- Almost five months might seem like a long time, but it is no time at all. Three months in Italy whizzed by, and there were major parts of the country we avoided all together. Still, we know how lucky we are to have had this amount of time.
- With time to reflect, most of all I wax lyrical about Jordan, and Puglia. Jordan for its unknown treasures as well as the rightly famous Petra, and for its friendly people. Puglia for the light, the most picturesque of seaside villages, and the seafood.
- We found it is possible to travel both comfortably and relatively cheaply.
- Renting apartments and houses gave us stability, space to relax between sightseeing excursions, and gave us an insight into real Italian life.
- Travelling off the beaten track – whether it’s to Qatar, in the hills of Molise in Italy, inland from the Dead Sea in Jordan, or in the lake district of Poland – brings unexpected rewards and is always worthwhile.
- Even supermarkets give insights into local culture, and provide both amusement and horror.
- There are a lot of myths about places and people that shouldn’t be believed.
- There is too much waste and litter in this world.
- When life gives you lemons, make limoncello. It really is delicious.
- Travelling abroad for an extended period allows you to see with new eyes when you come home. Things, people, places we take for granted, appeared new and fresh on our return, and we were reminded how beautiful our own country is, and what gifts we have here. Maybe that’s the best gift of all?
Hidden gems: Jerash Roman ruins in Jordan, Poland’s lake district, and the hills of Molise, Italy
Hottest: Aqaba, Jordan, where the temperature soared to 47 degrees.
Coldest: Warsaw, Poland, where we woke to morning frosts.
Most beautiful: Lake Bled, Slovenia, and on a larger scale, Giau Pass (Cortina d’Ampezzo), Italy and Wadi Rum, Jordan
Most squalid: The dirty, littered Roman streets
Most surprising (good): Monopoli’s old town and harbour, Puglia, Italy
Most surprising (bad): Italian beaches
Most annoying cultural habit: Hogging the footpath (pavement) in Italy
Most pleasing custom: The friendliness of Jordanians, and being welcomed as “locals” at restaurants in Italy.
Most disappointing place: Rome in July. (Rome is fabulous, just not in July).
Worst meal: Poland sausage encased in potato dough with a weak, watery white sauce and a few slices of mushroom.
Never going back: Pesaro – Italian beaches. Ugh.
Favourite place: Vittorio Veneto for all round fabulousness. Great scenery, tree-lined streets, charming town (both new and old), good prosecco, good food, and pleasant accommodation.
One of the joys of Jordan was seeing local life – in the streets of Amman, but especially in the more rural areas from our car. The roads (except the main highway) are not very busy, and it was almost always easy for us to screech to a halt, and leap out to capture a photo of local life. (Though there were many I regret missing). Excited by the first goat herds and donkey riders we saw, these soon became commonplace, although it was still surprising (even at the end of our trip) to see a herd of goats casually crossing the major highway of the country near Aqaba. In the latter, desert portion of our trip, goats were replaced by camels as our favourite animal photo subjects. It was quite a thrill to see camels in the desert, both in and near Bedouin camps, and seemingly very remote. Photo opportunities were endless – camels know how to turn to give a classic pose. When there is a sand dune, or dust devil, nearby, then you find happy (if inexpert, and hurried) photographers.
We drove the historic King’s Highway south, a highway that was once one of the great trading routes of the world, but lost importance when the Silk Road gained supremacy. When we headed north, we took the Desert Highway, a fast road, at times very rough, and full of trucks. Trucks driving north from the only port at Aqaba, heading to Amman, or Iraq, and trucks driving through from Saudi Arabia too, on the route north. We frequently saw trucks stop, and it always amused me to see a driver emerge from the cab in full Jordanian clothing – a long robe and a red-and-white checked head-dress. I wish I could have captured a photo of the man who was working on his truck’s engine on the side of the road.
Hitch-hikers abound in Jordan. On the highways, on the back roads, and even as we drove the dead-end road in Wadi Rum, we saw hitch-hikers. It is a common and accepted form of transport, and we saw old men in their long robes with suitcases behind Wadi Rum, women in their hijabs and abayas with young children in the hills in the north, and everywhere young men in jeans and t-shirt, all standing on the road thumbing a ride. And they get them too.
The most beat-up cars on earth seemed to inhabit Jordan. I’m sure there are worse elsewhere, but I swear that on the Desert Highway, I saw a car with absolutely no windows, the passenger reclining in the front seat, with one foot through what should have been the windscreen, and one through his passenger window. But these old cars, beaten and battered, still seem to go, and they were everywhere on the roads.
