x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Aleppo calling

Four hours from Abu Dhabi Equal parts beach resort and historic settlement, Syria's ancient city has a culture of its own.

Aleppo Citadel, built as a military fortress in the 10th century, is a Unesco heritage site.
Aleppo Citadel, built as a military fortress in the 10th century, is a Unesco heritage site.

Damascus, as the world's oldest continually inhabited city, is a major attraction for tourists visiting Syria. Equally rewarding is the journey from Latakya to Aleppo. From the UAE, you can fly into Latakya and catch a train to Aleppo for a unique experience where the journey is half the fun. Latakya is on the Mediterranean coast about 186km southwest of Aleppo. As well as being a rather relaxed beach resort with plenty of partying for those who want it, there's also much to interest history buffs. Roman columns and a two-thousand-year-old arch survive, as well as a stunning Ottoman-era building, the Khan al Dukhan, which is now a museum. Just 16km north of the city is Ras Shamra, the site of the Ugarit kingdom, which played an important role in Syrian administration, education, religion and business between the 1600-1300 BC. There are documents, statues and jewellery from the Ugarit kingdom in museums in Latakya and Aleppo.

The most picturesque way to get from Latakya to Aleppo is by train - the line makes its way through stunning mountains and there's an open back on the train for photo opportunities. Aleppo Railway Station gained fame as one of the stops in Agatha Christie's Murder On The Orient Express. First class seats are priced at around Dh18 ($5) which makes it an affordable, as well as amusing, way to travel between the two cities. Aleppo, surrounded by hills in northern Syria, is the second capital of Syria and has been an active city since the third millennium BC. Over the centuries, it has been invaded by the Hittites, Persians, Greeks, Romans and Assyrians, has been a trading centre with France, England, the Netherlands and Turkey. There are many important monuments still standing as a testament to Aleppo's rich history. Perhaps the most famous attraction is the Aleppo Citadel, a magnificent, crenellated structure that sits 50 metres above the city. It features towers and a moat that is 20 metres deep and 30 metres wide and is considered a fine example of Arabic military architecture.

Al-Jami'al Kabir, or The Great Mosque, is another stunning ancient building, similar to Damascus's famous Umayyad Mosque and the National Museum and Museum of Popular Arts and Traditions are also fascinating draws for visitors. The old school, mosques, churches, baths and houses from the 15th century are reminders of that particularly prosperous era for the city, in particular al Bunduqiah, the Venetian consulate, which houses outstanding ornaments and antiquities. Between the citadel and Al-Jami' al-Kabir is Khan al Wazir, a traditional caravanserai with merchants' storage areas, a courtyard and sleeping quarters. The Church of Saint Simeon, 60km east of the city, is one of the world's oldest churches, dating back to the fifth century AD. Aleppo itself is an excellent city for wandering about - while there was a significant redesign after the Second World War to allow for modern traffic, there are still plenty of narrow streets, souqs and religious buildings for tourists to visit.

Budget The Zanobia Hotel's decor is rather Eighties, but it is bright, clean and in a quiet street about 15 minutes from the beach in Latakya. Double rooms start at Dh130 (@email:www.zanobiahotel.com). In Aleppo, Hotel Somar is considered the pick of the budget hotels - it is in the street best known for selling car tyres but it is spotlessly clean and run by friendly staff. Double rooms start at Dh77 (+021 211 3198).

Mid-range The elegant, oriental-style Cazino Hotel in Latakya has double rooms starting from Dh318 - it's close to the centre of town, shops and historical sites (@email:www.hotelscombined.com/Hotel/Cazino_Hotel_Latakia.htm). For a touch of Art Deco style, Ramsis Hotel in Aleppo fits the bill nicely, with modern, renovated rooms and two restaurants, including one on the roof with a view of the citadel. Double rooms start at Dh422.

Luxury Le Meridien Latakya is the big, bold beach resort. A landmark building that dominates the coastline, expect all the usual bells and whistles that come as standard in a five-star. Double rooms start at Dh770. Meanwhile, in Aleppo, the glorious Hotel Mandaloun features rooms with wrought iron beds, carved wooden shutters, a leafy courtyard and two restaurants, all set amid traditional architecture. Double rooms start at Dh550 (@email:www.mandalounhotel.com).

Latakya has plenty of cheap and cheerful restaurants where you can get Arabic and Mediterranean-inspired meals at bargain prices. For a marvellous meal with a view, it's hard to beat the Dolphin Restaurant. Perched on a cliff overlooking the Mediterranean and the fisherman's' wharf, there's an open-air terrace and the seafood is the restaurant's speciality. Last Station Restaurant, on Sharia al Mutanadi (also known as American Street) is a friendly, chilled-out source of traditional food. In Aleppo, the street shwarma stalls are legendary among travellers, but for a truly stylish and delicious meal, try the Beit Wakil Hotel and Restaurant. The restaurant serves traditional Syrian cuisine in the courtyard of a restored 18th century palace in Al Jdeida quarter. Dar Zamaria and Diwan Rasmy serve wonderful mezze and both have rooftop terraces with a view of the citadel.

Air Arabia flies between Sharjah and Latakya on Monday, Wednesday and Friday and between Sharjah and Aleppo on Tuesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Expect to pay around Dh800 subject to availability (@email:www.airarabia.com). Syrian Air flies from Abu Dhabi to Aleppo three times a week and Dubai to Aleppo four times a week. Expect to pay around Dh1,000 subject to availability (@email:www.syriaair.com). Train tickets for the Aleppo-Syria journey are readily available from the Aleppo Railway Station.