The boy looked at me incredulously, his face glancing from me to the bath-tub and back to me again;”beera”? He questioned again looking at the chipped enamel tub. I seem to have given him the impression I wanted to bathe in beer, there was a brief moment of silence while we both considered the possibilities, it had been an arduous days travel and soaking in a tub of beer all of a sudden did seem quite appealing but as I again tried to explain to the lobby boy who was still hugging my rucksack, I really just wanted him to bring me a bottle from the bar.
I had just checked into the Baron Hotel, Aleppo, it was my first visit to Syria and after a couple of weeks staying in flea-pits and knocking shops this was me treating myself, the hotel had clearly seen better days, the dusty reception counter was a mess, curled and faded postcards on rack, an oversize green Bakelite telephone and a sign written in English warning; “Do not to change money with the staff” who clearly could not be trusted. The guidebooks were not keen either, they recommended a backpacker hovel around the corner run by an ex prostitute called Madam Olga, as tempting as that sounded the literary litany of the Barons was the deciding factor, that, and the freestanding bathtub obviously.
Aleppo has also seen better days, once a cosmopolitan crossroads of commerce and trade. The Barons was built just after the turn of the century to provide some comfort to European traders in silk and soap and stuff. Then the terrace overlooked fields and gardens but they are now long gone, as is the comfort and service the Hotel was known for.
To this day Aleppo is a commercial hub, continuously boisterous and bustling with signs in Cyrillic and prices in Euro or Dollar or Dinar and a subterranean Souk crowded with Bedouin and businessmen. A city consumed by traffic and fumes but with gems of colonial architecture revealing itself with casual abandon to those who persist, and you really must persist.
Of all that Aleppo had to offer, the Grand Mosque, the medieval citadel and caravansary it was the legend that is The Baron that tickled my fancy. The guest book read like a who’s who of Middle Eastern history.
I let the tepid water fill the tub and tipped the lobby boy for the equally tepid beer. No sooner had I closed the door and started peeling off my soiled jeans a knock at the door; “change money” asked a pot bellied porter. I declined and made my way back to the bathroom. Another knock at the door, this time a middle aged cleaning lady asked if I wanted to change money. I didn’t. I slumped in my bath and slurped my beer and ignored the sporadic knocking on the door.
There are some wonderful bars dotted around the Middle East and the bar at the Barons is without doubt one of my favourites. It would be hard to rank them without a spit and sawdust brawl kicking off, but, Abu George on the Street Called Straight in Damascus and Horreya in downtown Cairo would be right in the thick of it. I slipped easily onto a bar stool and ordered a cold bottle of al Sharq beer, quickly a relationship blossomed between me and the bar tender, a Kurd with an instinct for the thirsty, I don’t think I ever actually asked for another beer, they would just appear miraculously when needed.
Agatha Christie was a frequent guest; she would stop by while toing and froing from her congical visits in the desert where her husband was an archaeologist, no doubt as appreciative of her bathroom ablutions as I, although perhaps the bar not so much, more likely she was tucked up in her lumpy bed with an Ovaltine and a train time table.
Over the years the bar stool at the Baron became a regular perch. On one early occasion I had arranged to meet Eric, a French wildlife conservationist I had met in Damascus. We had both planned to travel along the Euphrates River to the border with Iraq, I intended hitchhiking but Eric was going to hire a car. I bounded into the bar to find Eric waiting for me with a glum frown on his face. He had forgotten his driving license. There was a beautiful girl sitting at the far end of the bar, we were both distracted, oh well I said let’s have a drink. “I have to go to the Hammam” said Eric, really? I questioned, my eyes looking along the bar, “yeah, I met a guy earlier and he invited me” I was impressed with Eric’s easy going nature; few people would agree to go bathe with a random stranger they had just met in the souk.
After a pleasant evening in the bar followed by a walk around town and a bite to eat I met Eric back in the Baron. Eric mon ami, I chirped enthusiastically as he slumped into a worn leather armchair beside me. I related all the evenings events; the wonderful Aleppan meal, the sight of a dozen high heeled prostitutes being escorted from their hotel to their respected places of employment, a spectacle that literally stopped traffic. I told him about the beautiful Armenian girl who had been sitting at the other end of the bar. How was your evening? I finally asked “Hmph ‘e was omosexual” was the only detail he would divulge.
There are elegant aspects to the Baron, the chess board tiled entrance hall leading to a stone staircase, the wood panelled dining room with monogrammed crockery and table linen, faded travel posters and the musky waft of belle epoch.
