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Sayonara, Syria

October 25-26, 2009: Getting sick for the second time in the same country really depressed me, and just as the first time I had missed Palmyra, this second attack meant that I missed yet more Roman ruins at Bosra. Instead of getting up early to catch a south-bound bus, I got up early and headed for the nearest pharmacy. I have to say that the incredibly cheap drug that I bought not only worked, but worked faster than the antibiotic I had brought with me. Or, possibly, my immune system did a better job.

Souvenirs in Damascus

With just two more days to go in Damascus, I decided to switch to western

A restaurant in Damascus' Old City

food, something I rarely do when traveling. I found a branch of the French chain La Brioche Dorée in the quiet, leafy embassy district, and enjoyed lunch there twice: lovely rolls and butter, chicken crepes, tartine, raspberry tart… Then, a perfectly made macchiato in their lovely atrium convinced me to eat dinner at the elegant and expensive Cham Palace, easy walking distance from my hotel. I passed on the pricey set menu at Entrecote, and ate a good escalope al limone with potatoes and a nice red wine at Carpaccio. But my last meal, at Pattacrepe in the not-quite-finished arcade next to the new Four Seasons was a mistake – the crepe was unmemorable and the service, not to mention my table, poor. Plus they didn’t serve alcohol or take credit cards, which complicated my end-of-country finances.

Inside one of the houses in the Old City

Although I didn’t feel that it would be wise to embark on an expedition requiring a two hour bus ride, I did spend time investigating first the embassy district, and then several of the original houses in the Old City. In typical Arab style these were built around courtyards, with blank walls and solid doors facing the street. The owner of one told me that the houses were supposed to look poor on the outside to discourage thieves. Unfortunately, those that were open to tourists weren’t looking too good on the inside either. I found that rather than following Lonely Planet’s walking tour, just visiting the houses that had been converted to cafes and restaurants gave me a better appreciation of how they had looked in their hey-day.

My last evening I paid my hotel bill and retrieved my passport, ready for an early start the next morning. I had already changed some money into Jordanian dinars, I had a hotel reservation in Madaba, and I was more than ready to move on.

The shrine of John the Baptist inside the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus

Syria Wrap: I got sick twice. I was harassed in Hama. My hotel in room in Aleppo was so bad I left. A lot of the time I felt like a target. I don’t plan to go back. BUT. I’m still glad I went: the sights are really good, and the Old City in Damascus is an interesting place to wander. I would recommend visiting, but if you’re a solo woman traveler you might consider taking a tour.

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Back to Damascus

October 23-24, 2009: It had taken so long to clear the border into Lebanon

Damscus' souk on a non-Friday

traveling by bus that I decided to take a shared (aka service) taxi back to Damascus. Think of it as a very small bus that leaves when full. It cost me only 10,000 Lebanese pounds (about $6.60) more than the bus and I figured the time saved would be more than worth it. Then we wound up stopping for ages for one of the other passengers to buy some elaborate sweets (which you would think he could have bought in Beirut) and to exchange money (ditto). Still faster over all, though.

Remember it had cost 150 SP for a taxi from the City Hotel to the bus station? Now I needed to go in the other direction, and the taxi driver at the bus station quoted 400 SP and claimed the trip was 20km! He found my refusal to go along with this scam quite amusing, and eventually agreed to take me for 200 SP. I maybe arrived too early at the hotel, as my room wasn’t as nice as the first, even after I had them move me to one with a street view. Still clean and comfortable, though. Turned out I was also a little early for lunch, as most everything was shut down for Friday prayers. The ATM machines seemed to be shut down too – it took three tries to locate one that would give me money.

Surprised to see these Crusader-looking guys near the Citadel

I got rather lost wandering around the not very prepossessing section of town north of the Old City, before eventually returning to the souk and visiting Damascus’ version of Azem Palace. Like the souq, it was larger and more elaborate than the one in Aleppo, and rather full of visitors – not all of them tourists. In contrast, the National Museum, which I visited the next morning, was packed with foreign tour groups. The museum occupied me for most of the morning – I was especially taken by the Mari statues (3rd century B.C.E.),with their black-rimmed eyes and feathery robes (tinyurl.com/yjbqf8m). Another surprise was a completely reassembled 2nd century C.E. synagogue, the oldest ever discovered, with walls completely covered with paintings.

