22 Oct Jordan: Hummus & hills
As sad as this may sound, I often get just as much joy from planning a holiday as I do from the holiday itself. I love the weeks leading up to a trip, when I can spend every lunchbreak sitting in a café, reading blogs and noting down all the things I’d like to do in a shiny new notebook. I think actual heart emojis appeared in my eyes when S showed up to my house one evening and presented me with a shiny new Lonely Planet guide book, before telling me he’d leave me free rein on the itinerary if I wanted.
Obviously I set out on making the most OCD spreadsheet the world has ever seen, trying to find the best way to pack as much into 10 days as humanly possible. I also had some great advice from a few jet-setting friends too, so special thanks and more heart emojis for Richard, Lottie, and Lewis.
So what did we get up to?
We arrived in Amman and got a taxi to the hotel (more accurately: we got a taxi to the wrong hotel, and had to guess the way on foot from there) before stuffing our faces with local food, served with hot tea – don’t ya just love these Jordanians already? – and finally passed out in a garlicky, hummusy haze.
We walked. A lot. We’re pretty sure that, somehow, Jordan is more uphill than downhill – it felt like we were constantly climbing. We managed to squeeze in breakfast at the Wild Jordan Centre, a visit to the Dead Sea scrolls at the Jordan Museum, a nose around at some cool student design at Amman Design Week, a delicious cardamom-laced Arabic coffee on a rooftop in Rainbow Street, the Roman Citadel (and an unusual garden trellis which was S’s highlight of the day – Roman ruins are old news, apparently!), the buzz of the market-filled downtown area, and finally some delicious dinner (lovely spiced meat in a clay pot which is ceremoniously smashed open at your table) and shisha at an amazing restaurant called Jafra.
Read more about Jordan’s capital city here: 24 Hours in Amman.
We’d decided to rent a car for the rest of the trip, so we got a taxi to go pick it up. The Amman Marathon made actually getting to the place rather a challenge, but special shout out to our friendly and very determined taxi driver, who didn’t even charge us extra for driving us around for the best part of an hour. Car picked up, and it was time to head to Jerash, which is basically the Middle East’s answer to Pompeii, except there are far fewer tourists and you don’t have to pass through Napoli Centrale to get there. It’s also much better looked after, and there are camels outside. So all-round, even though we’d seen Roman ruins before, it was still a winner.
Afterwards, we headed to As-Salt, a super cute and fairly tourist-free town not far from Amman. We hadn’t
really taken into account that everything would be closed, as it was Friday (i.e. Muslim Sunday), but dived into a tourist info point to ask if the guy knew anywhere we could get a bite to eat. He kindly offered to leave his shop and accompany us up to his friend’s restaurant (“it’s a bit hard to find”) Beit Aziz, where the menu is exclusively in Arabic and nobody’s English is actually up to the task of translating it. I must say that we waited a truly Arabian length of time to be seated, meaning that we actually didn’t have any time left to wander around the city afterwards, but goodness me the tahini and potato lamb kofta really made up for it.
We tried to head back to Amman before it got too dark and were obviously not hungry after having finished lunch at about 6pm. But just to keep everybody on their toes, I got an overwhelming craving for yogurt, so we spent the entire evening carrying out a frankly bizarre hunt for dairy products in a country practically devoid of cows. And in case you’re wondering, of course we found some.
Right by the side of the Dead Sea is the entrance to the Wadi Mujib canyon, where visitors can take various trails through the most stunning canyon you’ve ever seen. Not wanting to wake up at the crack of dawn for one of the more adventurous routes – which all started at 8am – we opted for something called the Siq Trail, which is a self-guided track and has a health and safety rating of approximately minus a million. It’s about a 2km route down the river, with difficulty ranging from “relaxing stroll” to “try not to drown while climbing a waterfall”. It’s mostly free scrambling, apart from a couple of ropes and ladders to help you scale the biggest obstacles, and we had the most fun ever gleefully throwing ourselves down natural water slides and floating freely downstream at the end.
En route, we stopped at Karak‘s crusader castle, where a friendly local shopkeeper helped us find a parking space and then practically force fed us falafel sandwiches (which were, for the record, delicious). After a little wander, we got back in the car to head to Wadi Musa (the town right next to Petra).
The original plan was to see Petra by Night, but I hadn’t actually checked that it was on every day, and found out quite late in the day that it was, in fact, not. Plan B was a drink in the world’s oldest bar, a Nabatean cave near the entrance to Petra itself. Honestly, it’s a bit of a tourist trap, but when in Petra…
I insisted on getting up at the crack of dawn to avoid the crowds at Petra, but by the time we’d drunk our coffee with a rather Mediterranean sense of urgency, a very large group of Japanese grannies had already beaten us to the entrance. We’d also been beaten by a group of Americans, one of whom I genuinely overheard saying, “Well I’ve been to Rome, so I’ve seen all this stuff before”. But moving on…!
Surprisingly, the Siq path wasn’t crowded at all, and I honestly got a little shiver when we first caught a glimpse of the Treasury through the rocks. It really is how you imagine it from the photos; you turn a corner, and see the bright temple, with sunlight hitting it and camels lying down in front.
