Saturday, July 19, 2008

Taj Mahal in Damsacus!

Wherever we travel, hubby and I like to find an Indian restaurant and try the food out. Not just because we like to eat it, but primarily because we like to see how authentic is the Indian cuisine prepared in that country, how popular Indian food is in that country and also because it tells you a little about the tastes of the people of that city and their willingness to experiment and try out a different cuisine...

We asked the Guest Relations at Sheraton about a good, really good quality Indian restaurant. It appears that there were 3 Indian restaurants (all branches of the same) by the name of Taj Mahal (romance & exotica personified, at least in the name!) in Damascus, and the hotel limousine took us to the biggestest and supposedly the best of them all.

Now the restaurant was not huge but had maybe around 10 covers of 4 seats each..I am begining to suspect that like airports, Indian restaurants all over the world have a prototype consisting of dark ornately carved chairs, lots of pichwai paintings on the wall and tons of brass and copperware! Dunno why!

The staff at the restaurant was very pleasant and helpful, a big change from the otherwise quiet Syrians that we had come across...the owner was an influential local Syrian, the proof being a photograph of him with the Syrian President rather prominently displayed in the restaurant!

I believe the owner and his family had taken a holiday in India over 10 years ago and they just loved the local cuisine. So taken up was he with it, that he decided to open an Indian restuarant back home to remind him of his delightful holiday! Since he would need an Indian Chef to cook Indian food, he decided to enjoy Indian hospitality to the hilt, and decided to bring back with him, the chefs of the hotel that he was staying in!

...and so began a rather profitable love affair with Indian cuisine for him...but I must admit I am glad that he did cos it was really nice to have familiar food after having feasted for days at an end on mezze and bread! Being a vegetarian can really be a curse, especially in the Levant!

The food, surprisingly, was good and reasonably authentic. My son actually devoured large quantities of veggies which are normally partaken after a huge battle of wills! lol!

As we ate our food, to our surpise the place started to fill quite quickly, and, clearly many of the customers were regulars. What I really liked was the attitude and service of the two guys handling the place, taking the orders, making conversation, suggesting food and generally sharing a laugh or two with the clientele - made the entire dining experience so much more special....

So if you are dying for a taste of home in Damascus, then you need to head to Taj Mahal restaurant and eat your fill!!

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Maalula - a tryst with history?

As we drove from Krac towards Damascus, we were quite excited about visiting Maalula, correction, I was! After travelling the whole day, I think my husband and son just wanted the comfort of their air conditoned hotel room and a comfy bed!

Nestled in the mountains, about an hour's drive away from Damascus, the first sight of Maalula is really very quaint!

Maalula is a very small village with a population barely touching 2000. Also it appears that most inhabitants move to Damascus for their jobs and only come back here in summer.. it was amazing to be in the only place in the world, where people still spoke Armaic - the ancient language of Christ!

It is the home of two ancient Christian monasteries: Mar Sarkis and Mar Taqla. Both Christians and Muslim pilgrims come to Maalula seeking blessings.

Maalula means "the entrance" in Aramaic, very appropriate for the village's location at the entrance to a rocky gorge. Maalula perches on the slopes of the Kalamun Mountains overlooking lots of trees and the road.

I believe, Maalula is also the home to some interesting festivals. There are three major festivals: the St. Cross Festival on September 14; the Festival of Mar Takla on September 22; and the festival of Mar Sarkis on October 7. these are celebatde with great gusto and are very popular.

The Aramaic language was the main language used for communication between the Semitic peoples in the ancient middle east. Around the 8th century BC, the empire of the Aramaic language extended from Egypt to remote and isolated regions in Asia.

It is said that Christ's teachings were spread / written in Aramaic because it was the language spoken and written by him and his disciples. Today, what is called Syrian, is in reality a dialect of Aramaic spoken in Mesopotamia (nowadays known as Urfa in Turkey), which later became the language of the Christians in Syria.

At the same time, pressure was exerted on Syriac by the Arabic invaders especially after the 5th century AD. Syriac succumbed to this pressure in the end. The Arabs won the battle. However some pockets of resistance still exist. Maalula is an example of this. ( To read more on this interesting topic read

Restaurant on top of the World!

By the time we had reached the "Krac" our guide was obviously hungry cos he was rather adament that we have lunch prior to seeing the fort...Not something that we wanted to do, cos to walk and climb on a full stomach is not what we Indians are equipped to do! After a nice heavy meal, a snooze is what the local doctor would recommend! lol!

Went to a restaurant called Akkalla which is right next to the Krac on top of the mountain and offers a fabulous view..

Lunch was a huge spread consisting of humous, babagunoush, olives, fried zucchini, sauted aubergine with onions and tomatoes, potato salad, green salad, a huge plate of french fries, a large plate of kebabs and a large packet of balady & pita bread!

