Libya, Iran, Iraq, Cuba, North Korea and... Syria: according to the last Bush administration, these half-dozen nations comprise the Axis of Evil. Yet walking by the Mediterranean coast, threading through the timeless streets of Damascus or clambering around a desert citadel, it is hard to reconcile Syria as a "rogue state". For its urbane self-possession, borne out of cultural roots which plunge deeper than anything Europe can match, Syria fascinates. Above all, the joviality and irreverent approachability of the Syrian people make the greatest impression on the visitor.
A country this old has had plenty of time to gather legends. Muslim tradition recalls that the Prophet Mohammed, arriving in the hills overlooking Damascus – a city then enveloped by gardens and the flowing River Barada – refused to go on. Paradise was unique, he reasoned: entering Damascus would rob him of the chance to enter heaven.
The gardens have gone and the Barada is mostly dry, but Syria's capital – perhaps the world's oldest continuously inhabited city – can still draw on 10,000 years of history to boggle the imagination.
In land area, Syria is nearly as big as Britain. Most of the 22 million people are Muslim, though there's a substantial Christian minority of around 10 per cent. Desert aside, Syria has 200km of Mediterranean coastline, with beach resorts around Lattakia backed by forests and orchards. Just inland, fertile mountains run parallel to the coast, cresting 2,000 metres in places: the walking here, on rural tracks between farming villages, is as good as anywhere in the Middle East. Motorways and high-speed trains connect the cities.
The Foreign Office places no specific restrictions on travel and it's easy to make your own way.
[Update 13 April 2011: The Foreign Office now says: "We advise against all but essential travel to the Syrian Arab Republic. This is because of continuing disturbances in urban centres across the country, and reports of live gunfire by security forces resulting in a number of deaths".]
An excellent itinerary to fill two weeks could include, after a few days in Damascus, an excursion south to the Roman remains at Bosra, then a hilly diversion via Maalula to the Krak des Chevaliers castle and the low-key fishing village of Tartus. The hills around Hama feature Classical remains at Apamea as well as the Byzantine "Dead Cities" on the approach to Aleppo, which itself merits several days. A loop east along the River Euphrates leads to Syria's greatest archaeological wonder, the desert city of Palmyra, and back to Damascus.
There is also plenty of choice in group tours. Perhaps the most comprehensive is run by Voyages Jules Verne (0845 166 7003; vjv.com): its 15-day Grand Tour of Syria (from £1,845, including flights) includes time in Damascus at both ends of the trip as well as exclusive dinner events and a "Whirling Dervish" performance. At the other end of the scale, Imaginative Traveller (0845 287 2942; imaginative-traveller.com) offers a breezy eight-day countrywide tour from £525, excluding flights.
The Royal Academy, as part of its Art Tours Worldwide programme run through Cox and Kings (020-7873 5013; coxandkings.co.uk/ra), has a 10-day history tour led by expert lecturer Chris Bradley, departing 15 November. The price of £1,945 includes flights.
Sightseeing, hill-walking and gourmet dining: Syria's diversity merits closer investigation.
Yawning away to the east and north of Damascus, Syria's desert is punctuated by the romantic ruins of Palmyra. This trading city, built beside a palm-fringed oasis roughly 220km north-east of the capital, flourished in the 2nd and 3rd centuries.
Today, it epitomises Classical grandeur, its bronzed columns marching off across the sands beneath gilded sunsets. Wander around much of the site for free, then dip into the few buildings which charge admission – most notably the stupendous Temple of Bel (daily except Tuesday, 9am-sunset; 150 Syrian pounds/£2). Explore (0845 013 1537; explore.co.uk) features a rootsy 10-day itinerary that includes camel-trekking around Palmyra, a homestay at the "Dead City" of Serjilla – a semi-abandoned Byzantine town near Aleppo – and an overnight stop at the Monastery of Moses. The price of £1,616 includes flights to Syria.
