All posts for the month November, 2017

We climbed this mountain in Petra for the views. We stayed for the friendliest cat ever.

Petra is stunning. A UNESCO World Heritage Site and Jordan’s most-visited site, it is on pretty much every list of things you have to see in the world. Mark was here 20 years ago but this was my first visit. A lot of places can seem over-rated once you get there but not Petra; it is stunning.

The quick history: Established in the late 4th century BC as capital of the Nabataeans – a nomadic Arabic people – it sat at the crossroads of various trade routes and thus flourished. The Nabataeans’ great talent was in controlling the water supply in this desert region, thus creating an artificial oasis. Through the use of dams, cisterns, and water conduits they managed the water that fell as flash floods and saved it for when it was needed. With the wealth created by trade (and selling water during droughts) the Nabataeans carved grand buildings and tombs into the sandstone rocks.

An early morning through the Siq en route to the ruins of Petra

Along with the entire region, Petra came under Roman rule some 2,000 years ago. Then, as trade routes migrated more to Syria’s Palmyra in the second and third centuries AD, the city began to fade. When a devastating earthquake hit in 363 the end of Petra as a major city was at hand. Eventually the city, though still known to local Arabs, was lost to Western thought for centuries until, in 1812 a Swiss explorer was shown the site by the locals. Today it is known as one of the great sites of the ancient world.

We hiked into Petra twice. We arrived in Wadi Musa – the modern town from which one enters Petra – in time for lunch, then walked down to the entrance. We weren’t going to go in as it was too late in the day, but we wanted to check it out for the next day. When we discovered that a one-day ticket was a little over $70 and a two-day ticket was under $80, we grabbed at the chance to go in and give it a quick look. We made it as far as the Treasury – the iconic site for Petra – but we ran out of time and had to turn back before seeing more of the ruins. The nice thing about being there so late was that most of the crowds were already gone.

As you exit the deep-cut Siq the first thing you see is the Treasury, this amazing building cut into the rock 2,000 years ago

The next day we got there early in the morning – before 7:00 AM – and had that walk up the Siq (“the shaft”, a narrow gorge formed from a split in the sandstone rocks) almost to ourselves. This was living! After taking more pictures of the Treasury we continued around and then up to the High Place of Sacrifice, a key religious site for the Nabataeans with grand views over the city and surrounding mountains. A lovely woman from Seattle who was already up there told us we had to climb to the Monastery as well and then relax at a little tea tent with the most amazing views of all.

Here we are atop the Place of High Sacrifice. From here it was back down then way back up.

So down we went, out and around through the rest of Petra, and then up, up, and up to the Monastery, some 800 steps if the travel guides are to be believed. We were blown away when we got there, this massive 500-square-foot facade carved into the rock. While it’s called the Monastery in fact it’s more properly a temple, probably to one of the Nabataean kings who was posthumously deified.

After some 800 steps you reach the Monastery – totally worth the climb

Recalling the advise of our Seattle acquaintance, I continued up to find these view points she told us of and sure enough saw one that had named itself Best View. While Mark rested with a comfy couch and some tea in front of the Monastery I continued up to that last spot.

The Best View viewing area was well named

The view was in fact stunning, across more mountains and down 1,000 feet to the Wadi Araba, the huge flat, dry area that forms the border between Israel and Jordan. The Best View’s proprietor had set up a great little area with cushions and pillows and shade right on the very edge of the cliff. Before I could even settle in, though, this cute little cat, not yet full grown, had run over and plopped herself on my lap. And there she stayed until I laid down on the cushions and she laid down on my chest. A great hike, spectacular views, and the friendliest kitty in the whole world sitting on me purring.

I texted Mark that he had to come and, when he saw the picture of me and the cat, he did. Then it got really bizarre. As he sat down with his tea that cat jumped off my lap and climbed onto his shoulders. Where she stayed. For the longest time, just chilling and purring. Leaving those views and that cat were hard but eventually we had to be going.

Mark’s selfie with me and the very comfortable kitty

So Petra was great. There was a weird thing though about Wadi Musa, the modern town on the edge of Petra. This is a major tourist destination, famous throughout the world. We expected to find interesting restaurants and good food but were sorely disappointed. It’s hard to remember the last time we were somewhere with just resolutely below average food choices. And to just rub it in, most restaurants here don’t serve alcohol. Thank god we only planned a two-night stop.

Next stop Aqaba!

As we were leaving Petra heading to Aqaba we stopped at a viewpoint where you can see the narrow Siq leading into Petra

This kind of stuff was all around us

The colors and shapes were almost hallucinogenic

More stuff carved into the sandstone

I’m sure a guide could have told us what this room used to be, but for us it was just a magnificently colored room

As Mark approached the Best View he saw me and the kitty admiring the stunning views. OK, the cat was probably more enjoying my lap, but the views were all they were cracked up to be.

