*Was fortunate enough to travel to Syria and see the country in 2008 (when the original article was written), three years before the actual war broke out. This is a reminder, a story about the country with immense cultural heritage, posted here with wholehearted wish for peace to be restored.
If you enjoy having your coffee outside (as we often do in Europe), in some cafe on the curb, you would have to put some effort in finding one in Damascus. I walked through numerous streets of the modern part of the city only to come across restaurant signs hanging from building walls.
Next to one large square, with huge fountain and an imposing sculpture, there was a name tag for a cafe with „all sorts of coffees to your own taste“. Followed the sign and ended up in one small courtyard deep into the area between surrounding buildings with concrete floor and few tables. Asked for Nescafe and got a small kettle with boiling water, small jar of sugar, the other one with the coffee and an empty cup – I was supposed to mix it „to my own taste“.
I guess you can have a coffee in those small places where all the customers are men, chatting, having tea, smoking narghile and looking at passers by. Well, I guess you can…
Hit the price
Pay attention when it comes to prices. It happens very often that a tourist asks for a tea price (being cautious after hearing about those Syrian „jokes“). He gets answered with one price. But afterwards when he wants to pay, waiter asks for the amount three times higher.
Protesting won’t make any difference since the guy will only shrug, like saying „it’s your problem, not mine“. Even though they can be extremely nice and hospitable, you just have to keep in mind that Syrians are poor and that they are trying to earn any pocket change they can (since the average salary in 2008 was 150 dollars).
Alcohol beverages can be found in hotels only. Do not expect a variety of drinks. The most frequent one is the „Barada“ local beer, named after the Damascus river, but foreigners say that there is also one brand from Lebanon. In authentic Arab restaurants with live music you will be served non alcoholic beer that tastes like a bitter soda tea.
Rude locals and tourists alike
Low economy standard is reflected on the city itself, which ended up quite untidy. A lot of buildings in the modern part of Damascus were neglected, parks where people were resting in the shade were actually full of garbage.
They are strict when it comes to dress code of their women, who are often completely covered, but if you are a female tourist it could easily happen that young Syrians will try to push through the crowd a bit more than they should, in order to come near you. The best advice is to avoid these kinds of „encounters“, since any reaction of yours will just be useless when those guys disappear and blend into the crowd, even though you have already started to swear out loud in your own language!
Still, tourists are not that polite as well sometimes. You can often hear European men protesting because their wives are looked at on the streets, but than again, they themselves jump right in front of every covered Syrian lady just to take another photo, without asking.
Syrian men are the ones who might react to this kind of behavior.
The night market
It is not that hard to go around the city. There are pedestrian overpasses above almost every larger boulevard, disposed just right so that you can easily go by foot. Do not even bother to look for a map of the city. I even confused few people on the street by asking them where to buy one. It was somewhat more interesting this way, you just have to go and explore, feeling lost all the time.
On the way, you will come across a lot of street vendors of mulberry juice and coffee, pouring it in a specific way and dressed in traditional clothes. There is one at almost every corner.
Strolling along thick walls of the Old town you will discover small districts that seemingly sell only one type of goods. I have turned into one small street and there was a neighborhood full of tiny stores with pipes, screws and tools of all kinds… A bit further, after taking another of those „eenie, meenie, miney, mo“ turns, I found myself at the market, vegetables, fruits and meat. That was a hard crowd to squeeze through, bustling, haggling, pushing, jostling, and I had to watch my step!
In one of those small streets there was a market that lasts for the whole day. Merchants come at seven in the morning, buyers soon come to the scene, and it goes on like that late into the night! That day (it was Thursday if I remember it correctly, although I am not sure that the 24-hour market was reserved for Thursdays only), the bustle took place up until one, after midnight.
Our hotel was in the same street and some tourists said that they have heard the market noise even later in the night, around three.
This is actually not that bad idea if you have in mind that raw food cannot be preserved easily in such a heat (and I was there in May).
President’s posters all around
Damascus and the whole country accordingly was covered in posters of president Bashar al Assad, who took over the power from his father Hafez. The family is ruling the country since 1970’s. If you have had a chance to travel to other Arab countries, this will not come as such a surprise since you have probably seen pictures of a king or sheikh in United Arab Emirates or Jordan, smiling from all around.
It is similar here. In Damascus, for example, I have walked by one building with every one of the windows being closed and covered in portraits of the president-father and the president-sun. Their smiling faces appear before you on every street pole you come across, every shop window and even car windows. The president will also „greet“ you at the border, saying „thanks for visiting“ and „have a good trip“.