You might know Beirut as the ‘Paris of the Middle East.’
But it’s not Paris. It’s Beirut, a city with its own distinctive identity from its Muslim-Christian skyline to bustling seafront and, as even a few days reveal, much more. It’s a man blasting Caramela Sexy Lady as he washes his car. It’s the incessant question of ‘taxi?’ and car horns. It’s the smell of spicy home cooking wafting from shuttered windows and balconies draped with washing. It’s families flocking to the Corniche with chairs and blankets to enjoy the sunset. It’s the chaotic minibuses, driving too fast or too slow, juddering to stop as weary passengers flag them down. There’s only one city quite like this and it’s Beirut.
So what was I doing in Lebanon? When I say it was an accident, I'm not joking. I was in Palermo for work. My mum decided to tag along, but flights home were expensive. In the sea of €300+ I found her an €18 flight to Athens. She didn’t want to go on her own, so encouraged me to join. By the time we booked, flights out of Athens had gone up. So, I suggested we escape via three different countries and another continent. You know where this is going.
Our flight left Athens around 2am. Getting the free visa on arrival was simple. We were asked what we wanted to take photos of, what we did for a living and the officer asked to see my tattoos. It was less stressful (and much quicker) than entering the US.
Having read about 'official' airport taxis, I made the mistake of asking a driver to confirm the fixed fare. He called his friend who drove a regular taxi and demanded 100,000 LBP for the trip – four times the 'official' fare of 25,000. We were, as always, travelling on a supermarket-crisps-only shoestring and a bit upset. I haggled until he accepted 70,000 with a ‘welcome.’ I knew this could happen. I still fell in the trap. For your sanity, pre-book with a reputable company like Allo Taxi.
After sleeping late, we had a quick look at the Raouche or Pigeon Rocks. From our point of view atop the cliffs, they looked petite. The boats sailing through below, only specks in comparison, showed their staggering size.
Our next stop was the Shopper’s Supermarket Raouche. On the way up, we noticed for the first time a building bearing scars of the 1975-1990 Lebanese Civil War. It’s just everyday life in Beirut but for us, having never seen a bullet-riddled building amongst reconstruction, it was chilling.
Before travelling, Annabelle asked a friend who’d been to Lebanon if it was expensive. ‘California prices,’ he warned us. He also complained that ‘they didn’t know who I was,’ though, so we didn’t take him seriously. We should have taken him seriously. Well, not on random strangers not knowing who another random stranger was, but Lebanon is indeed expensive. Unless you want cigarettes, which are under $3. We left with some crisps, nuts, sugared chickpeas and bottled water. Greece seemed like a bargain.
We made it back to the rocks as the sun set. Deep orange shone like a beacon through the rocks. As it faded, the sky glowed purple. I’d never seen such an orange sunset, let alone a real purple sky.
As darkness fell, tourists dispersed to be replaced by families. Fruity aromas wafted from shisha pipes. A stall sold toys including a Smurf on a motorbike. One man, walking miles up and down, sold flashing balloons to toddlers. Others held baskets of nuts. Joggers passed by again and again. I admired them for pressing on in the stifling 84% humidity.
I spotted the local bus, the 15. Beirut buses aren’t what you might expect. In fact, many people think it has no bus network. Some are private minivans, some are proper buses. The number is usually displayed in the front window. They can be flagged down anywhere on their routes. Likewise, they can drop you anywhere. A fantastic map can be found on YallaBus.com (I recommend printing it out). Short journeys are 500 to 2,000 LBP ($0.33 to $1.30). Sometimes the doors are hanging off, along with a passenger. Sometimes the back is. Seatbelts are rare (or, on the 15, non-existent). Smoking is allowed. Drivers stay on the phone for updates on traffic and schedule.
Now I’ve painted a picture of the most glorious peasant wagons I’ve had the pleasure of taking, I’ll tell you my biggest regret. We were walking along the seafront when we heard blaring music. A car? Then we saw flashing blue lights. It was not a car. It was a bus. It was an over-capacity 15 bus, back hanging off, passengers leaning from the open door, with a full on rave going inside. It was the ravemobile. The real Vengabus. I never got a photo. I never saw it again. That's my biggest regret.
