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Category: Travel

Jordanian Dreams

I blame Blue Peter myself.

Somewhere back in the eons of time before the days of colour television and when John Noakes, Valerie Singleton and Peter Purves were still young, there was a dog called Petra.

The year I was eight Blue Peter did one of their famous historical stories all about her namesake, the rose red city of stone, Petra, and how the Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt had rediscovered it in 1812.

I was mesmorised.

An Enid Blyton fan and obsessed with mysteries and hidden valleys and secret islands, I was immediately enthralled with a pink stone city carved out of the heart of a mountain, even better that you had to walk through a long gorge in the rock to find it. I had no idea where it was, but from that moment on I was determined to go and see it for myself.

Time passed. My children watched Blue Peter in their turn and every time that dog was mentioned I thought about that city, but somehow I never fulfilled my childhood ambition. Until this year, that is, when I finally decided life was too short and told my girls (by now in their early teens) we were going to Jordan for the Easter break. “Where?” they said “Petra, in Jordan” I said (having finally located it), “it’s pink stone city carved out of the inside a mountain, it’s one of the ‘new’ Seven Wonders of the World. It’s not the topless model. Or the dog.”

I have to confess they didn’t look exactly thrilled. But slowly over the months leading up to our departure, they researched it on the sly and when a shop assistant asked them the week before whether they were excited or not, their emphatic “Yes!” left me speechless. So far so good, then.

My original aim had been simply to see Petra, but when I started to look into Jordan itself I was amazed at the sheer weight of history, architecture, history, activities, geography and well, more history, that exists within this tiny desert kingdom. For such a young country, Jordan certainly has ancient and significant roots, which is not to take away from the modern Kingdom of Jordan and what they are trying to achieve on minimal resources, but just to acknowledge that history has certainly dealt them an extraordinary card – or pack of cards – in natural wonders and historical and religious significance.

Where else can you see the Dead Sea, Lawrence of Arabia’s desert, the castles of the Crusaders, the coral gardens of the Red Sea complete with angel fish the size of plates and the cutest green turtles, the earliest Christian mosaics, the mountain where Moses saw the promised land, the site where Salome danced and John the Baptist lost his head, the River Jordan where Jesus was baptized, the hot springs where Herod bathed and the Spice Road along which the Queen of Sheba travelled to visit Solomon…?

Cat mosaic in MadabarThen there’s one of the best-preserved Roman city in the world at Jerash and the World Heritage site of Umm Quais, and the fact it’s where farming, and therefore civilization, almost certainly started, as backed up by their extraordinary legacy of early mosaics. The variety of nature is stunning, from oasis to desert to pine forest, with the Dana nature reserve perhaps the most special as it incorporates terrain from 50m below sea level to 1500m above, although Wadi Mujib, a rocky canyon where you can go white water wading and which seems tailor-made for adventure, comes a close second, or maybe third, when you take into account Wadi Rum, the Bedouin’s desert.

Add to all that the Bedouins themselves look like they have just stepped out of one of very English primary school Christmas nativity plays, complete with camels and head dresses… plus beautiful and tough Arabian horses, world renowned spas, natural hot springs, and the handicraft and silver souks… and it was soon clear this was going to be a bit more than a ‘holiday’.

And, dear reader, it didn’t disappoint.

We travelled there in early spring and left England languishing under grey skies with temperatures barely making it into double figures and only the merest hint of green leaf on the trees. Five hours later and here we were enjoying balmy temperatures in the high 20s°C and some of the flowers were already going to seed – from late winter chill to mid summer in fact!

From the moment we arrived we were overwhelmed by the kindness and generosity of the Jordanians – from the hotel staff who couldn’t do enough to make us comfortable to every Jordanian man woman and child we met on our travels, I can honestly say we always felt like honoured guests.

On the down side it did mean allowing at least an hour per shop, simply because tea and a seat would be offered and couldn’t be refused, pictures taken, phone numbers and life stories swapped, and then gifts pressed upon us that were impossible to refuse without giving offense.

