More builders’ bums than Burkas in Beirut

Beirut is not at all what you might think of a city in the Middle East. For a start you notice that it’s not very Middle Eastern  – its very green, with parks and trees, beautiful architecture and the cleanest streets I have ever seen anywhere.  It has more a feeling of Marbella with new apartments going up, marinas full of yachts and beaches where girls wear bikinis. 
There is also a cafe society atmosphere in the city centre, especially on Friday and Saturday evenings which just like London are party nights. And one of its nightclubs has the accolade of being  voted the No1 in the world by MTV (more about the Skybar later!). Beirut also has great restaurants serving mezze – the starters that centre around the freshest vegetables, the cracked wheat tabboule salad with mint, tomatoes and cucumber, hummous and moutabal (eggplant and sesame dip). And alcohol, including the great local wines that come from the Bekkar Valley and arak, a local beverage made from grape alcohol and aniseed, are also freely available.  
And surprisingly you see very few women wearing Burkas here – less than in London in fact. You are more likely to see a builder’s bum than a burka – as these young men (pictured below) were determined, in the spirit of fun,  to show us!

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The reality is that the Lebanon has undergone an economic transformation in the last 20 years with investment in new infrastructure, including hotels and tourism, mainly flooding in from the neighbouring wealthy Gulf economies. When you look around Beirut you can see the evidence with cranes on the skyline and the regeneration of the once devastated city centre. The top names in exclusive retail are already in evidence including French designer Chanel (pictured below), the Italian Ferragammo and Gerard Darel. 
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Chanel Beirut
The five star, Le Gray, for example is a joint venture, was built by a consortium of local businessman headed by Scot entrepreneur Gordon Campbell Gray who also owns the stylish No1 Aldwych in London. It has 87 rooms and suites, as well as a state-of-the-art gym and spa. And the views from the rooftop restaurant are spectacular  with a vista of the whole city as well as the nearby port.
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Le Gray Hotel Beirut – five star luxury with a rooftop pool, restaurant and spa

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Le Gray’s roof top pool in Beirut
Beirut is also fairly easy to get to  – about 30 minutes by plane from Cyprus and just over four hours from London so great for a weekend break, especially when the weather in Europe is cold and rainy in the spring or autumn. If its sun, sand and sea you are after then the Mövenpick Hotel & Resort is perfect as its right on the beach and has a pool which stays open to 10pm in the evening. The hotel’s marina is also where a lot of the party action takes place on boats and yachts!

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As you would expect there are many mosques, one of the most beautiful in the Middle East, is the blue tiled  Mohammed Al-Amin – which can be seen from the rooftop (pictured below) of the Le Gray but there are also many Churches and Synagogues too. And its not unusual for them to be build side-by-side. 

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Like its neighbour Syria, the Lebanon is a place of religious tolerance with a mix of Muslims (59.9%) and Christian (39%) –  the multi-faceted civil war which ravaged the country killing nearly a quarter of a million people, injuring and displacing many more ended in 1990.  
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A church with a mosque in the background near the Place de l’Etoile in Beirut city centre
Yes there are still bullet holes in some of the buildings but you have to look hard to see them  – and if you really want to know more about the war a local tourist guide can point out the demarcation and battle lines.  
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New offices, apartments and marinas for sale
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A wealth management advert dominates the sidewalk
The hard fought battle for economic recovery and political stability is also why the Lebanese
have taken a neutral position with what is currently happening in neighbouring Syria.
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A top of the range Jaguar parked outside a shopping mall
We visit Beirut during the week after the Queen’s Jubilee Celebrations when the British Embassy has a drive to promote all things British.  Not only is it promoting British goods and services and the strong links between the two countries – it also coincides with a British business delegation to the Middle East.
The British Ambassador Tom Fletcher (pictured below) – at the age of 36 – is the youngest ever Ambassador in the history of the role which goes right back to Queen Elizabeth 1. Tom is a new style Ambassador who brims with enthusiasm for the Lebanon and  gets into the thick of things without pomp and ceremony – even speaking to humble journalists and answering their sometimes crazy questions.  He bubbles over with enthusiasm for the Lebanon after being there for less than a year.  And in these austere times has found a way to give a unique gift without compromising his expenses by making his own marmalade from the oranges in the embassy garden.

