It was a foregone conclusion back in the days when the tiger roared that a mini-break to Paris or Rome would happen somewhere between March and April and perhaps again around October. Not be confused with the main summer holiday of a fortnight in Florida or three weeks down in Marbella, the mini-break was the icing on the “travelling for pleasure” cake. Cheap flights to rural airports along with hour- long connection buses enabled any person in employment to spend their disposable income on a spot of travel. However, as soon as employment opportunities tightened the country’s disposable income evaporated and the only money being spent on travel was by the emigrants who were cracking open their piggy banks to buy a one way ticket to Doha faster than you can say, “aisle seat please”!
Thus ended the life of the glorious mini-break, for many at least. No more hen-nights to Carcassonne or Anniversary celebrations to Venice. No more rugby tours to Cardiff and no more shopping trips to Barcelona, traces of our former cosmopolitan opulence erased as the movers and shakers end up shaking and moving to Sydney, Dubai and China for work.
Three years into my expatriation to the Middle East, with enough air miles to book a mid-length flight and enough cash for a short stay, talks of a mini-break arose. Mentally dusting off my mink boa, I pictured myself once again walking along the Seine. I began to get excited as I thought of the injection of Europe that lay before me, a shot of good oul expensive Parisian life, just what I needed to wash the desert sands from my wings. However, the free air miles didn’t cover Paris, or Rome in fact after long hours of travelling in economy class with kids in tow, it appeared all I was entitled to was a free flight that would splutter and chug as it crossed Saudi Arabia before finally coming to a halt in Beirut, Lebanon. I stuffed my mink boa back into the wardrobe I searched for some semblance of bullet proof clothing. This wouldn’t be the walk along the Seine I had envisaged.
Queuing for the early morning flight from Abu Dhabi to Lebanon did nothing to lift my spirits as the eager passengers repeatedly shoved and pushed their way past the orderly line but as they looked like they had more business in Beirut that a taking few holiday snaps and picking up a fridge magnet, I remained quiet.
My misconceptions about Beirut were rectified, my blinkers were cast aside when walking through part of the city and I felt underdressed for coffee. Streets and streets boasting the world’s top fashion houses. Any city that can justify four Armani stores has to be doing something right. Dior, Stella McCartney, Gucci, Salvador Feragamo and Cartier along with every other conceivable designer had a base in Beirut. The ruins of the old city retained and the new built around them. Cosmopolitan cafes and bars dotted the streetscape giving the city a distinct air of joie de vive. Five star hotels overlooking the Marina where the weathered Corniche provided the perfect viewpoint for the choppy seas and breathtaking sea views where I felt underdressed among the beggars and desperate looking refugees. The uphill walk towards the end of the Corniche, when Pigeon Rock suddenly came into view provided the perfect climax to the experience.
Many say it’s the Paris of the Middle East and while the overtone is Paris the undertone is not. On closer inspection, beside every five star hotel were five derelict eyesores. Behind every Starbucks were a plethora of “spit on the floor” local coffeehouses. Parked alongside every Porsche and Bentley was a Fiat Ritmo or perhaps a Renault 4. At the end of every impressive avenue was an armed guard blocking off a particular area or route and the bomb detection team at the entrance to the underground carpark were unnervingly apparent. An eclectic mix of triumph, destitution, confidence and fear.
Through the shrapnel it had risen and the ruins of their history is not covered up or demolished, instead they have literally built on their foundations and are clearly working hard to make a new Beirut, an eye-opener for the blinkered Mini-breakers out there.