Obviously this may have been to do with the fact we were travelling independently rather than with a guide or on a coach, that we three were a mother and her daughters driving in a car by ourselves (this was considered very odd) and yes, that we are all blonde and blue eyed, all of which may well have ramped up the feeling of being minor celebrities. But since every other visitor we met there (and since) reported the huge amounts of kindness and friendliness shown to them by the Jordanians, I actually think it’s just the Jordanian way to be absolutely lovely.

As the lady we met on the plane going over said: “Your first time? Oh, you’ll be back!” And yes we will.

General Information on Jordan

• Dress code is modest and clothing should reach from neck down to the knee, and at least to the elbows. Jeans are very acceptable, and I found scarves an invaluable addition whether to cover the neckline of t-shirts, pull up over the head, or use as a shawl. Having said that, very Westernised dress (shorts, short skirts, strappy t shirts and low necklines) won’t get you harassed in all but the most mild ways (think teenage boys leering or nudging each other, or grown ups staring) they are way too polite and well bought up for that – but it just feels rude and inappropriate somehow.

• Social etiquette – always use your right hand to greet or eat (the left is for bodily functions), if you are invited to sit to eat or take tea make sure you tuck your feet out of sight, and if you are invited into a Jordanian home (or tent) it is polite to take and give gifts, even if just a box of baklava.

•  Costs – Jordan is still a poor country, despite its growing middle classes, and it’s economy has been put under pressure by the various influxes of refugees over the past 60 years. There isn’t full employment and so if you can buy, hire, use local skills and goods, try to do so.  Begging is not encouraged and Jordanians would rather do something for a JD (Jordanian Dinar) rather than take a hand out, even if it is just carrying your bags. Generally it’s a very affordable country – allow £70 -£100 per person per day for mid to high range accommodation, some activities and travel and eating well.

• Temperature – Aqaba in the south is warm to hot pretty much all the year round, but the rest of Jordan is subject to some mighty temperature fluctuations – they even get snow in the north. The best times to visit are spring and autumn, when temperatures average 27°C, although even these can vary depending on where you are and the time of day (or night).

• Responsible tourism – the water supply in Jordan is under immense pressure from increased population and therefore extraction, as well as, ironically, increased tourism – all those spas, swimming pools and extra showers have to be supplied from somewhere. Do your bit wherever you can – don’t leave taps running, have showers not bathes, and if you don’t need your sheets/towels changing every day, say so. Every little helps.

• Jordan is a five-hour flight from the UK. See Royal Jordanian and BMi for direct flights. You buy a month’s visa at the airport in Jordan.

• The currency is Jordanian Dinars (known as JDs – pronounced JayDees). 1JD is just a smidge under £1, which makes it easy to budget. You will need to order them at least 24 hours in advance. ATMs are widely available throughout the country and electronic payment is the norm – accept for in Wadi Rum and outside the entrance of Jaresh!

• Transportation. There are no trains and the buses are irregular and tend to meander, so best go as part of a coach tour, take taxis, hire a chauffeur or self drive:

  1. The pros of a coach tour is that someone else has organized it, you don’t need to do the driving and you have company; the cons that you can’t go off the beaten track and you have to follow the itinerary.
  2. Taxis are generally fairly affordable and you usually get a guide thrown in for free – you can also hire a car and a chauffeur, which is a good option if you want to go exploring all over the place but don’t want to drive yourself.
  3. Self drive is only for those of a fearless nature with an excellent internal compass as the road signage is near non-existent and obviously it restricts what the driver can see, although ‘stopping to look’ is very acceptable in Jordan! The pros are the freedom and contact you get with everyday people.

