Dazzle your senses in Damascus

Andrea Anastasiou loses herself in the charm of Syria's ancient jewel, Damascus.

  • Umayyad Mosque forms the heart of the city; Image Credit: Supplied
  • Flower-filled Damascus is known as the Fragrant CityImage Credit: Supplied
  • Fresh spices fill the souqsImage Credit: Supplied
  • The traditional hammams date back hundreds ofyearsImage Credit: Supplied
  • You'll find ancient surprises throughout the city.Image Credit: Supplied
  • Sample street food and drink while youexplore; Image Credit: Supplied
Aquarius

If you were given all the time in the world to explore Damascus, it wouldn't be enough. When you bear in mind that this is believed to be the oldest inhabited city on earth, you begin to appreciate the layers of history that are found within each building block and street corner, and the amount of time that you would need to unravel and experience it all. The city oozes personality from every nook and cranny; no matter where you are, something interesting surrounds you, from the varying architecture left behind by the myriad civilisations who tried to make the city their own, to the street artist sitting under a tree, sketching the hours away.

While in Damascus, be prepared to receive an education in the very essence of Arabia, with the enticing aromas emanating from the souqs, the breathtaking sight of the Umayyad Mosque, and the invigorating experience of one of the city's hammams...

Sensory bliss: Touch

Scrub up in a hammam

Those searching for an authentically Damascene way of invigorating their body should head to one of the city's public baths or hammams. I tried out the Hammam Ammoonah (+963-11-2316414), which was built in the 12th century, and is located just outside the Old City's walls, near Bab Al Faradeis. The timings during which men and women can visit are strictly segregated: from 8am until 8pm for ladies, and from 8pm until 8am for gentlemen. Once inside, you can leave your valuables in a safety box at reception. You're then required to strip, and will be handed a towel before being led into the tiny steam room, where you are surrounded by big whirls of steam for about 15 minutes.

Once this is over, you will be called by one of the hammamjis (female bath attendants) who will scrub you down with a loofah and olive oil soap, rinse you off with cold water (great in the summer, possibly not so great in the winter) and lead you to the final stage - the full body massage. Following this, you're led to rinse off. Being completely naked in front of complete strangers is not a practice I regularly take part in, but as they say: when in Damascus, do as the Damascenes do, and this is definitely a place where you get to see daily life in motion. The result? You walk away wondering if it is possible to bathe like this forever.

Relax with a massage

For those of you who would prefer to preserve their modesty, I would recommend trying The Royal Zanobia massage at the Balloran Spa (+963-11-3391000) instead.

First, pure, warm olive oil is applied by the masseuse to your body using special heated poultices filled with chamomile powder and aromatic oils. Now while some may wince at the idea of being lathered with something that is generally used to dress a salad, there is something extremely soothing and invigorating about the smell of warm olive oil mixed with chamomile, and the way it feels on your skin. The masseuse then uses a medium pressure massage technique over your entire body, during which you will feel your aches and pains melt away.

Afterwards, make sure you use the spa's steam room to open your pores and feel the full effect of the treatment, and once you've showered, lather on the spa's delicious smelling jasmine body lotion. This treatment's benefits don't end when you walk out of the spa - my skin gleamed for more than three days!

Sensory bliss: Smell

Savour the scents inthe souqs

Damascus is known as ‘fragrant city', and is famous for the jasmine flowers that feature at the front of many people's homes. Such is the flower's importance to the country, I was told by alocal that President Bashar Al Assad once instructed all the citizens to plant one in their gardens.

And it's not just the flowers that will awaken your sense of smell in Damascus - at the many souqs you will find a rich collection of enticing scents. Make sure you visit Souq Al Bzouriyeh, which features stalls selling myriad spices, from cinnamon to cardamom and chilli. As you walk down the street, you will find yourself guided by your nose as the pungent smells overtake your senses. Here you will also find small shops selling fragrant handmade soaps and aromatic oils, which serve as great, inexpensive gifts to bring home.

Other souqs that you must try and visit include Souq Al Hamidiyeh, where you will find women's clothing and jewellery, and Souq Al Harir for embroidered clothes and shawls. The beauty of the souqs in Damascus is that you will not encounter pushy stall owners, chasing you down the street. Damascenes are laid-back, easy-going people, so you won't be harassed into buying anything you don't want. Note that Friday is a day of rest and most stalls in all the souqs are closed.

Sensory bliss: Taste

Sample the street food

If, like me, you love Arabic food, then your palate will be delighted while you're in Damascus. From street vendors selling delicious goods such as kibbeh (bulgur shells filled with spiced lamb mince), to family run restaurants serving up plate upon plate of well-prepared mezze, the Damascene culinary scene may not rival Dubai's in the fancy venue and variety stakes, but what you will find is wholesome food full of flavour, made from the freshest ingredients.

While walking around the Old City, try one of the many street bakeries, where you can sample baked goods such as Lahm bil ajin (pastry covered with minced meat, onion and nuts) and manakeesh (mini ‘pizzas'that are topped with cheese and Zaatar) for ridiculously low prices. Street food is one of the city's many charms and if you're a fan of shawarmas, you must try the Damascene version; here, the Arabic flat bread is first pressed gently against the spit to absorb some of the juices, then, small chunks of meat are placed together with garlic mayonnaise, pickles and yoghurt, before being wrapped up in the bread and handed to you.Simply amazing!

