There are quite a few places not too far from Beirut to go on a weekend getaway, and certainly many reasons to want to take a break from this exhausting city.
One such place is Damascus, the capital of neighboring Syria. I went there last weekend and it was such a change of scene for me that I look forward to doing it again – Here are some things I learned on this trip for you to consider before your next Damascus escapade!
- It’s a smooth drive and only 3 hours away: Beirut-Damascus is a 3-hour trip door-to-door, that’s including a stop of about 1 hour at the Lebanese and Syrian borders (also including another stop in Chtaura to munch on the delicious local dairy and exchange money). It is a generally smooth ride if you go outside the peak hours, as there could be more traffic on ‘Damascus Road’ and more chaos at the two borders, especially at the Lebanese border. The trip is also inexpensive: it costs about 15$ per person each way using a shared (and decent) taxi from the Charles Helou station in Beirut, to the Sumariyya station outside Damascus, more if you use the local taxi companies or don’t want to share the cab with other passengers. One of the bummers is that the cost for crossing the borders will vary depending on your nationality, all the way from free for Lebanese to 30$ for Europeans to 50$ for U.S. or Canadian citizens.
- Experience an authentic Arabic metropolis: Damascus offers an urban tourism experience that is very different from Beirut, but a little bit similar to the other two major cities of Lebanon, Tripoli or Saida, which are smaller and more conservative. Although a 'fun scene' is definitely emerging in Damascus, its yuppies will continue to come to Beirut for a few more years, when they need to get a breath of fresh air, despite the fact that going out in Beirut is much more expensive than going out in Damascus: Indeed, there is no such thing as busy barhopping, heavy clubbing or ongoing cultural events in Damascus. The other way around, interest from the Lebanese in visiting Damascus is growing, as it offers the ideal opportunity for a change of air, to spend a couple days wandering around for hours across its picturesque side streets and getting lost in its endless souks, while getting impregnated with authentic Arabic culture and energy -- things that Westernized Beirut has lost a long time ago, or perhaps never really had.
- Meet a mixed crowd of friendly people: Damascus is a cosmopolitan city and the faces on its streets are amazingly diverse, starting with the Syrians who are quite a mixed (and good-looking!) people. Then there’s the hordes of Iranian and Pakistani pilgrims hopping around the hundreds of mosques of this ex-capital of the Islamic empire. But you also see many foreigners on the streets of Damascus. As it turns out, many of them are not just visiting on tourism, but actually living in Damascus, from students studying under an exchange program to learn Arabic to young people working for local NGOs, to business people who went there trying to take advantage of Syria’s awakening economy. Most importantly, people in Syria seem to be under less stress and seem to be less worried about the hassles of life than the Lebanese (and God knows they have many!). It is immediately noticeable: people in Syria smile more easily, help out more readily, and get mad less quickly.
- Pamper yourself with affordable little pleasures: One of my pleasant surprises was that you can actually eat well in the restaurants of Damascus, with the added benefit that the bill is so low that coming from Beirut, you’re surprised you’ve actually had good food for this price. As for shopping, the streets of Damascus are a place where you can still use your bargaining power to buy anything and everything, from Arab/Ottoman antiques that are way overpriced in Beirut, to good quality cotton linen to delicious oriental sweets. Unfortunately, much like in the souks of Lebanon, the rest of Damascus’ souks has become mostly made-in-China crap. And then, after long hours of walking around, nothing beats a traditional hammam experience. And don’t say you couldn’t find any, for Damascus has over 20!
emerging GiD life: If like myself and like Paul you know how to appreciate the erotic energy of the hammams, Damascus is the place for you. Some of the historic and/or renovated ones are of exceptional architecture. A couple of them are said to be kind of gay, and one of them is way gay (Al Jadid). But despite Damascus’ huge size and a population of over 4 million, gay life in Damascus boils down to only a handful of spots beyond the hammams: a few gay-friendly hangouts, a couple cruising zones like Shaalan… and the rest of it is confined to the realm of the Internet. I did get the chance however to meet a couple of GiDs (Gay in Damascus), and definitely think there is room out there for much more GiB/GiD synergy!