Syria is the most beautiful civilised country, with a real family atmosphere. I would move there tomorrow. Loved it... great people, the best food I have ever had and the most incredible culture and sites. Ignore all the rubbish and go. I travelled with my Mum - so it's very very safe. Far better than anywhere else I have been.
Last November I went on a photography holiday to Syria with a company called Frui holidays. It was a fantastic trip because I was able to practice my photography in some truly amazing locations such as Palmyra, Krak des Chevaliers and Aleppo. I was also looked after from start to finish by the tutors and guides so I'd also like to recommend Frui holidays.
No one should visit Damascus and miss having an ice cream at Bakdash Ice Cream parlour in the Souk Hamidiyeh. (There is an imitator, so beware). Bakdash has mountains of white ice cream in the window, chandeliers, and lots of customers at all hours of the day. You buy a token for 25 Syrian pounds (about 20p) and exchange it for an enormous cone of ice cream that is rolled in pistachio nuts. Yum!
Bang in the middle of the Souk Hamidiyeh. Ask anyone - everyone knows it
Damascus has its own character and style. It is cheap and has many great things to see. People are very friendly and warm. They will go out of their way to show me my way.
There are hundreds to monuments to visit. After all it is the oldest capital in the world.
The part I recommend most is Souk Al Hamideah (Al Hamidea Bazar). It was built during the Ottoman Empire.
Al Hamidea Bazar - very famous, can easily be found if you ask anyone in Damascus
Backpackers hotel in the centre of the new city, but just 5 mins walk from the old city. A reasonably well maintained hotel in a centuries-old Damascene 'Arabic House'. It's courtyard will transport you back through the ages - the ivy sheltering you from the sun, and the sound of car horns a couple of blocks away. Some rooms have en-suite facilities. Most rooms are double, but there are one or two dorms for the really tight-fisted. Prices are about Â£2-Â£3 per room per night. Yes, that is two pounds I've typed. Welcome to Syria! If you want something a bit higher standard, the nearby Al-Majed hotel is a world apart. Definately not for backpackers, this one. It's lobby and rooms feel like a three/four star hotel in Britain. Price per room is Â£15 per night.
Al-Rabie and Al-Majed are in Souq Saroujah - very close to Merjeh Square (the centre of the new city). Most taxi drivers know Al-Rabie (pronounced Rab-ee-ah) in Souq Saroujah - they might have more difficulty finding the Majed. saroujah.blogspot.com
It only costs £3 and you can stay from morning until midnight, hang out, talk rubbish with your mates and get really clean.
Our Dave, Nigel and I were sweaty and touristed-out and entered this splendid old hamman, which is located in the souk somewhere between the Omayyad Mosque and the Biblical Street Called Straight (any other directions are meaningless in the convolutions of a bazaar).
The old guy behind the desk takes your money, your wallet and locks them safely away. You're given three towels each and taken to a dry steam room. It's hot- nostrils are incinerated and then it's time for a scrub. It's all very homoerotic and Dave got weirded out by men gleefully lathering up their pals in an empty marble room. But what the hey-ho ... no one's taking pictures (I don't think).
Then you're led to a second large, empty marble room with a cloud of steam descending to about four feet off the floor. All you see are men's torsos - very stark and eerie. Here you swill off your lather (expertly- and rather tenderly I must add - applied by your mates) and get scrubbed by each other.
It's at this point that a baleful Damascus masseur points to one of us at a time and beckons us to his antechamber, where you are laid on the marble floor like a chunk of meat (Halal meat, I should point out) and you are twisted, pummelled and pulled. Then he motions you to lie on your stomach. Our Dave thought he was to enjoy forbidden pleasures at this point- he's old public school and taken with these fantasies- but Big Nigel expressed the view you were not in a strong position to argue with anyone at this point. Anyway, there were no shenanigans, but more pulling, twisting and deep muscle tweaking.
Then it was back to the steam room and a gentler massage and then a cold shower.
