Thursday, October 16, 2008

Syria: Crac des Chevaliers

Chapter Eight - Crac des Chevaliers & farewell to Syria

In Tartus, I was directed to two entirely wrong bus 'stations' before I found the right place to arrange a ride to the intersection of the highway and the road to Hosn, for Crac des Chevaliers (or for Homs if I would have liked to continue on).
The fare on a crowded Qadmous minibus was S£30. The ride to the intersection took about half an hour. I was dropped off right where I wanted to be, but a local had to point it out to the driver for me, so be attentive or you could just as well whiz past!

Crac des ChevaliersI had expected some activity at this intersection/turnoff. But no ! It was completely dead. I started thinking of the amount of time I was going to loose here trying to catch a bus to the Crac, when one passed by. The driver understood where I wanted to go, and waited for me.

The minibus struggled uphill to the Crac; the trip took half an hour. I was dropped only about a hundred metre short of the entrance. For some reason I didn't have to pay for the ride. Only after repeatedly insisting, I found out that my ride had been paid for by the two friendly locals I had been talking to during the ride, and who had got out about midway. Normally the price is S£25.

I really needed a drink and some food at that time. I took the recommendation of the guidebook and walked past some other (signs to) eateries to the Restaurant La Table Ronde. I wish I hadn't. The food is quite terrible and costs too much for what it is. A plain cup of tea is S£25 ! On top of that the manager is not exactly a friendly guy, pushy, and not very trustworthy. He even tried to change money for me at a rate worse than the bank rate : he offered S£42 to the Dollar, whereas the bank gives S£45. I told him that, but he wouldn't give more than S£46.

Still, I took his offer to look at one of the rooms they also have. I fancied a night close to this majestic piece of art in military architecture, and decided to stay there. Rooms were, at S£500, too expensive for a single traveller for the quality you get. It can however sleep three. There was a whole collection of insects in the room (including some of the biggest grasshoppers I had ever seen), so it wasn't terribly clean, but at least there was a hot shower en-suite. The walls of the rooms are cardboard-thin, so very noisy. I would experience that later, when an overland truck full of drunken, noisy Australians - I'm sorry for their fellow countrymen - arrived at the site, and decided to spend the night at the campsite of the La Table Ronde. They were singing, drumming, shouting, belching, and whatever else loudly until about 2 am, which is when I finally fell asleep. At quarter to six (in the morning, yes sir !) they felt inclined to restart. What should have been a nice night on that high hill, right on the spot of this historic site, turned out to be a personal nightmare. When I asked some of them about the Crac, it was clear they weren't informed nor interested. A sad bunch. And it's unfortunately enough, often these people who call themselves the 'real' travellers !...

To continue where I left off... After my meal I went to visit the Crac des Chevaliers, called Qala'at al-Hosn by the locals. It's a really impressive sight from the outside. Strangely enough, it looked less big than I had expected it to be. This is probably because many of the buildings are built up to considerable height, thus making it look more compact. It is not a small castle ! You only learn to appreciate its sheer size when you wander around its innards. The visit took me 4 - 5 hours, and I loved every second of it !

The Crac is amazingly well preserved. It probably looks very much the same as when the Knights Hospitallers were stationed here. Inside, you expect to run into a armoured guy any time. At any one time it could house 2,000 people.

I quickly understood why this is called the best preserved castle in the world. It really must be ! The only thing you need to do, is bring in some furniture and there you are... That's why it's so interesting to historians and students of (military) architecture. The stronghold is so well designed that it was never taken by force, although several serious attempts were made. Arab sources tend to make it sound as if Sultan Baibars has really conquered it. That's not true. In 1271, it finally fell to him, after he had fooled the garrison's commander by writing him an excellently falsified letter which supposedly was from the Count of Tripoli and in which the latter told the defenders to give up their positions and surrender to the enemy. Because of the near-authenticity of the letter, the knights obeyed this order and showed up. That's how the Crac really fell, IMHO not a really glorious victory. Anyway, most important thing is that there was no blood shed, and the knights were given safe retreat.

Entry to the Crac is S£300, but it's worth every penny of it. To orientate myself in the maze of rooms, halls and corridors, I used the Lonely Planet map and walkthru. No matter what people may think of that, it's an excellent brief description of the things to see, and it guarantees you don't miss out on the most important things to see, as you would do if you just walked around without a clue.
The café inside the Crac has been closed. This makes for a much cleaner place than described in the LP guide.

