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LUXURY TRAVEL: Syria

I'm sitting in a quiet courtyard in Bab Touma, the ancient Christian Quarter of Damascus. The air carries the citrus-y scent of orange and lemon trees. In the middle of the courtyard a fountain splashes. This is Beit Al Mamlouka. A tiny hotel reached down so many old twisted, cobbled alley ways that for the uninitiated it is hard to find. But despite its discreet entrance - just a wooden door set in high salmon pink walls - Beit Al Mamlouka has made its presence felt. Opened in 2005 by its former owner May Mamarbachi the hotel was one of the first of a new and rare breed of boutique hotels in Syria. Converted from a 17th century old house this eight-room wonder hit the Conde Nast Hot List in 2006 and has picked up swag of accolades since including being listed in The Sunday Times Top 100 hotels 2008. The Luxury Travel Bible, especially likes the Suleiman the Magnificent Suite which is indeed 'magnificent' and has its own indoor fountain in the shape of a rose and an original 230 year old Christian fresco on the ceiling.

The capital of Syria, Damascus, is a name familiar to anyone who has ever been to Sunday school. It is the oldest constantly inhabited city in the world and the cradle of Christianity as well as Islam.

The city's most impressive sight is the great Umayyad Mosque.
 

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Before I can enter I'm issued with a hooded Return Of The Jedi-style cloak to cover me from head to toe. The vast marble courtyard of the mosque shines like a pearl and the gold mosaics glitter. I expect reverential whispers but inside families - picnic, kids climb on the pillars and chase and feed the pigeons. I get bird seed between my stockinged toes as I try to merge into the surroundings.

No hope of that since my cloak keeps blowing off revealing unholy hair. I seek the help of some women sitting in the shade. They pull pins from their own head scarfs to swathe me in mine until I am transformed into a respectable Syrian woman. They like what they see and invite my newly demure self home to their house for tea.

Syrian hospitably is genuine and relentless and we encounter it all over the country. Later I drink hot, sweet tea in a coffee house in the shadow of the great mosque's eastern wall where men with luxuriant moustaches suck on hubble-bubbles but the women are nowhere to be seen.

On the road to Damascus from Beirut (much travelled by Lebanon's young and arty on weekends away) you'll find Art House, part Art Gallery, part hotel run by Ghiath Machnok who curators the art on the walls and manages the place. The hillside retreat in Mezzah, West Damascus is 600 year old stone mill with Art Deco furnishings and a baby grand piano in the courtyard; it attracts the elite and bohemian in equal measure.

Site-seeing wise the old Crusader citadels are still awe-inspiring. We head to Krak des Chevaliers which stands sentinel on a hill high above the Orontes Valley in western Syria. It was described by Lawrence of Arabia as 'the finest castle in the world'. Writer Paul Theroux was equally effusive, calling it the dream castle of childhood fantasies. It is easy to see why. Its sheer walls have been repelling invaders successfully for centuries the Muslim warlords never breached its defences, only the tour buses have managed to do that.

We squeeze in past a battalion of Syrian schoolchildren who have come for a living history lesson and will soon be storming the ramparts. As we walk up the covered ramp to the inner fortress I can imagine the clatter of a hundred horses' hooves on the cobbles and the clink of crusader armour.

Further on we find the sleeping quarters of the knights directly above the warmth, and the stink, of the stables. The crusaders weren't big on washing, apparently, something that astounded the scrupulously clean followers of Islam. After seeing the sleeping arrangements, I have the distinct impression that after a few weeks of siege the real-life followers of Richard the Lionheart would have been a lot less appealing than Orlando Bloom.

Syria really is the jewel in the Middle East's scabbard. Australians are far more familiar with the pyramids of Egypt or the delights of Petra in Jordan. But Syria should be a destination on any adventurous traveller's list. The legacy of the first crusaders, the Holy Land and the great Muslim leader Saladin can be found in the layers of Syria's glorious and bloody past. And you get all these layers of history without the crowds.

And what a history it is at one time or another the Romans, Persians, Egyptians, Babylonians, Ottomans and the crusaders have all had an influence here.

From Damascus we head through the desert to Palmyra. Now a sleepy oasis in the desert, Palmyra was once an important Greek outpost and has the ruins of a vast ancient city to prove it. The ruins are why you come. Early one morning we walk through dusty streets towards the site. A stallholder gives us the first date of the day; plucked from a bunch of fruit as brown and crinkled as a crone, it is caramel-sweet on the tongue.

A camel owner offers me a ride on his camel 'free, no charge'. Incredibly, he means it. His beast, Zenobia, named after the ancient queen who once ruled here, is a cut above your average ship of the desert. She is glossily groomed and silvery as sand and normally takes American tourists on longer desert safaris. Beside her the camels of the young urchins plying their own transport trade look like moth-eaten blankets.

From Zenobia's regal back I can see just how far the site stretches out. It is a wonder of ancient pillars and temples dating from the second century AD. We have the site to ourselves, persistent postcard seller excepted. Imagine being able to say the same if you were visiting the Parthenon in Greece. Thanks to restoration there are more than 300 standing columns including a long colonnaded street along which Zenobia glides as if she were indeed a queen.

...a few LUXURY boutique hotels with enclosed COURTYARDS and FOUNTAINS are beginning to spring up

Next stop Aleppo, probably Syria's most stylish city. It is here that a few more boutique hotels with enclosed courtyards and fountains are beginning to spring up, reminiscent of the exquisite riads in Morocco. From the outside they are just iron doorways in a wall, inside are gardens and rooms looking down onto a central courtyard. For example, Beit Salahieh, is a converted from a 15th century palace and Dar Zamaria is another court-yarded-house-turned-hotel.

What makes Aleppo really special is its vast and cavernous bazaar. The six miles (10 kilometres) of covered passages have been selling spices and silks since the 13th century and trader caravans have been stopping here a lot longer. You almost need to buy some silk yarn at the beginning of your explorations to unwind like Ariadne's thread, just to find your way out of the labyrinth of lanes again.

The souk will swallow you up to wander lost along its dark passageways, past stalls piled with spice, perfume shops with jewel-coloured, hand-blown glass bottles, or a butcher's stall selling what looks like half a camel complete with hump. At times it is as if little has changed in centuries as donkeys and men in dusty sandals pushing carts negotiate past you in the lamp-lit dark. Then a motorised truck will putt-putt its way down the impossibly small streets, a stallholder will try to sell you yet another souvenir fez and you'll know you're back in the 21st century.

 
Luxury Notes:
  • Ridley Scott's epic, 'Kingdom Of Heaven', (2005) tells the story of the bloody truth behind crusades. Orlando Bloom plays a young knight sent to fight the great Muslim leader Saladin played by Syrian actor and filmmaker Ghassan Massoud. The Middle Eastern scenes in Kingdom were filmed in Morocco but they should really have been shot in Massoud's home country, for nowhere in the world are there such amazing examples of the crusader citadels as in Syria.
  • Boutique hotels are on the rise, especially in Damascus- old city with up to 30 old houses up for development. Look out for Agenor, a 12-room boutique hotel slated to open this year. Investor Yazaen Algawhry is putting in some $6 million.
  • The Beit Rumman has a page on its website devoted to Syrian artists which is well worth a look
 
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