Elegant as the dining room is they do only serve a meagre breakfast, I have enjoyed comedic scenes of staff sending out for pizzas when occasional tourists stopped by to poke around and grad some lunch.
“Ah Mr John, welcome, welcome back to your home” gushes Lucine, the ever present house keeper, as I descend the stone stairs for breakfast. By now I have been a regular visitor for years; I was in town on assignment to photograph the 1950s and 60 American cars that prowl the streets a bit like those in Havana.
Slightly taken aback by the welcome as this was the first time anyone other than the barman had recognized me, “breakfast”? She asked as I entered the typically empty dining room, “indeed” I replied basking in the new status I seem to have attained, “would you like a coffee”? She asked with surprising inside knowledge, the boiled egg and triangle of laughing cow cheese usually comes with a dainty cup of Liptons tea and coffee was unheard of at this hour so I accepted the generous show of hospitality with the enthusiasm of the weak willed addict I am.
After failing to adequately cover the bread with the limited portion of cheese and battling to remove the hardboiled egg from its shell I consoled myself with the Nescafe. “Everything is fine”? The housekeeper asked with unusual conscientiousness, “oh yes, lovely, thank you” I replied in typically British fashion, and with that she presented me with an inflated bill for the non-inclusive Nescafe.
In the scruffy lounge dominated by an early Ottoman television set is a cabinet that houses among other mementos of illustrious guests of yesteryear the unpaid bar bill of TE Lawrence, a man of duplicitous reputation in these parts, one can only imagine why the bill remains unpaid.
I had been promised an appointment with Armen Mazloumian the owner and had been waiting all day, I was watching a Syrian soap opera on TV until Mr Walid entered the room and switched it off. Mr Walid was grumpy with me after I had declined one of his infamous tours to the Dead Cities, usually he asked me several times per visit, it wasn’t that he was persistent, he just failed to recognize having asked me on the previous occasions, the last time I had declined using his name before he had even started his usual patter and he was clearly annoyed. I gave up on the appointment and set out for the Souk.
It was 1am in the bar when Armen finally showed up. Oddly he knew which room I had been staying in and apologized; the hotel had been busy and my unannounced arrival meant a broom cupboard at the back. We spent a genial evening cursing those responsible for the poor reviews the hotel had been getting in the guide books and the declining standard of guest. I glanced around the bar and imagined King Faisal propping up the bar and Charles de Gaulle eyeing the drunk German stumbling on his way out to bed.
Armen had promised to meet me after breakfast the next morning to show me the guest book and the room Agatha Christie supposedly wrote Murder on the Orient Express. And once again I sat waiting, streams of light pouring in from the tall open windows illuminating the dust filled room, outside the continuous sound of car horns, a looped backing trap to any Middle Eastern city. At one point a flurry of activity, a waiter rushing from the kitchen behind the reception and into an office out of sight, clearly someone important was having his breakfast delivered I thought. I waited another half an hour and went to reception and asked if Mr Armen was free. “No he’s not here” was the reply; no doubt the disappointment was clear from the tone of my voice, the conversation became somewhat surreal; “why-had I seen him”? As the waiter passed by with an empty breakfast tray I said no I hadn’t seen him.
I ordered a coffee and sat outside on the terrace and pondered the past, looking up at the balconies where King Faisal and Gamal Abd Nasser had delivered speeches, of Rockerfeller and Rooservelt, of how Mustafa Kemal Ataturk managed to survive six months as a guest here while the 1918 flu pandemic was rampant and the Ottoman empire was crumbling.
As I made my way to the train station I considered how the Baron Hotel was a metaphor for the Middle East; full of charm and disappointment in equal measure.
The Baron hotel inevitably was forced to close because of the war; the front line was a couple of streets away and has sustained damage but fortunately nothing too serious. Armen Mazloumian sadly passed away in 2016.
If you have enjoyed my story telling please do consider clicking the Buy Me A Coffee Link Below, in these dishevelled times every drop helps.
John Wreford is a freelance editorial and commercial photographer based in Turkey; https://wreford.photoshelter.com
I remember our stay there, it’s faded glory identified by the buckets strategic placed in the hallways to collect rain water from the room and trying to dodge them in the evening gloom as so few lights were working. I am pleased to hear it has not been too badly damaged.
Happy days 🙂
We must do another road trip Keith
Thanks greatly, John.
+44 (0)7946 293 582
Thank you so much Robynne
I love your work-keep in touch
enjoyed that. I’ve read about the Baron on many occasions but not seen photos, yours are perfect.
Quite engrossing. Loved your account. My wife’s cousin comes from Veneto Italy and as part of her Arab language university course stayed in Aleppo. I also journeyed there by train from Istanbul a long time ago. We are so sad about Aleppo today and treasure our experiences of the city.
