Travels: Jordan

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I wouldn’t say I’m the world’s most adventurous traveller; I love going to European cities and visiting friends in the US, but I haven’t really visited anywhere that exotic. I decided a while ago that I want to be a bit more daring in the destinations I visit, and when a friend suggested going to Jordan over the new year, I jumped at the chance. I’ve wanted to visit Petra ever since watching Indiana Jones as a child, and I’ve also long been keen to visit a Middle Eastern country and have the chance to see beyond the stereotypes. We booked a seven day guided tour of the best bits of Jordan, as we knew we would want to travel quite extensively and didn’t feel confident at the thought of driving across the desert by ourselves!, and so just after Christmas, we hopped on a plane to Amman, and five hours later, landed in a city that was utterly different to anything either of us had ever experienced before.

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Amman certainly has many elements of Western culture, and the appearance of the city, set over three hills, with its cascading tumble of creamy-coloured blocks of flats, lethally unconstructed pavements and maze of steep stairways that connect the zig-zagging streets, reminded me quite a lot of Italy. However, the steeples of the minarets piercing the sky, the calls to prayer floating across the air, the shops piled high with exotic produce and variety of souks make it unmistakably Middle Eastern, and the mélange of ultra-modern buildings and recognisable brands – McDonald’s, Baskin and Robbins, KFC – alongside souks, falafel stands and tumbledown buildings, made for a fascinating entrée into Middle Eastern life. We loved wandering the streets, finding surprises on every corner – a Roman amphitheatre, a Royal palace, a nineteenth century Moorish mansion – and breathtaking views across the surrounding city and countryside as we scaled our way up the hillside. Everyone was friendly, everyone spoke English, and we ate like Queens as we stuffed our faces with falafel and baklava. It was brilliant.

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However, we were soon off exploring – our first day was spent at the Dead Sea, where we floated around in twenty degree sunshine in this incredible stretch of water that overlooks Jerusalem and Jericho and wants to do its best to kick you out. Friends had told me of how strange an experience it was to float in the water, and I couldn’t quite understand what they meant until I was in it myself, and kept getting forced onto my back every time I tried to get up! The water is just so buoyant – it’s an utterly bizarre feeling! – but absolutely marvellous. I could have bathed in it forever! The second day saw us heading out towards Petra – it was a long drive, and we stopped off firstly at Mount Nebo, where Moses was shown the Holy Land. We marvelled at the incredible, spine-tingling views across to Jerusalem and Jericho – amazing to think of all the history that has happened in this place! –  and went into the monastery to see some wonderful Byzantine mosaics. We then drove for hours through the desert to reach Little Petra, part of the larger Petra mountain range, just before it closed, and had a wander through the incredible canyons and carvings, which we thought were absolutely breathtaking until our tour guide Khaled said we’d not think much of them when we saw the main Petra site the next day!

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That night we stayed in a wonderful hotel which is a converted Bedouin village, with incredible views across Petra and a fantastic hammam spa. We ate marvellously again in the hotel restaurant – hummus, falafel, the most wonderful fresh vegetables – great for vegetarians! – and the most wonderful honey cakes. Jordanians certainly know how to feed you! – and then headed to bed ready for our big day at Petra. The day dawned bright and sunny, and we were thrilled to be walking through the enormous orange sandstone canyons that lead to the city carved into the rocks as the sun was rising, making the cliffs glow with such a beautiful fiery warmth. Words can’t even describe the awe and wonder I felt as I turned a corner and saw through a gap in the rocks ahead the sunlit facade of the Treasury building glimmering in the distance; it was truly like something from a fairytale. We spent all day roaming this remarkable place, that has so much to see and so much fascinating history to discover. The most amazing thing about it is that half of the ancient city is still buried underground, and archaeologists are still making new discoveries all the time. It’s exciting to think that in ten years’ time, there might be so much more to see. As it was, we did the hour and a half climb up into the mountains to see the enormous Monastery building, and took in the fabulous views across the site of the city as we did so, encompassing the amphitheatre, colonnaded street, tombs and houses. We must have walked for miles, and yet we never felt tired – we were just utterly entranced by our surroundings. It was a magical day – one I’ll never forget – and certainly the highlight of the trip for me.

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That night we celebrated New Year at the hotel, before heading out early the next day, into the desert. On the way we stopped off at an old Ottoman railway station and were allowed to climb all over an abandoned steam train – heaven! – before being taken out on a jeep to explore Wadi Rum and see the sights made famous by T.E.Lawrence. We saw the rocks that he called ‘the seven pillars’ – and the site where he gathered together his troops to fight during WWI. We rode a camel for part of the trip, which was certainly an experience! – and the desert landscape, filled with other-worldly rock formations, was simply incredible. It really does feel like you’re on another planet, and miles away from civilisation. We stayed that night at a Bedouin camp in the desert, and had a marvellous time drinking traditional sage tea by the fire and eating traditional Bedouin food. We watched the sun go down in a blaze of glory over the sand dunes and then bedded down into our tent to sleep under the stars, which was another totally unforgettable experience – absolutely magical!

