Toward the end of October 1096, the Count of Toulouse, Raymond de Saint Gilles (1041– 1105) left his native land never to return. Driven by religious zealotry and material aspirations, Saint Gilles, by far the oldest and richest Crusader, dreamed of dying in the Holy Land. On his way to fulfilling his failed destiny in 1101, he took control of Tortosa, a little burg by the sea. Known today as Tartous, Tortosa offered safe harbor as an entrepôt for military provisions and was ideally close to Cyprus and Antioch. Before the old Count died he managed to transform it into a magnificent military bastion which eventually became one of the most interesting old Mediterranean cities for researchers and historians.
Nine hundred years later, the remains of the Crusader era still form the core of the historic center of Tartous. They have survived centuries of earthquakes, hostilities, neglect and negligence. The splendid cathedral of Our Lady of Tortosa (1123) endured the ravages and the elements of time almost intact. A banqueting hall, originally known as La Salle Des Chevaliers, has lost most of its arched ceiling and houses within its walls scrounging and contiguous abodes. A nearly roofless chapel with a stone lock carrying the sign of the Rose, a testimony to the Knights Templar who dwelled and worshiped within the high walls of Tortosa, has all but succumbed to vandalism and defacement. And to the West, facing and defying the incalculable number of waves thumping incessantly against their sloped outer walls, lay the dungeons, where offending natives were imprisoned, tortured and eventually executed.
The Old City is located at the very beginning of the Corniche, a 2.5 km wide boulevard by the sea ending at the Ghamka River to the south. Most of Tartous’ restaurants and cafes are sprawled along the way and they vary from the mediocre to the admissible. Yet there is one so unique that it transcends all other restaurants in Syria and is possibly among the most distinctive anywhere in the world. It’s called The Cave and it occupies the northernmost dungeon.
The Cave is an unobtrusively restored 900 year old dungeon turned restaurant by none other than my best friend. He did not start the business. In fact, The Cave is one of the oldest restaurants/bars in town but last year he took over and embarked on his ambitious restoration dream. No expenses were spared and the painstaking work was brought down to a halt time and again by City officials and the pen pushers of the Antiquity Department. The Antiquity Law in Syria is even more archaic than the ruins it protects. In the wrong hands of bureaucrats any legislation can bring an entire country to a standstill. My friend persisted stubbornly and was finally awarded with the realization of his vision: a high-end joint in Tartous serving the best sea food and a la carte entrées this side of the Mediterranean. The ambiance is inimitable, the attention to details impeccable, the food delectable, the drinks ambrosial.
Next time in town and looking for a delightful gastronomical experience give The Cave a try. You can of course tell them Abufares sent you. Knowing my friend, don’t expect any discount but you will sure be treated like a Count.