© Claire Burdett 2010

Images of the trip can be seen at http://www.flickr.com/photos/funkyangelclaire/4789814093/


Torro! Torro! in Sexy Sultry Seville

Bullfighting in SevilleHot, intense and bitter sweet, Seville is famous for passion, for spectacle and theatre, and for song. It’s the greatest city of the Spanish south, the home of such legendary characters as Carmen, Don Juan, Figaro and Columbus, and the city of the Andalucian gypsies and their flamenco culture.

It’s an elegant and wealthy city, whose buildings and culture reflect the centuries it spent under Roman, and then Moorish, rule, as well as the wealth generated by its adventurer-son, Columbus, and the conquistadors. However, it does have one of the highest unemployment rates in Spain (at nearly 20%) because Andalucia in general is predominantly agricultural and is quite a depressed area, economically. Consequently there’s been a rise in petty crime, especially car thefts, in past years, although compared with many cities it’s still relatively crime-free.  Be careful, but don’t let it put you off! This is a great city for a weekend break, especially if you immerse yourself in the local culture.

Seville has a sub-tropical climate, and as temperatures hit the 30s as early as May and increase steadily through to the upper 40s in the summer, perhaps the best time to visit is in April, especially as this is the month in which the two most important festivals occur – Semana Santa (Holy Week) followed two weeks later by La Feria de Seville (Seville Fair).

Historically, Seville is a fascinating meander through layers of colourful and glorious architecture, over laid by the trappings of wealth from Spain’s colonies in South America. In fact, in many ways it resembles a Latin American city, from its meandering streets where the houses nearly seem to meet above your head, to the heat and relentless sunshine, to the passionate and exuberate nature of the Sevillianos themselves. All good stuff, especially if you’re not the shy and retiring type!

Friday night is a great time to arrive and plunge straight into the true Sevilliano experience. Book your flight for straight after work – flights go from …

Once you have arrived, change into your best togs and head straight into town for your first taste (literally) of Sevilliano culture. Most Sevillianos don’t really get going until after 11pm on a Friday night. Firstly they’re all way too busy on the ‘Marcha’, promenading, seeing and being seen, checking out the shop windows and comparing prices and arguing about where the best deal is to be found. And then Friday-night dinner is often ir de tapeo, or ‘tapas crawl’, where the locals (and tourists in the know) meander their way around an area sampling a selection of scrumptious tapas, each one in a different bar. With a glass of sherry, of course. Remember Seville is the capital of the sherry-making area of Spain, so there is a vast choice available, none of which tastes remotely like the stuff from your Nan’s drinks cabinet at Christmas. This is divine stuff, nectar, and there’s a huge variety to choose from, from the very dry, almost salty, through to the richly sweet, although the locals generally stick to the chilled dry fino with their tapas, especially with shrimps.

Good grazing grounds include Alfalfa, which lies north of the cathedral and gets so packed on weekend evenings that cars can’t get through – try Bar Alfalfa on the corner, and try their provolone al horno (baked cheese). Calle Betis by the river over in Triana is another good tapas cruise option, as is around the Alameda, and in the Santa Maria de Blanca area of Santa Cruz…not that I’m saying that we sampled tapas extensively, but as Seville is the city that is reputed to have invented tapas, it would have been rude not to!

Many tapas bars shut around 9pm, but this is still very early in Seville, as things really don’t start kicking off until midnight, especially in summer when temperatures stay in the 30s all night. There’s a wide choice for your evening entertainment, from the big bar scene along the river (it’s cooler here), especially El Faro de Triana on the bridge  (Triana/Isabel II), which has the best view of the river, as well as all around Calle Betis in Triana (so stay put if that’s where you were grazing), particularly Café de la Prensa, Or, if you want the chance to hear and see some spontaneous Sevillian-style flamenco, head towards Carboneria on calle de Levies, just north east of the Cathedral, an atmospheric old building that is packed at all times and is renowned for its free nightly flamenco.

