Posted by inka on Nov 30, 2010 in Day trips
I’m sure that every dedicated traveler has at least one dream destination, a place on our planet they absolutely have to see before their ticket gets punched for the last time.
Mine was Petra and it took me many years before I finally had a chance to make my dream come true. Having parked myself in Beirut for several months, it would have been a crime not to hop on a plane and cover the distance of a one hour flight to Amman. Last week, I did.
To build up anticipation, I didn’t rush to Petra straight away. I went north to Jaresh first which was a half day trip, but the next day off I went to Petra. I like to get a car and driver so I can stop along the way when I want and take pictures of unexpected sights, like the camels which got it into their head to cross the desert highway just when it got particularly busy and quite a few frustrated drivers had to hit the brakes.
They made it across the highway!
Or the coffee vendor with beautifully hammered silver urns who was only too happy to have his picture taken. The drive from Amman to Petra takes about 3 hours on the modern desert highway or about 5 taking the more scenic Kings Highway.
Coffeeman and his silver urns
Glamourgranny travels in style
The first thing I learned when planning my trip was that most people go for three days. That’s the time you really need if you want to explore every nook and cranny of the capital of the Nabateans which they started constructing some 2200 years ago. I had no idea how massive the complex is. Visitors either go with organized tours or, like me, with a car and driver and find accommodation in the modern town of Petra. There are plenty of hotels to choose from, from budget to 5 star.
Much of the appeal of Petra comes from the location. It’s a unique site where awesome, multicolored sandstone mountains with steep, rocky slopes and towering, craggy cliffs provide the background for the celebrated buildings, theatres, tombs, facades and palaces most of which are carved out of the rock and reach dimensions which simply leave you open mouthed.
The Nabateans, a gifted and highly sophisticated people who settled in Southern Jordan wisely chose their city which lay on the ancient Arabian trade routes and was the basis for their wealth and profits which in turn enabled them to embellish their city and form an important and powerful kingdom which ultimately ruled much of Arabia. Although they were fiercely independent and fought ferocious wars to protect their predominance, they were also open to other cultural influences which explains the particular style of the treasures of Petra.
In 106 AD however, the state was annexed by the Roman Empire and although the Nabataean civilization continued to flourish for some time, shifts in trade and power finally lead to its decline and Petra fell into ruin. After the 14th century, one of the great civilizations of the world was completely lost to the west until…. another one of the great discovery stories happened: a Swiss traveler by the name of Johann Ludwig Burckhardt rediscovered Petra as late as 1812 and, knowing the story, I was keen to re-live what he must have felt when he clapped eyes on a place which Dean Burgon in his famous poem describes like this: “Match me such a marvel save in Eastern clime/ A rose-red city half as old as time”.
Back to Mr. Burckhardt. He was a thoroughly prepared, British sponsored traveler, who learned perfect Arabic in Cambridge and joined the African Association in an expedition to discover the source of the river Niger. He submerged himself completely into the Arabic world by taking a muslim name, dressing in Arabic clothes and sharing the life of camel drivers and members of caravans. After criss crossing Syria and what is today Jordan, he literally happened upon Petra, he wasn’t looking for it.
So, here I was at the entrance to the complex, paying my admission and setting off on the trail which leads to the first wonder of nature, a 1200 m long deep and narrow gorge known as As-Siq. The rock walls soar up as high as 80 m and the path gets narrower and narrower. You can either walk, or ride on horse back or, hire a small carriage for 2 people, the clip clopping hooves of the little horse echoing off the surrounding cliffs.
Carriages for those who can't walk so well
I didn’t know where to look first; up, down, sideways at the many carvings which appeared already in the rock surface or straight ahead. The gorge gets really narrow, there is a final bent and then comes the moment which must have stopped Mr. Burckhardt cold: the first glimpse of Petra’s most famous sight: the façade of what is called The Treasury.
The big OHHHH moment!
I knew what to expect but I can easily imagine what a person faced with this sight unexpectedly must have felt. Everybody stopped and just gazed and then tried to capture the moment as best as possible. Even if you do nothing else, this is one of the unforgettable experiences every traveler treasures forever.
It was carved in the 1st century BC as a tomb of an important Nabataean king and combines Hellenistic elements with Nabataean art. 30m wide and 43m high you can only feel dwarfed by this truly majestic sight.
The Treasury in Petra
There are a total of 34 different places to visit in the entire complex which explains why you can easily spend three days. The furthest is Ad-Deir. Reached by climbing 800 stairs with stunning views along the way a tomb/temple which was an important pilgrimage destination looms up into the sky and is Petra’s second most famous site.
You can admire the High Place of Sacrifice, the colonnaded street, a massive theatre and much much more, but given that I only had a few hours, I walked on a bit further, then turned around and retraced my steps past the Treasury and listened to a musician playing a one string violin at the foot, providing sounds of melancholic back ground music which were exceptionally compelling in this awesome place.
A musician playing at the foot of the Treasury
Given that approx. 2 mill people visit Petra each year, the end of November is a good time to visit. The weather is warm but not hot and few tourists come.
If you go during the season make sure to start your visit at 6am, just when the complex opens.
Admission is expensive. 1 day costs $120. It gets cheaper if you pay for 2 or 3 days, but you have to prove that you are either a cruise ship passenger or stay in a hotel. Horse back riding is included in the price but the carriage is not.
A car and driver for a day trip from Amman costs between $100 and $120.
