It still felt a bit strange walking up to a brand new luxurious car with a Syrian number plate in the heart of Beirut. Just a few moments before I met Mohammed, a tall and very friendly old man, patiently waiting for me in the lobby of my hotel. His smile was captivating. ‘I am your driver for your Syria trip this week’, he introduced himself with while he offered to take my small backpack. At that moment I started to realize… my trip to Syria had just started.
Lucky I wasn’t traveling alone to Syria and two travel friends were joining me on this extraordinary trip. While traveling in Italy in June I ran into Andi (@destinationchaser) and Alexandra (@thewayfaress) and at that time I was planning my Syria trip. The girls were straight away excited about it and we decided to apply for the visa all together. Unfortunately Alexandra’s Syria visa was denied because of her US passport.
Preparation for my Syria trip
Together with a Syrian tour agency which organized the whole trip I set up an itinerary for us. After researching the best things to do in Syria I agreed on a 7 day tour through the country. Unlike other travels I was kind of more organized this time. Well I was going to a country that was at war for almost 7 years and still is in some parts of the country, so it seemed like a good idea. That said I basically trusted the tour company completely for only sending me to places that were 100% safe in their believes.
The level of preparation showed off straight away when I asked Mohammed why we were not driving in the direction of Damascus, as I thought that is were our tour would start. A quick look on the itinerary (I set it up together with the agency) showed me that we would only arrive in Damascus at the end of our Syria trip. LOL! Well apparently I wasn't that well organized... :)
Border crossing Lebanon - Syria
Our first day we would spend the night in Tartus a cit on the Mediterranean coast, popular for beach holidays with Syrians. But it took a little while before we finally got there…
I will talk about Syria visa stuff, etc. in another Syria travel blog, but everything was obviously planned in advanced and we got the visa permission on arrival. Getting stamped out of Lebanon was fairly easy although I took some footage with my GoPro and an officer came to check my camera and made me delete all my videos. It didn’t say anywhere that it was not allowed to take photos so I just gave it a shot… :)
Getting stamped into Syria was definitely a longer process as it involved loads of checks. The first officers we met sat on a table on the side of the road, just drinking tea and smoking cigarets. They made the car stop for a registration, written down on paper in a book. They were super friendly! Language barriers made it difficult to communicate but our smiles made us get a photo with the extremely friendly man.
Normally someone from the army or the police doesn't allow you to take any photos with them, so we were lucky our driver said. It is all about attitude I guess. Be nice to people than people are nice to you...
After this we had to go to the arrival office to drop our passports. It was our first meeting with the leader of Syria, Mr. Assad. Well, only in picture of course. His face was everywhere, like it was impossible not to look at it. Outside of the building there were huge portraits, but inside there were may be like 20 photos of him on the wall, not a single other person. It was a bit awkward to see, but that is also Syria. Not sure if it is a good sign to see so many photos of one person on the wall though...
As a tourist traveling to Syria I knew what I signed up for, either agreeing with the regime or not. Discussing politics wasn’t my reason to travel to Syria, I was here to see the best places to visit in Syria and also to experience it just after the war. Getting stories from people, learning about their culture and see with my own eyes what was going on in a country that is portrayed so bad in the media at the moment.
The visa process took pretty long although everything was arranged in advanced. Still it took almost 1,5 hours before we finally got our passports stamped. There was some confusion about the price for the visa, which was first $60 for a Dutch passport and $100 for an Austrian passport (Andi), but ended up being $75 per person.
Anyway getting my passport back with an approval to visit Syria for 15 days felt pretty damn cool!
Although we were stamped into Syria that didn’t mean we made it into the country. There were another 5 checkpoints or so, before we finally were on our way: military, customs check, police, etc.
Amrit archeological site
As the border crossing took much longer than expected we quickly picked up our guide in Tartous before and went straight to one of the coolest places to see in Syria: Amrit Archeological site. It was only about 15 minutes drive from the city center of Tartous (it included 3 checkpoints). Obviously I had no clue what was actually on the schedule so when we arrived I had no clue what to think, because our driver parked the car in and between some bushes in for what felt like the middle of nowhere.