Turkish madrassa, now a handicrafts market, near the National Museum

While the sights in Damascus impressed me, I hadn’t been doing as well with food. I had gone back to Al Kamal, but now that I wasn’t pandering to a weak stomach, I found the food not very good and the service poor. Lunch at Abu El Aziz, with a view of the dome at the Umayyad Mosque tasted better, but I was getting rather tired of kebabs.Then I stopped at Beit Jabri, overfull of both people and clouds of nargileh smoke. While the courtyard of the old building was indeed beautiful, and my pomegranate juice tasted good, the service was dreadful, and, given my dislike of being photographed, I could have done without the busy TV crew that showed up after I had been served.

So, for my second night, I took a taxi to Al Khawali, deep in the souk – it was fun to be driven through the market, not completely shut down even on a Saturday night. But again, the food disappointed, with indifferent vegetable soup, canned rather than fresh mushrooms and so-so green beans. Even worse, I found that I wasn’t very hungry – because for the second time in Syria, I got sick! I’m inclined to blame the pomegranate juice rather than lunch, but either way it seems Syria didn’t agree with me.

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To Beirut via Damascus

October 17-18 , 2009: Outside Damascus’ Khaddam train station, I rejected one taxi driver, who insisted on charging 300 SP for a 5km ride, and took the second, who settled for 100. He had some difficulty getting to my hotel, which we finally found nestled in a web of short one-way streets near a busy flyover. When the directions had mentioned Victoria Bridge, I had not envisaged multi-lane roads below as well as above the span. Still, the City Hotel (aka Al-Madinah) was walking distance from both the Old City and the National Museum and had helpful staff who gave me a big room with a street view. The lobby, with shiny, inlaid furniture was quite a sight, too.

The lobby at City Hotel

Despite immodium and antibiotics, my digestive system still felt fragile, but I

Shops mostly close for Friday in Damascus' souk

set off to explore regardless. A toasted cheese sandwich at the hole-in-the-wall Al-Santir, close to the hotel, went down successfully, so I carried on to explore the souk and the mosque. The souk felt almost formal: I strolled down a wide main street, with two story buildings supporting a metal roof, with few vendors calling out to me. Although all the local women had their hair covered, I noticed more variety than in the north, with fewer women in full black. The biggest surprise, though, was in the open space in front of the Umayyad Mosque, where stalls selling Qur’ans were nonchalantly tucked under soaring Roman arches. I stopped off for a delicious mint lemonade at Leila’s, before donning the required hooded cloak (beige, to distinguish infidels from black-clad believers) and entering the mosque. Although similar to Aleppo’s Umayyad Mosque, Damascus’ was much more elaborate, and I had a lovely time admiring the detailed 8th century gold mosaics.

Damascus' Umayyad Mosque

Mosaics on the western wall in the mosque

For dinner I walked a short distance north to Al-Kamal, noting that Sharia Bur Said was much livelier and better lit than Sharia an-Nasr, which I taken back from the Old City. I dined carefully on lentil soup and a rice and meat dish washed down with a yoghurt drink.

Lonely Planet mentioned that the City Hotel was popular with Iranian tour groups, and when I went down to breakfast I found a big Iranian group in the dining room, with all the women swathed in black. The western tourists were hidden behind a head-high partition. I wasn’t sure who was being shielded from whom.

When I asked the front desk to call me a taxi to go to the Al-Samariyeh bus terminal, they sent a young man outside with me, to flag one down. He had instructions to negotiate for 150 SP, and had a little difficulty. The taxi dropped me at the front of the terminal, but then I discovered that buses and shared taxis to Beirut left from the far rear corner, where I had to put my luggage through a security check.

The actual road distance between Damascus and Beirut is quite short, just 30 minutes to the border from Damascus, and another 30 minutes on to Beirut. But clearing the border took a full 90 minutes leaving Syria, and another 30 minutes getting into Lebanon. I had to buy an exit/entrance pass to get out of Syria, as well as a visa to get into Lebanon. I crossed more than a man-made border when I changed countries. The countryside became quite mountainous, and greener, as we headed towards the Mediterranean coast.

The bus was supposed to go to Charles Helou bus station in central Beirut, but instead it dumped all the people who wanted to go the station at a road junction in the southeast of the city. Fortunately, an equally surprised Japanese tourist shared a taxi into town with me. I had a reservation at the Casa d’Or (http://www.casadorhotel.com) in the Hamra district, just south of the American University. Although my room wasn’t cheap, I was unprepared for its large size, or the fruit basket, or the mini-kitchen (although only the fridge was usable). It looked like I would be comfortable.

