Last Minute Fall Getaways

Rajasthan, India

Looking for some last minute fall getaways? Who isn’t? If you’re anything like me, you’re a workaholic often being told by your colleagues to just ‘get some rest already!’ So, as it’s just around the corner, fall is the ideal time to discover the world, with many destinations around the globe featuring cooler temperatures, colorful panoramas, abundant wildlife and a kaleidoscope of festivals. India, already a vibrant country, explodes in a riot of colors in the fall, when many festivals take place, including Diwali and Pushkar Fair.

Budapest by Night

Budapest, Vienna and Prague are also beautiful during the Fall, along with Berlin, China, and Tanzania.  So, when Abercrombie & Kent sent us a list of their special fall journeys (with added discounts and deals), we wanted to spread the word so that you, too, could experience your dream destination at its best. Solo travellers take note: you can also save up to 96% on the single supplement on: Treasures of Northern India from Oct 7 and Nov 11 and Essence of India from Oct 13 and Nov 17. Remember, Abercrombie & Kent is high-end so you won’t be skimping. This is 5 star all the way with guides that are some of the best in the world. We’re talking life changing travels, baby, and you could use a shift in your continuum, right?


Though I tend to be more of a fly by the seat of my pants kinda traveller, as I get older and wiser I find that sometimes it’s just easier to have someone in the know do all the legwork for you. At Abercrombie & Kent, the nice thing is that you can also search for tour options like the following:

August through November departures are filling fast so click the link below to see last-minute destinations for fall travel, and reserve a fall getaway now!

Abercrombie & Kent Last Minute Fall Getaways

Feature: Part IV – Inside Syria

Hajar Ali

After a much anticipated break, Jaunt Magazine is proud to present, Middle East Feature: Part IV of Hajar Ali’s escape to Syria (and Lebanon). Hajar Ali is the Singapore-based owner and operator of urbane nomads, a bespoke travel tour operator.

Part IV – Inside Syria

We arrived in Syria at a friend of a friend’s house which, we were told, was indeed ‘like a museum’ and had been visited by the likes of King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia of Spain when they were in town. We were picked up from the hotel by their butler, shown around the house with the Damascene courtyard and treated to lovely singing by the hostess.

As per the afternoon, Syrian and regional politics were the subject of discussion, the future of Syria in the global order of things, with some excitement about a possible Sacred Music Festival organized by the very urbane First Lady. The next day was spent around the souks of Aleppo, where banners extolling the virtues of Assad and Syria in multiple languages lined the bazaars.

Syria's President, Bashar al-Assad

I passed a (seemingly harmless) comment on the banners but was chided by one of my travel companions, saying in a low voice that ‘it was unsafe to discuss politics in public’. That was the first time during my journey where I felt like I was in a police state. Later, we witnessed a minor scuffle on the outskirts of the bazaar, with a man resisting arrest by the police. There was a crowd gathering around, passively watching, no one saying anything, no one interfering. Once the man was driven away by the truck, one of the ladies asked the driver, who had accompanied us throughout, what the whole thing was about. ‘The man’s just trying to make a living and selling some tissue. He has no license’. I asked what was going to happen to the man to which the rejoinder was: ‘Nothing. He’d be taken to the police station, warned and then fined’. I remembered the man to have put up quite a struggle, pointed to some boys selling tissue and asked why these boys weren’t similarly dragged by the police. Apparently, the police chose the man to make an example of because he was ‘the biggest operator’.  I left it at that.

We went exploring the city’s boutique hotels, one of which was next to a restaurant and an underground bar which, the waiter insisted, was a way for the house’s original residents to connect to the Citadel during the multiple sieges laid on the city.

Byblos, Lebanon

I’d made my way to an internet café later that night, desirous of somewhat reconnecting with the world again, and there I met another traveller I’d encountered in Lebanon. Over a lunch buffet of fresh seafood and crisp salads in the seaside town of Byblos, he’d confided in me his admiration of my Senior Minister, Lee Kuan Yew, declaring how ‘famous’ the man and his book was in China before sharing with me his personal theory of how all countries with a Chinese majority should ‘return’ under China’s rule. ‘But Singapore’s constitutional language is Malay’, I rejoined. I must have looked shocked when he narrated his Pax Sinica ideals to me, but I’d like to think he looked more shocked at the thought of an alternative history to a country than the one he’d imagined. ‘Go back and Google it if you don’t believe me’, I told him.

