The life of the Le­vant

The deca­dent beach par­ties and con­trasts of cos­mopoli­tan Beirut

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence Cartagena From The Inside Out - LY­DIA BELL

THE greeting ‘‘Hi! Ki­fak! Cava?’’ is of­ten heard in the cap­i­tal of Lebanon, where lo­cals like to mix di­alect with a dol­lop of English and French. This phrase, as well as ‘‘Yalla! Bye!’’, has be­come short­hand for Beiruti par­lance and even adorns mugs and T-shirts for tourists. For Lebanon is noth­ing if not in­ter­na­tional: it has a mi­grant’s soul.

It seems ev­ery­one has been here, from the Phoeni­cians, who built ships from the cedars and sold indigo dye to the wealthy of Europe by crush­ing shells of Mediter­ranean murex, to the French, who con­trolled Lebanon af­ter World War I un­til 1943. The Per­sians ( booted out by the Assyr­i­ans) fol­lowed the Phoeni­cians. The Greeks came be­fore the Ro­mans; the Arabs be­fore the Mam­luks, then the Cru­saders, and then the Ot­toman Turks. All the in­vaders left their mark in ar­chi­tec­ture and tra­di­tion.

Through­out his­tory, these oc­cu­piers were joined by those suf­fer­ing re­li­gious per­se­cu­tion — from the Chris­tian Ma­ronites to the Druze and the Shia — who found so­lace in soar­ing moun­tains and epic val­leys. While ev­ery­one as­so­ciates Lebanon with the civil war that ended in 1990, a jour­ney through its cities and land­scapes re­veals a his­tory that goes so much fur­ther back, and a life-af­firm­ing spirit that has so much more hope.

In Beirut, streetscapes ex­ude layer upon layer of his­tory and dif­fer­ence, mod­ern build­ings placed next to an­cient churches and mosques. The city to­day is de­fined by the swan-like trans­for­ma­tion of its down­town district. Gone are the hor­rific piles of rub­ble and gap­ing holes. The area has been re­born, a beau­ti­ful com­bi­na­tion of neo-colo­nial ar­chi­tec­ture and gleam­ing sky­scrapers, mari­nas and glis­ten­ing malls.

Few lo­cals live down­town: to ex­pe­ri­ence the colour and vi­brancy of the real neigh­bour­hoods, visit Hamra and Achrafieh, where you’ll find ex­cit­ing restau­rants and bars, from Miche­lin­starred fine din­ing to sushi joints. Don’t ex­pect a lack of cul­tural so­phis­ti­ca­tion but pre­pare to have your socks blown off.

Wealth has re­turned, per­haps even more so than dur­ing Beirut’s much-lauded days as the ‘‘Paris of the Mid­dle East’’ be­tween World War II and the 1970s, when Euro­pean play­boys bobbed in lux­ury yachts and drank the bars dry.

For­eign in­vestors are pour­ing in and hot new ho­tels are draw­ing in tourists. Par­ty­ing is the rai­son d’etre; the Le­banese will dance and drink as if it’s their last day on earth, given half the chance. This is not a city in which to take it easy.

Best peo­ple-watch­ing: Walk­ing on the Cor­niche, Beirut’s oceanside walk­way, is de rigueur. Jog­gers, rollerbladers, lovers, friends, fam­i­lies, poseurs and Gulf tourists loaded with de­signer clothes all min­gle. Stop at any water­side cafe for a shisha, have a bit­ter cof­fee, and gaze at the ocean.

Best spruced-up area: Down­town Beirut is now a gleam­ing cen­tre of Ot­toman-style beauty, and de­signer stores and lav­ish apart­ments have j oined the Ro­man and Greek ru­ins, an­cient churches and mosques. Park your­self in a cafe in Star Square, where yummy mum­mies drink $15 cof­fees while nan­nies mind their chil­dren.

Shop at the Beirut Souks (be­tween Mir Ma­jid Arslan Av­enue to the north, Wey­gand Street to the south, Pa­tri­arch Howayek Street to the west and Al­lenby Street to the east), the city’s pleas­ant mall built us­ing the grid plan of the souks de­stroyed in the war.

Best mu­seum: The Na­tional Mu­se­u­mof Lebanon tells the mes- meris­ing and many-lay­ered story of Beirut and Lebanon through its in­cred­i­ble trea­sures. It is com­pact and well-or­gan­ised enough not to over­whelm. More: beirut­na­tional­mu­seum.com.

Best way of get­ting about: Com­mu­nal ‘ ‘ ser­vice taxis’’ are 1970s Mercedes that prowl the streets and driv­ers pump their horns at po­ten­tial cus­tomers. They tend to op­er­ate on spe­cific routes, but you can also hire them as reg­u­lar taxis for a spe­cific price. It’s about 2000 lira ($1.30) for a com­mu­nal ride; a pri­vate ride starts at 8000 lira.

Best view: The In­ter­Con­ti­nen­tal Phoeni­cia Beirut ( deluxe Ara­bian meets Mediter­ranean coun­try villa) has the mo­nop­oly on views. With sweep­ing pano- ra­mas of Med and moun­tains, it feels like be­ing on an ocean liner. The top-floor V Bar is a fash­ion­able spot for cock­tails, Cuban cigars, live mu­sic and rev­elry be­fore an in­dul­gent din­ner at Eau de Vie, the Phoeni­cia’s French fine-din­ing restau­rant. More: phoeni­cia-ic.com.