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The next day we drove back to Amman and spent the afternoon wandering, before our final day, which we spent at the Roman city of Jerash, north of Amman. This is an incredible, vast site, which, like Petra, is still being uncovered, and offers the opportunity to see the entire layout of a typical Roman city. The forum, the colonnaded streets, the temples and amphitheatres, the stadium, the houses – it’s possible to see it all, and it’s all in such good condition, thanks to having been buried underground for so long. It was a wonderful way to finish our trip.

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I loved Jordan – it’s a stunningly beautiful country with such a varied landscape and a fascinating history. There’s so much to see and do – if we’d had longer, we’d have definitely spent a few days at the beautiful Red Sea resort of Aqaba – and I know I’ll go back one day, and also visit some more of the region. We felt perfectly safe the entire time, and were made to feel completely welcome everywhere we went. I can’t recommend it highly enough!

29 comments

    1. It really was Liz! We booked it through a website called Secret Escapes but the tour was actually provided through a company called Exoticca. We were happy with the tour though we didn’t love the Amman hotel choice and actually ended up booking our own hotel once we had arrived, so check the hotels carefully!

  1. Hi Rachel, this post came just at the right moment. My husband and I went to Israel over Christmas and drove along the Jordan valley which was spectacular to the point that we now want to go to Jordan. Like you, we would be more confident going on a guided tour and I was wondering whether you could tell me which operator you went with. Thank you!

    1. Hi Anna, oh wow – I wished I had have had the time to go to Israel too. That’s actually where I want to go next – so we’re going to do opposite trips! As I said above we booked through Secret Escapes but the provider was Exoticca. They were fine but I’d just check the hotel choices carefully before booking!

  2. Rachel, you have made me want to visit a country I never thought I would want to set foot in! By the way, I love your podcast, Tea and Books with Simon, very interesting and comforting to listen to!

    1. I’m delighted to hear that, Jenny! It really is a beautiful place and so worth visiting. Thank you so much for listening and I’m so pleased you enjoy it – it’s just us rambling on really, and I’m glad it’s comforting rather than just annoying! 🙂

  3. I really enjoyed your post, both for reading about your experiences and also for the memories brought to mind from when I visited a different small Middle Eastern country a few years ago. It is otherworldly and it’s wonderful to see and experience things that we’ve read and learned about throughout our lives.

    1. I’m so glad I could bring back happy memories for you! Absolutely – it really was such an eye opener for me. I hope I’ll be able to go back to the region and explore some more.

  4. Oh my goodness, it sounds like you had an incredible time! Like someone mentioned above, you’ve made me want to go somewhere I have never considered visiting before.

  5. It was OK when your reviews made me buy books, but now you’ve got me lusting after travel with a big price differential! Now how to fit this in with my travel plans!!! It looks absolutely awesome.

    1. Yes, sorry about that…hopefully you’ll be able to fit it in somewhere! If you’re interested in Israel, you can do a one day trip to Petra from there – two in one!

  6. I’m drooling over your descriptions of the sights and also the food – I love Middle Eastern/Persian dishes. I’d love to do this trip but it sounds pretty arduous with all the driving

    1. Having someone else drive is the key! And actually even though it was a lot of driving, it was so fascinating to see the landscape that it didn’t feel tiring. You should go!

  7. I sooo appreciate this, as this is the trip I was going to take – then I suddenly needed to move house which swallowed my savings (and then some). But it’s still, and even more so, my first destination when I am financially on my feet and that is partially down to you recommending it so highly.

    But I won’t blame you (much) if it’s rubbish 😀

    1. I’m sorry you couldn’t go! Those unexpected financial burdens are always so badly timed! I hope you’ll get to go sooner than you think. I can promise it’ll be worth it!

  8. Wow. I have heard only amazing things from friends who have spent time in Jordan and it sounds like you’re no exception. What a wonderful trip to see out the old year and usher in 2020! Definitely on my (very, very long) list of places to see.

  9. Your way with words is amazing! You are such a gifted writer. Your joie de vivre shines through in every paragraph. Thoroughly enjoyed this review, and I’m happy you had the chance to spend such a fantastic New Year’s Eve!

  10. I’m really thrilled that you enjoyed your time in Jordan since we lived there for 9 years during two stints and have the most wonderful, amazing memories of beautiful Jordan and its kind and hospitable people. Your wonderful photos brought me back to those days, the sights, sounds, smells, and tastes that were a unique experience and so completely different from our life here in rural Austria, that Jordan, most days, seems like a dream. Thank you so much for bringing it alive again!

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