Stay in Beit Zafran Hotel de Charme (Saffron House), a traditional Ottoman palace, in Syria
Even before the Arab Spring and the conflict of 2011 tore Syria apart, most likely because of a water crisis, it wasn’t a country well-travelled by tourists. Instagramming experiences hadn’t started yet and Syria, seemingly, wasn’t well set up for long-haul travelling or as a destination site. But as the Middle East opens its arms to the world and Syria attempts to heal its wounds from a decade of civil war, there is plenty of new worlds and cultures to explore.
I travelled to Syria more than 20 years ago and I could say the experience felt like travelling in a time machine. I guess it’s the same feeling for tourists who visit Cuba or East Germany after these places had been somewhat detached from the world. During my trip I crossed over from Turkey into Aleppo, and it was a new world. Sweet people looking for connecting, age old sites with very few visitors, and cars from generations ago. We were invited for meals and Syrians brought us into their homes, eager for conversations with outsiders.
One of the best memories I had was being locked into a Crusader castle for the night where we could roam with the ghosts. It was just me and Cara, together, and common sense should tell two women travellers to never do such a thing but my Spidie senses told me that Syria is safe for women and that we were protected.
Like the elaborate and luxurious riads of Morocco we stayed in while in Morocco, the Levant area (Lebanon, Syria, Israel) has its own style of elaborate estates and Ottoman palaces. They are living estates, converted to today, but many Ottoman palaces are abandoned as we see in Turkey.
Over in Syria, where tourism is opening once again, you can get a chance to visit these Ottoman estates, frozen in time. We stayed at some magical estates when we travelled through Aleppo and Damascus and if you are looking for some off-beat travel, try travelling to Syria.
A Swiss-Syrian couple sent us updated images of a boutique hotel they run in Damascus called the Beit Zafran Hotel de Charme. The couple also runs a tour company that can set you up with some local, sustainable travel options though when we were there it was pretty easy getting around by dolmus, or the mini-bus commonly used in the Middle East.
Adnan Habab and Gabriela Wengert write: “We are a quiet urban hideaway tucked in a historical neighborhood of churches, mosques, souks (old bazaars) and winding streets. Once you step inside the home, the house’s charm and sophistication are unmistakable.”
The meticulously restored Ottoman mansion (built in 1836) was remade true to its authentic form: its 12 exquisite rooms and suites are built around the house’s two inner courtyards with their magnificent original marble fountains and the scent of jasmine.
The “liwan” (a long narrow-fronted hall or vaulted portal in ancient and modern Levantine homes that is often open to the outside) with its original wooden ceiling and stucco decoration is a seating area open to the courtyard where you can escape the heat and buzz of Damascus.
Damascus is the southern-most city of Syria, founded in the 3rd millennium BCE. It was an important cultural and commercial centre, by virtue of its geographical position at the crossroads of the orient and the occident, between Africa and Asia. The old city of Damascus is considered to be among the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world.
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