GUARDIAN Not everyone enjoys shopping, especially not blokes, and in particular not this bloke. That anyone can wring a scintilla of satisfaction from trawling around a store baffles me. But then I suffer from a rare congenital condition: I was born without a shopping gene. Or at least, I thought that was so. It seems that I’ve undergone a Damascene type conversion on the road to, er, Damascus.
Damascus is a city built for shopping, as my guide, Basil, was only too keen to point out. He picked me up from my hotel bang on 9.30am for a familiarisation tour – a necessity for newcomers in the old city’s extraordinary twisting lanes. By 9.37am he’d pinged me into a rambling shop apparently favoured by clerics and other assorted men of the cloth. I quickly escaped the profusion of brocade, brass lamps, faux antiques and mother-of-pearl covered prayer books. It was a close shave.
Basil got the message and spent the next two hours pointing out the major thoroughfares, sights and souks, deftly explaining how the seemingly splintered parts all interconnected. Job well done, it was time for me to do my own thing.
My cerebral satnav is usually pretty reliable, and I confidently strode off towards the Umayyad mosque. But something malfunctioned as I wove through the ancient lanes without so much as a glimpse of Islam’s finest building. And maybe that’s the knack to enjoying the old city – get lost and see where you end up.
Sharia Medhat Pasha (Straight Street) is punctuated with monumental lumps of recently unearthed Roman masonry and lined with scores of shops selling antiques, carpets and Levantine bric-a-brac. Here I felt a consumerist twinge, catalysed by the alluring smell of spicy coffee in the covered souk. The urge to buy a sack full of beans became overwhelming.
I strayed into another area specialising in covetable soft furnishings. Every type of tassel, trim and trapping jostled for space alongside olive soap that looked good enough to eat. I began to think life would be incomplete if I didn’t buy a pair of glittery gold sandals from a nearby stall. I was obviously tired, vaguely hysterical and possibly hallucinating, so headed off for supper.
Eating out in Damascus is as important as shopping. If you want a table at any of the flashier restaurants on a Thursday night (the start of the weekend), then booking is essential. Likewise, don’t even consider eating before 10pm.
I’m a foodie by nature and missed having at least three pals with me to let rip with the menu at Narange restaurant (Straight Street). A lone diner couldn’t possibly wade through the meze, so I settled for a lamb kebab and a delicious lentil dish smothered with crispy onion and pureed garlic instead. With wine it cost a bargain £15.
Finding my hotel afterwards took several attempts, but I eventually got there. Al Mamlouka is a traditional Damascene house hidden in an alley near Bab Touma (St Thomas’s Gate). It focuses inwards, towards a courtyard filled with orange trees, potted plants, a trickling marble fountain and an open-air living area furnished with low couches to sprawl on. But if the courtyard is good, the rooms are even better. High ceilings tower 15ft above marble floors, huge gold brocade curtains divide the bedroom from a sitting area, and every conceivable surface is decorated in Middle Eastern bling. Utterly gorgeous. Waking up from a perfect night’s sleep was difficult, and the thought of staying in bed all day too tempting.
Damascene hotels haven’t always been this way. Until recently the choice of accommodation was lousy: either generic five-star marble opulence or tat. Al Mamlouka was the first to buck the trend, spearheading a slew of small, stylish boutique hotels that have opened around the old city. Not that you’ll be crowded out by other tourists; Damascus is still comparatively off the tourist map – that’s the magic. And unlike cities such as Marrakech, you won’t be hassled to buy crappy carpets you really don’t want nor plagued by too much unwanted attention.
Friday isn’t a day for the shops, unless you happen to be in the Christian quarter, but even there it’s subdued. Few open for business, except bakers doing a roaring trade in cakes and pastries, boys hawking cheap Chinese toys in Souq al-Hamidyya and a chap by the Umayyad mosque (I eventually managed to find it) demonstrating the resistible art of vegetable carving. Friday is, however, a day for culture.
Check out the National Museum, if only for the tiny lump of clay inscribed with 30 cuneiform signs – the world’s first recorded alphabet. This wholly incongruous gobbet is somehow totally thrilling. For sheer ostentation, a splendidly homoerotic Roman sarcophagus wins outright, a buttocky and sensual riot, even though those depicted are trying to kill each other.
Along Souq al-Bzouriyya (the Seed Bazaar) I found Khan As’ad Pasha, an exquisite 18th-century caravanserai that’s currently home to a travelling exhibition of ceramics from the V&A. This is a big deal – no western museum has lent such an important collection of objects to Syriabefore. It’s both a sign of the political thaw that’s taking place and a glowing reflection on Damascene culture generally.
I’d been told that the Damascus contemporary arts scene was kicking, so went in search of it at Ninar art cafe and restaurant (Sharia Bab Sharqi). Ninar certainly has a boho vibe. Beatniky, “manscaped” poets (think sculpted facial hair) scribble in notebooks and table hop; it’s fun but hardly feels cutting edge. It wasn’t until the next day that I began to see what the fuss was about.
The Ayyam Gallery (ayyamgallery.com) is in a newly built quarter 20 minutes by cab from the old city. Housed in an unremarkable apartment building on a suburban street, it’s easy to miss. Don’t. This slick, polished set-up has been instrumental in promoting home-grown contemporary art in the Middle East and further afield (they have a new gallery in Dubai, are about to open a third in Beirut and show at art fairs around the world). When I visited they were showcasing Syrian, Lebanese and Palestinian artists in an excellent exhibition called Shabab Uprising. Back in the old city, make a point of tracking down the well-hidden Kozah Gallery (kozah.com) just off Straight Street. Their roster of artists is equally exciting.
And here you’ll find yourself back in shopping nirvana. My humbug attitude towards traipsing around stores had totally dissolved by the time I entered an antique shop called al-Nagafa near St Mary’s church. Ask Hasan to show you their small house just around the corner. It’s a wonderland of fabulous junk, an Aladdin’s cave stuffed full of trinkets I never knew I needed and every one of which I wanted to bring home. I’ll never be the same again.