So, as fate would have it, our next chance encounter was within the setting of the internet café. He came over and told me a Google search had indeed confirmed that Malay was the constitutional language of Singapore, but that he was still incredulous that a country with a Chinese majority could have a different constitutional language. Another Google search would have answered his questions, but I didn’t think his incredulity necessarily translated into questions he’d wanted an answer to.  I learnt he was staying in the Baron Hotel as well, that he’d arrive in Aleppo earlier this afternoon and we’d agreed to go for dinner after.

We went to one of the streetside cafes, grabbed a kebab and orange juice, sat down and he asked if there were any clubs to go to for a night out in Syria. I screwed up my nose and said, “Why couldn’t you have gone in Beirut?”  That was one of the points that came up during the course of the conversation in the home of the lovely couple a night earlier. The hostess, having found out I was in Beirut before crossing over to Syria, asked how I’d liked the two countries. I said I liked both to which she cooed, “But they’re so different! Beirut is where the young people have fun and Syria is all about culture and history.” I (still) liked both, although I enjoyed Aleppo more than I did Damascus.

The Baron Hotel - Syria

I also remembered that underground club with a ‘pathway to the Citadel’ from earlier this afternoon and volunteered that piece of information to him. I agreed to bring him there except that I (wasn’t) going to stay long given than I was going in Walid’s  car to explore St. Simeon and the Dead Cities early next morning. I told him I had to freshen up and, waiting at the lobby, he later grumbled about how long I’d taken to freshen up. “I had to pray for five minutes too,” I added. He instantly looked sheepish and apologized, as if he’d shown an unhealthy intolerance.

There was an Asian man sitting down in the hotel lobby, discussing business with a Syrian. He was one of many Asian faces I’d seen in the Hotel Lobby of late and I asked my fellow traveller why there were so many Chinese in Syria. ‘How do you know he’s Chinese?’ he said coolly. ‘Isn’t he? He looks Chinese’. ‘No- he’s North Korean. I heard them talking while waiting for you.’ I laughed  nervously, my turn being sheepish, having been outed as the one unable to discern between various nationalities, having broadly categorized them as ‘Chinese’.  ‘There are actually a lot of North Koreans in Syria. I saw a statue of Assad and Kim Jong Il in the main square just now’, he continued. That was the second time where I’d felt like I was in the ‘junior axis of evil’; states forced into dealing with each other due to their status in the international order of things.

St. Simeon - Syrian Ruins

The next two days were spent exploring St. Simeon and the surrounding Dead Cities, the Hammam Yaboulga Nassri and the nearby souks. We’d visited St Simeon, named eponymously after the saint who had tried to escape the madding crowds, devoting himself to ascetic meditation by living on top of the pillars you’d witness in St Simeon – a progression of pillars erected by St Simeon’s devotees that built increasingly higher than the next.  St Simeon is also the site for what was once the largest monastery in the world. As the conversation with the local couple would have it, the First Lady of Syria was planning for a Sacred Music Festival using St Simeon as a locality. No internet searches nor checks with local sources  were able to  validate that it’s actually happened or would happen in the near future.

The Dead Cities – desolate places where I’d encountered  the occasional domestic horse belying signs of life nearby, contained warren-like holes which, if I’d understood the guide right, is the burial chamber for the area’s royalty.

A visit to the Hammam Yaboulga Nassri came highly recommended  and my visit so coincided with one of the ‘ladies’ days’ – a day when the hammam is converted to a preserve for women to come and socialize and receive a hammam treatment.  Women packed lunch boxes to eat in the humid conditions of the hammam, brought drums to strike spontaneous tunes to around a circle of women dancing, children were running around a precariously slippery floor and women were comfortably lounging around in various states of undress; less an image after Orientalist paintings than it is an expression of women being comfortable with their own bodies for it was a scene where women were exposed to what ‘real’ women looked like for women from all ages and sizes gathered as part of an ancient bonding ritual in the hammam, trading gossip over treatments, teenagers striking a spontaneous tune in another (foreigners are invariably invited to join the circle and dance) and the children playing by the water sources in another corner.

