Hama is a town about 2.5 hours due north of Damascus, 3.5 hours northwest of Palmyra. The Lonely Planet guide for Syria raves about it and says that it is a great place to base yourself for a few days to relax. Hama's claim to fame is it's waterwheels or noria's as they are known in Arabic. The Orontes River which runs through Hama has giant waterwheels along it that are supposed to be quite pretty. Well if I was disappointed with anything on my trip it was Hama. I did not find it too be a pretty city in the least and the waterwheels were thoroughly disappointing. They were big, old and very rickety, almost rotting. The river had almost no flow and what was flowing smelled more like it had come out of toilet than out of the mountains. My plan was too spend two or three days in Hama but I ended up only spending a day and a half there instead.
The one full day I was in Hama I took a trip to Krak de Chevaliers which turned out to be one of the highlights of my trip. The hotel organized a car to take me to the castle which was about 90 mins away. I ended up sharing the car with a Dutch couple that was going through Syria and Lebanon.
Our car was awesome. It was a 1961 Diesel Mercedes that was in great shape. It cost us $7 US each for the taxi ride which was a great deal. The reason transportation everywhere was so cheap I figured was because gas was only about $0.02 US/Litre (~$0.18/gal).
It was nice to have someone who spoke English to hang out with for the day and Cefas and Murel were very nice. They had just come from Beirut so with that being my next destination it was nice to talk to them about it.
The castle was built by the crusaders (and their slaves) about 800 years ago and was absolutely amazing. They could garrison up to 2000 troops inside the castle and store enough food to last through a five year siege. The size of the place was hard to fathom but what wasn't hard to understand was how hard it would be to attack. At the top of a huge mountain you could see 10's of miles in all directions. Also, the castle defenses were superb. If somehow you made it past the outer wall there was a moat and an inner wall that was just as tough to get by
Needless to say whoever controlled the castle controlled the whole area and the Crusaders had it for almost 200 years before abandoning the whole region and retreating back to Europe..
We spent a good half day exploring all over the castle and enjoying the views before heading back to the hotel. Cefas and Murel were heading up to Aleppo so I bid them farewell and went for a wander around Hama. While staring at the motionless waterwheels trying to figure out what the awful smell in the river was a young man came up to me and asked if he could talk to me. Mahmood was a pharmacy student in Hama and wanted to practice his english. We ended up talking for about an hour about life in Syria and life in Canada/US. He was quite excited as he was going to be getting Internet access in about a month for his schooling.
On my way back into the hotel I started chatting with an American man who was just checking in. Michael was retired and was from Minnesota. He had been travelling for about 6 weeks so far through Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Kyrgyzstan and Lebanon and had just arrived in Syria. We ended up having dinner together (my first real meal in about 36 hours since I had gotten sick) at the hotel and had a good chat about travelling and the world political situation. Michael was going to be travelling through Syria then on through Turkey, Greece, Eastern Europe and ending up in Malta. He still had another 2 months or so before he would head home. He had actually been in Tblisi, Georgia when the Sept 11 attacks happened and over the consternations and protests of his family who wanted him to come home decided to continue his trip. He said that all of the countries he had been to so far were wonderful and the people had been great to him. Like me and the Dutch couple I had met earlier he had not encountered any harassment for being a "Westerner".
After dinner we met a French-Canadian man checking into the hotel who was motorbiking from France, through Europe, Turkey and down to Jordan and then back again. We chatted with him for about an hour over a beer about his trip. Compared to these two my trip was starting to seem pretty tame. I wished them both luck and headed off to bed but not before arranging a ride through the hotel, to Beirut the next day.