My 1001 nights shorter version came up with my husband's 3 days away surprise. We had a long time to travel somewhere on the impulse, all our travels were because of business or family emergencies. So he thought the little escapade from the daily mundane world would be a blessing in disguise. And oh dear God it had been more than that, with all kinds of events whirling about us and making us believe we would never breathe calmly again!
The destination was Beirut, Lebanon the green gem of Middle East, better known as Paris of the Arab world. I haven't been there before, hubby has, though both of us did not know what to expect from this trip as Beirut went under a lot of changes because of wars, neighbouring attacks and internal political disputes.
Friday morning we were in the airport excited as you like prepared to get this adventure going. Well, as always with us, it had a bumpy start. At the check in desk were only 2 ladies and the queue thick and long and not all waiting were for the same flight. Alarm went red light in my head and I was already seeing my trip cut shorter than it already was! After 50 minutes, our luggage was checked in, our tickets printed and we were running like mad to the gate. Of course all this running was for nothing, because the plane was delayed 45 minutes to take off! Even now writing this I don't know the actual reason we were delayed so long to take off, for a flight that has the same duration as the delay, funny in the frustrating way.
When our plane landed on Lebanese soil, we were happy to be able to get out of it, because the loud people inside made our eyes to be out of focus, we were worse than Tom and Jerry with flying birds around their heads. First thing you notice once you are in Beirut's airport is the soldiers that are roaming up and down, the vigilant eyes measuring you up and down watching every step you take. Second thing you notice is that most of the signs are not translated in English and you kind of trail the people who know which corridors to follow. Of course here too only 2 desks were working! I think it was the rule of the 2, everywhere it had to be working 2 by 2 only to have long queues forming and my short holiday to really become a waiting thing.
Once faced with the passport checking officer I thought I would faint, he had such a hard look on his face I thought I did wrong to come to his country without announcing him first! The list of questions was not short, but it had the common one: "What's your reason to visit Lebanon." an entire interview if you ask me followed after that! I thought I would be put on the bench and my holiday refused, but I later learned that since they are on the red alert of war the army took charge of all the border points and they dealt with everything and everyone, army like to ensure the safety of their country and try as much as possible to keep at bay new problems. I was not one, because I was left to pass as my husband was, though because he had the British Passport he had a larger list to answer to!
After picking up our luggage we went to change some money, from euro to Lebanese Lira and American Dollars. In Lebanon everyone works best with Dollars and everything is valued in Dollars. Is best to have 20 Dollars bills, everything is 20 Dollars and I'm not kidding. And if you'll read further on my review you'll see what I mean. While my husband was changing the money, already the taxi drivers had their eyes on us; we were like little mice ready to be eaten by the big cats, in this case taxi drivers. One of them, not very bashful either, approached us straight and asked us where we'd like to be taken to already reaching for our bags. My husband answered with the name of the hotel, Portemilio Hotel & Resort, Kashlik, Jounieh. He said it would take only 20 minutes to take us there. Good we said, thinking it was really close. Wrong!!! It is outside Beirut, a really long way, those 20 minutes entitled the crazy ride at the crazy speed the driver took us there. I'm not even thinking to make it light and joking through what we went until we got to the hotel. I swear those people have no traffic signs, they don't even look in their mirrors to make sure no one will hit from the back; as for the sides, why should they use the mirrors when they can get their heads out of the windows to make sure they have space to cross from one line to another! This guy I think had all the tics in the world, eye twitching, restless hands, foot trembling and no sense of whatsoever he was saying because he started one thing to say and ended on something else entirely. I'm not exaggerating when I say I prayed all the way from the airport to the hotel to get there safe and sound! This was one crazy adventure, really, I don't know what kind of Lady Luck was watching over us that day, but she had some weird kind sense of humor.