The scrubdown at the hammam must have done me good for as I made my way through the cold winter of Aleppo through the souks I’d noticed, rather, sensed greater male attention coming my way – unfortunately resulting in a rather unpleasant experience – the only time I’d felt threatened throughout my journey in Lebanon and Syria, where a young storekeeper , having brought me to another store on the pretext of finding more stock, came  up too close for me to possibly be comfortable. The actual owner of the store came back, fortunately, and the kid scampered off.  Whatever effect the treatments at the hammam had on me must have disappeared by morning – I was the ragged tourist once again, saying goodbye to the staff of Baron Hotel and making my way overland to Amman, eager for a dinner appointment at NoodAsia on yet another quest to find chic in the Middle East.

Syrian Restaurant - Kan Zaman

Further fact checks into the authenticity of the claim that the underground bar (Taverna, Beit Wakil Hotel), did lead to a ‘miniature warren of caves and passages’, with one stairway mentioned as being ‘slippery’ and leading to ‘a dead end’ but no mention of its supposed direct access to Aleppo’s Citadel.

For those looking for ‘entertainment’ in Aleppo, there’s also the Kan Zaman, off Haret Al-Yasmin St with its own set of underground caves.

Make sure to read the earlier posts in the Syria series under ‘Middle East Travel’ and, for more Syrian Hotel suggestions and quality tours, contact Hajar Ali. We also found boutique Syrian Hotels and cheap insider Syrian Hotels (where some hotels may not be listed or have websites) here:

Rustic warning alert… some of these hotel buildings are from the 17th century, but hey… that’s why you’re heading to Syria, right?

By Hajar Ali

Source: Ivan Mannheim, Syria and Lebanon, The Travel Guide

Pepsi & Petra, Hamams & Honey

She’s back and badder than ever. Hitting up hamams and swigging Pepsi in Petra, resident Jaunt Contributor, Victoria Yanakos Korosi, is flinging some flair from here to the Middle East (and everywhere).

I feel fairly certain that those black gloves were meant to exfoliate – not draw blood. But with the (not insubstantial) weight of a  jovial singing Arabic woman behind them, whose bosom easily doubled the size of my torso- they took on a persona closer to Brillo pads.

In a hamam (bathhouse) dating back to 940ish AD, and still as opulent and awe inspiring as I suspect it was then, I spent the better part of yesterday getting a whole new view- literally- of the local customs in Syria.

To summarize the experience, there was a lot of public nakedness and being given obscure instructions in Arabic (many of which I suspect were related to my lack of toughness), an exfoliating rub down, massage, sauna, jacuzzi, and getting about as close to being violated as possible without caring.

Joking aside, never have I felt more welcome or absolutely captivated with a culture as I did in that hamam. There is something undeniably intriguing about these Arabic women.

To sit completely revealed together singing old chants that echo in the intimate interior cave of the hamam, and then later leave, all covered  head-to-toe, ankle-to-wrist, mild in manner, back into the rush of the souq; The dichotomy of their lives is captivating.

And while, as a Western woman, I struggle to accept this, to experience their warmth and hear their stories firsthand I know my view is at least  broader than when I started – and my skin excessively softer. In a bit of a haze after an irresponsibly late night out in Damascus, I rolled through passport control in Jordan this morning generally unscathed (which for me is always an accomplishment) and ready for a rapid fire round two.

Currently sitting (at the time of writing this) with my pack on the side of the highway, I am fairly confident that the bus driver and I have had a bit of miscommunication as to where I was headed. And for once it is an actual destination.


(Really exfoliated) V: 1

Woman with black gloves: 2

Experience: 358

If I traveled with a guide book, I would request that the following Arabic phrases be included for my benefit.

“Is 6am too early to discuss women’s rights?

“I appreciate that you’ve already tossed my pack from the bus but I don’t think this deserted stretch of highway is my stop. Yes, I can see that you disagree.”

“No really, I’m full.”

“Sure you can practice your English with me. Oh wait, no, I have no idea what an auxiliary verb is”

“I only smoke when I travel. And I can’t keep up if we’re going to chain smoke – but don’t try me because I’m competitive.”

“Can I get a lift?”

I was fortunate enough to spend my last night in Syria with Jawad’s family (and should have known better than to eat that day). It is a rare gift as a traveler to meet a family like theirs; to have the opportunity to ask openly (and with endless curiosity) my questions about culture and religion and be met with such receptive and thoughtful conversation.

And apparently no, breakfast is not too early to discuss women’s rights.

