My mixed-bag month in the Middle East

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Jan 17th, 2010, 11:45 AM
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My mixed-bag month in the Middle East

Last fall I spent two months traveling, split about equally between the Caucasus - Georgia and Armenia - and the Middle East - Syria, Lebanon and Jordan. I've been posting trip reports here since 2007, but there's so little apparent interest in the Caucasus that instead I just posted a link to my blog - mytimetotravel.wordpress.com . Since there seems to be a bit more interest in the Middle East, or at least in Jordan, I'm going to go ahead and do a trip report for that part. The photos (Jordan isn't up yet) are at http://tinyurl.com/yewfsk4 .

October 11, 2009: "You need a paper ticket", "Ouch!", "$700 a night"

I prefer to travel overland, but Armenia to Syria would take too long, and there's a twice-weekly (Sundays and Mondays) flight from Yerevan to Aleppo. It's a code-share, and I bought an e-ticket on Armavia since Syrian Air wanted me to get a paper ticket, which seemed problematic in the US. But once I got to the airport and tried to check-in, I found out that Syrian Air wanted a paper ticket regardless - they didn't have an arrangement to take Armavia's e-ticket, even though the flight was a code-share! Still, shouldn't be a problem, you would think. There's an Armavia office in the airport, and how long can it take to issue a paper ticket?

Between a lot of waiting and a lot of phone calls, it took a full 40 minutes. Fortunately, I believe in getting to the airport early, because I had the 40 minutes. By the time I checked-in, was cleared by two passport control officers and went through security, it was time to board. Or at least start to board - all the checked bags were gathered on the tarmac by the plane, and we had to identify our bags before they were actually loaded.

I had a little trouble actually entering Syria - not with the passport control official, but with finding him - all the signs directed me to the duty-free shop. Then I couldn't find a working ATM, and had to change cash. Finally, the hotel driver I expected to meet me was nowhere to be seen. The woman in the Tourist Information office, though, was a gem, and called the hotel for me. When I eventually arrived at the hotel, my day did not improve. I had had trouble getting hotel reservations in Syria, and had picked the Dar Halabia (http://www.dar-halabia.com ) for Aleppo, partly because they were associated with a travel agency which could book me a room in Hama. Nice pictures on their website, but my room looked nothing like them. Small. No AC. Windows opening onto the main staircase. Nowhere to put anything. When I complained, I was told I could move the next day.

Since starvation was setting in, I left to find lunch (unmemorable) and visit the Citadel. The citadel impressed me a great deal. I suppose the hill that rises at the eastern end of the medina was originally natural (some ruins there date to the 3rd millennium BCE), but now its smooth slopes rise at a 45 degree angle, sheathed in stone, to a completely walled, flat, top. One of the most formidable castles I’ve seen, although not, it turns out, impregnable.

I had a nice time wandering among the remains of palaces and mosques on top, stopping for coffee at a cafe on the north side while appreciating the view of the town. But I had to get back down, and I was worried that my Birkenstocks wouldn't get a good grip on the slick stone. I was right to worry: part way down my feet slid out from under me and I sat down, hard. While nothing seemed to be broken, I knew my bones were more fragile than they used to be, and had doubts about my vertebrae. Indeed, it was several weeks before pain in my spine totally subsided – but there didn’t seem much point in seeking medical help.

After dinner I took a closer look at my room at the Dar Halabia. Although the website promised AC, my room had no AC, and no fan, and even if I left the windows open, no cross draft. The shower head was so dirty I wouldn’t use it to wash my feet, never mind my body, and the room itself was grimy. I really couldn’t face spending the night.

I quickly repacked, checked Lonely Planet for an alternative hotel, and walked out into the deserted medina. Once beyond the medina walls I picked up a taxi, but the driver didn’t recognize the address, and I wasn’t familiar enough with the town, or its one way system, to navigate us there. Eventually I told the driver to take me to the Sheraton, which we had already passed at least twice.

