Christmas in Damascus

January 16th, 2009 by scott and becky

Showing off our Christmas hats, decorations and chocolate

Showing off our Christmas hats, decorations and chocolate

We took the early morning bus from Amman to Damascus, and arrived at 10:30 am tired. Unfortunately, Becky wasn’t thinking and Scott didn’t effectively clue her in, such that we spent too much on a “taxi” to the first hotel we wanted to look at. As the driver ripped us off, taking way too much money, he said “Welcome to Damascus” in a tone that was so un-Syrian! It is good that we have already had many positive experiences in Syria, as this might have spoilt our impressions.

We checked out a few hotels from our guidebook, but they were way too expensive. You know you are being overcharged when the hotel quotes you prices in dollars rather than Syrian pounds! We quickly gave up on the guidebook suggestions and started walking towards the old town where we knew there were many less expensive places. We happened upon the Al Ahram hotel on the main road, and went in to take a look. The rooms are nice and clean although a little noisy, and the cost was half of the other places we had looked at (1000 SP a night). The staff do not speak much English and the hotel guests are Arab tourists rather than Western tourists, but is it clean, warm, has hot water, and the bed is comfortable.

We went for a walk, looking for a place to grab lunch. It being a Friday, most of the souk was closed. On the way, we came across the Umayyad Mosque, just as the Friday noon prayers let out. People were milling about the area outside the mosque, clearly waiting for something. We figured it was likely to be a march in protest of the Israeli attack on Gaza. We were interested in seeing the march, but decided that avoiding the demonstration was a better course. We could feel the emotional charge in the air, and wondered what the Imam had said during his sermon at the noon prayers.

We continued into the Christian quarter of the old city, and eventually happened upon a fancy restaurant which was open – the Narenj near the Greek Orthodox church. We decided to look at the menu. After being in Jordan, we were surprised at how affordable the prices were and decided that a good lunch was in order. We sat down and enjoyed five different mezes (starters) with warm fresh flat bread. When we thought we could not eat anymore, the waiter brought out a complementary tray of desserts that would have fed at least 8 people! Our entire meal cost 700 SP (about $21) – expensive by Syrian standards but cheap after being in Jordan. It could have been much more if we chose to eat a full meal. We also took the opportunity to do some people-watching. It’s clear that this is one of the places wealthy Christians go for lunch on Fridays. We watched many people, clearly Christian by their dress, climb out of recent-model BMWs, Mercedes and Jaguars and hand the keys to the valet attendant. It felt strange to be in a place like this as low-budget travelers, but we definitely enjoyed the food and the atmosphere.

In the early evening, Jacques (Scott’s friend Ghanem’s Uncle who lives in Damascus) came out to meet us and deliver our mail – Our families and friends had sent us a couple of packages and envelopes for Christmas, and this was our first opportunity to pick them up. After delivering our mail, Jacques took us out for a nice dinner – our second wonderful meal of the day. To complement the meal, we enjoyed the best bottle of wine we have had since leaving North America (a Lebanese wine). We certainly felt spoilt with two wonderful meals in the same day. When we got back to the hotel, we got to open our packages. With two great meals and the opening of gifts from home, it certainly felt like Christmas.

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