I travel the way I do with the sole purpose of being impacted. To each their own when it comes to this, but for me, the only true discovery of others and myself happens when you get out of what’s comfortable.  And this trip has been just that – in a huge way. And for that, I win.

Pepsi and cigarettes seem to be the currency in Jordan. Since arriving I’ve been “offered” (because of course you can never decline) both with spectacular frequency. Suffice it to say, my 3 hours crowded into a bus with locals left me both light headed and hopped up on sugar for my visit to Petra.

It is a rarity at best that I sightsee. Ever.  And perhaps even that is being generous. Unless, of course, we are going to count the inside of public buses a matter of national treasure. It’s not that I don’t appreciate the concept (or the antiquity) but the act itself is predictable, and safe, and not consistent with my motivations for travel.

But I will make worthy exceptions and when I do invariably find a way to escape the tour groups and make the experience my own (and probably offend some devout sightseers in the process. Win win).

For those of you who followed my monologue through Cambodia you can appreciate my propensity for climbing up things that appear to be stairs – and my always novel discovery that I am afraid of heights. Well, perhaps less “afraid” so much as aware of my general lack of agility and the inherent risk this poses when not lying flat on the ground.

Climbing to the top of one mountain or another on the  grounds of Petra I discovered stunning views (and that no one will stop you if you appear to know where you are going), and a rare isolated moment to lie unbothered in the sun. My decent, or rather my really coordinated tumble through the sand, elicited a good laugh from an on- looking Bedouin family. The simple fact that that they didn’t try to sell me a carpet afterward made Petra just a touch more real.

And yes, the remains of this ancient city are stunning. Awe inspiring at every turn. But short of the fleeting early (early) morning hours when I had Petra to myself, the sight is far too overrun to hold my interest.  But there were a few moments, before the persistent French with their cameras or the American elderly in their capris descended, when Petra was all mine.

Wandering the winding caverns that conceal the suddenly massive Treasury was an inspiring journey that rocked even me. Sitting in silence outside the towering turrets of the ancient tomb I found myself daydreaming as to what this city must have been before… the tour groups arrive and the moment is lost.

Back in Amman, I attempt to escape into some shisha before I cross back over into Syria. I’ve amassed a group of 4 minimum at my table. For traveling alone in the Middle East it is amazing how infrequently you are ever actually alone.

And how much I will miss that when I leave.

Petra: meh
Watching V tumble head first in the dunes: better

Part III: Palmyra’s Ruins & The Aleppo Underground

Fresh from the press! Part III of Singapore-based Contributor, Hajar Ali’s series on Syria.

When I left Damascus for Palmyra, I was told by the helpful doorman that traveling by bus was a comfortable, cheap alternative. I immediately grabbed a ticket.

Air-conditioned and, indeed, comfortable, the best part of the trip had to be the dates passed around in wooden boxes with mother-of-pearl inlay. If I remember correctly, they were also screening a Hindi movie.

Arriving in Palmyra, I’d stayed at a hotel highly recommended by Lonely Planet (The Cham Palace remains the closest to luxury accommodation available in Palmyra). There was a group of Italian tourists checking into the hotel at the same time and I spent a part of my first night in Palmyra in fear as I overheard two Italian ladies whispering in the hotel corridor.

My first introduction to giallo, a type of slasher horror flick typified by a developing background romance and spectacular sceneries of the Italian countryside, was Pupi Avati’s ‘Casa dalle finestre che ridono’, revolving around the creatively sadistic plots by two Italian sisters to entrap their latest torture victim. Hearing two female voices whispering in Italian brought to mind certain scenes of the movie.

The next morning (and evening) was spent touring the ruins of Palmyra where I encountered a guide who spoke, among other languages, Aramaic, a language spoken by Jesus and is still spoken in ‘isolated pockets of Syria’ in Ma’aloula. A veritable source of information on the ruins of Palmyra, he approached me while I was walking around near the entrance of the ruins. A morning (or evening) spent touring the ruins of Palmyra with him was well spent, never mind what the other guides tell you. I encountered another group of Italian tourists who’d asked their Italian-speaking guide to ask my English-speaking guide why I was travelling on my own. It was the same kind of concern the Italian ladies I’d met at the Lebanese-Syrian border and travelled around with in Syria had shown.
Palmyra, Syria

