January 21, 2011 / 11:15 AM / 7 years ago

Travel Postcard: 48 hours in Damascus

<p>Western tourists walk in Old Damascus March 2009. REUTERS/Khaled al-Hariri</p>

DAMASCUS (Reuters Life!) - The ancient capital of Syria, in the words of Syrian film director Nabil al-Maleh, is one of the last cities on the planet where most problems are solved with a smile. Reuters correspondents with local knowledge help visitors get the most from a short stay in a city of culture, conquest and intrigue.

FRIDAY

6 p.m. Ignore new districts and head to the old city. The decaying grandeur is guaranteed to grow on you, although several Arab courtyard houses with carved wooden ceilings, stone-inlaid ornaments and citrus trees have been restored and converted into boutique hotels. Beit Zaman is a tastefully restored structure with reasonable rates (beit-zaman.com).

The 17th century Beit al-Mamlouka (www.almamlouka.com) near Bab Tuma was among the first to be converted into a hotel and has a cozy bar, while Talisman (www.hoteltalisman.net) in the Jewish quarter raised eyebrows by building a swimming pool in the main courtyard. For an exquisite example of Damascene architecture, visit the Danish Institute (www.damaskus.dk/index.php?id=2) but beware that opening hours are tight.

9 p.m. Hungry? Laila’s (+963119456) opposite the 8th century Umayyad Mosque has a magnificent view of one of Islam’s holiest sites. Entrees, such as eggplant fatte, are typically Damascene. Made from broken bread, garlic, yoghurt and butter, fatte is not for the fainthearted. Cherry kebab on the menu comes from the northern city of Aleppo, whose rivalry with Damascus is historic. Other options are the Illiyeh restaurant in Qeimariyeh quarter. Halabi (+963113391000) at the Four Seasons is pricey but the Aleppan food there is good.

11 p.m. Check out the nightlife. Marmar in Bab Tuma blasts Arab and Western tunes and owner Munther Kubba likes to mix with the crowd. An Arabic band plays at Laterna on May 29 Street. Piano Bar in Bab Sharqi has Karaoke every night. For a late drink try Oxygen in Qeimariyeh, which gained a bit of local notoriety for throwing out the U.S. consul a few years ago.

1 a.m. If you still have the energy, take a cab to Qasioun mountain for a view of the lit city below. Stalls on the uppermost roads sell coffee and grilled corn. Ahla Taleh restaurant has the best view, but prices carry a premium.

SATURDAY

9 a.m. After a hedonistic night, culture is due. Grab a houmous and meat breakfast at Sham Palace hotel, which should provide enough energy for the tour ahead.

10 a.m. There is no better place to start than the National Museum. Syria was the crossroads of the ancient world and the museum’s collection spans pre-history, the Bronze Age sites of Ugarit and Mari, the Roman Empire and the trading oasis of Palmyra, as well as Islamic art. Don’t miss the Palmyran tomb or the Dora Europes synagogue, which was transferred from its original site on the shores of the Euphrates.

12 p.m. Cross the street to Takiya Suliemaniyah, designed by the famed Ottoman architect Sinan, and bask in the tranquil simplicity of the mosque’s black and white facade. The site is being renovated so entry may be tricky. Stroll through the military museum and craft market to find the obligatory gifts for the folks back home.

1.00 p.m. Lunchtime, but you may want to make it quick since there is a lot more to see. Isthtar at the intersection of Qishleh and Straight Street has sidewalk tables and serves very cold beer. Turkish coffee is made with the right dose of sugar, at Havana Cafe near Youssef al-Azmeh square, where Syria’s late President Hafez al-Assad, plotted his 1970 coup.

3 p.m. We’re back in the old city and the Umayyad Mosque is a must. Its dome, rebuilt after a 19th century fire, looks like a German military helmet. Two heads are thought to be buried inside -- John the Baptist and Imam Hussein, the Prophet Mohammed’s grandson, who was killed by a rival Muslim force in the 680 A.D. battle of Kerbala in Iraq. Next door is the tomb of Saladin, who liberated Jerusalem from the crusaders. A coffin donated by Kaiser Wilhelm was never used and sits next to the original. For magnificent Islamic architecture, visit the tomb of the Mamluk Sultan Baibars, who defeated the Mongols.

