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Published: April 10th 2011
Wow – I'm having such an amazing time, and I have done so much since I last wrote that I really don't know where to start, or whether I'll be able to get it all down in one go without writing reams! I'll try.
Greetings from Tartus, Syria's second port city to the south of Lattakia – the latter being a place which is certainly not on my itinerary given the current state of affairs there. Speaking of which, and I guess a good place to start this blog: despite what's being reported in the news from this part of the world at the moment, it feels remarkably safe and peaceful. This might be because I'm certainly sticking to places which are not making headlines, but also perhaps because the media does tend to exaggerate situations when the focus is on just one event out of countless other goings on in a country. I have at least registered myself as being in Syria with the British Embassy here, to at least have some peace of mind, but as I say, it doesn't feel at all out of the ordinary here.
So, since I last wrote I
moved on from Beirut, where I ended up spending 4 nights in the "cheapest" place in town, at $30 not really a bargain, but there are very few budget options in the country, and indeed it was a bit pricey there. What I saw of Lebanon was amazing, and the people super-friendly, though it does feel good now to be back in Syria – I feel I can spread out and relax here for some reason – Lebanon is just so densely populated and the traffic really gets to you after a while. Although Beirut is the biggest city, the urban agglomeration stretches from Sidon in the south, through Beirut, and up to Byblos in the north, a total length of 60km or so, and mainly along a narrow coastal strip due to the Mt Lebanon mountain range blocking any building inland – huge and dense!
Anyway, after my first day trip to Baalbek, my second from Beirut was towards the south. Again, Mr LP does warn against it, due to the troubles of the south of Lebanon, and the presence of UN peacekeeping troops there which causes friction amongst some of the locals. But again it felt as
safe as chips, and was beautiful – the two coastal towns of Tyre and Sidon. Had to do both together, as they always do come together, and they were lovely (although I did Sidon first before Tyre…!). Sidon had a nice offshore crusader-built castle and a nice little souq, while Tyre had its famous peninsula which was originally an island until Alexander the Great built a land bridge to take the city in the 4th Century BC. Both were originally founded by the Phoenicians, and both served the Crusaders in their quest to retake the Holy Land – two themes which have been common during the last few days of my journey, hence the title of this blog entry.
Third and final day trip from Beirut was up north, towards Ancient Byblos to start with – a lovely little harbour which was originally the centre of the Phoenician trading empire during much of the first millennium BC. Hard to imagine for a harbour no wider than 50 metres! After here, onto the highest and scariest cable-car ride I think I've taken, towards Harissa and the statue of the Virgin Mary which overlooks the town of Jounieh and Beirut beyond.
Arwad Island, Syria
And finally the amazing Jeita Grotto – a huge system of limestone caves, with stalactites and stalagmites galore, and a great trip by boat along an underground river. Unfortunately no photos here, as cameras were prohibited – can't really think why as stalactites don't tend to fade from camera flashes...
And this brings me to yesterday, and my journey back over the border into Syria via the city of Tripoli (I assure you, in Lebanon and not the other one – I may be adventurous, but I'm not stupid!), to my current port-of-call, Tartus. Again, a settlement founded by the Phoenicians but significantly added to by the Crusaders, who made it the famed Tortosa, one of the main Crusading cities. Not much remains of Tortosa, but there is an amazing little island 3 km offshore called Arwad, which was the last stronghold of the Crusaders before being finally driven out of the Holy Land in 1302. Today it's a tiny warren of streets, alleyways and whitewashed houses with no cars whatsoever, and lots of happy little kids who loved having their photo taken – see the attached! I also met a great Russian couple there, Andrej and Zhanna. But
the dramatic thing on Arwad was just the boat ride there – it was mad! It has been windy here for the last few days, very windy, and this meant that the sea was rough, very rough indeed – I think the roughest I've ever sailed on. Our little boat was literally riding up one crest of a wave, reaching the top, and dipping down sickeningly into the next trough before a big crash and splash of water, for the whole process to be repeated countless times for the 20-minute journey. It was actually quite scary, particularly as the captain seemed more intent on smoking and chatting with his friends than steering… For the journey back, the sea had settled somewhat, but I'd still categorise it as rough for my experiences anyway.
And finally today, the mother of all castles – the Krak des Chevaliers, or Qala'at al-Hosn in Arabic, about 50km from Tartus – and reached by lots of little buses, cars and hitch-hiking (5 different vehicles in total, including a bus driver who shouted at me after picking me up for some unknown reason, and spent the rest of the journey smiling at me). Described by numerous
travelers as the best, most preserved castle in the world, I would certainly agree with this – and coming from a guy from the land of castles itself, this is saying something. It was huge, and great fun exploring as absolutely none of it was cordoned off – you could climb each of the numerous towers, walk into each of the dungeons, and wander all over the whole structure – it was great.
And I think the best thing about this journey, amongst many other good points, is the lack of other tourists, perhaps due to the current situation? It's nice to have a place almost all to yourself, and I feel this is so, with the odd one or two other travelers I have met also agreeing that this country is so safe and nice, despite what the BBC might be telling you.
Next plans – one more night here in Tartus, in the fantastic Daniel Hotel, sleeping well now despite a few hiccups with hotels and rooms for the first few nights. After this, to the north-east towards Hama and its surrounds, then Aleppo and surrounds, and then into the Syrian desert. Watch this space for
Hoping everyone is well, and hoping that this blog entry assures anyone who might be a bit worried about me – it's very calm and peaceful here, people are warm, hospitable and friendly, and it's just great - but thanks for thinking of me anyway :0)
A big Arabian hug to all
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