Why was I travelling alone? Wouldn’t it be better to travel with friends or parents? Well, sometimes, you just have to go it alone. Nights in Palmyra were uneventful, spent going through the tourist stores selling armor suits, old rings and porcelain pieces. The bus from Palmyra to Aleppo the next morning was nothing like the Damascus-Palmyra transfer. I took the bus with a few men – and goats – in an older bus with windows bearing a cobweb-like pattern from being hit by errant pebbles. We encountered little children on the journey practicing their shots by throwing little pebbles against the bus windows which, in retrospect, felt just a little like an earlier scene in the movie, Syriana, where an American lady travelling on a tourist bus was accidentally shot by a child practicing his shots on a rifle. I tried not to imagine these film recollections were ‘signs.’

Arriving in Aleppo, you’re immediately cognizant of a deep, rich history. A capital city that contests Damascus’ claim to being the ‘oldest continuously inhabited city in the world’ with a complex, intriguing history. Staying at the Baron Hotel (instantly recognizable by every local – particularly useful if you’re wont to getting lost), I was to spend my next few days in Aleppo exploring the citadel, locating an underground bar in the pedestrianized streets of Aleppo which the waiter insists was a way for the house’s original inhabitants to connect to the citadel during the multiple sieges laid on the city and experienced an authentic hammam session.
Underground Bar in Aleppo, Syria

Checking into the historic Hotel Baron, walking through the same hallowed hallways and reveling in its faded glamour, one can feel the cozy, family-like nature of the hotel management. From the receptionist to the waiter, who serves you breakfast every morning, everyone seems to have worked in that hotel for the longest time. I found my first room to be ‘too noisy’ , the second one which they’d suggested (and moved my bags to) ‘too creepy’ as it involved walking past an unlit hallway with unused furniture.

I was then shown another room- with a beautiful Juliet balcony lit by fairy lights. The balcony overlooks the busy main road, no doubt, but I figured by then that the hotel does have a road frontage and was won over by the balcony. I could see the brightly-lit stores across the street and the constant stream of alternately-honking traffic from my balcony.

Solitary moments in balconies with a view, even in cities I felt ill-at-ease (which Aleppo certainly was not!), make up some of my best memories in hotels I’d stayed in. My room at the Laleh Hotel in Tehran (what used to be the Intercontinental pre-1979) had a small balcony overlooking the garden and I spent, figuratively, my brightest moments on this balcony in a city I’d felt overwhelmed by.

The traffic on the streets of Aleppo must have ceased by a certain time as I was usually woken up in the mornings by the sound of birds near my heater grilles and the sound of traffic, increasing in both its frequency and loudness. My first day in Aleppo was spent with the Italian ladies, visiting Aleppo’s Citadel and capping off a visit accompanied by a most informative guide, with a chat with friends of the Italian ladies whom we’d met in the café opposite the citadel. We’d made an appointment (or rather, they made an appointment and I tagged along) to meet again that night at a friend’s house, which, the Italian ladies tell me, is beautiful, tasteful, and ‘like a museum.’

Stay tuned for Part IV of Hajar’s Syrian escape…

Part II: The Sweet & Spicy Souks of Syria

Part II of our newest Contributor, Singapore-based, Hajar Ali’s series, continues to give us a taste of the Middle East with her take on Syria’s sweet and spicy souks.

A trip to the Souk Hammadiyeh isn’t complete without a trip to Bakdash, an ice cream store that’s virtually an institution in Damascus. It’s the place for family get-togethers, couples going on dates as well as a celebratory venue for engagement parties.

Bakdash sells only one type of ice-cream, a delicious white concoction with a generous coverage of pistachio.

The souks were a maze of stores and my disoriented mind was unable to distinguish between the various souks. I recall travelling through various aromas of soaps and spices, staying with the Italian ladies as they negotiated over the silver jewellery, going through stacks of table linens and deciding which jallabiyas to buy for female friends and family members back home. In reality, the souks were divided into the Souk Al Hamidiyeh, the most prominent and most popular amongst tourists, the Souk Midhat Pasha, the Souk al-Bzouriyeh (as the area where the soaps and spices are to be found) and the Souk al-Harir. It’s probably best to enlist the help of a good guide who’d be able to bring you to Ghraoui, the manufacturers of the best dried fruits and chocolates in the world, if Paris Salon du Chocolat Awards are anything to go by…

Tony Stephan’s antiques store at No 156 is also renowned for having the finest quality at the best prices. With a range of textiles, mother-of-pearl inlaid furniture, antique Bedouin jewellery, and intricate copper and brassware visitors have included dignitaries like Jimmy Carter and Nancy Kissinger. In addition, check out the ultra-chic Villa Moda, a boutique converted from a 17th century stable, stocking labels like Stella Mc Cartney and Azzedine Alaia.

