Thursday, October 16, 2008

Syria: Sights near the Mediterranean coast

Chapter Seven - Sights near the Mediterranean coast

To get to the coast, we needed to drive through the mountains. The approach to the mountains reminded me of closing in on the Himalayan range when I travelled from Bareilly to Naini Tal in India. It's quite the same : driving on an extensive plain, you see the high mountains lying in front of you like a natural, massive green wall, the tops surrounded by clouds. This wall has to be penetrated...

A curving road has been constructed all the way through. When climbing it, steep drops sweep away almost from under your wheels. The views are stunning, and there are several nice pictures to be shot. Unfortunately, there was only one thing keeping from doing that (well, to do that more than twice) : Basheer. He had been a safe, careful driver all the way, but whenever I asked him to stop to let me take a picture in the mountains, he had the frightening, nasty habit of not pulling over parallel to the direction of the road, but swaying across, to brake only when the front wheels were only an inch away from the drop ! Supposedly to offer me the best views. I can assure you with a 1500 metre downhill before you, in a 25 years old car with poor brakes, and not in control yourself, this is enough to get a heart-attack ! After pointing this out to him the first time, he still hadn't understood what I was on about. I decided not to go for a third shot...

As the roads climbs, it gets colder and the roads are more and more absorbed in a fog. Up in the clouds lies the town of Slunfeh, a popular summer resort. The views from there don't come any better.

On the other side of the mountain, the roads are less steep and the drops are further away. After having gone downhill for a fair while, we arrived at the town of al-Haffeh. From there it was only a short drive to Qala'at Salah ad-Din, actually a Crusader stronghold which was taken by the great Muslim commander. If you don't have your own wheels, you can take a taxi (minibus) from the nearby town right to the entrance of the castle for S£100.

The 'pillar' at Saladin's CastleThe narrow road winds down a ravine. We stopped to gaze at the magnificent ruins which are atop a wooded ridge. Fantastic!

From the bottom of the ravine, the road goes up again and you expect to be met by knights on guard any minute. This doesn't happen, but you do arrive in a very atmospheric place. A single giant stone pillar in the middle of the road, which supported a drawbridge between the castle and the plateau at the other side of the ravine, immediately sets the tendency of this site: it all looks very medieval!

From the small parking lot, we climbed the stairs to the south-eastern tower where the entrance and hence the ticket office is located. Excellent local honey is also sold there. Entry is S£300 (an enormous increase over the previously S£100 !), but a visit is more than recommended.

The sheer tough appearance of the place is incredible. The buildings ooze strength, the walls are massive, sometimes up to five metres thick. Still, looks can deceive and that's also the case here. The walls may have been strong, they were also functionally badly conceived. That and a severe construction flaw, an incomplete ditch cut in the rock which divided the stronghold, eventually caused the castle's downfall. Taking advantage of these building mistakes, Saladin was able to take it without too much trouble.

The views all around are very good, especially from the huge keep. Like everything else, the inner vaults of this keep - or of the whole castle as a matter of fact - are impressive to say the least. It's hard to imagine that this incredible construction proved so useless in the end...
Tour groups have made their appearance, but you can still visit the site in a good deal of solitude.

From the mountains, we drove down to the coast, to the city of Lattakia. I didn't like it very much as there wasn't going on much in terms of sightseeing. Nothing at all really, only nearby Ugarit. However, it has an easygoing, more or less Mediterranean air and a good selection of shops, hotels and restaurants. It reminded me of Port Said in Egypt.

What's immediately apparent, is that the women are much more modern here than in most other (Muslim) places in Syria. At least judging by their looks. They are still just as unapproachable in the streets, as elsewhere. A guy I'd meet near Qala'at al-Marqab later on, would boldly tell me that "Lattakia girls very much like to fuck". I'm sure they do. Who doesn't ? But I severely doubt that they're that broad-minded !

I stayed at Hotel Safwan, in a quiet location out of the city centre. It's in a side street of the Corniche, near the town house (in Arabic noted as al-Kornish, al-Gharbi; tel. 462583). It's owned by the Ziadeh family, who are a friendly bunch. Rooms are cheap at S£250 for a single with private bathroom. Doubles and rooms without bathroom can in/decrease this price with S£50-100. The rooms are reasonably clean and come with a balcony, which offers no good views unfortunately. Upstairs are so-called 'suites' for S£1000, which are nothing else than the family's apartments which are on request for a 'suite' quickly cleaned out.