I carried my backpack through the Sheraton’s gleaming lobby, finally finding the reception desk discretely tucked away in a corner. Did they have a room for the night? Well, yes, they did have one. A suite. For $700 a night. Did I want it? Well, no. I was willing, I said, to throw money at my problem, but not that much money. The woman behind the desk helpfully suggested that I try the Riga Palace (www.rigapalace.com/home.html ) instead. The Riga wasn’t in my guidebook, but after asking for directions a couple of times I found it: a new-looking four star hotel with a somewhat less formidable marble lobby, and a room for “only” $130/night, and for only one night. I took it – I would go hotel-hunting the next morning, in daylight.
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Jan 17th, 2010, 02:32 PM
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Great start. I'd much rather read posts here than be directed to other sites. Looking forward to more.
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Jan 17th, 2010, 02:37 PM
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What interesting trips you take, thursdaysd! I so admire your spunk. Thanks for writing.
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Jan 17th, 2010, 06:59 PM
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You ARE brave!! I am going to this area in May...only tucked inside a nice safe tour!!!! Huzzahs to you! I look forward to more of your report! Thanks!
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Jan 17th, 2010, 07:18 PM
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Great start, thursdaysd! My husband and I are planning a trip to Jordan in November for 10 days, so eagerly awaiting the details of the Jordan portion of your trip.
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Jan 18th, 2010, 04:18 AM
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Thanks - it's always nice to know people are reading. Leanna - although I did Syria and Lebanon on my own, I did use a tour group for much of Jordan - I was just having too much trouble trying to get hotel reservations, and a night in the desert was ridiculously expensive for one person.

October 12-13 - Medina, Mosque, Mouhamara

It is no doubt true, as a security official at Istanbul airport said to me, that very few Americans go to Syria, but the Europeans more than make up for it. I had carelessly chosen to visit at the height of the tourist season, and the country was full of tour groups. As a result, although I tried over a dozen hotels (all the ones downtown), I found only three available rooms, one of which was a triple. While it was well over my usual budget, even after the manager came down on the price, I took the most expensive, at the Mirage Palace, partly because the other room depressed me (not as bad as the Dar Halabia room, and cheaper, but dark and tired) and partly because it was high enough to have a killer view of the Citadel.

After a not-very-informative visit to the T.I., I bought a SIM for my cell phone (which turned out to only work in Aleppo) and ate lunch at a Lonely Planet's recommendation, Al Andalib. If I had known before I ordered that the local cats walked around on the tables I would have gone elsewhere, but I ate without ill effects.

I spent the afternoon, after finally tracking down an ATM that would accept one of my cards (in the Sheraton’s upmarket shopping arcade), wandering through the medina and visiting the big Umayyad Mosque. I had to wear a hooded robe in the mosque, and then women were chased out of the prayer hall, so I have to say that I preferred the medina, with its stone floor and arched brick ceiling. I was particularly taken with the over-the-top wedding gowns and underwear - women who must appear in public in sober black clearly make up for it in private. I also took a look at the Al-Jdeida quarter, originally home to Christian refugees (the Armenian genocide in Turkey pushed many of the survivors into Syria), but found it rather full of tourists.

The Mirage Palace had an undistinguished cafe on the ground floor, a breakfast room on the second, and a serious restaurant on the top floor with 360-degree views over the city. I ate there two nights running, checking out the view to the west as my room looked east. I also enjoyed the food, especially the mouhamara appetizer – a delicious blend of walnuts, pomegranate molasses, toasted breadcrumbs, olive oil and roasted peppers (www.paula-wolfert.com/recipes/mouhamara.html ).