The street food in Syria was amazing– a welcome departure from the mezze I’d been having for breakfast, lunch and dinner so far in Syria. Once, we’d stopped by a street stall to buy something resembling falafels and the store keeper had in turn plied us with slices of hot thin-crust pizza (so good we’d asked for the name, of which I can’t remember now) and vehemently refused our attempts to pay for the pizza. Travelling is one activity where you’d always gain more from your interaction with locals, the other travelers you meet along the way and the richness of experiences than what you’d be able to give in return, but Syria is one of the places where the feeling of taking more than what you give gets rather overwhelming.

Two days later, I temporarily parted ways with my travel companions- they were headed to the Krak des Chevaliers and I, having fallen under the spell of Zenobia, the Warrior Queen, was headed for Palmyra. We’d arranged to meet in Aleppo, staying at the Hotel Baron, which we’d all agreed would be an interesting choice of accommodation given the history behind it.

Hotel Baron, was, in its heyday, host to some of the most illustrious individuals of its time. Stepping off from the Istanbul-Aleppo train connection (which still runs today), were individuals like Agatha Christie, T.E. Lawrence and Charles Lindburgh

A fascinating jaunt into the past… and a welcome embrace to the future.

To be continued…

Part I: The Road From Lebanon to Syria

Souk al Hammadiyeh
Damascus, Syria

Say hello to our newest Contributor, Singapore-based, Hajar Ali, the founder of Urbane Nomads (, a niche travel agency that seeks to deliver the most unique travel experiences, whether in localities yet to be discovered or favored tourist destinations. Urbane Nomads actively promotes new, exciting design, taking an active interest in the culture and history of the area with intelligent tours that aim to go ‘under the skin’ of the place.

Two years ago, I spent more time than scheduled in Lebanon, experiencing a relatively sedate New Year’s Celebration in Beirut, affected both by the somber political mood in the wake of Hariri’s assassination, a sullen economy, and an increased hostility towards neighboring Syria. I’d crossed overland to Damascus via the Lebanese-Syrian border a few days after the New Year.

Over my next few days in Syria, the UN commission investigating the assassination of Hariri would seek out an interview of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, its foreign minister Farouk al-Sharaa and former Syrian vice-president Abdul Halim-Khaddam in connection with Hariri’s assassination. Spilling over from a pro-Hariri demonstration I’d witnessed in Beirut, there were increasing calls for Syrian troops to move out of Lebanon. By the end of my stay in Syria, I witnessed the mobilization of Syrian soldiers and the increased prominence of UN vehicles on the streets of Damascus.

In contrast to Beirut’s landscaped sidewalks, clean streets and fresh, clean air, the streets of Damascus felt chaotic, the air dank and it was all too apparent I had crossed over to another country. The taxi driver couldn’t seem to find my hostel and after what seemed like an hour on Damascus’ chaotic streets, I’d changed my mind about staying in a hostel. I’d thought of Damascus’ boutique hotel installation, Beit Al-Mamlouka, but didn’t want to risk confusing the driver again so I went with Cham Palace Damascus, an indigenous chain of luxury hotels that I thought would be instantly recognizable.

That seemed to be the right call when I found myself comfortably ensconced in the lobby of Cham Palace within the next twenty minutes. Checking into the hotel was an instruction in Syria’s artisanal culture. Everything from the lobby to swivel chairs and the lift were decorated with an elaborate inlay of mother of pearl and ivory characteristic of Syrian decorative style. The Lebanese designer Nada Debs ( had found international acclaim incorporating the decorative mother of pearl and ivory inlays within the more contemporary medium of Lucite as opposed to the traditional wood-inlay combination.

In the lobby, I met two Italian ladies who had smiled kindly at me at the Lebanese-Syrian border while we were awaiting our entry visas. One of them invited me to join them to visit the Omayyad Mosque and Souk Hammadiyeh later in the afternoon. I was glad for the company and help navigating around the city. I have an awful sense of direction, completely unable to make sense of a map and anyway, have always thought it more useful to ask locals or long-time residents for directions rather than go around with a huge map in hand.

