Places, Lebanon, Architecture

Beit al Batroun: an Iconic Bed and Breakfast

The story of a charming guesthouse along the Lebanese coast

Beit al Batroun, a popular guesthouse located on the seacoast between Beirut and Tripoli, began as a dream of a Lebanese family living abroad in London. EastEast spoke with Rasha Kahil about her mother Colette’s inspirations for the space, her unique take on interior design, and Beit al Batroun’s embrace of local handicraft and architectural practices. In doing so, she also considers diasporic relationships to a sense of home and the Lebanese people’s legacy of hospitality and experience of everyday life, despite the country’s ongoing crises. 

EASTEAST: What inspired Beit al Batroun? How did your family make decisions about its design and overall concept, and in what ways have you been personally involved in shaping these decisions?

RASHA KAHIL: Beit al Batroun started off as a glimmer of an idea in my mother’s mind, back in the late 80s while living in London. As a family, we rode off on a few weekend trips around the UK in our black Fiat Panda, staying in bed and breakfasts in countryside villages. My own memories are faded, a stone cottage facade here, a giant chalky white horse on some green cliff there, a plate of sausage and eggs, sheep and shepherd dogs. But for my mother, who worked part-time in an antique shop on Portobello road, those escapades sparked a dream of opening her own guest house one day, back home in Lebanon.

The Lebanese are a naturally very hospitable people; the country is known for its services, its food and café culture, its characters, and its enduring joie-de-vivre despite the crisis after crisis on a political level. In retrospect, guesthouses are perfectly suited to the Lebanese way of life, but when my mum Colette finally opened her doors in 2013, there were only a handful around the country. 

We moved back to Lebanon in 1992 after the civil war ended and in 2002 she bought a plot of land in the sleepy village of Thoum, on the Northern coast of Lebanon, not far from historical Batroun which was once a major port city. By that point, she had already amassed everything she needed to furnish the house, thanks to markets and antique fair hunts around her travels—copper pots and side tables from Oman, enamel kitchen sets and oak buffets from the UK, fabrics from India, and a huge number of reclaimed furniture, tiles, doors, beams and windows from estate sales and vintage stores across Lebanon. Colette is also an accomplished craftswoman herself, working with mosaic and pique-assiette, which now punctuate Beit al Batroun.

Guesthouses are perfectly suited to the Lebanese way of life, but when my mum Colette finally opened her doors in 2013, there were only a handful around the country

I don’t think she ever had a distinct concept in mind, or was ever wedded to a design trend for how she envisioned the house, she just followed her intuition and personal taste, cultivated from years of travels and a keen eye for design. She had been building and designing it in her head for over 20 years and although she had everything she needed to furnish and move in, she only began building the house itself in 2010.

I cannot say I was personally involved in shaping these decisions. I was alongside her as the dream started to materialize, but was already living back in London at that point, busy being a 30-something. She had passed on her love of interiors to me, and I often brought back vintage finds, ceramic pieces I made, as well as reams of fabric from sample sales that she still to this day uses to re-upholster furniture for the guest house. My involvement in the business side also came later on, as we approached the launch and banded together to work out how to actually run a guesthouse! Pricing, branding, word-of-mouth marketing, reservations, social media, and all that real-world stuff that comes with the dream. For a while, I was making international phone calls from my workplace in London to alert my technophobe mum of a new reservation inquiry in her inbox. It was all rather convoluted until we got the hang of it.

EE:The central liwanliwana long, narrow-fronted hall or vaulted portal in ancient and modern Levantine homes that is often open to the outside. is a distinctive feature of Beit al Batroun. Could you elaborate on how it contributes to the overall atmosphere of the guesthouse? Additionally, are there other traditional architectural elements that define the character of the house?