There was no parking lot, actually not even a road leading to where we parked apart from a dirt road. ‘This is our first stop and one of the best things to do in Syria’, our guide said. So what are we seeing here I asked him? His answer was legendary: ‘I have no clue as I have not been here in 12 years. I am just as much a tourist as you are'! :)
Note: our guide was very well experienced and worked as a guide full time since 1984. About 12 years ago it became military terrain and then the war broke out. He never visited Amrit archeological site since…
A short walk through the bushes brought us to one of the best preserved temples of the Phoenician civilisation dating back almost 4,000 years ago. Yes Syria is full of history as this area is where they found some of the oldest settlements on earth, so expect more of this in the next Syria travel blogs.
What about a stadium that was built long before the Greek Olympic stadiums? No jokes this is where the Greeks got their inspiration from. I sat on the stands of one of the first stadium in the world and it was 230 meters long and 35 meters wide. It was used for horse races, etc.
In the distance we saw some tombs where the royals were buried back in the days, which we visited later. The tombs are still very well preserved, especially looking at the fact that just a hundred meters away or so I saw two tanks.
There was so much history to see and basically just for the grab. There is no fence around it, no entrance fee or something like that. Still there was NO ONE! It felt so strange, no tourists at all! One of the best things to do in Syria and no one around, not even a single person.
Something in me first didn’t really get it. I mean if it would be that special there would be more people, right? Not even local tourists. But how could I think that about something that was constructed 4,000 years ago and was still standing?
I guess I was just really confused and didn't really appreciate it at the moment I was there. Writing this and looking things up online about the Phoenician archeological site in Tartous, Syria makes me realize how special this Syria tourist attraction actually is.
Our guide was visibly moved by visiting Amrit archeological site after 12 years and that made me realize once more it definitely is a must see in Syria!
Tartous by night
It was already sunset by the time we checked into the hotel. The super friendly staff stopped smoking their cigarets to check us in. Yep that is right, when you travel to Syria expect almost everyone to smoke inside or outside. Although I know they just survived a war, It is pretty damn disgusting.
Funny enough we got one of the best rooms in the hotel, not sure how many other people checked in, but this hotel surely had over 150 rooms or so as it was a pretty big building and 12 floors high. The views from the balcony were absolutely sublime!
I bet they must have loved seeing foreign tourists and therefore we got a balcony with this view. To make the most of the sunset we decided to quickly walk to the marina as well and get some photos of the fishermen at sunset.
We completely forgot about the fact that we were actually in Syria. It didn’t cross my mind at all to be honest. Andi and I both walked out of the hotel feeling completely fine and safe with our big cameras in our hand. It could have been any other city on the Mediterranean Sea apart from the people only speaking Arabic and a mosque on the beach.
I think our big cameras caught the attention though and a couple minutes after we took photos out on the rocks some army guys suddenly stood next to us and directed us to follow them.
What happened? What did we do wrong? Of course they didn’t speak a word of English. Some of the fishermen came to help and from the 10 words English one of them spoke I think I picked up that the ships in the background were from Russia and that we looked suspicious. One of the army guys was very strict and demanded passports, which we did not have on us...
The fact that the second army guy was just smiling big time like he wanted to ask for a selfie, kind of put me at ease. Although I suddenly realized I was in Syria and this country still is at war. After the strict army guy took photos of our passport photos on our phone and went through the photos on our camera he suddenly was extremely friendly and said: ‘Welcome to Syria’, with a big smile!
End good all good. We went to a nearby bar and I ordered my first Syrian beer! We survived our first day in Syria… :)
If you interested in a trip to Syria and want to know more about it, please leave me a comment or hit me up on Instagram @traveltomtom. There you can also find the videos of my trip in the highlights and ask me anything you want to know about traveling to Syria.
On day 2 of my trip we visited Krak des Chevalier, a majestic medieval castle. Click on this link to read my Syria travel blog about that adventure.
Thanks for keeping up with the adventures of Traveltomtom.