Welcome to my syrian adventure!

Yes, that good old travel hotspot of Syria. The country I had decided to explore on my next solo travelling adventure. 

My family are getting more used to my travel destinations being somewhat different to those which people explore. The countries that people don’t generally travel to. It was my thirst for exploration of different countries that led me into vanlife and fulltime motorhome living in the first place!

So read on to unearth more about the country, the people and the culture and join me on my Syrian adventure.

Syrian Adventure Highlights

I have put in a map of the route that I was exploring, where the city of Beirut in Lebanon is the start and end point of my journey.  As you are unable to free travel in Syria, the route was set by my guide and tour company.

Read my Syrian Essentials to understand all the practicalities of travelling to this country.

Beirut ~ Damascus ~ Aleppo ~ Homs ~ Krak de Chevaliers ~ Palmyra ~ Salah Ed-Din ~ Latakia ~ Maaloula ~ Damascus ~ Beirut.

People question the ethics of visiting this country whilst it is in conflict, but I know that the Syrian people need and appreciate the economic input that tourists give them.  I know the money I spent in the bombed out souq of Aleppo is going directly to support that shop owner. His government is doing nothing to support him. 

With economic sanctions in place, the government is bankrupt, even though Al Assad has a personal wealth thought to be between $1-$2 billion dollars. The people on the streets of Syria are feeling the pressure of sanctions, not Al Assad himself.

The diary and events are of my own opinions – I don’t profess to be an expert on the troubles that have been experienced in Syria in recent years, so I have tried to leave the politics mostly to one side.

My Syrian Route

Getting to Lebanon

I flew into Lebanon airport, my flight had left the UK on time, regardless of the awful flight disruptions that had been experienced that week at Heathrow airport. 

I had previously arranged for a hotel transfer, which cost me $30 USD, twice the price of a taxi but I wanted the security (ironically!) of just being picked up and being taken to the hotel so that I could dump my bags off and get some food. 

You actually can use the Uber app in Lebanon, but at this stage, I didn’t have a local sim card so no WIFI and no signal – Uber wasn’t going to work for me anyway. So just of note, if you do order an uber or get a taxi, the cost should be about $15 to get to downtown Beirut in the early evening. 

I flew MEA airlines.  I have to say, they were pretty good and I would use them again. It seemed like I had loads of leg room, even though I hadn’t paid for any special leg room or upgraded seats. 

So I got safely picked up and deposited outside my hotel in downtown Beirut, got an upgrade to a suite in the hotel and promptly dumped my bags to get out for some hummus and a beer!  I had forgotten the street outside Gems hotel is a bit of a party street. I remembered this at 3.30am when the music was still blaring and I was trying to sleep. Honestly – to be young again and have that wonderful ability to go to bed at 4am and be up at 8am feeling OK.

Those days are long gone for me!

syria

The Lebanese/syria border crossing

We left Beirut at 10am to start our drive to Damascus. I passed many of the places that I had previously visited 2 years earlier.

The tangled mass off concrete and metal that had previously been the port, was now almost clear.  Still signs of what happened, but no longer up close and in your face.  Even after almost 3 years since the explosion, there is still no ruling government in Lebanon, so it is still drowning in an economic quagmire.

Driving to the Syrian border took us through some stunning countryside, brutally hot at the beginning of September.

I sat myself at the back of the bus, with an open window. Having an open window makes me feel closer to the world outside, feeling the heat in the hot air that rushes past, the smells of the cities and countryside and the sounds of horns blasting, people shouting and dogs barking. 

We drove for a couple of hours to get to the border, having already been given strict instructions on not to take any kind of photography or films of the border crossing, and indeed any other aspect of military or officials in Syria. It’s the number one ‘no-no’ and can get you into a heap of trouble – what kind of trouble I am not sure, but given the reputation of Bashar Al-Assad, I was taking no chances and none of my companions did either.

Actually getting our documents was a very simple process.  I say simple, because we had a wonderful guide who took care of everything. He gathered our passports, wrote down all the notes on ‘official’ documents, probably greased the palms of a few customs officers, and we just queued up in one queue, then the next and then got our passports back with a Syrian visa and stamp in it. 

It was also the first time I got to see what ‘hyper inflation’ looks like – and the rather overpowering images of Assad plastered everywhere.  I couldn’t take any pictures, but it was pretty crazy. 

the ROAD TO DAMASCUS

So here I was. On the road to Damascus. The roads were eerily quiet. I genuinely don’t know what I expected. Everything that you read in the papers is about bombing and devastation and corruption and refugees. But surely there is more than that?

