Lured to Lebanon

After two decades of civil strife, Lebanon has re-emerged as a sophisticated playground. Julian Allason samples its newest – and most ancient – offerings.

April 26 2010
Julian Allason

It’s party time in Beirut, the Levant’s revelry capital, and guests are dressed to the nineteens. Tonight is the first big bash thrown at the chic Hotel Le Gray, with its panoramic views over the Corniche, Martyr’s Square, and the churches and mosques of downtown. Once fashion cascaded from the French and British capitals to the Paris of the Middle East; now locals equally favour their own designers, such as Elie Saab, whose jaw-dropping creations are on prominent display tonight, along with enough diamonds to ease a small recession. For sheer glamour the scene could go head to head with the Oscars. But Beirut is just the half of it, for beyond its capital, Lebanon offers more history, exoticism – and surprises – than any European could reasonably expect to discover so close to home.

If Beirut’s shopping heaven, sublime archaeological museum and general veneer of glamour justly celebrate the capital’s resurrection after the civil war of 1975-1990, the country’s lesser-known interior exerts a more compelling appeal yet. From the extraordinary medieval life of Tripoli to the chic beach scene of Byblos and the astonishingly complete Roman temples of Baalbek, it is Le Liban inconnu that offers a truly authentic experience. And all these are readily accessible from Beirut, few parts of the mountainous hinterland being more than a couple of hours’ distant.

Even at the party, the talk is all of the latest vintage from the wineries of the Bekaa Valley, a dispute between two famous chefs at restaurants up the coast, an exhibition at the French caravanserai in Saida – all happenings out in the provinces. It is to these outposts that many of the guests will be heading for le weekend, Lebanon being the only Muslim-majority country with Sunday as its Sabbath. Meanwhile, my friend Cedra is casting an eye over the arrivals. “Everyone I know here has had just a little work done,” she murmurs. You would never know. So skilled are Lebanese surgeons that even hands and necks are convincingly rejuvenated.

Like the serene Four Seasons Hotel, whose January opening on the seafront is taken as endorsement of the city as a pukka destination, every room at Le Gray, which opened last November, is booked. It is the same story at Le Vendôme and the Albergo, the other hotels commanding stellar reputations for style among regular visitors to Beirut. Some of these guests are returning Lebanese emigrés, true heirs to the Phoenicians as consummate bankers and traders, whose reaction to the financial downturn is summed up with a smiling “Quelle crise?” But they are not alone; the hotel openings and sunshine catapulted Beirut to the top of international early adopters’ lists of desirable new destinations last year. And these days, they’re also heading north, south or eastward up into the mountains.

The following morning, having taken local advice, I am exploring the ancient souks of Tripoli, some 50 miles north of the capital. The labyrinth of arcades is jammed with spice merchants and tailors sewing exquisite dresses from silks woven with gold thread. Here survives the exotic ambience beloved of the 19th-century Orientalists: in the sogukluk (cool room) of the well-named Hammam al-Abed, a langour of Syrians reclines around a hubble-bubble pipe. The full treatment in the Turkish bath “with flogging and cleaning” costs $9 (US currency being generally preferred). From a 14th-century madrassa, Koranic chant seeps out into air heavy with the scent of flower essences distilled by soapmakers – along with more pungent odours.

Yet alongside such exoticism exist smart shops and superb restaurants, old and new. Traditional Lahm bi’Ajeen meat pizza is sampled at Kasr El Helou, Castle of Sweetmeats, confectioner to the Sultan, and surely the most celebrated patisserie in the Levant; outside the old house a line of Mercedes and BMWs circumnavigates a fountain in observance of some unguessable rule of precedence. Above the densely packed coastal city broods the massive crusader citadel of Saint-Gilles, refashioned by the Mamluks to resist improvements in military technology, and used as a prison by the Ottoman Turks who ruled Lebanon for four centuries. Today its courtyard is jammed with Humvees of the national army, here to calm an altercation between local clans.

Behind the narrow coastal plain rises Mount Lebanon, its peaks crowned with snow even in summer. Despite an unusually late start to the season this year, immaculately attired skiers are sailing down the slopes, fuelled by Lebanese coffee strong enough to foster the courage of even the most timid. InterContinental’s Mzaar mountain resort and spa is vibrant with city dwellers making the escape to higher altitudes for a “cure” that seems to involve plentiful baklava honey cakes. From there they can gaze down on the blue Mediterranean to one side and the fertile green of the Bekaa Valley spread out on the other. Bounding its plain is the Anti-Lebanon range, the mountains studded with perpendicular villages, hermitages and monasteries of Maronite Catholics and Greek Orthodox.

