Wednesday, June 10, 2009

But eez bootik 'otel

The Ziad Hotel in Deir ez Zor wins 2 UN Stars

I’ve written before about how useful an endorsement from the United Nations, whose staff are never known to rough it, is when picking hotels on the edges of conflict zones. The two shiny 4x4s of the UNHCR parked outside the Ziad Hotel in Deir ez Zor, in eastern Syria, showed promise. And so it proved. The Ziad offers clean, large, echoing rooms with air-conditioning in a newish block beside the canal and minutes’ walk from the centre of this bustling town on the Euphrates.
I’ve just returned from my first visit to Syria since 2002 and there are plenty of obvious changes. Tinny far-eastern cars have displaced the armada of elderly American automobiles, held together by solder and putty, which previously served as taxis. ATMs have arrived (though not always willing to dispense money), there is internet access of unexpected velocity, a dramatic increase in tourists and a rise in the number of hotels. With that last in mind I’m going to run through where I stayed on my anti-clockwise tour around the country.
Unlike in south-east Turkey last year, where I heard the phrase "but eez bootik 'otel", used repeatedly by hoteliers to justify an outrageous opening demand on the grounds that their tatty hotel has atmosphere, negotiating the price downwards in Syria is a rather less fraught process, and because the supply of beds still outstrips the number of intrepid tourists, it is possible to get discounts, even in the high tourist season.

Palmyra – the Tower Hotel. I had looked at the Heliopolis Hotel already, but it wanted about $70 for a small room with poor beds and proved unwilling to negotiate. The Tower, which is on the main street in the town, offered me a “suite” (you got space, not grandeur) for about £30, I think. It was clean enough and well-placed for the sights but nothing special. I ate across the road at a restaurant that does superb lemonade with mint by the half-litre jar.

Deir-ez-Zor - the Ziad Hotel. Two UN stars, as described above.

Aleppo – the Beit Wakil. $120 a night plus tourist tax. Despite one or two slightly buttery male reception staff who want to take your money up-front, air-conditioning that did not work and staff who shrugged when asked to fix it, which together give the impression it is coasting on its reputation, this is an atmospheric place to stay in the Armenian Jdeidah quarter, with a pretty shaded courtyard with flowers and a tinkling fountain. You can park on a meter in the nearby square, Saahat Hattab, while you dump your bags, and park overnight for 200 Syrian Pounds (ie about £3) a day in the carpark owned by the Dar al Zamaria round the corner. And the thickness of the walls at the hotel meant that the lack of air-conditioning in May was not a problem. There are many other boutique hotels appearing in the city, against whom the Beit Wakil will increasingly have to raise its game, or drop its prices. There are a growing number of good places to eat, many of them providing roof-top views across the city.

Lattakya – the Riviera Hotel. I checked in here after driving up the coast to the Meridien, where the manager wanted $185 for a room on a Friday night, but immediately came down to $134 when I laughed. I offered $70, which he would not accept, though he admitted that the hotel was only 45% occupied. The lifts have graffiti, the rooms smell of smoke. Avoid, as I did. By contrast the Riviera, on the unpromising main drag into the city, has pleasant staff and good clean rooms. They took $75 for a room. Finding it was oddly tricky, given that it is on the main road into the city: it is on the left, opposite the new looking tourist office, as the road bends round to the left. You can park on the street outside. Dinner not special.

Hama – the Orient House. I asked first at the Cairo Hotel, which is a basic but clean option in the centre of town, near the clock tower. The Cairo offers bargain rates but the rooms are not inspiring, and – I suspect – quite noisy from traffic into the night. But the same family owns other hotels in the town, one of which is the Orient House, a few minutes’ drive south – the Cairo’s owner sent his young nephew with me in my car to provide directions, including going the wrong way up a one-way street. The pleasant manager of the Orient House – brother of the manager of the Cairo – wanted $90 a night but took $75. This is a two courtyard old house with perfectly fine if slightly characterless rooms, and a pleasant courtyard dining area. It doesn’t serve alcohol, but the food was fine. The hotel was apparently the home of Akram al Hawrani, who was vice-president in the Nasser-dominated and short-lived union between Egypt and Syria, the UAR, which lasted between 1958 and 1961.

The sting in the tail of a visit to Syria is the exorbitant departure tax demanded by the Syrian government. This now stands at 1500 SP (£20); the guidebook, which was a recent edition, quoted 200 SP. Paying it left a briefly bitter taste; Syria remains a fascinating place.

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