If you’ve been following this blog, you might remember that my in-laws live in Beirut. I may also have mentioned that my mother-in-law (MIL) is an absolute whizz at designing and furnishing houses.
When I was 15 and dating DH, I stepped into their London basement apartment on Gloucester Road and knew immediately that I wanted to live in a house just like it. The Japanese screens, oriental ornaments, Persian carpets, silk cushions and golden Buddhas that adorned their flat conjured up images of far-flung corners of the world that I yearned to travel to.
My MIL’s uncanny talent for interior design has been unleashed on homes all round the globe (places they’ve lived include Kuwait, Thailand, Japan, Hawaii and Washington DC, to name just a few). Most recently, my in-laws have been renovating a property perched high above Beirut – a yellow-stoned, cavernous building that was a crumbling, derelict shell when they bought it.
What they’ve achieved is astonishing.
Next door to their home is a guesthouse that they’ve just finished, and I’m posting it on the blog because it’s available for holiday lets (and no-one knows about it yet!).
On our first visit, I got a taste of the flair Beirut is known for while leaving the airport. Lebanese drivers were jockeying for position, edging forwards into the smallest of spaces to gain an advantage, and leaning on their horns.
As we climbed up to Shemlan via steep mountain bends, my father-in-law wound down the car window to pluck a fig from a tree and stopped to greet a neighbour in Arabic. There was an air of relaxed friendliness. But it was the panoramic view that stole the show. Beirut, laid out below, stretched alluringly across a headland jutting into the azure-blue, east Mediterranean sea.
From above, the city looked peaceful, almost sleepy. It’s anything but, of course. On the ground, Beirut pulses with life, glamour and hedonism.
Rising optimistically from the war-torn ruins of decades of fighting, Lebanon’s capital is a vibrant metropolis, inhabited by beguiling, beautiful people whose hospitality knows no bounds. Many are fluent in English, French and Arabic. “Bonsoir habibi, how’s it going?” someone asked me, using all three languages in one sentence.
You might spot a tank on the streets of Beirut, rolled out as a show of security, but these days you’re far more likely to see sports cars with their hoods down, or a Ferrari dealer next to a flat bread stall.
In the city, bullet holes stare, like unblinking eyes, and shelled-out buildings punctuate the landscape, but there’s a spirit of resilience that’s helped Beirut dust itself off repeatedly from periods of conflict. Once the self-proclaimed ‘Paris of the Middle East’, there’s still an outdoor cafe culture, and European architecture can be found everywhere. Hamra is full of smart boutiques and the downtown has been rebuilt, exactly as it was, with a series of elegant streets branching off from a central plaza.
Everywhere, the city’s jumble of history is evident. Sitting in front of the huge Blue Mosque is a tiny Maronite chapel, and there’s a perfectly restored Orthodox church next to a Catholic cathedral – all within yards of each other.
My favourite place to be at dusk is the waterfront Corniche, where at sunset it’s as though the entire city is out strutting its stuff along the wide, palm-lined seafront promenade. From here, you can watch the sky turn pink over Pigeon Rock, then head into Hamra to sample the city’s famed, vibrant nightlife.
Beyond Beirut, the scenery is stunning. Lebanon offers every type of recreation, from skiing to swimming, walking, ancient ruins and wineries. A famous, old Lebanese boast is that you can ski and swim in the same day. And don’t get me started about the food, made from the freshest of ingredients. Provided everything is peaceful politically, Lebanon gives the south of France a run for its money.
This post is adapted from a travel column I write for a magazine called The Source (click here). More travel posts coming up!