The first time I arrived in Beirut, I approached it with, if not fear, then a certain amount of nervousness — with the trepidation of cartoon children venturing to a house on a hill that’s believed to be haunted. Here was a city which had burst repeatedly from the television screens of my pre-adolescence, a frightening outpost washed in a crackle of gunfire and explosive reputation.
But I made it safely to the heart of a location where the worst of the Lebanese Civil War unfurled its AK-47s between 1975 and 1990. I stopped at Rabbit Hole on Rue Makdisi, in the westerly district of Hamra, listened to the purr of the modern world — the whoosh of the coffee machine, the click of another customer’s fingers on her laptop, the footfall of shoppers heading towards lively Rue Hamra beyond — and wondered why I’d worried.
Most cities live up to the images which frame their legend, Paris as a hive of galleries and celestial architecture; Rome forever tied to its ancient glories; Rio dancing on Ipanema. Yet the Beirut of the 21st century isn’t a blitzkrieg hellhole, but a cosmopolitan complex of cuisine, cocktails and no little culture.
True, sad echoes abound. To stroll from Hamra towards the route of the civil-war ‘Green Line’, which separated Muslim West Beirut from the nominally Christian East, is to gaze on pockmarks of conflict — still-ruined buildings, once fabulous, now fractured, on Rue Michel Chiha; the bruised edges of Place des Martyrs, where the Green Line dug in, and where construction sites are now filling the gaps; the grizzly ghost of the notorious Holiday Inn, towering above Rue Fakhreddine, charred shell holes in its wounded sides, a Banquo at the feast of the Phoenicia Hotel, all five-star finesse, next door; the strained soullessness of new Downtown — a complex of shops and cafes, fanning out around Place de l’Etoile.
Yet it’s precisely the fact that it lives amid scar tissue that makes Beirut so fascinating. Its east-west split is still in evidence, though these days, the differentials are atmosphere and cuisine rather than bitter enmity. Hamra and its west-side colleague Ras-Beirut are smokily Arabic — men discussing the business of the hour over hookah pipes and strong black coffees at the landmark Cafe Hamra; the traffic clotted and frayed, horns honking, brake lights jammed on red. This cacophony tails off where Rue Hamra loses itself to the Mediterranean Sea — Ramlet Al Bayda beach is a long, golden reminder that Beirut is also a destination for sun and sand. And a place for dinner too. Rue Verdun, stretching south through Hamra, might speak of the France that ran the country (1920-1943), but the food in its restaurants is defiantly Lebanese. Leila, the brightest star here, revels in meze platters and grilled meats, its tables humming with conversation.
Three miles away, the east is equally enticing — though it half-believes its gentility plays out in Paris rather than Arabia. Rue Gouraud, the key thoroughfare of sophisticated Gemmayzeh, is a haze of jewellery outlets and soft gems. And Laboratoire D’Art brings its installations, clever photography and Marais aesthetic to the heavy stones of the Saint Nicolas Steps, as they quest upwards and southbound towards bohemian Achrafieh. Here, chic bar 37º, on Rue Monot, dreams of Montmartre — a decadent air to its dimly lit interior, a choir of spirit bottles on shelves behind the bar. Its near neighbour Pacifico salutes Mexico in its tequila tipples.
Thirty years ago, you wouldn’t have expected such a culinary melting pot — or a melting pot of any sort. The Lebanese capital, though, is a survivor. In the excellent National Museum of Beirut, 100,000 archaeological fragments remember the powers that have laid down roots in the region in the last three millennia — Phoenicians, Greeks, Egyptians, Romans, Byzantines, Umayyads. Many have come and departed, but the city remains, ever intriguing.
Published in the March 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)