Beirut: The French Riviera of the Middle East is thriving once again

Though it was nearly midnight, Beirut’s Corniche was brilliant with lights as we flew in across the dark Mediterranean for a three-night break. The ten-minute drive from the airport into the heart of the city confirmed it was a lively place still a long way from sleep.

Stepping on to our hotel balcony overlooking the Corniche next morning, I wondered what I’d see. The answer was joggers. old and young, men and women  -  some of the latter well covered and wearing headscarves, some in Lycra shorts and cropped tops. Their differing garb was a reminder that Beirut is a truly diverse city where Sunni and Shia Muslims, members of the Druze sect and Maronite Christians and others co-exist.

Breakfast, eaten on a terrace overlooking the sea, was a suitable fusion of croissants and pains au chocolat  -  a legacy of French rule  -  and local unleavened bread with thick, golden fig jam and tawny halva topped with pistachios.

With its well-tended palm trees, flowerbeds and elegant waterfront, Beirut might as easily be on the French Riviera as in the Middle East. It’s impossible not to be struck by its cosmopolitan sophistication and sheer cheerfulness.

The downtown district is the area that once justified the city’s claim to be the Paris of the Middle East. Reduced to a ghost town by the civil war that ended in the early Nineties, today it’s an area of graceful arcaded boulevards, shady squares, fashionable apartments and boutiques selling serious bling and killer heels at eye-watering prices.

Archaeological sites are being discovered and restored here as part of the regeneration programme. This isn’t surprising, given that Beirut has been inhabited for more than 5,000 years by Canaanites and Phoenicians, greeks and Romans, Mamelukes and ottomans. The result is an intricate and multi-layered legacy.

The remains of Roman baths amid purple jacaranda trees are overlooked by a Capuchin church, while nearby is the 12th Century Al-omari Mosque, whose exquisite interior incorporates Roman columns.

The National Museum helps to make sense of this cultural melee. Its prize exhibits include a 3,000-year-old limestone sarcophagus supported by four crouching lions. The lid bears the earliest known inscription of the 22-letter Phoenician alphabet  -  the prototype of our own Western alphabet.

The sarcophagus was discovered in a royal necropolis at Byblos, 30 miles north along the coast from Beirut. The merchants of this ancient port  -  claimed as the world’s oldest continually inhabited town  -  once shipped cedar wood from Lebanon’s forests for masts of Roman ships and olive oil to Egypt in return for linen, gold and papyrus. Today, it is a tranquil place with shady streets and a mass of historical remains.

An old fortified tower still guards the harbour, where fishing boats and yachts are overlooked by open-air restaurants where you can eat mezze and sip the excellent local Almaza beer or a glass of arak, the aniseed-flavoured local speciality.

Inscriptions at the ruins at Nahr el Kalb on the road back to Beirut are another pointer to Lebanon as a historical thoroughfare. The earliest, half-hidden among swaying pink hollyhocks, are on a slab erected nearly 3,300 years ago by Pharaoh Rameses II. greeks and Romans  -  including Emperors Marcus Aurelius and Caracalla  -  also left inscriptions here. So too did Napoleon III in the 19th Century, and British troops celebrating the capture of Damascus in 1918.

Next day we drove up into the Shouf mountains. Palm trees, oleanders and banana trees soon yielded to umbrella pines and groves of oak and silvery olive trees. At Beiteddine, we halted at the magnificent palace completed in the early 19th Century for an emir with big ambitions and a purse to match, and which is now the Lebanese president’s summer residence. open to the public, every year it hosts the Beiteddine festival.

With its richly decorated cedar wood ceilings, rose-covered terraces and bath houses inlaid with pink, black and honey-coloured marble where water still cascades down a marble chute, it’s like something out of The Arabian Nights. The presence of a Syrian film crew shooting scenes for a historical drama, complete with helmeted, spear-carrying extras, lent an extra exoticism.

From Beiteddine, the road continued to climb. high on the mountain slopes, which rise to more than 9,000ft, were splashes of dark green  -  Lebanon’s famous cedar forests  -  and beyond them patches of gleaming snow. Just 20 miles from the Syrian border, we began to descend into the Bekaa Valley, passing Bedouin encampments and herds of bleating goats. I wasn’t sure what to expect here in the heartland of hezbollah  -  but certainly not the adverts for Botox between the political posters that line the road.

The reason for coming was not Botox but Baalbek, a World heritage site named after the Phoenician god Baal. The Romans famously built a temple to Jupiter here, positioning the god so that the rising sun gilded him. Today, only a few columns remain but they are massive enough to conjure the scale and ambition of what was perhaps the largest temple in the Roman empire.

The Romans cultivated vineyards in the chalky soil of the Bekaa and we called in at Chateau Ksara, Lebanon’s oldest commercial winery where in 1857 Jesuits began producing red wine. The fathers stored their casks in an astonishing mile-and-a-half-long labyrinth of limestone tunnels originally hollowed out by the Romans, and they can still be explored.

Dusk was descending as we drove back into Beirut. Along the Corniche families were gathering. The joggers were out in force again, dodging children riding bikes. Young couples were smoking scented tobacco through hubble-bubble water pipes. Bedouin women with tattooed foreheads were telling fortunes and vendors were selling hot corn on the cob and fresh fish. Here people eat late, clubs stay open till dawn and the Casino du Liban, famous in the Sixties and the sort of spot where James Bond would have popped up, is very much back in business. It’s exhilarating to be in a place famous since antiquity and reborn in our time.

By Diana Preston

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