Beirut Insight

In search of lost times: the memory of the Excelsior and the Caves du Roy

Delphine Darmency is curious, lively and has the alert eye of a photographer/videographer and the patience of an investigative report, always on the lookout for details. She went on a search of lost time and found it at the Excelsior and its Caves du Roy, bringing back thousands of photo-negatives and documents, traces of happier times. “Caves du Roy”, her project based on what she found, is soon to come.

Les Caves du Roy: René and Nayla Moawad, Fouad Naffah and Kamel el-Assaad can be seen in the photo. Photo collection Georges Allam.

Nostalgia is not what it used to be. In Lebanon, it has transformed into a need, consolation, therapy, a dream; the hope for a future that looks like the good old days: happier than the present and certainly more open and noble.

This nostalgia, with its fascination with the past, is not limited to the war generation or their parents. Today, it is also reaching young people who never knew Lebanon before the war, who never smelled the perfume of elegance and who never tasted the country’s honey or its incense.

Delphine Abirached Darmency is part of this new generation and has, for some years, been interested in a particular Beiruti monument: the Excelsior hotel and its Caves du Roy. During the 1950s, 60s and 70s, this venu brought fame to Jean-Prosper Gay-Para, the “king of the night”.

Darmency, 33 years old, plunged into the ruins of these places that are now nothing more than ghosts of the past, making one wonder if they ever really existed at all. She spoke with the stones and overcame her fears of molds, rats, total darkness and utter filth to delve into the history of a hotel that epitomized the elegance of those lost years. Unfortunately, she did not have the chance to meet the master of the house, Gay-Para, who died in 2003.

"The doors of the Excelsior opened in 1955," Darmency explains. In 1962, Gay-Para sold the nightclub to Sheikh el-Ard, but continued to manage it until it closed due to the war. In 1982 it reopened “exclusively for one, single, crazy and magic night: for the occasion of Raymond Daoud’ s birthday before closing its doors definitely," Darmency continues, who managed to bypass locked, rusted, padlocked doors to take a look at what stood behind the darkness.


Darmency graduated with a degree in international relations from Paris in 2008. After a year in Cairo, she returned to her native beirut and in 2010 started writing a chronicle of the memory of Beirut for L’Hebdo Magazine. Her first report was on the Yellow House. "My grandmother lived in Rue Monnot," Darmency says, a journalist wearing “well-tied Converse”, and she describes herself.

Darmency is curious, profession and has curly blond hair and freckles when she smiles. Her journey had all the elements of an investigation: mandatory stops and landmarks from the pre-war era, including old cinemas, famous nightclubs and, currently, abandoned hotels. When Amine Issa-then editor-in-chief of the magazine- talked to her about the Caves du Roy, Darmency turned into an adventurer, ready to do anything to force open the padlocked doors of the Excelsior hotel and the Caves du Roy. When Ibrahim, the reluctant watchman, finally let her in for the first time in 2011, she was ready to face the scorpions as well.

The next day she returned better equipped, like a perfect cave explorer ready to plunge into the bowels of the myth. "The first thing I saw was the branch-infested Excelsior pool, which due to the trailing water and the passing of time, became beautiful shadows. The floors, the terrace, the restaurant, the reception and the bar will follow. Everything was burned. Some items were lying under the furniture, on the bar. Pictures, documents, registers, telephones, salt and pepper shakers, stacked candles, signs of a melted time. Even a bottle of champagne dating back to 1975. There were two ripped sofas, red carpets, a lamp," she says.

In a mixture of excitement and fear, Darmency lived a special and certainly unforgettable moment, as if time was suspended. “It was very intense to discover this abandoned place that witnessed so many dreams, joy and innocence. I had all of that in front of me, and it was all just for me,” she says.

Progressively, as visits, discoveries of archives and exceptional objects took place, The French photographer Stephane Lagoutte joined Darmency in her discoveries. Amidst this "unhealthy chaos" and consumed by fleas, they recovered thousands of film negatives scattered on the ground. Some were completely overexposed but still usable. "From the wealth of archives, we have collected so far thousands of photo negatives and paperwork, client registries, landlord and management correspondence, gala menus, drink coupons, laundry pads, and customer invoices showing orders for champagne and other drinks,” Darmency says.

All of these were beautiful treasures they had to share. The investigation is obviously on-going. Off-site, Darmency is talking to the family of Gay-Para and collecting valuable testimonials from all those likely to bring life and precision to these thousands of black and white photos. "I would also like to thank Cyrille Allam who believed in me and entrusted me with the archives of his father, Prosper Gay-Para's right hand man. Trust is not easy. These archives allowed me to have new digital material. They are priceless. Just like the memories that some Beiruti people have agreed to share with me with stars in their eyes," Darmency says.

Sharing the emotions

Along with interior designer and designer Cynthia Zahar and artistic director Eliane Achkar, the project “Les Caves du Roy” was born in the minds of this new team of curators. "I added my Lebanese name in order to better connect with this project," Darmency says, who will be its director. "This work is in essence a journalistic one. I am only a vector, an instrument that will allow the transmission of these memories to new generations most of whom know nothing not only about Prosper Gay-Para and the Caves du Roy, but also about the Beirut of the 60s."

An elaborate interactive and sensory exhibition-installation will take place in Beit Beirut between December 12 and February 15. This venue is the ideal place for this meeting with the past. A book is also on the schedule provided, of course, that the necessary funds will be made available. "We will walk the guests into the Excelsior of the glorious years. If some of them have testimonials they would like to share, they will have the opportunity to do so by contacting us. We wish to give back the memory of Beirut to the Beirutis through the use of art, and by engaging the visitors in a sensory experience of the night club, the hotel and the city, via immersive installations, sounds, visuals and even olfactory means," Darmency explains.

