48 hours in Damascus

Mark Stratton is won over by the Syrian capital's bustling souks, dazzling mosques and shady mosaic courtyards

It would be easy to arrive in Damascus expecting to find a romantic Arab city straight from the pages of
The Thousand and One Nights. Yet despite claims of being the world's oldest continually inhabited city, modernisation has caught up with Damascus. The concrete brutality of the city's 20th-century architecture and the fume-belching traffic may initially disappoint, but give the city a little time, and it quickly grows on you.

It would be easy to arrive in Damascus expecting to find a romantic Arab city straight from the pages of The Thousand and One Nights. Yet despite claims of being the world's oldest continually inhabited city, modernisation has caught up with Damascus. The concrete brutality of the city's 20th-century architecture and the fume-belching traffic may initially disappoint, but give the city a little time, and it quickly grows on you.

The constant din of car horns and Arab pop music establishes a vibrant tempo for exploring the ebullient Old City and its network of souks. It's easy to lose track of time as you are swept along by sounds and smells that have changed little in centuries.

Roman streets, Ottoman bathhouses, and hidden courtyards of elegant Damascene houses are all reminders of the city's colourful past. Damascus has fallen many times to foreign invaders, but never to mass tourism. Consequently, the friendly welcome will make you feel like a visiting celebrity.

Damascus is a very safe city, especially as you will always be followed by the watchful eye of Syria's leader, President Assad, whose portrait adorns every shop wall and street corner.

When to go: April to mid-June are the best months to visit Damascus, avoiding the damp winter and the blistering heat of the summer. The temperature rises steadily during this period, from an average of 18C to 29C. During Ramadan, in December, visitors may experience some disruption to the working hours of restaurants and public services in the daytime.

Getting there: Mark Stratton flew as a guest of British Mediterranean (tel: 0845 7733377; net: www.british airways.com) which operates five flights weekly from Heathrow to Damascus, including two non-stop services. Fares cost from £355.30 return including tax. The only other carrier offering non-stop flights is Syrian Airways (tel: 020 7493 2851) which has return fares starting from £331 including tax. Malev Hungarian Airlines (tel: 020 7439 0577) flies via Budapest, and offers fares from £345 including tax if you book through Danube Travel (tel: 020 7724 7577).

Getting around: As most of the hotels and points of interest are located centrally, exploring the city on foot is a sensible option - at least until it comes to crossing the road. Taxis are cheap and the fares are always negotiable, but forget the local buses unless you are proficient in Arabic. Car-hire can be arranged by Europcar (tel: 0870 6075000) from Damascus airport, from around £25 per day. Be prepared to drive with one hand on the steering wheel and the other on the horn.

Where to stay: Damascus has an excellent range of mainly modern hotels catering for all tastes and budgets. The Cham Palace group is Syria's luxury hotel chain. The Damascus Cham Palace (tel: 00963 11 2232300; e-mail: chamdama@net.sy) is close to everything. Designed around a courtyard with mosaic floors. Doubles from £100.

Beyond its garish front lobby, the five-star Semiramis Hotel (tel: 00963 11 2233555) has pleasant doubles from £72.

For those on a lower budget, the Kinda Hotel (tel: 00963 11 2319760) on Bahsa Street has functional rooms from £18 for a double with breakfast. Backpackers will find a cluster of cheapies around the noisy Martyrs Square. Hotel Najmet al Shark (tel: 00963 11 2229139) is one of the cleaner options, at around £6 for a double with bathroom.

What to see and do: Head straight for the walled Old City. After entering the main Hamidiyeh Souk, near the Citadel, you quickly plunge into a labyrinthine world of neon-lit shops and alleyways crowded with shoppers and itinerant salesmen selling anything from sugary sweets to stuffed eagles. Hamidiyeh Souk's clothing and gaudy jewellery shops lead directly to one of the Islamic world's most striking places of worship, the Umayyad Mosque. This immense mosque was built 1,300 years ago. Its serene open-air marble courtyard offers refreshing shade and quiet. Inside the prayer hall, a glittering shrine is said to contain the head of John the Baptist.

