October 7, 2008

Syrian Hospitality

:: Hammam Rooftops let light filter in... (aka Daleks - exterminate !) ::
It´s worth mentioning that we had our very best Tavuk Doner in the Turkish border city of Antakya, it was a fortuitous find more driven by a desire to get rid of the last of our Turkish Lira than anything else. A man in a small unassuming shop was fastidiously creating what can only be described as culinary masterpieces. To confirm their greatness we had to have another one or two ... just to be sure. Filled to the brim it was on to Aleppo in Syria via an ever complicated and convoluted border process. As one of few tourists on the bus crossing the border we were afforded extra attention by the bus driver - which is just as well because if we had had to figure out all the steps we´d have been there all day. We were rounded up and brought into an office where an official told us how much our visa would be in US dollars. From there we had to produce the US dollars, go to the bank where the US dollars were exchanged into Syrian pounds. Then it was round the back to a smokey office where we handed over the Syrian pounds and were given about ten little stamps in return. On to the next desk were the gluer sat and pasted the stamp collection into our passports. Finally when the page had dried out it was back to the first desk for approval before the passports were thrown into a black hole to be stamped. The bus driver returned the passports to us and it was back on the bus for a couple of minutes before been kicked off to connect with a rickity minibus on to the city of Aleppo.

:: Market Berry Stalls ::
I´ll start by saying we had zero expectations of Syria, on the overland journey to Egypt it was one of those countries that we just had to pass through. We left there very impressed, so much so that we rank it as one of the very best countries we have ever visited. The people are exceptionally friendly and genuine. Walking down streets people actively say "Hello, welcome to Syria". Moreover everyone is happy, the whole nation walks around with a smile on their face. The food is excellent, Syria produces an abundant range of foods, markets on the streets are overflowing with top class produce. We were amazed big juicy fruits cherries, blackberries, olives, tomatoes etc. As we walked through the markets vendors called out to us giving us huge samples to taste. It actually took us a couple of days to get used to everyone being so friendly. Cost wise Syria is one of the most affordable countries we´ve travelled through. In other words you can live it up without breaking the bank. And that´s exactly what we did! When a kilo of olives are a couple of dollars and cherries, peaches and blackberries are in season it´s hard to resist. The French influence is evident in the number of bakeries scattered around the cities churning out fresh baguettes, croissants and tasty pan au chocolat. Then there are the restaurants, Allepo had streets of lovely little kebab places with huge grills in the window. If you go to Syria go with a healthy appetite. We spent a couple of days in Aleppo, primarily eating, in between meal times we explored the huge ancient souks, ventured up to the citadel and pottered around the Christian Quarter. Our guesthouse owner patiently taught us our Arabic numbers and a couple of useful phrases to help us on our way.

:: Sunlight in the Souk ::

Our next stop was the city of Hama a few hours south of Aleppo.
:: The Wheels themselves ::

Hama is famous for it´s huge groaning Noriahs - massive wooden waterwheels. After taking in a few noisy revolutions it was off to find something to eat. A long search threw up the usual very average Lonely Planet restaurant, a longer search off the main drag revealed a small felafel shop manned by a few kids. We´re pretty sure there were adults somewhere but anytime we went there over the following days (note umpteen times) it was the same kids. The kids were about ten years old and couldn´t actually see out over the high counter. Out front another kid whipped up fresh felafels at a large industrial frying vat. After a felafel order went in there was lots of laughing and free samples were thrust upon us. I´m not sure who enjoyed the whole experience more, them or us. Suffice to say the felafels were amazing and from then on a felafel without some lemon in it was a substandard take on the ubiquitous snack.

:: Crac de Chevailiers ::

On an action packed day trip we took in Crac de Chevaliers, an imposing medieval castle build during the Crusades. I say action packed because we were only as far as the bus station and patiently waiting for our minibus to fill up when a fracas broke out between locals, projectiles were thrown and people whacked over the head with sticks. Good entertainment to break the boredom when you´re waiting for more passengers. No minibus even contemplates leaving until there´s a bum on every seat. After an hours wait the bus was almost full and luckily for us the final passenger to arrive had two massive sacks of weeds that more than filled two seats. A steep uphill walk (it´s atop a 650 metre high hill) brought us to the entrance of Crac de Chevalier. The fortress itself is very well preserved so almost every inch of it can be explored. One of the highlights is walking around the ramparts - slightly scary the day we were there due to unpredictable strong gusts of wind.

:: Palmyra ::
From there it was on to dusty Palmyra an oasis in the middle of the desert. In the first century a magnificent city (Tadmore) existed here on the main caravan route linking Persia and the Mediterranean. The ruins of this city and the scale are awesome. The nearby modern city of Palmyra leaves a lot to be desired. It survives purely on tourism so a healthy "chasing the dollar" mentality exists there. In low season you can smell the desperation. After a day spent wandering around the ruins we settled for a shockingly bad take on a popular bedouin dish, dusted ourselves off and headed for the capital Damascus.

:: Palmyra ::

Damascus has it all. It´s a beautiful old city with a conveniently compact scale which makes it easy to navigate. It´s one of the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world, when you wander down the narrow laneways and through the ancient souks you can´t help but think of all the people have lived and worked for centuries in the self same streets. The souks are packed with little shops and restaurants. Damascans are passionate about their icecream, in fact there was one outlet where the queue was out the door and a slick team of workers literally couldn´t scoop out icecream quick enough. Had to be sampled of course, the rule is if there´s a queue there´s a good reason. Our other food highlight was roast chicken. We found a little restaurant that was jammed to the rafters full of people eating a half chicken, bread, gherkins and little serve of strong mayonaise. A serious number chickens were served every day.

:: Ice Cream Anyone ?::

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