By Lisa Grainger
Published: 10:58AM BST 02 Sep 2010


‘Beirut still has a frisson fizzing through it, its air filled with a heady mix of gunpowder and jasmine, its streets a living collision of history and glamour’ Photo: CORBIS


It is 3am and through my double-glazed windows I can hear men shouting above the sound of revving car engines. My hotel room overlooks Martyrs’ Square.

15 years ago, this area, Downtown, was a no-man’s-land inhabited only by snipers, it is now the hip centre of the new, peaceful "Paris of the Middle East", heartland of one of the most glamorous, party-loving, hedonistic populations in the world. The sounds that woke me weren’t of soldiers – just rich boys in their Ferrari toys, showing off outside the White nightclub, where they go to flex their platinum cards and shake their designer booty before racing off to the next venue, the next party. I’m in the New Beirut.

Breakfasting the following morning on the landscaped rooftop of Le Gray hotel with its Scottish owner, Gordon Campbell Gray, the scene is utterly serene. Water trickles over a glass-walled infinity pool. Guests shaded by taupe canvas umbrellas dip into fruit platters, flatbread still warm from the oven, herby Lebanese honey and thick, fragrant coffee. Church bells ring out from nearby Orthodox cathedrals, and then the muezzins’ call to prayer fills the air from the minarets.

"Isn’t it just too fabulous for words?" says Campbell Gray, contentedly surveying the blue sky, the chic clientele – attired in everything from sharp linen suits to full hijabs – and the smiling, super-efficient waiters. "It has to be the sexiest city on Earth, in my opinion. In fact, I think it’s so sexy, I’m seriously considering moving here."

Walking through the city later, I can see what he means. Like other recently blitzed cities, Beirut still has a frisson fizzing through it, its air filled with a heady mix of gunpowder and jasmine, its streets a living collision of history and glamour. In the trendy Gemmayzeh area, bar walls are often still pockmarked with holes from bullets and rockets. On a street corner, old flower-sellers in finely pressed shirts chat to soldiers casually cradling machine-guns. New glass towers soar beside bombed-out ruins. On walls, political posters in Arabic script vie for attention with advertisements for rock gigs. Women in full-length hijabs pull little girls in pink Barbie outfits on plastic scooters, passing teenagers in black leather miniskirts and sky-high stilettos sipping exotic drinks. It’s a spicy concoction of East and West, of Christian and Muslim, of Europe and the Middle East, a sort of cultural mezze with a bit of chilli thrown in.

For history buffs, however, the city is more a feast than a mezze platter. A few steps beyond our hotel, we have our first glimpse of the ancient ruins scattered throughout this city, remnants of one of the world’s most ancient civilisations. "Lebanon’s civil war started in 1975," says Lucia Sheikho, our guide and a part-time archaeologist. "Once it was over, in 1990, we began to dig beneath the rubble and found evidence of people living here since Neolithic times, as well as of the Phoenician, Hellenistic, Roman, Arab and Ottoman eras." That explains the variety of structures about: sea walls built
before Christ; mosques gleaming with gold and crystal; crenellated Crusader towers built on foundations of Roman pillars; leafy town squares constructed by the French (one of them still sporting an old Rolex clock tower); tiny Romanesque-style churches built of stone and re-hung with the ancient icons hidden by parishioners during the civil war.

Just an hour’s drive up the coast (an hour, that is, when the city’s thick snakes of traffic aren’t hopelessly entwined), the glamorous village of Byblos tumbles down a hillside into the sea, evidence of previous civilisations poking up through the earth. So charming are the little cobbled streets, the pretty sandstone harbour, the ruins overgrown with neon-pink flowers, that you begin to understand why in the Seventies it was the place to hang out. It is also why the glamorous South of France posse – Bardot, Brando, Sinatra, Niven – anchored their yachts here, taking up almost permanent residence in the Pepe Abed harbour-side fish restaurant, ordering the obligatory deep-fried sardines, baba ganoush, flatbread, olives, hummus and a bottle of the moreish Lebanese rosé before learning to party like the locals.

Foolishly, our Quintessentially guide had tried to pack too much into a day out: the underground Jeita caves – a jaw-droppingly enormous hole in the earth, nearly six miles long, with tiny walkways traversing deep spaces hung with wax-like stalactites – followed by a rather terrifying cable-car ride in the wind to see the views from the (closed) cathedral at Harissa.
Sadly, hanging out in Byblos in the style of Sophia Loren, watching the playboys of the Middle East from Pepe Abed, wasn’t an option.

But perhaps that wasn’t a bad thing; traversing the country by car meant we had time to snooze. The right-on-the-button concierge at Le Gray had booked us a table that night at the fabulously kitsch nightclub, The Music Hall, which gets going only at 11pm. After fresh ginger martinis, then meltingly tender scallops on Le Gray’s rooftop, we had plenty of energy to
take in the acts – Afro-haired, bin Laden-bearded Arab boys doing The Beatles, and a glossy-haired heavy-metal band wearing Maharishi pants. People of all ages danced on chairs and tables. And until dawn, too, when we had to run back to our hotel, pack, then head for the airport, feet aching but spirits flying, infected – if not besotted – by Lebanese joie de vivre.