Tuesday, 4 January 2022

Jordan #2

Welcome back to part 2 of our holiday to Jordan. 

Christmas Eve found us at the Intercontinental Hotel in Aqaba on the Red Sea. We arrived in time for dinner, and although it seemed almost sacrilegious to opt for anything other than the delicious Jordanian food on offer, you can have too much of a good thing and L had found an excellent review of a Chinese restaurant nearby. The lure of tofu was too much and we hastily made our way towards 'Formosa'. It lived up to its reviews and lots of food and 2 pots of jasmine tea later, we were back in our room, settling down for the night.

Christmas Day was wonderful, if a little unconventional. After a breakfast of multiple 'immune boosting' glasses of fruit juice etc., we spent the rest of the day on sun loungers at the edge of the Red Sea. Mojitos and French fries on the beach were enjoyed by way of lunch! It was a lovely contrast to the preceding days of exploration and batteries were rapidly recharged. I had a little nap, collected some sea glass, read my book and did a bit of knitting before going for a swim and then hitting the jacuzzi. It was glorious.

The mojito with the kiwi fruit is apparently called a 'Royal mojito'.

We headed out for dinner to the local restaurant, 'Papaya'. The vegetable sambousek were delicious but, sadly, the rice dish tasted as if it was cooked in meat stock and we failed to finish it. In situations like that, we would normally give it a go rather than appearing rude, but it really did make us feel quite queasy.

We returned to the hotel for stollen (both L and I had smuggled one into our luggage thinking it would be a nice surprise!) and tea. Sadly, we couldn't find a channel broadcasting our customary evening viewing of the hajj rituals, so we plumped for what appeared to be an Arabic version of 'Pop Idol'!

The following day, suitable refreshed, we checked out of the hotel, breakfasted on falafel at 'Falafel  Bas W' (Excellent, since you ask!) and coffee/ hot chocolate from the V60 cafe, before heading for Wadi Rum; a protected desert wilderness not far from Aqaba.

Here, we planned to spend the day exploring before staying at the Hasan Zawaideh camp for the night:

There were 2 types of accommodation available: the tent type structures and a sort of martian bubble that looked a bit Eden Projecty. We had opted for the former.

Inside the tent - it was surprisingly cosy and I had the best night's sleep of the whole holiday.

We hired a jeep and driver and took a 3 hour jeep safari to explore the area:

We sat in the back and soon got used to the jolting around. The scenery was spectacular and, when we got out to climb the dunes, L was able to do a bit of sand-boarding. Her recent surfing course came in handy and she was surprisingly good.

The Mushroom Rock:

Little Bridge:
Um Fruth Rock Bridge. We scrambled to the top of this stone arch and took the obligatory Wadi Rum photo. It is quite wide at the top, so you do feel relatively safe but, even so, I was relieved to come down again!
We stopped for tea in a Bedouin tent. Even though it was obviously a contrived visit (our guide lived in the same village as our host), it was still memorable. The open fire made our eyes water but the cinnamon, clove and sage tea was delicious. 
He also played a rebab and sang for us. We bought a couple of items from his stall (tea and olive oil soap) and made our farewells.
Finally, we parked at a viewing point and watched as the sun sank down over the desert. It was quite a moment.

Back at the camp we enjoyed a buffet supper and then showed our complete lack of style and rhythm by attempting to join in with the dancing. It wasn't a pretty sight but it was great fun! We had a last mint tea around the fire before bed.
The following morning, we said a reluctant goodbye to our camp and made for our final hotel on the Dead Sea, stopping off on the way for yet another mint tea and coffee in a sweet, little cafe.
I can't say that I was overly-impressed with The Holiday Inn. It was far too expensive and up itself; checking guests on the way in to ensure that no food or drink was brought in from outside and leaving threatening notes in the bathroom in case anyone should think of removing any articles. Give me a Bedouin tent any day. We made the mistake of ordering drinks by the pool and R was charged 8 JD for a small can of beer. He choked it down! The hotel's only advantage was that it had a private beach which was handy for the obligatory mud smearing and floating in the Dead Sea. Here I am practising my synchronised swimming! :O)
I'm slightly eczema prone and the combination of mud and hypersalinity did me no favours. It was great fun though! We stayed by the water to watch the sunset and then returned to our room for baths and to complete the passenger locator forms for our return journey. Dinner was a lovely falafel sandwich and mint tea (!) at a roadside cafe and then we smuggled bags of crisps under our coats and returned to the hotel - just because! :O) We completed our pre-flight lateral flow tests (thankfully, all negative) and then ate crisps and watched a programme about dinosaurs before heading for bed.
Our penultimate day was my birthday. I had said that the holiday was enough of a present, but a few extra treats had been smuggled in the luggage. The owl card made me laugh as R is a complete grammar freak!
My birthday was spent exploring Jerash. Nicknamed 'The Pompeii of Asia', it is one of the best preserved sites of Roman architecture outside of Italy.
Hadrian's Arch, the gateway to Jerash. Built to honour the visiting emperor.
The Hippodrome, an ancient sports field once surrounded by seating for 15,000 spectators. Recent excavations have unearthed stables and pottery workshops, plus indications that the site was used for polo.
The Temple of Zeus:

