The first time I visited Beirut it was the beginning of February, I arrived then to dark skies and hailing rain. I was sad after having ended it with my girlfriend in New York and was hoping that the city would be a good distraction. It was, but I was told “to do it right, you must experience Beirut in the summer.” Two and half years later I arrive to Rafic Hariri in perfect sunshine and a soft breeze that — as if I have once had this feeling before — feels like love’s first touch.
Away from the city swirl, just off the beige coastal city track, and just half an hour away from the center is the peak of Harissa (in Beirut, it’s possible to ski in the morning and go swimming in the afternoon). Up here the air is fresh and cold, and you’ll see the kaleidoscope that marks this ancient landscape; the vast blue of the ocean, beige sand and mountain curves, dark greens from heavy swirling trees, and pink, purple and orange flowers.
It is possible to taste these colors at the downtown Tawlet, where the charming and well-dressed owner, Kamal, will take his time to describe all the names and flavors of the local delicacies to you in person. A former converted garage now turned into the freshest lunch spot in the city, serving organic specialities from the nearby regions and the outdoor market – Souk el Tayeb. The food is incredible. We topped the vegetables, halloumi, and rolls of minced meat draped in zucchini with fresh melon, pistachio-covered pastries, and washed everything down with slightly sweetened rose petal tea. It tasted like Beirut on a calm sunny morning. And so it was. Those very same colors are also available in the creative spaces around the city.
Watch the large playful signs in Arabic at the Karim Bekdache studio, or check out the bling at Vanina by the beautiful Tatiana Fayad and Joanne Hayek. But, make sure you stop by Bokja Design studio to get a sense of the history of the underlying source of the Lebanese aesthetic. There, the outgoingness, the curiosity and the colors are all one. Founded by the attractive Maria Hibri and Huda Baroudi, each piece comes with an individual Lebanese passport to mark the fact, that despite a troubled history, the people of this multi-cultural land can again craft their identity and illuminate the richness of their artistic heritage.
Maria Hibri, co-founder of Bokja Design.
At Bokja, Maria tells me something that has since not left me. During a trip south, she met a woman who worried about the declining turtle population in Lebanon. Foxes, fleeing the mortar shelling in the mountains close to the border had found refuge in the coastal cities down south. Scavenging for food, they went straight for the beaches where the turtles come to hatch their eggs. The turtle population was almost decimated due to the influx of starved foxes. This woman now gets up every day to clean the beaches from trash. There she protects the hatchings by digging small holes with metallic casings, making sure that the foxes canʼt reach them.
And this sentiment pervades the entire city, past the roadblocks and checkpoints, people here live to preserve the moment, because the future is yet to come. “We live in a bubble,” Maria tells me. Not in the Western sense of the word. Because you can experience the joie de vivre first-hand at one of the many downtown rooftop restaurants and lounges, where the general ambience is an affirmation of the enjoyment of life. Watch the strong sun set against a red sky and the blue and the gold from the large and iconic Mohammad Al-Amin Mosque, and party like there is no tomorrow in the neighborhoods of Mar Mikhael, and the bars of Gemmayze.
The next day we drive to Bouyouti – an Arabic play on the word “beauty” – in the north to check out one of cityʼs most beautiful areas and stay-overs. The hills and mountains rise like green giants in the background, and we stay for lunch at a local restaurant, feasting slightly hungover on olive-dropped hummus, tabouli, and lamb skewers. The rest of the afternoon we spend watching top-class art at the former French consulate (once occupied by De Gaulle) at MAS (the Metropolitan Art Society), visiting Liza-A-Beyrouth on the second floor. We softly savor the Liza, made by the Mediterranean spirit Skinos Mastiha from the herbs close to the under water Volcanoes in Chios. Finally, we finish off at the Hotel Albergo, one of the cityʼs classic institutions, decorated in velvet chairs, thick wooden furniture, and individually crafted rooms of all particular tastes, colors and flavors.
The terrace of Hotel Albergo
The chilled lime drink at the garden rooftop is the perfect addition to the breeze and on-coming sunset. It is possible to stay for a delicious dinner at the comfy restaurant, and the service and atmosphere is as good and professional as the people working there. But instead we sail off into the night, to an outdoor club next to the ocean until everything is a warm haze of people, bright lights and amazing music.
Iris rooftop bar and restaurant.
In the end, this city in the summer is a like great song that you want to play in the early morning, sing to in the afternoon, and dance with at night. So, with a bit of courage, you may even – inshʼAllah – fall in love again. And as someone told me there, “Iʼm into you.” Well, Beirut, so am I. Yalla habibi, come ride with me! I just love being here with you.
By HANNES THORNHAMMAR