By William Dobson
Much maligned in the western press, mainly due to frosty relations with the United States, Syria is perhaps not everyone’s most highly-rated holiday destination.
Although wandering around Damascus, certainly in the spring months when the air in the old city is redolent with the scents of jasmine and orange blossom and the weather is glorious, one sees a number of tourists.
Get off the beaten track and it is a different matter altogether. There aren’t many places on Earth where you could visit a castle that TE Lawrence – or Lawrence of Arabia as he is more commonly known – described as: “the best crusader castle in the world”, and be in the only group of people there. And Crac de Chavaliers is just a two hour drive from the capital city.
Or if Roman ruins are more to your taste there is always Palmyra, Tadmur to the locals.
An isolated desert oasis, the site is as stunning as any in more popular tourist destinations, such as Egypt, without any of the hassle, pizza huts and inappropriately dressed and overweight coach-ridden tour groups.
However, it is the two main metropolises which will really catch your imagination.
Damascus and Aleppo (Dimashq and Halab) both vie for top spot as the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, and there are still places where, if it wasn’t for the ubiquitous mopeds and satellite dishes, you can imagine that you’ve just been transported 2,000 years back in time.
While the new city in Damascus is your average Middle Eastern sprawl of continuous yellow taxis, communist style tower blocks, unfinished building work and pollution, the Old City, Medina Al-Qadima, is a world away.
Impossibly narrow streets, coffee houses frequented by the older Syrian generations smoking shisha pipes while playing backgammon, and fragrant spice markets make this part of the city a charming and exotic place.
A whole day can easily be spent in a continuous cycle of getting lost and found without any need to refer to a guidebook to discover what to see and where you are.
There are still sights to tick off, as with any city, and the Omayyad Mosque is one of the great architectural achievements of the Arab world.
The Azem Palace is also well worth a visit, and now home to a craft museum.
The vibe in Aleppo is somewhat different and more traditional, and it is really here that you feel you are in the Middle East as it would have been before Europeans discovered it.
The souks compare to any in Morocco, without the constant hassle from over-touristed sellers only interested in your money, and the citadel, built during the Crusades, is vast and uniquely preserved.
Syria’s not perfect, and you’ll be sure to experience your fair share of annoyances, such as haggling with taxi drivers, or getting in an alley while a jeep attempts to navigate its way through a space half its size.
But as a holiday destination, there aren’t many places which offer so much, for so little. It is also a great place to be based for further travel to Beirut and Amman.
The Australian Government warns to exercise a ‘high degree of caution‘ if travelling to Syria.