I've never written about my travels through Syria with my friend Ronald, partly because this blog didn't exist at the time, but as you hear more about Syria in the news every day I figured it would be time to share some of the positive (like Ruslan Fedotow did in his video above) versus the negative you see and hear in the media.
It was the second of March 2008 that I started on my first backpacking trip. I was so green as a backpacker that I didn't even own a backpack and thus borrowed one from my good friend Vincent. So I was quite surprised by it all, which started a few months before the trip. Ronald, my travel buddy for Syria, came with the idea for this rather unique destination. Of course I had heard of Syria before but never in a positive way or at least it didn't occur to me that you could go on holiday there but after reading a bit about the country and finally even the Lonely Planet I agreed to come with him on a two week trip through Syria. Although I still had my reservations.
Our trip started quite early, Ronald and his parents picked me up in Rotterdam around 7 am. We got to Schiphol on time and even got myself a bag that fits over the backpack so it wouldn't get tangled up on any of the dozens of conveyor belts. We checked in and dropped our bags off but found out our flight was delayed for at least two hours but eventually we got on the plane and were headed for our destination. The flight was fine with Syrianair although the food was a little bland but on which flight is the food ever decent anyway.
Finally landing on Damascus airport we had to wait for four stamps in our passports which looked like regular post stamps to me. This took ages, I had to spell out my name and other information even though the customs guy was holding my passport right in-front of him. After all the bureaucratic nonsense we made our way to baggage claim where we got our baggage surprisingly quick. Before we left the airport and head for down town Damascus it was time for a loo break, I eventually found one where the urinals were relatively clean although made with midgets in mind or children maybe both, the urinals are attached on a lower level then I'm normally accustomed too is what I'm saying. Anyway we head to our hostel for the first nights in Syria. Damascus is the oldest continuously populated city in the world and it quite busy one at that. Traffic rules are enforced here but it's still a bit of a mess. We reach our hostel (Ar-Rabie Hotel) safely, even with the alley we have to pass through, which is quite a good hostel and a recommended stay in Damascus. Food is our primary priority goal so we head out and find a nice place with good food and traditional music.
On our first real day in Damascus we did the walking tour our Lonely Planet advised although in opposite direction and see lots of souqs, we visited Saladin's mausoleum but the highlight of the day was the very impressive Umayyad Mosque. Afterwards we also went to the Sayyida Ruqayya Mosque, which has these tiny mirrors in the ceiling, and Azem Pallace. We finished our day with ice cream covered in pistachio nuts in one of the oldest ice cream parlours in Damascus. Which tasted amazing!
On the second day in Damascus we made a trip to Bosra. We started early as the trip to Bosra is a long one and takes about 2 1/2 hours. It's about 150 kilometres from Damascus. Heading out at 8 am for the local bus or rather minivan station we found transportation to Daraa which is on border with Jordan. From there you take another minivan to Bosra. Those minivans are quite amazing as they are able hold 15 people, although probably not intended for it. Bosra itself is quite beautiful and rich in ruins that are fairly intact. Especially the citadel is in very good condition but there is also ruins north of the citadel. Bosra has been in possession of the Nabateans, Romans, Byzantine and Muslims over the years so it has quite some influences in architecture. Inside the citadel there is a Roman theatre.
The day after Bosra we head for Hama by bus and quickly find a good hostel, Hotel Cairo. We head out straight away to do some sight seeing. Hama has 17 Narias (waterwheels) that are very accessible and quite beautiful. The citadel in this city is mostly gone and what remains is a big hill with a ditch in the middle of it but it does provide some great views over the city. The best food I ate in Hama was at the Orient House which is a very nice restaurant in the middle of a very dark alley. Getting there and back was quite the experience and one I tell about most of the time when I talk about Syria. We needed direction to get to the restaurant and so we asked this street vendor that was selling cigarettes. He just left his cart and walked us to the place, which was a good 30 minutes away, and only excepted a handshake as reward. Getting back from the restaurant we got lost and had to ask directions. This time near some souqs and we got directions plus exchanged stories a got to taste some Arabian coffee which was very rich in flavour.