But Petra is so much more than just the Treasury. Firstly, it’s gigantic. Like, a lot bigger than you’re picturing it right now. We walked around for something like 6 hours straight and did not see everything by any stretch. Despite sweating out our souls in the process, the highlight was climbing up a winding trail to a little lookout high up over the Treasury, where I insisted on sitting as close to the edge as possible to take it all in, while S sat comfortably in a little Bedouin tent, trying to forgive me for dragging him and his vertigo all the way up there. We took another long walk up to the top of the al-Habis hill for another spectacular view, before meandering back to Wadi Musa to find some lunch before setting off again.
That evening, we arrived in Aqaba (pronounced kind of like Agrabah from Aladdin, FYI), chosen as a strategic place to sleep in order to save us too much early morning driving the next day…
Days 6 and 7
We’d decided that we couldn’t go to Jordan without spending a couple of days with the Bedouins, and it was probably the highlight of the whole trip. We’d booked a couple of days with a Bedouin company, Jordan Tracks, who took us and a lovely Swiss couple all around the desert, pointing out Nabatean inscriptions, funny-shaped rocks, and awesome places to watch the sunset from. We ate typical Bedouin dishes (fun moment: spotting a scorpion as it scuttled down the dinner table), sat around the fire looking up at the shooting stars in the clearest night sky I think I’ll ever see, and slept in some incredibly kitch but truly adorable Bedouin tents. Waking up early is so much more bearable when the first thing you see when you open your front door is the Wadi Rum desert.
We hopped on our camels (!) and were taken back to Rum Village, where we collected the car and made a move towards Shobak – a kind-of-halfway-point on the road to Madaba – where there’s another crusader castle. Both of us found this place much cuter than the more popular Kerak – the ruins are more photogenic, there are fewer tourists, and there’s also a surprisingly cheap café run by an adorable little old man, serving surprisingly delicious veggie sandwiches, so it got bonus points there too.
Wander finished and foreheads thoroughly sunburnt (oops), we got back in the car.
The combination of speed bumps and a crappy sat-nav turned a 2-3 hour drive into a 5+ hour one, and I was in such a strop by the time we reached the Mujib Dam that I refused to acknowledge the stunning sunset and insisted on taking over the driving to focus on something other than how tired and annoyed I was. I was still sulking by the time we arrived, and my mood was not improved by an underwhelming dinner (luckily the first and only) in a place with great reviews, a case in point about why I despise TripAdvisor. Needless to say, we decided that the following day should consist of (relative) rest and recuperation to keep Stroppy Emma at bay.
Luckily for us, the centre of Madaba is pretty tiny, so we didn’t take long to walk around it all. We popped into the Greek Orthodox church to see the famous Madaba Map, and then wandered around the very sweet little Archaeological Park to see a few more mosaics (when in Madaba…) before essentially giving in and going shopping for souvenirs.
Top of the list was a rug for S’s mum who had made a request before we left, so off we went to a magical place named Carpet City where the owner had his wife (or maybe she was actually the cleaning lady, who can be sure?) bring us some minty tea while we got the negotiations started. Carpets bought, we headed back to the hotel where we relaxed (I know!) on the roof terrace for the rest of the day. For our last proper night in Jordan, we sat on the balcony of a little restaurant called Jaw Zaman, where we sampled the local Mount Nebo wine (who knew?) and tucked into yet more delicious food.
If it sounds like an afterthought, it’s because that’s exactly what it was, but on our last day we decided to squeeze in some of Jordan’s Christian sites. This is not because either of us are particularly bothered, but more because you kind of have to go… don’t you? (Answer: no, you absolutely do not.)
We first went up to Mount Nebo – allegedly where Moses saw the Promised Land, and also allegedly a place from which you can see all sorts of interesting places, like Jericho and Jerusalem. Unfortunately, we’d picked the only misty day, so couldn’t see much further than the bottom of the hill. Good start. The good news is that there’s also a very, very nice church at the top of the hill. I’m not a particular church enthusiast, but this recently renovated one is a beauty.
We then drove onwards to Bethany Beyond the Jordan, a.k.a. the baptism site of the one and only J.C. Honestly, this was the only thing I would strongly recommend not bothering with.
The site is in the militarised zone dividing Jordan and Israel, so obviously some of the romance is lost because of that, but the combination of not being allowed to do anything unaccompanied (unusual for Jordan, which until that point had encouraged us to do our own thing 100% of the time), the excessively long waits for a minibus under the sun, and the guide who, I kid you not, had clearly just snorted a line or two of coke and whizzed us to the river at record speed without really explaining anything, was just not a winner. It goes without saying that the river Jordan itself was a pretty surreal experience – on the other side, tons of visitors to Israel were having mass baptisms, while on our side a Berber girl who’d been on our minibus underwent some kind of fairly disturbing exorcism, while a group of Australians merrily splashed around in the near-stagnant water nearby.
It was all a bit too much, so we got out of there as fast as we could and decided to head back into Amman for a more Islamic end to our trip. We wandered around the centre, tucked into a few more falafel at Hashem and tasted some local desserts at famous bakery Habibah before a last hoorah back at Jafra (we couldn’t say no to one last clay meat pot) and headed back to the airport for a long, long trip back to Italy, with bellies and SD cards full, and happy hearts from a trip of a lifetime.