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Her Majesty’s Ambassador Tom Fletcher promotes British opportunities
There are strong traditional ties between Britain and the Lebanon, particularly in the area of shipping and insurance.  There are about 2,000 British nationals working in Beirut.
When visiting a city with a reputation for kidnappings and the like, a tourist may well be concerned about security. But the local police have a strong if informal presence – they dress in white, black and grey fatigues and can be seen on security checkpoints on the street and also on major road routes.  All the hotels and shopping malls have security checks – just as the same as in Turkey and the rest of the Middle East.  There  is a feeling that it is all a wise precaution and everyone is all the safer for it and good humoured about it all.
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Police patrols and checkpoints are normal in Beirut 

And we saw something you would never see in the centre of any British town: at the Roman Baths. a public events venue right in the centre, all the sound equipment was left outside, together with an electronic till and a fridge freezer full of ice-creams – I know because I took a peek inside! All that stuff would get nicked even if it was nailed down in a UK city centre!
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Not seen in the UK or Europe! A cash till and a refrigerator safe from thieves in the middle of the city
Most of the main sites are close together in the centre and we are there in the midday heat of a Friday and its very quiet – partly because of the heat but because its prayer time at the mosques. There are many cafes and restaurants (pictured below) in and around Nijmeh Square (Place de l’Etoile). 
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Cafes and Restaurants in the centre of Beirut leading to Nijmeh Square (Place de l’Etoile) 

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One McDonalds that is hard to spot!

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A place of tribute to the assassinated former Prime Minister, Rafic Al-Hariri, next to the Mohammed Al-Amin Mosque 
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Salvatore Ferragamo Beirut
As I mentioned before Friday night is party night and the place to be is the Sky Bar which just opened for the summer season with a volley of fireworks.  I have never experienced such energy in a nightclub – maybe its dancing in the open air at what seems the top of the world.  They may be drinking but everyone is polite and just having fun. I stay till chucking out time!
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Skybar is dominated by the Smirnoff bar – voted the Best Nightclub in the World by MTV
I cannot finish this article without mention of the Lebanese people.  Despite all the hardship of the past and constant threat of instability, the local people smile in the face of hardship.  On our way to the Bekkar Valley we stopped outside a roadside cafe where we met this man – with only a handful of beads to earn a living.  Like the people of Syria the Lebanese are warm and welcoming.  Smiling comes easy to them – as our picture clearly shows!
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Beirut is  definitely not at all what you think of the Middle East.. so get there before the others find out!!
Places not to miss even on the shortest trip!
Baalbeck – City of the Gods
Baalbeck, named after a Phoenician god, Baal,  is situated in the Bekkar Valley on the Bequaa plain, 70 miles from Beir
ut, near the border with Syria,  and to get there you cross the lush Bekka valley.
Not far from Baalbeck is another less well known ‘ruin’ – a rock claimed to be the largest stone in the world, in a Roman quarry just off the main road.  It’s custodian is a 54-year-0ld retired army sergeant, Abdul Nabi al-Afi, who has been there since 1991, and who has taken it upon himself go guard the rock without any state help as locals were using the site as a rubbish dump.  He borrowed money from relatives to rent a bulldozer and clean it up.  And now earns cash to support his family by selling postcards and souvenirs to passing tourists.
Abdul Nabi al-Afi is a friendly sort and happy to pose for photos and give you a free coffee even if you don’t buy anything! So go to his shop and buy something!
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Former army sergeant, Abdul Nabi al-Afi chatting to a tourist

The 20 metre-long stone with the ruins of Baalbeck in the background

The complex, which was in the ancient city of Heliopolis, is home to the most important Roman temples in the Middle East, one of which the Acropolis of Baalbeck is larger than the Acropolis in Athens. It is thought to have been completed in AD 150.
On the road there are many army road blocks and the presence of Hezbollah posters and you can see that whilst many of the people are living modestly they are surrounded by some of the most fertile land in the region – in fact the Lebanon has surplus of water much of which goes to Israel, according to our guide.
There are three main temples on the site – the temple of Jupiter, the largest, built during the reign of Emperoror Agustus towards the beginning of the Christian era and finished half a century later under the rule of Nero.  The temple is 88 metres long and 48 metres wide and was originally supported by 88 columns. 
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Temple of Jupiter – you can see how enormous it is – see the person in the foreground
Today only six remain but their size – 22 metres high and 2 metres in diameter is impressive.  The masterpiece  of Baalback is undoubtedly the Baccus temple which is extremely well preserved thanks to the the Arab fortifications built around it. 

