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SYRIA | Saturday, 11 April 2009 | Views [974]

Three kilometres from Tartus, the southernmost city of Syria's brief Mediterranean coast, is the island of Arwad. It is small – only 500 metres end to end and even less across – and has been inhabited by Canaanites, Egyptians, Phoenicians, Romans, and finally, in 1302, was the last Frankish outpost to fall to the armies of the east. Some traces remain. On the far western edge of the island are stacks of enormous limestone blocks; part of an early fortification. In the centre of town are two medieval forts. One is closed, the other now a museum.

Otherwise the town is a mix of old and new. Limestone houses with arched windows are built directly onto rock and concrete apartments stand with open balconies and white walls. The streets are narrow – too narrow for cars – and are filled with children playing and merchants selling fresh produce, food, and tourist kitsch.

The town survives on a mixture of tourism, fishing, and ship building. On both sides of the harbour are the yards where wooden vessels are assembled in a process once described by Milorad Pavic as 'almost the exact opposite of eating fish'. Everywhere are men hammering caulk into wooden joints and boys painting the broad keeled white and pale blue boats. There was a project to sail one of these ships around Africa, recreating the voyage of a long ago trading expedition.

 Because it is Friday the island is full of local families on day trips from the mainland. Restaurants on the harbour compete for business and serve great piles of freshly cooked fish, flat bread, hot chips and plates of meze and salad.

I ordered fish, and thinking about both the boat builders and fishermen with rods on every pier and rocky outcrop of the island, tore it apart with glee. It was delicious.

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