Thursday, November 25, 2010

Beirut: Walking to the beachfront

A postcard of the black and white Lighthouse as it was in 1942
Although I am spoiled for sun and some heavenly swimming pools and beach spots in Dubai, I still couldn’t wait to walk down to Beirut’s beachfront last week and pay homage to the Mediterranean.

The Mediterranean has been a part of my life since childhood. I missed it immeasurably during the 20-odd years I spent in London. The closest I got to the sea then was the River Thames, which I could pick out from my balcony in Chelsea’s Cheyne Place.

The Lighthouse now dwarfed by construction
I was curious to view what Wikipedia writes about this magical sea. It describes the Mediterranean as one “around which some of the most ancient human civilizations were arranged. it has had a major influence on the history and ways of life of these cultures. It provided a way of trade, colonization and war, and was the basis of life (via fishing and gathering other seafood) for numerous communities throughout the ages.”

I grew up near the Mediterranean in Tunisia and my mom, Vicky, always sent us to the beach to swim, absorb Vitamin D (the sun vitamin) and bury ourselves in the warm sand for added winter protection. Nothing changed much when we relocated to Beirut. Even during the civil war, I hardly stopped going to the beach on an almost daily basis throughout the year. That’s why being far from the Mediterranean was one of the most difficult aspects of my years in London.

The Mediterranean is green, often infested with jellyfish, but I still found its waters fresh and salty and invigorating. Luckily, it is within walking distance from where I am currently staying in Beirut and so I made my way down to the Corniche, Beirut’s waterfront boulevard, from Sadat Street in Hamra (see "Beirut: Walking in Hamra" post, Nov. 12). It’s downhill all the way and Beirut is enjoying an unusually hot November. But the route is strewn with new buildings -- so much so the city’s first land Lighthouse is hardly visible anymore.

Possibly built in the 1940s and originally run by the Shebil family, this 24-meter high Lighthouse is a landmark with its black and white horizontal bands. It outlasted colonial rule and the civil war, but has been beaten and drowned by the construction boom in the Lebanese capital.

A new automated Lighthouse replaced it at sea level when it ended its working life in 2003. The new automated 52-meter Lighthouse beams every 10 seconds and an Israeli air raid damaged its lantern and top in July 2006.

Rides at Beirut's Luna Park
Strolling down to the coastline, I caught my first glimpse of the glimmering sea. But before getting there, I popped in to Madinat al-Malahi, Beirut’s Luna Park. The Ferris wheel looked smaller and the rides too, but their magic was still there and not lost on the many children enjoying the Sunday morning fun.

Further along the Corniche, sellers were preparing for the Sunday rush for falafel and ice cream. Down the road, the Permanent Chinese Exhibition store, where you find everything and anything, is already well stocked for Christmas.

The glimmering Mediterranean
I finally got to the rocky beach where I have been a habitué since god knows when. As soon as I paid the entrance fee of LL 22,000 (or $14.66), I felt I was back to my natural habitat. The place has hardly changed over the years and I was ecstatic to meet familiar faces and friends I hadn’t seen in 20 years.

I first treated myself to a morning coffee (LL 4,000 or $ 2.65) to kick start the day. Once I felt I was in my surroundings, I ordered my preferred Lebanese beer – Almaza (LL 5,000 or $3.33) -- which came with a little bag of peanuts.

It was exhilarating to reconnect with the cool waters of the Mediterranean, its color, its taste and its temperate waves. Fishermen were all around, migrating birds winging by and planes flying overhead to Rafic Hariri Airport.

The planes passing overhead reminded me that I would be flying back home to Dubai before long. I hurriedly dispelled the thought to continue enjoying my holiday in Beirut, especially that my sister Asma joined me last week.

Keep your walking shoes on! I will take you around the Armenian neighborhood of Burj Hammoud and the southern port city of Sidon next.

(Click here to see the pictures of the walk down to the beachfront)