Beirut, Lebanon – “Paris of the East”

I guess landing in Lebanon calls for a ‘hey surprise folks‘ opening line?  If indeed you have formed an expression of shock, confusion or disbelief, that’s ok, I can understand that. Although with places like Israel, Jordan and Lebanon previously visited, I’m guessing that’s the majority of the ‘surprise-pie’ now consumed? In fact, I honestly say that I knew nothing about Lebanon prior to booking my flight. That might sound crazy but it’s very often how many travellers roll. Sometimes it need not be a location that you’ve always dreamt of visiting but instead just being ‘in the area’, so-to-speak, is reason enough and in this instance, I fall under the latter with Jordan being ‘in the area’.

The only two things I had heard previously about Lebanon were: 1) that they offer a wide variety of enjoyable cuisine which is very much mezze orientated and 2) many of their ladies are rather beautiful. I needed only to board the plane and drool uncontrollably at the cabin-crew to confirm that sure enough, several days in and I’m still yet to sample any of the above! Lol. That’s not all, I’m yet to sample fellow traveller company. Whilst at least this ensures a post entirely dedicated to Beirut, it means the days are a currently a little longer for me. I still plan on keeping busy though I certainly hope I can meet relatable people before I leave as I would like to get a tiny taste of Beirut’s social scene and night life.

So what’s Beirut like? Well, to my complete surprise and most probably to yours to, Beirut is heavily westernised and more so than any other Arab city I’ve seen so far can you believe!? Whoever said Jordan is the most liberal country of the Arab nations can’t have been to Lebanon’s capital city. If I was randomly placed in down-town and all the people were of the same complexion, I’d never in a million years consider I was in the notorious Levant region, let alone Lebanon. I would for sure guess I was in Europe. That said, there is a slight difference with the people. You know, observing such cultural and individual differences is one of the most interesting, gratifying sensations one can experience whist travelling. The ability to observe and to then differentiate characteristics both subtle and distinct between countries and their cultures continues to fascinate. Relatedly, it was therefore immediately evident to me that, generally speaking, the Lebanese people do no emit the same instant warmth that say, the Jordanians do. The average person you see on the street won’t wear a smile which conveniently suits me fine as I can finally rest my strained facial muscles! :–)

Beirut’s down-town is also notably different to other Arabic ‘centre villes’. Take Cairo or Amman for example. In Cairo you can’t walk for more than an hour in down-town without feeling the very real need for a shower.

Even their ‘souk’ markets are very different to what I’ve seen this year. I mean if I take any country I’ve visited at random, the souks would largely be the exact same selling cheap merchandise, fruit and whatever else to both locals tourists. Here, the souks are basically designer outlets and there are simply loads of them about! So let’s see, chic fashion, beautiful Parisian style buildings, beautiful people, coffee shops and many French speaking people – needless to say I understand the “Paris of the East” line.

In case it’s not already obvious, Lebanon was colonised by the French, hence the “Paris of the East” reference. The thing is though that comparison isn’t a new one and was actually applicable prior to 1975! It was after then that a civil war broke out and therefore it has been trying over the past 40 years to restore itself to its former glory. I guess this also explains why there is still so much development taking place in and around the city.

Relating to down-town, there are some other notable and certainly varied sights within this region. These range from a clock tower in a central square to many blockades of barbed wire protecting access to parliament that happen to be nearby to Roman ruin situated directly in the heart of city centre.

Barbed wire aside, there’s a rather incredible looking mosque also, which to my surprise, I was able to enter.

Guess what I vividly remember most of the inside of the mosque? The unfavourable stench of feet! (Well, they have to take their shoes off…)

Officially, the Mandate for Syria and the Lebanon was founded after the First World War after the partitioning of the existing Ottoman Empire. This mandate lasted 23 years before Lebanon gained independence in 1946.

I’ve heard that a lot of the Lebanese youth are slowly parting from say, the culture of their parents. When you see some young educated teenagers or Universities students, odds are they will be speaking French (or even English) and the not the official language of the country: Arabic. I even heard it said that the Lebanese have a strange relationship with their own Arabic language. How bizarre. Still, the heavily spoken French language probably goes a long way in explaining the large French contingent in my hotel. Still, the city has a large Christian sect too, not just Islamic.

Naturally the further you venture out from the heart of the city, you’ll then start to see more poverty-stricken areas but that’s true in practically every city. The population of Beirut was around 400,000 in 2008 but this will be considerably more now. Also consider that the UN have officially registered 1 million Syrian refugees for displacement throughout the country.

Behold, a very different look to what you’ve seen above.

Expenditure wise, I’m happy to report back positively in that this has been generally low to-date which is a welcomed change from my recent costly Middle Eastern adventures. That said, Jordan was cheap too but just like in Egypt, you’ll still end up spending big when you factor in the all the activities and attractions. Paradoxically, and having now done the numbers for the month, my average daily spend in Jordan was far more than in Israel so thankfully 10 days in Jordan was sufficient.

Low overall expenditure here in Beirut means I can eat and drink fairly cheaply here and not feel like I’m going to be on falafel or hummus all day, every day. A caveat though; accommodation is confusingly much less affordable. Thankfully there are a couple of hostels (quite literally) but your choice is therefore very restricted. Not ideal for an Unlikely Traveller. Thankfully though, I’ve had some luck as I found a hotel/hostel that opened up just three months ago after one year of renovations. The cost is £16 GBP per night for newly furnished 6 bed dorm with a great breakfast spread included in the price.

If I decide to use Beirut as a base for further exploring of Lebanon, I may remain here accommodation wise. So far, several days in, all is going well in this regard.

During one of my afternoon wanders, I intentionally ended up in the direction of the promenade (the corniche). A relaxing, cool place to hang out and one I intend on visiting several more times before my time here is up. I couldn’t help but be enticed by these affluent surroundings and so I enjoyed cake and a cappuccino, a combination I’ve not indulged in for a long while. How’s that for discipline? When you consider I paid £3.50 GBP for coffee and a cake, you might think that’s not overly cheap and indeed fairly average pricing? Then consider though that this is the capital city and that this is pretty much the view from the coffee shop:

If only marina’s all over the world offered such competitively priced goodies!

I hope this has been a satisfactory introduction and brief insight into the Beirut, Lebanon. Actually folks, it’s a more content than I’ve seen from my travel blog inspirator. Out of curiosity I re-visited to see where we went whilst he was here and to my surprise, I notice he never actually left Beirut city. Needless to say if I can venture out of the town and report back, I’ll instantly feel satisfied with such endeavours. Let’s see what the next few days bring…