Beirut – the Paris of the Middle East

October 19, 2008by Brenda Pierce

I have done some previous studying of the vibrant city of Beirut and it is really quite inspiring to be here at last. One thing I hadn’t really realized about the city and the country of Lebanon is that there really isn’t much flat land, except in the Bekka valley. The rest, almost right up to the Mediterranean Sea is mountains! Beirut is located on a natural peninsula that is relatively flat compared to the surrounding landscape. It really is beautiful here, with the warm sea breeze and the zest for life is evident everywhere.

Beirut and Lebanon have gone through so much in its history – I won’t even attempt to summarize here as it would be pages and pages long even in summary! – but every time seems to snap back, rise from the ashes, and becomes even better than before. OK, some propaganda there, but for the most part it is true. While not everyone is happy about some of the reconstruction plans, or the handling of archeological sites newly discovered in the city, or the price of real estate in the downtown area, for the most part with little exception you would not know there was a war in this city as recently as 2 years ago.

There are a couple of reminders, or souveniers as our guide liked to say, of the recent war but also of the civil war in the 80s and 90s. For example, a theater that was opened just days before fighting broke out in the civil war is in ruins, but part is still standing and will some day be repaired/rebuilt and used for different purpose. There is also the shell of a Holiday Inn hotel that is a remnant from the civil war – also to be repaired someday and used again. They are reminders to what has happened while at the same time providing a stark contrast as to what has become of the city since then: new construction, pedestrian streets, a beautiful coriche to stroll on, and more have been built – the city is as modern as any western metropolis. Mercedes and BMWs and other luxury cars zoom long the streets next to Hondas and the new Chinese car – Cherry.

Today we visited Harissa to the north of Beirut to see the giant statue of the Virgin Mary and see the modern cathedral as well as enjoy the view of the city of Jounieh below, the coastline and Beirut in the distance. Our next stop was the Jeita grotto- which is a candidate for the new 7 Natural Wonders of the World. These underground caverns are spectacular – stalactites and stalagmites and the undrground river rushing through the rocks below- amazing! This place is not to be missed, it truly is a natural wonder. It is hard to imagine how long it has taken these rock formations to develop into their current state – and they are still growing and changing. There is a sculpture of Father Time outside the caves.

After the Grotto, we went to the south of Beirut to visit the palace at Beitedine. this is a 19th century palace and is still a governemt facility. The architecture is really beautiful once you get inside- don’t be fooled by the somewhat plain exterior and main square. However, before our visit there we stopped for lunch at a little restaurant not far a way from the palace and we were in for a treat! The woman that owns the retaurant was warned ahead of time we were coming so she was waiting at the door and as soon as she saw our bus she ran out waving and greeting us with so much enthusiasm it was really cute. She was running around like crazy to make sure we had places to sit, took our orders, suggested I have the special Amina pizza- her specialty, and the green tea rather than regular tea – OK. Good choices/recommendations on both counts. It was really one of the most fun lunches we have had -relaxing, entertaining, and good food. Al Amina Restaurant is a good place to stop when visiting Beitedine.

Our day was completed with a walking tour of downtown Beirut. We could see some of the new construction as well as the uncovered Roman ruins. The city was alive with families enjoying the late afternoon at the cafes and strolling through the streets, and also there were a few weddings going on. We ended at the Green Line, that separated West Beirut from East Beirut during the civil war and is now a park commemorating the martyrs of the cicl war. Also, a commemoration of Rafiq Hariri’s death and the still unsolved mystery of his assisination was nearby.

Ok, I think I have rambled on long enough. Maybe tomorrow I will sit down and write a more coherant summary of the trip so far.


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