The most surprising thing about looking at a map of the world is realising the startling enormity of some countries. Canada, for example, always seems to have grown in size, reclining across the northern half of the globe like a lazy Renaissance nude, hogging the frame. Greenland’s another that, logically speaking, should be roughly the size of Iceland – in fact it’s a veritable continent. And then there’s Algeria and Sudan, great hunks of Africa, and yet I’ve never met anyone who’s ever been to or come from either.
On the other hand, it often comes as a great shock to find that Holland is a mere speck on the forehead of Europe. Or that Taiwan is a barely discernable dot languishing within sight of China’s grasp. And so it is with Lebanon. Without a thorough grounding in international borders, it would be easy to assume that Lebanon was the entire Middle East. The country’s people, food and culture have permeated this region (and indeed the entire world) with such vigour that it is a hard task to decouple the tiny little country from its rather massive sphere of influence.
As it happens, Lebanon has a population comparable in size to Moldova; in terms of geography, it’s slightly smaller than The Gambia (even the Falkland Islands are bigger). But that hasn’t stopped the country and its considerable diaspora (reckoned to amount to five times the country’s current population) punching well above its weight internationally. Carlos Slim, the world’s richest man (he’s worth nearly twice as much as the whole of Lebanon) has full Lebanese parentage. Columbian pop-powerhouse Shakira can trace her roots back to Lebanon, as can Oscar-nominated Mexican actress Selma Hayek. Even Keanu Reeves was born in Beirut.
With such celebrity parentage, it seemed high time to head to the capital and find out what this rather prominent little country was all about.
Flying into Beirut is a rather ramshackle affair. Thanks to the fact it has become de rigueur for those who reside in the Gulf to have a wild weekend in the city, cheap flights disgorge their cargo of dishevelled passengers each Thursday evening and pick them up, bleary eyed, on a Saturday night. Stepping off my budget airline, I found a rather tired airport awash with part-time taxi drivers hoping to lure the uninitiated into paying US$50 for a five minute drive, with conversations that tended to run, ‘Where you come from?’, ‘I’ve come from Bahrain,’ ‘Ah, I live there!’, ‘Eh?’
But get away from the airport, and the city opens itself up like a folding triptych, posessing a number of facades. Being one of the oldest inhabited civilisations on earth (a claim made by almost every city, state and nation in the Middle East, it must be said), Beirut has seen it all. Huge wealth, great influence, violent bloodshed and utter irrelevance. It was the former two that characterised the first two thousand years of the country’s existence, with a Phoenician trading empire that controlled the Mediterranean, invented the alphabet, and set the stage for the Greek civilisation. Sadly, it is bloodshed and irrelevance that have typified the country more recently, though it is on a gradual road to reversing this.
The 15-year-long Lebanese Civil War, a nasty spat with Israel, the death former prime minister Rafik Hariri and fairly continuous unrest in the country’s Palestinian refugee camps have all left deep scars on the country, and bullet-ridden statues, a voluminous golden sculpture on the spot that Hariri was blown up, and a network of decaying infrastructure are all reference points of the country’s troubled past. And yet among these relics stand brand new icons that herald a bright future. Wander the streets of the cleaned-up Downtown district and you could be in Paris’ Latin Quarter. Check out the capital’s thriving nightlife in Gemmayze, and it’s not too far a leap to call it the Middle East’s Berlin. Talk to the people, enthused with optimism and buoyed by an economy which is outperforming almost all others in the region, and their passion is infectious.
Some food critics claim a country’s culture can be summed up by its cuisine, and perhaps nowhere is this more applicable than Lebanon, a country that can put away pabulum like no other nation. Thanks to the fact most people (certainly those who live in the Gulf) think they know the local fare, few fully realise the enormity of the country’s contribution to eating. Vast salads, vegetables roasted, liquidised, seasoned and served, and a whole range of seafood that never seems to make its way onto menus outside of Lebanon vilify those who claim Lebanese cuisine consists only of mixed grill and tabouleh. And that’s before we’ve discussed dessert. Having spent my childhood being dragged between the Greek islands, I was convinced the best baklavas were Peloponnesian. Beirut proved me wrong.
To top it off, in recent years, Beirut has positioned itself as the cultural centre of the Middle East. The region’s only notable book publishing industry is located here, and it is in this city that the Booker-led International Prize for Arabic Fiction is awarded. Most commercial art galleries of any renown have opened up in and around town. And performance-wise, Beirut attracts more international names than the rest of the region put together.
But in a city that inspired superlatives, surely there’s something that doesn’t really live up to expectations? Sadly, it’s the beaches. Although Lebanon boasts an unbroken stretch of the Mediterranean, there are few beaches worth mentioning. Still, when the city is this enticing, why waste time here lying on the sand?
Where to stay
While the number of hotels in Beirut is increasing by the month, the best option, indeed the only city centre option positioned on the seafront, is the Movenpick Hotel & Resort, Beirut. Superlative rooms, great dining options and swimming pools perched on a promontory out in the sea, no other hotel comes close. For more information, visit www.moevenpick-hotels.com
Best of the rest of Lebanon
Despite what native Beirutis might tell you, Lebanon is not all about the capital. We run down the five top attractions outside the great metropolis.
Baalbek As well as being the centre of the Phoenician civilisation, Lebanon was also an important outpost of the Greek, Persian, Assyrian and Roman empires, and it is the latter that the country can thank for the startling ruins at Baalbek. Counted among the ancient wonders of the world, the centrepiece of this site is the Temple of Bacchus, an enormous and stunningly preserved example of Roman religious architect. About three and a half hours drive from Beirut.
Tripoli Thanks to this northern city being rather off the tourist trail, Tripoli somewhat flounders in the face of visitors. However, the allure of its Ottoman-era souq should entice the crowds. There is also the imposing Citadel of Raymond de Saint-Gilles, a Crusader-era castle that dominates the city’s skyline and is worth a quick scoot around. About three hours drive from Beirut.
Byblos Once the haunt of film stars and the mega rich, Byblos has faded somewhat since the likes of Bridget Bardot last pulled in on a yacht. Nevertheless, the beauty of the fishing port has not diminished, and, like most places in Lebanon, the town is home to a huge antiquities complex, which itself is worth the short drive. One point of interest is that it’s another contender for ‘oldest continuously inhabited city’, with many archaeologists believing it was first inhabited some 7,000 years ago. A one hour drive from Beirut.
Tyre The opposite end of the country to Tripoli, Tyre was the focus of much of the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah spat, and has yet to regain its prominence among tourists. Which is great news if you want world class Roman ruins to yourself – just be a little wary of unexploded ordinance. Here you’ll find one of the world’s best preserved (and hugely evocative) Roman hippodromes, where it is easy to imagine the chariots racing. A two and a half hour drive from Beirut.
Jeita Grotto While Lebanon has more than its fair share of ancient tourist traps, it also has one of the most evocative natural landscapes to boot. The Jeita Grotto is a series of connected caves 9 kilometres long, housing some of the most impressive stalagmite and stalactite formations this author has ever seen. The grotto is a finalist in the New 7 Wonders of Nature competition. A forty-minute drive from Beirut.