Tuesday 21 June 2011


I have a particular fascination for the little village of Shemlan at the moment. It nestles in the mountains high above Beirut, uphill from Aley and  Bchamoun, home to a few shops, a mildly famous restaurant and an orphanage.

Looking out over Beirut from Shemlan never fails to take my breath away. The city is spread out like a glimmering carpet below, the airport runways sitting by the infinite blue Mediterranean.

This was the shortest trip I have ever taken to Beirut in the 14-odd years I have been travelling here, literally 24 hours. My plan was simple enough, have lunch in Shemlan, go to GeekFest Beirut and nip back home. Thanks to Air Arabia and a three hour flight, this is a quite achievable and even fun. That three hour flight gets you into Beirut just in time to check in then spend the afternoon exploring or sitting around and reading newspapers over an Al Maza or whatever else floats your boat. I went up to Shemlan in the company of the delightful Micheline Hazou, patroness of genteel blog MichCaf√©  chatting about life during the civil war, Monday Morning and other stuff as our battered Mercedes taxi groaned up the hilly road.

We had lunch at Al Sakhra, the Cliffhouse restaurant in Shemlan. It's a fairly traditional Lebanese affair and we sat by the window popping pistachios and drinking Al Mazas as we looked out over Beirut below, dishes appearing from the kitchen with satisfying regularity to populate the table between us. The restaurant itself is fairly large, a favourite meeting place for couples being 'discreet', Micheline tells me with a hint of a glint, but also a popular place at weekends. There's a noisy party near us, filling one of the long tables set out in the conservatory, celebrating one of life's events with cloudy glasses of arrak.

The orphanage in Shemlan is the reason for my fascination with the village and the countryside around it, for it was here that the British government-run MECAS, the Middle East Centre for Arab Studies, was located until the civil war forced its closure in 1978. MECAS reported through the British Embassy in Beirut. It was from here the infamous George Blake was taken to London to be arrested on his arrival, finally unmasked as a Russian double agent, in 1961. The Lebanese, unsurprisingly, refer to it as the British Spy School.


Alexander said...

GeekFest Beirut was smashing fun, as you ask. the GIGAlb team did a fantastic job and the funky Beirut Art Centre was packed, games consoles, widescreens and projectors all over the place, while the talks were held on the terrace outside. Well over 300 people pitched up and the whole event was a melee of frenetic gaming and socialising as well as plenty of picture taking and tagging. Just the ticket, then! :)

Mich said...

It was such an interesting and fun day and I'm so glad to have been part of it :-)

GA said...

A day trip!! next time I am coming if it fits in with dates. GA x

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