I treated my couch surfer host to dinner at Al Khawali restaurant, which is located in an old house with a lovely courtyard in Old Town. The food was delicious and reasonable. Supposedly, Sen. John Kerry once had dinner here.
When I was first planning my trip to Syria, I contacted several Syrian travel agencies. They all said the tour would be individually tailored since there was no group tour offered. The cost would include a driver and guide as well as hotel. Naturally, the cost was high. I found one could do it independently without much hassle and at a fraction of the quoted cost.
For example, my taxi in Damascus to the bus station cost $3, but the two-and-a-half-hour bus ride in an air-conditioned Greyhound-type bus from Damascus to Palmyra cost only $2.50. One has to have their passport checked by the police at the bus station and a document is given so a bus ticket can be purchased. The driver again checks these.
My stay at the Ishtar Hotel, Palmyra was $30 and included breakfast, private bath and Internet. There are other hotels that cost four to seven times more, but this place was more than adequate for this frugal traveler. I did have a sumptuous buffet dinner at the Cham Palace Hotel for $20. The luxury Cham hotel is located directly across the street from one of the ruins sites, but some guests complained about their rooms and slow service.
Palmyra was founded by King Solomon and was an important stop on a trade route because of a large oasis. The extensive history bears reading before coming here, but suffice it to say that this was a major Roman outpost. A huge area of beautifully preserved ruins from these times include the Temple of Ba’al, lesser temples, a huge theater, the remains of a large Christian church, funerary monuments, and on a close-by hill, a large castle. Anyone interested in archeology could spend many happy days here. A whole article could easily be devoted to Palmyra. Trying to describe it in a paragraph is like trying to tell about the wonders of Rome in a paragraph.
I saw large tour groups from Germany, Italy and France and occasional elderly Japanese couples, but no Americans.
The taxi to the bus station cost $2 again, and $4.50 on a minivan from Palmyra to Homs. Homs is where major unrest is now occurring, but it was just a bus transfer for me, so sadly I never got a feel for its inhabitants. Again, the bus ticket was only $3 from Homs to Aleppo on a nicely appointed air-conditioned bus.
I splurged by staying at the Park Hotel in Aleppo for close to $100 a night, but there are even more luxurious hotels for those so inclined. Aleppo is one of the oldest continuously occupied cities and even Abraham is said to have milked his cow here. There are many types of architecture that reflect influences from Europe, Romans, Greek, Persians, Christian and Arabs. The imposing Citadel has been rebuilt many times since the city was involved in so many attacks by empires vying for control. Admission for foreigners is about 10 times what locals pay, but is still a pittance.
The St. Simeon monastery sounded interesting enough for a visit. It was built for some Christian mystic who lived his entire life on a pedestal. Ever-taller ones built by his followers replaced this so he could retreat further from crowds. People came to ask his advice and it is said that even Roman emperors sought his counsel. He died at age 69 after living on the pillar for 39 years and a church was built here. Pilgrims came to visit and would chip a piece of the pillar as a relic souvenir and today all that remains is a small mound. It is located on a high hill with magnificent views in a very tranquil setting. The Beatles’ “The Fool on the Hill” song kept playing in my head. Getting here was a chore until I learned to ask directions for “Al C-Mon,” as it is pronounced locally.
Purchasing train tickets from Aleppo to Latakia in advance is a wise idea. Prices are ridiculously cheap and first class was less than $3, compared to second class, which cost slightly more than $2. Paying less than a dollar to avoid a hard bench seat in second class is a bargain. The 6:20 a.m. train took three hours to Latakia, a seaport town with cool ocean breezes and good seafood restaurants. Latakia has a long and interesting history, but few remaining interesting Roman structures.
My main reason to visit was for a quick impression of the town, but mostly as a base for a day trip to see Krak des Chevaliers, the best-preserved medieval Crusader castle, and Saladin’s Castle in another close-by area. Both are remarkably in good condition and history fans can readily imagine the battles between the Crusaders and Muslims that must have occurred. In order to visit both places in one day, I hired a taxi for $60 to take me and wait while I conducted a visit inside. As an independent traveler, one must know to ask for Al Hosan instead of Krak de Chevaliers. Children, especially boys, would have a field day going through these castles and history would suddenly come to life.
Jordan was my next destination, but to get there it was necessary to return and stay overnight in Damascus. This layover provided an opportunity to visit Bosra, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, with its well-preserved Roman theater as well as remnants of other cultures such as the Nabateans. What was once a major city is now just a sleepy village adjacent to the ruins.
Modern building construction observed in several of the major cities seemed to be of questionable quality. Reading about major building collapse after earthquakes in these countries is not a surprise. Seeing so many well-preserved Roman ruins after thousands of years made me wonder about their techniques. Roman schools must have produced many brilliant engineers and architects to send to faraway countries to extend their culture throughout Europe. Romans invented fast-curing cement that was waterproof and very strong. Metal bars for reinforcement was also introduced. The Romans must have had to supervise locals to do the actual work, but it does not seem that knowledge about the techniques and materials remained after the Romans left. The Romans were quick to seize good ideas from other cultures and improve on them, so why didn’t locals do the same? Were these secrets that the Romans did not share?
I am most commonly asked about my favorite destination. For places I visited this past year, I would have to say Syria ranks near the top because of the warm hospitality, extremely low prices, and the many wondrous archeological ruins in such good condition throughout the country. When the present conflict is resolved, consider putting Syria high on your travel list.
Las Vegas Tidbits
Another new Japanese Restaurant, Anime Ramen and Teriyaki, 4355 Spring Mountain Road, #101, Las Vegas, has opened. It is below Ichiza Restaurant. Anime pictures decorate the walls and TV constantly plays anime cartoons. The waitresses dressed up like characters — a cute idea. This is fun if you are an anime fan but the food is average and there are much better places. It is owned by someone who is trying to capitalize on both the ramen and anime craze.
The Kaeru Kid lives in Las Vegas and hopes readers will send him comments at KaeruKid@yahoo.com. The views expressed are not necessarily those of the Nichi Bei Weekly.