The town they can't keep down
City Slicker: Beirut - Lebanon's capital, like its taxis, can take a beating then bounce back. Sarah Barrell has some tips for new and returning visitors
Sunday 20 March 2011
Beirut seems a world away from the Middle East that is currently hitting the headlines. Lebanon may still be seeking a prime minister after the recent collapse of its government, but this is workaday stuff for this infamously battle-torn country. Since the Israeli bombings in 2006, the resilient capital has seen a period of peace.
Stand in the newly rebuilt downtown district and a palpable sense of confidence is evident everywhere from the gleaming rooftop pools of new hotels such as Le Gray and the Four Seasons to the pristine new Souks mega mall that has lately welcomed Bond Street franchises. It's a mind-boggling transformation for a city that didn't even have a Starbucks until a couple of years ago.
Downtown has been renamed "Solidere" after the public-private development company that removed its bullet-riddled buildings, causing some locals to bemoan Beirut's loss of heritage in the midst of this commercially minded makeover.
For now, the bombed out Holiday Inn still stands like a cenotaph to the civil war, and there are plans for certain buildings to be kept as relics (beitbeirut.org). Beirut's fleet of battered 1970s Mercedes taxis has also escaped the Solidere treatment. These glorious, bodywork-trailing beasts burn up and down the city's sparkling new streets, often against the flow of traffic, paying little heed to the recently added signs, speed limits and traffic lights – the rusty embodiment of Beirut's defiant spirit.
Beirut's traffic is, today, the craziest thing about a city in which gentle, Arab hospitality and some Côte d'Azur-style bling combine to make it both exciting and yet civilised. And spring is the best time to visit as the city's legendary outdoor clubs roll back their roofs and the beach lidos dust off their sun beds.
Along the seafront, there are plans for a vast new park and private marina. The former will be a boon to Beirut's concrete conurbation, as will the Garden of Forgiveness when it is completed. This green space will run partly along the former Green Line connecting mosques, churches and flood-lit Roman ruins. It's currently halted around Martyr's Square until a home is found for the military stationed idly there. Beirut's perennial self-confidence means everyone expects this to happen any day soon.
Don't miss ...
... the Solidere district. The immaculately renovated centre is a truly great place to stroll. Follow the streets radiating from Place de l'Etoile, taking in churches, mosques, excavated Roman baths, Parisian-style cafés and rebuilt neo-Ottoman buildings.
... the National Museum (beirut nationalmuseum.com). The highlights of this beautifully presented collection of archaeological treasures includes: perfectly preserved Roman mosaics; remarkably lifelike Bronze Age ivory ex-votos in animal forms; marble sculptures of cherubim from the 5th century BC; and a 7th-century BC terracotta funeral mask from Tyre. Don't miss the hourly introductory film showing how the museum was reborn from a tragic pile of wartime rubble.
... Walk Beirut (bebeirut.org/walk.html). Tours on foot are rare in Beirut. This one is guided by recent university graduates and covers the remaining ravages of the civil war, Roman ruins, proud new Beirut buildings, and cool cafés.
... the Beirut Art Center (beirutart center.org). A warehouse space in the industrial Jisr el-Wati district that has already become a hub for national and international contemporary art exhibitions in the two years since it opened. As well as two floors of gallery space, don't miss the bookshop stacked with home-grown writings, graphic art and music plus a "mediathèque" (digital archives) of paintings, photographs, audio clips and artists' biographies.
... Le Corniche. The closest thing Beirut has to a park. Take a sunset stroll along this seafront esplanade, buy a gritty coffee from one of the pushcart stalls and watch the people, from children playing in rock pools to the ranks of men smoking nargili (bubble pipes) over lightning-quick games of backgammon on the boardwalk.
... the Music Hall at the Starco Center, Omar Daouk Street (00 961 3 807 555), a cinema-turned-cabaret venue that is a nightlife landmark. Book a booth, order some cocktails, sit back, and enjoy a show that strives for diversity as much as glitz. Expect to see Lebanese gypsy-pop, glam rock cover bands, Egyptian belly dancing, traditional Iraqi drumming and even a full 25-piece mariachi band.
... Byblos. This seaside satellite town is Beirut's beach playground, with a pretty fishing harbour and a crusader castle alongside Roman temples and Phoenician ruins. Many of the rare artefacts found at Beirut's National Museum come from this site.
Some would say that this commercial gallery, with sister spaces in Syria, Dubai and Cairo, has single-handedly pushed Middle Eastern art into the big-bucks global market. Even if you're not a Saatchi or Christie's buyer, exhibits in Ayyam's two, slick Lebanon showrooms exhibit the best-selling and upcoming contemporary photographers, painters and sculptors. Details: ayyamgallery.com
This boutique, in the artisan-shop-stuffed Saifi Village district, annually selects up to seven new designers to show their collections. You'll also find jewellery and accessories – even the shop is redecorated each year by a young designer. Current collections include industrial-cum-medieval silver and leather jewellery by Margherita (Ghita) Abi-Hanna, and floaty androgynous creations from design-duo Emily Cremona. Details: starchfoundation.org
St George's Cathedral Crypt Museum
The city's eight archaeological layers, from Hellenistic to Ottoman, are cleverly displayed along an exposed wall of the underground passage into this small museum. Inside, you can see the remains of six churches that date back 2,000 years. There are sandstone tombs, 18th-century frescos salvaged from the bombed out cathedral (complete with bullet holes), a section of Roman road, and a skylight looking up into the altar of this renovated Maronite church. Details: St George's Cathedral, Place d'Etoiles.
This see-and-be-seen cocktail and sushi bar is set above the oh-so-chic designer emporium, Plum, one of those great Beirut places that relies on you knowing exactly where it is – accessed by what looks like the elevator to a posh apartment building on the edge of the new Souqs shopping area. Details: mybar.me
"Grandma" style cooking served in a kitsch Franco-Lebanese building bordering the Gemmayzeh party district. I loved the silky-smoky Baba Ghanoush and the fluffy potato and cheese baked kibbeh. There's an outside terrace but inside wins with tiled mosaic floors, 1950s French windows, velvet banquettes and little embroidered foot stools on which the glossy female clientele place their designer bags. For all that, it's a laid-back place, with nargili smoke and relaxed service. Details: Sasadi Building, Charles Malek Avenue (00 961 1 326 327).
How to get there
Sarah Barrell travelled as a guest of British Midland International (flybmi.com), which offers direct flights from London Heathrow to Beirut from £437. A double room at Le Gray, Beirut (00 961 196 28 28; legray.com) costs from £235 per night.
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