Waterwheels and vintage cars

Trip Start Oct 30, 2005
Trip End Jun 19, 2006

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Where I stayed

Flag of Syria  ,
Monday, May 1, 2006

God, this is a fantastic country! Syria is, I think, probably the standout highlight of my trip so far, and one of the best countries I have ever travelled.
The ceaseless and all-encompassing friendliness of the Syrians is reason enough alone to come here. I have never felt so totally welcome in a country as I have this last week here. Nor have I had fewer people trying to rip me off. Generous, warm, and honest are the Syrians - truths totally at odds with the persona of this wonderful country as portrayed by the West. Add on the fact that it's cheap as hell, with fantastic attractions, and knack for throwing up marvellous surprises at every turn, and you can understand why I'm rapidly growing to love this place.

Hama is one of those surprises. After a somewhat aggravating journey from Palmyra to Hama via Homs, Jon, Louisa and I finally arrived at the excellent Cairo Hotel after a thoughtful scenic tour of Hama from our taxi driver, during which we had our first glimpse of the famous waterwheels of Hama. The main attraction of this quaint and charming little town, there are a dozen or so of these enormous wooden waterwheels sprinkled along the Orontes River as it meanders through Hama. Originally designed to supply the city's irrigation channels, these days they serve more as a tourist attraction. And you can see why, as you amble along the riverbanks redolent with lush and fragrant rosebushes, hearing the rumble of a waterwheel long before it appears. They are so photogenic, and the town itself so sleepy, that it almost feels like a quiet village in the Austrian hinterland.

Our first night there, we found ourselves invited into the house of the Azem family, one of the three most prominent families in Hama, who's great-grandfather had built the exquisite Azem palace in Damascus. We had been taking atmospheric photos down a lane in the old town of Hama, beside the river, when a women invited us inside her house for coffee. We duly met all the children and womenfolk of the family (none of the men were to be seen), were shown around the extensive garden, and taken up to the roof to get one of the best views in town, across the river and Old Town. It was an extraordinary opportunity to interact with a family of Arab women in their own home, and one we were humbled to be offered. And they enjoyed our company as much as we enjoyed theirs, so much so, that we were invited back for more coffee and sweets the following evening!

A couple of days later, Hama was to get even better. We'd organised a day trip with the hotel out to the famous Crac de Chevaliers, the castle of childhood dreams. "Neither a ruin nor a showplace...the best-preserved and most wholly admirable castle in the world," wrote TE Lawrence, to describe the Crac, the greatest of the castles built by the Crusaders throughout the Levant. It is one of the gems of Syria, and we couldn't wait to check it out.
The Cairo hotel has a surprise for us, though. As it was only the 3 of us doing the day-trip this day, we were stunned to discover, upon walking out to the street that our transport for the day was to be a white 1964 200D Mercedes, in mint condition. Our jaws collectively hit the pavement - it was beautiful. And so, we sauntered off like Harry Lauder, cruising through the mountains, past Musyaf and its Castle of the Assassin's, to the Crac de Chevaliers in a glorious vintage Merc. The engine was purring like a well-fed tiger, and the warm Syrian sun glinted off our driver Abdul's mirrored aviator sunglasses. Magic.

And do you know how much it cost? A mere 4 quid. Unbelievable...

What's more, the following day saw us take in a couple of the Dead Cities on our way to Aleppo in a Pontiac '51. Brilliant! Ah, second childhood stuff, I tell ya.
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