Sunday, 9 August 2009

I Looked Over Jordan and What Did I see

The 10.15 am five and a half hour flight from Gatwick to Aqaba in Jordan was smooth and the time passed quickly. I always get excited flying over deserts and even more so on this trip as we flew over the clear blue Red Sea and the resort of Aqaba, made a U-turn, approached the small airport from the sea landing at 3.30 pm. The immigration formalities were speedy and within half an hour our 'gang' of thirty Voyageurs Jules Verne travellers were seated in our coach with our Jordanian tour guide Omar giving us the basic details of what was happening next as we sped along the road to the Nabotaean rose-red city of Petra for a three night stay in the four star Crown Plaza Hotel; let the adventure of discovering Jordan begin.

We were to travel through the highways and deserts of Jordan staying in Petra, Amman and Aqaba in four and five star hotels, including the Radisson SAS in Aqaba. Even as a young woman I was useless at roughing it so Morty and myself do need the promise of luxury, a comfy bed, a good meal, a bath and a beer at the end of hot and strenuous days spent sightseeing, walking and often bumpy coach rides to prepare ourselves for the following day's excitement and culture.

Even though there had been an incident in August this year with some middle -eastern men renting a warehouse in Aqaba and firing missiles at some USA ships anchored in the Red Sea, missing their target and hitting the Israeli Red Sea resort of Eilat injuring an Israeli taxi-driver, we felt safe, although in retrospect I realise that we weren't. Unlike our 2004 visit to Egypt we had no armed guards escorting us in Jordan and no physical evidence of security at any of our hotels . Our guide told us how proud the Jordanians are of their King Abdullah, son of the late King Hussein and his British wife, who travels the world as a business man, wearing a suit and carrying a briefcase to promote his country.

Our first meal in Petra that evening was memorable. Although buffet-style, the Jordanian Mezzah of hummus, tahini, olives, salads, pitta, cracked wheat, aubergines, meatballs and soup was delicious. I soon realised that the Mezzah alone plus mouth watering Turkish style deserts of baklava, pancakes, halva, figs and sweet cinnamon scented rice puddings was my preferred choice so subsequently I omitted the hot dishes of lamb and chicken stews and shish kebabs.

We had an early start the next morning, so after a refreshing sleep and breakfast of fresh figs, yoghurt and coffee; we began our full day exploring Petra. Forget fashion and style. Wear walking shoes, wear a hat, carry water and apply sun protection. The two mile walk along the narrow corridor between the high rocks is a downward slope. There are fine horses, camels, pony and traps and donkeys for hire waiting at the entrance to Petra to taxi the visitor down but the walk isn't overly taxing. Along the way view sculptures in the rocks, Greek inscriptions and admire the light and shadow as the sun beams through the darkness of the narrow walkway. Then pause and hold your breath as the corridor opens up and the brilliant sunshine illuminates the grand treasury building of Petra carved from the rose-hued rock in the 1st century BC. You'll recognise the Corinthian columns from scenes in the film 'Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade'. You are in a special place.

Continue walking along a further narrow passage past several tombs to see a Roman style theatre discovered as recently as 1975 by archaeologists with work still in progress. See Roman public baths, shops and monuments along the once colonnaded main street then make the steep climb to the monastery, worth the effort for the panoramic views of mountains and deserts. Although the climb was strenuous and in some places slippery on the well worn steps, donkeys were carrying twenty stone men up to the monastery - with the overweight men being held in place by young Jordanian males otherwise they would have fallen off the donkey. Shame they didn't let them!

After one full day travelling and a full day at Petra we were exhausted so were delighted the have the next day free to relax by the hotel pool restoring ourselves for our evening walk to Petra by Night with only flickering candles to light our way. Night falls quickly so by 6.30 pm we were following the candle-lit route back to the treasury in Petra to hear Bedouin music and folklore followed by dinner in a restaurant in the heart of the rose-red city. The stars have never seemed so bright and numerous as we picked our way through the uneven terrain along the narrow corridor. I do wonder about future health and safety because two of our group fell over in the darkness, hurting themselves, and one man got blisters as he was wearing borrowed trainers. Buy your own trainers. Take a torch. By 8.30 pm we were eating a Bedouin meal in the open air and being entertained by music and dancing, relieved to discover we weren't walking back uphill with full stomachs and instead had a hair-raising drive back on unmade roads to the Plaza and a deep and satisfying sleep.

