Wednesday, March 14, 2012
After eating my way through Beirut for two days, I needed some exercise for both body and mind. This started off in the form of a walk along The Corniche, Beirut’s famous seaside promenade. The weather was beautiful on Sunday morning, and the whole city was out for a stroll.
My walk went along the waterfront, past concrete beaches where people sunbathed and played games, alongside a strange carnival called Luna Park, and up a hill to one of the city’s most stunning natural landmarks, Pigeons’ Rock. The beautiful natural arch rested just off the west coast of Beirut. Its striated form bore witness to its long history, making it seem much older than the modern city next to which it sat.
But Beirut’s modernity belies its millennia of history. Most of what is visible now dates from recent times, not least because of the civil unrest that the city has seen in the last few decades. But dig a bit deeper, and Beirut has its share of beautiful historic buildings and Roman ruins. You just have to know where to look for them.
Or someone that knows where they are. In my case, this was Ronnie, a Beirut native that runs the excellent WalkBeirut tour. After reading about the three-and-a-half-hour tour online, I emailed Ronnie to see if I could write about it in exchange for a ticket. He said yes, and throughout Sunday afternoon I was captivated by his stories about the city’s architecture, people, politics, history, culture, and just about everything else.
The tour started at the Banque du Liban building, where we learned about the Lebanese currency (which is pegged to the US dollar) and religion. Or rather, religions. There are officially 18 of them in Lebanon, and at our next stop we saw one of their churches: the Evangelical Protestant Armenian Church. There we also learned about Lebanon’s voting system and the fact that the Lebanese diaspora, which is spread across the globe from Los Angeles to Brazil, has to return every four years if its members want to cast their votes.
Nearby we saw several stunning examples of early 20th century Lebanese residential architecture in the Kantari Traditional Quarter. The brightly-colored buildings combined design elements of Turkish, French, and local styles, the result of which was a unique mix of harem quarters, Art Nouveau ironwork, and triple windows behind ornate balconies.
Down the hill from the houses was perhaps the most famous building in Beirut: the Holiday Inn. The hotel, which was only open for one year in the 1970′s, was used as a base and lookout tower during the civil war. It was looted in the beginning of the war, then fought over by every faction until the fighting ended in 1990. Now a shell of a building, it is both a piece of living history and a haunting reminder of a painful time in the city’s past.
Not far from there was the Green Line, the section of the city center where the fighting took place during the civil war. We walked through a pocket with brand new residential developments, and learned that it used to be the home of Beirut’s small Jewish population. There was still a synagogue there that was slowly being restored.
After the war, a real estate development company called Solidere started rebuilding the area, offering shares to residents in return for permission to redevelop their land. Much of the city center has been rebuilt by the company, which sometimes replicates the former historic buildings that were in place before the war, and sometimes puts up new buildings, causing locals to have mixed feelings about its activities.
Continuing the Beirut tour, we saw the impressive Roman Baths, which were uncovered fairly recently, and the Place de l’Etoile, which featured a tower from the French interwar period that had a Rolex-sponsored clock in it.
The tour then continued to Martyrs’ Square, a husk of its pre-civil war self. As we learned about the square and the many protests that had taken place there, a side street filled with riot police and military troops. Apparently there was a protest brewing that very night, although we never saw any protesters and it didn’t appear to have made the news when I checked the next morning. Still, learning about the city’s history in the midst of it was particularly powerful.
The last stop on the tour was a statue of a famous Lebanese journalist named Samir Kassir. He had written a famous book about the city, and had inspired Ronnie to start giving tours of Beirut several years ago. Surrounding the statue were quotes in French and Arabic that have become famous in Lebanon.
As the Beirut tour wrapped up, I felt like I had gotten a better understanding of the city from someone that was incredibly passionate about his home. I had heard good things about the tour before I went, but even my high expectations were exceeded. It was one of the highlights of my time in Beirut.
The next morning the Four Seasons offered me a driver to take me on the quick 15-minute ride to the airport. When I arrived, I had an unfortunate experience with the bmi check-in staff. The airline had requested upgrades for me, and while the outbound one had gone through without a hitch, the staff at Beirut airport didn’t recognize the request for the inbound one. They insisted they were powerless to upgrade anyone without permission from headquarters even though I had clear evidence of said permission. After arguing for an hour and almost missing my flight, I boarded the plane only to watch as the flight attendants upgraded a woman sitting two seats away from me. Not good.
But I didn’t let the bad experience ruin my trip to Beirut. The city had been one of my top travel destinations of the year, and my short time there was enough to convince me to return. If for no other reason, there are so many other amazing places to visit in Lebanon that I need to go back to cover more ground. And walk Beirut again.