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I Miss Out On Palmyra

October 15-17, 2009: I’ve done quite a lot of traveling over the last eight years, but I’ve hardly ever gotten sick. I travel with antibiotics, but I don’t expect to need them. So I was distinctly annoyed to find that the Noria’s manager had been right, and eating at the Restaurant des Chevaliers had made me ill. As soon as I started feeling queasy I took an antibiotic, and I did make it to dinner in the hotel, where I chatted with a German traveler with a sick partner. However, I couldn’t eat, and I had to make a precipitous departure in search of a bathroom.

Some kids in Hama were friendly - these insisted I take their photo

I felt no better the next morning, which presented me with a dilemma. I had a hotel reservation in Palmyra, three hours away by mini-bus, not counting a transfer in Homs. Then the next day I would have to spend another three hours on a bus to Damascus. Or instead, if I could arrange a room, I could take the train, where at least I would have access to a toilet, straight to Damascus. Or, possibly, I could stay put.

I had been in two minds in any case whether to make the trip out to Palmyra, but had been convinced by some beautiful photographs of the site, which seemed to be an even bigger version of Apamea, executed in pink stone. Still, I had seen Apamea, I planned to see the pink city of Petra, and I felt lousy. After a chat with the front desk, I arranged a move to a better room with a window, and a ticket on the train to Damascus the next day.

I spent the whole of the day in bed, napping and listening to a P. D. James audio book. Chicken noodle soup was delivered to my room for lunch. By dinner time I had recovered enough to make it to the dining room. Most of the diners, as on the three previous nights, were with a tour group, but the Italian man and Russian woman I had met the first night, and the German man and his companion, who was also feeling a bit better, ate with me.

After breakfast on the 17th I took an immodium along with the antibiotic. Not the best combination, perhaps, but I wanted to make it to Damascus without disaster. I thanked the Noria for looking after me and took a taxi to the station (the driver actually charged me less than the metered fare!). I had no trouble picking up my train ticket, and had the same seat leaving Hama I had occupied on the train from Aleppo. The scenery didn’t change either – yet more flat, stony, unpromising looking countryside.

Now, I had been really careful on the streets in Aleppo and Hama, even when wearing sunglasses, to avoid eye contact with men. But I relaxed my guard on the train, and on my way to the bathroom I made fleeting eye contact with a youngish man seated behind me. A non-event, you would think, but five minutes after I returned to my seat he was standing beside me, trying to start a conversation! I froze him off, but was a little concerned, as I boarded a taxi outside Damascus station, to see him watching me. Creepy!

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Around Hama

October 15, 2009: Once again, I had my hotel arrange a car and driver for a day’s exploration. After an indifferent breakfast we left in good time for the Roman site of Apamea, arriving well before any tour groups. In fact, aside from a couple of other people, I had the whole 2km length of the main street, and its flanking columns, to myself.

The main street at Apamea

Founded during the Seleucid Empire in the 3rd century B.C.E., the town really prospered after its capture by the Romans in 64 B.C.E., with a population as high as 500,000, and rating a visit from the (in)famous Anthony and Cleopatra. Less important after the Muslim invasion, an earthquake in 1157 C.E. essentially destroyed it, and the columns that impressed me today had been reconstructed by a Belgian team.

Nothing could better illustrate the power and reach of the Roman Empire, not to mention the importance it attached to the province of Syria, than Apamea (or no doubt, Palmyra, if I had made it there). I have visited a number of imperial outposts, but this is easily the largest. In addition to sheer size, the elegance of the reconstructed columns suggests more than normal care in construction.I never pass up an opportunity to look at mosaics, and the museum just outside the site had some lovely ones, especially some of hunting animals. Unfortunately, they were in dire need of cleaning and proper display.

Unusual columns at Apamea

The scenery on the way to Apamea, north of Hama, had featured more of the flat, stony terrain I had seen from the train. Driving south via Musyaf to the Crusader castle of Krak des Chevaliers, however, the countryside became both more mountainous, and greener. In addition, I was surprised to see unveiled women in some of the villages. My driver told me that they were Ismailis. When I remarked that wearing black burkhas, as many of the Sunni women did, must be very hot in the Syrian climate, he claimed that only one month would be really uncomfortable. I was sorely tempted to tell him to try it himself!