What initially appeared as a good deal, soon turned out the opposite. The one brother, Mahmut, was a bit (?) too keen on promoting his hotel. He noticed I was browsing through the Lonely Planet guide (to find a place to eat actually), and asked if their hotel was in it. I said it wasn't. This was enough for him to start thinking I could help him get into the guide, and he fiercely almost dragged me through the seven or eight floors of the place to show how good it was. I was shown the so-called 'suites', which he seemed very keen to let. Like I said, all the rooms were lived in by the family. I saw people lying on their beds, preparing a meal in the kitchen, or sitting on the toilet, even a lady changing her dirty pantyhose. You can imagine their surprise when their father, nephew, uncle, or whatever comes storming in with a foreigner who looks at them just as surprised as they are, greets hastily and is then dragged out again by their father, nephew, uncle, whatever, and disappears as quickly as he had come.

I was offered (and given) tea, coffee, a soft drink and sweets in his quest to convince me of writing some good things in the guide. He really thought I had written that guide, although I had never even given him the slightest impression that I had !

I had to hear his pleas over and over, and what was funny at first started to become extremely boring and uncomfortable in the end. He even phoned his brother's son, and forced him to come over to talk to me. Luckily this lad spoke excellent English and was great to talk to; he also recognised his uncle's overreacting when I explained what was going on. The guy was great because he could draw a multitude of cartoon figures, like Tin-Tin, Asterix, Mickey Mouse,... Everything just like the real thing !

Mahmut's brother Ismail, who was an officer in the army for 30 years and still has a bullet wound on the head as a remembrance of the 1973 war, is a more relaxed person. Still, the pressure to promote the hotel was still there.

Now, if I look at things afterwards, I reckon I'd promote the place if it was worth doing so. So let's look at it… The room comes with fan, toilet and shower. The water was piping hot. In the morning, after I got up, I wanted to wash myself but the cold water had been cut off, so I tried to use the (very) hot water. This got cut off as well shortly after. I sat on the toilet and wanted to wipe my butt when suddenly the bowl toppled over. Can you imagine my surprise ? My whole back got a spraying ! One of the two beds turned out to have an army of ants continuously marching over it. Not exactly nice.

The brothers were helpful though, and actually also friendly in a way. The rooms are very quiet. But recommending this place ? No, not really. Just too many things were not in order, and the pressure was a bit (?) too much. Maybe if the price was S£100 ?

A man's gotta eat, and one of the better places to do it in Lattakia must be Spiro, on the Corniche. It's a two star restaurant with excellent and friendly service, serving great food at only about S£250 pp including drinks. Now this is recommended !

I also extended my visa in Lattakia. It's on the third floor of the police & immigration office. The visa was issued on the spot, although they initially tried to have me come back for it. I explained I couldn't, and after a short while the officer gave in.

The whole process was a bit tiresome and entirely bureaucratic, as expected. While filling in the application forms, I was offered coffee however, and the people were all nice 'n' friendly !
First I sat down at what I'll call room 1/desk 1. I waited for the officer to fill in a form and apply a stamp. Then I paid him S£35 and moved over to desk 2 in the same room. There I needed to fill out four forms, and hand over three passport photographs. Then I had to wait about half an hour, whilst nothing at all was going on.

After that I was directed to room 2/desk 1. A cute but sturdy female officer who spoke no English at all observed me for a while and then talked to another person. After 20 minutes or so, a higher ranking officer showed up, and I had to move to desk 2 in the same room. He filled out some papers, and asked my passport in which he put a stamp. He handed me everything, after which I had to go back to room 1/desk 1. From there, I was brought to the office of a general. The low-ranking young policeman humbly knocked on the door and introduced me to the him. The general was sitting at a big, antique desk, two things which looked like ostrich feathers were just above his head. He was friendly and asked me a few basic questions and signed a form. Back to room 2/desk 2, and straight on to room 3, where I had to fetch a stamp to put on yet another form. Now back to room 2/desk 2. The stamp in my passport was filled in and stamped yet another time. I had to pay S£100. Now the only thing I needed to do, the officer told me, was go back to the general's office for the final signature, but pass through room 1/desk 1 first. And yes, I had my 15 days extension after that. No problem ! :-) After that, I needed to send some postcards and went to the post office. Oddly enough there's no mailbox. You find it about 50 metres to the left.

