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Posts Tagged ‘damascus’

Sayonara, Syria

October 25-26, 2009: Getting sick for the second time in the same country really depressed me, and just as the first time I had missed Palmyra, this second attack meant that I missed yet more Roman ruins at Bosra. Instead of getting up early to catch a south-bound bus, I got up early and headed for the nearest pharmacy. I have to say that the incredibly cheap drug that I bought not only worked, but worked faster than the antibiotic I had brought with me. Or, possibly, my immune system did a better job.

Souvenirs in Damascus

With just two more days to go in Damascus, I decided to switch to western

A restaurant in Damascus' Old City

food, something I rarely do when traveling. I found a branch of the French chain La Brioche DorĂ©e in the quiet, leafy embassy district, and enjoyed lunch there twice: lovely rolls and butter, chicken crepes, tartine, raspberry tart… Then, a perfectly made macchiato in their lovely atrium convinced me to eat dinner at the elegant and expensive Cham Palace, easy walking distance from my hotel. I passed on the pricey set menu at Entrecote, and ate a good escalope al limone with potatoes and a nice red wine at Carpaccio. But my last meal, at Pattacrepe in the not-quite-finished arcade next to the new Four Seasons was a mistake – the crepe was unmemorable and the service, not to mention my table, poor. Plus they didn’t serve alcohol or take credit cards, which complicated my end-of-country finances.

Inside one of the houses in the Old City

Although I didn’t feel that it would be wise to embark on an expedition requiring a two hour bus ride, I did spend time investigating first the embassy district, and then several of the original houses in the Old City. In typical Arab style these were built around courtyards, with blank walls and solid doors facing the street. The owner of one told me that the houses were supposed to look poor on the outside to discourage thieves. Unfortunately, those that were open to tourists weren’t looking too good on the inside either. I found that rather than following Lonely Planet’s walking tour, just visiting the houses that had been converted to cafes and restaurants gave me a better appreciation of how they had looked in their hey-day.

My last evening I paid my hotel bill and retrieved my passport, ready for an early start the next morning. I had already changed some money into Jordanian dinars, I had a hotel reservation in Madaba, and I was more than ready to move on.

The shrine of John the Baptist inside the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus

Syria Wrap: I got sick twice. I was harassed in Hama. My hotel in room in Aleppo was so bad I left. A lot of the time I felt like a target. I don’t plan to go back. BUT. I’m still glad I went: the sights are really good, and the Old City in Damascus is an interesting place to wander. I would recommend visiting, but if you’re a solo woman traveler you might consider taking a tour.

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Back to Damascus

October 23-24, 2009: It had taken so long to clear the border into Lebanon

Damscus' souk on a non-Friday

traveling by bus that I decided to take a shared (aka service) taxi back to Damascus. Think of it as a very small bus that leaves when full. It cost me only 10,000 Lebanese pounds (about $6.60) more than the bus and I figured the time saved would be more than worth it. Then we wound up stopping for ages for one of the other passengers to buy some elaborate sweets (which you would think he could have bought in Beirut) and to exchange money (ditto). Still faster over all, though.

Remember it had cost 150 SP for a taxi from the City Hotel to the bus station? Now I needed to go in the other direction, and the taxi driver at the bus station quoted 400 SP and claimed the trip was 20km! He found my refusal to go along with this scam quite amusing, and eventually agreed to take me for 200 SP. I maybe arrived too early at the hotel, as my room wasn’t as nice as the first, even after I had them move me to one with a street view. Still clean and comfortable, though. Turned out I was also a little early for lunch, as most everything was shut down for Friday prayers. The ATM machines seemed to be shut down too – it took three tries to locate one that would give me money.

Surprised to see these Crusader-looking guys near the Citadel

I got rather lost wandering around the not very prepossessing section of town north of the Old City, before eventually returning to the souk and visiting Damascus’ version of Azem Palace. Like the souq, it was larger and more elaborate than the one in Aleppo, and rather full of visitors – not all of them tourists. In contrast, the National Museum, which I visited the next morning, was packed with foreign tour groups. The museum occupied me for most of the morning – I was especially taken by the Mari statues (3rd century B.C.E.),with their black-rimmed eyes and feathery robes (tinyurl.com/yjbqf8m). Another surprise was a completely reassembled 2nd century C.E. synagogue, the oldest ever discovered, with walls completely covered with paintings.

