Here There and Everywhere

Expat wanderer

Walking Old Damascus (3)

I can never get enough of Old Damascus, but for those of you who are bored already, I will only do one more after this one. And my friends, I am only skimming the surface – Damascus can keep you busy and happy for a long time. Along one of our favorite streets, Al Qamariyya, we saw a sign that said Calligraphy and Lute instruction, and we looked at each other with a grin – we could be happy for weeks learning lute and calligraphy!

We had met up with an old friend who loves Damascus as we do, and he suggested a walk OUTSIDE the walls, from Bab Thouma (Thomas’ gate) to the Bab Es Salaam, which we did. The Bab Thouma is only a five minute walk from our hotel, straight up al Hijari, crossing Street Called Straight where it becomes Sharia Bab Thouma – how easy can it be?

The walk along the northern outside walls in this section is spectacular. For one thing, look at the differing levels of construction in this, one of the remaining walls of Old Damascus:

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From outside the northern wall, looking north toward the mountains:

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Then you come to the Gate of Peace/ Bab es Salaam:

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There is a whirl of reconstruction going on in the old city. Some fear modernizations which will change the character of the old town, but others say that the restrictions won’t allow that to happen – we shall see:

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Here is what we love – in every country, you will find volunteer supervisors where construction or reconstruction are going on:

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One of the highlights of our trip was a visit to Ananias’ chapel. This is not the actual spot where Ananias baptized Paul, a mosque has been built over that site (It is called the Jakmak Mosque and you can see it in the long covered souk at the beginning of the Street Called Straight) but this is the church/chapel which commemorates that baptism, and it is very beautiful.
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Time for a cup of coffee, and to plan the next walking expedition, and we find this wonderful cafe next to the church at Bab Sharqi:

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We think there is a museum for the Hijaz Railway, which fascinates AdventureMan, but this is all we can find:

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At our friend’s recommendation, we also try the Old Town restaurant, and we like it so much we go there twice:

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Nice to have some pasta for a change, and the pasta here is really good!

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Interesting old balcony:

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I keep looking for the Issa/Jesus spire of the Umayyad mosque, and I think this might be it, but I am not sure. Legend has it that this is where Jesus will prevail over the forces of darkness and evil on the Last Day.

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We are told you MUST make a stop at Leila’s, near the Ummayad Mosque, near the Hamadiyya Souks, and so we do. It is very conveniently located when you are shopping for visiting the mosque:

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They had a Baba Ghannoush there unlike any I have had before, but very much like something we used to eat in Tunisia, called mechoia – grilled eggplant and peppers and garlic, with a very smokey taste. Yummmmy!

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You know me and light fixtures – this is one of the Leila lamps:

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Tomorrow I will take you to our absolute favorite restaurant in Damascus, and finish up the trip, I promise, as much as I hate to leave!

(Happy Islamic New Year!)

January 10, 2008 Posted by | Adventure, Arts & Handicrafts, Building, Cold Drinks, Cultural, Education, ExPat Life, Living Conditions, Lumix, Photos, Travel | , , , , , , , | 12 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