Book Review of the Week: Syria & Lebanon Guidebook
As a Special Bonus, Lonely Planet has graciously donated several copies of Syria & Lebanon, to be given to randomly drawn commenters on this article.
Syria and Lebanon are some of the least touristy spots in the world - and ones that I am eager to explore, since I've read Lonely Planet's new travel guide book, Syria and Lebanon, written by Lara Dunston, Terry Carter, and Amelia Thomas. The back cover entices the reader: Three authors, 140 days of on-the-road research, one international conflict, and countless invitations to tea; Ask the archaeologist: all your questions on Syria's stunning ruins answered by a specialist; and Get the local lowdown: special colour chapter featuring travel tips from Syrians and Lebanese. And, once you dig in to this wonderful book, it is difficult to put down. Filled with highlights of Syria and Lebanon, itineraries, history, religion, accommodations, food and drink, and more, the book explores the ancient cultures of these two countries, as well as detailed geographic information. Whether you are interested in shopping (excellent artisans at the souks), archaeological ruins, sports, or festivals and events, this book has it all. There is also a language resource section in the back; detailed maps; and my favorite section - The Word on the Street, which profiles several real locals - and entices you to learn more - and talk with - people while you're traveling.
I was lucky enough to be able to sit down and talk with Lara Dunston, one of the authors of the book, about their new travel guide. Here's what she had to say...
WE: Please tell us about your new book, Lonely Planet's Syria and Lebanon...
LD: The book is a fairly comprehensive guide to both of those wonderful countries, covering all of the major cities and towns as well as some off-the-beaten-track destinatinons that not many travellers get to. For this edition, my husband and co-author Terry Carter and I coordinated the book and we wrote the Syria chapter. We updated the book in May and June 2008, travelling all over Syria, visiting every place in the old edition as well as some places that weren't in there. But unfortunately not everything made it in. Meeting word counts in always a change - you simply can't put everything in that you'd love to put in because you're limited by the number of pages - and not everybody understands that. The book took a long time to come out because unfortunately Lonely Planet pushed the deadline back for publishing reasons. You'd expect it to already be out-dated, but these are countries where some things never change, especially in the rural areas and villages.
Our friends there tell us that the main thing that's changed is prices, because Syria like the region as a whole has been experiencing high inflation. Surprisingly when we were travelling there ourselves we found the last edition to be in reasonably good shape and we were constantly bumping into people using our previous edition, which was 4 years old by then, and they were still telling us they loved it and were getting a lot out of it. For that previous edition we wrote Lebanon and - because the other author, Andrew Humphreys, changed his mind at the last minute and decided not to update Syria again (Andrew had written the two previous editions), we went to Syria of our own accord (and financed the trip, mind you!) to update Damascus and Aleppo. This time, however, another writer updated Lebanon and we gave Syria a really thorough overhaul.
WE: What is your background/history in Syria and Lebanon?
LD: Terry and I have been travelling to Syria and Lebanon since 1998. As we've been based in the United Arab Emirates since then, it's a short flight for us, and fares are cheap (especially on Air Arabia), so we've travelled extensively around both countries, and would often visit, perhaps for long weekends, or for a film festival, and Terry would go snowboarding in Lebanon every winter. He'd wait for a report of a snowfall and then he'd be on a plane the next day.
WE: This geographic area is so full of history, and still seems to be constantly evolving. Is it challenging, for visitors (and travel guide writers) to try to balance this?
LD: You're right that both countries are full of history. Damascus and Aleppo are two of the world's oldest continuously inhabited cities, and both Syria and Lebanon boast ancient Roman ruins, historic churches and crusader castles. There are some brilliant books that cover the archaeology and significant historic sites extensively - the two best ones (and our favorites) are Ross Burns' 'Monuments of Syria' and Warwick Ball's 'Syria: A Historical and Architectural Guide'. We don't in any way try to replicate what those books do. If that's people's interest (and even if it isn't, because these books will get you hooked!) we recommend they get those as they make great companion pieces to our guide.
