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Bad Things Happen in Threes

When I arrived in Aleppo, my day stubbornly refused to improve. First, I had trouble finding passport control – all the signs headed me to the Duty Free shops instead. Then the ATM wouldn’t accept either of my cards, and I had to change cash. Finally, although I had agreed to pay for a transfer to my hotel, none of the waiting drivers held a card with my name. When I tried to call the hotel, I found that my “universal” SIM card didn’t work in Syria.

Fortunately, the woman at the Tourist Information office not only spoke

Inside Aleppo's medina

English, but proved remarkably helpful. After she connected me to the hotel, the owner claimed that the flight number I had given him hadn’t been recognized (it had been the Armavia number). Maybe, maybe not. Meanwhile, I had to wait 30 minutes for a driver to finally show up. Then we drove around downtown Aleppo for a while waiting for a boy to show up to carry my bag – I was staying in the pedestrian-only medina.

The first sight of my room was a shock, and not the nice kind. I had had a lot of trouble finding hotels in Syria – apparently more people visited in October than I had expected. I had settled on Dar Halabia (www.darhalabia.com), although the medina would be quiet at night, based on its website and on reviews, and also used its associated travel agency to book a hotel in Hama, my next stop.

Aleppo's citadel - south side

The web site promised charm and tranquility, in a room looking out on a courtyard and furnished with “special splendor “. But my room was tiny, with nowhere to put anything, and with small windows opening onto a main staircase. I immediately asked for a different room, and was told I could move “tomorrow”. Although I was tempted to just move out, I remembered my difficulty in finding a room in the first place, and instead went off to look for lunch and visit the citadel.

Aleppo was enjoying fine, warm weather, so I changed from boots to sandals for the first time on the trip, and my feet appreciated the fresh air. (But this would prove a big mistake.) Lunch wasn’t memorable, but the citadel impressed me a great deal. I suppose the hill that rises at the eastern end of the medina was originally natural (some ruins there date to the 3rd millennium BCE), but now its smooth slopes rise at a 45 degree angle, sheathed in stone,.to a completely walled, flat, top. One of the most formidable castles I’ve seen, although not, it turns out, impregnable.

Aleppo's citadel - north side

I had a nice time wandering among the remains of palaces and mosques on top, stopping for coffee at a cafe on the north side while appreciating the view of the town. But I had to get back down, and my Birkenstocks were unable to get a good grip on the slick stone. Perhaps I leant back too much to compensate for the slope, but part way down my feet slid out from under me and I sat down, hard. While nothing seemed to be broken, I knew my bones were more fragile than they used to be, and worried about my vertebrae. Indeed, it was several weeks before pain in my spine totally subsided – but there didn’t seem much point in seeking medical help.

After dinner I took a closer look at my room at the Dar Halabia. Although the website promised AC, my room had no AC, and no fan, and even if I left the windows open, no cross draught. The shower head was so dirty I wouldn’t use it to wash my feet, never mind my body, and the room itself was grimy. I decided I really couldn’t face spending the night. Luckily, the owner had given me back my passport after taking a copy (all the other hotels in Syria kept it until I checked out).

Since I had barely unpacked, repacking went quickly. I checked Lonely Planet for an alternative hotel, and walked out into the deserted medina. Once beyond the medina walls I picked up a taxi, but the driver didn’t recognize the hotel I wanted to try, and I wasn’t familiar enough with the town, or its one way system, to navigate us there. Eventually I decided to throw money at the problem, and told the driver to take me to the Sheraton, which we had already passed at least twice.

I carried my backpack through the Sheraton’s gleaming lobby, finally finding the reception desk discretely tucked away in a corner. Did they have a room for the night? Well, yes, they did have one. A suite. For $700 a night. Did I want it? Well, no. I was willing, I said, to throw money at my problem, but not that much money. The woman behind the desk helpfully suggested that I try the Riga Palace (www.rigapalace.com/home.html) instead. The Riga wasn’t in my guidebook, but after asking for directions a couple of times I found it: a new-looking four star hotel with a somewhat less formidable marble lobby, and a room for “only” $130/night, and for only one night. I took it – I would go hotel-hunting the next morning, in daylight.

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