Attached to the mosque is an attractive walled garden which houses the Tomb of Saladin. Recognised as one of the Arab world's greatest ever military leaders, Saladin united the region against the threat of the Christian crusaders in the 12th century. Just north of his tomb lies a recently built Iranian- funded Shia mosque. The Sayyida Ruqayya Mosque is simply dazzling. Its chandeliers and mirrored ballroom decor go a long way to dispelling the perceived austerity of the Shiite branch of Islam.

The al-Abbabiyya Souk, just south of the Umayyad Mosque, is a rare concession to tourism, selling inlaid furniture, carpets, kilims, and copper coffee pots, but it's more satisfying to simply lose yourself in the surrounding alleyways where there are smaller souks, and stumble across unexpected bargains. Eventually, all routes lead to Straight Street. Always crowded to bursting, the sound of chattering and the smell of spices and cardamom-infused coffee is intoxicating. Guides can be hired to help you navigate the maze of souks if required (tel: 00963 11 5440111).

Within the Old City, the Turkish bathhouses should be tried, though a traditional hammam can be a rather painful experience. South of the Umayyad Mosque is Hammam Nur al-Din, a restored 800-year-old Ottoman bathhouse. A steam, scrub and massage will remove dirt that you never knew existed. The more traditional baths are segregated, but women are welcome at Hammam al-Qaimariyya.

When you've walked your fill, the coffee-houses that spill out onto An-Nofara lane, east of Umayyad Mosque, are great places to sit with a strong coffee and watch people drift by. It's also the place to try a nargileh, which are still widely smoked throughout Syria. The air around the cafés is sweet with the fragrance of the syrup-coated tobacco.

Generally, the new city is less interesting. But, from Martyrs Square, a stroll along An Nasr street will take in the delightful Turkish-designed Hedjaz railway station. North of this is the sprawling site of the Takiya al-Sulaymaniya Mosque. Built in 1533, it houses a bizarre outdoor army museum and an interesting handicraft market.

Food and drink: You will find tasty take-aways all over Damascus. The area south of Martyrs Square is snack-city. Shwarma (a kebab), and felafel are both tempting and cheap, usually costing around 25p. Felafel sandwiches contain fried chickpea balls rolled into a khobz (unleavened bread), and mixed with yoghurt and salad. Wash these down with a freshly squeezed juice from one of the many juice bars.

All restaurants serve the traditional mezze. Essentially a starter, once the table groans under a selection of dishes such as hummus, baba ghanouj (aubergine purée), and tabouleh, a main course may prove unnecessary. In the new city, Restaurant Abou Kamal (tel: 2221494) on 29 Ayyar Street offers a good-value mezze for around £8 per head.

Pick of the Old City restaurants is the kitsch Abu al-Ezz (tel: 2218174) near Hamidiye souk, with a caravanserai-feel of wall-to-wall carpets and sofas. Extensive mezze, sweets and coffee cost around £10.

Leave room for a pastry. Patisserie Ezz el-Cham on Borsaid Street serves a delicious baklava with a cup of sweet tea for £1.

Nightlife: Not great. The Abu al-Ezz restaurant entertains diners with whirling dervishes, accompanied by traditional Arab music. The nargileh bar, Ash-shams, on An-Nofara, has an evening storyteller, but it is all quite touristy. I recommend a drink in the converted railway carriage, Almahtta Café, in Hedjaz station. An atmospheric place to enjoy a beer or an arak.

Out of town: Syria is awash with castles and wonderful ruined settlements. Just two hours from Damascus lies the Crusader castle of Crac des Chevaliers, one of Syria's most famous monuments. Set in fertile mountains, the 1,000-year-old castle has witnessed many sieges and battles. Transtour (tel: 00963 11 2224414) organises a minibus for six people to visit the castle for around £80 in total.

Deals and packages: Damascus features as part of lengthier tours of Syria, but not as a separate city break. Bales Worldwide (tel: 01306 732700) offers luxury 11-day tours from £1,499; and Travelbag Adventures (tel: 01420 541007) combines Lebanon in a 12-day tour starting from £879.

Further information: There is no tourist office in the UK, but there is one in Damascus (tel: 00963 11 2210122; net: www.syriatourism.org). Visas are essential, costing £33 for single entry, and are available from The Visa Section, The Syrian Embassy, 8 Belgrave Square, London SW1X 8PH (tel: 0891 600171).

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