Once we stopped in front of the hotel's doors it was like the storm passed and the sun was shining again, even though it did shine all right since we landed, July is one of the most humid month in Beirut. The thing I did hold myself not to do was to kiss the ground once I felt it under my feet, because I thought better not scare the people around me with my stupid reaction. I recovered quick though when I heard how much the taxi driver wanted for the crazy ride; 70 dollars and he had the guts to ask for "something for him" too, which made me wonder if he was for real or just tried to rip us of as much money as he could. My husband added 5 dollars more and sent him on his way.
Inside the lobby we thought no more crazy adventures and the day will start being good and no more surprising surprises as the taxi ride. We went to the reception desk and surprise surprise, the receptionists had no talent with English, their main foreign language they spoke fluently was French. Beirut's not Middle East Paris for nothing after all! I started getting irritated and not because the poor guys could not speak proper English or understand what we wanted, because my husband doesn't know more than Merci and Brigitte Bardot and I was not given too much attention. I guess as civilized as they are, the Arab way is still the Arab way and the man has to be dealt with and the woman to follow. I know French and in the end they had to deal with me if they did not want to have one raging animal (my other half) bite at them. We upgraded from a standard room to a Junior Suite only because of sleeping arrangements (I have a raging animal as a husband that snores as a broken tractor's engine) for the difference of 20 dollars, original price being 220 dollars a night and a Junior Suite being 240 dollars a night. The receptionist handed the room keys to us together with the Wi-Fi password connection and told us our room is on the seventh floor with parking lot view, if we wanted a Senior Suite with gardens view we had to pay another 20 dollars extra. We said no, after all the room was only for sleeping as we had plan to use the full 3 days to really explore as much as we could.
We entered the room and we had a shock what 5 stars meant for Portemilio Hotel; everything was not only outdated, was kind of dirty, screeching, creaking, rust in the bathroom, bugs on the balcony and spots on the couches. I think no hotel inspector had been by to see the state of it to downgrade it to a well worth 3 stars. I wouldn't have minded if they were to sell it to me as such, than to sell it as a 5 star and way too pricey for something that was like a joke. Getting over it, cause we could do nothing more than change it and for the amount of time we were to stay was not worth it, we just took our sun glasses and headed out. At the reception we were told that once we turn left at the gates we should follow the up hill roads and we'll get to the shops, restaurants and markets that are in the area. That's what we did, we hit the road on a hot and humid day and played the tourists role.
Kashlik is nice, as it is bordered by the mountains where most of Jounieh area lies and the sea which is full of entertainment, restaurants and people basking under the sun. We walked as much as we could under the sun, we lost ourselves on the narrow old streets and we admired the rocky hills on top of which are the most beautiful villas, the lizards that were running up and down. It was only 10 AM, and the day ahead was a long one and promising at the same time after all it was just the beginning. When we thought we got lost we arrived to the bustle and hustle of Kashlik center where all the shops were aligned and all the traffic seemed to crowd the narrow stone paved roads. As hot as it was, the side-walks were full with people just window shopping or strolling about. The coffee shop on the other hand were empty and as in any other Middle East country the owners tried to bait costumers from the side-walks with generous offers. You know, what I loved best in this place was the fact that every coffee came with free sweets! And I don't mean a chocolate biscuit, I mean big savoury Lebanese sweet, full of syrup and nuts! If you ever find yourself in Kaslik or Jounieh and there's a coffee shop owner bribing you in with various offers, don't think twice, cause the vast competition makes the package offered bigger, tastier and cheap.
We had lunch at one of the restaurants by the sea, which had their terrace on the water. Bad thing the Lebanese don't clean the Mediterranean as the rest of the countries do; while we had our lunch our panoramic view was filled with trash floating on the sea and people having their swim in between. Excluding the view in the near proximity, the one deeper on the sea and surrounding us was stunning, sky kissing sea sheltered in the crook of the mountains made our copious meal even tastier. God the Lebanese know how to make their humous and the taboulleh is just fantastic; the white beans never tasted better and the meat had the best condiments in its mix! I loved the food over there, I think one great thing about this trip was the food, no European restaurant with Arabic cuisine can ever match the original! I vouch for it cause I had a taste and I still crave for more, though I don't think I could ever go as soon back and have some.