Feast like a trueArabian princess

For those looking for a five-star culinary experience, Al Halabi restaurant at the Four Seasons Hotel (+963-11-3391000) serves up traditional dishes from the northern city of Aleppo. During my visit, I was mesmerised by the amount of mezze dishes that were brought to the table. If you pick just one dish here, you must sample the Kabab Karaz - grilled lamb with sweet cherries. The lamb melts in your mouth, and the tanginess of the cherries offsets this perfectly. At the end of your dinner, make sure you try white coffee, which, ironically, does not contain milk, nor coffee. This is a mixture of hot water, rose water and mint, and is perfectly refreshing after a big meal.

Sensory bliss: Sight

Get lost in the Old City

If you have time to only do one proper sightseeing outing, then I would suggest heading to the Old City, entering from one of the West gates, ripping up your map and letting your senses guide you. The beauty of the Old City lies within the labyrinth of tiny winding streets, where you will find yourself completely lost and mesmerised. Let yourself enjoy the street activity that surrounds you, from local children playing games to elderly men sitting together outside their front doors, socialising and whiling the hours away.

When you find yourself in the middle of the Old City, stand still for five minutes and just take in the thought of how many people from different eras have stood in the same place as you during centuries gone by.

Marvel at the ancientUmayyad MosqueAt the heart of the Old City you will find the Umayyad Mosque, one of the largest and oldest mosques in the world. No map is needed to find it, nor directions; if you walk around long enough, you will definitely stumble upon it.

This is the city's centrepiece - an impressive architectural feat that embodies Damascus' complex and interesting past. When the Arabs conquered Damascus, the mosque was built on the Christian basilica dedicated to John the Baptist, whose head is still located here.

To enter you will need to follow the signs for ‘special robes', where you will find a small office. Here for a small entrance fee you will get a pamphlet and long grey robe that all women must wearto enter.

Once inside, you can marvel at the varying architecture and mosaics that surround you. One of the most impressive sights is the treasury, a domed, freestanding building to the west of the site. The treasury was built on columns to ensure it was protected from thieves, but the biggest mystery of all is how anyone ever got inside in the first place, as there is noentrance. The treasuryis covered in beautiful gold and green mosaics that glisten when the sun shines on them. I recommend taking time to sit silently for a while, and enjoy the mosque's peacefulness, which is rather unusual considering how busy it can be, especially during the weekend.

If you have time, it's also worth visiting the Azem Palace and beyond the Old City's walls, The National Museum.

Sensory bliss: Sound

Strike up a conversation

While Arabic is the language that is spoken by everyone, many locals speak English. Try conversing with people as often as possible, as, while the city's architecture and history have the wow factor, it is the locals that bring it all to life with their friendly, outgoing nature, and fascinating insights on where to go and what to see. It was during one such conversation that I discovered that while the majority of Damascenes are Muslim, this is one of the most tolerant cities in the world, where churches are built next to mosques, and where Muslims and people of other faiths peacefully coexist and socialise together.

Feel the rhythm

For interesting sounds, head to Bab Sharqi in the Old City's Christian quarter. Here I came across The Old Town Restaurant (+963-11-5428088), which from the outside looks like a nondescript diner. Open the door, however, and you will find a saxophonist standing on the stairs, playing to the dozens of diners located at the tables in an impressively kitsch restaurant. The venue serves as an open courtyard in the summer, and a closed roof restaurant in the winter, and features shrubbery growing up the walls, scattered lanterns and plenty of charm. Here you can enjoy either Arabic or, strangely enough, Italian cuisine, while listening to the live music.

Soak it all up in the park

Once you've eaten, take a walk down the street to the park that is located opposite a bar called After Seven, where during the weekend you will find young Damascenes socialising.

While I was there, I sat and enjoyed the sounds of an oud player, while a group of youngsters in a far corner were dancing to the music that was playing on their small stereo.

Here people talk, people sing, people play instruments and people dance, while residents sit on their balconies overlooking the park watching over them. The magic in the air is palpable.

Need to know

Visas: Most nationalities require a visa to enter the country, which can be obtained from the Syrian Embassy in Dubai. You will need two completed application forms, two passport sized pictures, a letter of no objection from your employer, your passport and a Dh195 application fee. The visa is processed within a day.

Getting there: Many airlines fly to Damascus, including Emirates (www.emirates.com), Etihad (www.etihadairways.com), and budget airlines Fly Dubai (www.flydubai.com) and Air Arabia (www.airarabia.com). Flights start from approximately Dh800 return.

Where to stay: For hotels, there are a number of five-star options, including the luxurious Four Seasons (www.fourseasons.com) and the Sheraton (www.starwoodhotels.com). There are also a number of boutique hotels that are worth a look in for a more traditional Arabic experience.

Insider tip

If you visit the National Museum, hire a guide as many of the descriptions are only written in Arabic or French.

Insider tip

If you've had enough of walking, catch one of the city's yellow cabs. City trips cost around 100 Syrian Pounds, but negotiate prices beforehand.

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