East of Palmyra, the desert is cut by the Euphrates on its journey down from the Anatolian highlands towards Baghdad. Ancient sites abound in this rugged landscape: Martin Randall (020-8742 3355; martinrandall.com) runs a 16-day tour of Syria and Jordan (from £4,450 including flights), which includes excursions to the remote Qasr al-Heir Ash-Sharqi, a desert castle built by the Umayyad dynasty in the 8th century, as well as the starkly fascinating Greco-Roman fortress city of Dura Europos, plumb on the Euphrates a few miles shy of the Iraqi border.
All things nice
Syrian cuisine wows. At even the meanest local diner, ingredients are fresh and often sourced locally, while the best restaurants in Damascus and Aleppo jostle for attention on a world stage. As across the region, meals are built around mezze – small dishes intended to delight the eye and tease the palate, from hummus and sheep's cheese to stuffed vine-leaves and spicy sausages.
Damascus, influenced by mountain traditions, focuses on subtle combinations of herbs and pulses. Aim for Al-Khawali (00 963 11 222 5808), a 14th-century palace just off Straight Street. Decorative marble floors lead to a courtyard, its fountain tinkling beside citrus and jasmine trees: this is the most formal, and enchanting, of Syrian restaurants. Naranj (00 963 11 541 3444), nearby, is perhaps even better – a buzzy, up-market location for outstanding cuisine and showy, flamboyant service.
Aleppan cuisine – under Persian and Turkish influence – blends sweet and savoury in its signature dish of spicy lamb kebabs with sour cherries. The city's best restaurant is Bazar Al-Sharq (00 963 21 211 9686; bazaralcharq.com), housed in atmospheric vaulted cellars just outside the old town – or aim for romantic Beit Sissi (00 963 21 212 4362), a 17th-century mansion in the Jdeideh quarter, which also hosts live Arabic classical music.
Renowned London-based chef and food writer Anissa Helou (020-7739 0600; anissahelou.com), who was born in Beirut and grew up in Syria, runs her own culinary tours of Syria, departing next on 9 May and 12 October. The nine-night trips take in a welter of foodie delights including visits to a celebrated baklava-maker and a gourmet dinner at the members-only Club d'Alep. Numbers are limited to a maximum of 11, and the tour costs from around £2,500, excluding flights.
River deep, mountain high
Amid the foothills of the Anti-Lebanon stands a string of fascinating sites. Seidnaya – celebrated locally as the spot where Cain killed Abel – is famed for its Greek Orthodox convent, a pilgrimage site for at least 1,500 years. Just up the road, Maalula is one of a handful of villages where a dialect of Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke, remains in daily use. About 25km north-east, you could stay – with advance notice – at the 6th-century Monastery of Moses (00 963 11 728 0137; deirmarmusa.org), perched at 1,300 metres and only accessible on foot.
ATG Oxford (01865 315678; atg-oxford.com) includes two nights at Seidnaya and a visit to Maalula as part of its 12-day Syrian walking itinerary (from £2,895, excluding flights). This also takes in an epic walk to the Crusader castle of Krak des Chevaliers (daily 9am–sunset; SYP150/ £2) built in the mid-12th century to dominate a strategic mountain pass. Still largely intact, the castle makes for an evocative day-trip from Hama, an old town on the River Orontes known for its 20m-high medieval wooden waterwheels. Seventeen of these norias survive, their groans echoing ceaselessly through Hama's riverside tea gardens.
Headwater (01606 720199; headwater.com) is one of the few UK firms to include a stay in Hama, as part of an 11-day guided walking itinerary (from £1,757, excluding flights).
First, procure a visa. These cost £30 from the Syrian Embassy in London (020-7245 9012; syremb.com). If your passport shows evidence of a visit to Israel – including stamps from Jordanian or Egyptian crossing-points with Israel – you will be refused entry.