Thank you so much.
Yes its a well known haunt of travellers in the Middle East and obviously full of stories
Interesting read John. You lead a fascinating life.
Thank you Carolyn
Life should be fascinating I think.
Hope its good with you-despite everything
Thank you so much 🙂
Beautiful. Every time I read (see) your work I’m reminded of the ‘more’ life has to offer. I’ve certainly lived, though life has come at me largely from the depths of what is inside of me. It’s lovely to know there’s so much more of the world to explore from here. Thank you for the reminder, John. 🙂
Thank you Brooke.
We all live and follow our own paths,
I think I am just reminding myself to live it-its easy to forget and just muddle through.
Thank you for reading and do keep in touch
Ahh, yes. Don’t forget to live. It is so easy to forget. Take care, John, and yes, I’ll be around. 🙂
great story John takes you right there. What a place, what character and characters! I would love to stay there
Thank you Andy
Its my pleasure and I really hope things change for the best in the future and its possible to visit
Great story John! I always feel like I’m a friend of yours listening to a report about your latest adventure. The hotel has wonderful old detail. I’d choose that over a backpacker hovel any day!
Thank you Kate
You are a friend listening to my odd escapades 🙂
Not any odder than the experiences I’ve gone through daily for over 6 years due to the work I’m doing to help the planet and humanity 🙂
Thanks, John. As usual a fabulous story.
Thanks for reading Clive and appreciate the nice comment
Wonderfully descriptive and full of characters, current and past; great story!
Thank you so much Rebecca, I am glad you enjoyed it
John, I enjoyed reading about Agatha Christie’s stay at the Baron and supposed writing of Murder on the Orient Express while there. Cool! Interesting story and photographs.
Thank you Michele
So glad you enjoyed it.
Me and Agatha crossed paths a number of times 🙂
I enjoyed reading your story and appreciate the way your writing helps the reader understand humanity a little better. Thank you for what you do. I can’t wait to read more!
Thank you so much-
It really pleases me to hear you say this-just what I woulld hope to try and achieve
Do drop by again
John, I felt like I was in a movie reading your story about this hotel. Your metaphor at the end of the piece is excellent. Very sad how people’s lives and livelihoods have been turned upside down with the turmoil in this region.
Thank you Caroline
So much sadness and so many stories.
Yet despite this there are positive stories too and always hope.
Amazing story, very discriptive and great pics ❤️😊🌹
Thank you so much
An amazing place-the stories write themselves really
Its so amazing please visit my blog too
Good luck with the Blog
I really like how classy the architecture over here looks and the windows too. Dreamy street scenes indeed. Love it!
Thank you for the lovely comment
A country, despite the awfulness of war that still has incredible beauty and culture
Thank you Emma 🙂
amazing .. and such awesome pictures ❤️
Reblogged this on By the Mighty Mumford and commented:
great travel stuff!!!
Thank you Angelique 🙂 x
Your travel narratives are rich in the adventure of passionate ruminations.
Hi nice story,nice travelling🤣
Thank you 🙂
Glad you enjoyed reading
Loved this. And the photos.
Thank you. Really appreciate you reading and making time to comment
Thank you for dropping by and taking the time to make such a kind comment, it really is very much appreciated
Another good read – entertaining and descriptive. I love it when something makes me giggle out loud. 🙂
I’m glad to hear that!
Actually, what is interesting, too, is that you have a knack for turning facts about things that in reality are sad, thought-provoking, dangerous, risque, and so on, into a quirky, entertaining read that by no means belittles the subject matter, but in fact teaches us about it in more depth but in a way that makes you want to read on and feel light-hearted, not depressed. The same goes for My Short-Lived Career Smuggling Art. Thank you.
Thank you so much.
I am pleased that is how my writing comes across, its always a balancing act
Great storytelling, would prefer to use Venmo to contribute to your cause. Sent you a friend request from Deidre Lines
Oh so sorry I missed this comment!
What is Venmo? I should google it.
You didn`t mention when you`ve been there. I`ve been around in the late eighties:
I guess my first visit was in the mid-90s and then from 2003 when I moved to Damascus I have been a regular visitor until leaving Syria in 2013. I saw many changes over the years but Aleppo must have changed considerably since your time there in the 80s, although not the hotel so much. They did renovate the rooms and made them quite sterile and characterless which was a shame.
Thanks yes – unfortunately some people think, they have to renovate in destroying everything old… In those days I`ve never been inside, had to stay in cheap(er) hotels…