Damascus

Two years ago I visited Syria to catch up with friends who worked in an embassy there.

Fantastic place and, of course, so sad to see what has happened to the country now.

As in Iran, there’s a nutty government but warm, friendly, welcoming ordinary people who love showing off their country to foreigners.

When it’s possible to go there again, I hope people flock back. Damascus has heaps of character. There are lovely boutique hotels and fantastic restaurants which must currently be devoid of tourists.

If and when the situation changes for the better, go.

In the meantime, here’s the article I wrote for the Times about my trip there, and the journey south to Jordan afterwards. This article never appeared chez Murdoch and now never will.

Damascus

The muezzin’s words danced around the headstones. From his minaret they pierced Damascus’ dusty backstreets, following me into the immaculately-kept Commonwealth War Cemetery that I had found by accident.

I was trying to get back to my friends’ apartment, but had taken a wrong turn after lunch. The guard in his booth seemed unconcerned by my arrival. I mimed “is it OK for me to go in?” and he in return entered into the spirit of charades, and motioned for me to push the gate open.

1,165 soldiers lie here. Lance Corporal R.J. Norris, for example, died on March 30 1918, aged 21. 23 years and another world war later trooper H G McCormick of the Royal Scots Greys had been killed aged 22 on June 15 1941. Row after row of young men who’d probably left Blighty whistling a jaunty tune to cover up their nerves, only to end up for eternity next to an arid field filled with prickly pears.

Pausing for coffee in Damascus

In these “must plan ahead” double-u double-u double-u days, when even a B&B in Burkina Faso can be reserved over the internet in seconds, Damascus was a reminder to me that a bit of flexibility in a holiday itinerary can reap huge rewards. Take finding the cemetery for example. Or seeing children happily being tolerated skateboarding in the courtyard of the grand Umayyad mosque. So too the unplanned stop at the ultra-modern Julia Dumna café which wouldn’t have looked out of place in Miami Beach, where I couldn’t help but stare at a group of young Syrian “ladies who lunch” nibbling on sushi and smoking hookah pipes, all hidden behind voluminous, designer sunglasses – not really the mental picture of Damascus I’d had before I arrived.

Lunchtime in Damascus

And then there was my train ride to Amman in Jordan. The plan had been to ride a portion of the same railway that had been famously attacked by Lawrence of Arabia (2010 was the 75th anniversary of his death) and which once ran all the way south to Medina. I’d read romantic tales of a rickety old train with antique carriages that wobbled along the route.

In England I was told it went twice a week to the Jordanian capital, but when enquiring through contacts in Syria this was revised in true Inshallah (“God willing”) style to “well, it certainly used to run” and “we think it might still be going, but from Der’a”  to “it’s still going but freight only” and eventually “perhaps it’s better if you get the bus?”

The old Hejaz railway station in Damascus

I arrived with my backpack at the Hejaz station, completed in 1917, around which horn-blaring yellow taxis buzzed like disturbed wasps. If only I had read my Lonely Planet guide which talked of its proposed redevelopment into a shopping centre, because the old 1908 steam loco parked outside was the only train I could find. The empty ticket hall had no passengers, only an exhibition of film posters under its ornate roof and behind that was a door with an Arabic sign which probably said “no entry”. I pushed past anyway. Where once a platform and tracks stood there was now a huge crater.

Back inside by the First Class window a headscarfed lady sat underneath a portrait of President Assad. Could I buy a ticket, I enquired in French, my Arabic not really having got further than “good morning” and “thank you”. She replied I could – but only to Aleppo, and even then that didn’t go from this station.  So, no train to Amman? She laughed and gave me directions to the bus station.

Damascus

I hailed a taxi, driven by a jolly, rotund man with black teeth who seemed genuinely excited to have a foreigner in his cab. I tapped the meter – more charades – motioning for him to turn it on and trying to look stern. He shrugged and laughed and honked his horn as we pulled out into the rush hour traffic. He chatted in Arabic, ignoring my shrugs of non-comprehension, as we ploughed on through drab suburbs for 15 minutes, until we stopped outside a garage with a sign for the Challenge VIP bus company. I was slapped on the back and my new friend rubbed his chin before deciding 150 Pounds (GBP£2) seemed like a fair amount.

Backstreets of Damascus

The last of my Syrian pounds went on my GBP£7 ticket to Amman, which was scheduled to take about five hours for the 180km journey. The bus was full as we pulled out on the dot of 4.30pm, with Arab pop playing quietly on the speaker system, past grubby 80s apartment blocks festooned with rusting satellite dishes and out into the scrubby Syrian countryside on the road south. A young man in a fading Manchester United t-shirt sat next to me, engrossed in a book, while an elderly Bedouin and his wife sat across the aisle.

We reached the border at Nasib in darkness after an hour and 20 minutes. Everyone trooped off so I followed. I couldn’t work out why some people were handing over cash at a booth until I saw the words “departure tax”.

