Syria's spicy mixture of ancient and modern

ROUGH GUIDE; After roaming a volcanic Roman ruin, and braving a fierce Bedouin hound, Tim Pepper and Andrew Beattie, authors of 'The Rough Guide to Syria', give their personal observations

Best town in Syria

Though worrying from the point of view of preservation, the city's wonderfully indifferent attitude to its monumental history is one of the things that makes Damascus so special.

Walking down The Street Called Straight (where Saul was led to the house of Ananias) you pass Ottoman khans still being used today, a Roman arch conveniently used to hang telephone cables upon, and small shops selling much the same produce as they did a thousand years ago - and all this while dodging classic American cars that wheeze and rattle around the Old City with the sound of Posh, Scary, Sporty, Baby (and Ginger) blaring from the stereo.

Most memorable journey

It was probably the dodgy kebab I'd had the night before that caused me to feel ill on the busride down from Baniyas to Tartous. As we were travelling at some speed and I was tightly wedged into the wrong side of the minibus it seemed easiest to simply throw up out the window and on to the road.

Regrettably, however, the airflow carried my vomit straight back inside the bus and all over the elderly gentleman sitting directly behind me - something I only realised when a number of paper tissues began to be passed back to him over my head (he took it all with admirable good humour).

The next three days were spent in my hotel room wrapped in wet towels, sweating heavily and periodically wretching up a black, very bitter tasting liquid, last seen during my first term at college.

Worst hotel

Cockroaches are hard things to get used to, and even harder to like; many's the time I've sat on a toilet with a shoe in my hand ready to pounce on these unwanted bathroom visitors. But it wasn't just the armour-plated guests that distinguished the Touristic Hotel in Sweida.

The whole place had a forlorn air of incompetence about it; door handles came off in your hand, light bulbs died with an emphatic bang rather than a whimper and the shower taps unscrewed completely - luckily there was no hot water or I would have been scalded.

Still, the room had a balcony, with a nice view over the army barracks next door.

Favourite ancient ruin

The Roman town of Bosra was built out of the local dense, black volcanic rock giving the place not only a unique visual quality, but ensuring it has survived remarkably well.

The bath complex still boasts its roof, shops on the main thoroughfare are capable of being used today and the first jolting sight of the huge black theatre, brilliantly preserved within an Arab fortification, is simply one of the most memorable in Syria.

Bosra is also unusual in that it is still lived in today.

Many of the shapeless modern dwellings have been made from the ruins of ancient Roman or even Nabatean ones, so as you take a stroll down the cardo maximus you may encounter gaggles of schoolchildren on their way home from school or eager young antique sellers keen to invite you for a cup of tea in their premises off the main street.

Favourite modern ruin

The "razing of a city" is a phrase common to history books, and even travel guides, but it gains a startling immediacy when viewed face to face.

Thirty-seven thousand people once lived in Quneitra, the former provincial capital of the Golan, now only UN personnel patrol these very modern ruins, evacuated by the Israelis after the 1973 peace, but not before they had destroyed the place.

The UN "tour" usually begins at the hospital, littered with broken tiles and riddled with bullet holes - similar scenes of destruction are repeated at the desecrated church and mosque, at the broken husk of the local cinema and in the empty cells along the main shopping street.

You don't have to be a nihilist to enjoy the visit, but it helps.

Best improvised meal

One of the more disappointing aspects of travelling in Syria is the lack of variety of food on offer; a daily selection of either boiled chicken or lamb kebab in the evening pales after the first month or so, so when the Karnak Hotel in Raqqa offered spaghetti bolognese on its menu, there was no way to refuse.

After a half-hour wait my reverie was finally disturbed by the arrival of a plate of pasta, a separate plate of dried-up lamb pieces and a bottle of squeezy ketchup. I ordered the same next day.

Most unusual souvenir

Probably the scar left on the back of my thigh by the teeth of a Bedouin dog while researching the desert ruins of Bamuqqa.

It prompted an extra week's stay in Aleppo while undergoing a series of injections and ruined a very good pair of trousers.

It also inspired a certain nervousness of researching desert sites, though the health section in the introduction undoubtedly benefited from the experience.

FACT FILE

syria

GETTING THERE

British Airways (tel: 0345 222111) and Syrian Arab Airlines (tel: 0171- 493 2851) fly three times a week between Heathrow and Damascus. Syrian Arab Air operates internal flights between Damascus and Aleppo, Deir ez- Zur, Latakia and Qamishli and charge pounds 311 in low season and pounds 351 in high season. British Airways charges an all-year-round price of pounds 402.

WHERE TO STAY

Hotels are the only real option - from the dirt-cheap and horrendously filthy to huge five-star luxury places, including the Meridien and Sheraton chains.

WHAT TO SEE

Both Bosra and Quneitra are easy day-trips from Damascus. Bosra is open every day and you only pay to enter the theatre (pounds 3). Likewise, you can visit Quneitra any day, though you will have to get a free permit, valid for one day, from the Ministry of Interior in Damascus.

FURTHER INFORMATION

The Syrian government does not maintain tourist offices abroad but the embassy at 8 Belgrave Square, London SW1 (tel: 0171-245 9012) should be able to provide a brochure, and visa details (pounds 31 for British citizens for a single entry visa, valid for three months).

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Old Royal Naval College: ORNC Visitor Experience Volunteer

    Unpaid voluntary work: Old Royal Naval College: Join our team of friendly volu...

    Recruitment Genius: Customer Service / Sales Assistant

    £8 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This airport parking organisation are looking...

    Recruitment Genius: PCV Bus Drivers

    £8 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Do you enjoy bus driving and are looking for ...

    Ashdown Group: IT Support Technician - York

    £18000 - £20000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: IT Support Technician - Y...

    Day In a Page

    Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

    Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

    One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
    The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

    The enemy within

    People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
    Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

    Autumn/winter menswear 2015

    The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    Army general planning to come out
    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
    Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

    Smash hit go under the hammer

    It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
    Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

    The geeks who rocked the world

    A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
    Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

    Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

    Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
    Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

    Growing mussels

    Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project