Humans have this amazing resilience to adapt and change to their surroundings – so what was Syria going to unveil for me? 

The journey passed quietly – the scenery was pretty much unchanged from Lebanon to be honest – but that does tend to be the way. One moves from one country to the next expecting it to be like chalk and cheese, but the only borders on this kind and tolerant planet that we have the privilege of living on, are those that we impose.

The earth just does its thing, its beauty and anger flowing between houses, cities, countries and continents. And so it did as Lebanon morphed into Syria.

And then we arrived in Damascus. 

The BEIT AL Wali Hotel, damascus

Damascus

The bus dropped us in the street and we took our first steps in Syria.

The streets were strewn with people and cars;  Women shopping together, with or without a hijab, depending on their religious beliefs. Men smoking and going about their various businesses. There is no getting away from the fact that this is still, in the main, a patriarchal society. 

Our hotel, The Beit Al Wali, was a stunning row of restored 200 year old cottages (I haven’t been in a cottage as wonderful in all my life!) and it was here we were staying for the next 2 nights. 

I adored Damascus. It has something for everyone. It felt super safe, although we were told that we could only venture within 200m of our hotel. 

We walked to an ancient underground church, Ananias Church, where ‘Saul’ (Paul the Apostle) was said to have been baptised.

  “And the Lord said unto him, Arise, and go into the street which is called Straight, and inquire in the house of Judas for one called Saul, of Tarsus: for, behold, he prayeth”

The biblical ‘Street called Straight’  runs from east to west of the city and has kept the same path as that from the roman times. And thus we started our exploration of the wonderful city of Damascus, steeped in history, religious stories, battle and turbulence. 

al-Hamidiyah Souk

I love getting lost in souks and bazaars, the essence of an average Syrians life echoing around you. The myriad of noise – chattering, yelling and banging as people scurried about. Herbs and spices were stacked in neat piles or in bulbous sacks, releasing their exotic fragrances into the air, mixing with the sultry heat.

Gents sit in barbers, laying back with trust whilst the barber holds a cut-throat blade to their necks, or hot wax on cheeks, trimming beards to perfection. Just next door, Bakdash, the purveyor of handmade ice-creams for over 140, serves the special recipe Syrian Ice-cream to scores of people that queue to purchase a pot of deliciousness for 10,000 Syrian pounds (SYP).

A man goes past with a large, copper tea urn on his back, ready to pour chai for customers in plastic cups. Across from him, near the entrance is a man yelling as he squeezes fresh pomegranate juice, spinning his metal wheel, which squeezes the juice into a jug, which he pours into a cup and hands to me with a big smile in exchange for 5000 SYP or 25p.

People were asking to have their photo taken with you. The old man sitting on a stool outside the spice shop whilst his wife was getting nuts and figs weighed out, carefully pondering on the spices she wanted to purchase, whilst he was counting his 000’s of SYP to pay for it all. 

 

Everything you can imagine is sold here, but you don’t find the usual tourist tat – because the tourists here are few and far between. I didn’t feel unsafe, everyone was so lovely, it is the opposite to what you think you will feel. 

One can only assume that there were still bad things that could happen to you here in some places, as you are not allowed to go alone in some areas.  

My al-hamidiyah souq pictures in Damascus

The Palace and Mosque

Al Azem Palace,  an old palace of the Ottoman era is a beautiful example of Arabian architecture and also the place where they have a live call to prayer, a wonderful experience to listen to.

We also visited the Umayyad mosque, the Shia mosque before tucking into a delightful meal. Local food all round, washed down with local beers and finished off with a tray of delicacies mostly consisting of 5000 calories a bite, dripping with honey, sugar and pistachio nuts! Yum. 

On a slow walk back to the hotel, burning off our meal, our poor guide Simon spent much of his time herding us up like kittens! As one of us stopped to take one photo, another person wandered somewhere else for another, and a third would find another interesting angle of something they wanted to capture indelibly in their brain. 

Having stumbled across a place so wonderful, with a history so ancient and with a recent past so volatile, every time we turned there was something to look at, or someone to say hello to, or a photo to be snapped!

the mosques and churches of Damascus

Onward to Aleppo

I left Damascus early in the morning for a long drive to Aleppo. This is the day when what I saw hit me hard. This was the Syria you see in the news, only without the gunshots or explosions. The destruction and sheer volume of devastation came to the fore.  It was apparent that nothing – no one and no where had been spared from this awful civil war.

