A few stops on the road to Damascus

Penny Young was made to feel an honoured guest - as was her trusty bicycle - in Syria, a land of literary souks and fish-shaped citadels

"WELCOME, WELCOME," said the two half-naked men. They jumped off their camp-beds and scrambled to open the gate which led from Turkey into Syria. They waved at the pot frothing on a stove in between the beds. "Stay and drink Arabic coffee," they smiled, looking with amazement at my bicycle. I graciously declined and went through customs, trying to ignore the picture on the front of the counter of a horse-rider wearing a Turkish fez and whipping poor Syrian people.

"You from England. Good," said the man as he stamped my passport. There was no hint of irony. The Syrians have a certain style. The last frontier gate was swung open and the man in charge waved his arm in a wide gesture. "Welcome to Syria," he said, as if he were spreading the entire country beneath my wheels. I rode off feeling like a queen on her steed.

It was an easy run into Aleppo, 40 miles down the well-surfaced road. I stopped off to ask for a glass of water at a garden centre, only to be offered tea, fruit juice and a chair in the shade. In Aleppo, inevitably, I headed for the Baron Hotel (where Lawrence of Arabia used to stay) and washed off a few kilos of Syrian desert dust in an enormous iron bath with claw feet.

On the way down from my room, a cockroach scuttled over an armchair on the landing. There was an old-fashioned telephone on the table. "To call exchange, lift telephone and listen," said a notice. Faded posters advertising the London-Baghdad railway decorated the walls.

For a few dollars a day, you could easily hire one of the scores of gleaming Pontiacs, Chevrolets and Studebakers purring through the streets, and spend an entire holiday in and around this vintage-car museum of a city. The medieval city souks are labyrinthine, smelling of spices and rose petals and the sherbety tobacco of water pipes. The stone roofs are cathedral-vaulted and sunspots of light shoot down through the chimney airholes. All the stall- holders have studied English literature, particularly Chaucer, at university. I only just stopped myself from saying "Is that all?" to one very handsome ex-student of Shakespeare who offered me a carpet out of the Arabian Nights for $100.

One of the best moments was finally emerging from the souk like a mole, blinking in the daylight, to be met by the sight of the walled citadel and its massive fortified 12th-century entrance at the end of the bridge over the moat.

A couple of days later, reluctant to move on, I bought a ticket to Latakia at Aleppo railway station, admiring 1920s panoramas of the city painted on the walls and cascades of Damascene glass chandeliers hanging down from the lofty ceilings. It was Friday: Syrian families clutching children and picnic baskets were heading into the mountains and over to the Mediterranean for a day out. They didn't mind at all about the bicycle taking up much of the corridor. We spent the journey counting the ruins from the former Byzantine and Ottoman centuries scattered over the hillsides.

Latakia is a pleasant little seaside town where you can hang out, drink fresh fruit juice and eat ice-cream cocktails. I cycled out to Saladin's castle, built in the shape of a fish in the chequered hills, a chess-piece castle on the signboards pointing the way. Theoretically, it is only 24km from Latakia, but it took more than two hours to cycle there. It was difficult to imagine French peasants from Normandy and Marseilles, filled with the power and the glory, marching along that road to die underneath the massive battlements and needle drawbridge.

On the way back, I was pursued by a man on a motorbike who kept shouting "five hundred". It took me a few minutes to work out that he meant 500 Syrian pounds - as opposed to $500. He obviously thought he was offering me a big deal. It costs 500 Syrian pounds (about $10 or pounds 6) for the services of a prostitute in Latakia. Furious, I made as if to cycle after him, momentarily forgetting that I was only on a bicycle. He roared away apparently terrified. Would that it were always thus.

I travelled from Latakia to Damascus in a bus. It was a magnificent clapped-out affair, with "Happy Jerney" written on the side, plastic grapes and beads swinging in the windscreen and rosary beads dangling from the steering wheel. The ticket-collector was Omar Sharif in disguise. I sat near a maker of mother-of-pearl furniture who helped me and himself liberally to sweet ripe apricots stacked at the back of the bus in boxes, and confided that he had never had a girlfriend but at the age of 30 he was, at last, going to get married. "Are you happy?" he asked.

