Love Letter from Lebanon
In 1966, seemingly out of nowhere, my grandfather, a Gujarati businessman living in Calcutta, decided to shift his entire family to Beirut, Lebanon. He had been there only once before, in 1965, while on a sort of round-the-world business trip. No one knows why he chose Beirut, or what prompted the sudden decision. As a result of it though, my father spent ages 10 to 15 living in Lebanon, then one of the cultural centers of the world: The Paris Of The Middle East, a hub for celebrities and starlets. By 1971 he moved back to Bengal.
He got married, had three children, and promised us time and again that he would take us back to see his beloved Beirut. It remained vivid for him, and as the war years came and went, as the Middle East changed rapidly, he always insisted, “But we’ll go back one day.” Everyone told him he’s crazy and that it wasn’t safe. He insisted that we mustn’t be scared, there was more to the Arab World than bombs and bullets.
This summer, 45 years later, he made that wish come true. As the June full moon rose over the beautiful city of Beirut, he turned 60, surrounded by his three daughters, and the pulse of the city he had once called home.
Here are some of my recommendations from the trip should you ever visit with photos shot by my sister, Nayantara Parikh.
Stroll Raouchè – To walk the boardwalk here is a complete delight. Make sure you come to this long stretch by the sea at sunset, there’s nothing quite like watching the sun go down behind majestic Pigeons’ Rock. And if you can organize a boat ride – go for it.
The National Museum – What a glorious space. Not simply the collection (which is one of the best-curated collections my sister Danika has ever seen, and she’s an archaeologist so I trust her), but the building itself is really something to see. The museum houses artefacts from as far back as the lower Palaeolithic period (1M – 150,000 BC). The museum shop is an elegant mix of craft, design and literature.
Jeita Grotto - I have never seen anything more humbling or mesmerising in my entire life and I’ve trekked 18,000 ft peaks, gone diving in the Maldives and seen Federer win at Wimbledon. They don’t allow cameras in here, (not even phones), and once you go in, you can see why. There are caves and then there is Jeita. Just north of the city, the grotto is about 10km of limestone magic. See the world’s largest known stalactite, take a boat between otherworldly formations, and come out feeling like you’ve just understood Star Wars, astrophysics and the meaning of life.
Eat to your heart’s content – From Mexican and sushi to vegan options, breakfast cafes and of course local flavours, this is a country to grow fat in. Pacifico is a lively Mexican restaurant with fantastic margaritas, seafood dishes and outdoor seating. Entrecôte serves a fabulous steak and fries in a cosy setting.
Pack souvenirs from Souk el Tayab - When you go home, do so with all you can carry from local souks – fresh honey, locally grown olives, mint syrup, biscuits and breads, pickles, cheese and wine. Enjoy!
Take on the night – Beirut has an impressive nightlife and I don’t mean 'for the Middle East'. It could honestly compete today with the Hvars of the world. Cherry on the rooftop of Le Gray Hotel offers a beautiful view of the city lights. Watch the sunset at White bar and lounge, and go clubbing at Skybar. Whether you’re looking for a quirky karaoke bar, an elegant space with Moroccan tiles, jazz music and cocktails, wine bar or all out nightclub, you’ll get home in the wee hours, one drunk happy camper.
Beit-ed-Dine – The small town lies in the mountains south of Beirut and is home to the exquisite Beiteddine Palace. Traditionally used during the summer months, the palace is structured around a courtyard full of fountains. The windows are all of stained glass and the walls inside are carved and painted. The ceilings are all in different styles and are works of art on their own. The prize for loveliest thing in the palace goes to the Turkish baths though. Endless rooms for hamam, marble bathing areas, and domed ceilings with tiny skylights in them all contribute to the magic.
Byblos, Jbeil – Spare a day for Byblos. The UNESCO World Heritage Site is thought to have been continuously inhabited since 5000BC and was Phoenicia’s first city. Explore the ruins, walk the cliffs, soak in the history, grab lunch at one of the lovely seafood restaurants and roam the souk.
Nayantara Parikh is a photographer based in Delhi. She likes her newly upholstered green and white couch, prawns, chocolate peanut butter and small creatures. Find her portfolio here and follow her on instagram at @nayantaraparikh.