When we could not eat any more and had no power to walk we took a taxi back to our hotel, of course the rate was 20 dollars, the same as the lunch was charged for. Once back, we went to the Pool Bar to relax and have hookah, no trip to the Arab world should be made without having a taste of the flavoured tobacco. The Pool area was like a small Paradise on earth, nothing to do with the hotel as such, made you feel like it was not even under the same management, which I guess is the thing that keeps Portemilio alive and on prime positions amongst other hotels in Kashlik. At the bar the staff fussed around us and served our orders in minutes, our hookah set we just relaxed and admired the sunset in front of us. After 5 minutes I was dizzy, laughing like an idiot and started seeing double. My husband fret about my well-being and told me to stop play with the hookah cause it seemed quite strong. Even to this day I say that was no flavoured tobacco, something else was in it, because I have occasionally hookah at the bar we go each Friday and I don't laugh like an idiot and see double.
For dinner, we opted to eat in the Hotel, we were dead tired to go for another stroll and lucky find a place to eat, so we risked and stayed inside. The menu was kind of basic but did the trick to cover the hunger so with that Day 1 ended. Actually that night we had some scary things going on as the electricity was interrupted many times and the sirens went on alert and we thought the bombing will start shortly! Though it was only to announce the generators needed fixing, phew.
Day 2 started early in the morning with a big fat breakfast while planning what we should do. Now, I have to say we had no plans, ideas or even maps with important places to see. We said we'd start walking again and where our feet will take us there will stop if it looks interesting, if not walk further and after take a taxi which will have a reasonable driver and will not crazy drive us back to the hotel. Breakfast finished, we asked for a taxi at the reception and we were ready again to face some of Beirut's beauties. Mall is was!!! A beauty indeed, huge as nothing else I have ever been given to see. At the entrance of course there were soldiers to check in your bag or even body search you just in case you were to carry a weapon or something.
The mall has 4 levels up and 4 down, and is very long, covered surface of 50 000 m2, all I can say is that we got inside at 10 AM and left at 9 PM. We learned inside that if you don't want to pay big bills when having a meal, don't order alcohol that's imported, stick to the local beer and you'll be safe; instead of paying 40 dollars for 2 persons and drink wine better drink the local Almaza beer and is as cheap as water. We had so much beer that for one week after we returned we kind of avoided it. We were also told that you can bargain your route with the taxi driver and pay for almost all the trips 20 dollars!!! Even to the airport the fee will be the same and that we were played by the taxi driver that took us to our hotel! Again in the mall we learned that electricity in Lebanon is cut every 6 hours for about the same amount of time as it is on because their station is old and most of the households and hotels work with power generators; here was the explanations for our imaginary bombs and sirens.
Once we decided to return to the hotel we went on and tried the bargaining thing with the taxi drivers, and it worked! We were so proud, ha ha ha, after we spent more on taxi than on anything else since we landed, we finally had the hang of it. This taxi driver was very polite and helpful, one of the few Lebanese we met and did not try to rip us of. He became our guide in Beirut for the next 24 hours. Lucky hubby could finally talk with someone that knew English and did not need my help to translate for him. John, this was his name, told us that we should not leave the country before we went to shop in Bourj Hammoud and had a nice meal in Broumana where the famous Mounir Restaurant is and of course he'll take us around. Why had not we found this guy from the beginning?