Compared with Cairo or Istanbul, Damascus is a small, compact city, built over thousands of years on the plains and rising halfway up Mount Kassioun, which twinkles at night like a jewelled box.

I stayed in the Al-Haramein Hotel, an old Ottoman house with a fountain in the courtyard, tucked away in a vine-covered slash of a street between new tower blocks blotting out the sun. From there, it is just a few minutes' walk through the food markets, past the hens, birds, pigeons (in sacks) and tortoises on sale, to Souk Hamadiye and the old city.

It isn't the souks that are so impressive in Damascus. It is the old city itself, a warren of lanes which haven't changed for centuries. Some people find the blank, eyeless stone walls of the houses and other buildings monotonous and off-putting. But Damascus, one of the oldest cities in the world, is all about detail and hidden secrets: an ornately carved wooden gate, an intricately-worked clenched fist for a door-knocker, a tantalising glimpse of a cool courtyard or stone stairway through a half-open door. Several house-owners around the Christian quarter of Bab Tuma, in fact, open their homes to the public. It is there you can see the full glory of a rich Damascus house with its inner courtyards and fountains, orange and lemon trees and richly painted and decorated walls and ceilings.

The Syrians don't see enough tourists to have become spoiled by tourism. Visitors to their country are still honoured guests to be welcomed and looked after. As I cycled out of Damascus towards the airport at 5am, I stopped to get a fresh orange juice and burger from a fast-food corner shop. The man beamed at me happily. "When are you coming back again?" he asked. I mumbled something into my orange juice. "Come back soon," he said. Unlike most people, he actually meant it.

FACT FILE

syria

Getting there

Most international flights are to Damascus. Brightways (tel: 0181-574 2622) does a return flight with Air France from pounds 319 return.

Where to stay

Baron Hotel, Baron Street, Aleppo (tel: 00 963 21 210880). This is Aleppo's most famous hotel. Built in 1909, it was one of the premier hotels in the Middle East. Now rundown (the moth-eaten blankets and holey sheets definitely dated back to 1909), it continues to rely on atmosphere to attract customers. Rooms have bathrooms, lots of hot water and cost about pounds 20 per night.

Al-Haramein Hotel (tel: 00 963 11 2229487) and Al-Rabie Hotel (tel: 00 963 11 2218373), Bahsa Street, Sarouja, Damascus. Backpackers' favourites, both hotels are renovated Ottoman houses; the Al-Rabie has the oriental courtyard of your dreams. Situated in the centre of town, just off Martyrs' Square, the hotel is a few minutes' walk from the souks. Beds in shared rooms cost around pounds 2 per night. There are lots of hotels around Martyrs' Square, from rock-bottom prices to around pounds 20 per night. Luxury hotels include the Cham Palace (tel: 00 963 11 2232300) in the city centre, and the Sheraton Hotel (tel: 00 963 11 3734630) on the outskirts. Rooms cost pounds 150 per night.

An-Nahhas Hotel, Hanano Street, Latakia (tel: 00 963 41 478030). Basic rooms from around pounds 3 per night. I wish I had tried Hotel Al-Atlal on Yousef Al-Azmeh Street (tel: 00 963 41 236 121) because it is a lovely old-fashioned building and has a good reputation.

Getting around

Public transport is efficient and cheap. Buses from Damascus to Aleppo cost less than pounds 1. The train from Aleppo to Latakia doesn't cost much more.

Further information

A single entry visa costs pounds 31.50 and allows you two weeks in the country. It is easy to extend your stay. You must fill in a couple of forms and theoretically provide an employer's letter, although the Syrians now realise that lots of people don't have one. The Syrian Embassy is at 8 Belgrave Square, London SW1X 8PH (tel: 0171-245 9012). You won't get a visa if you have an Israeli stamp in your passport.

Suggested reading

Look out for Cleopatra's Wedding Present by Robert Tewdwr Moss, (pounds 8.95, Duckworth), and Grandfather's Tale by Ulfat Idilbi, Syria's most celebrated woman writer (translated by Peter Clark, pounds 8, Quartet Books).

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