Although Syria is 90% Muslim today, once it was part of the Roman and then Byzantine Empires, and therefore Christian. And St. Paul’s famous revelation occurred on the road to Damascus, where he expected to find Christians. Perhaps the most famous sight near Aleppo is Qala’at Samaan, the formidable ruins of the basilica that grew up around St. Simeon’s pillar, the Christian "hermit" St. Simeon having spent 40 years living on top of the pillar. While I have little respect for someone who indulges in such theatrics, I did want to see the church and the countryside, and arranged for a car and driver for a day’s exploration.

I have to say that St. Simeon’s church came as a big surprise, clearly a lot of people thought more highly of him than I did. Although missing its roof and some of its walls, the building still impressed me with both its size and design – arches everywhere. Lonely Planet says that when the church was finished, in 491 C.E., it was the largest church in the Christian world. The pillar hadn’t fared as well as the building, though, and just a boulder remained. When we left for lunch I counted eight big tour buses parked outside, but I got lucky, and had the place pretty much to myself.

We visited a couple of other churches during the day, including Qalb Lozeh, but they couldn’t come close to comparing with St. Simeon's. I also visited Ain Dara, where basalt statues have been recovered from a Hittite temple where Ishtar was worshiped three thousand years ago.

I enjoyed the day’s drive, although, aside from pomegranates in the Kurdish area near the Turkish border, it looked to me that Syria mostly grew rocks. And kids. Large families – 8, 10, 11 children – were the rule. Given the existing shortage of jobs and water, I can’t imagine what will happen there in 10 or 20 years time. Tourism may help - my driver said business had been good the last five years.

On the way back to the hotel we stopped at the railway station and my driver helped me buy a ticket for the train to Hama. Although we bought a ticket at one window, we then needed to show the ticket plus my passport at a second window, and my passport, for once, was in a hotel safe. The copy I carried wasn’t enough. I’d have to sort that out the next morning.
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Jan 18th, 2010, 05:47 AM
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Thank you so much for posting this and for posting the link to your blog - which is a treat. I am going to Lebanon over easter this year and so will be reading those parts carefully
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Jan 18th, 2010, 12:26 PM
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October 14, 2009 - Harassed in Hama

Back at the station in the morning, my passport details were laboriously written down in Arabic. Now duly ticketed, I found a place to sit under the chandeliers in the main hall, and chatted with a young, fully-veiled woman with a two-month old baby. She had been visiting her family in Aleppo and was traveling to rejoin her husband in Damascus. Although she held a masters degree she had been unable to find a job. On the train I had a single seat on the shady side, in the first-class section. Free (Arabic) newspapers and cartons of juice were handed out, and although music played, it wasn’t too loud. The countryside between Aleppo and Hama was very flat, and stony, except where irrigation created patches of green.

I shared one of the two taxis meeting the train in Hama with a Swiss couple toting big backpacks who were just stopping briefly on the way to Palmyra. Once in town I had a little difficulty finding my hotel, the Noria (www.noria-hotel.com ). Once I spotted the right hotel sign, an elevator took me up to the fourth floor reception desk. The staff were friendly, and my room had a big bed, but no daylight, sheets that were too small for the mattress, and insufficient power to charge my Nokia n800.

Finding the new town a bit noisy and grimy, I walked through the old town to visit the Azem Palace. I would later visit another Azem Palace in Damascus, built by the same governor, Assad Pasha Al Azem, after his promotion. The Hama palace, while smaller, had a second story with a second courtyard to catch any available breeze. Both the courtyards and the interior rooms were elaborately decorated, with red, white and black banding on the exterior walls.

I had trouble finding somewhere to eat, as three places had closed and the T.I. claimed to have no-one who spoke English. I finally lunched at Al Atlal, on the river, on kebabs, fries and salad. Hama is known for its “norias”, huge wooden water wheels. Afterwards I followed the river towards the “Four Norias of Bechriyyat”, but restaurants blocked access all the way. I finally walked through an apparently closed restaurant to the river bank, but at a busier time this wouldn’t have been possible.