The club scene is pretty major in Seville, being a Spanish university town, so if you want to go dancing head for Alfalfa, where there’s a good selection of venues, or ask around the students (they’re everywhere) for what’s hot this season (it changes every year), or head over towards the Triana riverfront and follow you ears. Rio Latino on Betis is usually a good bet. For hard house, the serious choice is Weekend in Torneo, but be warned – there’s no alcoves for chatting, so only go if you’re a serious dance bunny!

Saturday through to Sunday offers you the chance of a little culture or shopping wrapped around some good lazy lunches. Now, if you want to go shopping, you’ll have to steel yourself to get up early as most shops, bar the really large ones in the centre, shut by lunchtime on a Saturday. The main shopping thoroughfare is Calle Sierpes (the street of snakes), especially the area just north of the Cathedral, between Plazas San Francisco, Encarnacion, Magdalena and Nueva (where the bus terminus is), the ancient Jewish quarter of the city. The best place if you’re short of time is probably El Corte Ingles on Plaza de la Magdalena, which claims to sell almost everything – clothes, electricals, everything. Their food hall is excellent, if expensive, and recommended if you want a slice of Seville to take home – try their olives from all over Andalucia, the fabulous local marmalade made with Seville oranges (see box), sherry from nearby vineyards, and the local cured hams.


Las Vegas – Gambling Low Down

Las Vegas gamblingThere are a lot of good new reasons to come to Las Vegas, but there remains one pretty good old reason – gambling.

The opportunity to gamble is at every turn, and what reasonable person could resist? Which is probably why over 90% of all visitors gamble during their stay. Just remember the legal age to gamble is the same as it is to drink: 21.

Casinos are expected to adhere to very strict rules to maintain their gaming licences, so no one under the age of 21 is allowed in the casino area even if a parent or spouse is gambling. If they do they will be asked for picture ID and likely escorted off the property, or conceivably even arrested, when caught. So don’t risk it.

Some people feel shy about joining in at a gambling table and choose to stick to the slot machines that proliferate, which is fine, although the odds are stacked much higher against you beating the casino on these than if you actually join a game.

Just remember if you feel intimidated about joining a gaming table is that most of the people are tourists just like you (the professionals prefer the older downtown establishments), that they are trying their luck, just like you, and the majority are probably not that much more clued up than you are!

So, to increase your enjoyment, you might want to learn a few games either in reality (poker clubs are pretty popular in the UK) or on-line, or perhaps think about taking gaming lessons while you are in Vegas – many of the casinos do half hour poker tournaments for free, and they are an excellent way to learn the ropes so you not only stand a higher chance of winning, but you also enjoy it more, whether you are gambling or just watching.

Ask at individual hotels for information or check out the Vegas website for a list. If you want more than just poker, try the Imperial Palace, which offers morning lessons in craps, blackjack, roulette and baccarat for residents and non-residents.


Las Vegas, Hoover Dam, Grand Canyon

Grand CanyonThere are 1001 things to do in Las Vegas, and that’s just before lunch. Not only is there a stunning array inside the Mega Resorts, but there’s all the glitz of the four-mile, neon-drenched Strip itself, as well as the glittering Freemont Street Experience, Downtown.. and although many people visit Las Vegas and never feel the need to leave the boundaries of their hotel, it would be a shame to come this far from the UK and not visit outside of the city limits.

Nearby to Las Vegas there is the desert itself, plus the impressive Hoover dam, and a little further afield, although by no mind way out of reach, is the Grand Canyon itself.

Lake Mead National Recreation Area

Located 25 miles outside of Las Vegas, Lake Mead National Recreation Park Area allows a great deal of relaxation and fun year-round. With 1.5 million acres, it’s twice the size of Rhode Island and is America’s largest manmade reservoir. With 50 miles of shoreline, the park offers multiple marinas, boating, fishing, and water sports. It also caters to hikers, climbers, campers, and car tours, and there are paddlewheel cruises on the lake itself, on which they serve a wonderful champagne brunch!