One of the things that really surprised me was the presence of Bedouin camps. They were far more numerous than I had expected. Wikipedia informs me that Bedouins make up from 33% to 40%of the population of Jordan. In just a few days of driving, we saw dozens, if not hundreds, of camps. They seemed to be placed in the most difficult, the ugliest, the most inhospitable of locations, often right by the highway. (Though perhaps that location makes sense if your only means of transport is hitch-hiking.) Even driving into Amman there were large Bedouin camps. Tents, always goats, maybe some sheep or a few camels, and if they were lucky, a pick-up truck. Romanticised, perhaps glamorised in the movies, it does not look like a pleasant or easy life.
Traditionally the large communal tents are black, made of goat hair, and whilst we saw some of these, more were made of sacking, or cardboard, or the occasional side of corrugated tin. As someone who has had a lot to do with refugees in Asia, I was amused to see a number of camps with a white UNHCR (UN High Commissioner for Refugees) tent. Though this too was a reminder of Jordan’s lot, as the recipient of many Palestinian refugees after Israel annexed the West Bank in 1967, and now, in the north, many from Syria as well.
One of the few disappointments – aside from the wildly inconsiderate (but ultimately hilarious) parking – was the enormous amount of litter. It was everywhere (though to be fair, we saw it not only in Jordan, but also in Israel, Dubai and Qatar, even at the Singing Sand Dunes). We drove behind people who just turfed cans and rubbish out their car windows. It is quite distressing to take a photo of a pristine desert landscape, only to discover there’s a large plastic bag in the foreground.
But I don’t want to leave on a negative note. Jordan was a delight, and driving in Jordan was the best decision we could have made. It gave us independence, some interesting interactions with the locals, and the ability to manage our own timetables, along with lots of camera stops we wouldn’t otherwise have enjoyed. It took us off the beaten track, allowing us to see Jordan beyond the incredible tourist spots. And that was our real treat.
My overwhelming memory of Jordan is the landscape, the sand, and the dust, the dust devils, the endless dust. New Zealand is not only rich in soil, covering our bones, but rich in coverage as well – our land is draped in green, and beautifully adorned with rivers, beaches, snow, and trees. Jordan on the other hand feels like a land stripped bare, down to the skeleton at times. There seems to be nothing holding the mountains together, these mountains of dust and rock and scree. They appear to be in desperate need of soil, veins of water, and vegetation to pull them together. It was extraordinary and beautiful and yet painful to see. I cannot imagine what it is like to live there, without soft green grass and abundant water easing our way in the world. But I am very glad I have visited.
Jordan. The End. I promise.
We finished our Jordan tour in Amman, leaving our car at the airport before we reached the traffic confusion of Amman. (This is our bottom-line rule of renting cars – always pick-up and drop-off at the airport). Amman, the capital, is where over 50% of Jordan’s 4.4 million population live. It’s a different world from rural Jordan; a modern city that reminded both of us of Bangkok (20 years ago), with tall luxurious five-star hotels, vibrant street markets and rows upon rows of shop-houses selling food and supplies, clothing, furniture and, of course, cell phones. Everyone has a cell-phone, and from what I heard (the constant whistle tones), everyone has a Samsung! And everyone uses their cell-phone in the car too. Texting, talking, driving.
Amman is a city with an amazing history. One of the oldest, continuously inhabited cities in the world, its history dates back over 9000 years. We saw the oldest things we’ve ever seen – in fact, the oldest statues ever found (or so I believe). An interesting fact: about 2300 years ago, it was named Philadelphia. Ruled by the Assyrians, Persians, Macedonians, Nabateans (of Petra), and later the Romans. It fell into ruin, and was little more than a large village for much of this millennia, until the Ottomans decided it should be on the route of a railway between Medina and Dammascus, on the pilgrimage trail. Once again it grew, and shortly after WWI, when modern Jordan was established, Amman became the capital. It is at once a young country, and an impossibly ancient one.
Note: Same rules as last post. Click on the photos if you want to see a large picture.
Driving south to Petra, inland from the Dead Sea, we made a stop at one of the many Crusader castles in Jordan. The castle at Al Karak was, again, a large site, which made it easy to imagine both the siege (Saladin kept the castle under siege for a year before conquering it in 1189, after a failed attempt several years earlier), and the lives of the Crusaders who lived there. How must it have been to have come from green England, and find yourself in this hot, barren landscape? What power religion – or societal pressure – to induce you to do this? And with the benefit of almost a thousand years hindsight, to what purpose? The castle was an important one, and controlled trade routes from Damascus to Egypt and Mecca. Perched high on a hill, it is easy to see how it did this.