I had been thinking that after a month on the road I could use a Turkish bath, and when my hotel was unable to find the hamam’s phone number I set off to check on the “women’s hours” in person. I found the hamam deserted, and walked on into the old town down an almost empty street. Just one young, overweight boy, perhaps 11 or 12, walking towards me. Nothing to worry about, you would think, but, as I passed him, he suddenly reached for me! He seemed to be aiming for my breasts, but I struck his arm aside and as I yelled at him he ran away.

I could hardly believe what had happened. While I don’t look my age, especially in countries where women age fast, I certainly don’t look young, and although I wasn’t wearing a headscarf, I was modestly dressed and had not made eye contact. But I unquestionably looked western. Once I recovered from the shock, I started to to wonder about the education and upbringing that could produce such behavior.
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Jan 18th, 2010, 02:44 PM
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Wow, never saw that coming...
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Jan 18th, 2010, 03:59 PM
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Me either!
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Jan 18th, 2010, 06:55 PM
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Wow!!! I am an older type matron.....and in Egypt I had a bit of a problem in a shop and it really set me back. It has been a lot of years and at first I wasn't sure I wasn't just imagining it....but I wasn't. I quickly got the heck out of there....but I sure felt uncomfortable. But this was a real out and out.....horror!!!!

The rumor is they are taught that Western women are free and easy.....and I also wonder if this is indeed taught. Their women are so covered that there is nothing to look at so we must be quite a sight to them. I remember watching a Britany Spears video on Tv while I was in Egypt and suddenly seeing it thru their eyes and it was rather erotic. So what can they think?

It is true that under the coverings most women use eye make up and dress beautifully......and w/ great glamour!

I just hope some day all this "DIFFERENCE" will be learned and respected from both sides!!! Too idealistic I think huh?

Anyway...keep going this is great stuff and I am really enjoying it. Thank you!!!
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Jan 19th, 2010, 06:20 AM
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October 15 -17, 2009: Romans, Crusaders, P.D. James

The next day I set off with another car and driver to visit Apamea and Krak des Chevaliers. We started early enough that we arrived at Apamea well before any tour groups, and aside from a couple of other people, I had the whole 2km length of the main street, and its flanking columns, to myself. Once a city of 500,000, visited by Anthony and Cleopatra, it was largely flattened by an earthquake in 1157 C.E.

I thought that nothing could better illustrate the power and reach of the Roman Empire, not to mention the importance it attached to the province of Syria, than Apamea. I have visited a number of imperial outposts, but this was easily the largest so far. In addition to sheer size, the elegance of the reconstructed columns suggested more than normal care in construction. I never pass up an opportunity to look at mosaics, and the museum just outside the site had some lovely ones, especially some of hunting animals. Unfortunately, they were in dire need of cleaning and proper display.

So far Syrian scenery had mostly featured flat, stony plains, but driving south via Musyaf to the Crusader castle of Krak des Chevaliers, the countryside became both more mountainous, and greener. In addition, I was surprised to see unveiled women in some of the villages. My driver told me that they were Ismailis. When I remarked that wearing black burkhas, as many of the Sunni women did, must be very hot in the Syrian climate, he claimed that only one month would be really uncomfortable. I was sorely tempted to tell him to try it himself!

Our relationship deteriorated further when we reached Krak. I wanted to eat lunch in one of the restaurants listed in Lonely Planet as having views of the castle. He said that he didn’t know where they were and stopped instead at the Restaurant des Chevaliers right in front of the main gate. I should have made him keep looking, but I was hungry and instead I ate without views and with a large tour group.

T. E. Lawrence wrote of Krak that it was “the finest castle in the world”, and it was never taken by force. While the moat would look better with some clean water, the walls were still formidable and much of the inner fortress still intact. After visiting the castle I insisted on trying to find the Restaurant al-Qalaa, for coffee, and again my driver claimed not to know where it was. It turned out to be just across a valley from the castle, and seeing the castle as a whole, its stone walls rising above the steep, bare slopes of a hill, I finally appreciated Lawrence's assessment.

