BEIRUT: In Paris they flood the banks of the Seine; in London a ray of sunlight across the office floor is a summons to descend on Hyde Park; and in Dublin a summer morning without rainfall means almost every suit in the city will be supine on a public lawn come 1 p.m. Armed with sandwiches and takeout coffees, northern Europe’s office workers unshackle themselves from their desks to make the most of the season’s lunchtime sunshine.
Sunlight may be less of a precious commodity in Lebanon, and city parks may be far more rare, but that’s no reason to forgo a daily afternoon dose of vitamin D.
Enamored by The Beirut Green Project’s “Green your lunch break” initiative, which aims to get the city’s workforce out of their air-conditioned towers and making use of Beirut’s green spaces, The Daily Star has compiled a selection of al fresco dining options that can be found across the Lebanese capital.
Forget Place d’Etoile; there’s not much green about it and it’s regularly made perilous by kids careening about on an array of bicycles and other wheeled contraptions. Instead take your homemade sandwich or purchased takeout to the more tranquil and leafier area just by the Roman baths. With benches both in sunshine and in shade, this under-utilized space is ideal for a lunchtime respite from Solidere’s gleaming office blocks.
Be warned though, at the Serail end a bench in a secluded alcove is often occupied by young couples seeking solitude. You’re unlikely to interrupt anything racy, but you may want to avoid disturbing their precious alone time nonetheless.
Another boon of lunch by the Roman baths is that you can keep yourself abreast of the season’s wedding trends: Brides appear almost daily to have their picture taken at the historic site.
In terms of wildlife, you may encounter a stray cat or wandering pigeon, but they are unlikely to be especially brazen and will promptly take their leave as soon as you wave them away. Sealed trash cans serve a dual purpose: they ensure you don’t have to take your waste back to the office and they keep lurking bugs and wasps out of this public space’s equation.
If you want to mix it up a bit from day to day in this district, also try Gebran Khalil Gebran garden, where benches are conveniently arranged near flat concrete blocks, which serve as ideal tables. In fact, if you were in the vicinity just last Wednesday you’d have seen the Beirut Green Project out in force, hosting their biweekly “Green your Lunch Break” meet.
If you work in Ashrafieh or its environs, there’s really only one park calling your name. Sioufi Garden is one of the city’s larger parks and proves a quiet, leafy haven secluded from the horn honking, construction din and other constantly present aural offenses of city life.
Choose one of the many seats beneath the trees just as you enter this hillside park, or meander down the walkways overlooking parking lots of abandoned buses and pick a bench from which to observe some of Beirut’s many bustling thoroughfares.
Sioufi also boasts some of the city’s best swing sets – lovely big metal frames with wooden seats. Luckily some are hung high enough to accommodate adult-length legs, and at lunchtime last week they were totally vacant – of course, this may change once schools are out for the summer. However, for now a quiet, embarrassment-free post-lunch return to childhood mirth is entirely possible.
If you simply cannot cut loose from the office for an hour, you can relax in the knowledge that Sioufi also has Wi-Fi access. Depressing as it sounds, you can bring your workstation to the park.
For those with offices closer to Downtown than Sassine, perhaps Sioufi Garden is just a little too far for a lunchtime jaunt. An alternative is St. Nicholas Garden on Charles Malek Avenue, right opposite the church of the same name. With trimmed greenery and benches set apart in small alcoves surrounding a central water feature, this should be a wholly tranquil spot, but a couple of headless statues lend a slightly ominous air to the atmosphere.
The American University of Beirut Campus is probably the nicest outdoor dining spot in Hamra, but sadly it’s not public. However, René Mouawad Garden, more commonly referred to as Sanayeh Garden, at Spears is the largest accessible public space in the city.
Although the space presently looks a little shabby and it’s more brown than green underfoot, the Beirut Green Project reported in April that plans were under way to renovate the park, quoting Beirut Mayor Bilal Hamed as saying the project would be completed by 2013. Indeed, last week the mayor launched the “Beirut is Amazing” campaign under which several of the city’s green spaces (Sioufi and St. Nicholas gardens included) will undergo improvements.
For now though, Sanayeh’s trees and shrubs are in bloom, ready to welcome lunchtime diners into their shade. Be warned: Sanayeh’s pigeons may also be lying in wait to greet you.
A five-minute walk from Verdun, Mufti Hasan Khaled Garden in Tallet al-Khayyat is bursting with bright green shrubbery. Many of these have been trained to grow around a trellis, beneath which the park’s benches have been positioned, ensuring ample shade from the afternoon sun. There are also trashcans aplenty.
This east Beirut neighborhood has two public al fresco dining options: the leafy Jardin des Jesuits and the smaller, less leafy William Hawi Park. Both have benches, although those in William Hawi are concrete and backless. However, William Hawi is easier to find – it’s right on the main Geitawi road – while Jardin des Jesuits, if you’re unacquainted with it, may take a little longer to locate on your first trip. Local storesowners are generally helpful with directions.
The old Mar Mikhail train station, an unkempt, rugged green space is accessible to the public between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. weekdays. Its caretakers say you’re welcome to come and eat a sandwich within its grounds, but with just two park benches, both smack beneath the midday sun, you’re advised to either slather yourself in sunscreen or bring a picnic blanket if you intend making this your regular outdoor retreat.
Gemmayzeh doesn’t have a public park, but Saifi Urban Gardens on Pasteur St. has a landscaped area, replete with picnic tables and umbrellas, just on the right as you enter the complex that is open to the public. You’re welcome to consume your packed lunch there so long as you clean up afterward.
Unfortunately, what could provide the ideal lunchtime respite for hundreds of the city’s workers remains off limits to all except those aged over 35 who hold a special permit to enter its grounds. Tayyouneh’s Horsh Beirut, the capital’s biggest green space, has been closed for over 20 years, and plans to give the public unlimited access to it require further study, Hamed said last week.
A coalition of 12 non-governmental organizations held picnics at 13 different locations around the capital Saturday to highlight the limited public green space in Beirut and campaign for the park’s reopening.
More information on Beirut Green Project’s “Green your Lunch Break” initiative is available at beirutgreenproject.wordpress.com