Being a bus connoisseur I was excited to take one, but when it actually came to it the next day, I was scared. What if the government's travel advice was right and it was dangerous or they tried to rip us off? With so little money and my mum struggling to walk, we didn’t have much choice. So I boarded the 15, shouted ‘Marhabaan! Charles Helou? Alfén? Shukraan!’ and handed over our 2,000 LBP. We found our peeling seats. The bus lurched as it stopped and started, picking up a variety of passengers.
The bus hit empty road. It was now barrelling down the middle of the motorway – not in lane, in the middle – at well over the speed limit. My mum mentioned wanting a cigarette. I told her it was allowed. She was shocked, but soon noticed others lighting up and joined in. The bus screeched to a stop. A man jumped on. He snatched the driver's money and made his way down the bus. I thought he was raiding it. He was actually a sort of conductor. This was regular business.
The bus stopped at a depot. We weren't sure what was going on. Other buses left. We didn’t want to pay again, so we waited. Another tourist boarded. The driver spread his arms to let us know we’d reached Charles Helou Bus Station. It wasn’t scary. We never felt in any danger and there was no attempt to rip us off. It was just a bus.
At the bus station, we met a driver named Moustafa. He told us how during the Civil War, on the very spot we stood chatting, he saw every Muslim in the station rounded up and shot. His eyes welled up as he spoke. We all had goosebumps. On a lighter note, he showed us photos of his wife, children and siblings, many of whom had moved to Dubai.
We walked on to the Mohammad Al-Amin Mosque. In the early 19th century, a Zawiya (religious school) was built on the site. Plans materialised in the 1950s to replace it with a mosque. After years of legal battles over the land, it opened in 2008.
A cross peered through the minarets. Before the mosque with its intricate architecture, a torn Lebanese flag billowed.
The mosque is free to enter and open to non-Muslims! Abayas are available on a rack outside for women, who are required to cover up. All shoes must be removed. Photography is allowed.
Inside, it was cool and peaceful. The grand chandeliers and red and gold ceiling were stunning. This was my first visit to a mosque. I stood a while just taking it in.
Right beside the mosque was the pristine Maronite Cathedral of St. George. It opened in 1894. However, it was severely damaged in the Civil War. It was later restored and reopened in 2000.
Eerily empty streets surrounded the Roman Baths. Over 2000 years old and discovered in 1968-1969, the ruins are remarkably intact. It’s fascinating to imagine ancient bathers amidst what’s now a modern city. Viewing is free.
There were churches and mosques everywhere in Beirut. I mean everywhere. Just down the road was the St. George Greek Orthodox Cathedral. Like its neighbour, it was shelled and vandalised during the Civil War. Restoration began in 1998 and five years later, it reopened. Colourful paintings and inscriptions adorned its walls and arches before an ornate gold altar.
Up steps was Nejmeh Square or Place de l'Etoile. Once a Levantine souk destroyed by the Civil War, it's now home to the Lebanese Parliament. Kids played on scooters, rollerskates and tricycles while adults ate at surrounding cafes. Arches led to the golden streets branching off to give the square its star-like appearance. Past the few occupied shisha pipes outside cafes, streets were, once again, eerily vacant.
While my mum rested on a roadblock (she’s learned to take what she can get as a disabled traveller), we faced an alley leading to the Roman Baths. A boy rode by on a tricycle. Then came the call to prayer from the Mohammad Al-Amin Mosque. It was haunting as it echoed through the empty streets. I’d never heard a call to prayer before and I was lucky since this one, stood where we were in a city we didn’t mean to visit, left even my mum who’d visited many Arab countries moved by its beauty.
We walked past the equally beautiful Al-Omari Mosque to a comfy wall facing the Beirut Municipality town hall. Flowers in colours of the sun bloomed on bushes before a fountain in the Municipal Park. We had the Mansour Assaf Mosque to thank for our friendly wall, where we could peer through a gate into the sahn (courtyard).
From our wall, I could see an I Heart Uruguay sign. Baffled by nothing at this point, we wandered over. Turned out it said ‘I Heart Uruguay Street,’ which is a revived nightlife centre in Beirut. A fountain by the sign mirrored statues and Lebanese flags.
I could see something else interesting from there. It looked like another ruin. I didn’t want to make my mum walk further than we needed to, but since it’s not every day you go to Beirut, she agreed we should check it out. It turned out to be the Ancient Tell Area, one of Beirut’s oldest settlements dating back to 2,500 BC. Known then as Biruta, it was a small town where ships sheltered and traded goods. As two harbours formed to extend Biruta’s trade reach, this fort became its administrative centre. During Roman times, it was renamed Berytus and its centre moved to the Forum, below what’s now Nejmeh Square. The fort retained its strategic position overlooking the harbour and became a castle. It was shelled not in the Civil War, but by Russian ships in 1827 and British ships in 1840. Modernisation left these remains. It's free to view.
