Syria was a good choice for a week's dining out and travelling around - although by the end of it even I was getting a little less enthusiastic about yet another mezze for starters!
I met Birgit in Damascus and we travelled around the country together mainly using public transport. Heading north, the roads towards Aleppo were good, efficient and full of surprises. We did have one day with a taxi travelling south from Aleppo, taking in the waterwheels of Hama and the wind-blown ancient site of Apamea, and on to the fantastic Crusader castle at Crac des Chevaliers.
Budget accommodation was hard to come by without booking well in advance, so on several occasions we had tighten our belts and dip into “federal reserves”. Consequently we stayed in some really nice converted merchants’ houses with private courtyards and fantastic inlaid stonework.
Syria looked quite developed to me; arguably more so than Egypt. As we approached Aleppo we saw textile factories. Hey! So there is industry not just around the capital but here too. This country has a number of developed cities offering universities and jobs. Material goods are widely available. In Aleppo we saw a car showroom with cabriolets and a speed boat. Even in provincial areas the shops seemed well supplied; we drove through one remote hilltop village with a shop selling flat-screen TVs,
I was surprised to see so much agriculture. Possibly as much as the western half of the country (through to the snow covered mountains of Lebanon), is undulating, irrigated and fantastically green, with a lot of mechanised farming. By contrast, the eastern half was far more of an endless, barren, scrubby wasteland.
I loved the friendliness of the people, the historic architecture of the cities, the character and bustle of the souqs,
and of course the food. Birgit majored on the archaeological sites,
On the day of my Birthday, I woke in a modern hotel room on the top floor of Hotel Tetrapylon (pronounced "tetra-peel-on"). Birgit had got up several hours before to go and watch the sunrise over the ancient ruins of Palmyra. There had been sand in the sky for the past three days, and a bottle of wine consumed at sundown the night before, so I opted for a birthday lie-in instead.
Later in the day we took the inter-city coach. The hours passed but the "countryside" seemed the same, dusty plains, distant dusty hills, disappearing into dusty skies. The air-conditioning was full on as was the in-flight video. After an endless recording of a comedy performance parodying Nancy Ajram, the entertainment was switched to Radio Arabesque (102.3 FM). I felt comfortably numb until I was jolted out of my seat by a jingle advertising “every Thursday evening from 10pm listen to DJ Yusuf”. So that’s what my boss does in his free time. After several hours, the monotony was interrupted again when we reached a t-junction. Turn left for Baghdad, right for Damascus. So this must be the axis of evil?
In Damascus that evening we remembered it was my birthday and went out for a nice meal. In fact we'd been eating out the whole week, so just to make it special we went afterwards to a trendy bar called Marmar. They weren't expecting us. In fact they didn't appear to be expecting anyone - or perhaps we were just terribly early.