We couldn’t not stop in the Cave Bar for a drink. Set in a 2,000-year-old Nabataean tomb it claims to be the oldest bar in the world.

This is what you come here for, to bob in the extremely salty Dead Sea

It felt like the lowest point in my life. Oh, wait, it was the lowest point of my life. There we were at the Dead Sea, some 1,412 feet below sea level. To put that in context, the lowest point in North America is Death Valley, just 279 feet below sea level. The lowest point in Europe is Baku, Azerbaijan, on the shores of the Caspian Sea, 92 feet below sea level. (If you’re ever asked in a trivia contest, that makes Baku the lowest national capital in the world.) So yeah, the Dead Sea is way down there.

And then there’s all that salt. Around the world, salt makes up typically between 3.1 percent of the water and 3.8 percent. The Dead Sea? A little over 34 percent, so nearly 10 times as salty as normal salt water. The result is that you don’t so much float in the water as bob in it. It’s almost impossible to put your legs down since the salinity just pushes them right up. Needless to say you don’t want to get that water in your eyes; I splashed just a tiny drop in my eye getting out and it stung like the devil.

Our pool overlooking the Dead Sea with Palestine in the distance

And that’s about it. We stayed at a nice resort right on the “sea” (it’s really just a modestly big lake with a lot of salt) and besides lazing at the pool and occasionally going down to the sea there’s really not a lot to do. And you can’t even stay in the water very long: not to be too indiscrete but the saline compromises your private parts pretty quickly and then you gotta get out now!

The only interesting thing besides the Dead Sea itself and being lazy was the challenge of finding good food. A resort like that is pretty isolated so you’re typically stuck with whatever overpriced food they want to serve you. After a mediocre lunch on arrival and a mediocre dinner at an Asian restaurant in the resort, though, Mark did a little research on TripAdvisor. There was a Crowne Plaza hotel just a half mile or so up the road with a well-reviewed Lebanese restaurant so we went up to try that.

Security at these Middle East resorts is pretty tight, so at first it wasn’t clear they would even let us in, but eventually some manager-type guy said we could come in. We went to the restaurant and it was great. Good choices, good service, good quality, and – since a Crowne Plaza has a lower price point than our Kempinski hotel – a lot cheaper than eating at our hotel. Needless to say the staff at the Crowne Plaza got to know us over the next couple days.

This little cutie hung out with us for a couple days at the pool. She’d climb up on Mark’s lap, snuggle in, and just purr and purr. Unfortunately she almost made us miss lunch one day since obviously Mark couldn’t disturb her.

Oh, there was one more interesting thing: the flies. Oh my God the flies were bad. Apparently during October and November farmers in the area fertilize their fields with manure. The flies are reasonably fond of manure and they breed pretty intensively. Early in the morning when it’s cool they’re not too lively but as the day wears on they come out in force. It was crazy and meant that when we were lying by the pool we would typically have towels over us like blanket just to keep the many, many flies off.

My morning routine, out to the pool before anyone else was there, cover up with a light towel to keep the flies at bay, enjoy the view and read my book.

And that was it. A couple bobs in the Sea, lounging at the pool reading a Pulitzer Prize-winnng history of the Soviet Gulags (tell me I don’t know how to have fun), fending off millions of flies, and walking up to the neighboring Lebanese restaurant. Not a bad way to spend three days, but if I ever do it again it won’t be during manure-spreading season!

Next stop, the ruins of Petra.

One afternoon, unable to bear the flies at the pool I decided to take a hike up the hills behind the resort. I was curious to see if there was anything interesting up there, maybe some quiet place to sit and read. There wasn’t anything up there – it’s really dry and desolate around the Dead Sea – but the further up I got the worse the flies got. So I went back down.

Sunset across the Dead Sea

Here we are outside the second century AD Roman theater. It cost all of $2.80 each to go in, so a pretty good value.

Now we’re getting to see some exotic places. Amman itself isn’t that exotic, though it is one of the top Arab cities in the world, but it’s the gateway to a lot we’re looking forward to. We had a quick three-day stop in this city of 4 million people, capital of Jordan of course. And while it wasn’t the most scintillating of cities, there was plenty to capture our interest for those few days.

Here are some quick impressions. The traffic is crazy, some of the worst we’ve seen anywhere (and after traveling as much as we have in Italy, that’s saying something). They seem to pay no attention whatsoever to traffic lanes and aren’t so keen on pedestrians. Crossing streets sometimes felt like a great sport.