The magnificent Forum. This lies in the heart of the city linking the main thoroughfare (Cardo Maximus) with the Temple of Zeus. Surrounded by 56 unfluted, Ionic columns, with limestone slabs radiating from the centre, this unusually shaped oval plaza was breathtakingly beautiful.

The South theatre, where I had my most surreal experience in Jordan. We had climbed to the top to listen to the Jordanian Scottish Bagpipe Band (yes, you read that correctly!) who were demonstrating the acoustics. It had the same bouncing back effect as the amphitheatre in Amman. I was fine climbing up because I had the steps in front of me. Coming down though, I had to take it slowly, with R walking in front so that the only thing I could see was his back. On reaching the bottom, the main bagpiper called me over and they proceeded to play 'Happy Birthday' to me. L had skipped down first and requested it. Well, you've never lived until you have had Happy Birthday played to you by the Jordanian Scottish Bagpipe Band in a Roman amphitheatre. I feel I have peaked birthday-wise!

The Courtyard of the Fountain:
The staircase leading to the Cathedral:
The Nymphaeum - the main ornamental fountain of Jerash:

The Temple of Artemis:
The smaller North Theatre. Sadly, no bagpipes!

The Cardo Maximus - the main street which still bears the marks of chariot wheels on the original flagstones:
We bought a Jordanian coffee pot and a small camel mosaic from the stalls near the exit. Also a gift for our neighbours for house and bunny sitting in our absence. Jerash had been a perfect birthday treat. We added to the excitement when we had a close encounter with the border on the way back to the hotel. The phone tried to take us across a junction that the border guard clearly didn't want us to cross. We had to reverse and do a bit of extra navigating before we found a safe place we could turn.
Not wanting another falafel sandwich for our final night, we made the mistake of choosing a restaurant at a local shopping mall. 'Elite' provided us with a Mexican salad, a quinoa and pomegranate salad, baba ganoush and fattoush but it was all overly citrusy and a disappointing final meal. We should have stuck with the roadside falafel.

On our final morning, we drove Polly to the airport, stopping very briefly to admire the view from Mount Nebo where, according to the Bible, Moses was granted a view of the Promised Land.

Our flight home was uneventful, if a little bumpy, and owing to Bank Holidays and postal delays, we spent a week confined to the house awaiting our post-flight PCR results. 
Despite this and despite the weeks of stress and uncertainty beforehand, I am so glad that we got to see this beautiful country, full of some of the loveliest people you could ever wish to meet. It was an adventure and one for which, especially in these uncertain times, I am truly grateful.

Toodle pip for now. x

Jordan #1

It was when L and J came to visit at the end of October that the idea of going away for the festive period first arose. It was L who suggested it. Initially, it was supposed to be a few days in either Berlin or Prague. As it turned out, it was lucky that we didn't choose Berlin as Germany shut its borders to UK visitors on the day of our departure. When we were considering our options, R pointed out that if we went for a mainly Christian country, the chances were that it would effectively shut down over Christmas itself, leaving us with nowhere to go and nothing to do. For that reason, we decided that we would be better off opting for a mainly Islamic one. What was initially supposed to be 3 or 4 days in Berlin or Prague, therefore, suddenly morphed into 9 days in Jordan.

We have never been away for Christmas before. The closest was our trip to Marrakesh a few years ago, when we returned on the 23rd. To be honest, I'm not a huge fan of Christmas decorations. I'll go along with the tree but the sense of relief I get when it all comes down again in early January is immense. This year, I had the perfect excuse to ignore the lot. There would be nothing to take down because it wouldn't be going up in the first place. The holiday was also going to be our family Christmas present, so very little to do there. There was a bit of food planning, but only because I thought our post-flight PCR results would take some time to come through (they did, the supposed 24 hour service took a week!) and we would be confined to our home in the meantime. From that point of view, the whole thing was stress-free. 