5 p.m. Negotiate your way into the Damascus citadel, which was the seat of government for successive rulers who invaded the city. The citadel was closed to the public for almost 1,000 years, but is now semi-open. See where Saladin lived and check out the traces of Mongol arrowheads on the double walls. A French mason captured during the crusades spent his captivity here making stones, some of which still bear his signature.

7 p.m. No trip to Damascus is complete without handmade ice cream with Arabic gum and pistachio from the 1898 landmark shop of Bikdash in Hamidiyeh souk. Damascene sweets are renowned and Samiramis (www.samiramispastries.com) in the Shalan district can barely keep up with demand. For famous Aleppan pistachios try al-Birakdar al-Asel on Straight street. Stretch your legs at al-Nofara cafe, next to the Umayyad mosque, which is popular with tourists and Damascenes alike. A tradition of fresh juice lives on in Damascus and Abu Ahmad next door squeezes a huge orange juice glass for about 25 U.S. cents.

9 p.m. A bath is in order. Hammam Nureddine Zinki in Asrounieh is the oldest bath open to the public. A scrub followed by tea at Hammam Bakri in Bab Tuma is relaxing.

10 p.m. For dinner, try Narenj (+963 11 5413444) opposite the Meiramiyeh church.

11.00 More nightlife, and this time it is the Zee Bar at Umayyad Hotel on Brazil Street. The music is loud, the crowd has its share of nouveaux riches and the level of hedonism is high.

1 a.m. After clubbing in summer time do what Damascenes do. Have cactus fruit at the late night stalls on Maliki square and do not hesitate to eat the seeds.

SUNDAY

9 a.m. It is your last day in Damascus with plenty left to see, but don’t panic. Grab a zatar mankoshe, an olive oil and thyme mix pie, from any bakery and head out.

10 a.m. No tour is complete without seeing the local houses up close. Among the most impressive is the home of Syrian statesman Khaled al-Azem, who died in exile in Lebanon in 1960s. Azem’s house, now a government document center, survived the razing of the historic district of Souq Saroujeh. Pay the small fee and see how Syrian aristocracy lived. Foreign nationals have been moving into the old city and helping to rescue it from collapse. Knock and many will gladly show you the inside of their homes.

1 p.m. Lunch at Beit Jabri, for an unassuming atmosphere, or at Elissar in Bab Tuma. For Turkish cuisine -- Damascus was a favorite city of the Ottomans -- try Marmara (+963113333573) in Abu Rummaneh outside the old city.

3 p.m. From now on it is time to shop 'til you drop. Damascene dealers boast what they describe as the most interesting collection of antique carpets and rugs this side of Persia. Yasser (+963115423229) near Nofara specializes in kilims from the Kurdish area of Ifrin in northern Syria, which were on the cover of Hali, the international carpet magazine, last year. Issam al-Laham (+963112224147) off Hamidiyeh Souk is one of the city's seasoned dealers. Samir & Khaldoun (+963115445718) in Qeimariyeh are sharp and friendly. For antiques, try Abu Jassem (+963 933 302063) who operates out of an apartment in Rukn al-Din district. A few shops in souk al-Khayatine say that they still sell original Damascene cloth, including Hishan Jawdat akl-Nukta (+963112218287). Whether it is hand-made is debatable. The Khan (antiquekhan.com/) on Straight Street has textiles and does its own scented soap, while Anat near Bab Sharki (www.anat-sy.org/) has intricate material and has been a force in reviving Syria's textile tradition.

7 p.m. Catch up on Syrian art before leaving. The treasures of Syria have been skyrocketing in price, with criticism flying that an artificial market has been born. Al-Khoury (+963115440204) on Straight street has more affordable works, and not many galleries can beat Kozah (www.kozah.com) for the setting. For the latest exhibitions check out the Damascus Cultural Diary (+963955210929, diary@meica.org for copies).

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