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Temple of Bacchus
Built in the 2nd century AD and linked to the nearby Temple of Jupiter, access to the temple was by an imposing stair case and a colossal dooor finely deocrated with nymphs and mythological deities.
A short distance away stands the temple of Venus, built in the third century
Jeita Grotto
The grotto is a network of 9 km of underground caves covered in stalacites and stalagmites.  They are unlike any I have seen anywhere in the world in their size and beauty – and the only way to describe it is magical.  We sail in a boat along a huge caverns. This attraction is included in the international New&Wonders of Nature
Wineries and Arak
The Lebanon is famous for its wines, made from grapes in vineyards planted by the French when they colonised the country in the 18th century.  The vineyards are mostly in the Bekaar Valley – a huge fertile plain with an ideal climate for vines – long, temperate summers and rainy winters with an average temperature of 25 degrees celsius.
Chateau Ksara
This is the bigggest and oldest winery in the Lebanon and is situated in the Bekaar Valley. 
It began life as a winery in 1857 when the land was farmed by Jesuit priests who continued there until the Vatican ordered the sale of any commercial interests in 1972. It was sold to a consortium of local businessmen.
The wine is stored in natural underground caves – grottos – which stretch over two kilometres – providing ideal humidity and temperature remaining at 13 and 15 degrees celsius all year round.
Ksara uses 20 varieties of grapes, includes the noble varieties – Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Merlot, Chardonnay – to produce red, white, rose, sweet wine and arak.  Its signature wine is Cuvee du Troisieme Millenaire which is a red containing Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Syrah.  It is a dense deep purple but not heavy on the palate and an excellent wine. The rose is also a great wine and we have that with our mezze at the restaurant in the nearby town.
There is a wedding going on when we visit – pictured below.
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Arak is a pure grape alcohol that is flavoured with aniseed and served with ice and water and either drank alone or with Oriental mezze. This is an acquired taste but if you like French pastis you will like this too. It’s similarly high in alcohol – the bottle I purchased was 53%.
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Arak barrels at Chateau Musar
Chateau Musar

The Chateau Musar vineyards are also situated in the Bekaa Valley – only 15 miles from Beirut in an 18th century castle at Ghazir. It was founded in 1930 by Gaston Hochar, although since 1959 it has been run by his two sons Serge and Ronald. 
 This area was ravaged by the civil
war, with the wine caves doubling as bomb shelters for the locals and battles rageing around the vineyards. Nowadays its wines, particularly the red are world famous.
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The grand vin here is the red Chateau Musar, a blend which may include Cabernet Sauvignon, Cinsaut, Carignan, Grenache and Mourvedre. The wine is fermented in concrete, before spending one year in vat, then a year in French oak, before going back to a vat for several years. Hochar believes his wine needs years – perhaps ten – before it is ready for drinking, and the wines are already some way towards that age when they are finally released onto the market. 
The white Chateau Musar is made from native varieties which include Merwah and Obaideh. Wines from Chateau Musar are available at Majestic in the UK.

Contact details:
Address: Baroudy str, Sopenco bldg, BP: 281 Ashrafieh, Beirut
Telephone: +961 1-201828, 328111, 328211 
Fax: +961 1-201827

Fact File
Le Gray 5*, Martyrs’ Squarre, Central District
T: 961 1 971 111
F: 961 1 971 112
In the heart of historic downtown, 15 mins from the airport, a five star hotel with 87 spacious rooms Spa – PureGray Health Club and Spa – open air chlorine free pool
Movenpick Hotel & Resort 5*
General de Gaulle Avenue, Raouche
T: 961 1 869 666
F: 961 1 809 326
Recently renovated has 292 bedrooms, and is the only five star hotel in the city on the sea front – huge pool and spa
Skybar – open air restaurant and bar (booking essential if you want to make sure you get in and note the dress code)
Biel, Beirut
T: 961 3/93 9191
British Airways offers 10 flights a week from London Heathrow to Beirut.  The lead-in fare is from £483.79 return including taxes/fees/charges.  To book or for more information visit or call 0844 4930787.


About Lebanon: A Heaven on Earth!From its Mediterranean coast to its snow-capped mountains, Lebanon is a unique small country in the region. Named “Switzerland of the Middle East”, the country is packed with history, archaeology, natural beauty and a handsome hospitable population full of fun, love and
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