Unfortunately, there were also the Covid regulations which seemed to change on a daily basis - both in Jordan and the UK. Red lists came and went and restrictions changed with Boris' whim. Tests appeared where no tests were required before. Lateral flow tests transformed into PCR tests. We had necessary paperwork coming out of our ears. I hate flying at the best of times and the new requirements added further layers of stress to the whole process. If you had asked me the day before our departure if I wanted to abandon the whole idea of going away, I would have jumped at the chance. 

Our flight was on Monday and we had our pre-flight PCR first thing on Saturday morning. The venue changed at the last minute, meaning we had to travel to Swindon for the test. We were supposed to hear back within 12, at the most 24, hours. By Sunday evening, we still hadn't heard and I had developed a nervous twitch. 2 phone calls later (each taking over an hour before being answered), we had our results and the holiday was on.

Reader, it was worth every stress-laden, sleepless moment! We packed a huge amount into those 9 days, moving around the most beautiful, welcoming country. It was one of the best holidays that I can remember and, even though it may be a while before I can face another chickpea, it was definitely the highlight of an otherwise pretty grim couple of years.

Apologies in advance for quite a long and photo-heavy couple of posts but I don't want to forget a single moment.

We arrived at Queen Alia International Airport near Amman to be greeted with the most thorough nasal swab known to mankind. It felt like the nurse was in up to her elbow and our nostrils still felt weird the following day. Luckily, it was just the one nostril as, once we knew what was coming, she'd have been hard pushed to get near us for the second! Unlike our experiences in the UK, the Jordanians were incredibly efficient and we had our results in no time.

We were off to a good start when the car that was supposed to meet us failed to turn up. The subsequent taxi ride to the Seas Hotel in Amman was a little hair-raising. The driver was intent on talking to us and completely undeterred by his lack of English and our lack of Arabic. He pulled up a translation app on his phone and quizzed R who happened to be in the front seat. Throughout the journey, his eyes were on the phone, rather than the road, and his hands nowhere near the wheel as he leaned across to R showing him the screen. My 'eyes on the road' signals from the back did nothing other than cause him great amusement. By some miracle, we arrived unscathed and gratefully exited the vehicle to the sound of me muttering 'Don't you dare give him a tip!'. For reference, the Uber cars that we used for the rest of our stay in Amman were brilliant. Cheap and professional, I can't recommend them enough. Just avoid the charlatans at the airport!

The hotel had upgraded us to a family suite and that night we sat in our room, eating oranges and watching the Hajj rituals on TV and the rain outside the window, wondering about the wisdom of coming to Jordan in December. For the record, it only rained in Amman, everywhere else the weather was fine and the crowds absent compared to the high seasons of spring and autumn.

A breakfast of hummus and flatbread (it's lucky that we like hummus and flatbread as we consumed an awful  lot of it over the course of the holiday!) was followed by an Uber ride to the Citadel.

The area known as the citadel sits on the highest hill in Amman. As well as being the site of the earliest fortifications in the world, it is also one of the world's oldest continuously inhabited places. Roman, Byzantine and Umayyad ruins are found throughout. The views of downtown Jordan from the lookout were spectacular. This was our worst day weather-wise and it was here that I discovered that my old boots were no longer waterproof!

The highlights of the site include:

The Temple of Hercules:

 The temple appears to have earned the name when a large hand and elbow were discovered and assumed to represent the demigod himself!

The domed audience hall, part of the Umayyad Palace complex. The palace was mostly destroyed by an earthquake in AD 749.

Head of Medusa located outside the small museum:
At this point it began to rain in earnest, so we took shelter in a small cafe. The Turkish coffee was apparently excellent and my cinnamon almond milk was delicious. We followed it up with a mezze platter as we admired the view:
By the time we had finished lunch, the rain had eased off and we walked down some steps to tour downtown. The theatre is the most impressive remain of Roman Philadelphia. It is cut into the side of a hill and seats 6000. Built on 3 tiers, the rulers sat close to the action, the military in the middle section and the general public at the top. It is still used for concerts in the summer.
The smaller Odeon nearby seats 500 and again is still used for performances. There is a spot on the centre of the stage where you can hear your voice bounce back at you. A step either side and the effect doesn't work.

