Dispatch, Syria 2: The payoff after long bus rides

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JCSYRIA162x120Travel Weekly's Jeri Clausing is on a press trip to Syria. Her second dispatch follows.

I knew the trip to Syria was going to be interesting. I just wasn’t sure whether it was going to be good interesting or bad interesting.

Seeing a new country is always good. And the fact that Syria is on the State Department’s travel warning list only made it more intriguing to me.

But group trips are always a gamble. And being part of just one of a number of international press delegations invited to the country’s annual Silk Road Festival only underscored how risky group travel can be – particularly for an impatient person like me.

The forced marches and long bus rides between sites and group dinners quickly wore on all of us. The saving grace was pure luck in getting a fun group of people who get along. When the bus driver got lost for the fourth time one day, we grumbled but we laughed.

When the first traveler fell ill, we teased him for eating raw meat in a Third World country. And no one complained when we made a long detour to the hospital to get him a prescription.

Dedeman Hotel PalmyraAs the casualty count increased, we dug through our bags for remedies and scrounged up plastic bags for the bus ride.

Most frustrating was the lack of free time to explore the streets and hotels on my own. We stayed in Dedeman hotels our first two nights. Dedeman is Turkish hotel chain.

The Dedeman in Damascus is a former Le Meridien, though it now more closely resembles an old Sheraton that has missed a few upgrades.

Our second stop in the ancient city of Palmyra was also a Dedeman, not quite as nice as the first. But it wasn’t the lack of luxury that bothered me as much as the inability to see other lodging options in the country.

We walked past several new boutique properties that have opened in historic buildings in Old Damascus, but I didn’t have time to stop in for a peek.

Finally, our third night we got a taste of Syrian boutique at the Safir, a Middle Eastern version of the mid- to upscale boutique properties that are being developed in the shells of older midscale hotels across North America. Though the rooms were small, the hotel had personality – and great service.

Although the bus rides have been grating, they have been offset by the wealth of historical sites.

The tombs, ruins and castles are surprisingly unguarded and untouched when compared with countries with more advanced tourism programs.

Ruins at PalmyraThe only tourists buses lined up were those for the press delegations. Also pleasantly absent were gates and railings, gaudy gift shops and hawkers of souvenirs and refreshments.

At most stops there has been a barely noticeable place to pay a few dollars entry, then nothing else but history -- and if you’re lucky, a restroom.

Our route took us along the old Silk Road, from Damascus to the ruins of the ancient city of Palmyra, to the river cities of Homs and Hama and on to a castle built by the Crusaders in the 11th century.

In Hama, we saw waterwheels built in the 13th century. In Homs, we negotiated winding, narrow streets to a small church where a belt said to have belonged to the Virgin Mary was found buried and is now displayed.

The highlight for me so far has been the Crac des Chevaliers, considered one of the world’s best-preserved Crusader castles.

You can spend hours exploring the expansive castle and towers overlooking the country’s breathtaking Wadi Al Nasara, or Valley of the Christians.

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