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Tag: "travelling with teenagers"

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.

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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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Wadi Rum – Lawrence of Arabia’s desert

Jebel Rum, Wadi Rum, Jordan

Jebel Rum, Wadi Rum, Jordan

“The crags are capped in nests of domes, less hotly red than the body of the body of the hill. They gave the finishing semblance of Byzantine architecture to this irresistible place, this processional way greater than imagination…vast, echoing and godlike.”

T E Lawrence

The desert which the Queen of Sheba crossed on her way to see Solomon, which the Israelites took 40 years to negotiate on their way to the Promised Land and where Lawrence of Arabia wrote the quote above and helped the Bedouins fight the Turks has captured the imagination of countless visitors over the centuries.

The hills Lawrence loved so much are today are called ‘The Seven Pillars of Wisdom’ in his honour and the area has been established as a protected area with a social mandate to promote tourism while protecting the fragile desert environment.

It’s a tall order with 100,000 visitors a year, but the authorities work closely with the traditional guardians – the Bedouin – and there are a number of initiatives to reintroduce previously abundant wildlife, such as the oryx, and boost numbers of other – increasingly rare – wildlife such as ibex, caracal, wolf and jackal.

We stayed at Bait Ali, a superior camp on the edge of Wadi Rum itself that is eco-friendly, versatile and brilliantly thought out, with a swimming pool, which felt very odd in the desert!  Our host, Suzi, is an English woman married to a Jordanian.

Suzi initially came to Jordan because of the horses and the desert racing and she competed in the annual Wadi Rum Endurance Race (120 miles in one day; about 100 horses usually start and less than 30% complete) until recently. She likens it to the Formula 1 (F1) of horse races and it takes place at the end of April/beginning of May before it gets too hot. Strangely enough, the chestnut stallion I rode in Petra (Irun) and Jarar, one of the grey stallions from the Al Noor Stables in Madabar where we rode later in the trip, were both entered in the race when we visited and it is televised and covered internationally.  I hadn’t realised it was such a huge equine event.

One day we visited the visitors centre near the Seven Pillars themselves. There was a museum and lots of locals with whom to organise guided tours in to the desert on camel, 4×4,etc, for an hour or a day or two, as well as buy local Bedouin handicrafts and view the Seven Pillars in all their glory. We then made our way to the small town of Rum for lunch at the traditional Resthouse, just across the sandy wadi from the utterly impressive sheer rock wall of Jabal Umm Ishrin.

The following day we took the camel ride and 4×4 trip arranged the day before, and explored some of the camping areas where the spice traders and camel trains would have rested on their way to and fro Petra and beyond. We had hired a Bedouin guide, the lovely and knowledgeable Aid Mohamed Soylhin, and he showed us ‘his desert’. His family had been proper nomadic Bedouin and he hadn’t ever been to school – he now drives a 4×4 (“camels are so slow and grumpy!” he said) runs his business with an email and mobile phone, and said that if his children (he has six) want to go to university, they can – Jordan is now one of the highly educated countries in the world.

As dusk fell the three of us were treated to traditional mint tea brewed over an open fire inside a goat hair tent with the Bedouins themselves, while the camels and 4x4s were parked together outside.

Once Aid Mohamed Soylhin had finished his prayers at the other end of the tent he bought over a traditional Bedoin woman’s headdress and face mask (complete with fringe) for me to try on. It was the most bizarre feeling, very claustrophobic and hot, and bought my view of the world down to what was basically a camera aperture. He laughed seeing my reaction, and said traditionally they would only have been worn outside the tents, and were designed to keep the hot sun off the skin and sand out of eyes, ears and skin creases.

It all left my teenage girls wide-eyed and very conscious of different cultures and ways of life.

Magical stuff.

Wadi Rum tips

• Come prepared for temperature fluctuations even during spring and autumn, when it is in the top 20°Cs/low 30°Cs as it can still get chilly at night.

