Beirut: Arab chic on the Mediterranean coast

by Nick.Redmayne

Want to take your wife away? Go to Paris. Want to take someone else’s wife away? Fly to Beirut. Excitement, romance, good food and great wine – it’s the Lebanese renaissance

An affluent and beautiful Beirut, inhabited by intelligent and educated people, spent much of the latter 20th century tearing itself apart from within, plumbing the depths of human misery and remaining a city ruptured along jagged sectarian seams until the end of the conflict in 1990. Indeed, you’d be forgiven for thinking that such unnaturally elevated levels of high-velocity lead pollution would have driven the population to seek healthier climes elsewhere, but that would be to discount Beirutis’ irrepressive ability to celebrate life, love and Lebanon. After a false start in 2006 that ended in the Israel Hezbollah July War, and a sustained political deadlock, today Beirut is most certainly open for business. As one reveller in Gemayzeh’s Bar Louie confidently proclaimed, ‘‘I’ve been to the States and UK but in Beirut it’s possible to have the best bloody time ever – guaranteed!’

For a first-time visit, make sure you’re in the thick of it, and stay somewhere close to downtown, either in Hamra at the former redoubt of the world’s press, the mid-range Le Meridien Commodore; at the budget Port View in Gemayzeh; or at the upmarket and very French Albergo in Ashrafiyeh. If you want sea views and don’t mind a US$10 taxi ride, Rouche, near the corniche and Beirut’s iconic Pigeon Rocks, has a good selection of accommodation including the relaxed chic of one of Beirut’s 5-star landmarks, the Movenpick.

To get your bearings, head for downtown. Here, amongst the fresh honeyed stone of Ottoman facades, Beirut’s elegant boutiques cater to the city’s many affluent, style-conscious residents and vie politely, though determinedly, for your greenbacks. The whole area is a remarkable work of restoration and a legacy of the late Prime Minister, Rafik Hariri, whose company Solidere effected much of the reconstruction – to go downtown is to go to Solidere. Walking up from the clock tower in the centre of Place d’Etoile, take a drink at the Petit Café and watch smart uniformed waiters patrol tables peopled by a dangerously beautiful clientele. Lebanese mezzes compete with top-notch Italian and French cuisine, and if you want to shorten your life but perhaps increase its intensity, some of the city’s most bizarre narghiles (water pipes), fashioned from watermelons and pineapples, are available… at a price.

Stroll beyond the pedestrianised streets, turning left towards the Mohammad al-Amin mosque, another of Hariri’s projects. A little way below the mosque, a tented structure forms a still temporary mausoleum for Hariri and members of his staff who perished in the 14 February 2005 bombing. Opposite lies Martyrs’ Square, scene of immense post-assassination protests, prompting Lebanon’s Cedar Revolution and the withdrawal of occupying Syrian forces later the same year.

Crossing the square, part car park and part rough ground, remember that this was once a deadly free fire zone, the Green Line, where factional fighters maintained a stand-off during the Lebanese War. These days the only gauntlet to run is that of the ebullient, though potentially equally deadly, traffic coursing round the square. On the far side lies the boho chic of Gemayzeh, relatively unscathed and therefore unrestored; the blue street plaques reinforce Beirut’s reputation as the authentic ‘Paris of the Middle East’. For a quick bite, call into Le Chef, an unassuming eatery where the patron’s mantra-like ‘Welcome!’ has become his trademark, something he repeats at least 500 times a day – you'll find honest Lebanese food at rock bottom prices.

Nearby, Bar Torino Express fills early with Beirut hipsters nursing bottles of Almaza beer, resulting in a heady concentration of intense atmosphere. Not hard, considering Beirut’s relative density of intriguingly beautiful dudesses and dudes combined with a joint the size of an ample single garage. Here, conversations drift like the cigarette smoke, combining Arabic, French and English in a uniquely Lebanese blend - try their Banana Mint Daquiris. For live music, a little way along, the band at Bar Louie, one of Rue Gouraud’s originals, will be tuning up by 10.30pm and giving their soundman the old 'one two' – the night is young.

It’s a short walk from Gemayzeh to Ashrafieh and Beirut’s best-known nightlife area of Rue Monot. Even during the dark days of the 2006 July War, the funky bars and clubs here were filled to overflowing with Lebanese young and young at heart. Pacifico is a dependable landmark on the ever-changing bar scene of Rue Monot, its Mexican-style snacks and cocktails attracting crowds guaranteed to overflow into the street. Elsewhere, if you really can’t leave big-screen soccer alone, Celtic occupies a lofty position in a mews off the main drag.

For a real dose of Beirut’s clubland, wait till late, 1 am or after, and take a taxi to Karantina and the bizarre former military bunker of the BO18 club, remodelled by Beirut bad boy, architect Bernard Khoury. Here, acrobatic waiters clamber over folding dance benches to serve drinks to a full house. And, when the action gets really hot, the club keeps its cool by retracting the roof to reveal… a dawn sky.

Adding to its slightly edgy fascination, Beirut currently lies off the radar for low-cost flights, beyond the humdrum and the commonplace in the realm of the exotic. Just over four hours by air makes a long weekend break achievable and if you ask a Lebanese, they’d say four hours was just another opportunity for a party…
 

Nick.Redmayne

Nick Redmayne’s first forays outside the UK were tempered by paranoid xenophobia, a hangover from a particularly infamous French master. However, despite consciously eschewing the garlic and onions, there was to be no escape and he eventually ended up in francophone Chad, amongst a unit of the French Foreign Legion, attempting to hitchhike a military aircraft from Abéché to N’Djamena. Nick now specialises in writing about emerging destinations and is a keen proponent for the benefits of travel and tourism. Favourite places: Beirut, Freetown, Girne (Kyrenia), Khartoum, Northumberland, Sana’a, Umbria.