Beirut is the city with no sights. It’s a lesson in the art of being. There are no must-do’s. No Eiffel Towers or Times Squares. And definitely no German speaking menus. But there is a lot of else to discover for the curious visitor. Top class restaurants, street art, and a café society like neighbourhood. As the saying goes: “Any fool may fall in love with Venice, but it takes a connoisseur to appreciate Milan”.
I arrived on a bright sunny day in late October. It felt like summer. A light breeze swept in from the ocean and the air was warm enough for a cappuccino in the shadow. I checked in at Le Patio, a beautiful boutique hotel in Downtown Beirut. It’s as close to a city centre there is as everything is kind of spread out. On the other hand, most places of interest are within walking distance.
Beirut is known by many names. The Riviera of the East, the city of Thousand and One Nights, and, of course, Le Petit Paris.
It’s easy to get surprised in Beirut. In a country where half of the population are Christians, things tend to be a bit more hedonic than you might think at first glance. The clash between a fast growing new generation and the old one seems inevitable.
The Beirut Zouks is a futuristic shopping center where Coco Chanel, Christian Louboutin, and Roberto Cavalli lure you in for some extraordinary shopping. And the Mohammad Al-Amin mosque is contrasted by a young and hip sunglass wearing population eager to party, travel and colour the city with street art graffiti.
Gemmayzeh is the café society like neighbourhood of Beirut. And it has a life of its own. This is the place to spend the nights, the hangovers, and the remaining time of your day to hang out with locals, expats, and travellers from all around the world. The center of attention Rue Gouraud bubbles of cafés, bars, and restaurants. And you don’t have to walk far before you are a part of it all.
One of my favourite spots soon became a “literary cafe and bar” with live jazz sessions. Just brilliant! I sat down in one of the retro styled Chesterfield sofas. The waitress smiled as she passed the table. Our eyes met. “Where are you from?”, I asked. “I just moved here, from Damascus”, she said. It was hard to understand, the war in Syria was less than two hours away. It suddenly got so real. “We used to go here every weekend for lunch”. “Before the war started”.
Gemmayzeh is a café society like neighbourhood reminiscent of the latin quarters in Paris. It’s just smaller. And more charming.
When night falls an exuberant life takes form. A myriad of restaurants compete with innovative menus, top chefs, and cosmopolitan atmospheres. The food is a mix of traditional Lebanese and Mediterranean seafood. Meze, squid ink, and asparagus salads are prepared with clinical precision. And the never ending stream of cocktail bars are more than happy to serve you a Negroni, Whisky Sour, or Old-Fashioned. The way it suppose to be. With a lot of alcohol.
If Gemmayzeh is the pulse of Beirut, La Corniche is the soul. The nostalgic boardwalk takes you all the way to Pigeon Rocks, the offshore rock formation that has become a symbol of the city. And a favourite spot for sunset lovers, romantic couples, and instagram feeders.
I walked in the other direction. Scenes from daily life flashed me by. Kids were playing. Fishermen collected the day’s catch. A group of boys took turn to dive into the ocean. The razor sharp rocks beneath them didn’t seem to bother them. The turquoise water was just too tempting.
Suddenly, a pantomime performer. The Marcel Marceau-like figure gestured with great passion. It was a one man’s show. With one person in the audience. Me. But it was enough. I was sent to Paris. And I was no longer alone. They were all there. Edit Piaf. Hemingway. Picasso. I finally understood the meaning of the city’s old nickname. Le petit Paris.
Up north is Byblos. The one-of-the-oldest-cities-in-the-world is situated less than two hours from Beirut. It’s suitable for a day trip and a nice way tog get a deeper feeling for the country. Make a stop half way at Zouk Mikael to visit the old market side by side with an ancient amphitheatre still in use for concerts and summer plays.
Narrow streets guide you around Byblos. Down the hills through the old town to the rustic stone walls that surround the Byblos Castle.
Make your way to the small port, believed by the Lebanese to be the first in the world. This is where you have lunch. Preferably at the Byblos Fishing Club. They been serving people fish since 1962. End the day with a swim-and-drink at the lounge styled Pierre and Friends. It’s the coolest beach bar in the country.
All images © 2020 Erik Ekberger.
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