Our relationship deteriorated further when we reached Krak. I wanted to eat lunch in one of the restaurants listed in Lonely Planet as having views of the castle. He said that he didn’t know where they were and stopped instead at the Restaurant des Chevaliers right in front of the main gate. I should have made him keep looking, but I was hungry and instead I ate without views and with a large tour group.

Krak des Chevaliers

T. E. Lawrence wrote of Krak that it was “the finest castle in the world”, and it was never taken by force – the Christian defenders left in 1271 under truce after Jerusalem had fallen and the Crusaders were in general retreat. While the moat would look better with some clean water, the walls were still formidable and much of the inner fortress was still intact. After visiting the castle I insisted on trying to find the Restaurant al-Qalaa, for coffee, and again my driver claimed not to know where it was. It turned out to be just across a valley from the castle, and the really excellent views were necessary to properly appreciate the defensive merits of the castle.

Clearly, my driver had a good relationship with the place he took me for lunch, leaving with a bottle tucked under his arm and a big smile on his face, and a bad relationship with my choice, where he didn’t even go into the building. After we drove back to Hama, and he escorted me up to the hotel’s reception desk, I explained the situation to the manager, who said that the driver had been told not to take tourists to the Restaurant des Chevaliers. I did not tip.

The manager also said that tourists who ate at the Restaurant des Chevaliers tended to get sick.

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Harassed in Hama

October 14, 2009: In the morning the same driver collected me from the Mirage Palace, took me to the station, and helped me deal with the intricacies of buying a train ticket. This time we started at the second window, and were sent to yet a third, where my passport details were laboriously written down in Arabic. Now duly  ticketed, I found a place to sit under the chandeliers in the main hall, and chatted with a young, fully-veiled woman with a two-month old baby while we waited for the train. She had been visiting her family in Aleppo and was traveling to rejoin her husband in Damascus. Although she held a masters degree she had been unable to find a job.

Given the small extra cost, I had opted for first-class. The open carriage had 2-1 seating, and my reserved seat turned out to be a single on the shady side of the train. (I always opt for the shady side when possible, but this was just luck.) Free papers and cartons of juice were handed out, and although music played, it wasn’t too loud. The countryside between Aleppo and Hama was very flat, and stony, except where irrigation created patches of green.

The Four Norias of Bechriyyat

Very few people got off the train in Hama, which might explain why only two taxis waited outside the station, which was 2km from the center of town. I shared the second taxi with a Swiss couple toting big backpacks who were just stopping briefly on the way to Palmyra. The driver didn’t recognize the name of my hotel (www.noria-hotel.com), but thanks to the Lonely Planet map I got him to drop me close by. It took me a couple of passes to find the building with the right hotel sign, and then an elevator in an arcade which took me up to the fourth floor reception desk. The staff were friendly, and my room had a big bed, but no daylight, sheets that were too small for the mattress, and insufficient power to charge my n800.

Finding the new town a bit noisy and grimy, I walked through the old town to visit the Azem Palace. I would later visit another Azem Palace in Damascus, built by the same governor, Assad Pasha Al Azem, after his promotion. The Hama palace, while smaller, had a second story with a second courtyard to catch any available breeze. Both the courtyards and the interior rooms were elaborately decorated, with red, white and black banding on the exterior walls.

Azem Palace, Hama

My search for lunch took longer. The first two places I looked for had gone out of business, and the third was either closing or about to be renovated. The T.I., amazingly, claimed to have no-one who spoke English. I finally found a place on the river, Al Atlal, that provided kebabs, fries and salad, and a good view. Hama is known for its “norias”, huge wooden water wheels. After lunch I followed the river towards the “Four Norias of Bechriyyat”, but restaurants blocked access all the way. I finally walked through an apparently closed restaurant to the river bank, but at a busier time this wouldn’t have been possible.

Closer look at a noria

I had been thinking that after a month on the road I could use a Turkish bath, and when my hotel was unable to find the hamam’s phone number I set off to check on the “women’s hours” in person. I found the hamam deserted, and walked on into the old town down an almost empty street. Just one young, overweight boy, perhaps 11 or 12, walking towards me. Nothing to worry about, you would think, but, as I passed him, he suddenly reached for me! He seemed to be aiming for my breasts, but I struck his arm aside and as I yelled at him he ran away.