Next morning we skipped breakfast and at 8 AM we were already in the taxi on our way to Bourj Hammoud. I love this place, it looks like the old centre of any city in the world, the old trading centre of Beirut which is mainly occupied by Armenian sellers. God, there was everything everywhere. Here was the gold shop with the most exquisite jewellery as for next to find the vegetable trolleys and fruits on the ground. You could find the small corner dealers that had on offer all kind of fake watches, glasses and pens; flawless, they could have been passed as originals easily. The streets where humming with people all over the place and once I looked up I saw the fanciest wiring I have ever had the pleasure to admire. I mean, half of the production of wires in the world where used in Bourj Hammoud! Neighbors stealing electricity from one another, sharing the satellite TV and internet and the wires for clothes made the sky seem a far away world and the people on the streets feel trapped in the webs of a giant black widow. I made sure to snap as many photos I could to be able to prove my seeing.
Any tourist in Beirut should not miss Bourj Hammoud as it is fascinating, I loved it. It has coffee terraces in the middle of the street. What in other places should be roundabouts, here they were transformed in little islands for relaxation with a cup of coffee in front of you. You find brands to buy in originals or copycats, you hear thousands of languages see all sort of faces not knowing if they are to mug you or they're just upset about personal problems. You can easily get lost around here and lose the notion of time. We spent quite allot here, it was impossible not to, if not for the beautiful things we bought, for the way each seller presented their products. You felt like you were at a private auction and you could not miss the rare opportunity not to buy it. We ate trolley delicacies, mostly spicy, made us drink lots of water, made friends with lots of people, because they were simply friendly here. A nice spot pointed out by our personal taxi driver guide.
When we finished with Bourj we called John to take us to Mounir. Breath taking sites, we were driving to high mountains, and as we advanced the air started getting cooler and more bearable. The restaurant is on top of the Jounieh, from up there you can see the whole Kashlik downstairs and part of Jounieh and some amazing views of the sea! This restaurant if huge, mostly used for weddings, parties, baptise celebrations and so on. At lunch time it was full and it had even two baptise celebrations. Because it was summer when we were over, the terrace was open and it was endless; on one side there was a rocky wall with mini water falls, at the back the was a green garden for kids and adults alike to take small walks and unwind as for the opposite side it opened on the valley and the breathtaking views of the sea and the city under. The place it is magic, even though it is opened space during summer, it had the long curtains here and there to emphasize its magic and give a royal feel to it. The food was not great, was gorgeous and in big portions and the attention given for each table was overwhelming! The place had 150 staffers, everything was on speed, no one suffered from waiting, everyone had what desired when desired. This was and is a 5 stars place not only for the food and great service but for the location too.
After our meal we had to return to the hotel and prepare for our departure. I was happy and sad at the same time. Sad I discovered the best of the place towards the end, happy that I was to leave the extreme humidity! During summer Beirut is a real sauna under the sun, not such great fun, everything feels hot and burning.
We left the hotel happily earlier than planned only because John said he'll show us Beirut city to have a glance at how it looks in the centre. If I have never had the pleasure to see extremes in the same place at the same time in my life ever again, now I did. Buildings tall and shiny on one side that are shouting modernism and money and black, with holes from bullets with carpets on their windows on the other side. Rich and poor face to face on the same street and in the middle the presidential palace circled with giant blocks of cements and barbed wire, a reminder that conflict is still lurking in the air.
On some army points you can see badly crashed cars with signs on top that say: "This can be you if you don't pay attention how you drive." and on others you can see stopped cars that are checked all over for illegal guns or suspicious weapons. This controversy of rich and poor, free but always being followed, beautiful but full of scars makes the place fascinating. And when it is only for a short trip is more so of an adventure.
Once arrived at the airport, we paid our driver the famous 20 dollars plus some more for he was the greatest help and we said goodbye to the extreme Paris of Middle East and went on to catch our flight back home. Of course we had to go through the same ordeal of being checked at least 4 times, the security is really intense and a bit scary; and of course even the flight back had a delay of 45 minutes to take off. I still don't know the reason why.
