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City life: Beirut

An alluring coastal capital with an endearingly split personality, Beirut is the thriving Arabian port city on the Med that refuses to be defined by its recent past

City life: Beirut
Girl chases pigeons in a square, Beirut. Credit: Alamy

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Banquo has at least stopped bleeding. The clots have congealed and fallen away, leaving only the wounds in his flanks — ash-rimmed holes, blackened punctures, smoky scorches. But he’s here at the banquet nonetheless; a dead presence eyeing the guests who mill at his feet. And so I watch him in turn, this dread spectacle, and start to feel uncomfortable.

Catching sight of Beirut’s notorious Holiday Inn is an experience that tugs at the lungs. It makes me gasp. There’s something of Macbeth’s friend-turned-phantom-tormentor to this 26-storey wreck in the Minet el Hosn quarter. All about it, the Lebanese capital is chasing the future in a blur of cash and glamour: chauffeured cars pulling up outside the five-star Phoenicia Hotel next door, and the Four Seasons and Le Vendome hotels beyond; sails fluttering at Le Yacht Club, the marina and chic residential complex on Zaitunay Bay.

But the Holiday Inn only wants to discuss the past: the Lebanese Civil War of 1975-1990, which transformed it from a glitzy debutante (it opened in 1974) into a blood-stained memory of what occurs when a cosmopolitan city becomes a charnel house of internecine conflict. For two years (1975-1977) it was coveted not by tourists, but guerilla fighters who wanted its upper floors for snipers’ nests. So it was treated to a confetti shower of artillery to the point that, four decades on, it’s irredeemable. The companies who co-own it — one Lebanese, one Kuwaiti — can’t agree on whether to demolish or renovate it, though the latter is implausible. And so it stands there, shrieking of a dispute between disparate militias that, though 27 years into yesterday, still shapes perceptions of Lebanon, casting it as a hell-hole of hostages and gunfire.

This is now a ridiculous idea, easily dispelled if you wander around Beirut on foot, along the Corniche promenade that flirts with the Mediterranean for three gilded miles; into the districts which present various versions of the city — resurgent Downtown, heavily rebuilt; Hamra and Ras-Beirut, full of Arabic chatter and strong coffee; Accrafieh and Gemayzeh, still dreaming of the French colonial era in their cafes and galleries; Verdun, merging Paris and the Middle East in its restaurants and luxury malls. Together, they create an urban tapestry whose intricate craftsmanship is apparent whether you’re sipping a cocktail on Rue Monot or gazing at antiquity in the National Museum of Beirut. I find myself in the latter, staring in admiration at the tomb of Ahiram, a king who reigned in Byblos, 25 miles up the coast, in 1,000BC. There, on the side of the sarcophagus, is the earliest known example of the Phoenician alphabet, a potent symbol of early communication and a reminder of two things: that Lebanon was a seat of civilisation while much of Europe was still squatting in the mud, and that the tale of its capital stretches far beyond 15 years in the abyss, however loudly Banquo moans and wails.

A resurrection of sorts

If the Holiday Inn is a scab of war, then Beirut’s Downtown is a sticking plaster on scar tissue. So damaged was the heart of the city due east of Minet el Hosn that it had to be re-created. And it was, by Rafic Hariri, prime minister of Lebanon between 1992 and 2004 (aside from a brief window in 1998-2000), who redrew the core of the capital as a polished zone of shops and sophistication fanning out around the pivotal Place de l’Etoile.

Perhaps it’s a little too sophisticated. Sitting in Al Balad, a Lebanese restaurant just off the square on Rue Hussein el Ahdab, I get the feeling that something isn’t right. True, there’s nothing wrong with the meal in front of me, a perfectly pleasant platter of grilled lamb. But out in the street, there’s an absence of reality, a dearth of authenticity. Hariri revived his metropolis in fabric, but not in spirit, for Downtown lacks any of the scratches and scuffs that you might expect of an Arabian city. The pavements are smooth, manicured, and the road surfaces — thanks to the adjacent position of the national parliament and the security issues that go with it — are largely free of traffic, with cars backed up behind checkpoints.

