Even though it’s close to 100 degrees Farenheit–in your English-English terms, that’s the equivalent of MELTING–some women wear black gloves and black tights and even the youngest of boys is wearing what I’d call “old man pants.” (That’s the American in me. For my British readers, that’s “old man trousers.” You know the type. Wool. Hiked up to mid-chest.)
In Amman, I saw no bicycles, in Damascus, they are everywhere. Some with motors. Motors on a bike!
Everywhere I go, men say “Welcome!” And offer to buy my iPhone. Sadly, with no GPRS, I fear my iPhone would only be useful in range of a free wireless connection.
There are liquor stores! But my requests to purchase Syrian wine are met with many sad shakes of many a head. (Got a little over enthusiastic about the wine, I did.) “Whhhyyyyy??? Whyyyyyy would you want to buy Syrian wine? We have many nice Lebanese wines. Wouldn’t you like a nice Lebanese wine?”
I ate well in Syria. If you’re planning a trip to Syria, you have to visit Syrian Foodie in London. Read his post about eating and drinking in Damascus. It’s a gold mine, and I’m only sad that my traveling companions were not of the adventurous sort, or else I would have hit every place on his list.
Here’s where I ended up…
Narenj: My best meal of the trip, and Karo’s top recommendation. Had I not gotten sick at the end of my travels, and had my traveling companions actually liked hummus, I would have gone back multiple times. (Just a tip…if you don’t like hummus, going to the middle east will be HARD.) The lamb with sour cherry was particularly delicious, as was the red pepper walnut dip. After our meal, they brought out a lovely tray of Middle Eastern treats, along with a full fruit tray. All entirely complimentary. Lovely service. And the only place that would serve me Syrian wine without first begging me to try a Lebanese first. Full of diplomats. Strangely, while I was here, I ran into my friend Richard’s friend Claudio, who was visiting his cousin in Beirut and doing a bit of a tour of Syria. The world–it’s a small place.
Bakdash: On the main street through the souk. (Not Straight Street. The other main street…closer to the escalators.) Ice cream, covered in pistachios. Fantastic.
Falafel: I thought I took a picture of this place, but I can’t find it. Basically, get to the end of the covered part of Straight Street. Al Khawali will be on your right. A few “doorways” up from Al Khawali, on the same side of the street, there’s a great little falafel stand. 25 Syrian pounds, or $1 USD. We kept talking about this falafel for the rest of the week. (Although perhaps still not as good as Hamesh in Amman.)
Al Khawali: A guidebook stalwart. Boasted two of my least favorite smells: dirty mop AND pee. (Dirty mop and mop bucket stuck behind a waitstaff station. Pee in the ladies’ and general vicinity of the loos.) The food here was supremely below average, and I longed for Narenj. Nice atmosphere, I suppose…it’s in an old Damascan house with an open air courtyard. They used a Dust Buster to clean our table after our meal. Tacky.
NaNa: We were lost, looking for a Chowhound recommendation that has apparently gone out of business since it was last mentioned on Chowhound. A couple of guys in a parking lot told us to go to NaNa. I am sure I am spelling this wrong because I can’t find the restaurant anywhere online. In my very limited Arabic, I knew that NaNa meant mint, which the guys in the parking lot confirmed. This was another old Damascan home, with a lovely open courtyard and a fountain in the middle. My fellow travelers really enjoyed their food here, but I found it a bit average. (I had the steak bernaise.) I did, however, really like the service here, and I liked that it was an all local crowd. Free wireless.
Zodiac: Bar on straight street. Buy one drink and get the 2nd free. We were their only customers. Very dark. Free snacks though!
Story Teller’s Cafe aka An-Nafura. One of the oldest cafes in Damascus. Come here for the hookah, some mint tea, and hopefully to catch the story teller doing his thing. (However, it’s all in Arabic.) This was a nice break after exploring the souk for a bit.
Beit Zaman: Straight Street. We dropped into the cafe here for some Lebanese beer and peanuts. Small and lovely. Would be even lovelier if they would take down the flat screen TV. (Every restaurant or bar in Syria seems to have a flat screen TV installed.)
Saladin: I normally always like to have a plan for lunch or dinner when traveling. When you’re exhausted–and MELTING–nothing is worse than being hungry too. You often wind up settling for the first place you come across. I try not to let this happen to me. However, we had reached one of those points, so I quickly asked a friendly (and attractive) tablecloth seller in the souk of a lunch recommendation. “Saladin!” was his very enthusiastic recommendation. To get here, go down the main street in the souk and right before you get to the mosque, there will be street on the left that has a couple of rotisserie-like places. Of course, all the signs are in Arabic, so you will have to ask which one is Saladin. (Remember that Saladin is also buried in a nearby mausoleum. Don’t confuse anyone.) We had some tasty chicken shwarma, along with fries and cokes for the equivalent of $5 USD. Short on atmosphere. Very little English spoken.
Sadly, my plans to return to Narenj as well as to dine at The Four Seasons were totally ruined by some stomach issues right at the end of my trip. (Note to self: Don’t order from roadside stands in the middle of Syria right before you’re supposed to leave the country.)
All in all, I could have used more time in Damascus. More time for shopping. More time for eating. And for getting off the beaten path. Those sorts of things.