October 19-21, 2009: The U.S. State Department, in its well-known nervous Nellie fashion, advised against ALL travel to Lebanon. The British Foreign Office only recommended staying north of the Litani river. Happily, I decided to follow the British advice. I found beautiful scenery, impressive sights, and a cosmopolitan capital city, plus I felt perfectly safe. In fact, after a week in Syria, visiting Beirut almost brought on culture shock, especially in the bustling Hamra district. Instead of women swathed in black and cafes full of men, everywhere I looked on Rue Hamra I saw young women in short skirts and tank tops smoking the remarkably popular nargileh! I saw the first Western chains, other than an occasional hotel, of the whole trip, with Starbucks, Costa, Subway and even McDonalds much in evidence. I ate one meal at Nandos, a South African chain I haven’t seen in the U.S., that sells delicious Portuguese style piri-piri chicken.
The Casa d’Or was well-located just off Rue Hamra, and a couple of blocks
from what became my favorite place to eat, Laziz (http://www.timeoutbeirut.com/restaurants/article/1063/laziz.html), a place advertising traditional Lebanese fare. My first meal there, a late lunch, featured chicken livers in a delicious sauce and perfectly fried diced potatoes. Afterwards I walked north past the walls of the American University and down to the Corniche. The view of the Mediterranean was somewhat obscured by haze, and access to the water mostly blocked by private cafes. Aside from a few hopeful fishermen on the rocks, the views inland were more interesting, with lots of people strolling the promenade, and new glass and concrete buildings rising just beyond. In fact, on the Corniche you would hardly suspect that Beirut had ever been a war zone.
The next day I decided I didn’t have enough energy to head north to visit the Crusader castle and Roman ruins at Byblos, and felt that I shouldn’t waste an unusually comfy hotel room. I took care of some chores – paying my Capital One Visa bill, checking out hotels in Amman, doing a little grocery shopping (shampoo, yoghurt, orange juice). For lunch at Laziz I switched to pastry triangles – one set stuffed with spinach and another with chicken and cheese. I followed up with an actual macchiato at the adjacent Starbucks.
Then I visited the university, whose shining clean, honey-colored buildings were in stark contrast to much of the dirty grey stonework I had seen elsewhere in the Middle East. The site hovered just above the Corniche, with views out to sea. The university’s museum also impressed me, and I spent quite a long time with the well-lighted and well-labeled collections of Stone, Bronze and Iron age artifacts.
Rather than moving around, I had decided that Lebanon was small enough that I would stay put in Beirut and take day trips. I went with my hotel’s recommendation of Nakhal (http://www.nakhal.com.lb), although this turned out to mean that I spent longer than I would have chosen being driven to and from their offices way over near the National Museum. Especially on the way back – in late afternoon Hamra became one big, mostly unmoving, traffic jam.
The first day I went south, although not too far south. I had chosen to visit Beiteddine Palace, an early 19th century complex built for the Emir Bashir, because of the promise of a “magnificent collection of mosaics”. So, while both the interior and exterior decoration (carefully restored after destruction by the Israelis in the 1980s) impressed me, and I found the tour interesting, I was not pleased when our guide announced that we would have only 15 minutes to visit the mosaics. I was able to negotiate an extension, but still felt rushed. I would have chosen to spend longer admiring the beautifully maintained Byzantine mosaics and less time on lunch, although I have to say that Nakhal fed us well, with a full spread of meze and barbecue.