Oct 2, 2010

Beirut: charm and character

Syria-Lebanon border before the war in Syria.
Travelmind keeps the line on wheel while the driver is busy with papers.

Views from streets of Beirut.

I have been to Lebanon three times since 2005. Each time, I have been taken by its beauty, sadness, hedonism and style. Being from Istanbul certainly helps to get a feel for Beirut. You understand its paradoxes better and there are many…its shanty outskirts and glittering high rises, its dynamic polyglot residents versus the undocumented Palestinians, its fluidity between religions and identities, complex politics and the escapism of its people … But coming from a country with a strong state tradition, what I find amazing is that so much of what we admire is built with private initiative of those who believe in this beautiful country. So despite the elusiveness of good government, the city’s continuing renaissance is owed to the resilience of the Lebanese people. 

Red Cross Beirut building with typical architecture.

A view from Cornich, Beirut.

Beirut is pretty easy to grasp and get by and a perfect get away for a long weekend. You can walk to many places in the central and downtown areas or take a taxi but there are no taximeters so you must bargain before you get on. Head to Place D’Etoile and get into one of the cafes for your drink to congratulate yourself to have made it there. You could then hang out in the pretty Ashrafieh around Rue Monot…Later at night, you should indulge in the Lebanese cuisine at Abdelwahab. If hummus and kebabs and arak are not your thing, head to the “Le Sushi Bar” in Ashrafieh. Excellent sushi and wonderful atmosphere with locals…. You are in Beirut after all, even after all that food, you must still be up for clubbing. You can start the night right where you are with the bar of the time in Ashrafieh-Gemayzeh neighborhood. It changes quickly. So talk to locals for the hottest spot. April 2010: Torino Express was nice. Or check www.timeoutbeirut.com. Then head to the famous Buddha Bar with its huge Buddha sitting in the middle of the huge room. It is decorated with beautiful people who love talking to foreigners. Then head to BO18 decorated like a graveyard for some electronic music. When it gets hot, its roof opens up and you can watch the stars.

The Corniche by the Mediterranean for running and walking in Beirut.

If you do all this, next morning you will need Alka Seltzer and strong coffee… after you are back to your senses, you can go visit the National Museum to do a cultured activity and feel less guilty about last night. If you want to remain in the city in the afternoon, you may want some “Vergangenheitsbewaltigung”. Head to Burj Hamud which is the Armenian neighborhood in Beirut. We both know why those Armenians from Turkey live thereL. I have been told that everyone speaks or understands Turkish. Some Turks reported that people have been nice to them while some say they have been hostile. Your luck, I only passed by.

Torino Express in Gemayzeh, Beirut.

Now get the jogging shoes out and take a nice run at the Corniche, next to the sea! This is one of my favorite activities in Beirut which makes me feel like a local especially if I stop by the Starbucks. If you have “A Sunday smile” by Beirut on the I-pod it becomes even more local. On your way, you can pass by the iconic Hotel St.George, finally being renovated or you can look up to see Holiday Inn (former Green Line) still dotted with shelling  to remind you where you are….close to the Light House towards the other direction, there are cosy fish restaurants too. I have also read that the Hamra district is also up and coming finally. This expat's view of Beirut is interesting as an interview  with Ece Temelkuran about the city

A glance at the former Holiday Inn in Beirut still dotted with shelling.

Ofcourse Beirut is not Lebanon. For the more adventurous souls who would like to explore the Beqa’a Valley, you could go to Baalbek to see beautiful ruins amid Hezbollah headquarters. No kidding. In fact, the road is dotted with street lamps that have the pictures of martyrs on them. One spot on your way is Zahle, a Greek Orthodox place for lunch.

Views from Byblos.

Another destination for a day trip is South Lebanon. You can drive all the way next to the Israeli border which remains closed. One spot to be seen there is the Al Khiyam Prison which was a notorious detainment camp during the Civil War. Five years ago, a former prisoner guided us inside the prison, explaining how they were electrified and how after the War, Hezbullah brought electricity and all other things. Although he did not ask for any money, we were expected to make a “donation” to you know whom. It was a hard choice for me to decide whether to buy a key chain or a poster of Khomeini.

Byblos sunset in Lebanon.

Another option is to spend the afternoon in Byblos and eat fish after wandering in the souq (Bazaar) and the churches behind, quiet peaceful. Did I say that 15 km away on the way to Byblos, Jounieh is the capital of Lebanese hedonism? Sort of….it has a nice marina and the view with the mountain in the back is awesome.

On the way to Baalbek with love from Hezbullah martyrs on street lamps, Lebanon.
To do these day trips, getting a driver is a good idea especially if your company is not male. Otherwise, you might need to come up with a long story of your imaginary husband waiting for you in the hotel. Or it was just me, being “the magnet for trouble” I am. In the end, do not let these precautionary tales from enjoying you this beautiful place. It is a perfect spot to get married, live or die. Lastly, see this: http://vimeo.com/14345086