The people who used to rent the place now have opened a brand-new restaurant on the hill from where you have the best view of the Crac. The young manager, who's definitely gay, told me his father used to pay 1.5 million Pounds per year to hire the Crac tower from the government. For 'only' about 1 million he could build this new place !

The restaurant is very good - much, much better than the La Table Ronde ! - and the guy will go out of his way to please you. The food is very tasty; speciality : barbecued chicken. The price is around S£250 pp for a decent meal. The manager speaks very good English, and is great fun to talk to. I ended up spending my whole evening at this place. The views from inside (as well as outside) can't be better.

I felt sorry to leave the magnificent castle behind. On the other hand I was glad to leave the La Table Ronde ! This and the Cairo Hotel in Hama were really two two-faced joints. Avoid them if possible. I think if I would do it again, I'd visit the Crac from Homs.

Khalid Ibn al-Walid Mosque, Homs A minibus from the Crac back to the main road to Homs, costs S£25 (and another S£30 to Homs itself), or you can hire a microbus which will take you from the Crac's entrance to anywhere you want to go in Homs for S£300. The trip that way only lasts little more than half an hour !
Except for the beautiful Khalid Ibn al-Walid Mosque, there was little to see in Homs, but I found it a friendly city.

If you need to get a telephone card in Homs, don't bother going inside the office and eventually queue for nothing. Get the card(s) outside in a special booth to the left of the office, where the telephone booths are. This was one of the few cities in Syria where the cards were readily available.

Taxi drivers in Homs were also more fair than in most other cities. To get to Damascus from Homs, I took a bus of Noura Tours. This bus was truly excellent quality, and so was the service. In fact, this was no doubt the best bus I was on in Syria. The fare was S£75, and the trip took about two hours. On the bus, I sat next to a young man of Brasilian-Syrian origin, who was working as a computer programmer. I enquired about the computer and Internet situation in Syria. The Internet situation was not so good. Far from good, as a matter of fact. Gradually, very gradually, the people in Syria (actually only in Damascus) are getting acquainted with the Net. Few or no people have Internet access at the moment. But he was sure things were going to change. I'm sure they will. I hope so. For the moment it could of course be that the government doesn't want the man in the street to have access to that amount of information? Or perhaps it's only technical problems? I think it's a bit of both...

As soon as I got off the bus in Damascus, I was hassled by taxi drivers - what else? - to take a ride into town. Hearing from my computer friend how far the centre was away (far !), I decided to take one. After serious bargaining, the fare was still S£75.

I spent the rest of the day visiting some more (but lesser) sites in Damascus, and by taking a rest. My plane left later that night. At 2:30! Not exactly the best of times.

Although there are almost no departures, check-in at the Damascus airport had to be no less than two-and-a-half hours in advance. Everything is super smooth though.
Departure tax is still S£200. For this you get a stamp which is supposed to go in your passport.

I was surprised (well, actually I was not…) to find almost no shops and restaurants in the airport building, and what is there, is really minimal. It's no use following the signs pointing upstairs to a restaurant, as everything is dead up there.
My biggest surprise was founding no bank where I could change my excess Syrian Pounds back to US Dollars. After all, it's not allowed to take Pounds out of the country. Spend them ? Sure, but there was damn little at the airport where I could want to loose them!

Upon entering the departure hall, you are supposed to put your baggage through a detector. Don't put any film rolls through this, as you will have a good chance that they'll be ruined ! This is an important warning to all photographers ! Even the guy at the detector reckoned they might have not survived if I had put them through ! Be careful! The detector in the boarding hall is no problem, but I wouldn't trust it to check high-sensitive film, say over 400 ASA.

End note

Well that kinda describes my trip.
"A country full of terrorists and people who only wait for the right time to rob you". That's how Syria is pictured world-wide by people who either know nothing about the country at all, or who do, but who have personal gain by giving it a bad name. That's very unfortunate for the folks living there, because it's totally wrong, and I really hope from the bottom of my heart that the stupid policy which is pursued by a handful of countries will be abolished soon. From a tourist's point of view, however, the isolation makes for a country where you can still experience many places in (relative) solitude and where the people are mostly still truly genuine.
Syrians don't really understand why someone is traveling on his own, and will do everything in their power to make this 'unfortunate' traveler feel at home as much as possible. The Arab hospitality is renown, but in Syria they really take it one step further!

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