Travel – A place of wanders

2012-10-06 10:49

Beirut, the “Paris of the East”, has risen like a phoenix from the ashes many times over the last 60 years.

Lebanon’s capital and largest city, with an estimated two million inhabitants, goes back more than 5 000 years.

The country’s spirit of defiance and entrepreneurship has expressed itself in a building frenzy recently, though bullet holes on buildings still tell harrowing, silent tales of war, endless spirals of violence, occupation and frequent Israeli attacks.

Snug along the Mediterranean coast, with Mount Lebanon in the distance, the city is loud, boisterous, brash at times, stylish and full of joie de vivre.

Though cars rule, Beirut should be explored on foot.

A good starting point is Martyr’s Square, which is close to the majestic, blue-domed Mohammed al-Amin Mosque.

Patched up, the bullet-riddled bronze statue in the centre of Martyr’s Square still bears witness to all that was destroyed during the civil war, which lasted for 15 years, from 1975 to 1990.

The square is the rallying point for civic gatherings, such as the 2005 Independence Uprising, which triggered Syria’s withdrawal from Lebanon after 29 years.

Close by are the remains of the 1965 Beirut City Center, a modernist complex with an egg-shaped shell surrounded by towers and what was, at the time, the largest shopping mall in the Middle East.

But little of it remains today.

The 1930s Nejmeh precinct – unlike nearby Beirut Souks, a slick, soulless shopping mall that houses major brands – was rebuilt inspired by the city’s architectural heritage. Most of the area is for pedestrians and there are many cafés and boutiques to explore.

Among its radial streets is the Maarad Street arcade. Young and old meet in Nejmeh Square, marked by its clock tower, a replica of the Parisian original, the Place de l’Etoile, where on Sundays foreign domestic workers chase after their local employers’ offspring.

Be sure to visit the St George Greek-Orthodox and St Elie Greek-Catholic cathedrals.

Throughout the city, early 20th-century eclectic architecture blends with classical and Islamic revivalism as well
as Art Nouveau and Art Deco.

Towards the east is the brand new Saifi Village, an upmarket residential area with designer and artisan boutiques, galleries and cafés.

Across the way are Gemmayzé and Ashrafieh, two of Beirut’s most vibrant neighbourhoods.

Following Rue Gouraud through Gemmayzé takes one past a string of cafés and shops that offer local food, Turkish coffee, nargileh (hookah pipe), antiques, and local designers’ boutiques.

At night, bars come alive and revellers spill out onto the streets.

Do walk up the St Nicholas Steps, which bring you close to the Sursock Museum, which is in an old Ottoman palace.

Nearby, the Robert Mouawad Private Museum, in a treasure trove of fantastic Ottoman interior décor, boasts a marvellous collection of belle époque jewellery and the world’s most expensive bra.

Following Rue Gouraud to the end takes visitors to Mar Mikhael, a popular Armenian neighbourhood.

Look out for Papercup, next to Dar Bookshop in Hamra, one of the city’s most loved independent English
and Arabic bookstores.

Like everywhere in Beirut, it is worth wandering around, into smaller alleys, up and down stairways, and out into streets where time seems to stand still.

Passers-by can peek into barber shops, grab home-made ice cream from a corner shop, see how a bucket is lowered from a balcony for a grocer on the street to fill, or engage in a chat with a local.

To the south, visitors to the National Museum can discover the Jealousy Mosaic from the Byzantine period, the sarcophagus of the Drunken Cupids from the second century and ample evidence that cultural and political ties to Egypt were established in the fourth millennium BC.

Winemaking has a 6 000-year tradition in the region.

Contemporary art lovers should not miss the Beirut Art Centre in Sin el-Fil.

Like Cape Town, Beirut has an upstart design district and the Beirut Design Week, organised by the Mena Design Research Center is growing.

One of the city’s few public spaces is Sanayeh Gardens, between Hamra and Sanayeh, where old men meet to play cards; and the Corniche, the promenade along the Mediterranean, attracts all classes and all  denominations – a rare feat for Lebanon.

Fishermen sit along the railing, while cyclists zigzag past; old and young, families and lovers, walk and stroll up and down the Corniche.

Music blasts from a parked car, a coffee or bread vendor chimes in, and an old man plays the oud.

Leaving from Ain el-Mreisseh, one can walk all the way to Luna Park, and then up to Raouché and Pigeon’s Rock, one of Beirut’s famous landmarks.

The Corniche goes to Zaytouna Bay in the other direction, a popular and upmarket entertainment area in the harbour near St George’s Yacht Club.

Though war has gutted the heart of the city, and raucous building machines have taken over, frequently dismantling precious historical structures to replace them with ugly utilitarian skyscrapers, this defiant metropolis is one of the edgiest, most vibrant and most fascinating in the world.

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