Chris Leadbeater: Tragic Lebanon – and why one day I'd love to go back

Something to Declare

A little more than two years ago, on a warm October morning, I sat down for a coffee in a city on the edge of the Mediterranean. The café was distinctly modern, all arty decor, flatscreen TVs, Wi-Fi and – Ink Café Resto – clipped 21st-century name. But there was plenty about the scene outside – the horn-honking of cars in traffic; the lyrical rumble of voices talking in Arabic; the name of the street, Rue Cairo – to denote a place of real heritage and depth.

So, I stayed for half an hour, stirred my latte, watched Rihanna flit through another video and pondered that here was a metropolis with a future where once it barely had a present.

There will be few, if any, tourists thinking along the same lines anywhere in Beirut at the moment. The bomb blasts that struck the city's Iranian Embassy last month, killing 23 and injuring more than 160, has seen to that – a worrying throwback to the 1980s, when explosions were regular events in the Lebanese capital as the country was eviscerated by civil war.

The grim truth about this new bloodshed is that it was not unexpected. Lebanon's fortunes have long been linked to those of its neighbour Syria, and this overspill from the increasingly bitter internecine conflict there, along the Sunni-Shia faultline, was always probable.

But there is an extra sorrow in that, after its terrible 20th century, Lebanon was starting to look forward. For all its troubles, Beirut is a city of burgeoning style. In Gemmayzeh, chic bars cater to a young crowd, while Hamra dispenses that splendid cacophony and clutter – pungent aromas drifting from hookah pipes – that characterises the urban Middle East.

Nor is the capital alone as an alluring corner of the country. History and culture abound throughout Lebanon. In the south, a 13th-century Crusader castle adorns the harbour in Sidon (Saida) and Tyre sings of the past at the Al-Mina acropolis, a pocket of tumbled Roman glories. In the north, Byblos still has archaeological shards of its days as the Phoenician capital. And when I headed east, to Baalbek, I encountered a Roman citadel as majestic as any in Italy.

Many of these sites are now vanishing behind an acrid pall of smoke. Since my visit, the Foreign Office has ruled against "all travel" to the eastern half of the Bekaa Valley, which includes Baalbek, and "all but essential travel" to the western half. Sidon witnessed running gun battles last June and has also been placed on the latter list.

Of course, tourism matters not a jot when the death toll in Syria has leapt beyond 120,000 and Beirut is living in fear of regression. But when I drink the last bottle of excellent red wine I bought amid the vineyards of the Bekaa Valley, I will do so rather sadly. It will surely be as near as I come to this delightful, damaged country for a considerable time.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Life and Style
Powdered colors are displayed for sale at a market ahead of the Holi festival in Bhopal, India
techHere's what you need to know about the riotous occasion
Arts and Entertainment
Larry David and Rosie Perez in ‘Fish in the Dark’
theatreReview: Had Fish in the Dark been penned by a civilian it would have barely got a reading, let alone £10m advance sales
News
Details of the self-cleaning coating were published last night in the journal Science
science
News
Approved Food sell products past their sell-by dates at discounted prices
i100
News
Life-changing: Simone de Beauvoir in 1947, two years before she wrote 'The Second Sex', credited as the starting point of second wave feminism
peopleHer seminal feminist polemic, The Second Sex, has been published in short-form to mark International Women's Day
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: Product Advisor - Automotive

    £17000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Due to the consistent growth of...

    Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - Automotive

    £18000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity exists for an ex...

    Recruitment Genius: Renewals Sales Executive - Automotive

    £20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity exists for an ou...

    Recruitment Genius: Membership Sales Advisor

    £18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The fastest growing fitness cha...

    Day In a Page

    Homeless Veterans campaign: Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after £300,000 gift from Lloyds Bank

    Homeless Veterans campaign

    Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after huge gift from Lloyds Bank
    Flight MH370 a year on: Lost without a trace – but the search goes on

    Lost without a trace

    But, a year on, the search continues for Flight MH370
    Germany's spymasters left red-faced after thieves break into brand new secret service HQ and steal taps

    Germany's spy HQ springs a leak

    Thieves break into new €1.5bn complex... to steal taps
    International Women's Day 2015: Celebrating the whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

    Whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

    Simone de Beauvoir's seminal feminist polemic, 'The Second Sex', has been published in short-form for International Women's Day
    Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

    Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

    Why would I want to employ someone I’d be happy to have as my boss, asks Simon Kelner
    Confessions of a planespotter: With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent

    Confessions of a planespotter

    With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent. Sam Masters explains the appeal
    Russia's gulag museum 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities

    Russia's gulag museum

    Ministry of Culture-run site 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities
    The big fresh food con: Alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay

    The big fresh food con

    Joanna Blythman reveals the alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay
    Virginia Ironside was my landlady: What is it like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7?

    Virginia Ironside was my landlady

    Tim Willis reveals what it's like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7
    Paris Fashion Week 2015: The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp

    Paris Fashion Week 2015

    The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp
    8 best workout DVDs

    8 best workout DVDs

    If your 'New Year new you' regime hasn’t lasted beyond February, why not try working out from home?
    Paul Scholes column: I don't believe Jonny Evans was spitting at Papiss Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible

    Paul Scholes column

    I don't believe Evans was spitting at Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible
    Miguel Layun interview: From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

    From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

    Miguel Layun is a star in Mexico where he was criticised for leaving to join Watford. But he says he sees the bigger picture
    Frank Warren column: Amir Khan ready to meet winner of Floyd Mayweather v Manny Pacquiao

    Khan ready to meet winner of Mayweather v Pacquiao

    The Bolton fighter is unlikely to take on Kell Brook with two superstar opponents on the horizon, says Frank Warren
    War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

    Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

    Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable