Dispatch, Syria 3: Saving the best for last

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

I spoke too soon when I called Crac des Chevaliers the highlight of our trip. It turns out they were saving the best for last.

The final stop on the Silk Road Festival was Aleppo, which competes with Damascus for recognition as the oldest continuously inhabited city. It was the meeting point for several key trade routes between Mesopotamia, the Fertile Crescent and Egypt.

It's also home to the Citadel, one of the world's most famous castles. It sits right in the middle of Aleppo, offering panoramic views of the city from all directions as you climb around the perimeter.

After about an hour of exploring, I settled in for my favorite activity: people-watching from the sidewalk cafe across the moat. I sat and waited for the group, smoking shisha and enjoying yet another round of hummus.

Also nearby are a number of souks, where you can buy everything from soap and fresh meat to jewelry and souvenirs.

The Citadel in AleppoWednesday evening the tourism ministry hosted a farewell press conference for the traveling media inside the Citadel, where the minister of tourism, Saadallah Agha al-Qala, discussed the country's growing tourism industry and the challenges the country faces in trying to grow that sector of the economy.

The biggest challenges, he said, are developing more hotels and other infrastructure and training people to work in the service sectors. Indeed, while the population in general is very friendly and welcoming, it became clear during several of our hotel stays that the service culture is in its infancy. And it could use some new hotels. We stayed in the same places my parents stayed when they visited the country in the mid-'80s.

Worn from five days and way too many hours on the bus, some of us decided after the press conference to look for some nightlife in Aleppo nevertheless. Being a fairly conservative, mostly Muslim city, we didn't find much but managed to make our own party at a bar and restaurant not far from the Sheraton where we stayed.

The restaurant and bar had karaoke, but the singing contingent was quickly shut down in favor of a soccer match on TV.

Then it was up early again Friday, and back down to Damascus for one final group dinner and the long flight home. The biggest regret: After all that time on the road, we never made it to the Mediterranean.

My advice for anyone traveling to Syria: Skip Hama and Homs in favor of the seashore.

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