x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Beirut: Still standing, never still

My kind of place Lebanon's capital has managed to retain its allure in spite of the political strife of recent decades, says Kaelen Wilson-Goldie.

The Corniche, a favourite promenade spot, stretches along Beirut's coastline dotted with rocky beaches and sandy shores.
The Corniche, a favourite promenade spot, stretches along Beirut's coastline dotted with rocky beaches and sandy shores.

The mountains, the sea and eight months of gorgeous, languid sunshine interrupted by a raucous season of wild, melodramatic thunderstorms: Beirut is the epitome of a mad Mediterranean metropolis, at once chaotic and graceful, stylish and crude, seamlessly cosmopolitan and stubbornly provincial. The city is also some 5,000 years old, and the layers of its history can be read in the rich mix of its Roman ruins, Abbasid and Umayyad mosques, Crusader castles, Ottoman villas and art deco apartment buildings. Although Beirut still bears the scars of its civil wars, it has been in the throes of reconstruction for a decade and a half now. The city today is a marvellous mix of old-world charm, contemporary cultural vitality and timeless sophistication. Go for the architecture, the art scene, the outrageous nightlife or the delicate and delectable cuisine. But more to the point, go for the people who are tenacious, resilient and generous beyond belief.

In October, the venerable hotelier Gordon Campbell Gray, of One Aldwych fame, opened the new Le Gray on the lower edge of Martyrs' Square in Downtown Beirut. The building is elegantly unassuming, the atmosphere chic and modern with 87 rooms and suites, a rooftop restaurant, a poolside terrace, a street-level cafe, a cigar lounge that doubles as a keenly curated library and a bar with 360-degree views of the mountains, the sea and the city centre. Double rooms cost from US$315 (Dh1,157). Le Gray, Bechara al Khoury Street (www.campbellgrayhotels.com; 00 961 1 962 828).

Martyrs' Square is the physical and symbolic heart of the city, but for the sake of orientation, take a walk along the city's coastline, from the port to the marina and the historic St Georges Hotel, and on to the wide pavement of the Corniche, which is packed all hours of the day and night with fishermen, joggers, recreational cyclists and promenaders. From there, head inland to Ras Beirut, the neighbourhood around Hamra Street, Beirut's fabled cosmopolitan causeway; and the American University of Beirut, poised on a hillside overlooking the Med.

A few years ago, the pastel-coloured neighbourhood of Saifi Village felt like an abandoned film set. No matter how many amazing boutiques moved in (the fashion designer Milia M, the leather smith Johnny Farah, and the couturier Rabih Kayrouz, whose concept store Starch supports young talent), the area felt lifeless. Why? No food. All of this changed with the arrival of Balima, a rusticated cafe designed by the decor maven Annabel Kassar. Hearty, country-style salads and sandwiches complement an extensive selection of sweets and tea. The casual, mix-and-match dining room spills onto a large central courtyard, which serves as a prime meeting place for Beirut's see-and-be-seen set. A main course costs around $15 (Dh56). Balima, on the corner of Mkallisiye Street and Said Akl Street, Saifi Village (00 961 1 971 097).

Another option for mixing in with the locals is the newly opened L'Osteria, a cosy Italian bar and cafe in Mar Mikhael, which offers great wines for even greater prices, homemade Venetian style cicheti and waves of warm and friendly atmosphere. L'Osteria is becoming increasingly popular with the many artists and creative types who have been moving into the neighbourhood en masse. A main course costs around $10 (Dh37). L'Osteria, Armenia Street, Mar Mikhael (00 961 1 566 175).

Located on the upper floor of an office building in Kantari, Le Talleyrand is an upscale eatery offering international cuisine with a local twist. The decor is sophisticated and suave, the menu impressively long and cleverly written. Le Talleyrand is perfect for either a romantic tête-à-tête or an expansive business dinner. If the weather is right, take a table on the terrace and enjoy the urban panorama around you. A main course costs between $20 and $30 (Dh73 and 110). Le Talleyrand, Fakhreddine Street, Kantari (00 961 1 371 500).

The old standby of Beiruti businessmen, power brokers and socialites is Balthus, a grand old and elegant brasserie situated in a quiet downtown street. Here, you can feast on rich, refined French cuisine. Main course costs between $25 to $35 (Dh92 and 129). Balthus, Ghandour Building, Avenue des Français, Minet al Hosn (00 961 1 371 077). The city's best-kept culinary secret is Casablanca, located in a diminutive white villa in Ain al Mreisseh. All of Casablanca's seafood is sourced from local fishermen and the produce comes from the owners' organic farm in the mountains. A main course costs between $20 and $30 (Dh73 and 110). Casablanca, Kaddoura Building, Dar al-Mreisseh Street (00 961 1 369 334).

Designed by Rafael Moneo, the Souks of Beirut opened this fall after renovation over a decade. An exquisitely finished open-air mall that occupies a significant chunk of downtown real estate, the souqs include luxury boutiques, high-street brands and, if the signage is to be believed, a forthcoming outpost of the famed New York restaurant Balthazar. For more preciously handcrafted and locally designed fare, hit Orient 499, facing the old Holiday Inn Hotel. Here you will find Azza Fahmy jewellery and furniture by Karen Chekerdjian alongside gorgeous textiles, ceramics, glassware and metalwork. Orient 499's mission is to keep the region's ancient design traditions alive by encouraging local artisans to continue and update their craft.

Arguably, the most challenging part of visiting Beirut is escaping the hordes of taxi drivers aggressively lurching for your luggage as you exit the airport terminal. The best way out is to either arrange a pickup or call a local car service.

Music Hall is an old school, cabaret-style club located beneath the Starco Centre in Downtown Beirut. On any given night, you can catch live music here, in rotating acts ranging from excellent to delightfully absurd. Music Hall also plays host to the Liban Jazz and Liban World concert series, which have brought the likes of Erik Truffaz, Omar Sossa, Bonga and Rokia Traoré to town. On Saturdays, check out the local farmers' market at Souk al Tayeb in Saifi Village. In the up and coming neighbourhood of Mar Mikhael, drop by Papercup, a bespoke bookshop and cafe on Pharaon Street, which sells beautifully bound art and photography books, stocks hard-to-find magazines and serves speciality tea, a killer chai latte and a mean chocolate cake.