What I really want to point out is:
-take care where you exchange your money and make sure they are small bills
-try to bargain as much as you can, because in the end you'll gain more than you can imagine
-while still home try to find the best offer on one clean with positive reviews hotel
-try to eat only traditional food as it is the cheapest, tastiest and fresh
-drink local beer as you'll spare your pocket to pay extra money
-try to stick with the same taxi driver, you'll save lots of money
-when you receive no help, try and tip and you'll be amazed by how smooth things will work out
-Bourj Hammoud is a must to get lost into
-Mounir Restaurant is my recommendation for the best meal ever
-try the hookah over, and after tell me if I was right
-try to cover as much ground as possible
-don't miss the Mall
-the night life Beirut has to offer is multivariate, this city does not sleep at night (Middle East Paris)
-be brave, that's the way they drive!
I hope I did not bore anyone with my experience, however this trip was balanced between good and bad, though the good won in the end; Beirut was, is and will be one of the greatest Middle East gem. If ever the opportunity will be presented to you, don't miss out, it truly is one unique experience.
i lived in Beirut for 20 years.Their are 2 parts to Beirut, the part for tourists and the part the Lebanese go to get away from them.
Beirut used to be called the Paris of the middle east mostly because it was such a open city, you can do what you want in Beirut, their are strip clubs,night clubs and casino's. its not the typical Middle Eastern city. their are churches and mosques right next to each other theirs even a synagog(sorry for the spelling), in the war beirut was cut in 2, the east was christian and the west was muslim, although they were right next to each other it might as well have been another country. the line that cuts the city in half was called the green line because of the thousands of plants that grew their when the people left. no one would dare pass because both areas were heavily guarded by snipers,if a muslim was caught in the east he'd be shot and the same for a christian in the west, it was known that if a car wanted to pass from east to west they would have to put a bra on the antenna of the car inorder not to be shot(typical lebanese humour) nowadays the green line is full of night clubs and bars, their are english pubs(the hole in the wall), irish pubs(celtic), lounge clubs and huge ibiza style clubs playing house music.
you can learn alot about the Lebanese by looking at Beirut, the Mc Donalds has valet parking!!,you can see a very chic and expensive sushi restaurant right next to a refugee camp full of poor people,our virgin megastore is a 3 storey building with a roof top restaurant, we are the only city(other than toronto i think) that has 2 hard rock cafes,theirs a Maronite church,Greek Orthodox church,shiite mosque,sunni mosque Armenian catholic church,Protestant church and synogog all within 300 meters of each other. you can walk buy the newly renovated "phoenician" hotel, then turn around and see a building with 100's of thousands of bullet holes in it, a reminder of the hard days.
the lebanese dont really hang out in the newly renovated down town area we dont feel comfortable their, mainly because you dont feel like your in lebanon, lebanon is famous for its people and no one can afford to live in the downtown area(normal apartments thier costing up wardss of 7million$) so its usually full of tourists and empty buildings with no one sitting on the balconys( a lebanese hobby), we prefer the historic gemmayzeh street, its old architecture reminds you of the old lebanon and it feels like your in a city, their are old men playing "tawle" which is like backgammon, thier are 100's of small cheap family owned bars and clubs and many restaurants, an old jesuit school a theater, and best of all normal lebanese people, the type who dont own BMW's.
their are many hotels in Beirut and many more being built with help from the gulf countries. my advice for really enjoying Beirut is to buy a small map and totally get lost, i was born in Beirut and lived their all my life(until now) and i still find small bars and cafes that i didnt know existed, now for you women,i think shopping was created for lebanese women beacuse they'll sell their souls for a gucci dress, theirs everything you want from Hugo Boss to our very own Elie Saab each designer has his own place in downtown Beirut, also check out the huge new ABC mall that opened in Achrafieh its HUGE with cinema's,restaurants,book stores and many many shops.
