Homs to Krak des Chevaliers
Summer was hanging on, the anticipated rains were late and temperatures were hotter than expected. I ' d been making early starts to beat the midday heat, but with only 60km to do today I didn't worry too much about getting away early. sure enough, the first 50 or so km were easy and including the usual stops and distractions I'd reached the turnoff after two hours. I could see the castle, high above me, very close, perhaps a bit too close. sure enough, a battered sign in English 'castle 4 kms' at the next intersection pointed up hill. What a hill it was!
Long before I reached the top I was asking myself the question: Why was I doing this?
The road went up and up and up with only one or two switchbacks, the rest of the time it just followed a ridge at an impossible gradient. I never did find out just how much I climbed, but those 4 km took an hour. That time didn't include a really welcome break, an invitation to drink tea, when I stopped about halfway up. I was using the granny, grinding upwards at about 3 km/ h but even so I was running out of puff. I'd pulled up in the shade of a wall, pulled off my helmet and flopped back into the seat and was struggling with the water bottle - it just didn't want to come out of the cage - when a nearby door opened and an elderly man appeared bearing a silver tray with two glasses of tea and slices of quince! The family had been watching my slow ascent for some time and had decided that I was going to need some refreshment and so had prepared for my arrival. This was the best ride morning tea I'd ever had. I spun out the rest as long as I dared, but the family spoke no English and I quickly exhausted my few topics of conversation. Anyway, the castle beckoned. So, onwards and upwards I went, though very soon I was reduced to pedalling a few hundred metres, stopping, pedalling a few hundred metres, stopping, pedalling...
Syria doesn't get many tourists and the 'tourist season' was over, September 11 had scared away all but a trickle of travellers and so on this stretch of road there was hardly any passing traffic. The few 'services' - communal taxis - which did go past seemed to take almost as long to make the crawl up the mountainside as I had done on the trike. As for those heading down the hill, well, thank goodness I didn't have to trust my life to one of them. After a nasty patch of dirt and gravel where the road was being repaired, I at last reached the carpark directly in front of the castle, the few hopeful souvenir sellers gathered around as I gazed out looking back over the valley floor so far below. Why? They asked
The Krak, or as it's known in Syria, Qala'at al-Hosn, is a remarkably well preserved, massive castle - not a Disneyland confection like the Bavarian castles, but a solid military fortification. Built more than 800 years ago, this vast castle is in effect two castles in one; the main castle being surrounded by an outer ring of heavily fortified towers and walls plus a moat, dug by hand through the rock. Everything about the Krak is immense; the walls are 5m thick, it was designed for a garrison of 2000 and with storage for enough food and water to last five years. Wandering around the top of the vast walls you can see other - smaller - castles in the distance, similarly perched atop mountain ridges. I spent a couple of days exploring the castle and the villages that have grown up just down the slope before setting off through the mountains towards those other castles I'd seen
The mountain roads were winding and narrow; direction signs few and far between but I'd spent hours the preceding night with one of the local taxi drivers drawing a makeshift map. We'd scouted some of the route when he took me on a tour of the district in his taxi, a lovingly 'restored' 50's de Soto. The map was fine, for once everything seemed to be in the right place. I drifted through small villages, past cherry orchards and the ubiquitous olive groves. The scenery was so nice that I didn't seem to notice the steep climbs and before I knew it I had arrived in Safita where the first of the castles I had seen towered over the town. Naturally, the road to the castle led uphill, and this time the road was cobblestone. The ride up was relatively short, steep and boneshaking. The trike has a mesh and elastic cord seat that soaks up the worst of the road shock but cobblestone was just too much...
The remnant of the castle, the 27m high central tower, now houses a church and I arrived just as the sunday service ended. Yet again I found myself surrounded by curious onlookers answering their questions as best I could. climbing a worn stone staircase to the roof of the castle tower, I could see the I could see the coast one side, Krak on another and seemingly quite close on another side, the squat dark outline of yet another castle, Qala'at Marqub. The ride so far had been pretty good so why not?
So off I went, by now of course I'd ridden off the edge as it were of my makeshift map and so it was back to asking locals for directions. Sometimes the locals seemed to know that I would like the back roads and that distance/time didn't really matter, sometimes though I found myself pointed off to the highways, the fastest and straightest way between two points. And so it was today; a fabulous, prolonged, downhill cruise bought me back to the main freeway, ah well. I joined the throng of trucks and buses and picked up a good rolling pace as I headed north towards the castle. Again, I could see the castle long before I arrived at the turn off. Again, the road to the castle was narrow, steep and in pretty indifferent condition. Again though the climb was worth the effort. I sat in a makeshift 'restaurant' looking out over the coast and allowed myself not one but two glasses of hot strong sweet tea before exploring the castle