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mercoledì 1 febbraio 2012

Have a ball in Beirut

I loved this movie when I saw it a few years ago! If you haven't seen it you definitely should especially if you're a woman. Of course the reason why I posted it is because it is set in Beirut, a magical place where I went for a long weekend to meet one of my dearest friends who was instead coming from Syria. In the beginning everybody was concerned that I was going to such a dangerous(?)place ..Dangerous. really? Why? I called the consulate and as a matter of fact they basically talked to me as if I was a paranoid.. It's funny how sometimes problems from the past can affect us all the time. Anyway I took a very bad Alitalia flight (as always) and got there late at night. I booked a room at Bristol hotel very beautiful old fashioned luxury hotel where for the price of a single room I got an amazing suite. Mind you Beirut is very expensive for tourists,especially hotels, so you should really try to find a good deal. I went there in April and the weather was fantastic. Pleasantly warm and sunny. When I got out of the hotel in the morning I saw a typically Mediterranean lively city. Nevertheless apart from the apparent calm and non chalance, it is not just a Mediterranean city. While in the taxi I breathed the light scent of oranges and sea wind and lost myself in the apparent peace until I started seeing some buildings still carrying the signs of war, the UN jeep trying to back up in a one way street and a tank (which I only has seen bfore in the news)stationing outside a government building, and was abruptly brought back to reality.
My suite at Le Bristol
Buildings on the corniche
The old part of Beirut has all been rebuilt since it was completely destroyed. Apparently it is very similar to how it used to be but knowing it you can see it is not as old as it probably used to look. In order to go there you have to cross some sort of a checkpoint and then you're inside a quiet and neat little neighbourhood full of reataurants bars and fast food places. I went to have lunch in Al Balad,a traditional restaurant where the food is exquisitely good and where I met my friend by chance. The specialty is red hummus which is absolutely to die for. Lebanese cuisine is one of my favourite in general and the food in this restaurant is absolutely delicious. And in truth: who can resist hummus? I certainly can't.
Clock tower downtown Beirut
Red hummus
If you want to see nice shops and have a relaxing stroll then Achrafieh is the neighbourhood to go to. There are boutiques and fancy shops and also ABC a department store with a nice terrace where all the young people from Beirut go for coffee and food. I noticed one thing in locals, the young guy I met on the plane who studied in France, the taxi driver, the friends we met there: new is good. By that I mean that they love new buildings , new shops, new hotels and consider what is old not to be so nice. To us the old buildings of Beirut are beautiful, even the hotels on the Corniche which stayed as they were in the sixties as a nostalgic souvenir of the grandeur of the city when it was the Paris of the Middle East but my impression was that in fact they are not for many people. Beirut is a wonderful place but carries all the scars of a painful war. You see it in the Holiday Inn skeleton of the hotel it used to be left almost as a remainder in the middle of the city to testify what the war did, or in Gemmaizeh the area bursting with nightlife and people wherewhile you have a drink in a bar amongst moltitudes of people you can also see soldiers with war uniforms and machine guns just walking around with everybody else. Talking about nightlife I realized why Beirut is so famous for that. Well, it'a hip place like you have almost never seen before believe me. My friends and I had dinner in Abdel Wahaba beautiful and lively restaurant with excellent food in Achrafieh and then went on to Buddha Bar where we danced until 3 in the morning and that was basically the leit motiv of the weeekend.
The next day I took a long walk on the Corniche where I enjoyed looking at all different crowds who go there: rich Christian Lebanese women jogging in their shorts and young Muslim girls rollerblading with their veil, couples walking around talking on the phone and Muslim families sitting by the shade smoking shishasA good portrait of the Corniche during the war is in the animation movie Waltz with Bashir which I consider almost a masterpiece and I strongly suggest to see it. The highlight of it are the rocks of Rauchè which are the symbol of this amazing city. I saw them from the plane as I was landing and then when I was leaving, but the most amazing sight was at night when a Lebanese friend of a friend took me there to watch them . By the way Ladies, WARNING: Lebanese men can be extremely dangerous. Velvety looks given with fiery dark eyes, captivating smiles, very attractive looks but most of all very charming and fascinating behaviour. Can tempt you even if you are in the most solid marriages. I warned you so don't say you were not advised.
Views of the Corniche
For an outdoor trip one can go to Jeita grotto or Byblos. The first one is really worth going to. I'm not a fan of caves in general : I have seen many around the world and after a while they all look the same to me . When I was younger and into natural sciences I was fascinated by stalagmites and stalactites but then in the years not so much. This cave is really fascinating though and it has an internal lake you can explore on a boat. The other is a little port town which was very famous in the sixties and the seventies. Marlon Brando and Frank Sinatra were regular visitors of the city as you can see in the pictures of the legendary Pepe's Fishing club where all the international jet set used to go at the time. Now, unfortunately very little remains of this shiny and glamorous past in there, however it is still an interesting place to visit especially as far as the monuments are concerned. I remember going inside the medieval Saint John's church and listening to the rosary. The sound of the prayer of the few old ladies together as one voice was mesmerizing.
Jeita Grotto
And then it was time to go: after another night on the town and some romantic mishap I was on a plane late at night looking at the Raouchè rocks and taking off above the magic of Beirut. It was one of those times when leaving a place turned out to be really sad. I had truly loved the place, the atmosphere and the people. At the airport I bought a book of photographs showing how all the places were during the war and how they have been reconstructed: so I would say a constructive and positive before and after; meaning war is the past whereas the future lies in front of this battered and wounded city for it to shine again as it used to. Au revoir maravilleuse Beirut. We'll see each other again.
Raouchè rocks