Till we started tucking in, didn't realise how hungry we were, and, I must admit, it was probably the healthiest meal that I had had in the last 3 days and definately very very tasty! Or was it just the hunger?

At 700 SPs, it was a very pleasant meal with a wonderful view....

St Simeon Church

About 50-60 kms away from Aleppo, is the really well preserved St Simeon's Church, a must see...

This beautiful church was built in honor of St. Simeon the Stylite who lived here atop a column for 37 years. This church became famous and was visited by pilgrims from all around the area.

St. Simeon was born in a village in the Amanus Mountains. I beleive he lived on top of a 18 meter tall column, which was nearly 2 meters in diameter, to get closer to God, for 37 years. People from all around came to visit him and hear him preach twice a day. This column is still there in the form of a 2 meter high boulder in the center of the courtyard.

St Simeon's death did not stop the visitors who went on to become pilgrims and the Martyrion was built in his honor (although his body was taken by a few Byzantine soldiers to Antioch and later to Constantinople).

The Citadel, Aleppo

Recognized as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1986, the Citadel forms the centre of Aleppo, much like the spider at the centre of his web! It is a fine example of Arab fort architecture, and, over the years, has come to be recognised as a symbol of Aleppo.

As per our guide, many theories about the first builder of the Citadel. Given its location, on a high hill, its advantages as a defensive location are obvious.

One of the first builders of the citadel is reputed to be Seleucius Necator, a Greek king and a general in Alexander the Great's army. Others believe an even earlier construction of the Citadel construction given the discovery of Hittite temple built during the second and first millennia BC. Still others talk about Sayf al-Dawla (944-967), the first Hamdanid ruler of Aleppo, having built the fortress and used the citadel as a military center of power over his region, but the present structure and design of the Aleppo citadel is supposed to be the work of Ghazi - Salauddin's son.

The sole entrance to the Citadel is through an outer tower. There are three gates with carved figures at each. In the court there is a cistern (Byzantine) and a few brick vaults, probably dungeons. The pitch dark of the inside of the gateway is to strengthen the contrast between light and dark so that it would be impossible for attackers to see.

As you walk inside the Citadel, you notice that all pathways slope downwards which were to allow rain water to flow down to the water cisterns. The guide took us to se the underground water cisterns - supposedly, the fort could remain sealed w/o water for a period of 1 year given the water storage system. You can see the walls of the cistern which have been eroded over the years by the water, and, smell the damp..there are also two large storage rooms for harvested crops..

The Citadel has its own huge amphitheatre.Over the years, the citadel evolved into a city that included functions ranging from residential (palaces and baths), religious (mosque and shrines), military installations (arsenal, training ground defense towers and the entrance block) and supporting elements (water cisterns and granaries).

Just opposite the entrance of the Citadel are a number of street side cafes which only accept local currency. There is no money changer around, so be sure to carry some local currency in case you want to sit down, order a coffee or a tamarhind juice and enjoy the view of the Citadel.

A little furthur down is a massive construction being undertaken. Our guide very helpfully told us that this was a new 5 star construction which was due to be completed next year. Then you can stay right at the foot of the Citadel and watch it from you window every night. Till then, unfortunately, you'll have to live with the less exciting view of the city!

Getting used to Syrian currency

The currency of Syria is the Syrian Pound (SP) and its about 48 SPs to a a result everything is priced in the hundreds, like the old Italian Lira and it takes some getting used to!

As we set off from Aleppo and stopped at a convinience store to buy some watera nd a few snacks. I must warn you, its better to stop and buy your supplies at a regular supermarket, cos the convinience store will overcharge.

2 pineapple juices, 3 small boxes of Pringles and 1 ice tea cost us 800 SPs. Compare this with a lavish meal at the Sheraton Aleppo, which with 3 starters, 3 drinks, and, 3 main courses cost us 2000 SPs.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008


"Cradled in a bowl of dry hills in northern Syria, the city of Aleppo presents an austere facade to those entering her ancient gates. Serious, tightlipped, sober - the adjectives often applied to her people convey a dignity befitting Aleppo's age, for she vies with Damascus and Sana'a as the oldest existing city in the world. Though eclipsed by the political and economic hegemony of modern Damascus, Aleppo preserves more purely the essence of a traditional Arab city."

Since I was keen to see the Citadel at Aleppo, we decided to fly from Cairo to Aleppo instead of Damascus, and then drive south to Damascus. It a short 2 hour flight, and the city appeared to be of a reasonabe size, at least aerially.

