Here There and Everywhere

Expat wanderer

Walking Old Damascus (2)

You know how it is, when you are flat-out totally in love, you can’t see the flaws. In moments of clarity, I can understand that there could be hardships to living in Damascus. There could be problems meeting the codes for historical preservation while trying to install modern plumbing. There could be bureaucrats to bribe, there could be problems with labor, I don’t know any of this, I am just guessing.

None of it matters to me, I am so head-over-heels happy. Thanks be to God, AdventureMan shares my insanity, and we are having a wonderful time walking, walking, walking. He is SO patient with me, and all the photos I have to stop to take.

Today we visit the Ummayyad Mosque which also contains the tomb of John the Baptist. I think this is one of the reasons we love Damascus so much – the co-existence of Islam and Christianity, and the sharing of sacred spaces.

The parking area in front of the mosque is full of vendors. My favorite are the bread carts:
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Non-Muslims have to go to the entrance where you can rent an abaya with a hood, so that you can visit the mosque. All visitors are welcome; entire tour groups are going through, French, German. You also have to take off your shoes, and the beautiful marble flooring is VERY cold! In some places, there is carpeting.
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This is a tree-of-life detail from the treasury:
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Once inside the Ummayad Mosque, they have that in-floor heating, so you can warm your tootsies back up while experiencing the magnificence of the mosque interior (please note the horseshoe arches):

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The tomb of John the Baptist:
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A funny story: as we are leaving the Mosque, AdventureMan says “where is this tomb of John the Baptist you wanted to visit?” and I looked at his in puzzlement. We had finished touring the whole mosque, and I had photographed the tomb.

“We already visited it!” I told him.

“When?” he asked.

“It was that beautiful tomb in the main mosque area surrounded by people praying!” I replied.

“No, that was somebody named Yahyah,” he corrected me.

“Yahyah is the name for John the Baptist,” I told him. Guess he would have appreciated it more if he had known at the time. I just assumed he knew.

I must have been a magpie in another life. I don’t know why, but I love these glittery Chinese decorations. AdventureMan bought one for me, a golden crown with big red “jewels”. The shops always catch my eye:
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This is a famous ice cream place in the Souk Hammadiyya:
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This shop was on the traditional medicine shop street. It had herbs, and dried creatures which can be used in healing, and unusual soaps, and also seashells:
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This is the traditional souk at the beginning of the Street Called Straight (al Mustaqeen) which is undergoing renovation. Just wanted you to see the bulletholes through the roof:
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I don’t know if you could find a truly bad meal in Damascus. I think you would really have to try! We found this wonderful restaurant, Al Kawali, not too far from our hotel, and we loved their food and we loved the atmosphere, and we loved having the bread baked right under our noses:
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For those of you who, like me, are addicted to spaces and details – look at these gorgeous light fixtures, Damascene glass:
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And last, but not least – we find the food so fabulous that we are eating too much. Our first time at Al Kawali, we order just some favorite mezze dishes and soup. When the tastes are so perfect, it takes less to fill you up, and this food is perfection.
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We found this old house as we were leaving Al Kawali to walk back to the hotel:
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January 9, 2008 Posted by | Adventure, Arts & Handicrafts, Building, Bureaucracy, Community, Eating Out, ExPat Life, Living Conditions, Photos, Travel | , , , | 8 Comments

Walking Old Damascus

We arrive in Damascus, and are eager to walk. Something has happened, though, and on our first walk I discover my knee is killing me. We find a pharmacy, I down some aspirin with a freshly squeezed orange juice and we carry on. I tell myself that the latest in therapy is “motion is lotion” because I don’t want to waste a minute while we are in Damascus, and with the help of the aspirin, and the distraction of the sheer beauty and treasures of Damascus, we continue walking.

In our days there, we developed a routine. Get up, eat breakfast, head out. Walk and walk and walk. Stop after a couple hours for coffee (no matter where you are, there is a coffee or tea place nearby.) Walk some more. Stop for lunch. Walk some more, head back to the hotel and get a little rest. Go out walking, find a place for dinner. Two of our days there, we met up with an old friend, and spent time in the afternoon and evening visiting with him.

Knowing how my blogging friend Kinan told us to watch for treasures, i.e. remnants of olden times incorporated into more modern structures, we were continually delighted. AdventureMan has a particularly keen eye and can spot an old hewn granite stone in the foundation, remnants of arches, remnants of old pillars – it was a treasure hunt every day.

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There are still some of the old mashrabiya balconies remaining, and near our hotel we also found a woodworker who specializes in mashrabiya:

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There are many restaurants which have been created in the old open courtyards of the old Damascus houses. This is one where we had coffee, Dar al Bandar, at the beginning (or end!) of Sharia (street) Qamariya, which will soon also open with hotel rooms. These courtyards are entirely covered over in the winter time. I think some of them can be opened, and maybe they open them in the summers, but the summers are as hot as the winters are cold, so maybe they only open them in the springs and autumns.