The next morning we made a fond farewell to Petra, destination Amman, and driven along The Kings Highway, thus named since Biblical times, journeying through the Holy Land stopping to see Karak Castle built by the Crusaders in the 12th century to impose Christian rule on the Middle East after capturing Jerusalem in 1099. Karak Castle was rebuilt as a set based on the ruins as they are now for the film 'The Kingdom of Heaven'. We stood high up on the roof of castle keep offering us magnificent views of the deserts of Jordan and Israel. Such history!

Time for a quick lunch at the castle then another stop en route to Mabada, the city of mosaics, to a 6th century Byzantine mosaic map of the Holy Land then on to the most revered site in Jordan, Mount Nebo; a peaceful and holy place with views standing on the highest point over the Dead Sea, Jordan, Bethlehem and Jerusalem with a memorial to the prophet Moses and the alleged site of his death and burial place. Once again, we had been travelling, sightseeing, walking and eating since breakfast in Petra and were pleased to arrive as night fell in Amman, the capital of Jordan, at the Amra Crown Plaza for a two night stay beginning with a shower, a beer, another great meal and another welcome and comfortable bed.

No lie-in opportunity though, as we were up early again as to travel east from Amman to visit the eastern desert towards the Iraqi boarder, with Syria to the north and Saudi Arabia to the south and tour the Roman Desert Castles built as frontier posts for the eastern edge of their empire. A bit too close to the Iraq, Syria and Saudi Arabia borders for comfort but I simply put it out of my mind as we passed Jordanian trucks taking supplies to Iraq and Iraqi oil tankers delivering to Jordan, then onwards to the Roman Decapolis city of Jerash in the north for lunch and a tour. The ten Roman/Greek cities of the Decapolis, founded mainly by Alexander the Great around 323 BC, were models of urban planning for the whole Middle East. This Roman city has been beautifully preserved as it was buried in sand. We spent a happy three hours exploring the arches, gates, temples, colonnades and theatres seating over three thousand spectators. I'm still not sure why we sat in the auditorium watching the bagpipes played by Jordanian pipers performing traditional Scottish songs!

Do you know? We were tired! Are you surprised? We were driven back to Amman in the early evening for our first 'proper' drink with another couple in the comfortable hotel bar, then to eat a light supper and have a very early night. The night life in Amman is exciting and varied with clubs and restaurants and excellent shopping facilities - if you have the energy.

Do you know? Its day five and we haven't unpacked yet, just our washing gear and a daily rummage in our cases for clean T/shirts. So, a final breakfast in Amman then cases back on the coach for the last leg of discovering Jordan driving along the scenic Wadi Araba road to the Red Sea resort of Aqaba for two nights.

But first, a half day tour of the sprawling city of Amman which has spread from the original seven hills to over twenty, urbanising valuable agricultural land in the process. We concentrated on the downtown area, the oldest part of the city, standing on ancient ruins of The Temple of Hercules dating back to AD161 and admiring the panoramic views of this ancient and bustling city. Leaving Amman we drove south to the Dead Sea for a swim and then lunch. We've been to the Dead Sea before on the Israeli side so knew what to expect. It was hot. It was still. It was spooky. Thankfully we were the only two in our group who didn't bathe in the Dead Sea that day. Omar, our guide, warned us there were sharp stones on the edges of the water but unfortunately almost everyone cut their feet quite severely on the stones and required attention. Others had stinging eyes and sore skin from the high salt and mineral content. They all said they were pleased to have bathed in the Dead Sea, but never again!

We arrived in Aqaba just before nightfall. The rooms in the Radisson SAS were spacious and comfortable, with a balcony overlooking the hotel pool, the beach bar and directly over the private sandy beach and the deep blue waters of the Red Sea. Twelve years ago we had spent a few days in the Israeli resort of Eilat across the bay and seen the white buildings of Aqaba from there. Now I was overlooking Eilat and the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Taba from our Jordanian hotel balcony.

