Friendly people, great food, some of the most uncrowded and beautiful sites of antiquity... all this and more awaits anyone who ventures east to Syria
Scared of Syria? It is a police state, a dictatorship, part of George Bush's axis of evil, and won't allow you in the county if you've got an Israeli stamp in your passport. It's also one of the most breathtaking, friendly and surprising places I've ever visited.
GIVEN RECENT EVENTS (AS AT AUGUST 2011) I CANNOT RECOMMEND OR CONDONE VISTING SYRIA. I LEAVE THIS ARTICLE POSTED AS AN INSIGHT TO HOW SYRIA WAS IN 2009.
Road to Damascus
As my trip was part of a longer tour of the Middle East, I arrived in the country via a hired car (with driver) from Amman in Jordan, which is a unique way to see the desert landscape of Syria, and start to witness the strange duality of the country: hard bargaining from the taxi driver - then being offered food, water and cigarettes throughout the journey; huge queues at the border post - but being waved through to the diplomatic line when we were spotted queueing with everyone else.
Our car then sped on through the desert to Damascus, a name that conjures up images of Arabian camel trains, crowded souks, exotic food and people, and a general feeling you might bump into Agatha Christie and TE Lawrence as you wander the alleyways. Apart from the last bit, you won't be disappointed!
We stayed in the newly refurbished Afamia Hotel, just outside the old city walls, which was economically priced (€40 for a double room) and a lovely contrast to the general feeling of antiquity outside.
Exploring the city
The old city is a great place to get lost in - which is handy, as this is almost certainly the first thing you'll do when you enter it! The narrow lanes, markets and thronging crowds are almost intoxicating; it's like stepping back in time (but with air conditioning available when you really need it!). A few minutes in the Azam Palace (central mosque) will almost certainly lead to you attracting someone who wishes to practise their English on you. We enjoyed chatting to a young man for an hour or so, taking in the scenes of families playing and picnicking in the mosque courtyard and, after he'd orientated us around the city, we girded ourselves for the expected request for "a few coins for his children". Instead, we were embarassed, when he insisted on buying us dinner, which we bravely struggled to contribute towards!
The food is largely of mezze type, and particular places of note are Leila in the old city, near the Azam Palace, which has a retractable roof; Abou Kamel in the new town, where they will try to feed you beautiful grilled vegetables until you're fit to explode; and an unnamed cafe, where I had, beyond my wildest expectations, the best burger ever! The cafe is on the opposite side of the main mosque from the old city walls and on the right-hand side as you walk further into the old city - customers sit on half a dozen plastic chairs in the alleyway, and the old man who runs the cafe will make you the most amazing food and fresh juices for pennies.
If you want to drink alcohol anywhere in Syria, look for the church spires and towers. The churches don't sell booze themselves (as far as I know!) but most of the bars and off-licences are in the Christian quarters of towns. These are all fantastic areas to visit in their own right, and usually maintained these days by Greek Orthodox priests.
Among the ruins
We took a daytrip to Bosra, which, as far as we could gather, has no hotels of its own. It's a ruined ancient city, and is reminiscent of Rome - if Rome hadn't been touched since about 1200AD. There were practically no tourists, traffic or people, yet locals live amongst the ruins and, as ever, were endearingly friendly. This is a pretty hardcore Muslim area, so my wife wore, or tried to, a headscarf. She was having difficulty arranging it properly when over came a group of women - we thought, to berate her for not wearing a scarf. They helped her put it on, showed her how to tie it easily, had a laugh and chat with us (they didn't speak any English, however, so it was a conversation of smiles) and, after pointing us in the general direction of the large amphitheatre, which they rightly imagined we were heading for, went off about their business.
From Damascus, we headed to Palmyra, one of the great cities of antiquity, built by one of Alexander the Great's generals and later ransacked by Rome. As well as the city itself, there's a fantastic Crusader castle overlooking the site, and the town is a real oasis in the middle of the desert. Sandstorms periodically whip up and bury half the outlying houses and the ancient city itself. Being caught in the middle of one is a mix of genuine excitement and wonder at the power of nature and the harshness of life in these places, and significant discomfort, as you're constantly abraded from all angles!
Best of the rest
After three days wandering through the ruins, I could still have spent longer, but we moved on to Hama, a town famous for its waterwheels and less famous for an attempted uprising several years ago, which resulted in considerable damage to the town. There's a real local tourist presence in town, yet very few restaurants - many seem to have recently closed down - so the place has an odd feel. But it's certainly worth a visit to see the waterwheel irrigation systems and enjoy the soporific sense you get from the place.
Lattakia and Aleppo have their fair share of upmarket hotels and eating places. In Aleppo, you can get a pint of beer in an 'English pub' (at the Sheraton Aleppo hotel - a magnificent place), while in Lattakia, you can swim in the sea before having an ice cream and espresso at the strangely large number of coffee and ice cream bars.