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The Beit al Chami is the closest restaurant to the Talisman, and also built in a courtyard. There is another level of dining high above the courtyards, and we saw both couples and families heading up for the quieter, more private dining rooms above. This is the entrance to the Beit al Chami:

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This is the ceiling of the Beit Chami reception hall near the entry:

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We saw people eating something we had never seen before. It looked like a mezze, but not like any mezze we knew. AdventureMan asked the waiter, and they brought us one at the end of the meal and would not let us pay for it. We ran across this kind of generousity and graciousness daily during our time in Syria. This was indeed a mezze of sorts, but a jam mezze, or dessert mezze, and you eat all these sweet things with bread. The one in the middle is a kind of thickened cream, the others were fruits and preserves and jams. Fascinating and delicious!

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This is a man in a little street Tabak who would only speak French to us, never Arabic. He acted like he didn’t understand Arabic. AdventureMan thinks when we finally settle back in the US, he will open a little corner Tabak like this and spend his days sitting and selling small things. (I think he is kidding.) This man would call out “bonjour!” whenever he would see us.

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Just a few more random shots:

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And, my friends, this is just the beginning!

January 8, 2008 Posted by | Adventure, Arts & Handicrafts, Blogging, Building, Community, ExPat Life, Living Conditions | , , , , | 16 Comments

The Talisman Hotel, Damascus

We have always loved Damascus. We used to hang out there a lot when we were with the embassy in Amman. Weekends we would drive up and stay with friends at the embassy there, or they might drive down and stay with us. I remember shopping at one time, and in a shop along the Street Called Straight when I caught a glimpse of the shopkeeper and his friends, drinking tea, not oblivious to us, but also not attentive to us, and all of a sudden, I could see through the centuries, I could feel the weight of the history of this city, that the citizens of Damascus have seen so much of civilization and we were mere mists, appearing for a short time and disappearing again, nothing of substance, nothing of importance in a city which endures and endures.

You really have to love Damascus to go through what we had to go through to get to Damascus – it took months for us to get visas. Our government publishes advisories telling us NOT to go there, and we in our arrogance, figure we will be OK. We also know that when we re-enter our own country, we will get additional scrutiny for having put Syria in that little block where they ask where you have travelled between your last visit and this visit.

When the blogger Gastronomica was blogging, he wrote about staying in the same hotel in Sidi bou Said, Tunisia that we had stayed in and thoroughly enjoyed, (the Dar Said for anyone going to Tunisia, is just minutes from the Tunis airport in the beautiful hillside village of Sidi bou Said, minutes up the road from the old city of Carthage). He wrote about a hotel in Damascus called The Talisman which I immediately looked up online, and immediately bookmarked.

The Talisman was formerly a family palace, fallen on hard times, gutted and renovated with enormous care. No matter where you set your eyes, there is something of beauty. The furnishings are beautiful, chosen with taste and restraint. The colors are both traditional – and modern – and very exciting.

The entrance to the Talisman is on a tiny little hard-to-find street, barely big enough for a taxi:

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We would never have heard of The Talisman without Gastronomica’s recommendation, but on our very first morning there, we met a woman with the December 2007 Conde Nast Traveller featuring Damascus, and recommending The Talisman if you couldn’t get into Dar al Mamluk, a much smaller hotel not too far from The Talisman. We saw the Dar al Mamluk, and a nearby merchant said the rooms are much smaller than the Talisman, and not so exquisitely furnished. We have not seen the rooms for ourselves.

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From the moment we arrived, we loved The Talisman. You are located a mere minute’s walk from the Street Called Straight. You can get anywhere in the old city in ten – fifteen minutes walk. You are one minute from a nearby Amin Street where you can catch a taxi anywhere in the city. What we loved the most about the location was that we could walk and walk and walk – and we did. Every day, we walked the city.

The service you get at the Talisman is personal and attentive, without being intrusive. Breakfast is cheerful and plentiful, served buffet-style in a rosy-red room filled with antiques and two bustling, good-humored waiters who keep your coffee and tea cups full.

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The rooms are huge. We only reserved a regular room; you just never know looking at pictures on the internet what a place is really going to look like, so we had thought that if the room was too small we would ask if any suites were available.

When we got to our room, we were blown away by their concept of “regular”. It was spacious. Compared to most hotels, the “regular” rooms were HUGE! The bathroom had both a huge bathtub and a modern shower, and they both worked and had plenty of hot water. We had space enough to invite an old friend to our room; we had our own seating area.

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We loved the attention to detail, the room furnishings, even the light fixtures:

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There are also two lounges, one outside, one inside, and tables around the pool where you can sit and soak up some sunshine, even in the midst of winter.

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The Talisman is a treasure, with its attention to detail and to cheerful, attentive service. One of the things we liked the very best about the Talisman is the pride the Damascus citizens take in its restoration. One shop, where we had bought from the current owner’s father, told us with pride that his shop had provided many of the lamp fixtures for the hotel. Most shopkeepers and restaurant people had visited the Talisman at some time or other; they all spoke of it with pride. Who can blame them? The place is a gem.

There were many families staying there. There were many English and French, and even . . . yes, Kuwaitis. If there were one drawback, it would be that there is a mosque nearby whose muezzin at 4 in the morning is purely awful; the call to prayer is flat, and garbled, and awfully loud in addition, but the hotel can’t be faulted for that which it cannot control.

We would stay there again in a heartbeat – and hope to.

January 7, 2008 Posted by | Adventure, Arts & Handicrafts, Blogging, Community, Cultural, Customer Service, ExPat Life, Holiday, Travel | , , , , | 21 Comments