Then again, south from Petra along the King’s Highway, down to Aqaba on the Red Sea. As we dropped from the desert plains down into the coastal town, the temperature outside rose from around 39 degs C to 46. (And on the following day, it hit 47C.) Our hotel was one of several large hotels right on the beach. The attraction of the sea was obvious, and the husband reported that it was in fact cool and refreshing, although spending any time outside in the afternoon seemed like madness. Yet we saw multiple Russians in bikinis braving the sun and heat, and perhaps more surprising, Muslim families near the pool or on the beach. Dad and the kids in the water, Mum sitting in the shade, wearing multiple layers. I guess it is a matter of acclimatising, but as my faced burned after being in this heat (and in the shade) for only a few minutes, I could only imagine how it felt to be so covered up. That said, I am a huge fan of Muslim women’s swimsuits. With a hood, long sleeves and long tunic, with under trousers down to the ankles, there is little to no chance of sunburn. For someone like me, with an almost paranoic fear of sunburn and almost religious application of 30+ sunscreen, and knowing too that my husband recently lost a friend to melanoma, I would love to adopt these swimsuits as my own. And we postulated, as we hid from the heat in the air-conditioned bar with a welcome beer after the long drive, whether these swimsuits might become the norm, and that one day, as global warming increases, we will all naturally cover up.
The most amusing thing about Aqaba though, was the view outside our window. To the left, we could see a huge flag, one that we assumed was the flag of Jordan (but minus a star – which means it was the flag of the Great Arab Revolt against the Ottomans in 1916, led by the great-great-grandfather of the current King of Jordan). It has been there for almost a decade, and was once (reportedly) the tallest flagpole in the world. To our right, we could see Israel. On the edge of their coast, they had a huge painting of an Israeli flag. It was painted on the side of a navy hangar earlier this year, the “brainchild” of the mayor. It looked like a sad, tit-for-tat response to the large, and beautiful flag in Aqaba.
The reason for visiting Aqaba is not however the Red Sea, though it very well could have been if we had had enough time, as reportedly the diving and snorkelling are excellent. And at least we could say on this trip that we dipped our toes into the Red Sea, the Dead Sea and the Med Sea. (Groan!) No, the reason to visit Aqaba was about 60 kilometres back up the road. As we drove down, we saw the most stunning landscape open up. This was the famed Wadi Rum, where tourists take four-wheel drive tours through the desert and the rocky landscape, and sleep overnight in so-called Bedouin camps. We weren’t that keen on the Bedouin camps, with bugs, dust, dodgy or no air-conditioning, shared toilets, and potentially dodgy food, even though the prospect of spending an evening under the stars in isolation was appealing. So we stayed in Aqaba, and drove up the next day. We turned off the main highway, and drove inland about 20 kilometres, stopping regularly for photos. Every hundred yards or so the view changed, and a new photo opportunity emerged. We had to become choosy. We decided not to take a tour off-road (I wasn’t well), especially after seeing the map of where the main “sights” were (including the view from the visitors’ centre), but simply to drive the roads. And in driving the back roads, we saw the real, un-manufactured lives of the local people as well as the landscape. We also discovered that many of these so-called wilderness camps were only a few hundred metres off-road, next to a village, and in one case, three of the camps were lined up next to each other. Not at all an authentic Bedouin experience, and one we were (by now) congratulating ourselves on missing, in between marvelling at the views.
Sadly, our photographs do not do justice to the environment, the changing light layers, the feeling of being in 40 deg heat, surrounded by desert and this scenery. But I hope you enjoy the camel sightings as much as we did.
… to be continued …
Note: If you run your mouse over the photographs below, you’ll find a description. And if you click on any photo, it will open into a larger screen, as a slide show.
Everyone I know who has been to Jordan has loved it. We now count among this group. We’re not easily impressed, we’re world travellers who know what we like, and why we like it, and we’re prepared to fly for hours to get there. Of course, I hear you say, if a country has a sight like Petra, then it’s a no brainer. And yes, Petra was magnificent. But just as Petra is more than The Treasury, Jordan too is more than Petra.
We had seven full days to explore Jordan, and we needed every one of these days. We arrived in the dark, after a harrowing navigating experience, and woke up in a canyon, 264 metres below sea level, in an extraordinary landscape. We were not far from the Dead Sea, and the drive in and out of our hotel was spectacular. Goats crossing the road stopped us for a photo op. The goat herd on his donkey popping up on the horizon, framed by the hills of Israel and the Dead Sea in the background, was an added treat. The Dead Sea itself has several major resorts, and is much more developed than on the Israeli side. Having experienced the Dead Sea in Israel, we felt free to eschew these large, ugly chain resorts and opt for our classy little spa hotel deep in an isolated valley. Not that we had time to indulge in any massages, or soak in any hot springs. (And not that at 40 degs C, we had any desire to soak in hot springs either). No, unfortunately our time there was short, and we had places to be and sights to see.
