Both Alicia and I were grateful for the change of scenery that the city of Hama provided. Much larger than we had expected, the city is an important agricultural hub for the country (which apparently exports 5 different fruits and vegetables. To where, we’re not sure). It’s famous for its norias, huge wooden water wheels once used to supply water to local towns.
It was hugely different to Aleppo, with more Western-style conveniences available (like the gigantic Taj Mahal supermarket. We thought people meant it was the ‘Taj Mahal of supermarkets’, not that that was its name. Turns out, people meant both) and overall it felt much more modern.
Hama was the first town we arrived in without a guesthouse booking. From the bus station we took a taxi straight to the Cairo Hotel. There are two main backpacker guesthouses in Hama, the Cairo and the Riad, and the Cairo was the first one that came to mind when the taxi driver asked which hotel we were going to.
In the centre of town, the Cairo arranges daily trips to sights around Hama, and it’s the perfect base for a few days. We had a list of places we wanted to see, and managed to fit four major sites into two days, and on both days we didn’t have a problem filling the car with other travellers to keep the costs down.
Crusading through Syria
We traveled first to the ruined citadel of Musyaf, also known as the castle of the Assasins, and then to Krak des Chevaliers, the ruins of a crusader castle and one of the most famous sites in Syria. It was an interesting contrast – Musyaf was virtually deserted, and we had the place to ourselves. Krak, on the other hand, was overrun with tourists, mostly from Europe and from Lebanon, the border only being 15km away. In fact, from the ramparts of the castle you can actually see the snow-dusted mountains of Lebanon.
Similarly, on our second trip, we visited the ruined city of Apamea and were the only visitors. We wandered along the cardo (main street) between giant colonnades and watched a storm hover over the valley to the east of us. Afterwards, we drove to two of Syria’s several dead cities, including Serjilla, which is billed as the most atmospheric. Although there were quite a few tour groups at Serjilla, the site was large and remote enough so that it felt as if we were the only ones there, exploring the abandoned buildings. It felt a little like tomb-raiding.
Happier times in Hama
Still trying to treat our stomachs kindly, we ate each evening in a roast chicken restaurant, one of about a dozen in and around Hama’s main streets. Often we would notice local women dragging their children away from the window, where they were staring in at us. One group of little boys sent a representative in to giggle ‘Hello!’ to us before running back outside to the awe of his friends.
I think we both became more comfortable in Syria after our time in Hama, and our day trips were often exhilarating and always fascinating. It also introduced us to the Syria of our imaginations – crusader castles, desert, ruined cities and winding mountain roads. Best of all, our full-blown Aleppo Affliction had turned into the occasional quiet rumble.
On my RTW trip during the summer of 2010, I met my friend Alicia in Istanbul and we spent the next 46 days travelling overland through Turkey, Syria and Jordan before I headed to Egypt solo to join up with a quick organised tour through upper Egypt.
Read more about this leg of my trip on my Middle East roundup page.