Some twenty years after the long civil war that totally destroyed downtown Beirut, the capital has been completely rebuilt to look as it was—in itself, an incredible feat. Restoration of the old and construction of the new is everywhere. Cranes dot Beirut. Where is the economic crisis? There is a feeling of “now,” partly because the Lebanese live for the moment, never quite sure when trouble may come. “There is no real notion of time here,” someone said. “You just take your time.” Lebanon borders Syria and Israel. In the last five years alone, echoing a history of invasions and occupations, the country has lived through the Israeli-Hezbollah conflict, internal struggles, and the assassination of popular Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, on February 14 2005, that led to the Cedar Revolution to oust the Syrians.
Lebanon reportedly has nineteen different religious groups, including about 39 percent Christians and almost 60 percent Muslims. Some people say there is an entente nationale in Lebanon today, in which all parties are trying to move forward together. Among other stipulations, the constitution states that the president must be a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim and the speaker of parliament a Shi’a Muslim. Many Lebanese simply call themselves Lebanese; Arabs are people from the Gulf. A French overlay still lingers from the French mandate that ended in 1943. Street signs are in Arabic and French, and many conversations slide easily between French, English and Arabic.
The entire country stretches a mere 139 miles north to south, so you can be based in Beirut and make day trips. The season, of course, makes some choices for you. I went in January (spring and summer opens other options, i.e. the mountains and the seaside). The city of Beirut is a sophisticated, stylish capital. It has a strong archeological and architectural story, from the Roman baths to the Ottoman-era, Grand Serail building, to the restored Maghen Abraham synagogue. There are a handful of cool museums, notably the National Museum, the Audi Museum, the Robert Mouawad Private Museum, and the Sursock Museum if it has reopened. A dizzying choice of restaurants tempt with Arab and non-Arab food. We ate biryanis at Indian-fusion Yasmina, take out shawarma (a sliced lamb or chicken wrap with garlic spread and french fries inside) from BoBouffe, as well as perfect mezze at Karam Beirut. Casablanca is a gently hipped-up old home, with art belonging to the family, and focused on simple dishes like cured beef steak with pan-fried potatoes. Eat seafood, like hammour, a white fish, at Al Mandaloun Sur Mer. Lunch at Indigo on the roof at the Le Gray hotel is a must for classy, intentionally non-Lebanese food (roast French quail with red onion marmalade) and for seeing le tout Beirut. Or savor a grass-fed beef burger at Gordon’s Café. Have drinks at Gemmayze Café where people play backgammon and smoke a shisha, and consider replacing your post-prandial espresso with white coffee, herb tea made with orange blossom water. The Saturday morning organic market in a parking lot in Saifi Village, a charming restored residential quarter, is all the rage. Taste everything.
Shopping is fun and ranges from Lebanese couturier Elie Saab to the new souks, though they are a modern, if architecturally elegant, mall and some of the older generation feels that the soul has been “restored out.” Many Lebanese women have an old-world glamour; others wear vertiginous high heels, tight jeans and carry huge purses. Orient 499 has embroidered jackets, scarves and easy-to-pack housewares. See original, high-end jewelry at Nada Le Cavelier. The shops at Saifi Village merit a look: the textured clothes at milia m. and leather goods at Johnny Farah.
Lebanon is known for legendary archeological sites that bear witness to its past, including the Phoenicians, Alexander the Great, and the Ottoman Empire. Baalbek may be the foremost Roman site in the Middle East, with remains substantial enough, especially the temples of Jupiter and Bacchus, to portray the glory that was Rome. Sidon’s restored souk, with several palaces, testifies to Lebanon’s rebuilding. Tyre has vestiges of a huge Roman hippodrome. Climb to the top of the stands to grasp its breathtaking enormity. Sidon and Tyre are in southern Lebanon, a Hezbollah precinct. To pass near the Palestinian refugee camps and hear the border referred to as “the one with Palestine” not Israel, sharply brings you into Lebanon’s current history.
Byblos is one of the oldest inhabited cities in the world, with remnants to prove it, whose small harbor and restaurants, like Bab El Mina, lure Beirutis for fresh fish. Tripoli contrasts starkly with slick Beirut, with its sturdy and elegant citadel, Mamluk architecture and clambering souks, though no one even tried to get my attention. Do visit the working hamam. The Tynal Mosque is an example of how some architectural elements of a church, transformed into a mosque, marry happily. Go for lunch, or just dessert, at Abdul Rahman Hallab & Sons, the palace of sweets, famous for baklava. I was charmed by Deir al Qamar, a small village and UNESCO World Heritage site. It’s on the way to the 19th-century Beiteddine Palace, known for it’s spectacular collection of Byzantine mosaics (but don’t miss the rooms). In Deir Al Qamar, wander the back streets; see the restored buildings. I found a teeny shop next to the old silk khan, now the centre culturel français, for manouche (Lebanese pizza, baked with dried thyme and sesame seeds, or fresh thyme).
We stayed at Le Gray (www.campbellgrayhotels.com). Opened in October 2009, it is the fourth in hotelier Gordon Campbell Gray’s collection (which also include One Aldwych and Dukes in London and Carlisle Bay on Antigua). Le Gray shows off his serene style, humor, attention to detail and consummately trained staff. Le Gray is smack downtown, so walking is a pleasure. (Traffic in Beirut is epic). Campbell Gray is adding a serious pool and gallery-café. For the Beirut of yore, have tea at the Hotel Albergo. The Four Seasons opened in January 2010, and the property has a sumptuous red-and-black bar. The hotel is on the Corniche, Beirut’s boardwalk, where you can stroll amid Beirut’s vastly diverse citizens.
Some people thought we were nuts to go to Lebanon, citing Yemen and the general instability of the region. According to the Tourism Minstry, nearly two million tourists visited Lebanon in 2009 (up from thirty-nine percent for 2008). We did register with the state department website. Though we never felt uncomfortable or afraid, you do know things could change quickly. I probably reacted differently to a flock of police cars than a local, who would take it in stride. For me, one of the most articulate souvenirs of Lebanon’s reality is the St. George Cathedral, (Greek Orthodox), near the perfectly redone Place de L’Etoile in downtown Beirut. It has been lovingly put back together, feels warm and welcoming, and by design, the restorers have left a few bullet holes from the civil war in the beautiful frescoes. The tactile experience of visiting Lebanon has made both conflicts and triumphs less abstract. I wouldn’t have missed it. ~DENA KAYE
Read more about where to stay and eat in Beirut
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