Dazzle your senses in Damascus

Andrea Anastasiou loses herself in the charm of Syria's ancient jewel, Damascus.
By Andrea Anastasiou, Freelance writer, Aquarius
Published: 00:00 August 1, 2010
If you were given all the time in the world to explore Damascus, it wouldn't be enough. When you bear in mind that this is believed to be the oldest inhabited city on earth, you begin to appreciate the layers of history that are found within each building block and street corner, and the amount of time that you would need to unravel and experience it all. The city oozes personality from every nook and cranny; no matter where you are, something interesting surrounds you, from the varying architecture left behind by the myriad civilisations who tried to make the city their own, to the street artist sitting under a tree, sketching the hours away.
While in Damascus, be prepared to receive an education in the very essence of Arabia, with the enticing aromas emanating from the souqs, the breathtaking sight of the Umayyad Mosque, and the invigorating experience of one of the city's hammams...

Sensory bliss: Touch
Scrub up in a hammam
Those searching for an authentically Damascene way of invigorating their body should head to one of the city's public baths or hammams. I tried out the Hammam Ammoonah (+963-11-2316414 begin_of_the_skype_highlighting +963-11-2316414 end_of_the_skype_highlighting), which was built in the 12th century, and is located just outside the Old City's walls, near Bab Al Faradeis. The timings during which men and women can visit are strictly segregated: from 8am until 8pm for ladies, and from 8pm until 8am for gentlemen. Once inside, you can leave your valuables in a safety box at reception. You're then required to strip, and will be handed a towel before being led into the tiny steam room, where you are surrounded by big whirls of steam for about 15 minutes.
Once this is over, you will be called by one of the hammamjis (female bath attendants) who will scrub you down with a loofah and olive oil soap, rinse you off with cold water (great in the summer, possibly not so great in the winter) and lead you to the final stage - the full body massage. Following this, you're led to rinse off. Being completely naked in front of complete strangers is not a practice I regularly take part in, but as they say: when in Damascus, do as the Damascenes do, and this is definitely a place where you get to see daily life in motion. The result? You walk away wondering if it is possible to bathe like this forever.
Relax with a massage
For those of you who would prefer to preserve their modesty, I would recommend trying The Royal Zanobia massage at the Balloran Spa (+963-11-3391000 / +963-11-3391000  instead.
First, pure, warm olive oil is applied by the masseuse to your body using special heated poultices filled with chamomile powder and aromatic oils. Now while some may wince at the idea of being lathered with something that is generally used to dress a salad, there is something extremely soothing and invigorating about the smell of warm olive oil mixed with chamomile, and the way it feels on your skin. The masseuse then uses a medium pressure massage technique over your entire body, during which you will feel your aches and pains melt away.
Afterwards, make sure you use the spa's steam room to open your pores and feel the full effect of the treatment, and once you've showered, lather on the spa's delicious smelling jasmine body lotion. This treatment's benefits don't end when you walk out of the spa - my skin gleamed for more than three days!
Sensory bliss: Smell
Savour the scents inthe souqs
Damascus is known as ‘fragrant city', and is famous for the jasmine flowers that feature at the front of many people's homes. Such is the flower's importance to the country, I was told by alocal that President Bashar Al Assad once instructed all the citizens to plant one in their gardens.
And it's not just the flowers that will awaken your sense of smell in Damascus - at the many souqs you will find a rich collection of enticing scents. Make sure you visit Souq Al Bzouriyeh, which features stalls selling myriad spices, from cinnamon to cardamom and chilli. As you walk down the street, you will find yourself guided by your nose as the pungent smells overtake your senses. Here you will also find small shops selling fragrant handmade soaps and aromatic oils, which serve as great, inexpensive gifts to bring home.
Other souqs that you must try and visit include Souq Al Hamidiyeh, where you will find women's clothing and jewellery, and Souq Al Harir for embroidered clothes and shawls. The beauty of the souqs in Damascus is that you will not encounter pushy stall owners, chasing you down the street. Damascenes are laid-back, easy-going people, so you won't be harassed into buying anything you don't want. Note that Friday is a day of rest and most stalls in all the souqs are closed.

Sensory bliss: Taste
Sample the street food
If, like me, you love Arabic food, then your palate will be delighted while you're in Damascus. From street vendors selling delicious goods such as kibbeh (bulgur shells filled with spiced lamb mince), to family run restaurants serving up plate upon plate of well-prepared mezze, the Damascene culinary scene may not rival Dubai's in the fancy venue and variety stakes, but what you will find is wholesome food full of flavour, made from the freshest ingredients.
While walking around the Old City, try one of the many street bakeries, where you can sample baked goods such as Lahm bil ajin (pastry covered with minced meat, onion and nuts) and manakeesh (mini ‘pizzas'that are topped with cheese and Zaatar) for ridiculously low prices. Street food is one of the city's many charms and if you're a fan of shawarmas, you must try the Damascene version; here, the Arabic flat bread is first pressed gently against the spit to absorb some of the juices, then, small chunks of meat are placed together with garlic mayonnaise, pickles and yoghurt, before being wrapped up in the bread and handed to you.Simply amazing!
Feast like a trueArabian princess
For those looking for a five-star culinary experience, Al Halabi restaurant at the Four Seasons Hotel (+963-11-3391000 begin_of_the_skype_highlighting +963-11-3391000 ) serves up traditional dishes from the northern city of Aleppo. During my visit, I was mesmerised by the amount of mezze dishes that were brought to the table. If you pick just one dish here, you must sample the Kabab Karaz - grilled lamb with sweet cherries. The lamb melts in your mouth, and the tanginess of the cherries offsets this perfectly. At the end of your dinner, make sure you try white coffee, which, ironically, does not contain milk, nor coffee. This is a mixture of hot water, rose water and mint, and is perfectly refreshing after a big meal.

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