Following a tour of the Folklore Museum and the Museum of Popular Traditions, we went for a wander around the local souks. The size of the vegetables in the fruit and veg souk was impressive - the aubergines and cabbages were enormous!
Darat Al Funum is a centre on the hillside to the north of the downtown area dedicated to contemporary art. We had time to briefly explore the art gallery and gardens before it closed at sunset, then enjoyed mint and rose tea at a nearby arty cafe:
At this point we started to get a little peckish. The mezze platter at the cafe on the citadel had been substantial enough for our main meal of the day, but we were feeling the need for a little smackerel of something. Our guidebook recommended Hashem's restaurant for their legendary falafel:
These were the first of many falafel that we consumed in Jordan. L started a rating system based on size, colour, texture and crunch of exterior. Hashem's topped the list with a winning 18/20! They and the baba ganoush were delicious.
After supper, we took a taxi back to the hotel where I glumly examined my trench foot! My boots and socks were soaking and I spent a merry evening blow drying them with the hotel-supplied hairdryer. Another blast the following morning and a coating of Lush Ultra Balm in an attempt to waterproof them and I was good to go again. Needless to say, the weather was fine from then on. They subsequently developed a rather interesting patina as sand from Petra and then Wadi Rum stuck to the balmed exterior. :O)

Our first task of the morning was to check out of the hotel and take an Uber back to the airport to pick up our hire car. R hadn't fancied driving in Amman and the airport made sense for returning it at the end of the holiday. I can't tell you the make of the car, only that it was an automatic (we prefer manual, so it took a bit of getting used to) and that the broken right driving light caused us to name it Polyphemus, soon shortened to Polly. Our plan for the day was to drive to Petra, spending the day at Madaba en route. 
Madaba is a pretty market town that seems like a normal town ie. one not built exclusively for tourists; we really liked it. It is best known for its Byzantine-era mosaics. Following the signs for the visitors' centre, we started our tour at Archaeological Park I. This open air museum houses a collection of ruins and mosaics, some of which are the oldest in Jordan. When visiting a place, we like to take our own time and wander round with the guidebook. The trick is avoiding the attention of any would be guides who can be quite tenacious. I know that they have to make a living but I'd find it far less stressful to tip them to leave us alone. The mosaics, however, were well worth the visit.

Next on the list was the Church of the Beheading of John the Baptist. This Roman Catholic church sits on an ancient site and the Acropolis Museum in the vaulted crypt contains a still operational well, dating back 3000 years. The most memorable part of the visit, however, was a trip up the belfry. The guidebook states that vertigo sufferers should avoid the climb, but I do hate missing out. The last section involved steep metal ladders, handrails and a bit of negotiating round bells and bell ropes. It was slow going but the view from the top was, I'm assured, worth it. I just had to squint at it slightly and hold tightly to R's hand. 

We celebrated my bravery with lunch at the Ayola Cafe. The falafel weren't quite as good as Hashem's but the lemony hummus and warm, air-filled flatbread were fantastic:
After lunch we headed for St. George's Church. This Greek Orthodox church is built on the remains of a Byzantine church. Builders on the construction site found a mosaic representing the oldest map of Palestine in existence. Crafted in AD 560, the map has 157 Greek captions depicting all the major biblical sites of the Middle East. Originally 15-25m long and 6m wide, it originally contained more than 2 million pieces. Unfortunately, much of it has been lost.

A tour of Archaeological Park II completed our Madaba trip - apart from when we got a little lost and found ourselves inside the grounds of the university. The students were very friendly and no-one asked us what on earth we were doing there! - and we continued our journey to the Petra Elite Hotel.
Here there was a little mix up with our room. We were originally shown to a room containing multiple single beds in a row. We didn't recall booking such a room, but it was clean and tidy and we were tired. We unpacked (for this, read scattered belongings hither and yon!), made a cup of tea and climbed under the covers (fully clothed) to watch more of the Hajj rituals on TV - they were strangely hypnotic and relaxing. A knock at the door revealed an apologetic manager, explaining that we had been allocated the wrong room and would we care to look at the booked one? Tired, and feeling that we might as well stay in our current room (after all, we had certainly made our presence felt!), we padded in socks down the corridor. Our intended room was a much larger suite with separate bedrooms and, what swung it for us, a fruit platter! 2 minutes later, we had thrown our belongings back into bags and were thundering down the corridor to our new room. Here my family re-enacted the scene from 'Jason and the Argonauts' where Phineus, tormented by the harpies, is quickly cramming fruit into his face before they can steal it from him. We didn't cover ourselves in glory!

