Here There and Everywhere

Expat wanderer

Walking Old Damascus (4)

I’ve really saved the best for last. I am about to take you into our very favorite restaurant in Damascus, Naranj. It is very close to The Talisman, at the Roman Arch on the Street called Straight, and just across from the Greek Patriarchate. We were lucky to eat there when we did – and to have a table where we could watch all the high Syrian Poo-Bahs come to dine. The food was – hands down – the best food we ate in Damascus, and we ate some truly fine food there. Unfortunately, we could only eat there once – all the other times, every table was reserved!

We don’t know why, but Naranj was also the only place we saw females working in a restaurant – one as a hostess and one as our waitress and one as the bread girl (bringing around baskets of fragrant freshly baked flat breads). We saw very few women working anywhere, in fact the only other women I can remember were running the ONAT – the very fine handicraft shop down near Bab Sharqi.

Naranj:
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In the heavy black stone container (HOT!) is a dish called Hommos wa Burghul, or Garbanzos and Wheat. It must have had a ton of butter in it, to be so rich and so delicious, and with such simple ingredients. If any of you make this dish, I would love the recipe.

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Along the Street Called Straight:
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Silly me. I love copper and brass, and would have bought more, but I thought we were limited on Jazeera to 20 kg – that’s what the ticket said! It seems everyone else knows that it just isn’t so.

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I loved the spaces in this building at the mosque end of the Hamadiyya Souk – and here is a view of the souk from one of the upstairs stores:
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As the street lining the souks at the beginning of the Street Called Straight is under renovation, the shops still open, but people have to negotiate their way up ramps:

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We discovered we are in Damascus just as all the oranges are ripening, and oh, the juice is so sweet and so delicious:
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This beautiful statue is on the grounds of the Damascus Museum. You can’t take photos inside. We actually like the grounds of the museum better than we like the inside, currently. We think we remember a lot more stuff formerly, but it seems very spare now.
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You know me, I can’t resist a good sunrise or sunset. This is the mosque behind the Talisman, at sunset:
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And I saved my very favorite photo for the last – Damascus DOES have modern trucks that deliver fuel in the more modern part of the city, but in the tiny narrow streets of the old city, they still use a cart with a horse, who can get into the smaller spaces. This card delivers fuel oil, and as he goes along, he sounds a two-toned horn – not a loud horn, but a distinctive horn – so that if anyone needs coal oil, they run out and he gives it to them.
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I have had responses that tell me Damascus is not for everybody. Even while I was there, I could imagine friends who would not love it as we do, might find it too old-fashioned, maybe too dirty, too inconvenient, lacking in up-to-date conveniences.

We also went knowing that as Americans, we might have problems. We never had a problem. We never met a single Syrian who wasn’t gracious and welcoming, and we were well treated at every turn.

We like adventure. We like history. We like walking, and we like good food. We like architectural details, we like fusion cultures, and we LOVE small, personal, charming hotels like the Talisman, with their excellent service. For us, this trip to Damascus was a supurb vacation.

January 11, 2008 Posted by | Adventure, Arts & Handicrafts, Eating Out, ExPat Life, Living Conditions, Political Issues, Travel | , , , , | 4 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