A Travellerspoint blog

July 2010

Aleppo - New Socks and the Historic Hotel


sunny 25 °C
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As I walked through a busy park in the center of Aleppo, I was greeted by the scrutinising glare of former president Assad. Actually, having had no luck determining my position from various non-English speaking locals, former President Assad's statue became the perfect landmark which I could reference in my Lonely Planet map.

Statue of former President Assad at center of park in Aleppo

Aleppo was to be my last destination in Syria as it was poised conveniently near the border with Turkey - but it wasn't just a convenient stop-over city, it was well worthwhile visiting based on its own merits and I quite enjoyed it. My visit didn't begin without its problems however, as I soon realised that getting a hotel room in the city was going to be rather difficult. I had been overconfident (and disorganised) when I left Hama, so I hadn't booked anywhere to stay in Aleppo. By bad luck it turned out to be a public holiday in Syria and this resulted in a torturous walk through the city for several hours trying to find a hotel that had vacancies.

It was quite a relief when I did finally find a room... until I stepped inside...

My room at Hotel Al-Andaloss on my first night in Aleppo, can't see it in this photo but to the left a rickety old table (no chair) and above me, at least a dozen hovering mosquitos waiting for me to close my eyes - What can I say, beggars can't be choosers

The guy at this hotel wanted to keep my passport until I checked-out and he took quite an offence when I told him I'd rather he didn't. After a lengthy "debate", he finally relented and begrudgingly returned it to me but only after copying down every last detail. I wasn't in the mood to alert him to the fact that he'd mistakenly noted down all the details from my U.S. visa page instead of my main photo page.

That night I stepped out onto my room's balcony (yes, at least it had a balcony) to take in a bit of the city at night and I saw and heard a man standing across the street yelling out periodically while holding what looked like a whole bunch of socks in his arms. There's no better proof to all the walking around I've done on my trip than my holey socks. Almost every pair I had was stricken with at least one toe revealing crater and this was proving to be rather embarassing whenever I had to take my shoes off at mosques or guesthouses. So due to a mixture of necessity and my pity for the poor socks merchant (who hadn't made a single sale for the whole time I'd been watching him) I raced across the road and bought three pairs from him. Even better for the guy, my purchase prompted further business from other passers by and within a few minutes he'd sold several more pairs.

Man who I bought socks from across the road from my hotel

The next day I was on a hunt for a different hotel because the room I'd stayed in the previous night would have driven me to antidepressants if I'd stayed any longer. It was at that point that I decided, for the second time in my journey, to splurge on a hotel (the last time was in Mumbai at the start of February) and what better place stay at but in Hotel Baron, the oldest and most famous hotel in Syria. Apparently the Hotel Baron in Aleppo has witnessed a century of Syrian history and has hosted various political leaders and cultural figures, including kings, presidents, writers, adventurers and spies.

According to wikipedia, these are some of the famous guests of the Hotel Baron:

Lawrence of Arabia slept in room 202; King Faisal declared Syria's independence from the balcony in room 215; Agatha Christie wrote the first part of "Murder on the Orient Express" in room 203. The Presidential Suite was occupied in turn by King Gustaf VI Adolf of Sweden, Egypt's Gamal Abdel Nasser, Syria's former President Hafez Al Assad, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan (the founder of the United Arab Emirates), and the American billionaire David Rockefeller. Other notable guests include Dame Freya Stark, Julie Christie, Mr and Mrs Theodore Roosevelt, Kemal Attaturk (modern Turkey's founder and first president), Lady Louise Mountbatten, Charles Lindberg and Yuri Gagarin (Soviet cosmonaut and first human to have gone into outer space), world adventurer Josh stayed in room 315

Yeah you got me, I added the last one - so it's also hosted a lot of nobodies.

The famous Hotel Baron in Aleppo

The concierge at Hotel Baron - I have to admit, she was posing for me while pretending to talk on that awesome antique switchboard

The lounge and bar at Hotel Baron

T.E. Lawrence's signed bill dated the 8th of June, 1914 is framed and displayed in the lounge - apparently the cheeky fellow never payed it

Room 202 where T. E. Lawrence (of Arabia) stayed

The bar at Hotel Baron

The banquet hall at Hotel Baron where I had breakfast

The main staircase at Hotel Baron

My room at Hotel Baron - very clean and comfortable and probably my favourite room so far

The hotel was overpriced and the manager tried to sell me tours every chance he got, but it exuded a grandeur (albeit faded) which other more modern and expensive hotels just couldn't match, so I was happy.

Anyway, believe it or not, I did actually leave the hotel to explore some of Aleppo's attractions, including the citadel and what turned out to be my favourite souq so far. Once again I wasn't in the market for spices or souvenirs but it was still nice to walk through souq Bab-Antakya on my way to the citadel. It was yet another souq which was filled with more locals than tourists so the hassle factor from the store people was virtually non-existent... except for the t-shirt store guy. It doesn't take a rocket surgeon to figure out that a stranger who addresses you as "My friend!" should be treated with complete suspicion; yet touts and merchants everywhere I've been to insist on using it in an attempt to gain your trust (Egypt and India were the worst for this). I guess it must work on the more gullible and easily flattered tourists otherwise they wouldn't still use it.

