Do you know where the brothel featured in Nadine Labaki’s movie Caramel is located? Or where Liza, Lebanon’s last voting Jew, lives, and where you might find her sitting on her balcony on a warm afternoon?
If not, a new walking tour of Beirut may be just the thing you need to get acquainted, or re-acquainted, with the city.
Walk Beirut is an initiative of AUB students and recent graduates who claim to know the city “inside-out”. The tour is the first of its kind to lead people through the streets on foot with English language commentary.
The five-hour tour takes groups from the AUB campus in Hamra through parts of Hamra, downtown, Saifi and Ain al-Mreisse.
The route emphasizes locations that have important historical and cultural significance, particularly places associated with the Roman, pre-Ottoman or the civil war periods, or with the recent development of the downtown area undertaken by Solidere.
The tour skips many tourist-friendly areas of the city, like Raouche, concedes Ronnie Chatah, Walk Beirut founding member and tour guide.
Instead, the Walk Beirut team wanted to focus on places that tourists might not otherwise be able to fully appreciate on their own. This includes emphasizing sometimes-overlooked gems like Bachoura and the older parts of downtown.
The tour also emphasizes more personal stories that embody the city’s diverse past. Cultural icons, such as the Caramel brothel, become intertwined with stories of visitors to Hamra’s Montreal Cinema being shot at by snipers lurking in the Murr tower during the civil war, or ongoing restoration efforts throughout the city.
There was also another consideration when it came to deciding the tour’s route.
“We work out the most pedestrian-friendly route possible,” said Chatah, “with side walks.”
The tour is designed for people who like walking. Chatah acknowledged that it may have less appeal for tourists coming from the Gulf who are not used to walking, but said he has had a number of third-generation Lebanese emigrants on the tour who are trying to reacquaint themselves with the city and their roots.
The idea for an on-foot city tour came from the founders’ own experience of taking walking tours in European cities, particularly in Berlin.
Chatah’s previous attempt to start up a walking tour in 2006 was thwarted by the outbreak of the devastating July War, which drove tourists and Lebanese alike off the streets and out of the country.
After a calm start to the 2009 tourist season, despite the potential unrest associated with the parliamentary elections, the group is seeing much better progress the second time around.
After their first tour took place in early May, the group has seen consistent interested in the new service, and those who have embarked on the tour seem to have enjoyed the experience.
“It is a good way not to get lost,” said Sarah Marusek, who arrived in Beirut two days before going on the walking tour.
“I am trying to learn as much as possible about the country,” she said, adding that she is in Beirut undertaking research for her PhD and trying to quickly familiarize herself with Beirut’s history and culture.
“It is more just to be here and get [information] from people, not from [Robert Fisk’s book] Pity the Nation or Al-Jazeera,” Marusek said.
Pavel Sima, an AUB student who has lived in Beirut for a year, brought his visiting mother and aunt on the tour and translated Chatah’s commentary into the Czech language for them.
Sima says he thought it would be a good idea to take his visitors on a walking tour as he felt they would learn a great deal about the city in only five hours.
Rex Howe, who is visiting his child and grandchildren from New Zealand, had already been in Beirut for a month before he and his wife decided to go on the tour.
“Whenever we visit a city we walk,” he said. “It is the best way to interact with the local people and see what life is all about.”
“The city has so much to offer - with a little bit of effort it would be so presentable,” Howe conceded.
His wife, Kathlene, admitted that while she too liked Beirut, she would like to see a little less rubbish along the Corniche’s grassy areas.
Walk Beirut tours take place Wednesday, Friday and Saturday afternoons from 3.30 p.m. and meet at the AUB Medical Gate. Times may change during the summer months to avoid the afternoon heat.
For more information on Walk Beirut’s tour times and reservations please click here.