Destination: Hama, Syria
Number of Days Spent: 2 days
Where we stayed: Hotel Cairo - 900 Syrian Pounds ($20 and it felt like a palace after our place in Aleppo)
Best restaurant: The chicken joint, Broasted Fawaz, offered a great takeaway deal - half a chicken with pita & french fries for about $5 w/ drinks and enough for two. The falafel place down the street from the hotel (sorry, the name was only in Arabic) had terrific falafel sandwiches with creamy & delicious hummous for about $.25! They were liberal with samples too, we stopped by to watch them making the falafel sandwiches and they quickly handed us one of the tasty morsels dipped in hummous to try! We were hooked immediately and ate there for dinner and the following morning for breakfast. There is nothing we like better than cheap & delicious food!
Best of: The people in Hama were extraordinarily friendly, even for Syria (probably the friendliest country in the Middle East in our opinion, at least of the ones we visited). We were stopped constantly and invited to tea, dinner, shisha, etc.
Worst of: There was no water in the water wheels and they seem to use the park as a trash dump. We finished our chicken and were heading towards the trash and they tried telling us just to throw it into what was left of the river! No way!
Most Memorable: "My friends, my friends!" exclaimed by our new found Iraqi friend; practicing the few words he knew in English.
Useful Tip: Don't take the tour to Krak through the hotel. They try to tell you that it's more expensive by public transport but we paid less than half the price of the tour. The only tricky part is in Homs. When arriving by bus, the minibus station is outside the main station and to the right about 200 meters. Just ignore the taxi guys trying to say there are no buses until late at night. With that being said, if you love crusader castles, the tour includes another castle along the way, still no guide though.
Sitting halfway between Aleppo and Damascus, Hama provides a great jumping off point for Krak de Chevaliers, arguably the best preserved crusader castle in the world, as well as a pleasant enough small town in itself. Hama was also home to one of the former King's (current King's father) most heinous acts. A revolutionary group, the Muslim Brotherhood, a radical religious group wanting to bring the country closer to Islamic laws, took over the town in the early 80's and claimed it "free from the tyranny of the King." After several warnings to vacate the city went unheeded the King ordered the city to be shelled into obliteration. Over 20,000 people lost their lives and a good portion of the city was damaged or destroyed. The extreme countermeasure did have the desired outcome for the King as the Brotherhood was devastated and there have been no more major uprisings since.
The town's one "sight" are the wooden Norias (or water wheels) that dot the river that runs through the middle of town. On the day we visited the water wheels were not turning, partly due to time of year and partly to poor management of water resources. After picking up half a chicken and some fries, we walked down to the "water's" edge and sat on the ledge watching the world go by. A couple of men have set up shop selling water pipes, another has tea and hot chocolate brewing away, while a couple of kids sell camel rides for 25 cents to the trickle of tourists that venture here. Since most of the tourists are of Arabic speaking countries, we were somewhat of an oddity, particularly with our picnic as opposed to eating in one of the restaurants. Not having much business to speak of, the kids with the camel talked to us for a while and even had the man with the hot chocolate give us a cup on the house. Placing their right hands over their hearts they informed us that friends don't pay. We certainly got to practice our "Salaam Alaykum", which literally means "Peace be upon you" but is used as "hello" or a general greeting in Arabic.
After avoiding the "urge" to chuck our trash in the river (see above), we came across a couple of Iraqis out for a stroll. Having nothing better to do, we accepted the man's offer to share a water pipe. What began as an innocent trip to smoke a pipe for a few minutes, ended up being far more complicated. First he bought us ice cream, "My friend! Yes. Beautiful? (referring to the ice cream)". Next we proceeded to the shopping mall. We get the impression that a large majority of the world thinks that all Americans eat fast food and shop in malls all the time as this is the place we always seem to be referred to. Despite telling him we were stuffed from the chicken, he ordered us each a plate of, well, food court in the mall food, not particularly good but we tried not to be too insulting and had a few fries. "My friend! Not beautiful? (again, referring to food)", our Iraqi host inquired looking at us curiously. Finally after they had finished eating, he ordered a water pipe, showed us how to properly share it, and sat awkwardly for another 15 minutes sharing the pipe before it was apparently time to go. After nearly three hours of "My friend!", being called James ("yes, yes, my friend James...Chicago"), and lots of strange silent moments, he turned to us once more and said, "Whiskey?". Fearing this path had just become a lot more slippery, we cut it short, perhaps offending a bit, but opted out of the drinking session and headed back to our hotel.
The next morning, we headed out to check out Krak de Chevaliers. Sitting majestically upon a hill, the castle served an important watchtower to the valley below during Crusader times (1099CE - till around 1250CE). Since the castle sits in a relatively out of the way spot, far away from major cities, the castle has remained intact over the years and gives you a good idea of the scope and scale the crusaders built in such little time. The gothic archways and rooms have survived surprisingly well over the years. Climbing to the top of the castle provides majestic views over the surrounding countryside. One side of the castle resembled the castle at the top of the hill in Lord of the Rings so we all took turns pretending to run off the edge.
With little else that really appealed to us and, perhaps a little apprehension about running into the Iraqi again, we decided to head out to Palmyra the next day.