My favourite souq so far in my travels, the labyrinthine Souq Bab-Antakya in Aleppo

The best parts of the citadel were undoubtedly the outer wall, the bridge leading to the main gate and the impressive throne room. The inner area consisted mostly of crumbling ruins and a couple of mosques which would have otherwise been interesting to visit but were instead a little disappointing due to the false promise suggested by the outer shell.

Bridge and main gate to the citadel in Aleppo

The impressive throne room at the citadel

Some of the ruins and a large mosque inside the citadel

Admittedly, the citadel's walls also offered fine views of Aleppo from its high vantage point.

View of Aleppo from the walls of the citadel

There were several undergound rooms and chambers that you could walk around in, some of them attempting to show life "as it was" with the use of the ubiquitous posing mannequins.

Creepy manequins posed "real natural like" at the underground baths of the citadel

Just as I was about to leave the citadel, I met a two young Syrian students keen to practice their English. I learnt they were from small towns not far from Aleppo and were studying English in the city in hope of becoming English teachers. They turned out to be decent guys who weren't afraid to talk about religion and politics (I let them do most of the talking on these topics) though they were also smart enough not to approach these subjects in a preachy manner. We ended up having a friendly conversation right up until the the citadel closed. These guys once again highlighted how friendly the Syrian people really are.

The two students, Edrees and Ahmed, whom I met at the citadel (trust me, they didn't mind having their photo taken. I noticed many Syrians don't smile in photos, even when they're posing for their own tourist snaps)

The rest of my time in Aleppo I spent walking around the city, catching up on my blogs (yes, once upon a time I did put some time aside for these things) and trying to organise my trip north across the border into Turkey.

President Bashar smiling over the Syrian people in one of the main squares of Aleppo (priceless)

Glowing mosque fills the night time view in Aleppo

Alas, I had covered yet another country, this time at a blistening pace (just short of two weeks) and I was ready to move on to yet another country I'd been looking forward to since I started my journey in November. Unfortunately I'd have to learn the basics of yet another language just when my Arabic "hello", "please" and "thank you" were starting to sound intelligible.

So for the last time (in Arabic), Ma-as Salama!

Posted by joshuag 09:58 Archived in Syria Tagged backpacking Comments (1)

Hama and Around - Water Wheels and the Fairytale Castle


semi-overcast 15 °C
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So, I've been reminded by a few people that I haven't posted a blog in a really long time, well don't despair because here begins season two of Joshua's World Odyssey which should quench those vicarious travellers out there.

After my visit to the ancient ruins of Palmyra in the eastern desert of Syria, it was a long trip to Hama where I'd have a good base to visit various sightseeing spots in the west of Syria including the city of Hama itself.

A while out of Palmyra, I started spotting road signs pointing to Iraq, that's probably as close as I get to "intrepid" in my travels.

The east of Syria definitely lived up to the mental image one has of the country, desolate, rugged deserts with its bedouin camps, camels and goat herders. The west on the other hand, came as a surprise, lush green fields and young forests - the change in landscape was quite dramatic. Some of the forests were very young, which leaves you with the impression that they are trying hard to reclaim the desert.

Once in Hama I was greeted at the Riad Hotel by the manager Abdullah, who curiously had a strong Aussie accent, his first words to me were, "Gidday mate". I can only assume he'd been taught English by an Australian or perhaps he'd been watching Home and Away on Syrian satellite TV.

For me Hama turned out to be a nice little town to visit, well I say town but it has a population of 1.6 million, so it's a decent sized city but it felt more like a city of fifty thousand. It is most famous for its creaking wooden norias (Roman water wheels) which were used to deliver water from the Orontes river (which also powered the wheels) up to the top of the aquaducts which in turn delivered water to the town's inhabitants - quite a clever design if you ask me.

I walked along the entire stretch of the river through the middle of town where the norias were located - the biggest one I came across had a diameter of 20 meters.

The Al-Mammuriyya Noria in Hama

The norias have been around since the 4th century AD, but the surviving ones today were built in the 13th century. My favourite thing about the norias was the eerie creaking and moaning sound they made as they turned which was caused by the wooden axles rubbing on the wooden blocks they are mounted on.

Creaking norias in Hama, Syria

Norias next to Al Keilani Bridge and An Nuri Mosque, Hama

Perhaps it was the season or I just chose the right days to visit, but Hama didn't feel touristy at all and even in the Old City I was virtually the only tourist walking amongst the few locals along the narrow cobbled streets.

Old man walking towards small mosque in the Old City

An "arty" shot of my reflection in mirror of small cafe in the Old City

The clocktower in the center of Hama, behind the tower you can see a portrait of President Bashar, his portrait appears all over the place - just like Jordan they are there to remind you who's in charge

A long day of walking around Hama was followed by an excursion to Apamea and some of the Dead Cities. The best way to get around these tourist sites is by doing a tour so I opted to join one organised by the hotel I was staying at. Luckily the tour only included a driver so I didn't have to put up with a guide boring me to death and as a bonus our group was only small consisting of myself and two girls, Cami a Belgian and Iza who was half English, half Moroccan.