For mile after mile, the razed buildings kept rolling past. The constant rubble. The shell of a house or shop. The collapse of the first floor in a building  crushing the lower floor. Or simply a pile of bricks and contorted, twisted steel girders laying on the roadside. Occasionally a small child played on a street corner, surrounded by piles of concrete. A woman selling wares on an overturned plastic crate. Maybe a group of men, sitting, chatting, smoking, drinking coffee with the ravages of war all around.  

It was heartbreaking. 

We stopped at Hama for a short break, to see the Norias of Hama. These are a series of 17 water raising wheels, which collect water from the river into an aqueduct, which in turn carries the water to supply buildings, gardens and farmlands for irrigation. 

We continued  to Apamea, an ancient Greek and Roman city, where we were able to get out and stretch our legs for a couple of hours. 

In Apamea, The Great Colonnade stretches for 2km and is considered the longest avenue in the roman world. Remarkably there is some of it still standing, so we walked the entire avenue, which was pretty cool. It gave us another focus as the journey so far had been quite shocking. 

Roaming around this wonderful site, a Syrian sheep herder came into our mix, riding his donkey and whistling to his sheep. I am not sure they were listening too hard, but they seemed to go where he wanted. He was such a friendly man, wanting to know where we were all from (UK, Germany, USA, Poland, France and Spain) and have his photo taken with us all.  The final parting words (as often heard on my trip) was “Welcome to Syria, we are very happy you have come to visit us”. 

We continued our journey to Aleppo and checked into our hotel. The hotel itself had armed guards there. As cars came in, they were scanned with search mirrors (mirrors on poles), so there was obviously more of a risk in Aleppo.

Whilst we were in Aleppo, we were not allowed to move freely. Our guide told us there were pockets of ISIS still in the city. It is difficult to know what is true and what is propaganda, however, what is true is that wandering around on your own may get you arrested.

Syria - in conflict

aleppo old town - an emotional day

It was as if the journey down was opening the doors to the damage that had been inflicted by the civil war. Walking round the old town of Aleppo was like sitting down in the front room and having the devastation play out before your eyes like a movie.

Was it because you were walking amongst it? Able to smell the dust and the dirt. You were able to touch the bricks and the rubble, and hear the sounds of rebuilding. It looked exactly what it was. The remains of a bloody conflict, officially resolved 7 years ago, with the appearance of it ending 1 year ago – or even ongoing. 

The rebuilding of the city and the souqs were taking some time. There was no government funding now, so everything was being funded by the church or privately. This central old town was the home to a number of 4/5* hotels, which were being rebuilt, and when I asked the question of “Who is going to stay here”, the answer was that without the hotels, the people wouldn’t come. I couldn’t help wondering who would be staying in such devastation. 

A visit to the famous Aleppo Soap Factory

The tour around the old town, led by Mohammad, took us to the famous Aleppo soap factory.

The incredible story behind this factory is that they continued to produce soap, even during the conflict, with rubble all around them. The soap must go on.  I can’t even begin to think what that must be like – literally dodging a bullet or shell – in order to work everyday to produce soap. 

The stories are that the soap was used by Cleopatra and the Queen of Syria, but whether that is true or not – is hard to prove!  

The one thing that you can prove, is that is is a hot soap process with massive vats used to stir the 4 ingredients that go into the soap making process – olive oil, laurel berry oil, lye and water. If it is to be fragranced, then essential oils are also used. The manufacturing process of the soap ensures it is a really hard soap, but known to be gentle and soft for the skin – even for babies. 

There were many other stops that we made, I can not list them all, unfortunately one of them was out of bounds, the Citadel, as it had been damaged in the earthquake that hit Syria and Turkey in Febuary 2023. 

The famous soap factory!

Homs & krak de chevalier

As we drove to Krak de Chevalier (The Castle of Knights),  we passed through the town of Homs. Homs has great significance in the history of Syria, being the 3rd stopping station on the Silk Route from 2BC.  

However, the part I saw was the part where 80% of the whole town was destroyed in the conflict.  Known for being the centre of the activists uprising in 2012, the Syrian Army, squashed this with one of the worst blood sheds of the conflict. The mosque has been rebuilt, but the destruction around the mosque is almost incomprehensible. Except you have seen it on the news.

Whole blocks of homes just don’t exist anymore. Lives have been shattered.  Derelict and empty, cavernous holes where once a family sat sharing a meal or talking about their day, taken out by a shell. This is the reality once more of the war continuing its blight across the countryside. Stamping out the uprising of those people fighting against the corruption and oppression from the Al Assad regime.