Departure tax? On a bus? No one told me I was leaving from the Michael O’Leary school of border crossings. Yes, I was told, 500 Syrian Pounds (GBP£7) and no they wouldn’t take dollars or euro. The look of genuine panic that spread rapidly across my face must have been obvious to all and this time it wasn’t charades. I was too preoccupied  worrying if I’d at least get a blanket in the border police’s holding cell  to notice my companion in the Manchester United t-shirt organising a whip round. Whether out of genuine compassion or just not wanting to get delayed by an A1 cashless English numpty, notes and coins were bundled together and in a minute I had my precious receipt. I thanked him and pressed some dollars into his hand.

It was a further two and a half hours before we left for Amman – exit stamps inspected, bags searched, visas inserted, duty free perused (bottle of holy water anyone?) and topped off with the somewhat surreal experience of a Jordanian customs official throwing sweets around the bus like a pantomime dame at Christmas. Trundling south into the Jordanian night gave me time to reflect on the benefits of accepting the unexpected and, Inshallah, scheduling the unschedulable into any future travels. The snores of my fellow travellers suggested I was perhaps the only person on the bus to have yet fully grasped this concept. END

Damascus

Palmyra

Relaxing in a cafe on the road from Palmyra to Damascus

Border with the Golan Heights. The Israeli army post is in the background

Golan Heights in the background, Assad in the foreground

All photos & text @ Will Hide

Just back from a week in Tokyo and, to be honest, a little shell shocked. In a good way. Maybe it’s the jet lag but I’m still trying to piece it all together.

I know I should be led out behind the mess hut, blindfolded, wrists bound, and shot by firing squad for saying “it’s a clash of cultures” but blimey, it’s quite a clash of cultures.

My number one tip for Tokyo: take a deep breath and dive in. You’re going to get lost. You’re not going to know what you’re eating half the time – see above. (Actually, make that 90% of the time. That’s eel on a stick in the photo by the way and a bargain at less than a pound). Communication is going to be difficult (pretty much no speaks English and Japanese isn’t easy) – but it’s going to be amazing.

First things first – do a bit of planning. If you’re going to be travelling around the country get a Japan Rail pass, available only to foreigners, which will definitely save you money if you’re doing anything more than just a Tokyo-Kyoto return. And before you use the Tokyo metro for the first time pick up the tourist board’s English language leaflet when you’re at the airport on how to buy a ticket – first time it’s terrifying, second time onwards you’ll wonder what the fuss was about.  Outside of rush hour it’s really not cramped at all. And it’s spotless. No one drops litter, no one talks loudly on their mobile, no one turns their iPods up so you can hear what’s blaring out of some spotty youth’s headphones from three carriages away. Trains arrive on time. So all in all just like London then.

Oh and get used to people wearing masks. Seems weird at first, but when you’re home some and some herbert sneezes all over you, you’ll look back wistfully at your time in Japan.

Accept that some things are too weird to accept. Yes, you could go to Starbucks (and they are liberally sprinkled all over Tokyo) or you could shake a banana milk shake and sing a little song in a squeaky high pitched voice in a maid cafe.

And there can’t be too many capital cities in the world where you can be buried in hot sand and poach in natural hot springs a 20-minute metro ride from downtown.

And where else can you change into the same cult-like brown pyjamas as all fellow guests for a night, and sleep in a poorly-ventilated, oversized coffin for the princely sum of around £30 per night? (You may be picking up a bit of cynicism here, but seriously, capsule hotels seem like a fun idea when you’re planning a trip to Japan. The reality is a bit more down to earth when you’re lying in one wide awake with jet lag at 3am. I don’t think you’d find many tourists who’d willingly do two nights).

But there again, it’s pretty cool to be wandering down the road and bump into blokes like this.

And to eat sushi and have a view like this out of the window – sushi, which by the way, is so good it will make you cry the next time you buy packaged supermarket rubbish back in the UK.

And OK, the Big One may be on the way – if the ground starts to shake, make like the cat in this poster and dive under a table; number 2 thing to do, turn the gas off; number 3 thing to do once it’s all stopped wobbling, prop open a door with a chair – but that’s just another thing that makes Tokyo what it is.  Pretty bloody amazing.

 

 

 

 

 

It’s slightly disconcerting to see at least 20% of the population of one of the world’s major cities wearing face masks, but it is flu season – even if it feels more like late Spring than mid Winter at the moment in Tokyo with the sun blazing away.

If you want to join the throng a pack of 7 disposable masks will set you back 230 yen (£1.90) from any Family Mart corner store.

And pick up a green-tea flavoured Kit Kat while you’re there for 126 yen – quite addictive.

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A website I come back to time and time again is www.inyourpocket.com.  In fact if I had to nominate the absolute best travel website I use it would be this one.

On first click it doesn’t seem anything that special but what it does it does fantastically well.

Essentially it provides guides to cities in eastern Europe, although it’s spreading its wings with Belfast, Zurich, Hamburg and other westies making an appearance.

What makes these guides great for me is that for many of the cities you can just click and download a full PDF guide which is always up to date and provides all the info you need for a weekend away.

And they’re free! What’s better than free? Not much that’s what.

