precaution for any future bombardments. There's just a lot to fit in – including a very capacious spa, with serried ranks of treatment rooms. When I asked the oriental spa manager how she found life as a single woman walking around Beirut, she said she found it "much safer than Kuala Lumpur": this is one Middle Eastern city where women travelling alone, or indeed in pairs, will not be made to feel remotely uncomfortable.
I would have been more than happy to spend the entire weekend in the centre of Beirut, but the Bentleys outside Le Gray were aching for some exercise, so off we zoomed for lunch in Byblos, an hour's drive (at least at normal speeds) up the coast. Now if you like Ancient Phoenician Temples, 12th-century Crusader churches and medieval city walls, Byblos is the spot. But for this architectural philistine, none of that can compare with a good fish restaurant right on the harbour.
There are certainly cheaper places to eat in Byblos-sur-Mer than Pepe's Fishing Club, but none has a better location. That seems to have been the view of many of the in-crowd down the decades. The walls of Pepe's – which extrude from an 800-year old fish warehouse whose floors are cobbles of even more ancient provenance – are covered with photographs of Hollywood greats (of fairly ripe vintage themselves) breaking bread with the proprietor.
The current owner, Roger Abed, son of the original Pepe, pointed out a signed photo of Ava Gardner with special affection; but the one that took my eye was of the Emperor Bokassa. The late tyrant of the Central African Republic had dropped in for some lunch. Bokassa, it is said, was especially partial to bite-sized chunks of the bodies of his enemies – although Roger insisted to me that the emperor made no unusual requests of the kitchen.
Having established that, we sped southwards towards Beiteddine – "The House of Faith" – a truly colossal 18th-century palace, open to the public, yet also the summer residence of whoever has the tricky job of President of the Lebanon.
Again, I must confess to monumental philistinism: I was still more captivated by the nearby Moussa Castle, a Disneyesque roadside folly built entirely over the past 60 years by a man called Moussa-al Maamari, who is still around to let you in. Apparently his first (unrequited) love had spurned him with the words "Dad has a palace!" and so he determined to show her that he could build his own. Evidently she wasn't impressed; but I was, and especially by its extraordinary collection of weaponry down the ages.
I suspect most schoolboys would find the room after room of rifles and handguns much more compelling than the rarified beauty of Beiteddine. They might also be fascinated by the little historical explanations attached to the various weapons; that appended to one exhibit declares proudly that "a weapon of this type was used to assassinate President Kennedy in 1963 in America".
Moussa's Castle is, in fact, very close to one of the most appalling acts of violence in Lebanon's own history: close by is the coastal town of Damour, 20km south of Beirut, where in 1976 an estimated 584 Christian civilians were massacred by units of Yassir Arafat's Palestinian Liberation Organisation.
Yet this seaside village of infamy is now the site of Campbell Gray's next Lebanese venture: he's working on a beach hotel, to be called Damour Le Gray. Some might find the idea of an ultra-fashionable new hotel on the site of a massacre off-putting. Yet these are a people who have so much to offer travellers – and want so much to welcome them.
Travel essentials: Beirut
* Mzaar InterContinental, Mzaar (00 961 9 340 100; intercontinental.com). Doubles start at US$125 (£83), room only.
* Le Gray, Beirut (00 961 1 971 1111; campbellgrayhotels.com). Doubles start at US$380 (£253), including breakfast.
* White Beirut (00 961 3 060 090; whitebeirut.com).
Red tape & more information
* British passports bearing an Israeli stamp are likely to be refused for entry to Lebanon.
* Tourist visas are required but can be purchased on arrival for US$17 (£11.30).
* Destination Lebanon: lebanon-tourism.gov.lb
* Bentley: bentleymotors.com
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