The following morning started our 2 day tour of Petra. This was definitely one of the highlights of our trip. We weren't too far from the main site and from our new room we could enjoy the sunrise lighting up the ancient city:

After breakfast, we hopped into Polly and headed for what has been voted one of the 'New Seven Wonders of the World'. This ancient Nabataean city contains multiple tombs scooped out of the sandstone cliffs. Accessed via the Siq - a narrow, shadowy rift between cliffs - the path suddenly opens into sunlight in front of the Treasury.

The Obelisk Tomb, halfway between the Petra Visitors' Centre and the entrance to the Siq. Built by the Nabataeans in the 1st century BC, the 4 obelisks plus the eroded human figure in the centre probably represent the 5 people buried in the tomb.
The Siq - a 1.2km canyon with 200m high walls, snaking towards the hidden city. Technically, it is not a canyon (a gorge carved out by water) but a single block that has been rent apart by tectonic forces. At various points you can see where the rocks on one side match the other. The original channels cut into the walls to bring water to Petra are still visible, as is a section of Roman paving.

The Treasury. Although it was originally carved out of the sandstone to serve as the tomb for the Nabataean King Aretas III, it derives its name from the story that an Egyptian pharaoh hid his treasure here (in the urn) whilst pursuing the Israelites. Some locals clearly believed the tale as the urn is pockmarked by rifle shots. On our return home, I sat through the film 'Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade', just to see the bits filmed at the Treasury!

The Theatre. Originally built by the Nabataens more than 2000 years ago, it was enlarged by the Romans to hold about 8500 people (about 30% of the population of Petra). It has been badly damaged by an earthquake but remains a highlight.

The Royal Tombs in the west facing cliff, downhill from the theatre. This is the name given to the 4 facades adjacent to each other. The 4 structures are: the Urn Tomb (its name derived from the jar that crowns the pediment); the Silk Tomb, with its swirls of different coloured rock; the Corinthian Tomb, the upper part of which is similar to the Treasury, although severely eroded, and the Palace Tomb with its 5 storey facade.

Daughter's Doc Marten boot adjacent to camel's footprint!
Mosaics in The Church. Probably built at the end of the 5th century AD, it was destroyed by a fire or earthquake the following century.
The Great Temple:

We ended our first day in Petra by walking the Al Khubtha trail. 2.2 miles of uphill track leading to a view of the Treasury from above. It was quite hard going and at the end we had a choice: a guided, vertiginous rapid descent or to turn and retrace our steps. We chose the latter as I had used up all my bravery on the belfry the previous day!
Exhausted, we walked back along the Siq to Polly and went for dinner at the nearby Time Out restaurant. The rice dish and the ful medames were excellent.
Then it was back to the hotel for a second bash at the fruit platter and a good night's sleep.
We had one destination in mind for our second day at Petra: the Monastery or Ad Deir. This is one of the largest monuments in Petra, measuring 47m wide by 48.3m high. Dating back to the 2nd century AD, crosses carved into the rear wall reveal how the structure got its name. It is accessed up a steep, rock-cut path of more than 800 steps. Donkeys are available but it was a steep climb and it seemed cruel, so we ascended on foot. This was my favourite bit of Petra, probably because we had to work so hard to earn it.  We detoured briefly to visit the Lion Triclinium, before continuing along the old processional route. 
We ate lunch of falafel wraps and mint tea/Turkish coffee at the little cafe near the top. It had the best view! Finally, we descended, stopping to haggle for a wall hanging from one of the many traders lining the path. It currently hangs on my living room wall, still smelling of smoke from the trader's fire.
Having reduced to a T-shirt during our climb, the temperature dropped again down at the bottom and we togged up and decided to hire camels for the journey back to the Treasury. I do love a camel, they have such smiley faces belying their true personality.
 Alia, Shyla and Souso:
A trip to the museum ended our time in Petra. It had been tiring but utterly magical and I wouldn't have missed a second of it.
Polly transported us along the King's Highway and the Desert Highway to the smart Intercontinental Hotel by the Red Sea where, needless to say, I considerably lowered the tone in my sand encrusted boots - oh yes, the sole had also peeled away on our trek up the Al-Khubtha trail!

That's all for the first part of our holiday. Part 2 will follow shortly.
Toodle pip for now. x