Beirut 2004: The good times roll

AFTER ONLY A few hours in Beirut, you wonder how these wonderfully warm and kind people could ever have fought a bloody civil war so recently.

Step outside your hotel and get into a taxi, or just try and cross the road, and that question might answer itself. Whether it’s homicidal or suicidal tendencies, Lebanon’s drivers literally live life in the fast lane.

This is a city that has been rebuilt seven times in its 4,000-year history, so it should come as no surprise to a visitor to see little trace of the conflict that, until 20 years ago, made Beirut a byword for kidnapping and urban warfare before such names as Sarajevo or Fallujah replaced it in the headlines.

Sure, the towering frame of the Intercontinental still stands, shell-pocked and bullet ridden, near the waterfront. But the only fighting on the former frontline of Monnot Street is with the nightclub doormen to get into this week’s trendiest spot. Clubs and bars line its narrow width and luxurious 4WDs disperse groups of clubbers dressed in skimpy tops and dripping with gold jewellery.

Downtown has also been rebuilt to its former, arcaded glory and offers a slightly more sedate night-time experience. The streets are pedestrianised and café tables spill out, filled with family groups. Women in Islamic head-scarfs sit sipping fruit juices, alongside young men and girls smoking from the traditional hubbly-bubbly, the narghileh, while drinking something much stronger. Only a strong army and police presence reminds you that this is the volatile Middle-East rather than some fashionable part of Milan.

Down to the waterline During the day, the place to hang out is the Corniche, a long waterfront boulevard that reminds one of Havana’s famous Malecón. Kids jump in and out of the sea, lines of men stand on the rocks fishing and peddlers ply their wares: tea from an old lady, a bread-seller with bicycle laden with assorted filings. Like the Malecón, it’s the living room of the city.

A short taxi ride takes you to West Beirut’s Hamra district, filled with picturesque old apartment blocks (most of the bullet holes are patched up) and crammed with shops selling everything from charcoal to hand-carved backgammon sets.

Again, much of life is lived on the streets and a curious passer-by is seized on as part of the entertainment. ‘Where are you from?’ ‘Try some bread.’ ‘Would you like a drink?’ An overwhelming wave of hospitality that will leave longer, more lasting memories than anything you’ll buy in the countless shops.

For a taste of Lebanon’s more ancient history, take the 40min taxi ride to Byblos (Jbeil). The oldest city in the world, Byblos has been continually inhabited since the sixth century BC. Waves of occupiers have left layers of remains, with the Crusaders building their castle out of Egyptian columns and Roman bricks. All the famed cedar of Lebaban was once shipped from here.

A huge archeological site surrounds the walled old town, now centred on a fishing harbour that provides a romantic background for a sunset meal. Byblos Fishing Club was the haunt of film stars and its owner, Pepe Abed, stills sits in the corner. Now 92, the pictures behind him show a youthful Pepe, enthusiastically embracing Miss Worlds and Marlon Brando, Brigitte Bardot, Frank Sinatra and David Niven.

Sadly, the celebrities vanished with the outbreak of civil war and Pepe, and his restaurant, are shadows of their former self. As is the way of the world, younger, more energetic establishments line up on the harbourside ready to take his place as the word spreads about the new Lebanon.

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