Monot street is the place to go to party, its a area maybe the size of 2 football pitches but has around 100 bars and clubs, beirutis usually bar hop and have 1 or 2 drinks at a few places rather than just sit in one place. dont worry about food, for those who dont have alot of money their are thousands of cheap places and for those who do have money go check out Crystal restaurant and club, go buy a 3000$ bottle of champagne and watch as the music stops and a spot light comes on your table, the waiters come to your table holding the huge bottle while everyone watches, fire works go of inside the club and at the end your name is enscribed into the wall next to all the other people who can afford that famous bottle of champagne or check out the "centrale" restaurant built in a old ottoman style mansion, go sit in the bar that is suspended right above the restaurant, then watch as the waiter presses a button and the roof opens to reveal the beuatifull beirut skyline at night or the BO18 night club , built by the same architect , it is built in a former palestinian refugee camp , where thousands of palestinians where slaughtered by christian militian groups, for that reason the club is shaped like a coffin and built underground, and when the club gets full the roof opens to revel the night sky full of stars, its truley a amazing place ONLY IN BEIRUT, Come check it out now!
"Hi Mum, I'm off to Beirut tomorrow,"...there was a long pause on the other end of the telephone, followed by a quietly concerned "oh!". Not a bad reaction, I thought, considering the negative press Beirut has had in the last few decades due to the long-running civil war. I'd been studying in Damascus for the past 6 months, and unexpectedly my school announced a week-long holiday. This coincided with my Syrian residence visa finally coming through allowing me to leave the country, so I felt it was time to relax by the sea for a few days. Beirut is an easy hop over the mountains from Damascus, just $8 and 3 hours in a service taxi. A short distance, but Beirut is a world a way from Damascus. Syria is a part of the world which Coca Cola and Starbucks have yet to conquer, while Beirut, the Middle East's party city, has everything from HSBC Banks to a Hard Rock Cafe and joggers. However, it might be a different country, but the Syrian president's portrait is just as ubiquitous here as in Damascus...a sign of who is really in power here. Three hours in a shared taxi isn't a long time, and I'd timed it perfectly so that I would arrive in Beirut in daylight, leaving me enough time to find somewhere to stay. But I had not accounted for the possibility of snow! Neither had anyone else, it would seem, as the snow fell thick and fast, and no road-clearing teams had anticipated it. I hadn't given snow a second thought; even though Lebanon has made a name for itself for winter sports, I was visiting in late March, the tail end of the ski season. Just across the border, in the town of Chtaura, the traffic came to a halt. The main square rapidly became a melee of lorries, taxis, buses and cars, all honking madly at nobody in particular while waiting for the road to re-open. 5 hours after leaving Damascus, the seven passengers in my taxi (on 5 seats!) were becoming impatient. Tempers began to fray, as one
by one the passengers left the taxi to stretch their legs and grab a bite to eat in the town. I didn't dare leave...I could foresee mass panic as soon as the road re-opened, and indeed I was right! All drivers simultaneously started their engines, each one vying to be the first to leave, while the passengers ran madly round the square trying to locate their vehicles! Eventually, we were off, speeding through the mountains, overtaking lorries on blind hairpin bends in typical Middle Eastern fashion. Arrival in Beirut had not gone as planned, although to be honest I hadn't planned much and had only a very vague idea of where I was headed. This is where the shared taxi beats the bus hands down...buses disgorge their passengers at bus stations, which are never a good introduction to any city, whereas shared taxi drivers take their passengers right to their destination, even if it means driving miles out of their way. I'd asked to be taken to the quarter of St Georges, named after the gutted hotel by the seafront, where a cluster of cheap hotels are located, but all the other passengers left the taxi in the suburbs. My driver could have easily dropped me off anywhere and abandoned me, but he chose to navigate his way through the traffic of the city centre despite being hungry and very late getting to his home. My chosen hotel, the Hotel Regis, had passable rooms for $20 a night. Here, that sounds like a real bargain, but I ought to explain that I was used to Syrian prices. In Syria, you can find great little guesthouses for as little as $3 or $4 a night, and $20 would get you a room in a good 3* hotel, so for me, $20 was a lot to pay for such a small dingy room. But it was late, I was tired, and I couldn't face wandering round a strange city looking for a cheaper alternative in the dark. And besides, the owners were friendly enough. I decided to take a short walk to get some food, even though the weather had taken a turn for
