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Published: June 18th 2009
Leaving our hotel in Amman bound for the Syrian border, we were prepared for, at the very least, a protracted crossing. We were aware that there was every chance we would face the inconvenience and ignominy of having to return a few hours later. Our fears were exacerbated when we found that British and American citizens without visas, were not allowed to board buses to Syria. Fortunately, we met an American couple in our hotel who were in the same boat as us and shared a taxi with them, bound tentatively for Damascus.
Much to our surprise, Syrian immigration was a breeze and we were issued with visas with the minimum of fuss within five minutes. Unfortunately, we had somewhat shot ourselves in the foot by sharing a taxi with Americans. Despite our taxi driver’s best attempts to persuade us otherwise, we opted to wait with them for the full four hours it took for their visas be granted.
In common with most travellers, we see genuine hospitality and friendship from locals as something of a Holy Grail. Unfortunately, we have found it to be all too rare. Sadly the more frequented by tourists a place is, the more
you are seen purely as a walking dollar sign, with local people using the pretence of friendliness as a sales tactic. Even more sadly, after a few weeks in the likes of Egypt, you are left with little choice but to ignore the scores of people who strike up conversations with you, safe in the knowledge that they are purely after your money. Syria however, we found to be different, with national pride taken in showing hospitality to strangers. As with when we visited Cuba a few years ago, we were left asking ourselves whether it is a coincidence that the alleged Axis of Evil
is home to the friendliest people in the world.
Within a few hours of arriving in Damascus we were befriended by a group of locals who were genuinely interested to hear about our lives and share theirs with us. We spent a few fascinating evenings with them chatting about all aspects of life, including those traditionally held in taboo. In terms of sights, for us the highlight was wandering through the massive old city and seemingly endless maze of souqs.
After Damascus our next stop was Hama. A town famed for its, now
defunct, water wheels, which were once used to transfer water from the river into high level irrigation channels. Hama also provided a useful base from which to visit one of Syria’s prime attractions, Krak des Chavaliers. A beautifully preserved crusader castle and alleged to be the best in the world. Whether it is, is open to debate, but it is certainly in an extremely impressive state of repair and puts even the best efforts of North Wales to shame.
From Hama we travelled to Latakia, on the Mediterranean coast. An extremely relaxed city, it felt almost European and was noticeably even less conservative than Damascus. From Latakia, we visited another crusader castle, Qala'at Salah Ad-Din. To us this was probably more impressive than Krak des Chavaliers, largely due to its stunning location, perched high on rock overlooking a beautifully forested valley.
Our next destination was Aleppo, Syria’s second city, located in the far north of the country. The main tourist attraction in Aleppo is its souqs. Although impressive, we didn’t find them to be as enjoyable to wander as those in Damascus. They seemed to be more geared to selling souvenirs to tourists, rather than alive with the
buzz of locals going about their daily lives.
After seeing Aleppo, we were sad to say goodbye to our American friends and were envious of them travelling north to Turkey as we reluctantly back-tracked to Damascus. Whilst waiting the customary few days longer than expected for our visas to be ready, we spent a some more time wandering through the old town and socialising with our Syrian friends. Having had our fill of Damascus and needing to kill more time, we decided to visit some further attractions of Syria as day trips from Damascus.
Firstly we visited the town of Bosra , an old Roman settlement. It is notable mostly for the amphitheatre having been converted into an Arabian citadel. For us the most interesting aspect was seeing how the local people now live amongst the ruins. Next we visited Palmyra, probably Syria’s prime tourist attraction and another impressive ancient city, located in a desert oasis.
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