Hoover Dam

The colossal Hoover Dam was completed in 1935 giving this desert region and Las Vegas a reliable water supply from the Colorado River, as well as creating Lake Mead (above). You can take a $10 tour of the facilities (print your own discount coupon from the website for $1 off) or you can just walk over the dam and view it from both the Nevada and Arizona sides of the canyon. Make sure you park your car on the Arizona side where there is plenty of free parking; parking on the Nevada side is $5. The water levels are currently 50 feet lower than they should be as a result to an eight-year drought in the region, which has resulted in the dam losing 40% of its generating power.

Lost City Museum

With the construction of Hoover Dam, Lake Mead threatened a number of original dwellings of the ancient, mysterious Anasazi civilization. The museum showcases artefacts retrieved from the flooded sites, including pottery, tools, jewellery, and arrowheads. With distinctive black and white geometric designs, the pottery and potsherds are especially beautiful and representative of the rich Anasazi culture.

Grand Canyon

Cutting roughly across the landscape, the canyon is 277 miles long, a mile deep and roughly 10 miles wide and is arguably America’s best-known natural attraction. As the star of many films and documentaries, many of us feel we know it, and yet nothing prepares you for the real thing. It is utterly, completely, and unbelievably awe-inspiring. It takes about 5-6 hours to travel to the North Rim (the nearest to Vegas) by car.

Alternatively you can book yourself on one of the many helicopter tours of the Grand Canyon (try Air Vegas, Scenic Airways or Grand Canyon Tour Company) and expect to pay about $200-300 per person, which is well worth it for what is probably the best of all views, anywhere.


Las Vegas – Top Tips for a Fabulous Stay

Las Vegas - top tips fpr a great stayThere is an incredible amount to see and do in Las Vegas, so make sure you make the most of your trip with these top tips.

Tipping is an essential part of the service staff’s pay check, and an equally essential way to ensure you get all the help, support and assistance you need, so don’t be stingy. A basic $1-2 tip is appropriate for doorman who gets you a cab, the shuttle or bus driver who helps with your bags, drinks waitress, and slot attendants. Service on food is usually about $3-5, depending on how attentive they are, ditto room service, while $5 would be a more appropriate for your chamber maid (daily, especially if you crave extra towels) and poker dealer (especially if you win).

Wear flat comfortable shoes and clothes that don’t over heat you. The hotels are so big you’re going to do a lot of walking.

Carry a water bottle and drink lots. Remember that Las Vegas is in a desert and that dehydration can be a risk.

Assume you will become disorientated, and plan accordingly, whether that’s having a central point to meet, always carrying a map and a phone, etc. Ne aware sometimes mobiles don’t work in some areas of the hotels.

Know how much you can comfortably spend (and lose) and STICK to it. Nothing like financial pain for ruining the memories of what should be the trip of a lifetime.

Do take advantage of hotel ‘comps’ if you plan on gambling.

If you don’t play, do take gaming lessons before you go so you at least understand what’s going on!

Do leave your valuables in the Hotel safe, not in your room, and keep your bag zipped closed and where you can see it.

Do grab a copy of ‘What’s On’, available in most hotels. Ask your concierge if you can’t find one, sometimes they go very quickly.

Do airfreight your extra purchases home if you get a little carried away with the shopping.

Do watch Robert DeNiro’s film, ‘Casino’, before you go, as well as ‘What Stays in Las Vegas’ and ‘The Hangover (No 1)’…

Don’t jay-walk. It carries a $95 fine and it’s also very dangerous. Always use the crossings.

Don’t plan on getting much sleep.

Don’t go when there’s a big conference planned.

Do get out of your hotel and plan in a trip to the Grand Canyon, it’s nature’s answer to Las Vegas!


Getting Hitched in Las Vegas

Las Vegas wedding chapelThe lure of a Las Vegan wedding is not just for the impetuous or worse for wear a la ‘The Hangover’ or ‘What Happens in Vegas’. Many choose to get married in this city that never sleeps, and the beauty of Las Vegas is that you can get married all year round and within hours of arrival.