Best neigh­bour­hood: Be­fore 1975, the tourist-thronged Hamra Street in Hamra was con­sid­ered the Champs-El­y­sees of Beirut. Badly hit dur­ing the war, it once more fea­tures bou­tiques, cafes, gal­leries, ho­tels and restau­rants. Its res­i­dents are youth­ful be­cause of its prox­im­ity to the Amer­i­can Univer­sity of Beirut and the Le­banese Amer­i­can Univer­sity.

Best cafe: De Prague is a lowkey hang­out pop­u­lar with the fash­ion­able cre­atives who pile on to its colour­ful so­fas and an­tique fur­ni­ture. They love De Prague for its art-house film show­ings, de­cent cof­fee and cakes, and nights of lounge and funky mu­sic ( to 2am). Makdissi Street, Hamra.

Best walk: A group of grad­u­ates have set up WalkBeirut, an ex­cel­lent ser­vice of four-hour guided English-lan­guage walks in this pedes­trian-friendly city. About $US20. More: be­beirut.org.

Best beach club: Slum­ber­ing off your hang­over in one of Lebanon’s many beach clubs is a na­tional pas­time. It’s best to travel a lit­tle out of the city, and there are dif­fer­ent types of club, from the fam­ily-friendly va­ri­ety to the glam­orous kaf­tan, full make-up and heels va­ri­ety. Out of town in Jbeil (also known as By­b­los), Bay 183 (for­merly La Voile Bleue; open 10am-1am, May to Oc­to­ber) is about af­ter­noon spritzers and early evening beach par­ties. Edde Sands is great for kids. More: ed­de­sands.com.

Best street for par­ty­ing: Beirutis are prone to chang­ing al­le­giances on a sea­sonal ba­sis. For now, Gem­mayze is the party street. Try Torino Ex­press Bar for late-night chats with Le­banese in­tel­lec­tu­als. This Fran­cophile holein-the-wall builds to a crescendo by 2am. Rue Gourand 253.

Best bud­get in­ter­na­tional lunch: Tiring of mezze and hum­mus? Cafe Sho in Achrafieh serves light Asian, in­ter­na­tional and fu­sion dishes. About $40 for two. 304 Monot St, Achrafieh.

Best lo­cal gallery: The Arab Im­age Foun­da­tion pro­motes pho­tog­ra­phy of the Mid­dle East and North Africa: this is a valu­able so­cial his­tory archive and a great place to visit for its many ex­hi­bi­tions. Starco Cen­tre, Omar elDaouk Street, Beirut Cen­tral Down­town. More: fai.org.lb.

Best fast (lo­cal) food: Bar­bar, a small bak­ery, opened dur­ing the civil war and now is one of the big­gest fast-food joints in Lebanon. Soak up its falafels, man­a­kich, pas­tries, shawarma and j uices. Pic­cadilly Street, Hamra.

Best mu­sic: In sum­mer, won­der­ful un­der-the-stars mu­sic fes­ti­vals un­fold in an­cient sites, from Phoeni­cian By­b­los and Ro­man Baal­bek to the 19th-cen­tury Beited­dine Palace. The Baal­bek In­ter­na­tional Fes­ti­val is the most sig­nif­i­cant cul­tural event in the Mid­dle East, its mu­sic, dance, theatre and opera pulling in hun­dreds of thou­sands since 1955. More: beited­dine. org; by­blos­fes­ti­val.org; baal­beck.org.lb.

Best farm­ers’ mar­ket: Souk elTayyeb (lit­er­ally, souk of the de­li­cious) sup­ports small-scale farm­ers and or­ganic pro­duce. Ex­pect in­cred­i­ble cakes, marzi­pans and nuts, fruits and veg­eta­bles, honey and pre­serves. Satur­days 9am2pm in Saifi Vil­lage. More: soukeltayeb.com.

Best Ori­en­tal garb: Ar­ti­sans du Liban et d’Ori­ent sells a cornucopia of Arab art, fash­ion, home­wares and jew­ellery. The lat­est out­let is carved out of a vaulted joiner’s shop. 44 Souk AnNa­j­jarin, Said Akl Street, Saifi Vil­lage. More: ar­ti­sans­duliban.com.

Best fa­mous grave: In a gi­ant white tent on Mar­tyrs’ Square lies the mau­soleum of Rafik Hariri, the for­mer prime min­is­ter as­sas­si­nated in 2005. He is buried along with his body­guards next to the lav­ish Mo­ham­mad al-Amin Mosque, which he built.

Best day trip: By­b­los lays claim to be­ing the old­est in­hab­ited city in the world, oc­cu­pied since 5000BC, with a won­der­ful trove of Phoeni­cian and Egyp­tian tem­ples, Ro­man the­atres, Cru­saders’ cas­tle and Byzan­tine ru­ins over­look­ing the hazy blue sea. These days it’s all fish restau­rants, bikini-clad Beirutis and yachties. Or­der the seafood grill at Bab El-Mina. More: ba­belmina.com. Ly­dia Bell was a guest of Cox & Kings

AFP

The Cor­niche, Beirut’s sea­side prom­e­nade, is per­fect for a stroll or peo­ple-watch­ing from one of its many cafes

Ro­man-Byzan­tine room at the Na­tional Mu­seum of Lebanon

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