After an epic dodgem like drive through the streets of Beirut following ten hours of travel, we arrived at the hotel, Le Bristol, to be greeted by top hatted door men and shiny glass doors. We entered an echo chamber of lurid purple, ornate furniture, mirrors and marble floors. Heavy metal and Lebanese Red popped into my mind. The reception staff were austere, with wide painted mouths and long faces, but they were helpful, and occasionally, they would smile.
Our room was more muted, grey and pink, a vast white bed floating in a sea of mauve, and green pillows. As we pushed open the door, there, on the brown glass table, stood a bottle of Lebanese white, a large slice of chocolate cake and a card to welcome us, ‘Mama and Dada, Happy Anniversary, love Róisín’. We found the culprit on the roof, stretched out by the pool, itself a sun rippled square of blue. Around us zoomed tower blocks of curved glass and white concrete. Car horns tooted below. We poured three glasses and toasted each other. “Welcome to Beirut.”
Róisín had, that day, been on an Alternative Walking Tour, so felt she had grasped the lie of the land. She took us by the hand, and guided us through Hamra to Down Town, past the lit-up palace, many militia points, the Christian Church, Mosque, both minaret and steeple touching dark skies, vying for glory, side by side. Beautiful.
The traffic was mad: It careered, braked, screech stopped, raced and dodged, hooting horns. Beiruties don’t walk, and park where they like – in the middle of the road, but at the same time are courteous to pedestrians. If you step out, they will perform an emergency stop, and wave you across.
We ate that night at restaurant City Chef, recommended because its cheap and famous for feeding the poor. The food was simple but fine, like the Lebanese wine. After dinner, we wandered around the trendy Gemmayzeh bars, tasting cocktails. We watched and gazed, welcomed everywhere. I tried out my French, but because of the Mandate set up after the war, everyone speaks English. They want to know why we are here and are filled with disbelief and delight when we say we are tourists. Welcome.
The next morning, I got up early for a refreshing swim, plowing up and down amongst the top of deserted buildings. Then out to explore, find breakfast and a walk to the national museum. Róisín and I set off, following the blue dots of google. We were staying in the Hamra neighbourhood, mental with banks and high-rise towers, many empty, with no windows. There were also beautiful houses, broken and ruined, ornate brickwork and tumbled down balconies, laced with bullet holes. The streets are a maze of concrete and dust, cars and lorries, but every so often, I caught a glimpse of the old world, the faded glory. We crossed the Green Line (now a highway) into the Christian side where life is less tumbled. It seems hip, richer, less noisy, trendy with shops and restaurants – though all of Beirut thrums with neon fast food.
We came across the Jewish cemetery, an oasis of silence, and a ravaged building held together by bullets, now an arts centre, but it was closed. We drank citron pressé through glass straws in a tiny French café by the museum.
There, I discovered death and destruction, necropolises and resurrection. The Phoenicians, Egyptians, Romans and Turks, tombs and sarcophaguses, bowls with the burnt human bones, mummies and mosaics – all magnificent. You are welcome.
We then walked the Corniche, a prom by the Med, edged with tall tower blocks of apartments, presumably with fabulous views, but burnt out, devastated, empty. Occasionally, there was a period house, or a new building that I loved with straight, clean lines that reflected a truly gorgeous horizon. Sadly, as the huge red Middle Eastern sun set, it was on hillocks of litter on pebbled beaches. It was plastic bottles on rocks that glittered. Beirut has a huge issue with its collection of rubbish. We were told it was because of political corruption. You are welcome.
For dinner, that evening we met Aisha, the daughter of an old friend, who lives in Beirut and works with Syrian refugees. Over tapas we talked of the Middle East, its joys and difficulties.
The next day, we met Ali, a taxi driver, who drove us across the mountains behind Beirut to Baalbec in the Beqaa Valley. Here is the Quaa – a wondrous site of temples and ruins dating back to 37 BC. Welcome. The first temple was completed under Nero in 36 AD, and more were erected over the following centuries by different peoples. It is truly amazing that, despite the invasions over the centuries, the bombing by the Israelis that these magnificent stones still stand, glorious and breath taking. It was amazing to be able to scramble and perch our bums, run our hands over columns and temples created by people over thousands of years ago.
Back in Beirut that evening, it began to storm: flashes of sheet lightening and bulbous drops of water exploded, drenching the city and us in seconds. We ran to a bar full of hubble bubble and cushions, ordered wine and tapas and settled down. Welcome.
The next day, Róisín was gone and I set off to do her recommended Alternative Walking Tour of East and West Beirut. I took an Uber to the meeting place. The driver was concerned that an older woman alone was going for a walk in the city on her own. He tried to persuade me instead to walk the Corniche, where he said it was safe. Eventually, he dropped me where I wished, at the bottom of the steps of St Nicholas. Welcome. The first person I met was also Irish, from Kildare, but living in Tyre. In the end, there were sixteen of us – Spanish, Italian, Australian, French and Swiss. Mustapha led us through the Christian district of Sodeco, through a well-tended garden of one of Beirut’s oldest families. It seems there are very few such houses left in Lebanon. Only 30,000 exist, not bombed or abandoned. Welcome
As I mentioned, the tour was ‘alternative’ and group hugs were encouraged (partly to protect us from the traffic) and politics discussed. Mustapha regaled us with economic facts and stories of corrupt politicians, the high cost of living, the soulless new build built by Solidaire, (the Dublin Docklands equivalent). He went through the history of wars and incursions, his home being bombed by the Israelis in 2006 and him rescuing his mother, brothers and sisters, and how his mother is still a refugee. She will not return from her sanctuary; I think it is in Jordan, but I could be wrong for he had so much to say, so much passion, arrogance and anger (he was young).
That night, Jerry and I booked a table at an Armenian restaurant, the Mayrig, and dined in splendour, surrounded by shrubs and green leaves. After walking the streets and dodging the traffic, the peace and Lebanese wine was a wonderful relief. Welcome
Food has been a joy on this trip. I’ve had chick peas that melt in your mouth, meat that falls apart on your tongue, cheese and spices that explode with taste, peppers, beetroot, tomatoes, chili hors d’ouvres that have been really delicious.
On Sunday, in Down Town Beirut we went to The Egg, a bombed out building, the shape of a dome, perched in the midst of the soulless new build. We were visiting an exhibition, Plastic, by an unknown artist who wishes to remain incognito. His/her art displayed the penury of cult. There were video portraits of famous people, graffitied, exposing their shame. It was clever and got great acclaim.
Our last day, Ali took us North to Biblos – where humans have lived for the last 7,000 years. It had a tiny harbour, full of boats, and a castle, a lovely fish restaurant and expensive souks. On our way, we had planned to cable car up to Harissa, where the Virgin Mary looks out over the sea. But the cable cars were being repaired, so Ali drove. There stood the cathedral on top of a mountain whose roof rippled like waves in the sky. I stood and looked down on Beirut, spread like a banquet, a city of white, full of friendship and history, of people with troubles, and knew that one day, I would like to return.