As we drove from the airport to the hotel, there was something that kept bothering me, but I could not put my finger on it, till my young son quipped "mom, why are all the women wearing the niqaab?" He had got it, spot on! I could not see a single woman on the streets who was not wearing a niqaab or was not dressed in a full black robe wearing a hijaab. If this had been Saudi, I would not have been surprised, but no one had warned me about Syria being orthodox as well!

Drove into the Sheraton which is the only 5 star property in Aleppo and I must admit it was a very nice property. the staff was friendly, helpful and spoke English. Built around a central courtyard,

it has a couple of lovely restaurants including a poolside barbeque where we thought we would do dinner.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Syrian visa

My husband appears to be in a very magnanimus mood, and offerred to take the family for yet another holiday to Syria! Now, one should never look a gift horse in the mouth so immediately said yes!!!

Trooped off to the embassy to get a really very pleasant surprise...

The person behind the counter was knowledgeable, spoke English (thank goodness!), gave me the list of the exact documents that were required, and, hold your breath, told me that the visa would be done in 2 days! A huge change from Europe / US where it takes days to just get an appointment to submit the papers!!

So for an Indian pasport holder, these are the documents required:

a/ Person must be a resident of Egypt

b/ A letter from your employer stating that you are an employee/ date of employment/ the name of your spouse and children, if any, who will be accompanying you

c/ Letter from Indian embassy (you need to apply to the embassy and this takes a day)

d/ 2 photographs

e/ Visa fees of 140 le per person

f/ Application form that needs to be completed in person at the embassy

g/ confirmation of return tickets

Now compared to your/ your family tree's history that other countries seem to require, this is pretty easy. So having organised everything today, shall jaunt off to the embassy tom! Inshaallah, the visa shall be mine!!

Monday, July 7, 2008

Porto Marina

Many of our Egyptian friends have been urging us to go take a break at Porto Marina, so this weekend, hubby surprised me with a 3 day stay at the place. Approximately 260 km / 3.5 hours drive from Cairo, at el Alameen, Porto Marina is a resort complex on the North Coast, comprising a resort and spa and a HUGE apartment block.

It's supposed to be a recreational spot for the affluent Egyptians so the price tag is reasonably steep, well, at least for expats it is... The complex consists of the Porto Marina Resort & Spa , a whole apartment block, a shopping mall along a canal, and a Golf Resort. We were staying at the Resort & Spa. You can choose between a sea facing or a pool/canal facing room - the cost of the sea view (the price difference between a sea facing and pool facing room)? $225! While the Mediterranean sea is indeed startling in its blue and the beaches are a lovely sandy white, I am not sure they merit the difference..

Its in the middle of nowhere, so Porto Marina has tried to create an ambience to keep people occupied. A shallow artificial canal runs through the middle of the resort complex, on which runs a Gondola service every evening.

There are shops along the canal, and the shopping mall also has eateries like Chillies, Studio Misr, Johnny Carrinos, Alan de Notre, and, a couple of others. The resort has a Spa , and, three pools, and 3 restaurants, two of which are open air.

The complex also has a movie theatre, which, unfortunately, only screens Arabic movies.

I must admit that they have beautifully recreated the European Promenade right here in Porto Marina. The esplanade is lovely in the evenings with open air restaurants and absolutely buzzes with life!. There are mimes dressed in black who walk and perform along the promenade. The sea breeze is wonderfully nippy as you sip your drink and watch the mimes. It was my son's first experience watching mimes and he was fascinated!

The first night, we decided to stick to Johnny Carinos, followed by a long lazy walk to the ice-cream man. Other than restaurants, the promenade is dotted with promotional booths for everything from banks to cars to cosmetic products, adding to the feel of a busy, buzzing street. On a Friday / Saturday night, the atmosphere is bustling, lively, crowded yet immensely enjoyable!

While the promenade is exciting, the rooms are a different story altogether. For a resort, I thought the rooms were small, and, we seem to have got unlucky. The lights didn't work properly, the shower leaked, and we spent numerous phone calls trying to get things in order.

That is the other problem. If you are an expat who does not know Arabic, hope to get lucky in trying to find out things/ get understood. While the staff has a ready smile, you end up spending fair amount of time communicating, most time rather unsuccessfully!

Next day headed to the beach. The sand is a beautiful, soft white and the blue of the Mediterranean sea is a pleasure to behold. My son and I frolicked in the water for ages before deciding to try the water sports. A ride in a speed boat would put you back by 700 LE for an hour while a balloon ride over the sea by LE 200. Was very tempted to try the later, but decided that I needed to shed a few kilos before I tried that! Though the water sports guy assured me that the harness was strong enough, I did not feel inclined to verify his claim. The water jet ski and the scooters are great fun and a must try.

