Atop a large hill some 700 meters above sea level and overlooking a lush green valley in Western Syria, stands the magnificent Castle of the Kurds. Once described by Lawrence of Arabia as ...perhaps the best preserved and most wholly admirable castle in the world, it leaves modern day visitors as impressed now as it had T.E. Lawrence himself a century ago.
Built between 1142 and 1271 the Krak, or Castle, now a UNESCO world heritage site is still recognised as one of the best specimens of a Crusader Castles in the world. Set against the lovely hilly landscape, the Krak from a distance really looks like something out of a fairy tale and even though you're nowhere near the English countryside, you cant help thoughts of Camelot engulfing your imagination. The rounded towers that bulge out of the thick curtain walls not only add to the character and unusual appearance, but more importantly fortify the castle in a much more efficient way. The thoughts were that these rounded edges, not only eliminated the weakness of corners, however also provided deflection of any incoming projectiles.
The objects would no longer impact at a 90 degree angle, reducing the impact force. On approach this mammoth of a structure just grows and the true scale of the thickness and bulkiness of the entire fortification leaves you with a sense of insignificance and bewilderment. Doors open from 9am an entrance as of Easter 2011 will cost you S150 (approx 1.70). As you enter, its almost as if you're being swallowed up by the ancient masonry when you progress through. A stone path with a gradual gradient channels you through the walls, past a gift shop and eventually leads you to an opening where the sun above greets your eyes. When you reach the courtyard there is an abundance to explore; stairs running to different levels of the ruins, walls to scramble from, and perhaps best of all its making your way through the narrow spiral staircases in the towers and reaching one of the Kraks high points. If you can withstand the wind then you're in for a treat. With nothing of real significance within miles of where you're standing, some of Syrias best kept countryside is in your sights with communities dotted around the the undulating landscape with spectacular views of the adjacent village below. Within the inner walls, a large labyrinthine of enclosures fill the ruins - where even natural light struggles to penetrate. No artificial lighting exists anywhere within the compound, instead, the few rays that do make their way through the barriers are funnelled through the gaps, cracks and windows. Almost all parts of the castle are accessible but some are so pitch black that you cant see your hand before of your face.
There are various stretchers that you can either fall down or walk into so best to bring a torch. The darkness also plays host to midges and insects which shun the sun and heat found on the outside. Remarkably, if your quiet, despite the wind and altitude, you can hear echoes from wasps buzzing through these areas. It is all a very refreshing sight to still be able to visit a castle in its prime. Many more examples of such spectacular architecture and history are too often ruined by the modern day luxuries of electricity, guides and bound by health and safety outlines. Here you left to Doinit yourself. You can really spend hours here, admiring the architecture as well as the surroundings, which provides for some great hiking. For castle enthusiasts, you'll be pleased to hear that this is a series of fortifications in this region built to defend the Homs Gap. While they don't quite match the Krak des Chevaliers reputation, reports suggest that they are as much fun to explore as the headline grabber. Reaching the castle is pretty straight forward; its location will usually require transit through the nearby city of Homs, approximately 40 miles on the outskirts. Simply arrive at the cities bus station where local taxi drivers are well aware what most tourists come here to see. Just strolling around, you should be able to hear them biding for your attention with the asking words Krak? Krak? (English: castle? castle?).
If this fails then simply ask them. Most will be more than happy which in a shared taxi (usually small Toyota van) with a local family should be cost you about S800 (9). The journey should take you the best part of 40 minutes and the driver will drop you in front of the main entrance. Buses also service this route. Either way that you travel, be sure to negotiate a return time with the driver or check when the last bus back is as or you could find yourself standing by the roadside for a ride to come long. While many visitors come to see the Krak on day trip it would really be a missed opportunity if you weren't to spend a night here. Clearly visible from the Castle, only a short walk away and nestled along an opposite valley wall, directly facing the Krak, stands the Bebers Hotel (25USD ).
It's restaurant boosts an impressive meze (selection of small dishes served starters) followed by whatever the staff recommend. The restaurant faces the castle making it a great place to kick back with a bottle of Syrian Bottled beer and watch the sun go down. When deciding which room to pick, ask for room 101. In the morning you'll be able to walk out on your own balcony and be greeted by the magnificent Krak des Chevaliers as this room is in the perfect position, directly across, leaving a lasting impression on any occupant and a sight that has greeted visitors for centuries.
Syria is currently experiencing severe political unrest. The FCO advise against all travel.