That took about 40 minutes and at every confusing turn of events, Damascene bathers or hamman workers were happy to help you along. It was all very matey. They seemed intrigued we were there - confused, European, pale. It was akin to someone slightly exotic coming into your local and you showing him just how to down a pint of Old Skunktongue.
After getting scrubbed clean through, we were jettisoned to a large open mezzanine where all the lads were bundled in towels, hanging out, drinking sweet tea, having a fag, taking pictures with their mobiles and probably talking about ... what else … footy.
Time rolls on, the hours are punctuated by prayers and more tea and the sound of the souk outside.
Women are allowed on Friday nights. The bazaar has some pretty lively restaurants for a good old nosh after bathtime and prices are about £3 or £4 pp for a blow out.
Damascus as a city is laid back. Folks leave you alone- probably because a good chunk of the population probably works for the secret services or the military.
But, really, who knows who anyone is in the hamman when your clothes are on a peg and you're getting all in a lather.
Hamman Nureddin; Between the Omayyad Mosque and the Street Called Straight(near the spice stalls),
This place is legendary, in an obscure-as-you-like divey drinking den kind of way. Blink and you could easily miss this bar, it’s so small. Essentially a liquor store with a few tables squeezed in as a mere after thought. Don’t be intimidated by the dark, smoky haze and the seedy pictures on the wall not to mention the resident old timers and their raucous alcoholic chatter. Open the door and go in, the locals will soon make room for you and start pouring out the arak. The beer is also very cheap and the banter top notch.
148 Sharia Bab Sharqi
Our offer is unique in Syria: We find you a place to stay in Damascus, pick you up from the airport take you straight to the house you chose when you visited www.yallahouse.com. On the way to your house, accommodation, room, flat, or apartment we give you a general idea about your situation in damascus.
We answer your questions on our Syrian chat forum. We connect you with universities, private teachers, friendly locals, Arabic classes, unique travel destinations and sport activities. We arrange a SIM card for your mobile. Tell us what you like and we will find it for you.
If you have any questions do not hesitate to contact us.
The special service we offer is, to connect people with Syrian Families. We arrange rooms for tourists where there can "life together" and see
the real syrian way of live. Sometimes they offer to cook, they get invited for weddings... The Families are also happy cause there have a very low budget.
Jebl Qasioun (Mount Qasioun) is the hill pushing up the northern half of Damascus.
Going up there just before sunset gives an incredible view of the whole city. Look straight ahead, and you see the new city, with the imposing Four Seasons hotel. And to the left, the tightly packed streets of the Old City - with the Umayed Mosque at its heart.
Stroll along the mountain road, or have a coffee in one of the many restaurants or roadside vans selling drinks (all of these places charge a lot more than in the city down below).
Take a taxi up - it's a very very long walk, along an anonymous highway, with no houses.
Taxis cost about 300L from Hamidiyeh, or to save money, take the Bab Touma-Muhajireen serveece bus (10 lira) and get off at Muhajireen. From there a taxi costs 75-100L.
Syria News Wire - newsfromsyria.com
Situated about 40 kms NW of Aleppo, this ruined basilica and associated buildings is famous for being the place where St Simeon sat on his pillar for 36 years. But its real attraction is the stunning site and spectacular architecture, the church when completed in 490 AD was the largest in the world. Visiting St Simeon combines well with many of the nearby Dead Cities and other sites in the region.
A few kms beyond Deir Semaan. Entrance 150 Syrian pounds.
Aleppo is famous for its olive oil soap, much of which is mixed with other oils so there is a great choice.
The most precious of the regular combinations has 60% laurel oil and sells for 75 Syrian pounds (about 75p) per block. Try to track down a bar from Al Joubali soap factory in the old city.
Widely available in the souks of Aleppo
Of the listed restaurants in the Christian quarter of Aleppo, this is the best value in terms of atmosphere and food. It has two entrances, one signed from the side of the Armenian cathedral and the other from Qastal Ibshir Pasha street. Beer and wine on offer.
See above for directions. tel 2224462.
