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Syria - the Arab Spring (March 2011)

Now here's a funny thing - Syrians love soap operas! Especially during Ramadan when everyone's in abstinence mode. Sitting around the watching rubbish on TV apparently breaks the monotony of worrying about when your next meal is coming along.

But it's not all twaddle. Najdat Anzour is an acclaimed director and uses the medium to attack difficult subjects. In 2007, his "Al-Hur Al-Ayn" (The Beautiful Maidens - which refers to the beautiful virgins with whom martyrs will be rewarded) won critical acclaim and was the most watched program in the Arab world during Ramadan. Its object was to show the brutal effects of extremism and therefore diminish the charm of jihad, being based as it was on an Al Queda bombing in Saudi Arabia that killed mostly Arabs. The guy should be Caliph-ed!

"The best time to visit Syria is March." Not if the Arab States are going up in flames. But here we were, in the port of Tartus, in the supposed Free Zone, far away from the troubles in the the south around Damascus and Deraa where the Arab Spring uprisings were in full flight.

We boarded our nice clean coaches and headed off into the countryside in search of Krak des Chevaliers, variously described as 'the epitome of the dream castle of childhood fantasies' by Paul Theroux (all those jousting images) and 'the finest castle in the world' by El Lawrence. Our guide was a 'Mr Have-a-Chat' and his speech was almost impossible to comprehend, but the scenery was a major distraction anyway - wide lush valleys full of pristine vegetable growing operations - tomatoes, broad beans, oranges, cabbages, radishes, carrots, you name it. In the near distance, there were rolling green hills peppered with wildflowers. Spring starts with white daisies, two weeks later it's yellow daisies and broom, then red poppies, then blue wildflowers complete the cycle (cornflower? iris?). To the south, on a sunny day, the snow covered mountains of the Anti-Lebanon range seemed to merge into the fluffy little clouds on the horizon.

We turned off the main highway and began a steep climb skywards until finally we reached the top of the ridge. There it is. Now that's a castle! The Crusaders chose this spot (known as Homs Gap) because it's the site of the only breach in the Jebel Ansariyya range, and control of this meant control of the flow of goods and people from the sea to the interior.

The first fortress here was built by the Emir of Homs in 1031, but he was brushed aside by the first wave of Crusaders 60 years later on their way to Jerusalem. By the mid C12, the Knights Hospitaller expanded the fortress to its present form, of sufficient scale to house a garrison of 2,000 and their horses. How magnificent it must have been in full operation. Krak is huge - one could spend a day here, but it's sufficient to stroll around the inner and outer walls at leisure and the views are stupendous.

We'd been told not to photograph locals without asking permission, but I was approached by a shy, pretty girl in a hijab who asked 'where you from?' On answering, she said 'you are very welcome'. Then a couple of minutes later she and her school friends rushed up 'would you take a photo of us?' Of course. So I took photos with my camera, then showed them to the girls. They were so excited to see themselves on screen - like so many twittering little birdies. They ran off giggling. English is a compulsory subject in Syrian schools.

We regrouped and headed back down to the valley, across the plain, then back up into the mountains for lunch at the town of Safita. It was mezze again and excellent. After lunch we climbed up to the crusader keep, the only remaining bit of the mighty Castel Blanc. From the top of the keep, Krak could be clearly seen on the far distant ridge. (Line of sight between crusader forts enabled them to transmit messages via smoke signals over vast distances in double-quick time.)

On the way back, our incomprehensible guide gave us some insider information on his country - 'we are Syrians first, Muslim, Christian, it no matter.' To elaborate, he offered 'we are potatoes, we no beetroot'. 'Syria is like the mouse - he know when he fall from the roof, the cat no harm him'. I rest my case. Then he proceeded to tell us jokes. 'Are any Japanese here?' To which one of the bad boys replied 'No, but this coach was built for them'. By the time we got back to port, the whole bus was in uproar, having experienced one of the weirdest comedy routines imaginable.

Next stop, Latakia. We docked early Sunday morning and the folks who'd opted to have the day trip to Aleppo had to be ready to leave at 7:30. It seems customs clearance in Syria can be problematic, and the Aleppo-bound buses were held up for nearly an hour. So we'd figured we'd made the right decision. I'd originally been keen to go, as Aleppo is reputed to have a great souk, operating just as it has for hundreds of years. Then I discovered that the souk visit was discretionary, time-dependent and, to seal the decision, we were going to the wrong souk! 'But Andrea, there's a fantastic shop in the Sheraton, where we're having lunch'. Ridiculous.

Bound for Saladin's citadel, our bus left on time, at 9am. Latakia is known as a relaxed resort town, liberal by Syrian standards - its large Christian and Alewite populations see to that, with a bustling nightlife, restaurant and cafe scene. So it was a bit of a surprise to see that, as soon as we exited the port, there was an armed soldier every fifty paces. As we reached the centre, it became a battalion. As we turned a bend, I followed the attention of the armed ones curb-side. Holy Toledo - the whole side of a (say) four-storey building had been blown out and still smoking! But the militia thinned out quickly and we drove out into the hills, past olive and orange groves.

Twenty miles out of Latakia, we stopped at a restaurant and debussed into three mini buses, then switchbacked down into pine-forested gorges before heading uphill to Saladin's citadel, then turned sharp left into a flat-bottomed, narrow canyon, about 150 m long, with sheer rock walls towering above on both sides.

On one side the rock merges almost seamlessly into the castle walls. In the middle of the road, a stone pinnacle rises to the height of the base of the castle walls, 28m skywards. This castle was built by the Crusaders and named Saone (after Robert of Saone). It took them 80 years to hack down through the isthmus of ridge to create a defensible eyrie for their castle. The rock pinnacle was left to provide support for the drawbridge - it must have been a sight to behold when the 400 mounted knights thundered across the drawbridge.But it was all to no avail, Saladin took the castle in 1188.

It's gorgeous. Set in a thick pine forest, with only birdies disturbing the silence, the golden rock and castle are certain to impress (or daunt). It was a lovely morning's work. I even had the nerve to step out onto the platform above the canyon!

When we got back to the ship in time for lunch, we learned that the Baath Party headquarters (that's the ruling party that's been in power for 30 years or so) had been bombed the previous evening, killing twelve people. So that accounted for the blasted building. We speculated that one of the victims might have been candidate for the burial we'd seen in progress on the way back into town.

The Aleppo group returned at 8:45pm, wide-eyed, their buses having taken a major shortcut via an unfinished highway! Once the travellers had been rushed aboard, the captain had that ship up and away at high speed. We were possibly the last ship out of Latikia before all hell broke loose.

Postscript. Unfortunately, our brief sojourn in Syria didn't include Palmyra, which Isis/Daesh set about destroying in a totally pointless act of vandalism. Nine years of civil war have left this beautiful country and its people in ruins - culturally, socially, economically - it's a 21st century tragedy.

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