The Syrian city of Aleppo makes a sensational destination for a short break, with an incredible souk to barter in, impressive citadels and castles to explore, and some great hotels and restaurants
Aleppo vies with Damascus for the title of the oldest continually inhabited city in the world (8000+ years) and as it is only a four-hour flight from London, it makes a great alternative long weekend destination, well worth the effort of obtaining the necessary visa (www.syria.embassyhomepage.com).
Market, mosque and massage
Aleppo's marvellous covered souk is largely unchanged in centuries and is rivalled only by Marrakesh for atmosphere and sensation. Vibrant colours of textiles and ceramics abound, gold and silver glisten in the rays that permeate the ramshackle roof, a fusion of aromas hits you around every corner - cinnamon, cumin and coffee - and the sights and sounds of excited trade illuminate the narrow alleyways. It's a completely invigorating experience. Some marvellous souvenirs, such as luxuriant olive soap and boxes inlaid with jade, mother-of-pearl and onyx, are available for a good price - make sure you barter, and leave plenty of space in your luggage for your eclectic purchases.
There is also a mighty citadel that hits you as you leave the souk. Built in the 12th century on a natural mound, the imposing construction is remarkably well preserved and offers great views of the city and beyond. You don’t need much imagination to visualise the moat filled to the brim and the Aleppan warriors repelling anything invading armies could throw at it.
Aleppo’s Great Mosque has an unusual leaning 45m-high minaret, the result of an earthquake, and, inside the main prayer hall, a 500-year-old intricately carved minbar (pulpit). This is a great place to wind down after the hustle and bustle of the souk.
Men can get further respite at Hammam an-Nahaseen, situated back inside the souk. You are handed towels and soap as you enter the bright, wood-panelled changing area. Inside, start with a refreshing shower – with a metal bowl, scoop out warm water from the stone troughs and throw it over yourself, then go behind a curtain for a detoxing steam and spend some time relaxing flat on your back on a hot stone slab. All this prepares you for the main event: a thorough scrubbing at the hands of the hammam attendant. This is not for the over-sensitive! The coarse sponge grates a little, but at the end it will leave you probably the cleanest you've been since you were a baby. Complete the uplifting experience with a glass of refreshing tea.
Aleppan food is to be savoured - a unique combination of Syrian, Ottoman, Armenian and Jewish influences. Typical dishes include sujok (a spicy sausage rolled in bread), mouhamara (a dip of walnuts, toasted breadcrumbs, roasted peppers and pomegranate juice) and tabbouleh (a salad of bulgar wheat, parsley, tomato, sesame seeds, lemon and garlic) - all delicious.
Three quality restaurants can be found in the maze of narrow streets in compact Al-Jdeida, all serving all the traditional dishes alongside succulent spicy meat, fresh fish and tasty pasta. Cantara (+963 21 2253355), Beit Sissi (+963 21 213007) and Kan Zaman (+963 21 3311299) are all housed in old Aleppan houses, with stone courtyard settings, subtle lighting and great atmosphere. They serve alcohol, too – not to be taken for granted in Syria. Meals are reasonably priced, but pre-booking is pretty much essential.
Where to stay
Check in at the historic Baron Hotel, which was Aleppo’s foremost hotel for most of the 20th century. It is now best described as ‘faded grandeur’ but has bags of character, and most of the fixtures and fittings haven’t changed in a century. The bar is especially authentic – sit back with a G&T in one of the leather chairs, and imagine the likes of Theodore Roosevelt, Lawrence of Arabia and Agatha Christie, all former residents, doing exactly the same many years before. Doubles/twins with breakfast cost $75 a night - a reasonable price to pay for a decent night’s sleep and a taste of yesteryear; rather that than paying three times as much for the swish but soulless Sheraton that has recently opened its doors.
If you're staying for more than one night, transfer to one of the marvellous riad-like boutique hotels in and around the lively Hatab Square, such as Tourath House, Beit Wakil or Dar Zamaria. All are in pristine condition and, with a little bartering, are available for around $100 per room per night.
For those staying a little longer, Aleppo is a great base for exploring spectacular Castle Ja’abar on Lake al-Assad and the equally enthralling Castle Najm on the Euphrates – both largely intact castles occupy spectacular settings, with enthralling views over azure blue waters.
St Simeon’s Monastery is also a must-see. Not much remains of the 20m-high pillar that St Simeon called home for decades, but the monastery built around it retains enough of the original structure for you to imagine it in all its glory. Located high up on a hilltop, with great views of the valley below, the ruins are extensive and need two hours or more to do them justice.
All three sites are well worth the effort of bartering with a local taxi driver (we paid $100 for the day) and are doable together in one long day or as two less exhausting ones.
The city of Hama lies two hours south by train – visit to see the unique norias, huge wooden waterwheels used for centuries to irrigate the land. The norias creak and groan as they turn, and the eerie sounds reverberate around town. There are 17 scattered throughout the town; the most picturesque is near the centre, alongside the attractive Great Mosque.
BA and bmi do return flights to Aleppo for around £500.