It was a short but great ride through the foot hills, along the valley and into the city of Aleppo – which is equally as stunning and interesting as Damascus. I think I could stay here a while. Though finding my way around was a lot tougher.
Dominating the skyline of the ancient city is the old citadel, another fortress built on top of a manmade mound on the eastern part of the city. Like Damascus there is a definitive line separating Aleppo’s Old and New cities. I aimed for a budget priced boutique hotel somewhere in the Christian quarter. But coming into the city I couldn’t figure out the wacky non-grid patchwork of one way streets, walkways and dark caves that turn into a labyrinth of souks that wind in and out of the old and new cities. So I aimed for the Citadel – an imposing castle-like stone throne complete with moat and drawbridge just to add to the drama.
I had a couple referrals and a name or two of hotels from travelers and my guidebook. Nobody I asked new any of them. One guy referred me to the $300+ Sheraton, but I opted out as it was getting dark and based on my map it was far from the Old City — even if the concierge and reception staff were helpful, it was far from my desired location.
Market at night in Aleppo with neatly ordained Yamaha motorcycle.
Aleppo’s Old City Blends into the New.
With the sun waning and the chaos of the city ramping, a guy in a small Russian built sedan pulled over and offered to help. He started scribbling out direction then with a scratch to his head said, “ahh, it’d be just easier if you follow me.” So I did. And if it was easier following this guy, I can’t imagine following directions. We made a couple dozen turns, one U-turn just to get oriented and then we headed into a series of narrow alleys where I swear the mirrors of his cars were scraping the walls of the buildings. At one point, he got out of his car and liberated a massive horizontal piece of iron serving as a vehicle gate and then we sped on.
After all that the hotel was booked. But they made some calls and found me something nearby. It turned out to be an even nicer place and lower cost — usually those places that haven’t yet ben discovered and put in guide books are. But finding this place was a chore. Because it was located in the winding alleys of the old city near the Christian quarter, the roads are sometimes on and sometimes off limits to vehicular traffic. A motorcycle, however, can take certain liberties. So a bellhop donned my Camelback backpack and hopped on my bike. When we came to a series of stairs I’d have to ride down and then up, I felt safer letting him off for that section. But we rode around a maze of ancient buildings towering above a patchwork of stones that have served pedestrians and pushcarts for several millennia.
Then we found the hotel. And what a find. It was actually two individual houses that shared a courtyard with a fountain. Intricate wood and tile-work combined with antiques and a helpful staff made the find even richer. Except I was a bit worried about the bike. This alley was a major pedestrian walkway. And at less than ten feet wide, my bike took up nearly half. I was assured all would be fine, so I covered the bike and said ‘en-shallah’ – in essence what happens will be god’s will – an often over-cited Arabic phrase.
Breakfast was included with my room and friends of the staff strongly urged I check out a local restaurant just a few alleys away. Beit Wakil was surprisingly open given I was told it might be hard to get a seat and the restaurant just down the alley was booked for the evening. Turns out that the restaurant would be closed for renovation in two days so the manager had stopped taking reservations over a month ago. This was good news because I was treated like a VIP and after two nights in a row dining there, each night I closed the place with the staff sharing local wines and other concoctions. Even the local musician hired to entertain the guests let me play his uniquely middle eastern stringed instrument.