I could hardly believe what had happened. While I don’t look my age, especially in countries where women age fast, I certainly don’t look young, and although I wasn’t wearing a headscarf, I was modestly dressed and had not made eye contact. But I unquestionably looked western. Once I recovered from the shock, I started to wonder about the education and upbringing that could produce such behavior.

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Around Aleppo

October 13, 2009: Driving into Aleppo from the airport, the most arresting

Armenian church, Aleppo

sight was all the women in black. Some had nothing showing but their eyes, others covered everything but their faces. Walking the streets of Aleppo, or for that matter, reading the US press, one could be forgiven for seeing Syria as synonymous with Islam. But that would be wrong. Before the Arab conquest in 636 A.D. it was a part of the Roman and then Byzantine Empires, and therefore Christian. It is still 10% Christian today, at least partly because of the arrival of Armenian Christians escaping the Turkish genocide of 1915-17. Having just come from Armenia, I made a point of visiting the Armenian church in Aleppo. I found the differences surprising – with its pews and bright interior it looked like a Roman Catholic church. And while Syria is predominantly Sunni Muslim, around 11% of the population, including the current president, belong to the Alawite branch of Shia Islam.

Qala'at Samaan

Christianity in the area now called Syria predates the conversion of the Emperor Constantine, of course. After all, St. Paul’s famous revelation occurred on the road to Damascus, where he expected to find Christians. Perhaps the most famous sight near Aleppo is Qala’at Samaan, the formidable ruins of the basilica that grew up around St. Simeon’s pillar, St. Simeon having spent 40 years living on top of the pillar. While I have little respect for someone who indulges in such theatrics, I did want to see the church and the countryside, and arranged for a car and driver for a day’s exploration.

I have to say that St. Simeon’s church came as a big surprise, clearly a lot of people thought more highly of him than I did. Although missing its roof and some of its walls, the building still impresses with both its size and design – arches everywhere. Lonely Planet says that when the church was finished, in 491 C.E., it was the largest church in the Christian world. The pillar hadn’t fared as well as the building, though, and just a boulder remained. When we left for lunch I counted eight tour buses parked outside, but I got lucky, and had the place pretty much to myself. We visited a couple of other churches during the day, including Qalb Lozeh, but they couldn’t come close to comparing with St. Simeons.

Not all the sites around Aleppo are Christian – I also visited Ain Dara, where

Lion at Ain Dara

some basalt statues have been recovered from a Hittite temple where Ishtar was worshiped three thousand years ago.

Qala’at Samaan is north of Aleppo, in what my driver called a Kurdish area, where a pomegranate harvest was in full swing. Qalb Lozeh is east of Aleppo, almost on the Turkish border, clearly just a line on the map here. I enjoyed the day’s drive, although aside from the pomegranates it looked to me that Syria mostly grew rocks. And kids. As in Jordan, large families – 8, 10, 11 children – were the rule. Given the existing shortage of jobs and water, I can’t imagine what will happen here in 10 or 20 years time.

Perhaps tourism will help. My driver told me that business had been good the last five years. He liked the “new” president (it’s been 10 years) because now people were allowed mobile phones, DVDs and the internet. I hadn’t realized that Hafez al-Assad had been so strict, but I can’t help thinking that jobs are more important.

On the way back to the hotel we stopped at the railway station and my driver helped me buy a ticket for the train to Hama. Although we bought a ticket at one window, we then needed to show the ticket plus my passport at a second window, and my passport, for once, was in a hotel safe. The copy I carried wasn’t enough. I’d have to sort that out the next morning.

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Another Look at Aleppo

Monday morning I went up to the Riga’s rooftop breakfast room expecting a good spread, given the cost of my room, only to find that multiple tour groups had pretty much decimated the buffet. The view of Aleppo easily outdid the Nescafe and indifferent orange juice. But my most pressing concern, of course, was to find a hotel room for the next two nights.

In daylight, I realized that the hotel I had initially looked for the night before, the Al Faisal, was actually just up the street from the Riga. And it had a room available, for 25 euro. A rather depressing room. Walking down the grubby stairs after agreeing the price, I resolved to keep looking. Aleppo had no shortage of hotels – I must have visited at least a dozen, all within walking distance of each other. What it had, in mid-October, was a shortage of rooms. The town seemed packed, apparently with European tour groups. I found just one other room, an equally depressing and more expensive triple, before trying a little farther afield, at the Mirage Palace.