RK:Beit al Batroun’s architecture is heavily influenced by traditional Levantine rural constructions, with a stone facade, large open plan living quarters, and rooms articulated around a spacious central liwan flanked by two large arches. The liwan is open to the outside on both ends, and acts as a natural air-conditioned sheltered terrace. It is flanked by comfortable bench seating along the length of each side wall, typically called “diwan,” a semi-outdoor lounge space of sorts—and a much needed respite during peak summer heat. This opens the house up to the surrounding nature and brings the outside in. One end of the liwan looks out to the Mediterranean sea from the terrace, the other faces inland, with a countryside view beyond the outdoor kitchenette that features the resident lemon tree. This type of rural architecture presents a very open plan structure, ripe for meandering paths through and out that lead to the different seating areas around the house and surrounding gardens. The only closed doors are those of the 5 guest rooms on site, 7 if you count the 2 private family rooms. Beit al Batroun is laziness personified: it is made to relax, and wash off the city soot. It is quiet, and secluded, yet expansive and welcoming. A countryside retreat on the Lebanese coast.

Colette worked closely from the start, and still does, with a local master mason and stoneworker, Maalem Alfred, who still uses traditional techniques to this day, rendering the stone facade and hand carving arches, basins, sinks, even a toilet paper holder for one of the rooms. He is a regular sight at Beit al Batroun, popping in for a coffee at least once a week for the last 10 years. 

EE:What kind of experience do you aim to provide for guests at Beit al Batroun? Are there specific elements or feelings you hope they take away from their stay?

RK: What I hope Beit al Batroun brings to guests is the sense of a home away from home, which is how I feel during my stays there. There can only be 10 guests at a time when fully booked, which means that the experience always remains intimate. As a host, Colette is present and available, but always with the exact amount of intuitive distance. Her favorite spot is a chair on the narrow terrace of the landing, typically greeting guests as they come and go about their business. And when my siblings and I come visit, we congregate around her on the steps like bees around our queen! Beit al Batroun is essentially a home rooted in its Lebanese identity, never a hotel. And that is the spirit of the guesthouse. 

There is so much to discover in the region around Beit al Batroun, which is a gateway of sorts to the North of the country. From the “Route des Vins,” which winds up the mountain through a number of villages dripping with local architectural flavor, to the buzzing historic port towns of Byblos and Batroun, to Tripoli, Lebanon’s second largest city farther North along the coast. I think the best part is actually returning to Beit al Batroun at the end of a busy day sightseeing, hiking, or sunbathing, and taking a seat on the terrace as the sun prepares to set into the sea, the sky exploding in shades of purples, pinks, and blues. A homecoming that I hope allows guests, both international tourists or local visitors, to experience Lebanon as a place that has long been misrepresented and hardly understood. An unpolished gem that continues to thrive through word-of-mouth as people flock back to their routine and share their experience. 

EE:How has the guesthouse been changing and evolving over the years? How does it interact with the architecture of the region? 

RK: Beit al Batroun, which means “house of Batroun,” opened in 2013 with just 3 rooms, and proved to be very successful from the start. The space evolved organically to reflect the hospitality needs of the guesthouse. My mother built a large chicken coop where she collects fresh eggs every morning for the breakfast, dedicated a space on the sunnier edge of the terraced plot of land for growing seasonal vegetables, fruits (pomegranates, figs, olives), and traditional spices and herbs such as mint, basil, verbena, and thyme. She built a second structure in 2015, adding 3 extra rooms with sea views and new seating areas in the garden, including a traditional a3deh under the shade of vines. 

Beit al Batroun is essentially a home rooted in its Lebanese identity, never a hotel

There were very few bed and breakfasts in Lebanon at the time, a few scattered in the far corners of the country. But soon, a societal shift happened and they literally exploded, catering not only to tourists who wanted to explore the country through local eyes, but also a rising number of homegrown “tourists,” with Lebanese themselves rediscovering their own country, and planning local weekends away without the recourse to international travel. Because despite its bad reputation, and its diminutive size, Lebanon has so much to offer in terms of its luscious landscape and its rich history. It continuously teeters on the edge of collapse but by God it manages to stay beautiful. Luckily, the guest houses that have opened up have, on the most part, stayed true to heritage. They are often borne out of old ruins and beautifully restored to former glory; they merge with the surrounding landscape, using traditional building materials respectful of the local architecture—Beit Trad in Kfour, Villa Chamoun in the Qadisha Valley, or Bouyouti in the Chouf are some examples.  

