The Old City of Damascus is essentially a tangled network of alleyways criss-crossing and snaking through buildings patched up and conjured through centuries of trade and human settlement. This medieval city feels more like a village that has completely outgrown itself, with no planning or consideration for later, modern inventions such as the private automobile. This makes it the perfect city for the wandering pedestrian, with no cars in sight and all those narrow cobblestone alleyways to get lost in.
The authorities have done a rather remarkable feat naming and putting street signs for the myriad lanes that sew the entire city together, although the sheer number of lanes jutting out from the main thoroughfares renders the effort a token gesture at best, and a lost cause at worst. My Lonely Planet guidebook, in the interest of being thorough, provides a map of the Old City but is smart enough to advise visitors to disregard it, and instead walk straight in and lose yourself amidst the chaos. You’ll eventually find a way out.
The great thing about all that walking is that it works up an appetite, and Syria is a great place for the frugal visitor to hear his stomach grumble. Food is extremely cheap and Syrian food, like most Mediterranean cuisine, is not as confronting as say, the more exotic fare of the East.
It’s hard to pass off a helping of shwarma, the Arabic equivalent to the Turkish kebab, with the addition of gherkins and mayo. However, a full meal will slow my walk and discourage me from further munching, and that’s not cool. No, what I want is something leaning towards a snack, and thankfully there are plenty of stalls specialising in munchies. Most of them can be found in the left alleyway jutting out from the main thoroughfare of Souk al-Hamidiyya, just before the Roman colonnades that form the entrance to the Grand Umayyad Mosque. Here, among shops selling Qurans and touristy keychains and decorative glass beads are stalls selling pies with olive paste stuffing, meat and cheese, as well as the tasty lahmacun, a sort of pizza dish where spicy minced lamb is spread onto a thin dough and sprinkled with a squirt of lemon juice and chili powder.
There are also hole in the wall bakeries scattered throughout the Old City, selling buns which have the most wonderful texture – a delicately crunchy exterior that gives way to a soft centre. There is a croissant whose similarity with the well-known French is only in shape; the Syrian version is more bread than pastry, not at all flaky but much more filling, less decadent, more peasant. Complex carbohydrates are nice, but there’s nothing like a quick hit of sugar to get you going, so I often treated myself to a date bun, a long knotted bread filled with date paste, which is similar to the red bean paste of Asia in both colour and in the subtle flirting between sweet and savoury. The bun is shaped like a Bueno kinder bar, where you can tear off a piece to eat individually, although the expectation of course is to finish the whole thing eventually.
We always ended up buying lots of bread and sesame-topped buns from the bakery, and the breadman (is that what they’re called?), in true Syrian hospitality would offer complimentary pieces of pineapple jam tarts which simply…crumble in your mouth. I was instantly hooked. Is this true Syrian hospitality or a clever marketing ploy? I wasn’t sure.
Note: For a taste of the lahmacun and Arabic-style pies, head over to A1 bakery on Sydney Road Brunswick, where they’re crisped up to order in the traditional oven.