Syria’s coastal region has long been a major draw for domestic and Arab tourists. Increasing numbers of foreign holidaymakers are also winding their way up the coast. But while Tartous and Lattakia are well known, there is a wealth of attractions hidden away in coastal and mountain villages, as well as some of the country’s greenest scenery. Hiring a car for a couple of days is the best way to see these tucked-away places.
Grotto of lights
Dawayat Grotto, or the Grotto of Lights, takes its name from the five openings in the top of the cave which illuminate the space. The grotto is located 2km from Mashta Al-Helou, a summer resort village set on Helou Mountain about 45km from Tartous.
Filled with stalactites and stalagmites, the limestone cave also serves as a cool refuge from a hot summer’s day. According to locals, the cave was also used as a hiding place by Syrian independence fighters in their battles against the Ottoman and French armies.
“This is not an ordinary grotto, it is 20m years old,” a young man from Mashta al-Helou who offered to serve as my guide, said. “It is part of the beautiful Jeita Grotto in Lebanon.”
To prove his point, he led me to a dark hole at the end of the grotto which he said marks the beginning of a long tunnel leading to Jeita Grotto. He explained that the lack of oxygen in the tunnel prevents anyone from taking the shortcut, or testing the veracity of his claims.
Part of Jeita or not, kids will love to name what shapes the unique limestone rock formations resemble. Watch out for your heads and feet, however, as the grotto can be both narrow and slippery in places.
Dawayat Grotto is open daily from 6am to 11pm. Tickets, sold in a small souvenir shop next to the grotto, cost foreigners SYP 150 (USD 3.20) and Syrians SYP 50 (USD 1.06).
On top of the world
Reaching the shrine of Moula Hassan, located outside the mountain village of Qadmous, some 65km north-east of Tartous, is no easy task. A narrow and bumpy road dotted with green signs that read ‘God is Great: Hurry to Prayer and Good Deeds’ leads to the shrine which is surrounded by pine forest. The site also provides unparalleled views of one of the greenest areas in the country.
While the shrine generally attracts the faithful from surrounding villages, fresh mountain breeze, creaking of the surrounding trees and great view make it a popular picnic destination for locals – as evidenced by the barbeque grills stored behind the small stone building.
The shrine is housed in a stone building decorated with flowers, green carpets and perfumed with incense. Depending on the day, visitors might be lucky enough to run into the shrine’s keeper who seems to be the only one who can tell you about its namesake. The best way to reach Moula Hassan shrine is by motorcycle or small car. Ask for directions in Qadmous.
A true rural experience
There is no better way to get to know Syria’s coastal countryside than by hiking from village to village. A great walk is the 22km stretch leading from the ruins of Hosn Suleiman, located in the village of the same name some 60km from Tartous, back to Safita, a bustling mountain town dominated by the world’s tallest surviving Crusader-era tower. For those who consider trekking 22km a little torturous, minibuses regularly drive up and down this road.
Leaving at sunrise from the ruins of Hosn Suleiman, a site of worship for a succession of cultures and religions since 2000 BC, is a great way to start the day. Before taking off, be sure to admire the huge stones, some as large as 3 by 5 metres and featuring Greek and Latin inscriptions.
Follow the main road and head for the village of Kafa Jawaya and stop to have breakfast at the local bakery. An elderly couple, Abbas Hellwe and Rajaa Ibrahim, serve a delicious homemade breakfast of Arabic breads including zaatar (crushed thyme with oil and sesame seeds spread on dough), muhammara (spicy pepper dip spread on dough) and endive leaves, washed down with sweet tea flavoured with cinnamon.
Join Hellwe as he bakes fresh Arabic bread in his little mud oven. Eating breakfast in the courtyard of the couple’s home while being updated on all the village gossip is a genuine rural experience.
Farther along the main road, rural villages give way to concrete buildings the closer you get to Safita. That said, green scenery, fresh air, wild flowers and local hospitality make the walk highly enjoyable.
Upon reaching Safita, head for The White Horse restaurant and bar, located near the city’s famed tower which was built by the Knights Templar. The restaurant is housed in a 500-year-old building with beautiful arches and a summer terrace. A meal costs around SYP 600 (USD 12.75) per person. After that, the energetic should head to the top of Safita Tower which is open from 9am to 2pm and from 3pm to 6pm. Entrance is free but donations are welcome.
Syria’s other island
Hiring a boat and heading for Jazirat Al-Namel, or Ants Island, is a real adventure. Located off the coast of the small village of Bsireh some 10km north of Tartous, locals call the tiny island Ants Island because ants are its only inhabitants.
Locals, however, usually skip the short boat journey and swim the distance. While the island seems small and bare from the Syrian mainland, an unexpected surprise awaits those who make the journey. Large holes dot the dark surface of the island, giving it the appearance of a giant sponge. Colourful shells and fish can be spotted in the surrounding water.
A 30-metre sand bar provides the perfect place to get a tan during low tide. Take note, however, that it is best to bring shoes as sharp volcanic rocks cover the island. A return boat trip with several hours on the island should cost about SYP 1,000 (USD 21.30).
Fruits of the sea
Cheap does not always mean low quality. The Green Beach Resort hotel and restaurant in Bsireh serves up some of the best-value – and just plain best – seafood on the Syrian coast. While the restaurant’s decor is nothing special, the spread laid out before hungry diners certainly is exceptional. There are few better places to spend a hot summer night than on the restaurant’s terrace which overlooks the Mediterranean.
For appetizers, try the bizret gobbos (little fried fish), yalanji (grape leaves stuffed with rice) and mixed green salad. For main dishes there are the usual chicken and kebab platters, but one of the main reasons to come to this part of Syria is to eat fresh fish. It comes grilled or fried in batter and is served with a delicious sauce of tahini, garlic, lemon and parsley. A meal of fish, washed down with a cold beer or chilled glass of white wine, costs around SYP 800 (USD 17).
A taste of Tartous
Shanklish, balls of dried yoghurt mixed with salt and thyme or hot pepper, are eaten throughout Syria, Lebanon and Turkey. Those who know their shanklish, however, will tell you that the best are to be found in and around Tartous.
Once upon a time the women of this region would dry the yoghurt by burying it in the sand on the beach. Today, however, they dry it through cloth. Whatever the method, few people have the time these days to make shanklish, which is why a queue often forms outside the Tartous home of Zeinab al-Sha’er.
Sha’er, 85, has been rolling the yoghurt balls for most of her life. She says the best way to eat the dish is by mixing equal quantities of shanklish with diced tomatoes and onion before drizzling the lot with high-quality Syrian olive oil. A kilo of shanklish costs SYP 300 (USD 6.40). Arabic speakers can phone her at 043-220 580.
This article was published in Syria Today magazine.