TRAVEL – Blazing a trail in Beirut

MBCH A burnt-out cinema, Beirut. See PA Feature TRAVEL Beirut. Picture credit should read: PA Photo/Sarah Marshall. WARNING: This picture must only be used to accompany PA Feature TRAVEL Beirut.
MBCH A burnt-out cinema, Beirut. See PA Feature TRAVEL Beirut. Picture credit should read: PA Photo/Sarah Marshall. WARNING: This picture must only be used to accompany PA Feature TRAVEL Beirut.
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Rising from the ashes of its war torn past, Beirut is re-emerging as a hip city break destination, says Sarah Marshall

“We don’t really talk about politics,” sighs my guide Michelle wearily, while using perfectly manicured talons to furiously punch a text message into her mobile phone.

MBVCHA mosque in Beirut. PA Feature TRAVEL

MBVCHA mosque in Beirut. PA Feature TRAVEL

But as we hurtle in a taxi through Beirut’s downtown, past half-built hotels, the charred husk of a burnt-out cinema and buildings perforated with bullet holes, it’s hard not to.

Still, you can forgive the Lebanese for wanting to steer clear of the subject.

“Have you packed a bullet-proof vest?” one friend joked, when I revealed my plans to visit.

In reality, the stereotype of a no-go, war-torn capital belongs to a different era. The people here have suffered their fair share of hardship: the Lebanese Civil War raged from 1975 to 1990 and more recent troubles erupted in 2006.

MBCH The Phoenicia Hotel, Beirut. See PA Feature TRAVEL Beirut. Picture credit should read: PA Photo/Handout. WARNING: This picture must only be used to accompany PA Feature TRAVEL Beirut.

MBCH The Phoenicia Hotel, Beirut. See PA Feature TRAVEL Beirut. Picture credit should read: PA Photo/Handout. WARNING: This picture must only be used to accompany PA Feature TRAVEL Beirut.

Now they’re ready to get on with their daily (and most importantly, nightly) lives.

Michelle, like many others across the bustling capital, is making social plans for Saturday night - a military operation of a different sort.

“It’s not that people have forgotten the past; we just don’t dwell on it,” she says, with typical Lebanese sangfroid. Even the recent problems in bordering Syria have done little to even raise a collective eyebrow - or disrupt party plans.

Over the past few years, Beirut has been working hard to rebuild its reputation as the Paris of the Middle East. Boutique hotels, glamorous bars and St Tropez-style beach resorts are all part of a drive to resurrect the hedonistic care-free spirit of the Sixties when an international jet-set would descend.

MBCH An antiques shop, Beirut. See PA Feature TRAVEL Beirut. Picture credit should read: PA Photo/Sarah Marshall. WARNING: This picture must only be used to accompany PA Feature TRAVEL Beirut.

MBCH An antiques shop, Beirut. See PA Feature TRAVEL Beirut. Picture credit should read: PA Photo/Sarah Marshall. WARNING: This picture must only be used to accompany PA Feature TRAVEL Beirut.

But judging by the construction site around me, Beirut is still a city in flux, a work in progress. On first impression, and there’s no getting round this. It’s quite ugly: countless cranes tower above piles of rubble, while traffic-laden flyovers criss-cross the city.

The five-star Phoenicia Hotel, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, is one of the few older generation buildings to survive. One of the first hotels to reopen after the Civil War, it’s now a popular haunt for visiting dignitaries and celebrities: Brad and Angelina, and superstar DJ David Guetta were recent guests.

The hotel has an important past, but it’s also one of the driving forces for change, hoping to reposition Beirut as an exciting city break destination. A new Ayurvedic spa and the opening of the first Whisky Mist nightclub outside London are all part of a bigger plan to make this happen.

Arriving at the Phoenicia in time for sunset I’m taken to the terrace, past an outdoor pool with large screen playing black and white Hollywood classics.

“Look how incredible this is!” says Michelle, pointing to the Corniche Beirut. This wide promenade winding along the coastline is the closest thing Beirut has to a beauty spot.

Distracted, my gaze wanders to the hotel’s neighbouring building, The Holiday Inn. A frontline between warring factions in the mid-Seventies - make-shift torture chambers were allegedly set up in the basement and it’s gaunt, empty shell stands as a macabre memorial to the past. A few weeds grow from the ghostly window frames and army tanks are still stationed outside.

