Photograph by Vassilis Poularikas, NurPhoto, Associated Press
Photograph by Vassilis Poularikas, NurPhoto, Associated Press
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After the explosions, how will a jewel of the world rebuild?

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By George Stone, TRAVEL Executive Editor

For centuries, Beirut has been a nexus of East meeting West, a sometimes uneasy confluence of cultures and religions, and a historically fractious place of war and peace. After a catastrophic (and accidental) series of explosions shattered parts of the city on August 4, locals are grappling with what to rebuild—and how to preserve its uniquely syncretic cultural history. (Pictured above, a window of a damaged house overlooking the port.)

“As Lebanon prepares to begin the rebuilding process, architects, activists, academics, and residents are organizing to ensure that it preserves the history and architecture of the damaged neighborhoods,” reports our Beirut-based correspondent Abby Sewell.

This includes the right of longtime residents to remain in historic neighborhoods that in recent years have been buffeted by unchecked real estate development. “I think the danger is not in the physical reconstruction,” says Christine Mady, chair of the department of architecture at Lebanon’s Notre Dame University–Louaize. “The danger is in losing the social fabric that exists in these streets.”

Years of civil war, followed by years of speculative development, have turned the city’s downtown into “a space for the elite,” says Howayda al-Harithy, a professor of architecture and urban design at the American University of Beirut. Before this, “the heart of the city was always vibrant and mixed,” she says. When Beirut is rebuilt, will it remain a city that preserves its heritage for everyone?

There’s some good news. City planners now have limited real estate transactions and new construction; UNESCO has launched a fundraising appeal to restore heritage and cultural sites; and the Beirut Built Heritage Rescue 2020 project is working to stabilize buildings in danger of collapse. But helping displaced residents return home is the biggest challenge. “Even in buildings that suffered relatively minor damages, many owners lack the funds to repair broken windows and doors to make them livable before winter comes,” writes Sewell. (Below left, the damaged 19th century Sursock Palace; at right, owner Roderick Susock stands amid the palace’s wreckage. His mother, Lady Yvonne Sursock Cochrane, died from injuries from the explosion.)

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Today in a minute

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California wildfires: Heading into the historical heart of its wildfire season, California already has set a record for acreage burned, as well as its second, third, and fourth biggest fires ever. Precious parkland is among the charred lands. The AP reports that new wildfires (pictured above, in Madera County on Monday) are ravaging bone-dry land during heat waves; locals, disrupted by the pandemic, are now contending with emergency airlifts and power outages.

Renting a vacation/work ‘home’:
If school and work are taking place at home these days, perhaps home can become...anywhere? At least that’s what more and more telecommuters are thinking, reports Lindsay Lambert Day in our guide to renting a house right now. Prospective renters will ask about speedy WiFi, home offices, and room for kids to roam. But don’t forget questions about flexible cancellation and refund policies; out-of-state quarantine and admittance restrictions; whether the rental is in a COVID-19 hot spot; how the place has been cleaned; and whether others will be on the premises. Also, will you have to share your bathroom?

‘Mammoth’ airport tie-up: Everything was going fine at the new airport north of Mexico City until they found the skeletons. The Santa Lucia airport is being built on the shores of an ancient lakebed that both attracted and trapped mammoths in its marshy soil 10,000 to 20,000 years ago. So far, archeologists have exhumed 200 mammoth skeletons, by far the most of any site in North America, and observers are accompanying construction crews to halt work when a new skeleton is found, the Associated Press reports.

Take a hike: That’s one of the best ways to appreciate the U.S., writes inveterate hiker Nicholas Kristof in National Geographic. The Appalachian, Pacific Crest, and Continental Divide Trails are more popular than ever—thanks to books like Cheryl Strayed’s Wildbut face dangers from climate change and fire to lack of maintenance and financing. Barney Scout Mann, who has been hiking since the 1960s, recalls unmaintained secondary trails that have returned to wilderness. “Trails are a choice,” says Mann. “If we don’t use them, they disappear.”

Anchors aweigh: In the pandemic’s wake, most cruise ships are idle. But not all cruise aficionados are adrift. With hulking, empty vessels indefinitely moored off southwest England, an industrious ferry captain is offering narrated “ghost ship” tours that motor past massive Carnival, Cunard, and Royal Caribbean liners. Some of these behemoths stretch more than 1,000 feet and can, in better times, carry nearly 7,000 people. Guide Paul Derham related a scene from one tour to CNN: “As we went past, one of them said, ‘Blimey, I can still get their WiFi.’” Learn more about his tours here.

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From cave-dwellers to boutique hoteliers: Humans began living in hundreds of these caves in Matera, Italy, more than 12,000 years ago. Known as the Sassi (pictured above at night), they are on the UNESCO World Heritage List and now, after a period of decline, are being restored and turned into more comfortable houses, unique hotels, restaurants, and galleries.

Subscriber exclusive: Sleep in an Italian cave hotel

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The big takeaway

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At peace: What’s not to love about a secret bay lined with golden tamaracks (above) in Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness? But the one-million-acre wilderness is threatened by a proposed copper-nickel mine with the potential to cause irreparable environmental harm. For photographer Jim Brandenburg, the Boundary Waters has long been a refuge for stunning views (below, at left, along the border with Canada) and wildlife (below right). “Fifty years ago, I made my first photograph of gray wolves here,” Brandenburg says. “Today I still feel the same humbled thrill when that rare opportunity arises.”

Related: Is the gray wolf still endangered? Depends on whom you ask.

In a few words

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On Wednesday, Victoria Jaggard covers the latest in science. If you’re not a subscriber, sign up here to also get Rachael Bale on animals, Whitney Johnson on photography, and Debra Adams Simmons on history.

The last glimpse

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Beyond the vineyards: Tourists have long flocked to Champagne and Burgundy to see nature and to sample its harvest, but nearby sits France’s newest national park, a 600,000-acre wooded wonder just three hours from Paris. The Parc National de Forêts is a nesting home of the black stork, which flies 3,500 miles from the West African coast. The bird builds its enormous nests high in 40-foot oaks, Mary Winston Nicklin writes. The park has an estimated 50 million trees.

This newsletter has been curated and edited by David Beard, and Jen Tse selected the photographs. Kimberly Pecoraro, Amy Alipio, and Gretchen Ortega also contributed. Have an idea or a link? We'd love to hear from you at david.beard@natgeo.com . And thanks for reading!