From Ma’In, we explored the north. Driving was, as I mentioned previously, a challenge, especially the first day, when we had sketchy maps, and had vastly under-estimated the time it would take to traverse northern Jordan. But we got to Jerash, and found the most extraordinary ruins of the Greco-Roman city, Gerasa; an Arch of Hadrian, a hippodrome, an amphitheatre, temples, theatres, an almost kilometre long colonnade and in case you needed more columns, a beautiful oval of columns that was once the Forum. Of course, we got there at mid-day, and so our explorations were curbed by the heat. But this complex was one of the best Roman ruins we have seen – easily rivalling Ephesus in Turkey, and extraordinary simply for its location –on a hill in a fairly inhospitable landscape, and so far from Rome. (Though of course, we don’t know how fertile it was 2000 years ago, and we later realised that Jerash – with olive groves and vegetable patches scattered about – is actually quite fertile compared to the rest of Jordan.)
… to be continued …
Somewhat surprisingly (though I don’t know quite why I am surprised), the food during our three weeks in the Middle East has been a highlight. Well, for me at least. The husband has been less thrilled, though he did like the hummus. It started off well, when Fifi and Paul introduced us to some Arabian specialities in Qatar. Some of them saw us through the next few weeks:
- Mint lemonade, as it is known in Qatar, can be found throughout the Middle East. A home-made lemonade (lemon juice) with lots of crushed/chopped mint added. Mint lemonade in plastic glasses for an exorbitant price at the corner of the Via Dolorosa (Way of Sorrows) in Jerusalem. In Petra, in dire need of sustenance after descending from the Monastery, a Lemon Mint (same thing as mint lemonade) was provided with a sugar shaker to adjust sweetness, and a mint lemonade at the Four Seasons in Amman came in a carafe with another smaller carafe full of sugar syrup, for personal sweetening. I’ve always loved lime juice in Thailand. But mint lemonade is now a close contender for my favourite cooling juice drink. I will be attempting to make it at home this summer.
- Dips and bread. This is where they started. Hummus, home-made is best (thanks Fifi), with Arab flat breads. Za’atar (a herb and spice mix) on bread, a kind of local pizza. The delicious murtabal, an eggplant dip. And more. When we arrived in Jordan, we’d start our dinner with hummus and murtabal and flat bread. Fifi also
- Salads. Oh, the salads. The heat and dehydration made me crave salads. Fattoush (thanks Paul) was our first introduction, a lovely light salad with lettuce and cucumber and tomato and crunchy toasted or fried pita pieces. But everywhere we went, the salads were amazing. Maybe it’s just the time of year – the tomatoes (and the many divine cherry tomato salads I found in Israel and Jordan) were ripe and luscious and well, just my favourite fruit/vegetable on earth. But there were always zucchini salads, and eggplant, and Greek style salads with cucumber and olives and feta cheese. Which brings me to the olives. Oh yes, the olives here are wonderful. When we ordered a drink in Amman, it was brought with a big bowl of olives and cherry tomatoes. Bliss!
- Shawarma. You can’t visit the Middle East without eating shawarma, also called kebabs in western countries. Shaved barbecued spiced meats, wrapped in flat breads. I love them, but love the ones with the salads mixed in best. The ultimate takeaway food.
- Kosher food. Yes, I love kosher food. One of the rules of kosher food is that dairy and meats should not be mixed. A cheeseburger, therefore, is anathema. Pizzas with meat are not kosher, nor are pasta sauces with parmesan. And restaurants in Israel are often either dairy or meat restaurants, but rarely both. Or they have two completely separate sections – essentially two different restaurants, where even the seating is divided. So when we found places to eat in Israel, we’d often find dairy places. Pizzas with inventive, vegetable toppings, and pasta dishes with vegetable sauces. I was in seventh heaven. I could eat this way all the time. In Israel, I was a very happy diner.
- The serving sizes. We didn’t notice this so much in the Gulf states, but in Israel (and also sometimes Jordan) the serving sizes were huge. A single serving was enough for a family of four in Asia. We wondered why, assuming at one stage that it must be the American influence. Then on our tour to Masada, we met the hairy Oklahoma twins. We sat together at lunch, devouring enormous shawarmas. I asked them about the serving sizes. “Oh yes,” they said, appreciatively nodding at the shawarma. “Northern Europe has such small servings. The UK especially! At least here, they’re normal serving sizes!” They were so blissfully unaware that “normal” was only “normal” in the US and Israel, and maybe, we eventually agreed, Germany.