It was now obvious that my driver had a good relationship with the Restaurant des Chevaliers, leaving with a bottle tucked under his arm and a big smile on his face, and a bad relationship with the al-Qalaa, where he didn’t even go inside. I did not tip him, and later the Noria's manager said that the driver had been told not to take tourists to the Restaurant des Chevaliers. They tended to get sick...

I hardly ever get sick traveling. Foot problems, yes. The occasional cold, sure. But intestinal problems, no. So I was very annoyed when the manager proved prophetic and I did get sick. Sufficiently sick that I decided I couldn't face the side trip to Palmyra (an even larger, pink, version of Apamea), which would take at least three hours on two buses, plus another two hours on a bus the next day to Damascus. The Noria moved me to a nicer room, arranged for a train ticket to Damascus the next day, and delivered chicken noodle soup to my room for lunch. (Thank you, Noria!) I spent the whole of the day in bed, napping and listening to P. D. James' "Devices and Desires" on my n800.

I still felt fragile the morning of the 17th, and took a prophylactic Immodium along with an antibiotic (I don't expect to get sick, but I travel with antibiotics just in case) before taking a taxi to the station. I had the same seat on the same train as before. Now, I had been really careful on the streets in Aleppo and Hama, even when wearing sunglasses, to avoid eye contact with men. But I relaxed my guard on the train, and on my way to the bathroom I made fleeting eye contact with a youngish man seated behind me. A non-event, you would think, but five minutes after I returned to my seat he was standing beside me, trying to start a conversation! I froze him off, but was a little concerned, as I boarded a taxi outside Damascus station, to see him watching me. Creepy!
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Jan 19th, 2010, 06:47 AM
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Very interesting report. Agree that you don't fully appreciate the power and extent of the Roman Empire until you visit some of the outposts, and hope to do that in Syria some day soon.
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Jan 19th, 2010, 01:21 PM
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October 17-18, 2009: - To Beirut via Damasus, culture shock

Outside Damascus’ Khaddam train station, I rejected one taxi driver, who insisted on charging 300 SP for a 5km ride, and took the second, who settled for 100. He had some difficulty getting to my hotel, nestled in a web of short one-way streets near a busy flyover. When the directions had mentioned Victoria Bridge, I had not envisaged multi-lane roads below as well as above the span. Still, the City Hotel (aka Al-Madinah) was walking distance from both the Old City and the National Museum and had helpful staff who gave me a big room with a street view.

Despite Immodium and antibiotics, my digestive system still felt fragile, but I set off to explore regardless. A toasted cheese sandwich at the hole-in-the-wall Al-Santir, close to the hotel, went down successfully, so I carried on to explore the souk and the mosque. The souk felt almost formal: I strolled down a wide main street, with two story buildings supporting a metal roof, with few vendors calling out to me.

The biggest surprise, though, was in the open space in front of the Umayyad Mosque, where stalls selling Qur’ans were nonchalantly tucked under soaring Roman arches. I stopped off for a delicious mint lemonade at Leila’s, before donning the required hooded cloak (beige, to distinguish infidels from black-clad believers) and entering the mosque. Although similar to Aleppo’s Umayyad Mosque, Damascus’ was much more elaborate, and I had a lovely time admiring the detailed 8th century gold mosaics.

For dinner I walked a short distance north to Al-Kamal, noting that Sharia Bur Said was much livelier and better lit than Sharia an-Nasr, which I taken back from the Old City. I dined carefully on lentil soup and a rice and meat dish washed down with a yoghurt drink. I felt rather better the next morning but was surprised to find a head-high partition in the dining room separating the western tourists from a big Iranian group, with all the women swathed in black.

