It had been a breath-taking journey: leaving behind the parched confines of the capital and then winding our way up the north-west coastal roads though luscious, tumbling countryside more reminiscent of southern France than anywhere in the Middle East.
Just before sunset, and after a final exhilarating descent down a verdant terraced valley hemmed in by two towering escarpments on either side, we arrived unannounced in the tiny seaside village of Kassab.
The Lonely Planet scribblers have yet to “discover” this little Syrian gem. We had heard about it through word of mouth alone, breathlessly informed by one friend that it was “a cross between New Zealand, Tuscany and Middle Earth.”
You won’t find too many dwarves or sorcerers gambling about the nearby countryside, but when you see the jagged tips of the surrounding tree-lined mountains disappear into the wispy clouds on a sunny afternoon, New Zealand doesn’t seem so far off after all.
All we had was a name and number. Grigor agreed to meet us at the sole restaurant in the village, and after a bit of gentle bartering we managed to secure a couple of nights in his nearby flat, a pleasant little place with a balcony overlooking the shimmering, turquoise waters of the Mediterranean.
After settling in we were invited downstairs to have dinner with our hosts, who lived in the ground floor apartment below us.
Over a meal of barbecued chicken and rice, lubricated by a plentiful supply of arak, the aniseed-flavored Syrian spirit, we began to learn a little more about our newfound friends.
Grigor’s craggy features gave him the appearance of a wind-lashed Arctic explorer. His eyes and mouth were accentuated by glorious groove-like wrinkles, as though his expressions had been scored with a Stanley knife, while his beard looked tougher than a kitchen sink scourer.
They told us they were Armenians and were not very fond of Arabs. “They don’t look after the countryside,” said Grigor between swigs of arak.
Grigor’s wife, who looked younger than her husband by about 20 years, said she wanted to leave Syria and go to Italy with their three sons. Kassab, it seemed, was not enough for her — much to the bemusement of Grigor, who seemed happy to see out his days fishing and relaxing in the village’s lush surroundings.