• Bait Ali (00962 202262 suzi@baitali.com) offers eco-friendly, versatile and brilliantly thought out accommodation (including a swimming pool), as well as a wealth of local knowledge and contacts – English owner, Suzi Shinaco and her Jordanian husband, Taheen, know pretty much everyone and can organize anything you fancy, from horse trekking to hot air ballooning.

• Bring cash – it’s a desert and there are few electronic payment facilities and no ATMs.

• Buy local indigenous handicrafts – made by the local women it forms an important part of their economy. Look out for their depictations of antelope and hunting scenes made from beaten tin cans and placed in glass (see picture).

• Hire a Bedouin guide – ours was the lovely and knowledgeable Aid Mohamed Soylhin – 00962 795 624671 badouin_lifestyle@yahoo.com) and get out and explore the desert’s secrets. Whether you ride on a Arabian horse, a camel, or a 4×4 (or all three) or simply hike, spending time in the desert lets you see the hidden treasures, such as a natural rock arch; hanging gardens of melons near an oasis; rock carvings of camels and goats; a ruined Nabataean temple and experience it up close and personal.

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Madabar and Mt Nebo, Jordan

Mosque at Madabar

Mosque at Madabar

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!

Madaba Tips

• 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!

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Petra – The Rose Red City of Stone

We saw Petra for the first time at night.

Inky blueblack sky above, punctuated by a mesh of stars. Deep black in front, behind and around us, candles in paper bags lighting the path beside our feet but little else as we followed the Bedouin leader down the ceremonial Siq. As we entered the rock gorge and started to zigzag through the mountain the chattering of the 150 or so people walking in single file fell to a murmur.

In and in we travelled, aware of the sheer mass of rock on either side of us, but seeing nothing except the nightlights spaced along the path, shadowy figures and a glimpse of starry skies far above. The path turned abruptly right and through the slit in the rock the candlelit Treasury appeared.

It was surely the way thousands of pilgrims before us had entered this most ancient and peaceable city, and as we took our seats on the sand and the Bedouin piper started to play, it felt time had skipped backwards a couple of thousand years.

The following day we explored the Siq itself, which was a revelation after the night time journey the previous day – “It’s so big!’ the children kept saying, and so busy – with people streaming in both directions (on a ‘good’ year half a million people visit Petra) camels, and horse drawn carriages rattling up and down.

The colours of the sandstone were mesmerizing, and the water channels carved out on either side as well as the pools set at intervals along the 3km route and the ‘God slots’ where statues of deities were, or had been, set, were clear and present evidence that this had been a planned and important ‘Sacred Way’ into one of the major cities of its time, culminating in the famous and stunning-every-time glimpse of the Treasury through the slit in the rock.

There was a different atmosphere this time as we entered the courtyard and stood to take in the complete faced glimpse the night before. The reverence was still there, the carved facade is so amazing that it catches you somewhere in the bottom of your throat every time, but this time it was join and mixed with commerce as the sandy courtyard was now filled traders and camels, visitors and refreshments, again probably as it would have been thousands of years ago.

Another day, another echo of the past, although it is unlikely that the gaggles of Japanese tourists complete with fluorescent yellow hats would have been quite so evident in Nabataean times…

The Treasury

The Treasury is actually no such thing – it is a tomb façade carved for King Aretas III (c 100 BC) – but the Bedouins who lived in Petra for centuries between its demise in the 6th century and it’s new role as one of the World’s best loved antiquities at the end of the 20th century, believed that an Egyptian Pharaoh hid his treasure here in the large urn in the centre of the room, and it’s pockmarked by the bullets they shot at it to try and crack it open!

The Theatre

This lies half a mile down towards the city centre from the Treasury. In its heyday it was a proper working amphitheatre, complete with orchestra section, three entrances for the actors (still partly visible) on to the stage, and a slot through which the curtain could be raised. After the Romans arrived in AD 106 they enlarged it, making more upper seating tiers, so eventually it could accommodate 8500 people, about 30% of Petra’s total population.