But the fact it sits only metres away from the velvet cubicles of Whisky Mist is an indication of just how rapidly this city has changed in such a short space of time.

There are 17 different religious groups in Beirut, making this one of the most cosmopolitan, but equally factional, cities in the world. After the wars many Lebanese returned from abroad bringing with them international influence and expertise. Even in conversation it’s not uncommon to hear people leapfrogging between French, English and Arabic.

In downtown, girls in miniskirts and stilettos walk on the same side of the street as women in Islamic dress and no one bats an eyelid. Boutiques selling international designer labels fill the plush newly-built shopping arcades in Beirut Souks, while the demand for plastic surgery is on the rise, with many women spiralling into debt as a consequence.

But for all the modern advances this is still a traditional society. Most young people live at home until they marry, with cohabitation frowned upon. Many ethnic groups also tend to keep to themselves.

Two people attempting to stop this melting pot from boiling over are Kamal Mouzawak and Christine Codsi from culinary collective Souk El Tayeb. Their aim is to unite Lebanon through food, and every Saturday organise a farmers’ market with stallholders selling organic and even macrobiotic produce from all over the country.

They also have their own restaurant, Tawlet, in Gemmayze - the cooler, more creative district in town - where every day a different producer is given free reign of the kitchen to showcase their regional cuisine.

“When we first moved in, this was a bullet ridden garage,” recalls Christine. “People thought we were mad. Now it’s one of the most gentrified areas of Beirut. Even the chef from Momo [a Lebanese branch of the popular London restaurant] eats here,” she says with pride.

Like food, music is another unifying force among people. Michael Elefteriades, record label head and owner of Beirut’s most adventurous and esoteric performance venue, is a local legend. A political activist, he was exiled in Cuba for many years.

Reflecting on his close shaves with death - two assassination attempts and torture at the age of 15 - he decided to channel his energies into music. He now runs Music Hall, an 800-seat converted cinema where up to 17 “world fusion” acts perform in one night.

Dressed in knee-high leather lace-up boots and carrying a staff, Elefteriades looks like some sort of military Moses.

“I’ve had Sting cook here,” he says, taking us on a tour of his private room above the venue, decorated with gothic thrones, self-portraits and bizarre Robocop figurines.

Michael even has his own “playful” torture room - a cathartic nod to his troubled past, and has plans to build catacombs below the building. “I think we need to laugh about death to really accept it,” he says, playfully.

It’s all very surreal and I wonder what Hilary Clinton - who he claims has paid a visit - made of it all.

But the fact someone like Michael can operate a business - and a very successful one at that - is testimony to the fact Beirut is a place where people can indulge their fantasies; one of the last remaining outposts where eccentric characters can flourish.

I leave Music Hall feeling quite confused - for obvious reasons - but also because Beirut is a place that I’m still trying to unravel. In fact, its story feels more tangled than when I first arrived.

The city has no obvious landmarks, no immediately identifiable national traits, no one ‘look’ or single language. Having fun and enjoying life seems to be the only common denominator.

Will it attract the droves of foreign tourists as it once did 50 years ago? The jury is still out. But one thing is certain - there’s no place in the world quite like it. I’d recommend anyone to pay a visit, and you can happily leave the bullet-proof vest at home.

Key Facts - Beirut:

:: Best For: Quirky characters.

:: Time to go: Winters are mild and summers hot. For the best compromise, travel from September to October or April to June.

:: Don’t Miss: Visiting antiques shops in Hamra, full of great Art Deco finds.

:: Need to Know: Prices for gold, sold by weight, are good. For the best value buys, visit shops in Bourj Hammoud.

:: Don’t Forget: Your glad rags, the people here are very well dressed.

Travel Facts

Sarah Marshall travelled to Beirut with Abercrombie & Kent (www.abercrombiekent.co.uk, 0845 618 2213) who offer a 4-night break at the Phoenicia Beirut from £1,495 per person. Price is based on two people sharing a deluxe city view room with breakfast and transfers, and includes flights on bmi departing London Heathrow.

The hotel Phoenicia Beirut (www.phoeniciabeirut.com) also offer rooms from £196 per room/night.