A glass of sweet mint tea at the Haret Jdoudna in the heart of Madaba was our welcome to Jordan the evening we arrived. A traditional merchant’s house, Harat Idoudna is built around a courtyard complete with pots of vivid flowers sprawling over the stone stops and a fig tree in the central courtyard.
The rooms lead one from the other and the décor is simple and traditional, with stoves and comfortable couches for the colder months and shaded courtyard tables at which to sit in the summer, and it quickly became one of our favourite stopping points, especially as there is a lovely little craft shop at the rear where local artisan pieces can be purchased at a very reasonable price.
Madaba is only 25km from the airport and a perfect place to base yourself to explore the centre and north of the country, including the Christian mosaics, Mt Nebo, Jerash, the Dead Sea, the Desert castles and the Crusader castles, and Ma’en Hot Springs. The adventure trails of Wadi Mujib and a number of the nature reserves are also within easy reach of Madaba, as is horse riding at a selection of the Arabian riding stables, so it’s great if you are feeling active as well.
In the town itself there are is a huge variety of pre-Roman, Roman and early Christian mosaics, including the famous map of the Holy Land at St George’s, which was crowded every time we stopped by. The other mosaic sites were, in contrast, almost always empty and we usually had the guide all to ourselves, so it’s worth going off the beaten track a little if you can.
Possibly the best of the mosaics are to be found at the Church of the Apostles, where you can see scenes from the earliest human civilizations, often of the wild life or mythology, or just plain amazing, such as the man driving a bird in harness or a riding an ostrich.
We visited Mount Nebo, where Moses finally looked out over the Promised Land after a long sojourn in the desert as the tribes along the fertile mountains wouldn’t let the Israelites pass through. You can see the Dead Sea and River of Jordan, and on a clear day (it’s mainly hazy to be honest), Jerusalem and Jericho. Looking back east at the olive groves of Madabar, and then west over the scrubland towards Jerusalem, my eldest daughter, Cecily, began to wonder at the reaction Moses may have got when he declared it was ‘The Promised Land’.
“Hey dude’, said Cecily, aged 13, getting into what must be the ‘Walt Disney version’ of the one of the Israelite tribesmen, “You’re facing the wrong way! Look, the olive trees and corn are that way! No more deserts, please!”
We spent a day at the Ma’in Hot Springs, where the water gushes out of the rock at 70°C and which is where King Herod came to bathe, which is incredible and is treated like the local swimming bathes and picnic area by the locals. We also visited the site of Herod’s castle, where Salome danced and John the Baptist lost his head, which lies half an hour’s drive south along the King’s Highway – not much to see now and you will need to hire a local guide, but worth it for the atmosphere and view.
Being active types we also wanted to go white water wading in Wadi Mujib, but the girls were too young (it’s 16 or over) so we settled for horse riding instead at the Noor Riding Stables, beautifully situated in olive groves just to the south east of Madaba, where owners Mnawer and Helle Al Zaben speak brilliant English and run events, barbeques and group riding days. The children brushed up their riding with Egyptian instructor, Azzat, who is one of the best riding instructors I have ever met, and were allowed to feed the Arab horses and even wash them down at the end of the day – the stuff memories are made of!
• Centralise yourself here instead of Amman; the town is self contained and beautiful, and has a really friendly and welcoming atmosphere – Friday picnics in the surrounding olive groves is a local tradition.
• The best hotel in town is the Miriam Hotel, which has its own private pool and whose friendly staff, led by owner, Charl, know everything about everything and can organize anything from horse riding to day trips and everything in between.
• It’s worth visiting all the mosaic sites, not just the Church of St George’s, which is often crowded and, although unique, not actually much to see compared to the others.
• Amazing handicrafts abound in and around Madaba – there are handicraft souks on the road to Mt Nebo, as well as in town mostly centred along Artisan’s Street. Particularly look out for mosaics, hand woven rugs and wall hangings, and blown glass.
• Try the lemon and mint iced drink that is readily available in all the cafes here – it’s incredible!