However, if you are planning it, you might want to consider avoiding getting wed in the middle of the summer, when temperatures can hit 43°C+, and on Valentine’s Day, which is so popular that you can queue for up to six hours to get married! Wedding dresses and tuxedoes can be hired if you aren’t bringing your own, but hair and beauty makeovers are harder to organise on the spur of the moment.

The tourist board and all the hotels offer a wedding service, as do many of the individual chapels. If you plan to marry in one of the wedding chapels, assume it’ll be a short ceremony, as most only allow a half hour service.

One of the most popular chapels is still Viva Las Vegas Wedding Chapel, which specialises in exuberant Elvis weddings and other wacky, magical and imaginative themed weddings… worth a peek even if you’re not getting married!

Marriage essentials

• You must present identification and proof of your age, such as a valid passport.

•  You must be over 18 years old. You can be married if you are 16 or 17 years old only if you are accompanied by at least one of your parents or if you have an official document verifying your parent’s permission.

• If you were previously married and divorced, you must have a copy of your final divorce decree that clearly indicates the date and place that the final decree is registered.

• Both the bride and groom must appear in person at the Marriage License Bureau at 200 South Third Street downtown. The office is open from 8AM until midnight on weekdays and from 8AM Friday until midnight Sunday every weekend. They are also open 24 hours on all holidays. A marriage license cost $30.

• Once you have the license, any person authorised by the State of Nevada can perform the marriage ceremony. One witness must be present at the ceremony. Most wedding chapels will supply the witness if you have none and some chapels will even supply an imitation Elvis Presley to be your witness, so it’s worth asking around!

To officially register your marriage in your home country:

• When you return home, you will need a copy of your Nevada marriage certificate as proof of your marriage. It can be purchased at the Clark County Recorder’s office for $7 before you leave.

• Some countries require a certified copy of your marriage certificate and an Apostilles, so check with the marriage officials in your own country! Both documents are available from the Clark County Recorders office for a modest fee.

A list of wedding chapels is available from Las Vegas Online Entertainment Guide.


Sevillian Festivals – The Holy and The Wild

Gateway to the Seville Fair (Feria de Abril)

Gateway to the Seville Fair (Feria de Abril)

Festivals in Seville set the bar for Spanish festivals generally – they are intense and unforgettable. Just make sure you book your travel and hotel or accommodation well in advance, as they get really really packed.

Semana Santa

Important throughout Spain, Semana Santa, or Holy Week (Palm Sunday – Good Friday), is celebrated in intensely passionate and flamboyant style in Seville. Over a 100 incredibly intricate canopied pasos, or religious floats, each decorated with swathes of silver, candles and white flowers and bearing the figure of the Virgin, are carried through the city by hooded penitents. Many Sevillianos, especially the men, are visibly overcome, and the cries of guapa! (beautiful) echo through the early hours of Good Friday, when the final procession travels towards the Cathedral.

Feria de Abril

And two weeks later they’re at in again, but this time in celebration of dancing, drinking and having a wild time…yes, it’s the Seville fair, when flamenco dresses are worn by every local woman (and some visitors), the local men get to show off on their horses and carriages as Sevilliano society parades around the city each afternoon, and everyone stays up all night drinking rebujitos and dancing..and what dancing! If you thought you knew what dancing was since Brucie bought it back to our screens, think again! This is a revelation.

The Feria de Abril runs from 24-30 April and is centred on the barrio of Los Remedios on the far bank of the river. Book your hotel well in advance as the city gets packed!


Jerash – Roman City in Jordan

JerashThe remains of the provincial Roman city of Gerasa have been remarkably well preserved by the dry desert air of what is now Jordan.

Situated in rich farmland in the north of Jordan and blessed with a Mediterranean climate, Gerasa thrived as a cosmopolitan city throughout the Roman period, becoming one of the Decapolis (10 cities) situated between modern Amman and Syrian Damascus during the 1st century Ad.

