Chariot of choice to get to Aleppo was an Al-Aliah luxury coach. I preferred this transport company to others that I used in Syria for one important reason. The ticket man who rides alongside the driver starts every journey by offering all passengers a really tasty, chewy chocolate sweet from a beautifully carved wooden box. I pocketed the wrapper in the hope of finding some to buy in the old town.
First stop in Aleppo before anything else had to be the colossal Citadel, looming over the old town like a stern master. What an incredible sight!
Within the walls were the ruins of the town that once existed there. It was a lot bigger than I expected and covering the whole site provided some good exercise.
The whole of the highly polluted, smog-filled city can be viewed from the walls of the Citadel. It’s not the most attractive place in the world but it is alive with character. Venturing out of the fortified walls and deep into the congested streets of the old town below proved this to be true.
I reached the northern entrance to the souk, right by the stunning Umayyad Mosque. Opposite the mosque were many shops selling sweets. Giant sacks of confectionery were spilling out onto the dusty streets; their colourful glossy wrappers shining in the dazzling sunlight. There must have been about ten sweet shops leading up to the souk entrance and I went to every one of them, brandishing my shiny red and gold wrapper from the coach. Every shopkeeper shook his head and waved me on.
Feeling a little despondent, I entered the souk and needless to say, didn’t come out empty handed! Firstly I found myself in the textiles area which was brimming with rolls of fabric, from plain and striped cloth to more luxurious looking silks embellished with sparkle, sequins and gold thread.
Then came the haberdasheries filled with buttons, sequins, beads, ribbons, braids and cords in an impossible array of colours. Women dressed in plain black abayas were haggling at every outlet for these colourful adornments and trimmings.
My favourite part of the souk was the section filled with soaps and toiletries. The shops were absolutely full of olive oil soaps of varying types and ages (something that Aleppo is famous for), as well as perfumes, lumps of solid, sweet-smelling deodorants and other nameless potions. The floral and spicy aroma filling the dimly-lit emporiums was extraordinary.
I was lured into one of the little soapy caverns by a typical Syrian wheeler dealer (a man – they’re always men). He gave me a rather interesting lesson on how to tell the age and quality of an olive oil soap. The older the better, apparently! After a lot of banter and perfume and soap-smelling, I walked away with about a year’s worth of the stuff.
On the way back to Al-Gawaher Hotel, I passed yet more sweet shops. Out came the crumpled red and gold wrapper but it was met with more blank stares and shaking of heads. Just as I was about to give up hope, I spotted one more outlet almost hidden by a queue outside an adjacent shawarma stand. Inside the shop there was a group of men sitting in a circle having a heated discussion. One reluctantly came over and inspected the sweet wrapper in my hand. He rummaged in some cardboard boxes for what seemed like an age before producing an enormous bag of the very sweets that I was after! It was also a bargain at the equivalent cost of roughly two English pounds. The quest for confectionery was over.