My final stop in Syria was the harbour town of Latakia, which had also been untouched by the war. I had chosen the dates specifically as people had told me there would be the biggest football match of the year then between Latakia Tishreen and Damascus Al-Wahda. The athmosphere was crazy and I havent seen as much fireworks since last new years!
One of the days I got on a minibus to Al Haffa to explore Saladin Castle which cost less than a dollar. With no public transport from there I had to walk the last 5 kilometers and when I got there the castle was closed. I called a number listed on the gate and within 10 minutes there was a guy opening up and letting me explore the castle on my own. He also arranged a taxi to pick me up and take me back which I was really happy about after walking the whole day.
The gate for entering the Saladin Castle
As Latakia was my last stop in Syria, I could use all of my remaining pounds on juices and lots of good food. I had been a bit nervous the weeks before as I had only brought 300usd to the country where it is not possible to get more cash or pay by card because of the UN sanctions. Latakia was the perfect place to relax and enjoy my last days in Syria.
Pictures of president Assad are everywhere in Syria.
My last minutes in Syria before crossing over to Tripoli in Lebanon
Tartous felt a bit like mediterranian Europe
As I was too late to the bus station in Homs (7pm) to catch the last bus to Tartous, I asked a taxi driver how much he wanted for the nearly 2 hour trip. When he said 20$ I just said okay and two minutes later we were on our way. Syria is dirt cheap at the moment, and the bus there would have cost me less than a couple of dollars.
Argentinian Herba Mate, everywhere
As soon as I arrived in a coffee shop in Tartous, I noticed how everyone, absolutely everyone were drinking maté, which I previously only had seen in South America. Apparently there were lots of Syrians going to Argentina during the previous war, who had come back with the herbs and special straws that you need for this traditional drink. My host said that he would never drink water, but would use the same cup to drink up to 100 small matés every day.
A photoshopped version of the beach
What the real weather was like
Tartous was a city that had been untouched by the war. It felt very much like a mediterranian city in Europe and my host told me that the city was popular for beach tourists before the war. It was mind blowing to hear that even throughout the war, there would be straw huts selling drinks and partiets on the beach every night. Tartous had 5 star resorts, lots of bars, cafés and restaurants and I think it is safe and ready for tourism to return there.
Good athmosphere as they were lighting the Christmas tree
Tartous is an important harbour for Syria today, but 4-5000 years ago the most important harbour was located about 10km South of the Tartous, in the Phoenican town of Amrit. I went there on a day trip with a taxi to see the remaining ruins, including what is said to be the oldest sports stadium in the World.
There were two sites, and none of them seemed to be maintained very well. Except for some old military vehicles there were just sheep wandering around. Syria has so many gems where you can be guaranteed to be the only one exploring them.
The girl I was staying with in Damascus was gonna have a dance show in Homs, and I was lucky enough to come with her.
The drive into the city was heart breaking, as Homs is possibly the city in Syria with the most destruction. I was also told that this is where the war really started, going from peaceful protests to bombings.
The city itself was not that impressive. The castle in the mid city was completely destroyed a long time ago, but the top was a good place to get an overview of the city. A lot of the thousands of years old souq (market) had also been destroyed during the war but had now been rebuilt and business was going on as usual.
The church of the Virgin lady girdle
One of the citys most famous sights is the Virgin lady Church is one of the oldest in the World, built in year 59AD. It was later named the lady of the Girdle (Om-Al-Zenar) when the holy Girdle of Virgin Mary was placed there. The church has been protected throughout the war, whereas just few meters away marks the beginning point of kilometers of bombed buildings.
50 kilometers from Homs there is a castle called Krak des Chevalliers. It was built in the 11th century by the Kurds, and given to the templar knights in 1143 who ruled it before the Mamluk captured it about a hundred years later. It was later held by the Ottomans and during the war from 2012-2014 it was held by terrorists (Syrian opposition).
The construction and architecture of the castle was incredible. When the Mamluk came, they managed to captured the outer castle and holding this for six months while the templar knights still had the inner castle. There were so many smart defense solutions that made the inner castle almost impenetrable, so reason for surrendering was not fighting, but starvation.
Damascus is not what I expected. The streets here are full of kids running around, couples holding hands, youngsters smoking cigarettes and listening to music. Its quite the opposite of what I had imagined before coming here. Its a very joyful and lively place. The whole week i have been here it has felt as safe as any other city in Turkey, Lebanon or Iran and in the city center there is no damage or signs of the war that has been going on in this country for seven years now.
Outside the oldest café in the oldest city km the World
Damascus is the oldest continuisly inhabited city in the World, dating back at least 11 000 years. Umayyad Mosque was built around 3000 years ago and has served as a temple for Hadad (the storm god), then for the roman god of Jupiter, later as a church dedicated to John the baptist and then it finally became a mosque in the year 634AD. Today its considered the fourth holiest place in islam.
Outside the mosque you will find the beginning of Souq al Hamidyya (the old market) which continues all the way up to Al Thawra street where a ancient roman Temple of jupiter stands and marks the entrance of the Souq and the Damascus citadel.
The Bab al Sharqi gate
All in all there are seven gates to the citadel. Bab Ash-Sharqi and Bab Touma are famous for its night life and on straight street you will find bars with live music, like the marine bar where I stayed until late night and walked home from alone in the night.
I would say that the biggest problem in Damascus now is the trash laying on the streets and that electricity cuts are freequent (probably power about 10hrs a day). I also asked people to take me to the place where the battles had been previously, and they took me to the Al Hajar Al Aswar district, 10 kilometers South of the city where there were small damages a residential area that had been occupied by ISIS, also about ten kilometers North between the Karajat bus station and the Al Biruni University Hospital had been completely flattened by airstrikes.
I went to Cham Palace hotel for breakfast (approx 7usd) to get a good view from the city from the top and could not see any destroyed buildings like the ones I saw in Aleppo.
The lobby of Cham Palace Hotel
Another place famous for its view over the city is Mount Qasioun, and I will see if I can get there tomorrow on my last day in Damascus.
I must say that I love Damascus