Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Lebanon: Beirut, the Paris of the Middle East. Still?

Chapter One - Beirut, the Paris of the Middle East. Still?

Few years back, Carlton Reid wrote an article in the brilliant British mountain bike magazine, MBUK, about a biking trip to Lebanon. It was my first proper introduction to the country, and has been my inspiration to go ever since. Reid wrote: "The first indication I had that I wasn't flying somewhere normal was at Heathrow when six passengers got on to a plane that can take 120." So there was I, expecting a similar situation, in spite of hearing reports about the rebuilding and recovery of the country. I guess I kept hanging on to the magazine article as some sort of nostalgia... How wrong could I be? Great was my amazement when at Paris Charles de Gaulle I had to board a large Boeing 747 nearly full to capacity with passengers. It wouldn't be the last of my surprises!...

On board the aircraft I met Robèrt. He was in the seat across the aisle and started talking to me; who I was and why I was going to Lebanon... The usual initial dialogue... Robèrt lived in Albany, New York where he had his own jewellery shop. He was returning to his fatherland for a family visit, after 15 years of absence. He was a great guy to talk to, and had lots of interesting things to say about Lebanon; he was still very much in touch with his relatives and full of love for his country. Once again, I witnessed how much Arabs love their native lands. When we finally landed at Beirut International Airport after a super-smooth flight, tears rolled down Robèrt's cheeks. He greeted the first security officer in the terminal with "It's good to be home!"... He was. I definitely wasn't. I was in a foreign land waiting to be explored.

Immigration procedures were very straightforward. I collected my backpack at the conveyor belt (porters are available free of charge, if you want), and went to the departure hall upstairs where a bank is located. I wanted to have at least some Lebanese money. Unfortunately, the bank was closed. A man walked up to me, and asked me if I wanted a taxi. "How much does it cost?", I asked. "Twenty Dollars", he said. A bloody rip-off! I bargained down to half of that, and although you can walk to the main road and catch a service taxi into town from there, the price difference doesn't warrant the trouble anymore (especially because once in town you'll have to take another taxi to the hotel of your choice). I asked to be taken to Hotel Regis, close to the Hard Rock Café near the waterfront at St George's Bay. Not many people seemed to know the hotel. It's a bit run-down, but it's certainly not a bad place, and the staff are friendly enough. The pricing system is a bit odd, in my opinion: $17 for a room (single or double doesn't seem to matter) without A/C, but a giant price increase to $30 for a room with A/C! A decent bathroom is attached.

The next morning I set off to explore Beirut. I decided to first walk to the area around the Place des Martyrs and visit the former city centre. It's a huge city and things were more spread out than I'd imagined. Signs of the war were still everywhere I looked and I noticed a higher than average presence of military personnel; in some streets even some armoured vehicles stood at the ready.

Place des Martyrs, Beirut Totally unfamiliar with the place, I failed at first to find the Place des Martyrs, although I had walked down the Rue Weygand. I'd looked for a large open space with the famous Martyr's Statue as the dominant feature, but hadn't seen it. Before I knew, I was at Avenue Charles Helou. I hadn't had breakfast and decided to have it in a quite attractive looking bistro called Le Baroque. They have a reasonable selection of reasonably priced items. The waiter-cum-barkeeper was a friendly chap, speaking English, so the perfect person to ask for the Martyr's Statue. Apparently, it has been removed for renovation. No wonder I couldn't find it! Armed with this new information it was easy to locate the Place des Martyrs. It's now full of modern metal sculptures, representing animals mainly. It doesn't look bad, but it's not awfully impressive either. One thing is certain: it fills up and enlivens an otherwise large empty space. There are no people selling postcards, drinks or whatever. Everything which once stood there (it was the heart of the city before the civil war broke out), had been shot/bombed to smithereens and the resulting debris had been cleared by the workers for the Solidere project, the huge company behind the rebuilding of Beirut. A big 'billboard' of what the architects are trying to create, had been erected, but when I returned three weeks later, I noticed that due to strong winds the whole thing had been torn to pieces and fallen down. An omen? I think not. There seems to be a lot of 'push' behind the project!

A good overview of El Bourj, as the place is better known to the Beirutis, is from the nearby viaduct. Apart from the aforementioned statues the place is one huge construction site, as is most of Beirut in fact.

The buildings around Place d'Etoile and in the adjacent streets still carry the evidence of an extremely violent war; some buildings are completely shot to pieces. It's beyond imagination if you've never been in a war yourself (like me). It seems that every corner of these streets has a blockade manned by some soldiers. To get to the Grand Mosque I asked one of the military in a friendly manner if I could pass. I had to undergo a thorough bag search, but when I was cleared, I could go virtually where I wanted without hindrance.

The Grand Mosque is heavily damaged, as are most buildings in the area. Almost next door, and in other places in the vicinity, ancient remains have been uncovered whilst digging up the ground on which once houses stood.

