THE WORDS AND SENTIMENTS OF DAVID HEELEY - BROADCASTER | FOOD CRITIC | TRAVEL WRITER

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Every volcano cloud has a silver lining

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So, there we were ensconced in the back of a sumptuous BMW limousine, on route to Damascus airport when the fateful phone call came in.

The driver answered his ringing mobile and – inexplicably – turned and said it was for me.  For me, I thought, for me? – how could it be? The voice at the other end confirmed, however, that it was. “Mr David? I’m afraid your flight has been cancelled due to the volcano in Britain” and so began one of the most surreal episodes in my life, my time as a refuge.

The only difference being, I was being whisked back to one of the most cosseted of environments imaginable, an indefinite stay at the Four Seasons Hotel Damascus.

For years I’ve read accounts of how the world’s most intrepid press men holed up at the Excelsior Hotel in Saigon, impervious to their own safety as the Vietnam war reached its bloody climax.

Little did I imagine that courtesy of an ash cloud, I too would be able to boast that I had become marooned in an exotic foreign capital, thankfully without any of the privations that those poor unfortunate hacks had to endure.

Normally, when informed that your flight has been cancelled, a degree of chagrin would be the least one would expect/exhibit but upon hearing this news and getting back into the limo to return to the hotel, my heart was actually dancing with joy.

Rarely in all my years of global travel – skipping hither and thither from one exciting city to another – have I enjoyed a stay as much as that which I had thought I had just completed at the Four Seasons, Damascus.

It’s easy to understand why.  Apart from the fact that Damascus is such a thriving and fascinating city in its own right – where visits to the Souk or the Grand Mosque stimulate all of ones senses, the hotel offers a pampered oasis of calm and luxury.

Who’d have thought that an Icelandic volcano could be responsible for reuniting me with what had become my favourite Allepan dish – lamb cooked in sour cherries – which I would again now be able to enjoy at the hotel’s exceptional Al Halabi Restaurant.

So impressed have I become with this establishment from the excellent front of house service, to the wonders of chef Mohammed’s cuisine, that it will this year constitute one of my five votes when asked to submit my nominations for the World’s Fifty Best Restaurants.

It’s not just the food though as, after another five days it the hotel, I was able to confirm that it was the unprecedentedly friendly staff who also helped made the experience so rewarding.

Stranded as I was, several took pity on me, inviting me to dinner or to gallery openings or to go and buy English DVDS for me to watch in my room when I couldn’t face another gourmet repast.

Syrian hospitality as a whole is something remarkable to behold and few countries in the world come near to the welcome that I received in this still, all too often, misunderstood country.

That said, the hospitality at the Four Seasons was exceptional, even by Syrian standards and showed a sincerity as well as a commitment to excellence that few five star establishments would be able to match.

Should the earth’s crust again fracture, thrusting up inpenetrateable clouds of ash whilst you’re on your travels, I can only hope, for your sake, that you too will be lucky enough to hear those immortal words “I’m sorry, you’re flights cancelled and its back to the Four Season’s Damascus”.

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