The hotel arranged a taxi to take me to the Al-Samariyeh bus terminal for 150 SP. The buses and shared taxis to Beirut left from the far rear corner, where I had to put my luggage through a security check. Although it's only 30 minutes to the Lebanese border, and another 30 minutes on to Beirut, it took us a full 90 minutes leaving Syria, and another 30 minutes getting into Lebanon. I had to buy an exit/entrance pass to get out of Syria, as well as a visa to get into Lebanon. I crossed more than a man-made border when I changed countries. The countryside became quite mountainous, and greener, as we headed towards the Mediterranean coast.

I expected the bus to terminate at the Charles Helou bus station in central Beirut, but for some reason most of the passengers were kicked out somewhere in the southeast. Fortunately, an equally surprised Japanese tourist shared a taxi into town with me. I had a reservation at the Casa d’Or (http://www.casadorhotel.com ) in the Hamra district, just south of the American University. I was surprised but pleased to be given a huge room, with couch, desk, and kitchenette, although no view.

Walking down Rue Hamra in search of lunch I started to feel culture shock set in. Instead of women draped in black, or at least fully covered from head to toe, I saw young women in short skirts and tank tops smoking the remarkably popular nargileh! I also saw the first western chains of the whole trip, with Starbucks, Costa, Subway and even McDonalds much in evidence. I ate one meal at Nandos, a South African chain I haven’t seen in the U.S., that sells delicious Portuguese style piri-piri chicken. But for my first, late, lunch I chose Laziz, which advertised "authentic Lebanese food" and served me chicken livers in a tangy sauce and perfectly cooked diced, fried potatoes.
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Jan 19th, 2010, 05:27 PM
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Looking forward to more...
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Jan 19th, 2010, 08:53 PM
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This is just fascinating. And I still think you are very brave!
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Jan 20th, 2010, 04:17 AM
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Excellent trip report - very well written.
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Jan 20th, 2010, 05:48 AM
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Thanks people - glad to know you're still reading.

October 19-22, 2009: - Beiteddine, Bcharre, Baalbek

The U.S. State Department, in its well-known nervous Nellie fashion, advised against ALL travel to Lebanon. The British Foreign Office only recommended staying north of the Litani river. Happily, I decided to follow the British advice. I found beautiful scenery, impressive sights, and a cosmopolitan capital city, plus I felt perfectly safe.

My first afternoon I headed north through Hamra to the Corniche and the coast. My view of the Mediterranean was somewhat obscured by haze, and my access to the water mostly blocked by private cafes. Aside from a few hopeful fishermen on the rocks, the views inland were more interesting, with lots of people strolling the promenade, and new glass and concrete buildings rising just beyond. In fact, on the Corniche you would hardly suspect that Beirut had ever been a war zone.

Next day I visited the American University, whose shining clean, honey-colored buildings were in stark contrast to much of the dirty grey stonework I had seen elsewhere on this trip. The site hovered just above the Corniche, with views out to sea. The university’s museum also impressed me, and I spent quite a long time with the well-lighted and well-labeled collections of Stone, Bronze and Iron age artifacts. The rest of the day I enjoyed my comfortable hotel room (with wi-fi) and caught on chores.

Rather than moving around, I had decided that Lebanon was small enough that I would stay put in Beirut and take day trips. I went with my hotel’s recommendation of Nakhal (http://www.nakhal.com.lb ), although this meant that I spent longer than I would have chosen being driven to and from their offices way over near the National Museum. Especially on the way back – in late afternoon Hamra became one big, mostly unmoving, traffic jam.

The first trip featured Beiteddine Palace, an early 19th century complex built for the Emir Bashir, which I chose because of the promise of a “magnificent collection of mosaics”. So, while both the interior and exterior decoration (carefully restored after destruction by the Israelis in the 1980s) impressed me, and I found the tour interesting, I was not pleased when our guide announced that we would have only 15 minutes to visit the mosaics. I was able to negotiate an extension, but still felt rushed. I would have chosen to spend longer admiring the beautifully maintained Byzantine mosaics and less time on lunch, although I have to say that Nakhal fed us well, with a full spread of meze and barbecue. I could also have done without the after-lunch visit to the Marie Baz Wax Museum in the Palace of Fakhreddine in Deir Al-Qamar.

