herald

Sunday 22 October 2017

Baalback and Beirut are back on the map

Thursday

“Beirut: back on the map” says a big poster opposite the lobby of the Four Seasons Hotel, which is to be my home for the next few days. Beirut city is full of cranes like Dublin used to be. A new generation of sky scrapers are clustering around the business area and the Four Seasons Hotel, opened last January gleams in the skyline.

My 10th-floor suite is massive, the L-shaped rooftop pool is exquisite and there is an Irish woman (isn't there always?) to chat to in the bar. Grace, from Ashbourne, has worked on Four Seasons openings in the Maldives, Mumbai and now Beirut. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is in town, and has taken over the presidential suite. I have a balcony and a view over the building site that is going to be a park and a shopping centre, to the naval boats patrolling the coastline beyond.

Friday

The Romans did not regard Beirut as their capital. So we trundle 50 kilometres to see the ancient ruins of Baalbeck. You can prepare for experiences like this with a guide book or an internet advice site. Rarely does one come across anywhere that confounds imagination and expectations as much as Baalbeck does.

There are storyboards which try to explain why Baalbeck built bigger and more magnificent temples than the imperial capital. The shattered temples are indeed huge. An unmoved stone from the nearby quarry is brazenly described by the local souvenir shop owner as “the largest stone in the world”. Some of the magnificent pillars still stand high into the sky and everywhere there are toppled columns filling the valley for all the world like a giant Lego set.

Baalbeck will stay in the mind for a long time. It belongs in a triumvirate of ancient jewels. Masada, Petra, Baalbeck. Don't die without seeing all three.

Saturday

Modern Beirut, confident and rebuilt, is honking and tooting in the streets below my hotel. Somewhere out there is the “Paris of the east” I used to read about in the old books. So I set off on a mile-long stroll over to the Corniche. In between I pass the shattered Beirut of boyhood news bulletins.

Sunday

Traffic. Cairo, Mumbai and Mexico City have the excuse that they are 20 times the size of their infrastructure. Beirut has more infrastructure but fewer rules. “They put up traffic lights three years ago,” says a local, “but nobody stops at red.”

I swear there are five lanes of cars filling a threelane roadway, beeping and honking.

Monday

The Moevenpick Hotel is 11km from downtown Beirut and might as well be a hundred. It has its own artificial sandy beach, an Olympicsize pool and a breathtaking complex of leisure facilities all tucked behind its unpromising businesslike entrance.

Tuesday

Dinner in Monte Alberto, the hanging paradise that overlooks Wadi Zale.

Wednesday

It is a truth, universally held, about Heathrow that it is always quicker to go landside when transferring terminal. Thanks to BMI, I am staying within Terminal 1 transferring from BD906 to BD129. The security queue is 22 minutes. Should have gone landside.

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