the worse and it was now chucking it down with rain and bitterly cold. The first thing that struck me (apart from the low door to my bathroom...a small but impressive bruise developed overnight!) was how familiar everything seemed...cash machines, international hotel chains, MacDonalds...after such a long time in Syria, I was suffering from a kind of reverse culture shock. The next day, I explored the western half of the city. During the war which lasted from 1975 to 1992, Beirut was a divided city...the west was predominantly Muslim, while the eastern portion was where Beirut's Christian population congregated...they were divided by the Green Line which has now been consigned to the history books. The first thing I came across was the American University of Beirut, a sizeable and classy establishment, all red-brick and palm trees, surrounded by trendy shopping streets. I walked around in a kind of half-daze, and could easily have gone mad gorging myself on anything familiar. Luckily it was only a half-daze, not a full one, otherwise I would have blown my budget for the entire trip in one day! Most of that day was spent thinking things like "Wow, there's TGI Fridays!" and "Oh my God, its Starbucks Coffee!", generally relaxing in a Western atmosphere. But it soon wore off, and I longed to find something of the real Beirut. Beirut's most famous and probably most surprising landmark is the Pigeon Rocks. These two "stacks" of rock surrounded by crashing waves are an unexpected sight. This is the perfect place to come at sundown, to enjoy a carafe of Lebanese wine at one of the clifftop cafes, or, for those less well off, a glass of tea at the 2-seater cafe perched halfway down the cliffs with the best views of the Pigeon Rocks. The Corniche makes for a pleasant stroll, and in the evenings, this is where you'll find Beirut's beautiful people (I felt I fitted in well with my flip-fl
ops, ripped t-shirt and tatty jeans!!). Couples walking hand in hand, groups of good-looking men ogling at groups of stunning women, families enjoying the street food, joggers, rollerbladers, cyclists, dog-walkers...the ideal place to see and be seen. After the first day's snow and rain, I had been lucky with the weather...clear blue skies, hot sun, temperatures in the mid-20s. Over a glass of tea, I sat on Raouche Beach and wrote postcards home, gloating over the fact that Britain in March is wet, windy and cold, and here I was in Beirut getting steadily sunburnt! A walk to the east from my hotel took me past the ruined Hotel St Georges (once an exclusive yacht club attracting the rich and famous), to what was once the heart of Beirut, Martyrs' Square. Postcards for sale depicted the pre-1975 square as a busy tree-filled piazza, flanked on three sides by buildings from the French Mandate era, and on the fourth by the Mediterranean Sea. the scene today is completely different, and quite a shock. The only thing recognizable from the postcards is the sea, the rest has disappeared, either destroyed during the war, or deemed unsafe and demolished to make way for an ambitious new development. The French company in charge of it all, Solidere, have erected enormous billboards showing what the square will eventually look like...an upmarket and rather soulless-looking real-estate development. They hope that it will once again become the heart of Beirut, but looking at it today, it is hard to imagine that. One good thing to come of the war is that it has given archaeologists a unique opportunity to excavate the Roman and Phoenician remains uncovered by the square's demolition. However, they are in a race against time, as construction workers want to cover these remains with modern city as soon as possible. A walk behind the square is a strange experience. Spanking new luxury hotels rub shoulders with bullet-ridden 19th centu