With our book we just give people a small taste of the history to inspire people to get excited about visiting a place, and what we hope will be enough to put the significance of the site in context and help them gain a little understand of the places they're visiting, but for a more comprehensive understanding, they really need to get those books. I don't think there's a need for the readers to try and 'balance' history here as much as there is say in Palestine and the occupied territories and Israel, it's more of a case of encouraging people to gain a better understanding of how rich the history is. It's the present that needs to be 'balanced' I guess.
A lot of people, especially Americans, come to Syria to find out if it's as evil as the Bush government made it out to be, and I reckon 99% of people leave being enlightened almost, having found out that it's the exact opposite, that the people are incredibly warm, friendly and generous, that this is an intelligent, thoughtful and well-educated people, that Syria is now so much more open than it was 10 or 15 years ago, and that it is a lot more modern than people give it credit for.
WE: Your book is packed with great suggestions and tips. Was it difficult to research this? How do you narrow it down?
LD: Our advice comes from our own experience, in Syria, and from travelling and living in the region more generally, but we're constantly talking to locals when we travel. A lot of people say the best tips come from other travellers. We rarely find that to be the case to be honest - of course it depends on how well-travelled the traveller is - but the best advice nearly always comes from locals who live and work in the place, whether they're chefs or artists, fashion designers or taxi drivers. With a book like this, you just have to weave in what you can. We'd like to include much more than we have, but once again, it's those dreaded word counts that limit us.
WE: What are some of the best aspects of writing a travel guide?
LD: The research is the best part of all, travelling the length and breadth of a place, spending a long time there, getting to know people and making friends. That's what we get a real kick out of. We enjoy writing also, however, there never seems to be enough time to write in the way you want to, to do with a book - and still ensure the job is a lucrative one. So the research is more satisfying than the writing in some ways.
WE: What do you recommend for first-time visitors, to get out of the 'tourist loop'?
LD: It's hard to get off the beaten track in Lebanon, because it's such a small country, and there is a definite loop that's hard to diverge from. Syria on the other hand is a large country and there are still many areas and even famous archaeological sites that see few travellers visiting. In Syria, anywhere along the Euphrates is wonderful. In some areas it reminds me of the Nile. But there are also cities such as Lattakia, which I just love, that sees very few tourists visiting - a lot of Europeans visit the resorts, but few travellers stay in town and yet it's a really lively cosmopolitan city, and what some people find surprising is how many people speak English, because there are a lot of Syrian expats who have returned there or return for holidays. Within any city or town, whether in Syria or Lebanon, there are always going to be off-the-beaten-track places, but to find them you really need to either spend a significant amount of time in a place or get to know locals and see them through the eyes of locals.
WE: Is there anything else you'd like to share with us?
LD: Syria and Lebanon are both highly underrated destinations for Western travellers. They're hardly 'undiscovered', so don't believe any stories in the travel media that say this - that's just a way to sell magazines - but they really don't see as many Western travellers visiting as they should. Arab travellers from around the region have been visiting forever and visit often and were long ago charmed by both of these countries.
Religious tourism is also huge, because Damascus for example is home to one of Islam's most important mosques, the Ummayyad, and Gulf Arabs for instance have long been using both countries as summer retreats. So while they might not be the hidden gems that some writers would like people to think, they're not on the radars of many travellers because of the misconception that Syria in particular is dangerous. Lebanon is certainly more dangerous than Syria, and has had its moments, it's been going through a very unstable period, so travellers need to monitor their country's advisories and take precautions when travelling to stay out of harm's way, however, Syria is extremely safe by comparison. I'd strongly encourage people to visit, but I'd also encourage them to stay longer than the few days in each place most people allow. Damascus in particular is a city that you could spend months in, particularly the old city, and continually come across new things you hadn't seen before.
WE: Thanks so much, Lara. I have long been interested in the archaeology of Syria, and now with your encouragement and excellent guidebook, need to reprioritize our travel list!
To follow Lara online, please see: http://cooltravelguide.blogspot.com/
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