On our second day in Hama we arranged to do a trip with a private driver provided by Hotel Cairo. It turned out to be a great way to see several sights (Apamea, Masyaf & Krak des Chevaliers). We left from Hama at 8.30 pm and head towards Apamea with Colin, a brit, and our driver. Apamea is quite impressive with a lot of colonnaded and we even see an ancient pipe system. We reach Masyaf before lunch and aren't that impressed by this ancient castle that has been build over the years by different civilizations. So we head out to are final stop which is Krak des Chevaliers (Crusader castle), one of the most important preserved medieval military castles in the world. This must be the most impressive and intact castle I've ever seen. It's quite amazing. The horse stables still smell of horse. We head back with are private driver to Hama, which is very handy, as driving in Syria isn't for the faint of heart although one thing I liked about the infrastructure was the traffic lights which indicate how long until you get a green light. I haven't seen many those in the western world.
Another day another city, Aleppo took us about 1 1/2 hours to reach. We stayed in Hotel Tourist for two days, quite decent looking hostel and clean with a homely atmosphere. Aleppo's citadel is in good condition compared to the one in Hama. Ronald even plays a little football in front of the citadel with some kids which they enjoy immensely. The souqs are very nice and in an old area. We even meet a Syrian souq owner that speak a little Dutch besides very good English. On our next day we leave for the Hamman to get a torturous treatment that kinda feels good, although it's quite a long wait. Afterwards we replenish our fluids. It's hard to find alcohol in Syria, being a Muslim country, so it mostly soft drinks, tea and coffee. Even though it is possible to find a beer here and there on occasion. After dinner we finish our day with a visit to the famous or infamous Baron Hotel.
After all the trips we wanted to take little time off from backpacking and rest a little on the beach in Latakia. So we headed for the trainstation by taxi. The taxi dropped us at the wrong place and after walking to the trainstation we were told that we would have to wait 7 hours before the train left. So we had time to kill. Later in the day we arrived and stay in the worst hostel we stayed in by far. Not very clean so having a sleepingbag was great! The next day we have bad weather and instead of the beach walk around the city of Latakia where the women dress a bit differently from the rest of Syria. Let's just say they dressed more Western. Latakia wasn't very impressive and probably only interesting when you have decent weather. I did get to finish The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini, a must read.
From Latakia we head for Palmyra (Tadmur for the locals) via Homs. It's a five hour drive of which one through the desert. As Palmyra is in the middle of Syria it's located the desert. We find a decent hostel with a very friendly owner who serves us chai a lot. The next day we wake up early to do a bit of walking in the very beautiful ruins that leave you in awe. It's just unbelievable how much is left of this still very important oasis city. It's a very hot city though with little lizards & beetles in the ruins and temples.
The trip back to Damascus brings the end of the holiday insight after almost two weeks of Syria. We visit a museum just before it closes which is quite a nice museum and has a lot of artefacts. The next day we travel to Maaloula for a daytrip. We walk through the gap which has a story behind it but I totally forgot. We also take in the beautiful view.
On our last day in Syria we want to go for a swim in the local swimming pool. We end up going with a Canadian guy called Mo who speaks English, French, Spanish and Farsi. After walking for roughly two hours we end up asking a local and he offers to drive us in his car. Pity the pool is closed and end up in the same museum as the day before but this time we take our time to walk around. Our last night ends in a beautiful restaurant, a shame that the food doesn't compare to the intricate decorations.
Syria is a great place to go on a holiday, although I would wait until it becomes a bit more stable then it recently has been. When I tell people I meet that I've been there they always ask me why I went and the answer should be in the stories & photos above but in short the culture has lots of history to it and my influences, it's quite cheap to travel, amazing architecture that isn't fenced off like in Rome and the people are very friendly and helpful to foreigners.
Syria has definitely made me look at the world in another perspective and made me wonder what other countries are out there that I haven't though of to explore. We should always remember that the news we hear is only the most interesting news for us or rather the news that we get spoon fed and thus mostly bad. The good just does get the ratings. Make up your own mind and don't be to fast to make up your mind. This isn't just something that holds true for countries and it's people but other things like music and book as well. Everybody knows the cliché that you shouldn't judge a book by it's cover but it's certainly true in the cast of Syria. Remember that the next time you book a holiday vacation to some beach that basicly is home without the lousy weather.
More photos in my Syria photo gallery.