Speeding through Syria
Taking the fast track to Aleppo in rally car was the ride
of a lifetime
It sounded like a cross between wacky races and
the Cannonball Run. In a supposed Axis of Evil country. With
sand. When I told my friends I was going on the 1,300km (800
mile) Discover Syria Car Rally, they expected me back in two
days with tales of kidnap and extreme heat. Now they all want to
go to Syria, too.
OK. First the confession. My driving extends to trips to the
supermarket. It took me three tries and ten years to get my
driving licence. I have never driven a left-hand-drive vehicle
or been rallying. So when, through a friend, I was invited to go
rallying in Syria, of course I said “yes” instantly. Alarmingly,
she took a para-medic as her co-driver. Mine was Mr Numbers, an
insanely good map reader, who is more at home driving his piano.
The Discover Syria rally is the brainchild of the Syrian
Automobile Club and, of all people, David Steel, who was so
taken with Syria that he suggested to the club that more people
should share their secret. So the Discover Syria Rally was born.
Now in its fifth year, it has sponsorship from the mobile phone
company Areeba and attracts huge media attention throughout the
The idea is this: over three days you drive from Damascus,
through Hama to Aleppo and then to Lattakia on Syria’s
Mediterranean coast. You stay at five-star hotels. You drive
through sensationally beautiful countryside. And you get a
chance to stop at some of the country’s dazzling historic
monuments and to delve in the souks of Aleppo and Damascus.
What’s not to like?
About 50 teams take part, some invited, but most paying 25,000
Syrian pounds (£250). This covers entrance for two people,
accommodation, meals (Syrian food is delicious) and your rally
The event turned out to be a blissfully bonkers amalgam of
Syrian, Jordanian and Egyptian boy racers; the lad who had just
won the Syrian version of Pop Idol; an Egyptian actor who
everyone wanted to be photographed with; four Syrians on huge
Harley-Davidson bikes forever preening in their wing mirrors;
some fab Finns; a delicious Nigerian twosome in hats and robes;
and some South Africans. This is no Gumball rally – several
Syrians seemed to have brought their families, from baby to
The event is immaculately organised. Each participant received a
gilet with their name on it, right down to the babies. But
there's no map. Just this road book that gives you distances
between one spot and another and instructions. Like “136.8km
turn right”. It’s all timed and you have to arrive on the dot of
your appointed time at the checkpoints. And spot landmarks. And
answer questions, such as: what’s the strongest muscle in the
body? Er, the jaw (in case you take part next year).
The cars ranged from SUVs to a Hummer. A hire car had been
arranged for us. What sort? Oh, a black one. A Hyundai
something. The first thing I had to do was drive it through
Damascus. You don’t need a driving licence to do this, you need
five years’ experience on a PlayStation.
The rally started at the Barada sporting club. I was agitated
about having no map. The Syrians said, “You can’t get lost in
Syria.” But the “136.8km and turn right” thing defeated us and
we were soon spectacularly lost.
Syria’s people are the most generous, charming and hospitable
folk. English is widely spoken and there were offers of tea and
directions. In the end, a three-car convoy led us to the right
Mr Numbers had arrived at four in the morning and we had both
missed the briefing. Neither of us had the first clue what was
going on. At the end of the first day we had amassed a
phenomenal 300 penalty points and were second last. But we were
having such a fine time. The route had taken us through
emerald-green hills covered in flowers to Krak des Chevaliers.
Lawrence of Arabia called it “the finest castle in the world”,
and so it is. Built 800 years ago to control the Homs gap, it
could house 5,000 knights and their followers and withstand a
five-year siege. You walk in through a tunnel that allowed the
Crusaders to ride in two by two. I expected Charlton Heston and
the cast of El Cid to pop up any minute.
We stayed overnight in Mashta Elhelou, a resort in the hills,
famous for its cool greeness in the summer. On the second day I
got into trouble with Mr Numbers, whose competitive dander was
now up, for stopping to take photos of wild flowers (20 penalty
That day’s route took us first to Apamea. In Roman times this
was the Vegas of the Eastern Empire with a population of
500,000. The town’s main street stretched dead straight for 2km,
flanked by sumptuous 10m-high columns. Ephesus, eat your heart
The day finished in Aleppo, with its astonishing Citadel. The
souk is unchanged. Piles of nuts and candied fruit, heaps of
spices and some unbelievable ladies underwear. Fluff, net,
glitter. Aleppo’s blingerie has to be seen to be believed.
The most competitive of the Europeans were the Flying Finns, who
clearly have rallying in their blood. Mr Numbers took over the
driving on the third day and discovered he was born to rally.
There was no stopping him. We finished 15th.
The final day was gorgeous. First, eating flatbread and
scrambled egg at the vantage point of Jiran al-Amar, looking
across miles of fertile plains and then motoring up to Saladin’s
magnificent castle before driving down to the coast, the air
heavy with the scent of orange blossom.
Whatever you think you know about Syria, abandon it and go. The
people are life-enhancing and the country beautiful. And there
can be no better way to discover Syria than with the Discover
Need to know
Vivienne Parry travelled to Syria with the help of the Syrian
Ministry of Tourism, Areeba, and the Syrian Automobile Club.
Any group of two people or more with a valid driving licence is
eligible to participate in the Discover Syria Rally. No special
driving skills are required. The race is a fun event, which
observes safety rules and normal speed limits. It is not a
high-speed driving event. For information on next spring’s
Discover Syria Car Rally, check the website of the Syrian
Automobile Club for updates (www.syrianautomobileclub.com/discover/eng/pages/about-rally.htm)
To get the original reportage