Again, I am left wondering how nothing is done. The ruling through fear is just something I am unable to comprehend. It is sobering journey.

We continue our way through to Krak de Chevalier, seeing more of the destruction, town after town uninhabited now, except for the few people that I have made the assumption of having no choice. 

Krak de Chavalier

Krak de Chevalier

The approach to the wonderful crusader castle on the hill is just beautiful. You can cast your mind back hundreds of years, where each of the empires that have been present in this area have taken control of the fortress and have added a little more to it. This addition has created a Castle on the Hill, which is remarkably well preserved and restored.

One of the best examples of medieval military, the exploration  of this UNESCO site allows the imagination to run riot. Standing on the stones where people have passed hundreds of years before you. The battles that have been fought, lives lost, the attack and defence of such a strategic building. With the ability to see into the stretches of the desert any movement for miles around, dust clouds from even one vehicle can be followed to the doors. 

Partially damaged in the Syrian conflict, restoration is again underway, having been recaptured from the rebels in 2014. Watching the castle turn shades of orange as the sun disappeared into the valley was just fabulous.

Palmyra and the museum in a Day

Knowing that we could sleep on the bus after a 5.30am start, we had a big day of driving ahead of us. A return trip was required mainly because of the heat. The temperature was in the early 40’s and we did not want to be exploring when the sun was at its most intense..

Unfortunately it was  place that had been decimated by ISIS during the conflict. Twice. 

Although 30% of the roman city were destroyed, remarkably, there is a large amount  still standing. To see it before it was ravaged by ISIS would have been breath-taking.

Palymyra & Palmyra Museum

The City of Palmyra (Tadmur)

Palymyra (Palm Trees) is an amazing ancient roman city, nestling deep in the heart of the Syrian desert. Palmyra has been mentioned in tablets since 19 BCE. Tadmur is its ancient name, although still used today by some. 

When you approach the city, as you see it loom up, you can’t help but be amazed by just how wonderful it still looks. A UNESCO site, Palmyra was at the crossroads of the ancient civilisations, an important stopping point for the caravans linking the Roman civilizations with that of China, India and Persia.

We had almost 2 hours here to walk around. Imagine being in a trading caravan, walking across the Syrian desert and seeing this enormous city, looming into view, with its vast colonnade of pillars standing 20m high. How must that have looked? Palmyrians dressed in robes which were colourful and richly embroidered, but they would have been dwarfed by such huge structures. It was a real wow place to see. 

The destruction of Palmyra Museum

The museum has the appearance of one where a rogue wrecking ball has been tossed around; Statues smashed by hammers, faces caved in, artifacts ripped from the walls and models of Palmyra in smithereens. There really wasn’t much left of it. You can see from the pictures, it was just a shell. A wreck. Again the question arises in my brain. Why? 

Many of the artifacts had been saved as the local community pre-empted problems arising as the conflict got more and more violent and factions moved in from any area for a political gain. Items were packaged and shipped out to Damascus and other areas, where they now reside in local museums. 

This land was the old cemetery, we were informed by Mohammad.

“The terrorists [ISIS in this case] have been through and destroyed every last grave marker. Now no one knows where their loved ones are buried. Even in death, the people of Palmyra were not safe from the terrorists”

On our departure, for a late lunch, we had kebab and Syrian truffles, eating in a restaurant that sat amongst the shelled town. The young kids were running around, just a little grubby, excited to see us and living in a shelled out town. This was all they had ever known. They weren’t old enough to know anything other than war. This to them was good. This was peace. 

We made our way back to our hotel in Krak de Chavalier, digesting what we had seen and learned , military check points now barely registering in our brains.

A day at the beach!

Packing up in the morning, we started our final 2 days to get back to Damascus. 

The ancient site of Ugarit was of huge importance on the coastal town of Lattakia, which was my next stop. 

A large trade city from neolithic era, with olive oil, wine and wood its main trades, Ugarit was an accidental discovery in 1928, with origins as far back as 7 BCE.

Whilst the historical side of Ugarit was fascinating, my attempt at walking round the city was somewhat more tricky, as it was terribly overgrown, looking like it was quite low down with regards to maintenance of the site. Historically it was of great significance and interesting, but it wasn’t somewhere I would go out of my way to visit normally! 

We stopped for some traditional pizza, cooked to order in a hot pizza oven. The pizza were cooked more like an Indian tandoori bread rather than the traditional Italian way. It was rolled really thinly, the topping spread on it, picked up by the use of a pad and slapped on the side of the oven wall. This allowed 4 or 5 to be cooked at the same time. They were delicious!

