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Well, I never imagined that I’d ever go to Beirut. If you are over 35 you will instantly realise why I said that (and think me crazy for going there). If you are lucky enough to be under 35, there was a really nasty civil war in Lebanon, centred in Beirut and this lasted from 1975 until 1990. It was similar to what Syria is today, and was the ultimate by-word for a battle-torn city. So when some of the guys on my compound suggested a weekend away there I was intrigued and did some research. First up was the UK Government’s Foreign & Commonwealth Office website for international travellers. This gives useful political and safety advice for every country in the world, and (importantly) is where my travel insurance company would look to see if my worldwide coverage could be disapplied should I need to make a claim. Yes there were areas of Lebanon to be avoided – those near to the Syrian and Israeli borders. But Beirut city was a “green area” as was most of its hinterland. There are a couple of Lebanese people who live on my compound in Riyadh, and they assured me that there were no issues for tourists who go there, as long as we didn’t stray into the Hezbollah militia dominated areas, and these were the places that the FCO had identified.

Next enquiry was what was there to do there. Some research showed Lebanon to be an important part of the Levant, and home of the Phoenicians – the ancient people who developed international trade in the Mediterranean, and started off what we now call the Roman alphabet. Think phonetics, the phone etc, the Greeks used the Phoenicians’ name as their root word for communication. You can’t get a better endorsement than that! In later (New Testament) times this area was known as Canaan.

Just outside Beirut is the town of Jbail, formerly known as Byblos, one of the oldest cities in the world with a continuous history going back over 7,000 years. One of its trades was in papyrus, and the Greeks used the town’s name for its word for book, hence the origin of the term Bible. I could go on about the cultural, religious and trading pedigree of this area, but I won’t – please go and look it up yourself. Hours of fascinating reading for you if you do. Over the millennia all the major early civilisations came to Beirut on missions of peace, trade or war; it has been invaded countless times, even by the English during the Crusades. Last in were the French in the 19th and early 20th century, and there is a lot of architecture that clearly has French influence, including many street names too. Beirut has been called the Paris of the East (but is not the only city with that epithet).

However, culture and history aside, Lebanon is living in an uncertain tension. As one of the frontiers of Christianity and Islamic faiths it has its faultlines. But today, both religions co-exist, the main Maronite (Christian) cathedral is literally next door to the main mosque which in turn is a stone’s throw (whoops, unfortunate turn of phrase) from the Greek Orthodox cathedral. The Roman Catholics, Anglicans, Coptics and others are in town too. The peace is supported by the United Nations who have a permanent presence in the city. When I got there I saw were two huge UN identified warships in the harbour, and occasional UN patrol vehicles meandered about. There was also a very heavy detachment of Lebanese militia who were guarding all the main buildings, squares and civic spaces. On one hand reassuring, but on the other hand understandable when Damascus is only 80km away – just to put it into perspective that’s the distance from Glasgow to Perth, and the Syrian border is closer, 50km away, the distance from Biggar to Glasgow.

So when I mentioned my intention to go to Beirut to Elaine, she was understandably worried, but after my research and careful scrutiny of the news for a week or so, I was happy that there was no real or immediate threat. So, five guys from my compound booked flights out for last Thursday, returning on Saturday, and we booked a sea-front hotel. The price was far, far below what one would pay for a similarly appointed or located hotel in Dubai. The flights were with Saudia, KSA’s flag-carrier airline (no alcohol, dedicated area on board for prayers etc), and took an hour longer than if we had flown with MEA, Lebanon’s national airline. This is because Saudia does not have rights to fly over Israel. Our flight path from Riyadh therefore went north west to the Red Sea, over Suez and (the wonderfully named town of) Zagazig before flying north over the Mediterranean to within sight of Cyprus and then east to Beirut.

As we made our descent into Beirut airport, and the final approach from the sea gave a view of haphazard housing and heavily damaged buildings. But, that’s not what I judge a country on, my first test is looking at the currency. Nice clean and interesting notes, so a civilised place. Immigration was quick and painless and tourist visas were free. The taxi had a meter (unknown in KSA) and half an hour later we were at the hotel. The exchange rate is 1,800 Lebanese pounds to 1 GBP, and the fare of 40,500 is the highest I have ever seen! The hotel was clean, modern and comfortable.

