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Here, there, everywhere... A modest attempt at chronicling my around the world adventure over the next year (or so).

paris of the middle east

SYRIA | Wednesday, 3 June 2009 | Views [1316]

Well after 3.5 hours, two pee breaks and lots of ready and browsing the duty free shops we got our Syrian visas! Whew, we knew it would be a bit of a wait but you never know they can be a bit willy at the border especially as we is Americans!!!  TO BE CONTINUED... 


After leaving the wonderful city of Damascus our next destination was Palmyra in the eastern part of the country about 3 hours by bus. The ruins of Palmyra are from Queen Zenobia who reportedly took on the Romans and got her ass handed to her and they sacked the city. We made our way into the city center with an Australian couple we met on the bus to an average hotel in the guidebook. They did not like it but it was fine for us since we were only staying one night. We checked in and toured the town. According to what we read after 2001 tourism to the area went way down and it sure looked like it in 2009. We also read the hotel and restaurant people will fight and tell lies about each other to attract business, it only happened to us once at dinner but it was to another couple that we overheard the bad mouthing about another restaurant. That evening we climbed to the top of the hill outside of town to visit the citadel at sunset. The view around the mostly desert valley was pretty stunning and we perched ourselves on a rock just outside the citadel to take in the setting sun. The next morning we awoke semi-early and made our way to the ruins. The ruins are spread out over several kilometers and you can just walk around through everything except the Temple of Bel which you have to pay an entrance fee. We saved that one for last and much to our disappointment we paid and entered. The temple is a bit of a letdown if you have seen many Roman type ruins in different countries. We reflected on the fact that it also did not help that we were tired and it was taking something really spectacular or unique to peek our interest heavily. The place was next on our tour of Syria. It was getting hot by the time we finished so we made our way back into town, grabbed some lunch and a taxi to the bus station café. Turns out they told me the wrong times for the bus to Homs, our next destination so we had a two hour wait at the café. Jessica continued to read her massive 900+page book and I read and walked around. We finally caught the bus late afternoon to Homs for our next visit, the Crac de Chavaliers.

Crac de Chavaliers lies in the mountains just west of Homs. It is an old crusader castle that has had many occupiers over the centuries but has been left in marvelous condition considering all the fighting that has happened. You can not get there directly from Homs so once arriving at Homs you have to find a minivan to the village where the Crac is located. Supposedly in the evening there few if any running to the village but we wanted to push onto Crac instead of staying in the ho-hum city of Homs. I managed to find a guy going to the village in 30 minutes and after agreeing to an inflated fare because of our extra baggage we were off. It only took an hour before we began the ascent into the mountains were the castle sits. The terrain looks nothing like what one would expect the typical desert landscape of the middle east to appear. It is green with terraced hillsides growing olives, etc. and red tile roofs. We nicknames it the "Tuscany of the Middle East" in homage to Beirut which is nicknames the "Paris of the Middle East"(which it is not as just like Tuscany, there is only one Paris). We made up the mountain to a turn off and the driver of the minivan did not want to take us up the hill to our first hotel destination so we got our and met a guy on a motorcycle who said another cheaper hotel was just up the hill next to the Crac. We had also stopped right below the castle and it was indeed impressive from what little we saw from the outside. We hoofed it up the hill and met Nassir the hotel owner who promptly showed us a dirty and overpriced room which we took(we had read about the place so we were not surprised) and after a decent dinner we bedded down. The next morning after breakfast(we got a late start) we made our way to the castle. The castle had some mist around it and the weather was chilly much like it could be in the English countryside while visiting castles and the like. We entered the castle and were amazed at how preserved the castle was inside with huge corridors and rooms, a moat, big towers and an amazing view of both sides of the valley below. We took our time through the castle because there was so much to see including how the Muslims had converted the original Christian chapel inside to a mosque which is quite common from the Crusades and vice-versa. It was a great castle and well worth the hype about how great it was, I personally would have liked to live in it that is of course if I did not have to pay the heating and cooling bills. After the castle we grabbed our bags and waited for a minivan to catch back to Homs and the bus station. The first driver waiting by the castle wanted too much money so we started to walk down the hill into the village but not before running into our Spaniard friend Victor that we met in Damascus. He did not get his Iranian visa so we he was touring around more of Syria while he waited. We said a quick hello and goodbye and caught another minivan just around the corner from the castle. Back in Homs we bought our bus tickets to Aleppo, grabbed some quick food and were off. We got into Aleppo about three hours later which is in the northern part of Syria. Aleppo is supposed to be more conservative then Damascus so I actually put on a pair of pants, a big deal for a shorts wearing guy like me! We arrived at the bus station and after about 30 minutes realized it was not the station we had read about that was close to the city center. This station was actually much further away and not within walking distance as the other one had been. We also quickly realized that unlike Damascus the use of English in Aleppo was much less infrequent so we had some difficulty trying to negotiate our way into the center without taking an overpriced taxi. We finally settled into a minivan and were dropped off close the museum which was according to our map close to the hostel we wanted to stay at. The problem was we were not quite sure which direction to travel in from the drop-off point but a friendly young guy named Mustaffa walked with us to our hotel. He was a Syrian from a town close to the Iraqi border but studied architecture in Aleppo. He gave us some parting advice as we walked up the stairs to the hotel. Most of the people in Aleppo were Iraqis or very sympathetic to the Iraqi cause except the hotel owners, they were mostly Syrians. He told us being American was probably not the best thing to advertise, no problem we said and instantly became Canadians for the next few days.

After checking into the "last" room which was nice and private but hugely overpriced compared to other rooms in Syria was made our way around the 'hood'. Aleppo is famous for its souqs (centuries old alleyway shopping districts) but we decided to save those for the next day. We did find some sweet juice stands close to the hotel and promptly bellied up to the 'bar' for some juice. The next day we toured the souqs hoping to find some deals or at least just some interesting things to look at. We did spend some time in a shop with a young lad who wanted to practice his English named Talha(sp). He offered us tea and he and his neighbor shop guy(a dirty old man we thought) made jokes and talked about life in Syria. We said goodbye and made our way to the citadel in Aleppo. It was also on top of a hill overlooking the city but in the city(all citadels are) but decided against a visit as the inside was not well preserved we had read. We then made our way to the Christian quarter with the help of another young lad for some late lunch mezze (appetizers) and cold drinks. The Christian quarter in Aleppo is very European looking with lots of narrow stone alleyways and shops tucked into little corners. They even have some old Christian churches which we had not seen much of except for the Christian quarter in Damascus. We found an overpriced but cute place to eat then made our way back to the hotel. Aleppo was to be our last stop in Syria before catching the bus and crossing the border into Lebanon. That evening however, Jessica began to get sick, bad stomach cramps and by morning was very achy and in much pain. We decided to stay another day so she could rest the entire day and try to get better. That extra day for me involved being nursemaid for Jess, going to the internet and figuring out how we were going to get back to the bus station that was outside of the center. I did manage to take the public bus to the station, buy tickets and return to find Jess getting a little better that evening but not much. But like a trooper the next day she and I packed up our stuff, caught the bus to the station and then the bus for Lebanon. She was still not feeling well but was able to ride the bus.

We were sad to leave Syria, the people and the country had treated us well and welcomed us warmly into their country. The food was tasty and as we were told once by a Syrian, all Middle Eastern food originated from Lebanon so it only got better the closer you were to the country. Yum, yum.

Tags: aleppo, crac de chavaliers, damascus, palmyra

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