Mark atop Amman’s ancient Citadel, built on the highest of the original seven hills. From up here you get a sense of the four million Jordanians below.

Lots and lots of hills. Originally founded on seven hills (shades of Rome, and Jerusalem, and Athens, and apparently lots and lots of cities that claim to have been built on seven hills) today it spans some 19 hills. Steep hills, too. As the modern hotels are in East Amman and the historic sites are in West Amman, we walked a lot across the city. And there are lots of hills.

There are some good ruins here, too, especially a great Roman theater that is still used for concerts (though not this time of year). We spent some time in the old citadel as well, a site used by Romans, Byzantines, and early Islamic rulers where the Temple of Hercules reigns supreme.

The Temple of Hercules

The best ruins, though, are in Jerash, an ancient city some 30 miles north of Amman. We took a day trip up there and it was totally worth it. While human settlements in the area date back to perhaps 6,000 BC, the remains visible today are from the classical Roman period, especially the first and second century AD. And those ruins are pretty spectacular: the stunning Arch of Hadrian as you enter, a huge oval forum, a colonnaded main street, a couple of beautiful theaters, a Temple of Zeus, even a genuine tetrapylon. (Yeah, I didn’t know what that was either, but it was cool: a four-sided building in the middle of a major intersection with arches on all four sides for people to pass through. Maybe you had to see it, but it was good.)

There may be more columns standing in Jerash than in any Roman area we’ve ever seen. From up at the Temple of Zeus, this is the Forum and the main street heading north.

Food is kind of a mixed bag. To us, at least, it was nothing short of stunning how a city this big, with this many people and no small number of tourists, could have so few interesting restaurants. That’s probably related to the fact that so few places serve beer, wine, or alcohol. Absent that, who wants to eat out? Clothing stores? Thousands of them on the main street. Even a lighting district, an area of four or five blocks where nearly every establishment on both sides of the street sells lighting fixtures. But restaurants that are nicer than fast food falafel? Good luck.

There were basically two nice Lebanese restaurants near the old part of the city, both of which were quite good. Lonely Planet says of one of them, a place called Sufra, that “if the royal family are fans, we’re hardly ones to argue.” Sure enough, not long after we sat down for lunch an elegant group of maybe six women came in along with secret service protection. I can’t say for certain that there was royalty in the group but I would certainly guess ordinary citizens don’t travel in limousine caravans with secret service protection. And yes the food was great even though there was not a drop of wine to be had.

While kibbeh nayeh is the classic Lebanese raw lamb dish, it doesn’t work well for us: the bulgur added to it makes it a pretty high-carb dish. A year or two ago, though, we discovered habra nayeh, the same raw lamb but without bulgur. Here they mix it with chopped onions and a really garlicky aioli before dousing it with olive oil. It is pure heaven.

You certainly can’t talk about traveling in Jordan without mentioning just how friendly people are. Really, genuinely friendly, not just trying-to-sell-you-something friendly. Any time you were out and about in the city people – OK, men – would greet you, ask where you were from, and welcome you to Jordan. Pretty nice, though perhaps not too surprising. After Alexander the Great conquered the region one of his successors renamed the city Philadelphia – Brotherly Love – a name it maintained throughout the Roman and Byzantine eras. So naturally they’re friendly!

And finally, we liked our hotel, a Le Meridien in the newer, upscale part of the city. Since it’s part of the Starwood chain and we spend a lot of nights in Starwood hotels, they upgraded us to a spacious suite that felt so nice after multiple weeks in single rooms. And a not-too-bad bar and steakhouse off the lobby that was a nice alternative to catching a taxi into the old part of town for dinner.

All in all, then, Amman is a good stepping off city to see more of Jordan. From here it’s down to the Dead Sea, Petra, and then the Gulf of Aqaba.

The entrance to Jerash is framed by Hadrian’s Arch, a monumental entryway built to honor Hadrian’s visit in the first century AD. As we travel around the Mediterranean it is absolutely remarkable how many places Emperor Hadrian visited. And, like me, he did it with his boy toy!

Mark on stage in the North Theater. Yes, the city was so big there are ruins to not one but two theaters.

Here I am climbing around on the Temple of Artemis

The cardo, Jerash’s main street. As we worked our way north from the entrance the crowds grew smaller and smaller until we had the place nearly to ourselves.

That’s me way up there in the theater

What Jerash would look like if it still had statues in the niches

If you were wondering, this is what the tetrapylon looks like, though you’ll have to imagine the arches on the sides; I can attest that they’re there. This is on the main street through Jerash, near the north end, where a major street crosses.

And finally, here I am in our hotel room with an interesting magazine. I’m not sure why it was there, but it was a marketing piece for a high-end residential high-rise in London. Perhaps we’ll have to move there!