London to Jordan
We chose Jordan for an autumn break as we had read many travel articles about the Indiana Jones-style “lost city” of Petra and it had been on our bucket list for some time. At 5 hours flight time from London, it was far enough to guarantee warm sun but close enough for an 8 day break.
We highly recommend the Lonely Planet Guide to Jordan which was an interesting, entertaining and informative read, quite possibly the best guide book I have ever read.
We combined the Roman sites of the capital, Amman with Petra, the Wadi Rum desert, a beach break at the Red Sea and a chance to float in the Dead Sea. Quite a lot for 8 days but we prefer a fairly cracking pace. This is a trip following a well-worn tourist trail and many UK companies offered packages. Instead, we opted to book with a Jordanian travel agency called Jordan Select who could offer a private tour, our own driver and the luxury hotels that I had selected. All for a decent price.
We were met at Amman airport by a rep from the agency, our visas were arranged for us and our driver, Ibrahim met us on exit. Our first two nights were at the swish W Hotel Amman, the sort of hotel out of our budget in other parts of the world but affordable in Jordan.
Amman may be the capital of an Arab country but it draws tourists for its pristine Roman ruins. Our driver took us up first to the Citadel and the Temple of Hercules. An impressive array of ruins atop a hill giving views over the city. There is a small but interesting museum which includes figurines from 8000BC. My favourite artefact is the dismembered hand from an ancient, massive statue long-since destroyed. Like Ozymandias, King of Kings.
At Jerash we were handed over to a local guide by our driver and taken on a two hour walk through the stunningly impressive ruins. These are even better than the forum in Rome and extend over a vast site. Some of the columns have been reconstructed but some have stood the ravages of time.
We were given a good briefing on the history of the city and it’s overlaying by different cultures and religions over the centuries. Some of it did rather look like a Roman builders’ merchants with massive slabs of carved stone neatly stacked along the main road.
On the way back our driver offered to buy some pomegranates from the roadside sellers so I could get some pictures. They are a fifth of the price of the UK and much better tasting. Jerash grew in Roman times due to its fertile soil and fresh produce.
We spent the evening in the modern Abdali and Boulevard shopping malls which had cafes, restaurants and plenty to see. There were buskers and street entertainers and a relaxed vibe of a modern Arabic city where everyone mixed and enjoyed themselves. Reminded us of Kuala Lumpar.
On the Kings’ Highway
A long day in the car today travelling from Amman to Petra. The desert roads looked like Martian landscapes in parts. Hard to imagine much of this land blooms in spring and is a verdant green. Our first stop was Mt Nebo believed to be the place where Moses climbed from the Valley of Moab, and from where God showed him the Promised Land, as well as Moses’ last resting place. His grave has not yet been found but our guide pointed out the spring that was meant to have been conjured up from a rock in the nearby wadi.
We went on to the St George Greek Orthodox church in Madaba which is known as ‘The City of Mosaics’, where the mass had just finished. It’s claim to fame is a Byzantine mosaic map of the Holy Land that goes back to the 6th Century, showing Jerusalem and other cities. We also visited the nearby archaeological Park, which houses the remains of several Byzantine churches, including the amazing mosaics of the Church of the Virgin. We liked the mosaic of the spotty camel best.
We then drove to the Wadi Al Mujib valley which is known locally as the Grand Canyon of Jordan. It’s about 850m tall and quite impressive. We also met our first Johnny Depp look-a-like who was quite amiable.
Then Kerak and the Crusader castle atop a hill to guard the Silk Route. This is mostly ruins but with lots of chambers hidden under the ground. A nice hour’s scramble around the ruins.
Our final stop of the day to allow us to appreciate the full glory of (big) Petra was Little Petra. This has its own set of tombs and Treasury, but on a much more manageable scale.
We arrived in Petra just in time for our cooking class/dinner at Petra Kitchen. Great fun and very much like a supper club with 7 of us around a table eating what we had just made and all for Dinar 70 for both of us.
Our hotel was the Movenpick Petra right beside the Petra site gates.
The Rose Red City of Petra
Very early start to be at the gates of Petra by 0700. Actually, this proved to be a good idea as we had the Siq mostly to ourselves and the temperature was much better for the 18km we had to walk that day. We did skip the horse ride for the 6 times we traversed the Siq over the two days. We didn’t want to ride or argue about the tip needed to get off the horse.
The stone of Petra and surrounding hills is fascinating in terms of its colours and shapes. The monuments created by the Nabateans 2000 years ago are stunning in scale and engineering. The treasury hadn’t been lit by the sun when we arrived but was imposing and impressive.
We then walked with our guide, Samir, past the tombs and religious symbols towards the Basin detouring up to “The Church” which has an interesting mosaic floor. Samir was very good and we learnt a lot about the history of the place and that much is still buried under the sand. Excavation has been slowed down to preserve what isn’t known. He also warned us to drink a lot of water, as it’s easy to dehydrate in the dry air, and stay to paths. One couple recently got lost and ended up in Israel 3 days later!
We decided to march up the 800 steps to the Monastery, with a short visit to the Lion Triclinium, as the temperature climbed and watched the sun come on to its face from a hill nearby. The most amusing part of the climb was hearing an 8 year old local boy hanging off the back of a donkey telling his Chinese passenger he needed to learn to speak better English and tell his wife to lean forward to avoid falling off.
We went up to the view points in front of the Monastery before walking down to the Basin for lunch and a rest.
Una is very keen on animals, so she gave our apple cores to a donkey and then was persuaded, (didn’t take much), to ride a 2 year old trainee racing camel, called Nutella, back to the Treasury. It was pretty tough racing after the camel taking pictures of the camel all the way back. I was beat.
I had to stop at the café opposite the Treasury and recover.