Today the remains are so intact that it is incredibly easy to imagine how life would have been lived here – busy colonnaded avenues, small shaded shops, fountains around which people gathered to exchange news and gossip, theatres and the hippodrome for entertainment, and places of worship standing cheek by jowl with places of commerce and government.

Jerash is all the more remarkable because it is still very much in use – daily reconstructions of gladiator battles and Roman chariot races take place in the hippodrome, and for two weeks in July there is an annual culture and arts festival (www.jerashfestival.com.jo) at the theatre – one of the highlights is apparently the Jordanian Scottish bagpipe band performing military marches. Who knew?!

Jerash tips

• Bring more than enough cash – there are no ATMs and lots and lots of lovely handicraft stores in the entrance area.

• Guides can be hired and are well worth it, as they can help bring the city to life, plus ward off the hoards of friendly and inquisitive school children if you visit during ‘school trip’ time in April.

• Do watch the chariot races and gladiator performances at the hippodrome. If you are lucky the Swiss founder will appear and give you a personal history lesson.


Jordan – The King’s Highway and the Crusader Castles

The King's Highway at Tefila, Jordan

The King's Highway at Tefila, Jordan

Travelling down the spine of Jordan, from Amman in the north to Petra in the south, the King’s Highway is a very drivable A road that zigzags across the top of the mountain range through small towns and villages and many sites of great interest and beauty.

Travelling south, it skirts Mt Nebo as it goes through Madabar, passes the remains of King Herod’s castle at Mukawir and Umm ar-Rases before crossing the Wadi Mujib gorge. It then goes through the Crusader castle town of Karak, followed by the university town of Tefila, skirts around the nature reserve at Dana and passes Shobak Castle before reaching Wadi Musa and Petra.

While many coach tours prefer to take the more direct desert highway to the east of the mountains and just drive across to the main points of interest, driving along the King’s Highway is one of the highlights of a Jordanian trip if you self drive, as we did, allowing you glimpses into every day life.

We got talking to Jordanian families picnicking under the olive groves outside Madaba, stopped for a glass of tea above the Wadi Mujib gorge (Jordan’s ‘Grand Canyon’ – it’s entrance is on the Dead Sea Highway) with two Bedouin brothers, ate fresh chickpeas off the vine and were invited to stay at our hosts’ home for the night and meet the families (nine children in all!), waited for 20 minutes as a wedding party and all their guests crossed the road joking and laughing in their finery, and were given many armfuls of fruit by road stall sellers who wouldn’t accept any payment.

It’s sobering to think that this was the traditional spice route and road to Damascus and Jerusalem, that Moses and the Israelites were refused permission to travel it and therefore spent 40 years in the desert travelling around, and that many of the 11th century Crusaders’ battles against Saladin were fought and won up these mountains.

Some of the their castles still survive. Karak is toted as the leading light, although Shobak is easier to visit and probably more rewarding as Karak gets very crammed with visitors, whereas Shobak castle is almost as complete, blessed with spooky explorable catacombs, and often deserted – like so many of the sites that are slightly off the beaten track in Jordan. It also has the advantage of what is thought to be Saladin’s throne in the basement.

Another notable place on the King’s Highway is Mukawir (Machaerus), the spectacular 700m-high hilltop castle of Herod the Great. This is where Salome danced and John the Baptist lost his head, but you’ll need a hefty dose of imagination to reconstruct it as the ruins are very modest. However, the atmosphere is appropriately gloomy (it is known locally as Qala’at al-Meshneq – Castle of the Gallows) and the impressive views make it a great place for hiking.

Umm Ar-Rasas lies east of Mukawir and is a designated World Heritage site, although it has been very under promoted until recently and is still quiet on even a ‘busy’ day. Here you will find the ruined Church of St Stephen and its incredible mosaics (even better than Madaba’s) and the impressive ruins of four further churches, plus city walls, a stone tower and the remains of the town of Kastron Mefaa (Mephaath if you know your bible).

