Sunday, June 26, 2011


Syria - April, 2011
This morning after breakfast we drove from Madabar, Jordan to Syria and had no problems crossing the border.  We changed into a Syrian minivan and drove into the fascinating capital of Damascus, one of the oldest continually inhabited cities.  I walked around the corner to a recommended falafel stand and had a delicious sandwich before we started our orientation walk of old Damascus.  We delved into the ancient alleyways and bustling bazaars, visited the beautiful Umayyad Mosque and had Turkish coffee in the courtyard.  The Umayyad Mosque is one of the largest and oldest mosques in the world as well as the fourth holiest place in Islam.  Non Muslim women must wear an abheya covering us from head to toe but so dressed we could wander freely throughout the mosque.  That night we had a fabulous dinner at Al-Khwali including spicy hummus, eggplant and chickpea “stew” and crisp pita bread. 

The next morning it was breakfast at Al Nawfara Café near the mosque and afterwards a visit to the Azem Palace.  It is a lovely old palace filled with fountains, courtyards, formal halls, baths, etc. with models in the rooms showing how wealthy people dressed and lived in Damascus a long time ago.  I also visited the Assad Paha Khan which had  acourtyard of shops on the first floor and lodgings on the second in former times.  As you walk through its lovely domes of black and white Ottoman architecture you go back in time.  It was great to have the whole day to wander the covered and uncovered old city, stopping into old homes turned into restaurants and really getting a feel for Old Damascus. 

Late in the afternoon I stopped at Bakdash, famous for its pistachio coated Booza, a pounded ice cream known around the Arab world and so delicious.  Early that evening, I returned to Nawfara café to listen to the storyteller telling his ancient stories of Damascus for about 30 minutes.  He spoke in Arabic so it was just the experience of being there that I enjoyed.  I then wandered on down Straight Street for dinner at Naranj, a fantastic restaurant.  I told them I was a chef so was able to first visit the kitchen and see what they were cooking up.  They then prepared a tasting menu for me that must have included at least half the items on their menu.  The meze platter contained about 20 little tastes, including mini stuffed grape leaves, crispy meat/vegetable turnovers, beet dip, etc.  The main courses were little lamb kofta, lamb kebabs in sour cherry sauce, lentils, rice, spinach with crisp onions and finally for dessert an enormous platter of Syrian baklava, cookies, fried pastries, etc. followed by a basket of fresh fruit!!!   I must have spent at least 2 hours eating – a highlight to be sure.  Returning to the hotel so late at night was another story I will keep to myself!!!

In the morning I visited the nearby National Museum filled with artifacts from many villages in Syria.  We then took the local bus to Palmyra where we arrived just in time to drive up to the old castle and watch the sun set.  The town is very small and quaint and the weather was very cold.  Dinner at the Palmyra Restaurant was delicious:  lentil soup, eggplant and potato casserole, chicken with eggplant/rice/toasted almonds.  In the morning we had a guided tour of the roman ruins, i.e. the temples, baths, pillars and statues which are very well preserved.  We left after having cheese and jam pancakes for lunch and drove to Krak de Chavaliers.  Our room had a view of this enormous medieval crusader castle with its two moots.  A typical Syrian dinner of chicken, lentils, eggplant, fried cauliflower, pita bread, lebneh, etc. was served in the dining room with a stunning view of the castle.  In the morning we watched the sunrise over the castle from our balcony and then walked up to it after breakfast.  Our guide showed us the hidden passageways, fortifications, slits in the walls for bows and arrows, dungeons,  etc. as we climbed all around, imagining all the fighting which must have taken place there.  More falafel sandwiches for lunch before catching the local bus to Aleppo, our final Syrian city.

My roommate and I decided it was time to have our own rooms.  Mine overlooked the courtyard and it was wonderful having my own space!!!  We all met at 5 p.m. and wandered through the old souk to the mosque, outside the walls, to the Baron Hotel where T. E. Lawrence stayed and finally to Al-Kommeh for dinner.  My eggplant/lamb kebabs and tabbouleh were very tasty and I picked up a couple pieces of pistachio baklava to eat on our way back to the hotel. 

The next morning Jess, our tour guide, took us on a little walk to some of the old buildings in Aleppo.  We visited an old asylum with bars still on the windows, an old restored house with an exhibit showing how many of the old homes are being restored so people can live in them again, ending up at the citadel, which was once a walled city.  The great throne room with its stained glass windows and wooden ceiling was a highlight along with all the staircases leading down to the dungeons and up to the top of the wall for great views.  I wandered through an enormous fruit/vegetable market on my way across town to the old Armenian quarter and visited a traditional home/museum and the lovely church of the 40 martyrs of Christ dedicated to the 40 proclaimed Christians who were condemned naked on a frozen pond to freeze to death… 

Dinner that night was at an Italian restaurant for a change – mushroom pizza baked in a wood fired oven.   Afterwards, we wandered slowly back into the walled city for the night.  In the morning we had Turkish coffee and baklava for breakfast and then drove out of Syria and crossed the border into Turkey…

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