Having lived in Damascus for a year now, my husband and I have acquired quite a few “favorites” around the city (and country). There are certain restaurants, patisseries, and shops in Damascus and elsewhere that have endeared themselves to us with their friendly workers, pleasant atmosphere, and top-notch products. Here are a few. Our Favorite Crusader Castle
Syria is rich in ruined castles. The most famous one is probably Krak des Chevaliers, located on a beautiful plain between Homs and Tartus, within sight of the mountains of Lebanon. Our favorite, though, is Qala’at Salah ad-Din, just outside of Lattakia. The ruins are not nearly as complete as Krak, but the crumbling stone walls and overgrown interior areas are evocative and romantic in their own way. Its location is also more dramatic: it’s perched on top of an “island” that rises dramatically from the surrounding forest and valley. The castle walls encircle the entire top of the ridge. To get there, you have to take a taxi from the nearby village of Al-Haffa. The road winds down a steep ravine, crosses a small creek, and then winds all the way back up. Despite the elevation climb, there’s more to do: once you reach the parking lot, you still have to walk up a long, steep staircase to reach the entrance. The entrance fee is something like 15 lira for students (probably 150 for non-students). Then, like at all Syrian historical sites, you’re free to explore. No guides, no marked routes, very few signs, and no restrictions. This is a refreshing change from the American stay-behind-the-rope-and-observe-from-afar style of tourism, but it also means that you have to watch your step to make sure you’re not about to fall into an ancient well. The best view to the east is from the top of the keep. You can also look straight down the sides of the castle hill, which is dizzying. On the other side of the ridge, the castle descends into an overgrown area that was once the residential area of the castle. Guide books claim that it is inaccessible, but we proved them wrong on a recent visit. From the lower, western part of the ridge, you can cut through the brush and find a rock outcropping to sit on and enjoy the view. Syrian tourist sites are rarely busy, and Qala’at Salah ad-Din is no exception. Sometimes you’ll run into a school group or two, but they usually make their rounds fairly quickly and then the castle is left to you alone. Even if there are quite a few visitors there when you go, the grounds are big enough that it is still possible to lose yourself in some forgotten corner of the ruins. We’ve been there several times throughout the year; in my opinion, the best time to go is in late February or early March when the flowers are just beginning to bloom, the sun is shining but not hot, and crowds are nonexistent.