“For us, intergenerational verbal transmission is very important. Our elders are the ones who have lived the golden years of Beirut and should be the ones to tell us their story. Hence, the importance of this investigative work that is allowing me to collect testimonies and anecdotes. In addition to the unpublished documents obtained thanks to the family of Prosper Gay-Para, the former employees and customers of the Caves du Roy have also contributed in sharing their memories,” she continues.

Today, in addition to the investigative work, the search for funding continues with the same dedication. The project is more than just passion; it is mostly dedication. And this is one thing we can understand: this past is sacred. Sharing it is a necessity; almost an urge in order to keep on dreaming.

For more information: [email protected] or their Facebook page Lescavesduroyproject

Jean-Prosper Gay-Para, the "king of the night"

Alphonse Gay-Para was born in Beirut on April 2, 1914 in Beirut. His mother, Nada Mocadie, was Lebanese, and his father was from Marseille. Gay-Para quickly became Beirut’s "king of the night". A visionary and innate creator of moods, he always knew how to mix audacity and elegance in his projects.

Already at eight years old, in the summertime, he used to work as a clerk in the restaurant founded by his father Alphonse, who had died a few years early due to injuries from the 1914-1918 war. Later on, and the business was taken over by his maternal uncle Raffoul Mocadie. Gay-Para co-directed the ‘Kit Kat’ and its bar ‘Tabou’ before becoming one of the co-founders of the Normandy hotel. In 1950, he hosted great parties at the pool of Aley, and his famous dancing balls would bring together some 3,000 people.

On January 20, 1952, he opened the hotel Palm Beach and its nightclub ‘Le Corsaire’. The hotel Excelsior followed by its Caves du Roy came next on March 30 1955. Famous venues were added such as the restaurant Le Grenier in Beirut and the Saint-Tropez Auberge in Byblos. Last but not least, in 1967, the Byblos hotel and its own Caves du Roy were inaugurated.

Throughout his life, Gay-Para never stopped wishing to revolutionize Lebanon through tourism and the development of Lebanese culture and folklore. He was one of the conductors of the Baalbeck Festival and the Casino du Liban. He also served as the liaison officer between the professional unions and the tourism industry, a member of commissions at the Ministry of Social Affairs, an expert at the tourism commission, a representative of Lebanon at international congresses of the hotel industry and he was editor in chief of major Lebanese newspapers, and finally the author of a book, “Ma Traversee du Siècle”, published in two volumes. He died in 2003 with dozens of projects still in mind.

The people behind the project "Les Caves du Roy"

Delphine Abirached Darmency, project director and curator: a 2008 graduate in international relations and action from the University of Paris 1. Her latest reporting led her to work in Iraq, Jordan and Central Asia for various media (AJ +, TV5Monde, So Film, Slate, etc.), but also to New York where she lived from 2016 to 2018. She graduated as a journalist and image reporter from the New York Film Academy. She founded her audiovisual production house Beyond the Road Productions. She is currently living between Beirut and Paris. Darmency continues to write articles for the French press and produces videos in different formats, including news reports, magazines, documentaries and music videos.

Cynthia Zahar, curator - art direction and scenography

Cynthia studied interior design at the Lebanese Academy of Fine Arts. As a teenager she was already decorating store windows in Greece before embarking on the creation of recycled jewelry and furniture using old doors found in the rubble of old Beirut.

Bigger scale professional projects (restaurants, art galleries, private apartments, boutiques and fashion designers' studios) started pouring in, leading Cynthia into the film industry, and some collaborations with Lebanese filmmakers (Daniel Arbid, Philippe Aractingi and Nadine Labaki), advertising, video clips for television, stage design for dance performances (Nancy Naous), as well as a more specialized artistic activity, namely the creation of chandeliers.

Stephane Lagoutte, curator - photography

Stephane Lagoutte embodies a generation of photographers who, while surveying the realm of current affairs, complete their vision by documenting the world with a personal point of view. Lagoutte’s studies in the visual arts have no doubt helped to make the shift from photojournalism to a more artistic photography. For more than twenty years, he has offered a unique perspective on society and more particularly on the issues of identity and uprooting in a hostile environment. His work has been exhibited at the Rencontres d'Arles, the international photojournalism festival Visa, the festival of Regard de Saint-Germain-en-Laye, and the National Library of France.

At the end of 2011, he went to Lebanon and got help with documentary photography from the CNAP (National Center for Plastic Arts). In 2015,The Parisian gallery La Petite Poule Noire exhibited his series ‘Beirut 75-15’ for the first time The exhibition kept on traveling within Europe and beyond. He is a member of the Myop agency and became its co-director in 2015. Stephane Lagoutte collaborates regularly with the French and international press (Liberation, Le Monde, Geo, Society, etc.).

Eliane Achkar, curator - multimedia installations

Artistic director of projects based in Montreal, Achkar graduated in graphic design and art direction from the University of Balamand (Beirut) and in animated film from Concordia University (Montreal). The Lebanese-Canadian, who was born in Lebanon in 1985, has succeeded in mixing creativity and technique in her projects and creating a new link between art, philosophy and technology. She recently led major projects at the Montreal-based Graphics eMotion for institutions including the Coliseum in Rome, the ruins of Pompeii and the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.

(This article was originally published in French L'Orient-Le Jour on the 1rst of August)

Nostalgia is not what it used to be. In Lebanon, it has transformed into a need, consolation, therapy, a dream; the hope for a future that looks like the good old days: happier than the present and certainly more open and noble. This nostalgia, with its fascination with the past, is not limited to the war generation or their parents. Today, it is also reaching young people who never knew...