Turkish madrassa, now a handicrafts market, near the National Museum

While the sights in Damascus impressed me, I hadn’t been doing as well with food. I had gone back to Al Kamal, but now that I wasn’t pandering to a weak stomach, I found the food not very good and the service poor. Lunch at Abu El Aziz, with a view of the dome at the Umayyad Mosque tasted better, but I was getting rather tired of kebabs.Then I stopped at Beit Jabri, overfull of both people and clouds of nargileh smoke. While the courtyard of the old building was indeed beautiful, and my pomegranate juice tasted good, the service was dreadful, and, given my dislike of being photographed, I could have done without the busy TV crew that showed up after I had been served.

So, for my second night, I took a taxi to Al Khawali, deep in the souk – it was fun to be driven through the market, not completely shut down even on a Saturday night. But again, the food disappointed, with indifferent vegetable soup, canned rather than fresh mushrooms and so-so green beans. Even worse, I found that I wasn’t very hungry – because for the second time in Syria, I got sick! I’m inclined to blame the pomegranate juice rather than lunch, but either way it seems Syria didn’t agree with me.

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To Beirut via Damascus

October 17-18 , 2009: Outside Damascus’ Khaddam train station, I rejected one taxi driver, who insisted on charging 300 SP for a 5km ride, and took the second, who settled for 100. He had some difficulty getting to my hotel, which we finally found nestled in a web of short one-way streets near a busy flyover. When the directions had mentioned Victoria Bridge, I had not envisaged multi-lane roads below as well as above the span. Still, the City Hotel (aka Al-Madinah) was walking distance from both the Old City and the National Museum and had helpful staff who gave me a big room with a street view. The lobby, with shiny, inlaid furniture was quite a sight, too.

The lobby at City Hotel

Despite immodium and antibiotics, my digestive system still felt fragile, but I

Shops mostly close for Friday in Damascus' souk

set off to explore regardless. A toasted cheese sandwich at the hole-in-the-wall Al-Santir, close to the hotel, went down successfully, so I carried on to explore the souk and the mosque. The souk felt almost formal: I strolled down a wide main street, with two story buildings supporting a metal roof, with few vendors calling out to me. Although all the local women had their hair covered, I noticed more variety than in the north, with fewer women in full black. The biggest surprise, though, was in the open space in front of the Umayyad Mosque, where stalls selling Qur’ans were nonchalantly tucked under soaring Roman arches. I stopped off for a delicious mint lemonade at Leila’s, before donning the required hooded cloak (beige, to distinguish infidels from black-clad believers) and entering the mosque. Although similar to Aleppo’s Umayyad Mosque, Damascus’ was much more elaborate, and I had a lovely time admiring the detailed 8th century gold mosaics.

Damascus' Umayyad Mosque

Mosaics on the western wall in the mosque

For dinner I walked a short distance north to Al-Kamal, noting that Sharia Bur Said was much livelier and better lit than Sharia an-Nasr, which I taken back from the Old City. I dined carefully on lentil soup and a rice and meat dish washed down with a yoghurt drink.

Lonely Planet mentioned that the City Hotel was popular with Iranian tour groups, and when I went down to breakfast I found a big Iranian group in the dining room, with all the women swathed in black. The western tourists were hidden behind a head-high partition. I wasn’t sure who was being shielded from whom.

When I asked the front desk to call me a taxi to go to the Al-Samariyeh bus terminal, they sent a young man outside with me, to flag one down. He had instructions to negotiate for 150 SP, and had a little difficulty. The taxi dropped me at the front of the terminal, but then I discovered that buses and shared taxis to Beirut left from the far rear corner, where I had to put my luggage through a security check.

The actual road distance between Damascus and Beirut is quite short, just 30 minutes to the border from Damascus, and another 30 minutes on to Beirut. But clearing the border took a full 90 minutes leaving Syria, and another 30 minutes getting into Lebanon. I had to buy an exit/entrance pass to get out of Syria, as well as a visa to get into Lebanon. I crossed more than a man-made border when I changed countries. The countryside became quite mountainous, and greener, as we headed towards the Mediterranean coast.

The bus was supposed to go to Charles Helou bus station in central Beirut, but instead it dumped all the people who wanted to go the station at a road junction in the southeast of the city. Fortunately, an equally surprised Japanese tourist shared a taxi into town with me. I had a reservation at the Casa d’Or (http://www.casadorhotel.com) in the Hamra district, just south of the American University. Although my room wasn’t cheap, I was unprepared for its large size, or the fruit basket, or the mini-kitchen (although only the fridge was usable). It looked like I would be comfortable.

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