At this stage I was getting tired of some of the group complaining about the repeated buffets and how they longed for a bowl of soup and a crusty roll. Or a pizza! One woman told us she only ever ate pasta and cheese and couldn't find any Middle Eastern foods to suit her. She looked like a huge bowl of cooked pasta and a lump of white fatty cheese so I had to bite my lip and hold my tongue and make no comment.

Nevertheless, when a younger couple in the group invited us to join them for an evening meal of seafood specialities in the Aqaba Yatch Club we accepted. We were both missing our regular fish meals and our taste buds fancied a change. That evening we sat on the terrace of the Yatch Club overlooking the Red Sea and the classy yachts eating an Italian meal of Antipasto and Frito Misto, drinking very good Jordanian wines complete with fun company and all was well with the world.

Aqaba is a perfect beach resort for those seeking sun, sea and sand, and water sports in the spring, autumn and winter with the airport a ten minute drive from the resort. Forget the summer months as it is far too hot and oppressive. Select the best hotel you can afford overlooking the beach, although Jordan isn't an expensive holiday destination. Aqaba is also a good base for optional excursions to visit the sort of cultural places of interest I've described so far in my review. I've seen one week in a five star beach hotel in Aqaba advertised for around £350 which is cheap for winter sun and without the strain of a long haul flight.

But we hadn't finished discovering Jordan just yet. After a morning at leisure basking on the glorious beach and quietly reading we were to drive to Wadi Rum, one of the world's most colourful and unique landscapes of desert and mountain scenery, to watch the dramatic sunset followed by dinner in a Bedouin tent. Most of the scenes for the film 'Laurence of Arabia' were shot using these landscapes at Wadi Rum (We rented 'Laurence of Arabia' on our first weekend back home and sat picking out the landmarks of Wadi Rum as we spotted them)

Considering nothing had happened to alarm me during our week in Jordan, including high mountain desert passes and overhanging hairpin bends in the coach, and driving near other Middle Eastern borders, this next adventure almost had me in tears. When I saw the line of ancient Toyota pick up trucks and was told we were to ride six in a truck in the open back I blanched. I blanched even more when I saw there were no seat belts, the windscreen was shattered with no clear vision and our driver must have been all of a twelve year old Jordanian boy-racer. What a hair-raising ride through the desert that was. I almost missed the famous rock formation of The Seven Pillars of Wisdom as I hung on for dear life. Bumping, tossing us around in the back, barely avoiding rocks, almost tipping over sending us flying out and going faster and faster as the manic drivers raced each other to the safety of the mountain where we were to sit and watch the sunset; I admit to unashamedly screaming like a baby both on the way there and on the way back - but I wouldn't have missed it for the world. We had our final candlelit dinner in Jordan in a huge Bedouin tent in the desert complete with more musicians and bonfires as the desert gets very cold at night; a fitting end to a wonderful travel experience. We left Aqaba and Jordan the next afternoon at four o'clock and arrived back at Gatwick at ten o'clock the same night, tired, happy and full of the wonders we had seen.

Buying gifts in Jordan was quite difficult. In most countries, such as China and Egypt, the local guides lead the visitor to shops encouraging them to spend money on things we don't really need to bring back home as gifts and mementos. This didn't happen in Jordan. We were there in Ramadan when all Muslims fast until sunset for one month. They must think we are strange always asking if we can stop for a mint tea or a coffee and what time are we stopping for lunch. The only places the visitor can drink alcohol is in the tourist hotel bars and the hotel room mini-bars. The Jordanian currency, the dinar, is the easiest ever to convert as one dinar equals about one pound sterling. English is widely spoken and we were made to feel welcome and treated with respect and warmth. We have been to Tunisia, Morocco, and Israel and twice to Egypt and now Jordan. I am sad to admit this may be the last time we visit the Middle East for a while and there is still so much of it to see and enjoy; hopefully in more peaceful times?

1 comment:

Maddie Grigg said...

What a breathtaking trip. You should send this to Jules Verne. Beautiful. It's a place I have always wanted to visit. And you always do things in such style!