So if you’re heading to Minsk or Zagreb or Moscow definitely head to this website first.

 

 

 

Two of my favourite things are Cape Town (twenty visits and counting) and great coffee. Brad Armitage founded the South African chain Vida e Caffe (think Starbucks but with actual decent coffee) with his business partner Rui Esteves (no, not the former Portuguese soccer international, a different Rui), before selling the business and setting up boutique beer producer cum bar &UNION on Bree Street a few years back.

Brad Armitage; portrait by Morne Van Zyl

I asked Brad to tell me about the places in town he’d send his mates if they were visiting Cape Town.

WHERE SHOULD I EAT RIGHT NOW?

Super star chef Luke Dale-Roberts has been claiming the headlines with his award-winning study of molecular gastronomy, The Test Kitchen. However the waiting list is a lesson in patience to say the least. Rather opt for his ‘spill- over’ option, the less formal Pot Luck Club. Small, and unceremonious, it is part lite-meal diner, part gallery.

If you are looking to head out of the city, then it has to be The Table at De Meye wine farm (voted best country dining spot in the recent Eat Out Awards). The Table is what happens when you unleash a chef, a food stylist and a gourmand photographer on a disused barn in the winelands. It’s a single, set menu of local specialities, and its only open twice a week. Booking is a must and be sure to try the Rosé – grown within earshot of your table.

WHERE SHOULD I BE DRINKING RIGHT NOW?

Of course any good evening of libation will start at with a fine selection of craft beers at &UNION. But that is because I am blatantly biased. From then on I would have to recommend dive-bar cum neighbourhood cafe, Power & Glory. It has a limited selection of well-made, old-school cocktails like the crisp and refreshing Army Navy- made from artisanal organic gin, almond liqueur and lemon.

WHERE SHOULD I BE SHOPPING RIGHT NOW?
There is a small node of great local designers on the corner of Long and Church streets. David West is still cranking out some of the finest South African menswear and his store is shared with local industrial designers Dokter en Missus. For a little street flavour there are two great choices: pioneers of Cape Town’s streetwear scene ASTOREISGOOD on Kloof St. – it has limited selections from Vans Vault, Rudolph Dassler, Adidas Originals, local menswear from Citizen Band and Adriaan Kuiters and a bunch of great selection of books and local menswear from Citizen Band and Adriaan Kuiters. Next head for Loading Bay, in De Waterkant. Menswear selections from Acne, Our Legacy and Velour are presented overlooking a great little cafe.

WHAT’S YOUR PERFECT SUMMER WEEKEND IN THE MOTHER CITY?

A morning surf up the West coast at one of the beach breaks beyond Big Bay like Horse Trails. Head back into town for espresso and quick breakfast (try the Heuvos Rancheros at Clarke’s Diner). Then regroup with the family and pack the car to get some more sun and swimming in the rock pools at Bakeoven Beach – probably Cape Town’s best kept secret. An afternoon braai (barbecue) around the pool, and watch the lights come up on Table Mountain. If you have anymore strength, you would walk down into the city, and enjoy a Negroni at Tjing Tjing – one of the few rooftop bars in Cape Town.

WHAT’S YOUR FAVOURITE LOCAL ESCAPE?

Head up the coast to the West Coast National Park. Once inside, forget the wild flowers, and head straight to the secluded beaches like Kraalbaai – it is on the lagoon, with azure warm water that is more akin to the Greek Isles than the stark West Coast – and only an hours drive from the city. Pack a lunch, and stay the whole day.

WHAT’S YOUR CAPE TOWN GUILTY PLEASURE?

A Chicken Roti from the roti lady in Bo Kaap. Sorry, that is all the details I have – she sells the best Roti’s ever! They cost next to nothing, but she only sells for 1 hour, on a Friday, as all the men leave Friday prayers in the mosques in the Muslim neighbourhood of Bo Kaap. Simply brilliant. It all sells out in half an hour.

WHAT’S YOUR NUMBER ONE TIP FOR ANYONE HEADING DOWN?

Always carry a light-weight, weather-proof jacket. No matter how hot it was today – tonight may get icy, and you will get caught out in the rain.

WHAT’S THE CHEESIEST TOURIST THING IN CAPE TOWN THAT VISITORS SHOULD AVOID AT ALL COSTS?
Shark cage diving. It is messing with the mojo of mother nature. And just not cool.

WHO ARE YOU?

Concept Developer and Brand Custodian, Brad Armitage has been crafting retail experiences for over 12 years. Passionate about the way we spend our time, and our money, and the things we do to make us feel good. He is co-founder of Collective São Gabriel and the Brewers & Union range of craft beers, as well as the purpose built ‘beer shrine’ &UNION, on Cape Town’s Bree Street. Brad continues to work in the realm of brand development, and clients including Woolworths, Paint & Place, Union Swiss and Plascon/Midas Eathcote. He has been involved in a variety of menswear blogs, and is a contributor to Future Laboratory, GQ and Monocle magazines. Brad hates to talk about himself in the 3rd person.

BAIE DANKIE, BRAD!