The same applies, directly north, in the reconstructed souks. The location of Beirut’s main market zone is the same as in the city’s halcyon 1960s, but the space delineated by Avenue Mir Majid Arslan, Rue Weygand, Rue Patriarch Howayek and Rue Allenby is not the manic hive of citrus fruits, kitchenware and spices it once was. Business seems brisk as I stroll through Souk al-Tawileh and Souk al-Jamil — but it’s Christian Louboutin and Louis Vuitton who are doing the selling. Pedlars do not peddle; hagglers do not haggle. It’s as if the 21st century has expunged all that came before, using a whitewash of luxury.

Listen carefully, however, and former epochs whisper. On the south-east edge of Place de l’Etoile, St George’s Orthodox Cathedral remembers its late 19th-century origins in a swirl of incense and candlelight. Behind, scattered pillars and columns reach back further, to the Roman incarnation of Beirut. And if the Mohammed Al-Amin Mosque is a pretender, a newcomer hewn between 2002 and 2008 as part of Downtown’s reemergence, it rises with such elegance — four 65m-tall minarets lancing the sky, a soaring blue dome that wouldn’t seem out of context in Ottoman Istanbul — that its youth is invisible.

Street vendor selling ka’ik (bread with sesame seeds) along the Corniche. Image: Alamy

Street vendor selling ka’ik (bread with sesame seeds) along the Corniche. Image: Alamy

Meanwhile, over in Hamra, Beirut is struggling to contain itself. At a table on the street outside Café Hamra, an argument has broken out. Perhaps it’s not an altercation, more a heated discussion. But the four men seated in a cluster are ripping into their subject matter like lions into a zebra carcass. A fist is raised, the table is banged with sufficient power for the eight small cups and three laden ashtrays on its circular top to tremble in concern. For a moment I’m fearful that the scene will unravel into violence. But then there are shrugs, nodded heads, handshakes, and the quartet rises in friendship, their gloopy dregs of coffee still shaking from the force of their conversation.

If Downtown is a sanitised vision of how a Middle Eastern city should look in 2017, Hamra, to the west, is the truth. It’s the soul of Beirut, a glowing ember of Arabic clutter and cacophony. Minibuses and taxis stutter along Rue Hamra, its main east-to-west drag, exhaust fumes billowing, horns honking with an incessant impatience that never succeeds in soothing the congestion. The stores fringing the thoroughfare are just as crowded, with locals shopping not for $800 handbags but for washing powder, irons, shampoo, cartons of orange juice. It’s a maze which, for all its mundanity, demands exploration. And so I explore, down the narrow lanes of Rue Antoun Gemayel, Rue Yamout and Rue Ibrahim Abdul Aal, through a press of people and purpose, until I drop back onto Rue Hamra and into coffeehouse Bread Republic, where the game of call and response between staff and regular customers is as representative a flavour of Lebanon as the mint tea in front of me.

But then it all slopes away. At its west end, Rue Hamra becomes Rue Kuwait and drifts downhill through the adjacent district of Ras-Beirut to connect with the Corniche, which forges south here as Avenue General de Gaulle. Suddenly, the Mediterranean dominates the picture, a green-grey carpet wrapping itself around the off-shore outcrops of Pigeon Rocks in a flurry of white flecks — and I struggle to connect the dots. Ras-Beirut wears a faint shadow. It was here that British captives Terry Waite and John McCarthy were held in dank basements.

Yet today, there’s only warmth and light, holidaymakers turning their faces towards the sunshine on Ramlet Al-Bayda Beach, a crescent of sand which could happily grace the Cote D’Azur, as any ghosts of the dark decades are blown away on the breeze.

A Gallic throwback

Catchphrases become clichés for good reason. And Beirut’s oft-quoted status as the ‘Paris of the Middle East’ is a description born of fact. Not because an Eiffel Tower rears tall on Place des Martyrs, but because the French Mandate of Lebanon and Syria (1923-1946), the post-First World War partitioning of the collapsed Ottoman Empire by Europe’s key states, left its mark. It’s perhaps less pronounced than it was. But ambling along Rue Gouraud, the arterial avenue in easterly Gemayzeh — so far east that it was on the other side of the infamous barbed-wire Green Line which divided Beirut during the civil war — I’m not wholly convinced that this isn’t the Rue de Rivoli where it skirts the hem of the Marais. There are jewellers and gem stores, cafes which blink woozily at the afternoon. Urbanista deals in patterned-milk lattés and laptop tip-tap. And when my lunch — pink-raw slices of seared tuna, doused in sesame seeds, on delicate slivers of toast — arrives, thoughts of conflict feel far removed.