A Syrian kebab cannot be beaten. They are available in jaaj (chicken) and lahme (lamb) varieties, including the wonderful local garlic mayonnaise.
Also look out for tabbouleh, the wonderful parsley salad, hummus bi lahm (chickpea puree with meat and pinenuts), felafel and labneh (a yogurt dip).
100 metres from the souk complex, very much part of the old city, this 18th century house has been converted for bed and breakfast accommodation (12 rooms).
It would be hard to imagine anywhere with more atmosphere, even if the facilities are not luxurious. Very helpful staff, happy to organise day-trips at a reasonable price. The only drawback is that it's a 20 minute walk to the Christian quarter if you want to have a restaurant meal with alcohol. I paid £12.50 per night for a single.
Clearly marked by signs, about 200m from the Bab Antakia gate to the Old City. www.halabiatours.com
Just beyond the Roman Arch on Qeimarieh Street in Damascus's Old City is the tiny Summers Gallery, which showcases and sells signed photographs by British freelance journalist John Wreford. Wreford's outsider's take on the Middle East and especially Syria (where he lives) is totally original, free of cliche and often humorous. Check out his pictures of Damascus's pigeon fanciers.
Summers Gallery, near the Roman Arch (just south of Nofara cafe), Old City Damascus. Call John Wreford's mobile if you can't find it 00963 944 361 947. www.johnwreford.com
The souks (undercover markets) of Aleppo are truly magical. Colourful soap stalls sit next to huge sacks of coffee and walnuts. There are delicious sweet treats to sample and fine fabrics to marvel at. Unforgettable.
In the centre of Aleppo by the Great Mosque.
Google map: bit.ly/gAaD3H
My daughter and I reached Aleppo's souk by bus from Damascus, then by walking through progressively narrower streets, pretty much following the throng.
It was pistachio season and photogenic trays of nuts were on sale right and left. But the souk is great for not bring a tourists' pastiche. It has many rope stalls, plenty of domestic items - much like a UK everyday market with added panache and intimacy.
We ate rich, hot foule (beans with tahini and oil) in a cramped servery with men having their lunch break; then chatted to a young jeweller - I wear his earrings, inlaid with tiny dots of silver, back home in the Midlands. He then recommended a fabric shop and my front door now has a curtain embroidered with pomegranates.
The souk isn't enormous, but is a working place shot through with the skills and traditions of an ancient city.
To top it all you can climb up the ancient settlement and look out over the city, or just meander back to the bus chewing apricots, munching pistachios or pondering more textile purchases in the less atmospheric shops. Syria's many things, including tough for many, but here's a trip in which the old Middle East abuts the new and for that it sticks always in the mind.
Easy from arrival in Aleppo.
Google map: bit.ly/95ynN8
With your back to the south entrance of the Umayyad Mosque, walk down the small souk facing you. It's the old Gold Souk, aka souk Al Sagha. Look for a sign to "Papa Joseph's", an antique knick-knack shop on the right-hand side above a perfume shop, and follow the narrow stairs all the way up to the shop. From outside the shop, you can look over the lane into partly-excavated Roman baths not seen from street level. The shop keepers keep their generators in the enclave, but it is still easy to see how the Romans built beautiful baths for the brief time the Umayyad Mosque was a church.
Souq Assagha, just off Souq Al Hamidiyeh
Google map: bit.ly/a8cLU1
Even if it's a Friday and the souks - in whichever country - are closed, it's worth wandering around them to appreciate their architecture. The bustle of shoppers and shopkeepers often means that it's hard to see interesting details. In Damascus, where the souks are not closed off when the shops are shut on Fridays, walkers can glimpse fragments of tiles, amazing ceilings, and shop signs not easy to spot on other days.
Google map: bit.ly/a8cLU1
The best coffee I had in the whole of Syria was from a hole in the wall at the entrance of Khan al Gumruk, deep inside the Aleppo souk. The man in charge dispenses tight espressos for pennies.
Tucked into alcove just outside the entrance to the Khan Al Jumruq, Aleppo souq
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