Dana Reserve is also on the King’s Highway, and well worth staying at if you love nature and/or hiking. Dana has a variety of accommodation, and its Fenian Lodge is well worth a mention as it is eco-friendly with quirky adobe rooms set in wild and remote countryside.


To Aqaba!

The Red Sea, Aqaba

The Red Sea, Aqaba

Aqaba is Jordan’s only seaside town, perched on their tiny foothold of coastline at the north of the Red Sea, and like so many places in Jordan, it is an ancient place now bought up to date in true Jordanian style. In recent years Aqaba has evolved into a funky seaside resort with this typically Jordanian mix of old and new, all helped by the glorious weather and great diving. One day we met up with one of Suzi’s sons, Amer, and he was in surfer shorts and would have looked perfectly at home in Newquay, which is very different from the way people dress elsewhere in Jordan.

In biblical times it was a historic port, which was originally known as Ayla and was where King Solomon built his navy. It is also the site of what is thought to be the earliest purpose-built Christian church in the world. Not much of a fuss is made about it’s origins however (again, typically Jordanian, probably because of their abundance of such riches!) and we could see it’s modest remains from our suite’s window, just across one of the main (and pretty busy) roads in Aqaba.

One evening I was fascinated to see a Bedouin in full traditional dress coolly leading his camel down the pavement on the hotel side of the road. He waited for the traffic lights to change, led his camel across the dual carriageway, made it kneel so he could mount, and then off they loped across the edge of Ayla’s ruins towards the Red Sea.

Aqaba is also a tax free zone, so we bought spices, jewellery and luggage, silver charms and beautiful beads (which are bought by the gram) and, as ever on this trip, we were given lots of presents by shopkeepers. One such gentleman ran a gift shop called …  and he looked very like Omar Sharif and claimed to have been in a film with him, which was true if the picture of them together on the wall was anything to go by! However, the quality of handicrafts elsewhere was generally superior in many cases, especially in Wadi Rum, around Madaba and in Jerash in the north.

Experiencing the coral reefs and getting close to the abundant aquatic residents is a must in Aqaba, and one of the main reasons many people visit (you can fly straight here from the UK). We opted for snorkelling as the girls hadn’t learnt to dive, and it was the most amazing snorkelling I have ever experienced,  just hanging over the vivid coral reefs a metre or so below and watching the fish and animals darting in and out of the coral and living their lives.

The Movenpick Hotel was, once again, fantastic. We had a suite with a balcony, and the pools were amazing, as was the beach. Our room lad was an Egyptian called Hani and he made our towels into swans and crocodiles to entertain us – bit like napkin art for dinner parties, but with towels!

Breakfast was monumental and there was a beautiful terrace on which to eat it, complete with resident black cat and her five kittens, which we soon realised they were not just tolerated but encouraged when the staff shook out a table cloth on the unused tables to get the kittens to emerge for the entertainment of the children one morning.

We had dinner at sunset one evening at the beachside restaurant, where I had grilled Sayyadiaah with a surprisingly good ‘Petra Winery’ Pinot Noir, another surprise in a country full of them.

Aqaba tips

• The town has got an international and laid back vibe near the waterfront, but this is still an Arab country, so modest dress is advisable for women, especially if you are renting an apartment in the residential areas.

• If you stay at the Movenpick in the centre of Aqaba, they run an hourly shuttle bus to Movenpick Tala Bay, where you can go snorkeling off the beach.

• The town is a duty free zone, so is a good place to stock up on jewellery, gifts and spices to take home.

• For the best diving, book yourself a day trip on a boat: contact Ash at Dive Aqaba (www.diveaqaba.com). His stepdad, Rob, who founded the school, is English and the instructors are the friendliest and most experienced bunch in town.

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