From such devotions chic Lebanese cheerfully descend to the fleshpots of Byblos, the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world. The mouth of the picturesque harbour is guarded by two Crusader towers, the ramparts of the non-ruined one patrolled by captains keen to rent boats of varying degrees of seaworthiness. Bikinis abound; this, as one old roué put it, “was St Tropez before St Tropez was”, and, increasingly, is again.

From the terraces of fish restaurants one can enjoy the fashion parade around the port and up cobbled streets to Byblos’s souk with a difference. In place of butchers and wood carvers are goldsmiths and Mémoire du Temps, which sells fish fossils – “20m years old if they are a day” – excavated from mountain strata above. Much of the promontory has been preserved as an archaeological site, revealing successive lines of fortification of six civilisations. The effect is of a characteristically Levantine fusion of military history, timeless vivacity and of-the-moment bella figura – Lebanon in miniature.

The provenance of this sophistication becomes clear on the following day’s expedition to the Bekaa Valley, its fertile soil planted with vines. In the hands of experienced vintners the grapes are yielding increasingly accomplished wines, such as Château Musar, in such demand that a private appointment is almost a necessity for foreign buyers. Traversing the valley, vines gradually give way to plantations of tobacco, apricot and apples, their blossom scenting the clear air; we are on the road to Baalbek, once the Graeco-Roman city of Heliopolis and now a small Shi’ite town.

The approach is guarded by a monument depicting an armoured personnel carrier on a pillar crested with the image of a notorious Hizbollah commander, now deceased. Yet in the town all is courtesy and calm as we make our way to the Roman temple complex for which Baalbek, city of the Phoenician god Baal, is celebrated. It is easily as impressive as anything in Rome or the Middle East, Palmyra and Ephesus included.

Like most of the sights in Beirut’s orbit, Baalbek possesses an antique hotel of its own, the Palmyra, an atmospheric place with views of the ruins such as hardly survives elsewhere. The establishment – and plumbing – have scarcely altered in a century, and one feels that the reappearance of the Kaiser, Agatha Christie or General de Gaulle would not cause the staff a moment’s disquiet. Baalbek combines well with Anjar, now a village populated by Armenian Orthodox but the site of impressive ruins of Umayyad palaces. It was built by the Caliph Al-Walid I in the early eighth century, and is reputed to have been the venue for secret pleasures enjoyed far from the Damascene eye.

To the south rise the Chouf Mountains wreathed in mysteries of their own. For this is the territory of the Druze, a wayward sect of Islam and surely the most secretive. Only the minority wearing the traditional baggy trousers and surcoat of the initiate have been admitted to full knowledge of a creed that incorporates a unique interpretation of reincarnation. Conversion is not accepted and mixed marriage firmly discouraged, thereby preserving the Druze’s distinctive warrior culture.

On an outcrop commanding the valley of the River Damour, concealed within groves of cypresses, is the Beiteddine Palace built by Emir Bechir Shihab II at the end of the 18th century. Its scale is breathtaking, the midane outer court alone large enough for jousting. The palace is in active use as the summer residence of the president of the Lebanese Republic, reverberating to the clicking heels of officers and ambassadors in court dress.

It was long believed that the Emir was baptised a Christian, lived like a Turk and fought as a Druze; but such was the even-handedness of his rule that none knew his true spiritual allegiance. As we enter the royal hammam, illuminated by multicoloured domed glass portholes in the roof, Cedra removes her sunglasses: there, reflected in their curved surface, is the shape of a Greek cross in miniature, otherwise invisible to the upturned eye.

Like so much in Lebanon, it is millet – religiously defined community – that delineates the boundaries of life: respectful, welcoming and tolerant when not subject to provocation by exterior forces, yet with profound cultural differences concealed beneath the surface. That and a history of conquest reaching back five millennia have left its people resilient and characterised by joie de vivre. As Hugh Fraser, manager of Lebanon specialist Corinthian Travel, points out, all of this is captured to some degree in the four superlative hotels in Beirut. Le Vendôme retains the intimate ambience of the French Mandate, the menu at its Au Premier restaurant meriting a Michelin star and the loyalty of the Sorbonne-educated élite. The new Four Seasons shows every sign of capturing the custom of the top end of international business, as well as the glamorous young to whom the rooftop Club 26 overlooking the marina, opening next summer, should prove a draw. For sheer atmosphere, the sumptuous oriental and Ottoman-style bedrooms of the boutique Hotel Albergo and its eccentric Belle Epoque rooftop restaurant and bar provide a flavour of old Beirut.

Meanwhile, at Le Gray, another party has been in progress all night, its guests younger, slimmer and plus chic than anyone could reasonably expect. As I await my early-morning cab to catch BMI’s daily direct flight to London, with its tranquil new business class, the liggers are still straggling in. They look immaculate.

See also

Lebanon, Middle East