Next, figure out how to get there without breaking the bank. Fares on non-stop flights from Heathrow to Damascus on BMI (0844 848 4888; flybmi.com) are difficult to find below £350 return. Syrian Air (020-7299 9060; syriaair.com) flies the same route, but the state-owned flag carrier has long suffered from US sanctions. Unable to source parts to maintain its grounded Boeing fleet, Syrian Air is now down to just six Airbus A320s to service its entire network. Even its biggest fan might admit that punctuality isn't always its strongest suit. To save cash, specialist agent Ocean Map (020 7631 3511; oceanmap.co.uk) often has bargain deals: current offer is £265 return, valid for a 14-day stay which must be completed by the end of March. A cheaper alternative is Turkish Airlines (0844 800 6666; thy.com), with connections from Heathrow, Stansted, Birmingham and Manchester via Istanbul to Damascus or Aleppo.
Where to stay
Damascus has cottoned on to the potential of its stock of medieval architecture. Dozens of these mostly 17th- and 18th-century mansions – always built around an open courtyard – have been converted into boutique hotels.
The first, opened in 2005, was Al Mamlouka (00 963 11 543 0445; almamlouka.com; doubles from £105 including breakfast), pictured. Its eight rooms and suites feature frescoes, drapes and antique furniture. A more recent example is the 16-room Al Pasha (00 963 11 543 0100; alpashahotel.com; doubles from £120 including breakfast), converted from three adjacent 18th-century houses, while the Talisman Al Ameen (00 963 11 541 5379; talismanhotels.com; doubles from £156 including breakfast) offers a more studied blend of Syrian architecture with Asian and North African design elements.
Aleppo is following suit, its boutique hotels led by the remarkable Mansouriya Palace (00 963 21 363 2000; mansouriya.com; doubles from £291 including breakfast): nine luxurious suites clustered around a sunlit courtyard. Other hotels of character include the Baron (00 963 21 221 0880; doubles around £40), unchanged in decades, and the equally venerable Zenobia (00 963 31 591 8123; doubles around £50), built within ancient Palmyra.
Hama's Cairo Hotel (00 963 33 22 2280; cairohotel-hama.com; doubles around £10) is a cheerful backpacker option, while Al Wadi (00 963 31 773 0456; alwadihotel.com; doubles around £50) stands a couple of miles from Krak des Chevaliers.
A tale of two cities
"Damascus has seen all that has ever occurred on earth and still she lives," wrote Mark Twain. "She has looked upon the dry bones of a thousand empires, and will see the tombs of a thousand more before she dies."
Essentially a desert-minded city, Damascus is cut off from the Mediterranean world behind the towering Mount Lebanon and Anti-Lebanon ranges. Cosmopolitan yet reserved, it stands aloof from its free-wheeling, upstart Levantine neighbour Beirut, historically drawing greater influence from the Muslim heartlands of Baghdad and Arabia.
Start an urban ramble alongside the 11th-century citadel. From here, the market street Souk al-Hamidiyya storms its way into the heart of the Old City, lined with boutiques and shielded overhead by a roof pierced with bullet-holes from the 1925 uprising, when French aircraft flew over the city machine-gunning the revolutionaries. Finger silks and waft through the aromatic lanes of the spice market before emerging at the exquisite 1,300-year-old Umayyad Mosque. Don't neglect the Old City's less-commercial corners: the Christian Quarter is lively with bars and shops, while the old Jewish Quarter is gaining new life as an artists' colony. Venture beyond the walls to the National Museum (daily except Tuesday 9am-6pm; 150 Syrian pounds/£2). Then climb to Mount Qassioun for a sunset tipple (alcohol is legal). Bewitching as Damascus's souks are, they are trumped for diversity and atmosphere by those in Aleppo. Local producers still turn out traditional olive-oil soap: buy at the fragrant Souk al-Attareen (Perfumers' Market), then visit the fascinating Bimaristan Arghan, a medieval asylum focused on a tranquil courtyard designed to soothe.