After our long journey by land from Istanbul (see previous posts) our taxi dropped us off at the iconic Hotel Baron. The famous colonial style classic had been frequented by the likes of Agatha Christie, Charlie Chaplin and Winston Churchill in the past and with its marble staircase & floors and wood panels the hotel certainly showed the faded signs of once being fit for VIPs.
We were handed a large brass key the weight of a carriage clock and swept up the staircase in a manner more akin to Fred Flintstone than Fred Astaire.
We were overjoyed. At the third attempt we were in Syria. Yabadabadoo!!!
After all that travelling we were also bushed, but a gin & tonic in the Baron bar was a must, before we slipped out for a quick bite before bed.
Until this visit I knew very little about Aleppo. By the end of our stay it had become my new favourite city. We stayed for four nights, using it also as a base for a couple of fabulous side trips which I will describe in another post. For now I will concentrate on the highlights of Syria’s second city.
After breakfast in the grand Baron restaurant we set off to first explore the atmospheric souk. You can never tire of such places and in my view Aleppo topped the lot, just edging out Fes in Morocco.
You had the usual network of identikit alleys to get lost in, and cave like shops made of stone selling mountains of herbs & spices, sweets of every colour imaginable, misshapen vegetables still attached to their roots & leaves, brassware, copperware, wickerware, ironmongers, haberdasheries, repair shops, workshops, clothes shops, butchers, bakers, candlestick makers, the lot.
Aleppo’s speciality for sale was green olive soap. Fragrant & luxuriant, I am still using it eight years after our visit!
Everybody seemed so happy & relaxed. There were undoubtedly tensions & grievances below the surface, but this stayed well buried in 2009. In one comic episode, we were talking to a clearly gay soap seller. I was wearing my Norman Wisdom t-shirt, the comedian supposedly famous in Albania. The late comic genius had his image mistaken for Benny Hill in Tirana and was to fare no better further east. “Ah, Jim Carley, very funny man,” chuckled our new found friend.
Every shop had a portrait of President Bashar al-Assad displayed prominently. Bashar was said to be the reluctant president, only summoned to power after his father passed away due to the untimely death of his elder brother in a car accident.
One of the entrances to the main (Umayyad) mosque was from inside the souk. This took us directly into the plushly carpeted main prayer room. We marvelled at the finely decorated mihrab, the ornate tombs and the extravagant gold lanterns that hung from the wooden ceiling.
It was outside in the main courtyard that stood the curious highlight. The main minaret was leaning at an angle, said to have been caused by a lightning strike. Not quite, Pisa but unusual all the same.
From there we went back into the manic souk, before emerging into the sunlight to be faced by Aleppo’s most famous building, the immense citadel. Built around the 13th Century, the thick walled fortification stands atop a large hill, similar to the motte & bailey style.
We entered by walking up sloping pathway and through the heavy doors of the main gate into the darkness of the entry chamber and out the other side. The walled summit contained all the usual castle towers, store rooms, living quarters, bath houses, stables, dungeons and shooting galleries. We clambered up a down steps for a good hour or so, imagining sieging armies attacking us, as you do!
The view from the high points was superb, over the souk & old town, above the mosques & churches and right out to the hills that surround the city.
After all that effort, it was time for a leisurely lunch in one of the outdoor cafes lining the pedestrian street flanking the citadel. This ranks as one of my most memorable meals. Lovely food adorned with hummus of course, wonderful setting and warm sunshine. At the table opposite sat two headscarf wearing, giggling ladies out with their husbands. They all shared a shisha and chatted happily, seemingly without a care in the world.
As I mentioned we spent four nights in the city. The Baron was home for two nights, before we moved to the Dar Zamaria in the old town, on the edge of the souk.
The hotel was housed in a typical Aleppo home, similar in style to the riads of Morocco. Large courtyard, central fountain, flights of stone steps and rooms arranged on different levels connected by wooden landings. We had fun positioning the camera at the top of the steep flight of steps, setting the timer and then racing back down for an old-style selfie.
Everything seemed calm and accepting in 2009. Men held hands in the streets, society seemed secular and free with many women wearing jeans rather than Islamic dress and several Orthodox churches rubbing shoulders with the numerous mosques.
Most of all, I remember the people being ever so friendly and smiley. We ate in some fabulous restaurants and ever since have been in pursuit of the ginger Turkish delight we savoured in one establishment!
Apart from our two main side trips, we also took a train out to Latakia on Syria’s Mediterranean coast. Although Latakia itself was a fairly bland industrial city with dirty tankers rather than golden beaches on its shoreline, the train journey was brilliant.
Aleppo station was wonderful, how could you not be thrilled at the site of old diesel locos adorned in Arabic? The train was ancient as you would expect, whilst the toilet was a no go zone for sure!
I could not stop looking at a mischievous young lady who travelled with her grandparents. She was doing (or more likely pretending to do) her homework, all the time snacking on whole cucumbers. I often wonder where she is now…………
We stayed in Latakia for a couple of hours and were glad to return to vibrant Aleppo. We had packed our swimming shorts as we were off to the old town hammam for a scrub & polish. For about £10 each we were manhandled by ‘Sinbad in a nappy’ who proceeded to pummel, twist and most agonisingly scrub our bodies until we were as clean as we had been three years previously when we followed a silmilar ritual in Istanbul.
The hammam itself was a wonderful building somewhat hidden in the souk. It’s interior was tardis like with wood panelled walls and ceiling in the entrance hall and changing areas and vast slabs of marble in the ablutions area.
When we entered it was one of those tumbleweed moments when the world stands still. The resting area was occupied by six burly, bodily hirsute chaps, wrapped in threadbare white towels, drinking tea and playing backgammon. We felt like the teenagers in the film Porkys as they stopped what they were doing to stare at the two sheepish foreigners who deigned to enter onto their turf.
I am sure I saw ‘Sinbad’ grin and wink to acknowledge the sport he was going to have with the backtracking Brits. We were in though so had to go through with it. I was however quite happy to finish and drink some mint tea, even if a dozen eyes appeared to be upon us most of the time!
After four brilliant days we headed to Hama, more of that later…….