View of the Citadel from my room at the Mirage Palace

I had eaten lunch at the Mirage the day before, finding the service in the cafe extremely slow, and Lonely Planet only listed the cafe, not the hotel, which looked like it would be out of my usual price range. The manager, however, was willing to make me a deal – room, tax and breakfast for a price I could live with. It was indeed above my usual limit, but I felt that I needed a little pampering. And the room, on the eighth floor, had a killer view of the Citadel, soaring above the town. I took it.

Downtown Aleppo, across from the Sheraton

After moving in to my new digs I went by the T.I. (very little information available) and a Nokia store (for a new SIM which turned out not to work in Damascus) before eating lunch at Al Andalib, a Lonely Planet recommendation. If I had realized, before ordering, that cats walked around on the tables, I would have gone elsewhere, but I ate the humus, salad, chicken and fries without ill effects.

Prayer hall in the Umayyad Mosque, Aleppo

I spent the afternoon, after finally tracking down an ATM that would accept one of my cards (in the Sheraton’s upmarket shopping arcade), wandering through the medina and visiting the big Umayyad Mosque. I had to wear a hooded robe in the mosque, and then women were chased out of the prayer hall, so I have to say that I preferred the medina.

I seldom eat in hotels, but I had run out of energy by dinner time. While the Mirage had a cafe on the ground floor, and a dining room on the second floor (set up for a birthday party), the real restaurant was up on the top floor, with 360-degree views over the town. It also had food good enough that I ate there two nights running. I particularly enjoyed the mouhamara appetizer – a delicious amalgamation of walnuts, pomegranate molasses, toasted breadcrumbs, olive oil and roasted peppers (www.paula-wolfert.com/recipes/mouhamara.html).

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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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Visa is a Four Letter Word

Visas annoy me. I have to pay a country for the right to come visit, although I’ll be spending a lot more money when I get there. Plus, often I have to deal with a bunch of bureaucracy to do so. Don’t get me wrong – I’ve no objection to a country deciding to keep out people they see as undesirables, but often they don’t seem to bother with those kinds of checks. I’m particularly annoyed by countries that require a “Letter of Invitation” – it’s just a way for their travel agencies to make money. And then places like Russia require a hotel reservation ahead of time for every night of your stay!

I’m lucky that I have dual UK and US citizenship since visa costs for US citizens have gone up to partially match the cost of getting a visa to visit the US. I say partially, because it doesn’t cover the cost of showing up in person at a US embassy which may be hundreds of miles from the applicant’s home. So, although I enter and leave the US on my US passport, I often do the rest of the trip on my UK passport. It would certainly not make much sense to enter the UK, or anywhere else in the EU, on my US passport.

I’ll be visiting six countries on this trip, and all of them except Georgia require a visa for entry. But all of those except Syria will issue a visa on arrival, sometimes more cheaply than in advance. Syria, however, insists that if they have an embassy in your country, that you get a visa from that embassy in advance. (No US citizens applying for visas in France, say!) I thought it might create difficulties if I applied in the US for a visa for my UK passport, so I will be doing the whole of this trip on my US passport.

Since it wasn’t too clear that Syria was keen on US visitors, I took more than the usual care over my application, reading up on other people’s experiences on Lonely Planet’s Thorntree. Then I spent part of a partiularly hot Monday running around organizing everything. My printer had quit working, so I had to go to the library to print the application forms. Then I needed cash from the bank so I could buy a money order (for $131) from the Post Office. Luckily I still had some passport photos around (I replaced them the next time I went by the AAA office – for free, since I’m a member). I picked a hotel in Aleppo, my first stop, as my Syrian address. Then I took everything over to the nearest Fed Ex outlet and paid a surpising amount of money to get the package to Washington and back.

I expected it would be at least two weeks, if not six, before I saw my passport again. I didn’t even bother to check the tracking numbers. But Wednesday afternoon, just 48 hours later, I looked up from the computer to see the Fed Ex van drawing up outside my house! Yes, the Syrian embassy managed the fastest visa turnround I’ve seen aside from the Mongolian embassy in Moscow, which issued my visa while I waited.

I’m not sure whether they’ve gotten a lot more efficient, or there are very few applicants. Either way, I was impressed.

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