We had booked Petra by Night and there’s lots of advice on line about how to approach this as a photographer. We were at the front of the queue on the advice of our guide and stopped to take pictures of the lanterns though it was so dark they didn’t really work (over 30 seconds at f1.4). When we arrived at the Treasury we joined fellow photographers on the back wall to the left of the entrance and had a good view of the lanterns before the crowds filled the space. Too many people. At the end, everyone waiting around doing selfies so not much opportunity to take good clear pictures. My advice is arrive early, stay at the back, get your shots then just enjoy the show.
Petra at our pace
Petra at our own timing today though when we entered at 0830 the crowds of bus tours had already started to arrive. Our goal today was to walk up to the Treasury high view point following the trail behind the palace. This was again lots of steps and I think we climbed higher than the Monastery walk.
By now we were used to fending off all the “ My friend, you want a donkey ride ? “ and “ You like to buy ? Special offers ? “
The café at the end of the path has fantastic views from above of the Treasury and we bought a couple of drinks to pay for the experience.
The very best advice from the LP guidebook is enjoy Petra by getting up to any of the “high places “. You will see lizards and birds and very few other tourists and get a proper feel for the atmosphere and magic of Petra.
We went down, stopping at an abandoned café which had fantastic views for our picnic lunch and then went around the Royal Tomb part of the complex. The Silk Tomb ceiling is a fantastic cascade of coloured rock which is hard to capture. Well worth a visit. The palace is an impressive multi-story building.
We’d been persuaded by our driver to have a hamman at Al Yakhor. The Haman was a touristy experience though OK for the price of JD50 for two and it really did help the sore muscles.
Between a rock and a hard place
One of our more challenging days. Off to explore the desert of Wadi Rum.
Stopping at the Wadi Rum visitor centre, we picked up our tickets and then went to Sun City Luxury Desert Camp where we’d booked a clear view bubble tent to be able to lie in bed watching the stars.
The room itself was good with a nice big bathroom and clear views across the desert. We had an hour to get organised before our 3hr jeep tour. As we walked to reception the owner came up and in quick succession told us that a sick person needed our tent, it was closed and that our agent had cancelled our reservation the day before. We told him in no uncertain words where to get off. We were not moving to a normal tent. We called our driver to sort it out . We’d handed over the voucher for the bubble tent when we arrived so weren’t very sure what the problem was.
We had an excellent jeep driver in Musa who was very gentle and informative – also refused a tip at the end. He took us to a variety of view points including the 7 Pillars of Wisdom and the location The Martian was filmed. Another Star Wars was also being shot just a few miles away.
The sunset rock was in the middle of the desert and we arrived in reasonable time. As we sipped our cocktails another 40 jeeps turned up and it became a mass experience. All that desert and everyone goes to the same place.
We’d got a call from our agent offering us 3 options, none of them being the original bubble tent. We were indeed going to be kicked out of it, 6 hours after we had checked in and unpacked. No explanation of what had gone wrong and why. I guess to avoid losing face. We choose to take the option to move to another camp, Aicha Memories. There we could have another bubble tent. This meant another 30 minute mad dash across the pitch black desert with a nice young man Ahmed who spoke zero English. We couldn’t see anything but he switched from track to track. We arrived in time for dinner in actually a more pleasant dining area and a bar area carved out of the rock . Una tried a shisha pipe which didn’t really agree with her.
The bubble tent itself was very Arabic and a bit worn but the staff very warm and welcoming. The manager was also very apologetic in the morning.
No parting of the Red Sea today
After watching the sunrise from our bed in the desert camp and a good breakfast we headed back to the local village and on to the Movenpick Tala Bay some distance outside of Aqaba. On the way we saw the camel race track and a camel heading for a warm up lap.
A relaxed day reading and swimming but no snorkelling due to the waves (red flags on the beach). We watched the sunset from the wooden pier and tens of frilly Lion fish floated past.
A giant aquarium
Our first full day of relaxation – always a challenge for us. After breakfast we wandered along the beach to the marina and bought a few gifts as well as a huge vase which we hope will survive hand luggage. The owner bemoaned the lack of tourists in what is coming up for high season and the decreasing quality of them. They also served Illy coffee in a local café so we paused and watched life go by.
The quality of the snorkelling from the hotel beach was excellent. A proper reef with corals, sea grass and plenty of Nemos to find. Very colourful and easy to do. The hotel pools were also fabulous and no shortage of places to relax and enjoy the beautiful hotel gardens.
Dinner at the local marina for another taste of Jordanian food at Rahamani.
Dead Sea Rolls
Our final day of activities. A couple of hours drive up to the Kempinski at the Dead Sea. We stopped along the way to see the wadi which you can canyon through and the salt formations along the banks of the Dead Sea near Lot’s Cave. We even saw the rock formation which is in legend the pillar of salt of Lot’s nosey wife.
The hotel is huge covering a wide area and on multiple levels and quite some distance from reception down to the sea.
Back out at 1630 to try the actual Dead Sea. The water is oily in texture and extremely buoyant. Not keen on it, to be honest. It looks spooky and weird and it feels strange. The mud was interesting and it did make our skin silky smooth but it was a bugger to rinse off ourselves and clothing. Apparently, the Nabateans used to sell Bitumen from the Dead Sea to the Egyptians for embalming.
Sunset from our huge balcony overlooking the sea and Israel.
Dinner at the hotel’s Thai restaurant .
Early flight home meant a 4am start and missing the hotel’s breakfast. Still, more time to unpack and recover from the journey after a busy but exciting week in Jordan. We would recommend it for the history, activities, luxurious hotels, sea life of the Red Sea and of course the amazing site that is Petra. The people were all friendly, we felt very safe and relaxed there. Perfect for a varied and adventurous holiday.