ry buildings which seem about to collapse at any minute but are amazingly still inhabited. It would be easy to visit Beirut and view the city through rose-tinted glasses, but stray away from the newly repaired shopping streets and Beirut's recent history is very much in evidence. Pockmarked houses, amputees selling bread in the gutter, the National Museum still undergoing extensive repair work, the shell of the former Holiday Inn standing as an ever-present reminder of the tragic war. the city has recovered fast, but it will take a long time to heal all the wounds. Head south from the beachside resort area of Raouche, and eventually the 5* hotels begin to thin out, the rich and beautiful people replaced by shabbily dressed street traders, the sports cars exchanged for beaten-up taxis, the street scenes become more and more chaotic. You soon reach a very poor suburb, almost a shanty-town. Near here are the infamous Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila where the atrocious massacres took place at the hands of the Israeli Army in 1982. A walk in this part of town is not particularly risky, although don't flash any wealth if you have any, and don't hang around too long, especially if you go unaccompanied...it might be best to bring some Lebanese friends along with you. I found out later that the British Foreign Office warn against visiting the southern suburbs...oh well, I was never one to take much notice of their advice! Beirut has a reputation in the region as something of a party city with excellent nightlife...but everything comes at a price in Lebanon. Costs are comparable to Europe, and Beirut has been described as one of the most expensive cities in the world. Walking past so many luxury hotels and posh restaurants, I can well believe it, although it is still possible to get by on a shoestring, as long as that shoestring is a longish one. Street food is good, filling and cheap, and you can go to any Lebanese restaurant an
d just order a couple of starters such as hummus (chick-pea dip), baba ghanouj (aubergine dip), fatayer (cheese and spinach pastries), tabbouleh (buckwheat and parsley salad), for relatively little. Of course, if you have a fat wallet, the you are in an ideal position to enjoy the city's fine reputation for its cuisine. Luckily for me, Syrian food is very similar, so i didn't miss out on too much by sticking to street food (the Lebanese pizzas and sesame rings were life-savers!!). On the whole, Beirut is a fascinating city to visit. It isn't very traditional, yet it isn't wholly modern either. Beirut offers a unique chance to see how a city can bounce back from a long war. For those coming from the East, it is like returning to Europe, while for visitors from Europe it has a distinct Eastern and exotic feel to it. If you're looking for the traditional Arab way of life, then you'll have a long search...it does exist in Beirut, but it is not obvious. A better bet would be to spend a few days in Beirut before heading to the mountains or historic towns such as Tripoli (Tarablus), or even through the mountains into Syria. However, if you choose to come to Beirut, you can almost guarantee a good time. Don't expect a conservative Arab city, but don't expect a war zone either...just sit back and enjoy it.
While I was travelling in Syria and Lebanon I was given the opportunity of taking a 2 day tour into Lebanon, and staying overnight in Beirut - not every travellers 'ideal' destination you might think - but you'd be wrong! The city is still extremely beautiful and well desrving of its past nickname of 'Paris of the Middle East' There are many ruined and bullet-holed buildings - which remind you of the tragedies that hapened there, but yet are still strangely beautiful The people are incredibly welcoming and it's the most 'cosmopolitan' city I visited in the Middle East. I'd advise anyone to take a stroll along the promenade and stop to chat to the locals - wow, well worth my detour! Ps - the purchase of a 'Hard Rock cafe - Beirut' T-shirt also raises a million questions when you get home!!!
I didn't know what to expect when I visited Beiruit, but I wasn't disapointed. The people are so friendly it was amazing. And they are so good looking - it is incredible!!!! Everyone in Lebanon accepts US currency - even the smallest shop has two drawers in its till; one for Lebanese currency and one for US dollars. You may get your change in local currency but you don't have to worry about getting local currency as soon as you get off the plane. There are plenty of cash machines too. These of course give you Lebanese pounds. It's really amazing to stop outside a bank at some little village up in the hills use your card in the machine just as you would in your home country. Mind you, unless you're really living it up at the best hotels you probably won't need much money anyway!
"Beirut (بيروت, Bayrūt) is the capital, largest city, and chief seaport of Lebanon. It is sometimes referred to by its French name, Beyrouth. There are wide-ranging estimates of Beirut's population, from as low as 938,940 people, to 1,303,129 people, to as high as 2,012,000. The lack of an exact figure is due to the fact that no "comprehensive" population census has been taken in Lebanon since 1932."