Next on my list was the Sursock Museum. I found a service taxi going that way. It was in that cab I met Nathalie, a nice young woman who spoke good English. She gave me her telephone number so we could meet again later. Every single person in Lebanon seems to carry a cellular phone (GSM). All numbers start with 03. Taxi drivers in particular will supply you with their numbers in their efforts to rip you off even more. To my disappointment the Sursock Museum was closed until November. A new exhibition was being prepared. "Oh well", I thought, "there's always the Archaeological Museum. It'll be open by now." So, I took a taxi thither. I must have been really unfortunate, but the museum is closed for renovation until next year. From the outside, it's looking good already, but I guess there's still quite some work to do inside...

Another word about (service) taxis in Beirut: not many service taxis ever seemed to go in the direction I wanted to go. I almost always had to take a 'normal' taxi. 'Service' fares are LL 1000 - 2000 for a ride anywhere in the city proper. Outside of that and you'll pay LL 5000. Rides in normal taxis will cost you LL 5000 - 10,000 respectively.

Diagonally opposite the museum is a good snack bar which sells giant shawarma sandwiches plus soft drink for $3. And the stuff really tastes good! The price for a soft drink anywhere in Lebanon, incidentally, seems to range from LL 500 to LL 1000.

Another taxi brought me to the Peace Monument on the outskirts of town. It's a structure composed of concrete, former Soviet tanks and armoured vehicles. It weighs 5,000 tons, is nine storeys high and is thus a real eye catcher. The monument is near the Ministry of Defence and so is (not surprisingly) well-guarded, and it's advisable to talk to the soldiers first before pointing your camera anywhere. There's a Martyrs' Memorial in front of the structure.

It was getting late in the afternoon, and I decided to head back to the sea front of St George's Bay, where I went for a walk along the Corniche. Some anglers were trying their luck in the smelly water. Like most (but not all!) Beirutis I met, they weren't very friendly, so I soon decided to walk on. I realised Beirut in that aspect is not at all different from other big cities in the world...

Beirut-CoastIt's a pretty long walk from St George's Bay all the way to the coast near the Pigeon Rocks, and unfortunately also a very dull one. There's little to see on the way. The so-called Pigeon Rocks would hardly be noticed if they were in a place other than Beirut, which has few real attractions. It's not a bad spot to be at sunset, and at least the area offers a retreat from the otherwise far too busy city. The traffic situation is awful; cars jostle for space, the exhaust fumes pollution is high. The drivers here are totally mindless, and they seem determined to burn rubber on every possible occasion. Their hands are constantly on the horn, and to be honest that's very necessary! For all these reasons, I didn't like Beirut very much. If you know your way around, it's great for shopping and partying, but if that's what I was after I would've stayed at home. The greatest subject of interest for me, however, was the massive destruction, especially visible in some of the suburbs. I must admit that it's incredible to see how a Middle Eastern city, so badly destroyed during a war, has recovered so much so quickly from its torment. No doubt it's very much due to the positive view many Lebanese have of the future (and to a lot of funds brought in by 'certain powers'). I'm pretty sure that after another ten years most of the evidence of the war in Beirut will be gone, and new attractions will probably spring up.

That night I stayed again at the Hotel Regis, but the next morning I moved to Hamra. I ended up in Hotel Cedarland. The lady and man who seem to be in charge of the place are very friendly and helpful. This hotel was there before the war but all floors have been renovated. It really is a spotless place! A single room was $45, including taxes and breakfast. As they were out of single rooms, I got a Junior Suite for the same price. A great deal! The hotel seems to be full of university students who rent 'studies' there. Outside business hours, some of these students are put in charge of the hotel. And it's then when things are less pleasant. These young men and women see themselves as too important to be polite. The one the next morning was downright rude to me, obviously because I was carrying a backpack. He made a lot of fuss about the breakfast, which he didn't believe was included. When he'd finally checked my reception file, he had to admit it was. But to show he wasn't happy about it, he made me wait for about an hour before serving it, the longest time I've ever had to wait for breakfast. A man who had turned up half an hour after me, had finished eating even before I was served!

When I'd just arrived - it was about nine in the morning - an apparently friendly student walked up to me and offered to show me around in his car. He'd pick me up at twelve noon and we'd see some of the sights around Beirut, like Jeita, Beit Meri, etc. It was about half past twelve when he showed up. With a dubious smile on his face, he told me his car had broken down and was now in the garage. But for $75 he would be able to arrange another car which we then could 'use' until ten in the evening. He'd also take me to Jounieh to visit some night clubs. I immediately realised the scam. Bastard - he made me lose practically a whole morning! At the end of my trip I went to the Cedarland again; it was early morning. When I asked if they had any rooms available the student in charge looked me up and down and then said "No" and just ignored me after that.

I can only conclude that although it is a very good hotel, it's best to ignore it if you don't feel you're on the same wavelength as that sort of shitty student.

What you should remember, when booking into a hotel in the Hamra area, is to get yourself a room away from the street! It's very noisy there until late at night. On top of that, Hamra's under the flight path of jets departing from Beirut airport.

After that student had tried to diddle me with the $75 car, I took a taxi to Beit Meri. It cost about $15 (I know, that's a lot!).

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