The next day I went north in search of Lebanese cedars, now clinging to life in only two locations. Even Lonely Planet recommended driving yourself or taking a taxi to reach the Chouf Cedar Reserve, and getting to The Cedars involved a bus to Tripoli, a shared taxi to Bcharre and a private taxi to the reserve. Driving north out of Beirut we passed a lengthy traffic jam of inbound commuters, and a fully built up coastline at least as far as Byblos. I got a glimpse of the castle at Byblos as we went past, but the real interest lay inland, with views of the coastal mountain range.

The scenery only got better as we turned inland, past vertical cliffs, deep gorges and tortured strata lines. But Bcharre was a disappointment: neither the scenery nor the town were particularly attractive. We stopped there to visit the Khalil Gibran museum, which contained a large collection of his art. I have to confess that after a few rooms I began to find the pictures repetitive, and turned my attention to the contents of his bookcases instead. It was only a short drive to The Cedars, where, sadly, the grove was much smaller than I had imagined, and the guide told us that climate change threatened even those trees that were left. Cracks in the hard-packed earth demonstrated the on-going lack of rain. Walking under these ancient giants on a cool, grey, misty day I felt that I was attending a funeral.

After another lengthy lunch we drove on through increasing mist to the Maronite monastery of St.Anthony at Qozhara. Originally a site for hermits, here the church was partially built inside a cave, and another cave nearby was a pilgrimage site, containing a bizarre collection of pots and pans, left by those who had had children after visiting.

My last day trip started with a wine tasting (yes, in Lebanon – Muslims are only around 60% of the population) at the Ksara winery. I found the Chardonnay, not a wine I would normally choose, surprisingly good, although I didn’t care for the rosé and thought the red too dry (and I do like my wines dry).

We left for the day's main attraction, Baalbek, driving north up the Bekaa valley, notoriously a Hezbollah stronghold, on a good divided highway. Hezbollah flags decorated the lampposts in the median, but I couldn’t draw our guide out on the organization. On the other hand, she gave us lots of information, in French and English, on Baalbek. Although known now for the remarkably well-preserved Temple of Bacchus, and the massive columns remaining from the largely-destroyed Temple of Jupiter, originally this was a Phoenician site, with a temple to Baal. (Remember all those unflattering references to Baal in the Bible?) While the site is large, most of the buildings have suffered badly over the years, but what remains standing is indeed worth seeing.

Lunch, in Zahle at the south end of the valley, seemed to take even longer than on the preceding two days, and eventually our guide announced that our coach had a “small problem”. We never got an explanation of the “small problem”, but I had heard a distinct “bang” as we backed into a parking spot before lunch. We took off for our final stop in a different coach, with assurances that the original one would catch up with us. I certainly hoped so, as I had left several items on it that I didn’t want to lose, and viewed the Umayyad ruins in Aanjar with less than complete attention. Dating from the 700s, very early in the ascendancy of Islam, Romano-Hellenistic decorations had been married to an Islamic layout.

I rather wished I had allowed more time for Lebanon, although I was spending somewhat more money than in the other countries on the trip. I slept well, I ate well (although not in any of the gourmet places you might read about in the New York Times), and I very much enjoyed the sights and the scenery. Recommended!
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Jan 20th, 2010, 12:28 PM
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Great! Thanks, thursdaysd.
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Jan 21st, 2010, 06:23 AM
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October 23-26, 2009: - Back to Damascus

I chose to take a shared taxi back to Damascus. Think of it as a very small bus that leaves when full. It cost me only 10,000 Lebanese pounds (about $6.60) more than the bus and I figured the time saved would be more than worth it. Although we wound up stopping for ages for one of the other passengers to buy some elaborate sweets (which you would think he could have bought in Beirut) and to exchange money (ditto) it was faster over all.