We were headed for Souk Hammadiyeh, but not before stopping by Omayyad Mosque. The legends and mythology surrounding Omayyad Mosque are fascinating. Muslim tradition believes that the severed head of John the Baptist is contained in a silver capsule in the prayer hall with an alternative theory being that it is the Knights Templar that has possession of this severed head. The tomb of Salah ad-Din, or Saladin to Crusaders, is located within the compounds of this mosque. The eastern minaret, or the minaret al-Issa, is believed to be the place where Prophet Issa (Jesus PBUH) will descend, on the wings of two angels, during a time of crisis to lead believers in their battle against the Antichrist.
(c) Martin Gray
The architecture of the Omayyad Mosque, like most mosques, derives solely from geographic shapes, complimented by high ceilings, providing an almost zen tranquility to the space. Various architectural elements are telling of the various influences on this mosque – the open courtyard, a place you might want to spend some time during dusk for its beautiful atmosphere (and excellent photographic opportunities), has been attributed to the influences of Yemeni temples as well as a pre-Islamic Kaa’ba (today the centre of the Islamic pilgrimage, or hajj) and the ‘accentuation of the main nave’ was seen as a direct influence of Omayyad architecture. (source:

Walking down to the nearby souks, one encounters everything from delicious candies – the Syrians apparently take their sweets very seriously if the proliferation of sweet shops on the streets of Damascus are anything to go by – and dried fruits, soaps, jallabiyas (loose female clothing) and the most attractive blown glass art abound. Olga, one of the two Italian ladies who kindly invited me along, remarked: ‘The Venetians learned the art of glass blowing from the Syrians’. I was tempted to get the water jars, with a beautifully prismatic colour pattern retailing at a price that most of you reading this would have dismissed as ‘nothing, but I was afraid it wouldn’t survive the journey, given the multiple road transfers I was planning on…

Stay tuned for Part II of Hajar’s Middle East jaunt!

Jerusalem, Israel: Hanging in the Holy Land

There’s one thing I must confess. I married a lovely Israeli man… and I still haven’t made it to the Holy Land. My inner-Heb cries, “If I should forget Jerusalem, my left hand should fall.” Or something like that. In case it sounds pathetic, keep this in mind… we’ve only been married for a year and we’re planning The Big Trip now. That said, as a travel writer, I can tell you all about the top hotels in the world with eye-popping amenities that cost anywhere from $300-$1,000/night, but that doesn’t mean I don’t a) go ga-ga when I find a good deal and b) want to know where the real locals stay.

In my quest, I queried a man whose knowledge of Israel, quality (and that doesn’t always mean 600-thread count Frette linens), and, most importantly, authenticity, is second to none. That’s right… my husband.

So here’s a little secret gem that’s definitely not your generic luxurious, five-star hotel, but rather, an Arab-Israeli owned boutique hotel.

Concentrated in only a few hundred feet are Al-Aqsa Mosque, The Church of the Holy Sepulcher (where even the most die-hard American Jew isn’t immune to the holiness of Christ’s stomping grounds), and, of course, The Wailing Wall, the most important sacred sites of the top three monotheistic religions.

What my main man likes best?

There’s a wine bar in the entrance, it’s cheap (anywhere from $30-$100/night), and a REAL spot for those wanting to see Jerusalem, even if it means you’ll likely hear street-sellers in the morning and the hustle and bustle of Jews – and Muslims – living peacefully side-by-side in the heart of the Holy Land.

As Whoopi on Virtual Tourist says, “Some of the double rooms have a balcony out to the busy street and also have two floors in the room. These are great! The whole hotel is also very relaxed and cozy with lots of things hanging on the walls, everything from garments to photos and poetry. Lots of sofas and chairs everywhere and it gives you the feeling of being in some nice, but weird old lady’s house. Just outside you find everything you need from internet cafes to stores, restaurants, market and tourist attractions.”

And really, when you’re in the Holy Land, what better place to be?

45 Bedrooms, cable satellite in the lobby, on-site laundry, an internet lounge open 24 hrs., a safe deposit box, and a panoramic view of Jerusalem from the roof-top.

Tell them Jaunt Magazine sent you.