Beirut: Astride The Divide

Mar 1, 2012
2012 / March 2012

It is not enough to familiarize yourself with the layout of Beirut’s streets and suburbs. You must overlay an intricate web of religious and political affiliations. Within a single block, you can cross between the territories of bitter rivals. For an outsider, these invisible boundaries are confusing and potentially hazardous.

Perhaps the best place for a first-timer to begin is in one of the few places open to all factions of this complex society, the Corniche. This sweeping, palm-fringed, waterfront promenade is where the city comes to stroll, or to fish, or to inline skate, or to drink coffee, or merely to watch the world go by.

It is here, on neutral ground, that you can gain some sense of Beirut’s diversity. Westernized teenagers in skimpy fashions mingle with Muslim women in burqas. Occasional political demonstrations bring the current tensions to the fore, but on most afternoons the Corniche hints at the cosmopolitan sophistication that, until the late 1960s, made Beirut one of the most glamorous destinations in the world: the Paris of the Mediterranean.

That heyday has been revived at the Riviera Hotel, where the seaview rooms provide a grandstand panorama of the comings and goings on the Corniche. The hotel is connected by a tunnel under the littoral highway to the Riviera Beach Lounge, a waterfront complex of swimming pools, bars and restaurants. Just as it was in the era of the jet set, this is a popular hangout for the “beautiful people.”

Beirut is situated on a triangular spur of land sandwiched between mountains (powdered with snow during the cold months) and the timeless waters of the Mediterranean.

Since the civil war (1975–1990), a new manmade feature carved the city in two: the Green Line, which separates Muslim West Beirut from Christian East Beirut. This border is effectively marked by Damascus Road. Although there are no fences or checkpoints to hinder transit between the two halves, the division runs deeper than mere geography.

One of the trendiest of the city’s new hotels, Le Gray, straddles the divide. Located on Martyrs’ Square at the northern end of the Green Line, this beautifully designed property is an oasis of genteel tranquility far removed from the violence of the past and the chaotic reality of the present.

Within Le Gray Hotel, the ground-floor Gordon’s Café (open from 8 a.m.) is a great place for a business breakfast or morning meeting; you can sit indoors or out on the pavement terrace. Alternatively, Ginette, in the heart of the Gemmayzeh District, offers fresh pastries and reputedly the best espresso in the city.

After a hearty breakfast, you’re ready to tackle the Beirut traffic. Few outsiders summon the nerve to drive here: The maze-like streets are hard to navigate, and local drivers do not make allowances for hesitant newcomers. There is little in the way of public transport, but taxis are plentiful and relatively cheap. There are no meters, so agree on the price up front (it’s worth asking the hotel concierge for guidance on approximate prices). Bear in mind that some taxi drivers will refuse to drive through certain areas of the city.

If you have spare time for shopping, you might want to head to Hamra Street in West Beirut, which until the civil war was known as Lebanon’s Champs-Élysées. It is yet to recapture its old glory but is still a bustling commercial area with plenty of international logos.

For modern shoppers, the focus has switched to southern West Beirut, with its upmarket Verdun Street, and to shopping centers such as the ABC Mall in East Beirut’s Achrafieh District. The city’s newest (and oldest) shopping area is Beirut Souks in the center of downtown. The original souks were obliterated during the war. The modernized, pedestrianized reincarnations opened in 2009.

One Beirut institution that survived everything the city’s recent history has thrown at it, despite its proximity to the civil war front line, is Le Chef on Rue Gouraud, a legendary family-run restaurant specializing in local favorites. The décor is cheap and cheerful, and it’s certainly not somewhere you’d take a business contact you’re trying to dazzle. However, for a sleeves-up, informal meeting, it’s the perfect venue — an honest place with no pretentions.

Another great venue for local cuisine is Tawlet, located at the Souk El Tayeb farmers’ market. Different cooks take charge each day, serving up home-style Lebanese regional dishes using the freshest ingredients.

Late afternoon is the perfect time to wander along the Corniche and pause for a sundowner. After the sun sinks into the Med, the focus shifts to two thriving neighborhoods in East Beirut: Achrafieh and, increasingly, Gemmayzeh.

In Achrafieh, Hole in the Wall, a smoky, atmospheric little pub, attracts the after-work crowd from 6:30 p.m. onward; and Element is one of the city’s trendiest nocturnal venues, with a door policy to match. If you don’t look the part, you won’t cross the threshold. There are no such obstacles getting into Kayan, a comfortable, welcoming bar in Gemmayzeh, where the soundtrack is largely golden oldies.

For dinner, the three branches of La Tabkha — in Gemmayzeh, Hamra and Jal el Dib —  offer Lebanese cuisine in a French bistro setting. At the more expensive end of the market, Da Giovanni is the finest Italian restaurant in the city, with sumptuous décor. Another good option if you aim to impress is Indigo on the Roof on the top floor of Le Gray Hotel, where you’ll be dining alongside Beirut’s movers and shakers.

This is not a city for the faint-hearted. Newcomers will find Beirut challenging, infuriating, exhilarating and baffling, but always compelling. There is, quite simply, nowhere else on Earth like it.

Beirut Souks
solidere.com/beirut

Ginette
ginette-beirut.com

Da Giovanni
dagiovannibeirut.com

Le Gray Hotel
campbellgrayhotels.com

Hole in the Wall
gardlen.com

Lebanon Ministry of Tourism
lebanon-tourism.gov.lb

Riviera Hotel
rivierahotel.com.lb

La Tabkha
tabkha.com

Tawlet
tawlet.com

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