Remember it had cost 150 SP for a taxi from the City Hotel to the Al-Samariyeh bus station? Now I needed to go in the other direction, and the taxi driver at the bus station quoted 400 SP and claimed the trip was 20km! He found my refusal to go along with this scam quite amusing, and eventually agreed to take me for 200 SP. But I might as well have ridden the bus - I arrived in Damascus to find almost everywhere shut down for Friday prayers.

I got rather lost wandering around the not-very-prepossessing section of town north of the Old City, before eventually returning to the souk and visiting Damascus’ version of Azem Palace. Like the souq, it was larger and more elaborate than the one in Aleppo, and rather full of visitors – not all of them tourists. In contrast, the National Museum, which I visited the next morning, was packed with foreign tour groups. The museum occupied me for most of the morning – I was especially taken by the Mari statues (3rd century B.C.E.),with their black-rimmed eyes and feathery robes (http://tinyurl.com/yjbqf8m ). Another surprise was a completely reassembled 2nd century C.E. synagogue, the oldest ever discovered, with walls completely covered with paintings.

While the sights in Damascus impressed me, I hadn’t been doing as well with food. I had gone back to Al Kamal, but now that I wasn’t pandering to a weak stomach, I found the food not very good and the service poor. Lunch at Abu El Aziz, with a view of the dome at the Umayyad Mosque tasted better, but I was getting rather tired of kebabs. Then I stopped at Beit Jabri, overfull of both people and clouds of nargileh smoke. While the courtyard of the old building was indeed beautiful, and my pomegranate juice tasted good, the service was dreadful, and, given my dislike of being photographed, I could have done without the busy TV crew that showed up after I had been served.

So, for my second night, I took a taxi to Al Khawali, deep in the souk – it was fun to be driven through the market, not completely shut down even on a Saturday night. But again, the food disappointed, with indifferent vegetable soup, canned rather than fresh mushrooms and so-so green beans. Even worse, I found that I wasn’t very hungry – because for the second time in Syria, I got sick! I’m inclined to blame the pomegranate juice rather than lunch, but either way it seems Syria didn’t agree with me.

Not only was this exceptionally annoying, it meant that I missed out on the Roman ruins at Bosra. Instead of getting up early to catch a south-bound bus, I got up early and headed for the nearest pharmacy. I have to say that the incredibly cheap drug I bought not only worked, but worked faster than the antibiotic I had brought with me. Or, possibly, my immune system did a better job.

For the rest of my time in Syria I played it very safe and ate Western food. I found a branch of the French chain La Brioche Dorée in the quiet, leafy embassy district, and enjoyed lunch there twice: delicious rolls and butter, chicken crepes, tartine, raspberry tart… Then, a perfectly made macchiato in their lovely atrium convinced me to eat dinner at the elegant and expensive Cham Palace, easy walking distance from my hotel, where I ate a good escalope al limone with potatoes and a nice red wine at Carpaccio. But my last meal, at Pattacrepe in the not-quite-finished arcade next to the new Four Seasons was a mistake – the crepe was unmemorable and the service, not to mention my table, poor. Plus they didn’t serve alcohol or take credit cards, which complicated my end-of-country finances.

Besides checking out the embassy district, I followed Lonely Planet's tour of "Old Damascene Houses". I should have paid more attention to the note that many were in "a sad state of disrepair". Visiting the houses that had been converted to cafes and restaurants and carefully restored gave me a better appreciation of how they had looked in their hey-day.

All-in-all I was more than ready to leave Syria and move on to Jordan. I had gotten sick twice. I was harassed in Hama. My hotel in room in Aleppo was so bad I left. A lot of the time I felt like a target. I don’t plan to go back. But I have to say that Syria is definitely worth visiting. The sights are excellent, and the Old City in Damascus is an interesting place to wander. I would recommend going, but, much as I like independent travel, if you’re a solo woman traveler you might consider taking a tour.
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