Montmartre feels closer, in effect. The bohemian hilltop of Paris is echoed on Saint Nicholas Stairs, ascending 500 metres southwards, small galleries pitted along its gradient. Laboratoire D’Art revels in painting, sculpture and photography; it’s a permanent exhibition spot in a place which was hosting outdoor art shows before the civil war, and has picked up the thread again, earning the moniker ‘Escalier De L’Art’. And so I go up, one step, two, to the 125th; this corridor of creativity impersonating the French capital all the way.

My reward at the top is not the Sacré Coeur but the Cathedral of Saint Nicholas, a Greek Orthodox bastion offset by the Jardin Saint Nicholas, a pretty pocket of green. Then Gemayzeh seeps into the sub-district of Accrafieh and the party begins. Rue Monot is an antidote to the idea of the Middle East as a dour region of pious self-restraint, its doors opening onto bars and drinkeries. Pacifico delights in a Mexican ambience and a long list of tequilas; 37° pines for a Marais back lane in its cocktail menu and chic vibe; O Monot finishes the sentence, a boutique retreat of 41 rooms, decorated with slabs of modern art, where the sense of denial that the Louvre is not a five-minute walk away is near-palpable.

France simply won’t take the hint that its mandate has expired. While, officially, the broad boulevard which cuts south from Hamra, through Snoubra, ultimately ending its journey where it hits the Corniche, bears the title ‘Rue Rachid Karami’, it’s known locally as Rue Verdun. Liberté, egalité and fraternité link arms on this two-mile drag whose name salutes the First World War battle which saved the French nation, and its identity, in 1916.

And yet, in the neighbourhood of Verdun, another identity has coalesced: the European and Middle Eastern strands of Beirut intermingling. The former has its say at the north end of the strip, where Hotel Le Bristol, a grand old dame, sings of that white-gloved, coat-tailed version of hospitality which feels most at home in the capitals of the Old World. The latter finds expression in Leila, the best restaurant on the street, a Lebanese gastronomic delight, where Beirut displays a dash of liberté, egalité and fraternité of its own — all-women groups of diners pooled at booth tables, dissecting meze dishes over laughter and Tuesday evening chatter, heads unbowed to the conventions of a portion of the planet that can be all too masculine.

There are further knots of girls’-night-out togetherness amid the flash and sparkle of the Dunes Center. But my attention is caught, in this gleaming glass complex of retail outlets and cascading elevators, not by the gold watches in their reinforced showcases, but by the intriguing sign for the main hotel. ‘Holiday Inn Beirut Dunes’, it reads. The property isn’t new — it opened as far back as 1998. But the accommodation giant’s move to an alternative address in the city feels, nonetheless, like a stride away from the desiccated corpse that still clings to its brand. Two miles to the north-east, Banquo grumbles. It seems the banquet will outlast him.

Essentials

Getting there & around
British Airways operates a daily flight from Heathrow. Middle East Airlines, Lebanon’s national carrier, offers a daily service on the same route.  
Public transport within the city is limited, but Beirut is easily explored on foot, and Uber cabs are increasingly common. Taxis into town from the airport should cost US$25 (£20).

When to go
Lebanon has a southern Mediterranean climate akin to Turkey and Cyprus. Temperatures dip to around 15C between January and February, but crest 30C during July and August.

More info
tourism.gov.lb
Bradt: Lebanon by Paul Doyle. RRP: £15.99
Footprint Focus: Beirut by Jessica Lee. RRP: £7.99

How to do it
Kirker Holidays offers three-night breaks at the Four Seasons from £1,279 per person, including return flights, private transfers and breakfast. 
Wild Frontiers sells an eight-day ‘Lebanon: Jewel Of The Levant’ group tour with four nights in Beirut. From £1,690 per person, land only. 

Published in the Jan/Feb issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)