Our driver, Abdul, was quite proud to show us a book which had been written about him by an English man. Abdul had been the English man's guide and driver as they toured extensively throughout Syria.

The book which had been written about Charles Roffey's tour of Syria with Abdul

Photos inside book about Abdul - actually, the book was more of a photo album rather than a memoir

Our first stop was the Mosaic Museum of Al-Ma Arra, which we were not expecting as it was not listed as part of the tour - there was a small cover charge so I think Abdul was receiving a small commission - nevertheless we went in and they did have a large collection of ancient mosaics so in the end it was probably worth it... just. We were the only tourists there, which meant we got our own chaperone to make sure we didn't take photos inside.

Mosaic of former President Assad in Mosaic Museum of Al-Ma Arra - yes he's still watching

Next was the Dead Cities of Serjilla and Al-Bara, two of the lagest of some 700 abandoned settlements scattered along the limestone hills that lie between the Aleppo-Hama highway. They date back to before the fifth century B.C. and apparently it's a big mystery why these villages were abandoned (though my feeling is that stone buildings and earthquakes don't mix well - heavy falling rocks hurt!)

Some ruins in the dead city of Serjilla

A church in the dead city of Al-Bara

We saw ruins scattered all over the place as we drove around the narrow winding roads. They appear to lie mostly undisturbed alongside olive, nut and fruit orchards. The feeling I got once we got out and walked amongst them was a mixture of both spookiness and tranquility.

After the dead cities, we headed to Apamea, an ancient city much like Palmyra but smaller and built out of grey granite instead of pink sandstone; it was also built in the middle of lush green hills rather than in the desert which was quite a contrast. When we visited, the site felt deserted with only a handful of other tourists wandering about.

Most of the ruins of Apamea have disappeared, but the 2 km long grand colonnade is still highly visible with columns running from one end to the other. Parts of the cardo (main street) still retain the original paving which are visibly grooved by the wear of chariot wheels.

View from one end of the 2 km colonnaded cardo in Apamea

A column at the center of the grand colonnade

Cami and Iza admiring the columns at the north end of the grand colonnade

View along the deserted grand colonnade

The next day I embarked on my second day trip from Hama to Crac des Chevaliers, a castle built by Crusader knights in the 12th century. I used the same strategy to get to the castle that I employed in my trip to Apamea and the Dead Cities, and that was a tour organised by the hotel. This time I travelled with three French women, Emy, Clemence and Simone. Again, the tour only included a driver and not a tour guide, unfortunately the driver suffered from suicidal tendencies and I couldn't help but tell him off after he overtook a bus on a blind corner at high speed. He just laughed, but his driving became noticeably tamer so I think he got the message - I think the French girls sitting in the back seat were also quite relieved I said something.

To say Crac des Chevaliers is an impressive castle would be an understatement. It was huge and there were plenty of places to explore, both below ground and around the various towers dotted around the outer walls and within the castle proper.

Me inside the main stables - It was a huge room and it was pitch black except for a few shards of dim light eminating from some holes in the ceiling - I didn't really intend to pose like this as I was just positioning myself under the light beam while the camera timer was running, but I think it turned out ok.

The only section of the vast mote around the castle which was filled in with water - the rest of the mote had been filled in over the centuries.

A wall at the baths, presumably the holes were where water was somehow piped in

A view of the filled-in mote along the length of the castle

My biggest problem that day was the wind which was gale force-like - this made climbing up on to the roofs of the tall towers a little tricky, especially since there were virtually no barriers to stop you being swept off the edge. I stupidly decided to climb up one of the taller towers and up to the roof just when the wind got at its worst. Once up there it was so strong I had to hold on to a vertical spire at the center. Then I had to crawl on my hands and knees just to get to a hole on the ground at the edge of the tower which led to the stairway. I must have looked ridiculous from the lower parts of the castle where it was far more sheltered.

Windy day at Crac des Chevaliers, Syria

A view of the roof tops inside the castle proper - it was pretty windy up there so I was quite thankful for my camera's "steady-shot" feature

A large chapel in the castle, it had been turned into a mosque when the armies of Islam took the castle in 1271.

One of the more impressive internal buildings of the castle, the loggia, with a fancy looking Gothic facade was ruined when I was there by some cheap looking Pharoic-era wall decorations. This castle had little to do with the Egyptians and was built over a thousand years after the last pharoah had ruled Egypt, so we all wondered about the out-of-place decorations. It was only a few weeks later when I spoke to another traveller that I learnt that they were actually shooting a movie there.

Some out-of-place Egyptian plywood movie set decorations

A stone bridge to a side entrance of the castle

A view of the entire castle from a nearby hill just before we returned to Hama

Master Cola? Thought it was something else when I bought it

It was a brief stop in Hama, but it was a good one. I still had one more stop to make in Syria before I headed out of the country and that probably deserves a small blog of its own which I'll be posting soon (I promise).

Until next time!

Posted by joshuag 03:45 Archived in Syria Tagged backpacking Comments (3)

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