Damascus, Syria

Posted on June 22, 2011

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A few hours from the centre of Lebanon in a minibus and a short taxi ride later I’m at the Old City wall.  Through Bab Sharqi gate, down a few winding streets and I’m at the hostel.  There was another way to get in which involves a rope ladder up the side of the building into the hostel, but the idea of that was a little too intimidating for my liking!  You can also exit via a fireman’s pole if that takes your fancy.  After the excitement of being somewhere I’d been looking forward to for so long, I had to acclimatise myself to how calm both the hostel and city are.  The family that run Damascus Hostel go at their own pace, sit you down, bring you tea and make you feel as if you’d just walked into a relative’s living room.  You’re welcome there as if you’re staying at their home.  Soon after putting my things down, I step into my walking feet.

Strewn across the pavement for customers to peruse

Mischief afoot! Two of them waiting to pounce on their unsuspecting friend

Family trip through the Old City, infectious smiles and waves all around

This is or was the tallest building in Damscus

Kitten in the window, quite why I don't know, there wasn't a for sale sign or anything of the like, immensely cute

Elektra and Damon can't help but be drawn in, such is the adorability of the cats of Damascus, of which there are many in homes, shops, hotels and in the streets


Kitten with chunks of food, resides in a small art store across from a large mosque

Elektra with her Chipsy Roll - a potato cut and wound around a stick, fried and seasoned - traditional Syrian food, I'm sure!

The friendly chap I bought my (fake, as there wasn't a choice) Syrian football shirt from. I was pleased with his choice of flag adorning his counter

Myself, Damon and David left the hostel in search of one of the hammams (bath houses) that David was fully intent on sourcing for his evening’s relaxation.  The last time I’d been to something similar was in Amsterdam where being naked was mandatory and jumping from the sauna into a freezing cold shower recommended.  I did that with Gerd from Germany a few years ago and thought it was about time I tried it in a more alien place.  Into an unsuspecting entrance around the corner from a mosque we enter into grandiose room of marble, carpet, elaborate brick-work and a sense of manliness wafting through the air.  This is how real men hang out in Syria it seems!  We undress with the aid of an assistant who wraps us up ready to go in and wash ourselves down.  We’re given a bowl with olive oil soap and some scrubbing utensils, and head into a steamy room with plug-less sinks on the floor.  The aim being to fill it with water and splash it all over yourself, scrubbing until you feel clean enough.  A compact sauna room was attached to this room and somehow we all crammed into it.  The boiling hot pipe spewing steam into the room was a little too close to my head for my liking, health and safety as in Asia is sometimes a little jarring from what you’re used to.  We all lasted a minute or so before feeling like our skin was flaying and had to get out.  After repeating the washing process a few times we move onto the next area, the first part being a firm massage in an effort to work your joints out and culminating in the guy pressing down on my lower back with his elbow in three places, then on the fourth time really going for it and pushing down hard – it was a mixture of an expectance of pain with some relief and surprise as he seemed to have squeezed some trapped air out of my body that I never knew I had.  He was finished and I rolled off the massage bed a new man.  But it didn’t end there, a portly fella was sitting on the floor waiting for us one by one to sit down between his legs as he took a scourer and performed a thorough scrub-down with a grating-sensation all over, removing a layer of skin that had Damon worrying for his tan.  A post-scrub shower and we’re done, heading through with new fresh towels and dressed like Arab princes for the finishing touches – ear buds, towels, brushes and tea are provided for the post-hammam come-down.

Our hammam for the evening

Wrapped like sultans after cleansing ourselves

After hammaming, we took up refuge in a shisha bar before a group of four ushered us over, wanting us to join them.  David acted as intermediary with his ever-useful knowledge of Arabic and relayed our ages, places of origin and what we do both ways.  After leaving, since he was the only one capable of proper conversation, David became the focus for a very Middle Eastern custom: inter-linking arms with fellow men, leaving me and Damon chuckling to each other like schoolgirls.

Our new Syrian friends, all with an aversion to smiling in photos - Damon has no such issue

A metal plate is fixed to the floor with an Israeli flag painted on, so that when you walk up the street you walk over it with your feet (which are regarded as unclean in Islam), intended as a sign of deliberate disrespect

After exploring a little, going to some particularly good restaurants, heading to the hammam, to a couple of shisha bars and trying to find English football, then eating one particular shawarma (Arabic kebab) with mayonnaise.. I was conked out with food poisoning for a couple of nights, especially bad because it was one place high up on my list in this travel, and also because the hostel was £20 a night for a dorm room.  They were good to me there though, came up to make sure I was okay, brought me some boiled vegetables and water and couldn’t have been better and had me feeling sorry for myself in the company of a place that made me feel like part of the family.  The last night there I’d recovered somewhat and managed to keep some food down at one restaurant we found a few days before, popped some Imodium, said goodbye to Damascus, Falafel (pictured below) and headed out with Elektra to get a bus to Aleppo.

View from the roof of the hostel

From the other side

Falafel, the hostel resident cat

Falafel, on the hunt

Falafel's prey, going nowhere fast. Had to remind myself each day to be careful of the various slow-moving pets

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Posted in: Syria