It is a beautiful sight, indeed! As the flight descends into Beirut, on one side you see snow-capped peaks and on the other, the vast and almost never-ending expanse of the Mediterranean Sea. It’s winter, and the blue merges with the white to create a sensation that straightaway warms the cockles of your heart. Long before you descend, you feel that your experience is going to bring you a cornucopia of delights! Yes, Beirut brings out the best emotions in people.
This capital of Lebanon is a bustling city, an epitome of contrasts. Dubbed as the Paris of the Middle East, it is also a resilient city, which like the proverbial Phoenix, has risen from the ravages of war, time and again! That’s perhaps, why Beirut is so full of life... a ‘wholesome city in many aspects’.
A short trip offers a satisfying smorgasbord for the tourist wanting to pack in as much as he can in a matter of few days. So, here’s where Beirut’s cultural cohesion attracts and enthrals! There is also the sun, the sea, the sand and the beauty of the mountains to enjoy. There’s history too, and a culture that is still thankfully, undiluted by the wave of modernism that’s fast sweeping through this beautiful city.
It didn’t take long to discover that the city never sleeps... so it doesn’t matter whether you want to explore Beirut at the crack of dawn or at midnight. For me, it began with the first rays of the shining sun, on the promenade of the beautiful Beirut Corniche that starts at Ras Beirut at Ave de Paris in the east and ends at the St George Yacht Motor Club in Ain al Mreisse to the west.
Life literally buzzes on the Corniche, where people from all walks of life, take a stroll, jog or bring their own little chairs to gossip the morning away.
As you saunter along, you are wonderstruck at the amount of activities people pack into their ‘little time’ at the Corniche. You see old men playing backgammon, well-dressed teenagers in colour-coordinated sportswear and make-up (the Lebanese are a very fashion-loving people) or tea vendors calling out to people to buy tea.
During weekends, the place is filled with people indulging in their favourite past-time, pole fishing, especially near the steps that lead down to the sea!
If you want to pack a bite in between, there are vendors selling ka’ik, delicious handmade Lebanese bread and corn.
The roads of Beirut are not very organised and traffic jams are plenty, but if you want to cross the road, cars will stop to wait for you to pass. Walking is the best way to explore the city, whether it is Downtown Beirut (the central district) or Hamra which before the war was referred to as Beirut’s ‘Champs Elysees’. Today, Hamra is a commercial district which is known for its high-end stores, hotels and coffee shops that cater to visitors.
Buses in the city are almost non-existent but there are plenty of taxis to take you around. As your taxi swirls in and out of busy city traffic, stark contrasts hit you all the time. In some areas, pristine and overbearing structures stand alongside crumbling or bombed-out buildings. But looking at what the city is now, you cannot help admiring the tenacity of its people.
If you are looking at exploring a few places away from the heart of Beirut city, then the ancient city of Byblos is a must-visit. Situated 45 minutes up the coast, located 37 km north of Beirut, it is one of the oldest continually inhabited towns in the world and still carries the vestiges of the ancient Phoenician port it once was.
At Byblos, you can see the Crusader’s Castle, Egyptian temples and meander through the by lanes of restored medieval souks where you can shop for souvenirs. A little haggling is enough and more than once, the smiling shopkeeper thrust into our hands, an extra souvenir or two... for free! You can rest your tired limbs at one of the many quaint cafes that dot the souq and refresh yourself with piping hot coffee or tea.
The Beirut landscape is punctuated by many Biblical landmarks too. I took a cable car from the city that took me high above the busy roads and buildings to a mountain lush with cedar trees. High on top of the mountain is the shrine of Our Lady of Lebanon, devoted to the Blessed Virgin Mary.
The city is also a foodie’s paradise. It is full of little cafes and restaurants offering the choicest in food. Warm bread crackling in the oven, fresh fish off the sea and succulent meat dishes make sure that you are totally spoilt for choice! For those looking for an international experience, try one of the exceptional French or Italian restaurants.
Beirut has a vibrant nightlife and the French influence is very much evident in their culture. Whether it’s the old colonial houses, a party-hearty reputation or a strong sense of ‘fashion-consciousness’, there is joie de vivre in everything the Lebanese do. But it’s not all about flashy parties or even liberal mind-sets though. The people are warm, wonderful, kind and considerate. And not to mention, living life as they like it.
The few days I had were not quite enough to explore the contrasts Beirut has to offer... but the images and memories will remain with me forever. Along with an important lesson one learns, as a tourist in Beirut. Always believe in hope; for it is the only thing that sustains!