Streets framed the Al-Amin Mosque as we looked back. We passed another fountain where couples chatted before arriving to our destination, the Beirut Souks.
Escalators led up to the Souks. Before the Civil War, shopping in Beirut was dominated by the Souk al-Tawileh, Souk al-Jamil and Souk al-Franj located here, the latter being Lebanon’s biggest fruit and vegetable market. However, like so much of Downtown Beirut, shops were set alight and blown up during the war. Downtown became a ghost town, which – ironically, despite its expensive reconstruction – it still is with its empty streets. The Souks finally reopened in 2009. They’re not the ‘traditional’ souks you might expect, but a modern shopping mall packed with international chains like Armani, Louis Vuitton, Lush and Puma. There’s something melancholy in 75% of what was once the shopping centre of Lebanon now accessible only to the rich; but it was, at least, busy. Families and workers with laptops packed the Starbucks, cinema and open areas, where kids played football and rollerbladed.
Amongst modernity loomed one reminder of the Souks’ history – the crumbling L’Orient Le Jour building, once the HQ of Lebanon’s French-language newspaper. Its bullet-scarred shell watching over a kids’ football game was both unsettling and striking in its jarring depiction of how life goes on.
Behind the Souks were colourful windows of the Al Majidieh Mosque. There was also a lovely view of the hills from a nearby balcony, where people escaped the noise.
We walked back through the Souks. Between designer stores was a contrasting art display – the first Beirut Image Festival. There were fascinating and hauntingly beautiful exhibits from both the Arab world and elsewhere. My favourite was The Scooter of Douma by Syrian photographer Hasan Belal. Instead of addressing only the Syrian conflict, it explores the little known issue of having no transport – and how the citizens of Douma tackled it by modifying old scooters to carry families. You can see some of the photographs here.
The Souks’ corridors led us to Imam Ouzai Square. There, we found an unassuming domed building was Zawiyat Ibn Arraq; the remains of what was once a hospice, built by religious authority Mohammad Ibn Arraq Al-Dimashqi in 1517. After his death in 1526, it became a zawiya for his followers. It was incredible to see so many old buildings still intact.
Past the square was what we’d been looking for – the I Love Beirut sign. One does not accidentally go somewhere and not commemorate it with a photo at the I Love This City I Didn’t Mean to Visit Sign. The photos look empty, but we were actually part of a crowd waiting over 45 minutes for a group to finish taking selfies.
Once we’d got our photos and my mum had rested at Starbucks, the sun had set. Families still filled squares and eateries. The Al Majidieh Mosque’s minaret was illuminated green. CosmoCity’s rainbow lights were vibrant on the Souks’ polished floors. The distant hills twinkled.
The walk back to our hotel was about 3.5 miles. A few 15 buses still sped by. My mum said no, she wanted to walk along the coast. So we set off. In a square before the mosque, kids careered down ramps and couples talked on steps.
Flashing pharmacy signs told us it was still 32°C with 78% humidity. Hours of walking in the heat, with only a little water, were finally getting to my mum. We sat on a wall while we got her rehydrated. Fortunately, I still had some crisps from Athens in my bag. Food helped a bit. A man paced up and down nearby. He approached to tell us ‘here not good.’ I had no idea how to explain in Arabic that my mum felt faint, so we walked on to a new wall near the Phoenicia Hotel. Stay hydrated, kids!
In daylight, we might have noticed the ravaged carcass of Beirut’s iconic Holiday Inn. In darkness, we had no idea it loomed in the shadows.
With my mum feeling much better, we walked until we found a small shop selling drinks and snacks. Men played cards on plastic tables forming a makeshift café. Opposite was a supermarket. I bought a jar of mushrooms and baba ganoush (which was actually mutabbal) to put in the wraps I got from our free breakfast. It was better than sugared chickpeas.
As roads opened to the sea, sudden crowds were familiar – joggers, cyclists, chatting friends and couples, kids on scooters and segways, parents with picnic baskets and men with flashing balloons. Looking back, the distant hills wore a glimmering shawl.