After munching our way through a couple of  pizza and washing it down with a beer (how English does that sound!) we continued onto the Syrian beach resort of Latakia. This place has been mildly affected by the conflict and was like party central! It was a contrasting place from anything else we had seen. A walk down the street showed shops with inflatable beach toys hanging down like colourful curtains, ice-cream fridges full of the Syrian equivalent of a magnum or milk pops and kids, prancing around, excited at being at the seaside. Most of Latakia appeared to be taken up by big hotels with private beaches.

The hotel I was staying in, had 4 weddings taking place! Having experienced a wedding on a previous occasions in a hotel, I looked at my travelling companions, eyes rolling,  as we knew that we were highly unlikely to get any sleep that night. I am telling you these Syrians party hard! They keep at it until 4 or 5 am!

A lazy afternoon followed, where you could pretty much chill out on the beach, go for a swim in water which was like getting into a bath, get washing done (washing smalls whilst back-backing is definitely a thing!) or catch up on emails and social media! 

As there were no restrictions in place in this area, we were able to go out locally, but they didn’t seem to have any bars and not much to explore – we could only go one direction as the other end was Russian military camps. Walking past a ground floor apartment, loud music playing and shisha pipes being smoked, with people dancing, we were invited in (being a foreign tourist is a novelty to many!). If you can’t beat them join them! So cans in hand, we joined the party for a while before retiring to our hotel over the road. 

The hotel weddings were in full swing, people dancing and even though we had been assured that the music would finish at 12 midnight, it went on till 5am. I took a video of it – out on my balcony, music blaring in the background and its hard to hear me, even though I am shouting. At 1am I was doing my washing. I mean what else is a girl to do when they have no decent WIFI and no where to go?! 

Latakia and OUGARIT

Visiting Maaloula en route to Damascus

Its hard to believe that we are on our last day – pretty much just heading home. We do have one final stop though, in Maaloula en route. 

We stopped in a tiny Christian Church, the Church of Holy Martyrs Sergius and Bacchus, built in the 4th century. Maaloula is one of the only towns where they still speak in Aramaic, the language that was spoken by Jesus and appears in the bible. Again, this was an area that had been hit by ISIS, and although we stopped for some lunch at a café next to the church, the buildings either side and beyond were destroyed by ISIS activity Although the church was ransacked by ISIS, the building has now been restored. 

We walked from the church into the main square wandering down between a narrow alley, which the Syrians call ‘Mini Petra’.  Indeed it was like walking down the canyon in Jordan; Tall sandstone rock walls, smooth to the touch from winds blowing over hundreds of thousands of years, even millions of years. Narrow and winding, never quite sure what is round the corner, the glimpse of a bright blue sky high above.  At the end of the canyon  you come out in the main square where you will find The Convent and Shrine of Deir Mar Takla. This is a community Convent where you actually can stay, but unfortunately we didn’t. 

It was quite beautiful, full of nooks and crannies, nuns singing on a veranda, little steps up to this place and that place. A tree pushing its way through the rocks at the top, being allowed to spread its branches to the skies without restraint. This is where the shrine of Deir Mar Takla resides. Ladies will need to cover their heads here and shoes for all must be removed. 

Having explored for around 30 minutes, we were back on the bus to Damascus, to stop and buy sweets and any souvenirs that we wanted to carry home. I mostly slept on the bus as the wedding at the hotel meant that very little sleep was had during the night!

Maaloula

Time to go home - My final thoughts

My flight was the first to be going, so we had to leave at 8am to ensure we had time at the cross the border back into Lebanon. It was an uneventful journey back to Beirut airport, which gave me lots of time to reflect on the things I had seen and heard, the places I had explored and also the people that I had met – both the beautifully welcoming Syrians, who were just wonderful, to the people that were playing a part in my travelling  experience, my tour companions.  

The Syrian people are, without a doubt, the friendliest and kindest people that you could happen upon. Everyone was delighted that ‘the tourists’ are back in town.  Believe me – Syria is open for tourism, for those that want a real and authentic travelling experience.

If you want to look at understanding the essentials of booking a trip to Syria, I have written an article which covers much more than this one. An article that contains facts, rather than this one which, (although it contains plenty of historical facts!), is about my personal journey.

Essentials of Syria, covers everything you need to consider when visiting the country yourself.

My Syrian Journey - (Coming Soon)

We hope you enjoyed this article and found it useful. We have tried to cover everything you need to know but if we have missed something – please do let us know. 

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