Feeling scruffy in a fashionista city with a chequered past
04.03.2010 - 05.03.2010 20 °C
Despite numerous Western government warnings against travelling to Lebanon, we decided to spend a few days in Beirut, as it was only an hour's bus ride away from Damascus. We arrived at the Lebanese Immigration and asked the bus driver where we could change our Syrian Pounds into Lebanese ones - he pointed to a local money changer who was waving at us through a chain-link fence! Never before have we executed foreign exchange in that manner! Didn't get too ripped off on the rate though, which was both surprising and pleasing.
It turns out we need not have worried about Beirut - as soon as we hopped into a taxi to our hotel, we were immediately hit with a modernity and affluence not seen in the Middle East, even in Amman. Huge towering luxury hotels lined the waterfront and numerous English billboards advertising fashion brands greeted us. We pulled into our extremely modest hotel, Regis and wished we had been able to afford the Four Seasons instead our bright but plain-Jane room, with a view of wildly-overgrown brown grass and rubble out the back (but a smidgen of the sea, mind you!).
We set out for a walk of the University area of Hamra, firstly seeking out the heavily-scarred shell of the Holiday Inn. This hotel was never finished and occupied by snipers in the 1970s during the Lebanese Civil war - a war, where it seemed (in our semi-informed opinions) that everyone was fighting everyone: Muslims vs. Christian Phalangists vs. The PLO vs. Syria vs. Israel vs. Hezbollah, and loyalties and sides switched often. The Holiday Inn was surrounded by newly-built buildings but was was stark and empty, riddled with holes and craters. Many of the surrounding houses and were dilapidated and scarred, as if left as a reminder of the not-so-distant past.
We stayed in Beirut for two days but wished we hadn't already booked our flight to Cyprus, as we wanted to stay longer. Call us fickle, but it was a welcome relief to have a choice of eating options after three or so months of a mono-diet! (We even walked for two hours to get Thai food on the other side of the city.)
We spent our time walking all around the city. We went through the newly-opened Beirut Souq in the downtown area, which we'd read was razed during the Civil War. Interestingly the site was meant to be ploughed over to clear views to the sea, however according to lore (and our guidebook!) a council worker was about to dig the site but strangely his digger seized up and he felt tingling in his hands and could not go any further. This omen was taken seriously and the old souqs as well as the nearby mosque was saved from destruction. However this modern souq was a tad disappointing as it had been developed into a shiny, outdoor-mall development full of Western brand names, rather than the working market we'd expected.
We also visited the the hip Gemmaydeh district, which is lined with sleek bars, eateries and boutiques. Young Beirutians are a very fashionable and beautiful bunch, and we felt very out of place in our Tevas and well-worn travel gear! As one friend who has visited Beirut put it, "Even the guy that sells vegetables on the street wears Armani!"
While we walked everywhere around the city, we were careful to take heed of our guidebook's advice not to venture to the Hezbollah camps in the south and centre of the city, however even despite knowing there were still tensions quietly simmering in the city, we felt very welcome and at ease in this vibrant and modern city.
Peaceful road barriers
The scarred Holiday Inn
Chalky with his large Almaza beer
Middle Eastern bread
Inside the newly developed Beirut Souq
Us with some tasty Lebanese vino
Locals near a mosque