Insider's Guide to Damascus
Sunday 13 May 2001
What's the weather like now?
What's the weather like now?
With its Mediterranean climate, the weather in Damascus is far more appealing than our own stormy skies, though no doubt the locals would greatly appreciate some of our rain as their past three wet seasons have failed to deliver. The daytime temperature is around 26C, with a vast expanse of blue sky. Evenings are cooler.
What are the locals complaining about?
Politics is definitely a banned subject, so general complaints revolve around the economy, the lack of rainfall and, of course, the bombing of Syrian radar positions in southern Lebanon. Persistent rumours circulate that their northern neighbour Turkey is selling water to Israel. This does not go down well either. Posters of former President Hafez al Assad still grace the buildings and alleyways of Damascus, and his son and political heir Bashar has now joined him in many of these open-air galleries. The locals are extremely friendly and helpful, though do not be fooled by their easy-going demeanour when it comes to bartering.
Who's the talk of the town?
The Pope on his Mediterranean tour visited Syria for the first time. His presence caused considerable excitement among the sizeable Orthodox Christian minority in Syria, although not on quite the same scale as the apostle Paul did after his miraculous conversion a couple of thousand years ago. On that most famous of Middle Eastern roads, the Pope acknowledged that serious obstacles remain on the path to peace in the Middle East. For non-Papal sympathisers, the president's wife of a few months, London computer science graduate, Asma, is the most talked-about woman.
What's the cool drink to order?
Countless cafés grace Damascene streets and alleyways cappuccino is the trendy drink, although tea and mint tea are the traditional favourites. No hot drink is complete without a long cool smoke of fruit- flavoured tobacco despatched from impressive metre-high water pipes called narghiles; apple and strawberry are the two most popular flavours.
What are the people eating?
Delicious Mediterranean/Middle Eastern-style buffets called meze. A typical light snack will involve at least half a dozen dishes, including hummus, baba ghanooj (aubergine and garlic), sundried tomato paste, bean salads, green salads and olives, all served with various types of bread. Damascus has some excellent restaurants, including the revolving rooftop of Syria's top hotel, The Cham Palace. One complete revolution takes exactly two hours, and diners can enjoy stunning views, both day and night. For the more adventurous there are a couple of places in the old city where you can enjoy an all- you-can-eat buffet to the accompaniment of live music and Whirling Dervishes. The Umayyud Palace restaurant in the old souk is popular with foreign tourist groups and locals alike; the buffet costs SP650 (£9.85).
What's the most outrageous stuff on TV?
Al Shurta li Khedmet Al Shaab which translates as Police in Public Service, a weekly one-hour show about real events the police are called upon to resolve. The best Syrian soaps are on satellite television for export only; there is no cable. Satellite beams down programmes from Poland, Turkey, Italy, Kuwait, Pakistan and, surprisingly, Israel.
Where wouldn't the locals dream of going ?
Israel; Palestine might be more palatable.
Where are the locals going that tourists don't know about ?
There are several public baths or hammams in and around Damascus. The most famous is the Hammam Nureddin al Bazuriye, which dates back to the 12th century. The present interior is heavily influenced by the Ottomans with very beautiful décor. Changing rooms and bathing rooms are connected by several social and relaxation rooms, all designed to help you wile away a few hours, chatting, smoking, soaking and even going for the full-body massage. Hammams are strictly segregated according to gender; Hammam Alwara caters for women. There is, nevertheless, a bit of a stigma attached to these deliciously steamy "chill-out" zones and upper-class women would never be seen in them.
Where are the chic people doing their shopping?
In the streets and malls of the great southern phoenix Beirut, which has risen from the ashes to take its place once again as the "Paris of the Mediterranean". It's just two and a half hours drive from Damascus on the express highway.
What's the trendy place to escape for the weekend?
Tourists on a tight schedule might fly up north to Syria's second city, Aleppo, for a couple of days to enjoy the arts, crafts, architecture and magnificent souk there, but locals have other plans. For them there is only one place to go: 30 miles north-west towards the Lebanese border and the delightful mountain villages of Zabadani and Bloudan. Zabadani is situated at 1,175m above sea level, affording great views down to the plains below. Cafés and campsites line the riverbanks, competing with numerous up-market restaurants and hotels. At 1,500m, Bloudan is much cooler than Zabadani and enjoys particularly good views, especially at dusk when everyone gathers to watch the sunset usher in their evening's entertainment.
Mike Ford is the author of the 'Rough Guide to India'.
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