Vasco da Gama
Ian Strathcarron
Fri 28 May 2010 06:00

We arrived at the port of Lattakia in Syria on Tuesday morning, after an exhilarating overnight crossing from Mersin in Turkey.  There was an almost full moon, lots of stars and although the wind was blowing straight at us, rather than alongside as had been forecast, the temperature was mild and the sea well behaved with only a slight swell.

We shared the watches, with Ian sleeping on board during mine and I woke him once when I turned off the autopilot and instruments by mistake as a large freighter was steaming straight towards us during the darkest part of the night.  Danger was averted by re-setting the instruments and slowing down until the big beast had passed.

The only place for yachts to berth is at the Syrian Yacht Club in Lattakia.   In the yacht club there are only four other foreign yachts and a dozen local powerboats so we are aware that not many yachtsmen venture here.   Although the country is roughly the size of England, there is less than one hundred miles of coastline and nowhere to sail to, apart from Beirut which will be our next destination.   The country comprises a fertile mountainous strip parallel with the coast while about four fifths of the country is desert, bordering Jordan and Iraq.

The Syrian Yacht Club office is a yellow painted building surrounded by a colourful garden.  The garden is planted with pink roses, tall yellow iris and purple begonia and is home to a pair of peacocks, who were going through their courtship ritual when I walked to the shower block early on our first morning.  The scene reminded me of one of the Persian miniature paintings in the V & A.   The administrator of the Yacht Club has been extremely helpful and treating us like members of his family.  He lent us 500 Syrian pounds as we had no useful currency and were miles from an ATM.  To our surprise everyone wants US Dollars or Euros rather than Syrian pounds.  

The Syrian people are renowned for being extremely welcoming and hospitable and we have found that to be true.   Everybody greets us by saying ‘Welcome to our country’.  We reply with the Arabic greeting ‘salaam alaykum’ (peace be upon you) which is spoken with clasped hands and a bow of the head, to which the reply comes back ‘wa alaykum as-salaam’ (and upon you be peace).  These greetings occur with everyone we meet, from fishermen in the harbour, to customs officials, shopkeepers and urchins by the side of the road.

Syria has always been popular with people interested in history and archaeology, as it is such an ancient land, full of stunning archaeological and religious sites.   They follow in the footsteps of hundreds of thousands of pilgrims who have visited here since the earliest days of Christianity.   We plan to visit Crusader castles, Byzantine churches and monasteries and Roman cities in the desert.   We are hiring a car and leaving Vasco here in Lattakia for a few days.