On one of the days we were there the tiers were visited by a herd of lively goats, led by the inquisitive kids, a mix of colours from black to fawn, followed by their mothers, bleating as if in chastisement, and finally their Bedouin boy, his donkey ‘parked’ in the dry stream bed below.

Most people don’t venture beyond this point, which is shame as they’ve barely scratched the surface of Petra, which covers 38sq miles (nearly 100 sq km) and was home to nearly 30,000 people at its height. The site is crammed with the glorious remains of their temples, colonnaded shopping streets, baths, archways and tomb facades, all carved or constructed from the soft local sandstone with its pink and yellow stripy rock, which glows in the sunlight and which, together with the amazing carvings of animals, birds, gods, and mythological beings, give the city a heightened, almost supernatural feel.

The Monastery

The-monastery-petra

Felice & Cecily at teh Monastary, Petra

The Monastery up on the mountain above Petra is a case in point – a huge and spectacular monument that was constructed in the 3rd century BC as a tomb and subsequently used in sacred ceremonies. It’s tucked away near the head of a mountainous peak above the Petra valley, a good 40 minute walk up very steep slopes from the Museum – donkeys are available – that is best done in the afternoon when there is some shade on the path.

Petra was a cultured and international city, as is evident from the Nabataean style, which is very trans-Mediterranean, including identifiable Greek, Roman, and Egyptian architecture and motifs amongst others, such as Assyrian. That it was a cultured international city is in no doubt: Petra was renowned in the 1st centuries BC and AD for it’s advanced legal and justice system, humane monarchy and technological and commercial skill.

 

Little Petra

If you have time in your itinerary, a visit to Siq al-Bayda, also known as Little Petra, is a must. It lies 8km or so north east of Petra central and was the main Nabataean ‘camel motel’ – well, if you live in a city carved out of the heart of the mountain and you survive on trade, with thousands and thousands of camels stopping and staying every year, where to put them becomes an issue, not to mention entertaining, accommodating and feeding the traders themselves as their goods are bought and sold. The Nabataeans solved it perfectly by carving a mini Petra in a valley (‘The Cold Valley’) that opens on to wide camel-friendly grasslands, and connecting it to the heart of the city via a path across the high mountains.

Here more than anywhere I could feel the life force of this trading city, as we explored the numerous dining halls and rooms, decorated with faded but still vivid frescos, and visualised the hungry merchants and travelers lounging on the couches, gossiping about their journey and shaking hands on deals.

Petra tips

 

• Do allow at least two days and get off the main beaten track if you can. Early morning and late afternoon will help you avoid the worse of the crowds.

• Contact Petra Moon in Wadi Musa (00962 03 215 6665 info@petramoon.com) for the best advice of hotels, what’s on and to book guides or excursions – we cooked an authentic Jordanian meal with Petra Kitchen (highly recommended) and had our hands henna’d at a local family’s home. The owner, Wendy Botham, is from Texas. She said of Wadi Musa, “It reminded me of home!”

• Try visiting Petra at night – www.pntours.com

• Do visit Little Petra – it’s usually practically deserted and lets you imagine how the city would have really worked. Take a picnic and dine in one the Nabataean dining halls!

• Wear flat shoes, take a hat, sunblock and a bottle of water, and pace yourself – hiring a donkey up to the Monastery is a good idea, it’s a long way to the top!

• Don’t say yes to the hawkers at the entrance of the Siq or at the Treasury – the stalls further in have a really good mix of jewellery and souvenirs at a much more reasonable price – visit Firouz’s stall in front of the Silk Tomb for a really nice selection, she speaks excellent English and, like us, you might get invited to have cup of mint tea with her and her young daughters. Priceless.

• For the best ‘sand pictures’ – you’ll see the glass jars of coloured sand pictures sold everywhere in Jordan – made from authentic Petra ground rock, then Ali Hamadeen at the Petra Magic Bazaar in Wadi Musa (00962 777 949160 hamadeen_ali@yahoo.com) is your man. He is a true craftsman and also gives demonstrations showing you how it is done.

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