EE: What does this place mean to you? How would you describe your relationship with the land of your ancestors?

RK:I moved back to London in 2004 to pursue my studies and a career, and although I have become a Londoner (I live in Tottenham with my daughter, born in 2021), Beit al Batroun is my home. Although I didn’t grow up there (my childhood was spent in our house in the Beirut suburb of Broumana, in the mountains of the Metn), it remains the house to which I am the most attached when I return twice a year. It was built with heart and soul, the perfect embodiment of what our family and culture stands for, and therefore I feel a great sense of peace and belonging when I am there. 

I have a complicated relationship with Lebanon, something I feel is reflected in the feelings of a lot of Lebanese there as well as in the diaspora. There is love and hate, a great sense of nostalgia, of a Lebanon that could’ve been, that could still be. But the country is mired in corruption, in a free-falling economy, and most recently, slowly pulled into a wider regional conflict because of the brutal assault on Gaza by our neighbor in the South. 

Lebanon has a complicated history, and cyclical episodes of high glitz and glamor followed by crushing lows.  From the oft-used moniker of “the Switzerland of the Middle-East” of the 50s and 60s, to the civil war that spanned from 1975 to the early 90s, a high-gloss post-war renaissance interrupted by political assassinations and the brutal July 2006 war with Israel, more reconstruction, shiny high-rises, a booming nightlife that came crashing down in 2019 with the start of the devastating economic crisis, caused by corruption at the highest levels of our government and banking sector. And the horrifying explosion on August 4th, 2020, which further traumatized a population on the brink of collapse. 

There is love and hate, a great sense of nostalgia, of a Lebanon that could’ve been, that could still be

But somehow, despite the mass exodus that every episode engendered, Lebanon continues to rise from its ashes, albeit limping. Expats return in droves every summer and Christmas, booking every seat on flights that converge from the four corners of the globe. I am not going to pretend that there aren’t horrifying levels of poverty that were exacerbated by the economic crisis, and still no government, literally. But there is life and there are Turkish coffees and arak to be poured, family and friends to meet again, a sea to jump in, mezze to be shared, traffic jams to get stuck in, art to be immersed in, ruins to revisit, and worries to be shared.       

EE:How do you perceive tradition, and in what ways do you, as a creative individual, approach tradition in your work—both embracing it and pushing its boundaries?

RK:I believe that tradition is a complicated concept. It can simultaneously be an anchor that holds one back when it is understood in its strictest form, and a comforting well of shared knowledge from which one can springboard into the future. Rather than tradition, I prefer to see it as culture, which moves and evolves with the times. Although I do not live in Lebanon and am fully immersed in my life in London, I have Lebanese culture entrenched deep within me and it unconsciously shapes the way I live, work, and share. Estimates place the Lebanese diaspora at between 4 and 14 million, with only 4.7mn in the country itself; how could that not shape what we consider tradition in the country? In the same way as the Lebanese colloquial language is understood to be an organic mix of Arabic, French, and English, so is the collective experience of a people who have self-exiled and returned a thousand times over.

All images provided by Rasha Kahil . All rights reserved.

Rasha Kahil
A Lebanese creative director and visual artist living and working in London since 2004, she is currently the creative director of the Financial Times’ HTSI magazine. She was formerly co-founder of art direction studio Barbara Creative and has previously held positions at ES Magazine, British Vogue and Dazed magazines. She completed an MA in Communication Art & Design at the Royal College of Art in 2009 and has since exhibited visual projects in solo and in group shows and art fairs internationally, including in London, Paris, Amsterdam, Istanbul, Zurich and Beirut. Her work, primarily focused on gender and identity, merges photography, text, video and installation.