After checking in we wandered down to the adjacent yacht marina and stopped at a waterfront café, had something to eat and a couple of beers and watched the world go by. There were lots of huge motorised yachts in, many of which would be quite at home in Monaco. I wondered if these was an event on, but most seemed to be in their home port and flew Lebanese flags. There was a fashion shoot going on too, using the yachts or the snow-capped hills as a backdrop, and lovely ladies with lovely clothes strutted their stuff and added to the atmosphere. Later on we headed into the city centre and sampled some of the nightlife on offer. We settled on an atmospheric pub and chatted the night away. Riyadh this wasn’t….!


Marina with snow on the hills beyond.                                           The local brew.

The following morning I had a leisurely breakfast and went for a long walk to look for the old station. There are no railways in Lebanon now, but I knew that the civil war had shut the operation in Beirut down overnight, and that the site had been abandoned and left to rot. There was a heavy security at the gate and after a bit of discussion I was allowed to go in, accompanied by a minder and not permitted to take any photographs. This turned out to be a treasure trove, with abandoned and rusting vehicles scattered around the station and yard area. The station building was restored and was straight out of a late-1800’s French catalogue. All five locomotives I found were metre gauge steam and there were several carriages and wagons there in varying stages of decay. All brass fittings were long gone. This was the railway equivalent of the elephant’s graveyard of African fokelore. There are one or two mentions on t’internet about the station’s current existence, nothing comprehensive, but anywhere in western Europe it would have been tidied up and restored by enthusiasts. But the Lebanese have more important things to worry about, they have serious governmental and financial issues to resolve. But I do think by investing in a few litres of Paraquat and selling tickets at the gatehouse they could have an instant industrial heritage site which would add another dimension to the city.  

Back to the hotel and a late lunch with the other lads who had taken a more laid back attitude to the morning. Then we headed off for a city walking tour and went to the old souk area, this was a complete rebuild and 100% modern and a haven for every designer label I had heard of. Twenty-five years ago, who could have imagined branches of Versace, Ferrari or Jimmy Choo in Beirut? But it was good to see some wealth appearing there, and in one square mile of roads I have never seen so many expensive cars in my life – more than even Dubai, Mayfair of Abu Dhabi! I do hope that the wealth generators allow the crumbs of their success to trickle down to the poor benighted folks in the outer slum areas.

One of the gang had selected a traditional Lebanese restaurant for the evening so we headed there. We had mixed starters – portions of pitta bread, hummus, kibbe (crushed wheat with tomato and herbs), vine leaves stuffed with rice, braised dandelion, and fattoush (green salad with pomegranate molasses). All very nice. For my main course I opted for the grilled fish (the waiter assured me it was fresh and delicious) but I was a bit non-plussed when a pile of deep-fried whole minnows appeared, not quite what I had been expecting, but all good experiences. After there it was off to another district with pubs, and whilst it seemed rude not to patronise the Irish pub on St Patrick’s day (green beer on offer), we quickly moved onto somewhere more interesting.

A second late night ensued, but I was up fresh for breakfast again, and on the Saturday morning I went for a walk around the historic city centre – visiting churches, the Parliament building, the Roman ruins etc. The centre has been very sympathetically restored and it was a delight to be somewhere nice and wandering about in shirt sleeves in March, even though there was still a lot of snow visible on the hills above the city!. As you get to the edge of the “downtown” area, there were stark reminders of the civil war, with multi-storey hotels that are just ruined and empty, or like the erstwhile Holiday Inn almost completed in 1975 and riddled with bullet and shell holes and never finished. (There was an episode in 1976 incongruously known as the “Battle of the Hotels” when opposing factions fought over the hotel district and occupied each hotel in turn). Restoration and rebuilding work is carrying on at a great pace, and I do hope that these ghost hotels can be demolished or rebuilt and again assume their former glory, in the same manner as the beautiful Phoenician Hotel – I had a peek inside there too.


Restored: city centre with spires and minarets beside each other.                                        Unrestored: the former Holiday Inn

After lunch we headed back to the airport, and then back to KSA. So, my first impression of Beirut? A vibrant, clean, fascinating city with friendly people, but with tensions in its neighbouring countries that might spill over and ruin the place again. I hope not, but that seems to be the historical fate for the region. If I do get another chance, I would definitely return there, and next time would venture out of the city to see some of the major cultural gems. It is one of the few places I have been to in my life that I consider a real privilege to have been allowed into. If you too get the opportunity, do go.

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