A coastal road leads from Lattakia to the ancient site of Ugarit, which was already inhabited in the third millennium BC. The drive is pleasant, but the beaches you pass are very disappointing.
Unfortunately, so was Ugarit. The site only has its rich history to speak for it, little else (oh well, okay, perhaps the location isn't bad either). At S£300 to get in, I'd suggest to read up on the history though ! There's little or nothing to help you visualise the place.

The best part is the original entrance to the city, and that can be seen from the street without paying. It somehow looks like a large drainage; I noticed similar outlets while on my way through the country ! Funny ! I always thought of Ugarit when I saw them.

There are some friendly caf├ęs near the entrance to the site. Prices are normal. They were having extremely bad business, they told me, and with only a site like Ugarit nearby I was not surprised.

Back in Lattakia, I said good-bye to Basheer, my trustworthy taxi driver who had made the difference in the last couple of days. I had appreciated his company and friendship. But friends or not, he cost me money. Money that I could spend on something else, or not at all. I went to Baniyas. A minibus was S£15 and took about 45 minutes. Slower than by cab, but so much cheaper. Baniyas is a real disaster town. Absolutely nothing is going on there, and I was quite happy to leave.

I was going to Qala'at al-Marqab. It must be noted that microbuses leave from another station, not the one you arrive from Lattakia (or any other place you managed to take a 'big' bus). The microbus station is about 400-500 metres away. The locals will help you finding the right micro. The fare to right beside the castle is S£10. The trip in an overly full van takes about 10-15 minutes.

I was still carrying my backpack, as I hadn't seen the chance of leaving it behind somewhere, and sweated my way up the steep hill the castle is built on. I was greeted by Nadr and his brother Mohammad, the two guys who owned the refreshment stall near the entrance. Their soft drinks were expensive at S£35, but they tasted great after this effort ! They were also extremely nice dudes. Nasr was the quiet type, also because he spoke no English, and his brother was the modern-minded, talkative kinda guy. He insisted on showing me around the castle. I admit being a bit reluctant at first; with pricey drinks I suspected he couldn't be trusted too well. But I was entirely wrong ! He showed me the whole castle, inside and out, stayed with me for about two hours, and didn't expect a dime. On the contrary, he invited me for a free drink afterwards. The friendliness of the Syrian people is really unlike any other place in the world, so genuine, so sincere... Really touching at times !

Qala'at al-MarqabQala'at al-Marqab, built of black basalt, is another 'strong' castle, although not oozing as much power as - for instance - Qala'at Salah ad-Din.

When you pass through the main entrance, forget about visiting the part to the left, as it's full of big snakes (allegedly poisonous; the locals give this part a miss as well).

At the time of my visit, a film was being made at the castle. When paying my usual S£300 to enter, we were warned to be as quiet as possible, as not to disturb this Syrian production. It was a movie about life in the Middle Ages, with actors dressed in the typical clothing of that time, so the whole place really came to life. A unique experience !

I visited the improvised props room, the make-up room and even the would-be massage parlour in the keep, where the actors were given a relaxing massage by some very nice looking ladies. Even in Syria actors seem to be lucky devils ! I realised (again) that I was in completely the wrong business... :-)

Several of the actors were thrilled to see me and wanted to pose for photographs. I was so absorbed in the activity that it was difficult to remain focused on what else there was to see : the military architecture and the sweeping views towards the coastal plain. I was offered coffee and tea. I had to decline several offers, but accepted Mohammad's. When sitting back at his stall, I had the chance to gaze at the world below me. A truly magnificent world when seen from there.
It was there that I met the former curator of the Cathedral Museum of Tartus and his driver. He was a very friendly chap, and looked like the perfect stereotype of an archaeologist, complete with small beard and a straw hat. Surprise ! He was an archaeologist !

He said he had some business at the castle - it would take only an hour or so - and after that he'd return to Tartus. I could come along if I wanted to. I gladly accepted the kind offer.
I spent the remaining time with the two brothers, and some of their friends. We had a nice conversation. I was enjoying myself so much that it came as a surprise that the hour had already passed and it was time to leave. The good-bye was hard for Nadr - he was a sincere, sensitive young man - and he offered me a key-ring with his initials to remember him. Friendship is not to be taken lightly in the Middle East, and every time I think of that, the discriminating stand certain countries take towards these people really makes me puke !

