Beirut Rising

So, is it really true?” I ask.

“Well this is one of the funny myths about Beirut, but I actually know some people who do it,” laughs Raya Tueny, the founder of fashion collective Made for Beirut.

We’re at the chic Centrale bar and restaurant on the edge of Downtown Beirut, sipping Almaza beer and discussing the Lebanese capital’s boast that it’s one of the few places in the world where one can ski alpine slopes in the morning and then hit the beach for a bracing Mediterranean swim in the afternoon. It’s a glamorous combination best enjoyed at the tail end of the ski season in late March and early April.

The Middle East Order

Not so long ago, Lebanon was the destination of choice for the world’s glitterati. The likes of Bardot and Brando were lured to this strip of Middle Eastern coast and mountain ranges by its heady combination of sun, sea, sand and snow, but also for its exotic mix of Arab and European sensibilities. Built in the shadow of ancient civilisations, Lebanon had a unique culture and cuisine — and a legendary nightlife. In the glory years, Beirut was known as the ‘Paris of the Middle East’.

The Lebanese Civil War which broke out in mid-70s drove away the glitterati, along with a quarter of the country’s population. Fifteen years of conflict battered Beirut. Now, almost two decades since the end of hostilities, Lebanon’s rebirth is nothing short of remarkable. Tueny admits that her city has been swept up by a wave of optimism. “You could call it a renaissance,” she says. “I can feel a certain power that is driving so many Lebanese people to create. It’s the beginning of a creative boom.”

The bar at Centrale is a case in point. Its design by local architect Bernard Khoury (the face of Lebanon’s ‘Keep On Walking’ Johnnie Walker advertising campaign) is an original: a minimalist high-ceilinged dining room with a huge industrial-looking steel tube suspended over the length of the building. Tueny and I are actually sitting in the tube, which is accessed via an antique-style elevator. Automated shutters open like eyelids to reveal a view across the rooftops to the hip district of Gemmayze.

At street level, Gemmayze is a popular haunt for trendy Beirutis who are drawn to the bars that line its main narrow street, Rue Gouraud. Gentrification is fast creeping into this bohemian quarter on the eastern edge of the downtown area. Despite rampant development, the district has retained the French colonial buildings that lend Gemmayze its Euro-Arab character. Many Armenian refugees settled here when they were driven out of their homelands by the Ottomans at the turn of the previous century. Today, visitors to Gemmayze are attracted by the authentic flavours of the district’s famed Armenian eateries — Mayrig is a must-visit — as much for its lively bar scene as its traditional menu.

In Gray We Trust

On the opposite side of Martyrs’ Square, which separates Gemmayze from Beirut’s Central District, is a boutique luxury hotel symbolising the rise from the rubble of the capital’s commercial hub. Le Gray is Aussie architect Kevin Dash’s new yellow sandstone building in Beirut’s meticulously restored French Mandate district of immaculate pedestrian boulevards, designer boutiques and high-end restaurants.

From above, Beirut Central District is distinguished by its Parisian layout, its main avenues branching out like the six points of an asterisk at Place de l’Etoile. The square is crowned by its much-photographed sandstone clock tower, bearing four Rolex dials — a nod to the area’s luxury flagship stores, frequented by Beirut’s socialites and big spenders from the Arabian Gulf. Despite its luxury leanings, downtown is a popular place for ordinary Lebanese families to languidly window shop and indulge in nothing more extravagant than a few scoops of ice-cream.

Le Gray bears the unmistakable touch of Scottish hotelier Gordon Campbell Gray. An avid art collector and amateur painter, Gray hand-picked more than five-hundred contemporary works to adorn his latest hotel. The Lebanese art scene is well represented — a sculpture of a baby elephant seemingly made of Smarties-like coloured discs, by local artist Nadim Karam, serves as a mascot in the hotel’s foyer. Gray himself greets me on the terrace of Indigo on the Roof, the hotel’s restaurant, which holds a Wine Spectator Award of Excellence. From below, Islamic calls to prayer mingle with the sound of church bells, while the muffled honk of cars drift in with the cool afternoon breeze.

Gray admits that his first visit to Beirut 15 years ago was memorable for the wrong reasons. He joined a friend who had won a trip to the city at a time when the Lebanese government was desperately trying to lure back tourists. “Beirut was bombed out and we were the only people in the hotel. I thought I’d never return,” Gray recalls. “I saw [establishing a hotel in Beirut] as an adventure and a controlled risk.”

He now spends his summers in Beirut, drawn by the mix of ancient civilisation, a balmy Mediterranean climate, European sophistication and Middle Eastern hospitality. Gray is not the first to capitalise on Beirut’s rebirth. The Mövenpick Hotel & Resort has been in operation since 2002, while the Four Seasons Hotel began receiving guests in 2010. Hotel Sofitel Beirut Le Gabriel and Four Points by Sheraton Le Verdun have also recently joined the throng, with Grand Hyatt and Kempinski offerings on the way.

A Buzzing Metropolis

Decidedly more downmarket, but with a youthful energy, is the district of Hamra in west Beirut. Hamra owes much of its verve to the student populations of two universities within its boundaries. This bustling precinct is also one of Beirut’s main commercial districts and a great place to shop, enjoy local cuisine or bar hop. Each evening, the Corniche, Beirut’s seaside promenade, draws crowds of locals and tourists alike, to see sunset hit the famous Pigeon Rocks formations.

With so many diversions on offer, one can forget that Beirut is one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world. Opposite the Corniche, the American University of Beirut campus is an attraction in its own right — its Archaeological Museum is the third oldest in the region and has a fascinating array of Middle Eastern treasures. For a more in-depth look at ancient history, visit the National Museum of Beirut, which houses more than 100,000 artefacts, many dating back to the prehistoric era.

As the city strives to re-imagine itself, tourists are yet to descend on Beirut in the numbers it deserves. As Tueny observes, “Beirut is under the spotlight, and there is this urge from the Lebanese people to make the most of the situation.” Judging by the number of building cranes in the city, a lot of money is riding on Beirut’s return to its status of the Paris of the Middle East.

Old World Wonder

Drive less than an hour out of Beirut for a history lesson of the world.

Visitors to the port town of Byblos, only 40 kilometres away from Beirut, can stroll through streets that have preserved 17 layers of civilisation — including Phoenician, Roman and Crusader — from the many nations which chose to settle here. Dominating the town is 12th-century Crusader citadel, complete with cannonballs still embedded in its walls. Walk around the citadel and you’ll stumble upon the Temple of the Obelisks, built during the Egyptian domination; a Roman amphitheatre with a stunning ocean view; and the royal necropolis that once housed the tombs of Phoenician kings. Top off your visit with a seafood feast at Byblos Fishing Club founded by the late charismatic playboy Pépé Abed, whose photos with visiting celebrities of yesteryear can be found lining the restaurant walls.

Words by Dave Tacon - Published in Voyeur February 2012
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