Even after 2-3 hours at the beach, son was not happy, so decided to take him to the pool. Ah, here lies the catch! The pools are very shallow, not even a metre deep, I suspect. But that's ok. The catch is that the whole apartment block looks down on you while you are swimming. These are residential apartments which are not a part of the hotel. Also they can use the pools, so that makes it almost like the public baths. That certainly offended my sense of privacy, well, whatever there might be when using a hotel's pool!!

Treated myself to a Mediterranean sea salt scrub at the Spa which was very invigorating and I enjoyed it thoroughly. Surprisingly, the only place, where you would not need an English speaking staff, I got one! My attendant was an Austrian lady who has been in Egypt for the past 3 years, and, she was good. The Spa, I would recommend whole heartedly...

That night we decided to try the open air hotel restaurant which had live music. We sat on one of those table / sofa contraptions that you can rock, had some simple food, listened to some really rhythmic Arabic songs, seated right next to the Mediterranean sea, being gently buffeted by the salty sea breeze, shivering a little in the cold nippy was an awesome experience!! Difficult to believe that in July when Cairo is blazingly hot, we were actually wishing that we had a light jacket or a stole to be cozy! A definite must do!

The one thing that did strike us was that we were among the handful of expats who were at Porto Marina. The bulk of the people were either locals or Arabs from neighbouring countries. And the fact that the staff is not so well versed with English seemed to suggest that this was not such a big expat location. or maybe , it was just the time of the year..

As we packed our bags in the afternoon and got ready to leave, I was honestly not too sure whether I would like to come back. While the place is definitely not value for money (VFM), when you come to a beach resort you don't necessarily look for VFM. You look for a great sea, great beaches, good ambience, good hotel, good food and great service. While Porto Marina scores high on the beach and the sea, the rest need to be worked on. As for me, I think I would take Sharm any time over Porto Marina.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Yallabina - to trust or not to?

Yallabina is this Egyptian website which gives you an update on what's happening in town be it movies, nightlife, or any other gig!

My 7 yr old had been pestering us to take him to see Kung Fu Panda for a while. So Thursday night, looked up Yallabina and found it running at Rennaisance Nile City for 4 shows including a 10 o'clock one at night. Called up the hall to get confirmation on the timings, and, post dinner set-off to watch the Panda do the drill!

Drove through incredible traffic - what's with Cairo and traffic jams in summer? I though the Cairenes all headed out of town, but this was like the city had descended on Downtown and the Corniche. After braving one and a half hours of traffic, reached the hall, only to find that the movie is running in a morning show! Had a grumpy son for "no movie" and an even grumpier husband for hours spent in traffic...

Moral of the story : WYSWYG

What you see is what you get! Even if you do refer to Yallabina, just take it with a fistful of salt!! And even when you call the hall, just hope that they know what they're talking about! Or just blame it on fate!

Tuesday, July 1, 2008


Amman, the capital of Jordan, is some sense a city of contrasts – a mix of the old and new, located on a hilly area between the desert and the fertile Jordan Valley. It consists of an old and more traditional part called "Downtown" (in Arabic 'Baladi'), and a modern more vibrant western style "West Amman".

In Greco - Roman times, it was known as Philadelphia and was a part of the Greek Decapolis (an alliance of ten free city-states with overall allegiance to Rome. ). Also Amman is one of the oldest continuously occupied cities in the world. Plus more than half of Jordan's population lives in Amman.

The great temple of Hercules (Herakles) was built between 162-166 AD. Larger than any temple in Rome itself, the massive structure faces east and is seen here from the front (northeast corner.) The temple portico is framed by six 33-foot tall columns.

The Byzantine basilica was constructed in the 5th-6th centuries AD. Its nave is flanked by two rows of columns


If you find original art too expensive for your wallet or are simply tired of seeing regular art on your walls, there is a new artist on the block!

Nazin Ahmed and Adrian Salamunovic founded DNA 11 to create artwork that shows off your unique character : a print of your genome on canvas. Simply submit a saliva sample (in a via supplied by them) for lab analysis and the results are made into a wall display!!

So the next peiece of your art could well be the DNA structure of your saliva, right up there on your wall!
Or better still a Kiss Potrait ( this I might still understand)

or even a Fingerprint Potrait (this one actually looks nice)
I must admit I quite liked the fingerprint or kiss potraits, its just the thought of my saliva or any other body fluid adorning my walls that sort of freaks me out! Well, maybe not freak me out, but feel rather strange having strangers trying to understand, appreciate my saliva?

And mind you this all does not come cheap! The Kiss Potraits start at $ 290, Fingerprint potraits start at $190 and Saliva ones at $ 390!!!

The Museum of Modern Art features DNA 11 art in their exclusive museum stores, both in New York and Tokyo. You can check them out at their website