The drive to Tartus, Syria's second most important port, took roughly about half an hour. As the archaeologist - he never told me his name, although I asked - had been the curator of the museum, he knew the owner of the Raffoul Hotel just in front of it very well. He assured me it was a great place, and dropped me off right on the doorstep. He hadn't been lying. It's a really good place and a great deal ! I was surprised it wasn't in the guidebook. A spacious single room (actually a double, as is often the case) is only S£200 with private bath. It's spotlessly clean and the owner (who speaks good English) is indeed a very friendly chap. I really liked him; he has a tremendous sense of humour ! He owns the shop virtually next door, on the corner of the street. If you find the hotel closed, drop in at the store. He won't rip you off in the shop either; you pay the price the locals pay.

I was the only guest in the hotel at the time, and I was given the keys of the front door as well.
The few - but interesting - sights Tartus has, are all very near, the Cathedral Museum, as said before, just across the street. It costs S£300 to enter. It's not really worth that kind of money, but the really splendid interior of the cathedral together with the museum makes it a worthwhile visit after all. The attendant is a nice guy, who will explain where necessary (virtually everywhere, because labelling is non-existent or in Arabic only). I was also offered some South-American herbal tea. No matter how nice he was, I couldn't persuade him to let me take photographs, not even without flash. It was a government policy, he said, that taking pictures inside museums is forbidden. To my question of "Why", he had no answer.

When heading from the cathedral to the seafront, a slight detour leads to what is known as 'Old Tartus'. And that's what it actually is. It's the old city, still enclosed by the equally old walls. It's not a big area, but it's very pleasant to make your way through the narrow streets and discover the occasional medieval building, tucked away behind more recent constructions. The seaside itself is pleasant enough for a walk, although it was sizzling hot during the daytime. A short distance offshore lies the island of Arwad. Frequently, boats make the short trip. I didn't go. After reading some negative reports about it, it had lost my interest.

Distances are relatively short in Tartus, and I preferred walking. I'd advise to use taxis only when you have to move fast or too far. These guys are even worse than the ones in Aleppo. They never use their meters or don't have any. They will hit you for exuberant fares if you don't agree on one before getting in. And even if you did agree, they'll still try to scam you upon arrival, or demand heavy tips. Never give in. Just pay what you owe them, plus S£10 or so as a tip, and get out. Taxi drivers must be the one and only who let the Syrian friendly people loose face.

I really wanted something else than just plain sheep or chicken dishes and headed for the Pizza Hut. It looks exactly the same as the well-known international chain, but it just has to be Syrian. Nevertheless, it's a damn good copy ! The pizzas could just as well be the real Hut thing. They're very tasty, and a welcome change after three weeks of Arabic food.

The Pizza Hut is at al-Hamrat, above the al-Fanar office. Or you could ask just about anyone in the streets; everybody seems to know where it is. I was even approached several times in the streets by people asking me if I had been to the Hut and if I liked the food there. People from a polling bureau ?... :)

Again I wanted to make a telephone call in this town, and again the telephone office had the familiar problem of not having any telephone cards to sell. I suppose the Syrian telecom company still has some fine-tuning to do… Making an indirect international call was a bit nightmarish, so I decided to take a pass. The same problem with stamps. None available.

To get to nearby Amrit, I wanted to take a microbus, but it seems that very early in the morning, there aren't any. I had to rent the whole bus for S£100. For that, it did drop me off right at the entrance, though. The drive takes only about 10 minutes.

The ancient site itself was a strange place to visit. Not a lot to see apart from two 'mysterious' spindles, stone monuments which overlook an otherwise uninspiring necropolis. Whilst wandering around, it started to rain quite heavily, and the dark grey sky gave the place a gloomy, spooky even, appearance, which I appreciated.

There's no entrance fee, but the caretaker of the site will insist on supplying you with a flashlight to explore the dark tombs. I found this totally unnecessary, as the graves are empty anyway. The guy will obviously expect some baksheesh for his assistance. His biggest help, however, was to let me shelter for the heavy showers. :-)

To get back to Tartus, I had planned on hitchhiking, but I didn't see a single car during my walk from the site to the highway ! So, don't count on it. Once at the highway, I flagged down a passing microbus. It cost S£25 to the centre of the city.

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