Overland Istanbul to Cairo. Part 2: Aleppo and Hama, Syria

Syria

Now the adventure really began, we had arrived in Syria……

So I’ll pick up where I left off: Travelling from Istanbul to Aleppo on the Toros Express Train.

We had crossed the Turkey/Syria border with no problem. We hadn’t even had to leave the train, although Chris had gone into the small border village with one of the Syrian men to change our Turkish Lira into Syrian Pounds.

The scenery seemed to change as soon as we crossed the border: it became drier with endless rows of olive trees.

Dotted around were sandy coloured, flat-roofed buildings. It looked remarkably familiar, yet I had been no where like it. Then it dawned on me, this is just how I had visualised the land in all those Bible stories from school! It truly stirred the adventurer in me.

SyriaThe trained pulled into Aleppo station after dark, around 6pm, we had been travelling since 9am the previous day.

We kept with our new-found friends and shared a taxi into town and found our (budget) hotel. Sean the lucky Aussie made us jealous again (after getting to ride in the train engine!) by announcing he had booked into the Baron Hotel, famed for its connections with Laurence of Arabia and Agatha Christie.

At least it gave us the perfect excuse to go for drinks in the old colonial bar, and have a snoop upstairs into the rooms.

The Baron Hotel exuded faded glamour and a time long gone.  Just like the sleeper car on the Toros Express the hotel looked tired and worn but that just added to its charm. It was a little dusty and faded, the floor tiles were chipped and the electricity often cut out, yet its history and ghosts gave it a heart.

Sitting in candle light, drinking gin and tonics and discussing our onward adventures in the bar, was such a pleasure. This relic of colonial times was so romantic, like stepping into an old movie: the atmosphere was wonderful.

The barman kept us topped up with nibbles (carrot sticks and crispy spiced chickpeas) and it was hard to leave to go back round the block to our own hotel.

Our hotel did have great views out over the city from the roof though, and we were always offered tea in dainty glasses.

Syria, Aleppo

Syria, AleppoAleppo was in sharp contrast to the westernised Istanbul, this is a conservative city and it felt ancient and middle eastern.

Aleppo is built around the citadel which seems to rise up out of the city, around it was open plazas from which the labyrinthine souk lead off down covered alleyways.

We met a few of the locals here, they were eager to chat to us and so pleased we were visiting their country.

The citadel was great to explore, it was mostly in ruins beyond the outer wall and it had fabulous views out across the city and beyond. The interior of the gate house had been fully restored and was such a startling surprise from the ruins that surrounded it that I let out a quiet swear word as I stepped in (then spotted the guard in the corner, hope he didn’t speak English!): It was beautifully ornate.

Syria

From Aleppo we took a ridiculously cheap yet very luxurious coach south to Hama. While waiting for the guys to fight their way through the scramble at the bus station ticket office, I sat on my backpack and watched the dusty bus station world unfold. A very young boy was going from man to man (there were very few women anywhere) offering his shoe shine service. I often think of that little boy since the civil war began, I wonder what he is doing, whether he is alright.

Hama‘s main draw for tourists is its ‘singing’ Norias: its wooden water wheels.

These huge water wheels have transferred water from the Orontes river to aqueducts for centuries, the singing is the sound of wood rubbing against wood as the wheels turn.

We had been ‘introduced’ to the Norias on the video played very loudly on the coach. A dated, technicoloured film where beautiful women in holiday wear frolicked in the sunshine, it promised us an exotic middle eastern resort.

It couldn’t have been more different if it had been set on the moon. To start with, Hama is conservative – women in swim wear? I don’t think so! Also, there was very little water, and what there was had been litter strewn and smelt.

The Norias were not singing, in fact they weren’t turning. The water is diverted from that part of the river in the winter, we discovered later.  We made the best of it however and had a delicious meal in a restaurant below one of the bigger wheels. I should also add here, I had no problem whatsoever being a vegetarian in the Middle East, they were most accommodating. I indulged in way more than just falafel!

SyriaHama was a great base from which to explore further afield. We booked tours from our backpacker-friendly Riad Hotel – we were still with Sean the Aussie and Chris the Canadian.

The four of us plus a Japanese backpacker had an exhausting but brilliant day which began by being bumped across the desert in a microbus to the brilliant ruins of the 6th Century Byzantine Church, Qasr Ibn Wardan.

We met the sweet caretaker at the door and he produced his keys from deep in his dishdasha and opened the place up for us.

Syria, Qasr Ibn Wardan

Syria, Qasr Ibn Wardan>Here is our little Toros Express team!

The tour then continued to a little cluster of beehive houses in the village of Sarouj. These mud brick homes, shaped like old-fashioned beehives, or bells, are fast being replaced by modern homes but what still remain feel as if they’ve stood there forever. Timeless.

We were welcomed into one of the houses and served tea by one of the village ladies and a younger girl who were both in traditional dress. The interior was hung with local textiles and was obviously the ‘tourist’ Beehive house.

There was a rail of costumes for us to try on and we were shown postcards they’d been given from around the world.

Syria

It was still pre-lunch, we were bundled back into the micro bus and hurtled down the highway to the other side of Hama. Hills began to rise up from the land and about an hour and a half from Hama we reached the magnificent Crusader castle: Crac des Chevaliers.

If you love castles, this is the castle for you! Quite simply this is the best castle I’ve ever had the pleasure of exploring.

It crowns a steep hill and is one of the finest examples of crusader fortification. Crac Des Chevaliers is recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Imagine being a child and visiting a vast ancient castle, where there are no barriers or keep-off signs, where you can go wherever you like, where you might need a torch to descend down into the darkness of some stairways. Well that is the Crac des Chevaliers experience!

Syria, Crac des Chevaliers

Syria, Crac des Chevaliers

Crac des Chevaliers wasn’t completely deserted when we visited, it had a small restaurant within the walls where we had lunch: plenty of meze options.

The castle has stood on that hill since the 13th century and was built by the Hospitaller Order of Saint John of Jerusalem, apparently it was never breached. *Unfortunately, videos show the castle receiving a direct hit from an air strike by the Syrian Regime in July 2013.

Our small group separated on the drive back to Hama, Chris and Sean were dropped off in Homs as they had reservations in Damascus, we were to head there the following day.  Our bus the next morning cost 90p and dropped us off in the Damascus bus station, 6km out from the city. We had to hard barter a taxi to take us to our accommodation.

And so we found ourselves in one of the oldest, continually inhabited cities in the world, Damascus…

All of the photographs in this post were taken by Chris Hodgson (except the group shot, that was the japanese backpacker!)

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By Rachel Davis

6 Responses

  1. Abe Bird says:

    Most Biblical stories occurred in Israel !

  2. Dave Rowley says:

    I love your line “looked tired and worn but that just added to its charm.” Love places like that! It’s so sad that Crac de Chevaliers was hit by an air strike. That type of thing has happened to so many of the great places in our world. Stupid. Did you get any indication when you were in Syria of the civil war that has come? What were your impressions of Syrian society and people? Did they seem content with their government at the time?

    • Hi Dave, I know, I love well worn places and things :)
      I’m going to answer your questions in my Damascus post, do you mind if I quote you? I may or may not, depends on how fluid my typing goes!

  3. Sarah says:

    I am so envious right now, it looks like such a far away place. Well…that’s because it is, but you know what I mean. So different. Beautiful!

    • Yes, I feel so lucky that I got to visit it before it fell into civil war. It really is such a beautiful country, with beautiful people. So much more than just a foreign war zone on a map.

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