Posted by inka on Nov 27, 2010 in Day trips
After an absolute overdose of two days full of Jordan’s historical wonders such as Petra, Jaresh and Aljoun castle I was looking forward to a break of fun and games with a visit to the Dead Sea.
It goes without saying that you simply can’t visit Jordan and not have at least dipped into the Dead Sea. Hani, my driver and Dave, a photographer from Arizona whom I had met in my tiny hotel in downtown Amman and I grabbed our swim things and set off south from Amman on the scenic route to the public access known as Amman Beach.
Hani, my friendly driver
The scenic route leads past Mount Nebo where Moses died and after that through miles and miles of overwhelming nothingness. A few bedouine tents here and there, the odd camel, goats, but no vegetation to speak off, rubble, sand and an eternal road.
Jordan's desert road to the Dead Sea
One more bend and, after approx. 3 hours, the scene changes dramatically. The Dead Sea, the lowest point on earth, suddenly spreads out before the eye, surrounded by fertile plantations of vegetables, fruit and palm trees.
Bedouine tents give way to very upscale holiday condos and luxurious beach resorts. Amman Beach is where everybody can go to float In the sea and wallow in the black mud to their heart’s content.
Amman Beach - public Dead Sea resort
The first thing I saw was a sign at the entrance which gives instructions as how to behave in the Dead Sea. Among them…not to dive. As I found out soon enough, diving is impossible, even if you wanted to. The water won’t let you. In fact, due to the extreme salt content, you can’t do anything much. I tried to stand upright and popped back like a cork. You just wade in, drop on your back and drift. I used my flip flops as paddles to be able to swim (backward) back to shore. It’s really unbelievable.
Dead Sea instructions
More fun however is to be had ashore. A group of Spanish tourists really got into the spirit of things and smeared themselves all over with the beneficial mud of the Dead Sea. Huge buckets of the stuff are placed everywhere along the beach and are free to use for everyone.
Fun in the mud
Admission to Amman Beach is $15 which buys you the use of the beach, shower and changing facilities, two swimming pools and chairs and tables. For another $10 you get a very substantial buffet lunch. It’s a nice day out in a place of this planet which you won’t find anywhere else.
Posted by inka on Nov 23, 2010 in museums
, Turkey Travel
As so often happens, it all started with a story. “Have you ever heard the legend of Ferhat and Sirin?” my Turkish friend asked whilst we were discussing some pretty interesting Turkish folklore characters of which there are plenty. “No,” I replied, ear cocked and pen poised, ready to take note of another tale for my growing collection.
“Ah, it’s so sad, sooo romantic,” she sighed being a consummate actress into the bargain. “You see, it all took place in Amasya in the Black Sea region of Turkey.
Sirin was a princess and her father, the king, who loved her very much, wanted to build a palace for his darling daughter. Only the best was good enough for her, so he asked the town’s best artist, young Ferhat to do the stone work and decorations. Ferhat and Sirin met, fell hopelessly in love and wanted to marry, a situation the king took a very dim view of. However, moved by his daughter’s pleas, he promised that Ferhat could marry her if he managed to solve Amasya’s big problem: the lack of water. The water was trapped in the surrounding mountains and if Ferhat could manage to open a breach and bring water to the city, his reward would be his beloved Sirin. The king did however impose a harsh condition: Ferhat had to work on his own and he could only use a chisel.
For eleven years Ferhat chipped away, working his way higher and higher up into the mountains, being daily cheered on by Sirin and the entire population for whom he had already become a hero. The day came when the final blow was delivered and the water gushed down into the valley in a wild torrent. Ferhat had turned his back and raised his chisel in triumph when the water swept him down the rocks to his death. In utter despair, Sirin killed herself with a jeweled dagger she carried in her belt. “
Statue of Ferhat and Sirin in Amasya
The story ended in tragedy, but the River Yesil provides Amasaya with water ever since and I had found a new destination to visit.
As I like to do, I traveled by one of Turkey’s comfortable long distance coaches from the Aegean coast to the Black Sea which took about 18 hours .Just as the sun was coming up, I was rewarded by a magic sight: the steep mountains surrounding Amasya and the canyon of the river below, with some of the most beautiful Ottoman wooden houses glued to the mountain sides, all of it crowned by the tombs of King Pontus on one side and a mighty castle on the other. I wished I were a painter instead of a photographer!
Wooden houses and tombs of King Pontus
Amasya’s civilization dates back more than 5500 years when the Hittites first settled there. No less than 11 cultures have passed though since then, Phrygians, Lydian, Persians and Romans among them and they all left their traces. Instead of the planned two days, I stayed four because there is so much to see.
In true glamour granny style I had chosen a boutique hotel which was located in one of the converted wooden houses, right across the bridge over the river. The hotel was upscale but, surprisingly, the price was not. EUROS 50 per night for a single room with a huge bathroom incl. breakfast was very good value for money.
Hotels across the bridge over the Yesil river
And then I went to visit the statues of the town’s heros: Ferhat and Sirin. They stand along the wonderful river promenade together with a bust of the historian Strabo who was born here and many sultans of the Ottoman Empire.
Statue of the historian Strabo
Next was a climb up to the castle which is built on five levels and then, along a ridge to the tombs which are lit by night.
Back down in town I found my way to the archaeological museum and discovered a world famous Hittite statue as well as rare blue-eyed mummies exhibited in a mausoleum in the museum’s ’ garden.
Hittite statue of teshup
Blue-eyed mummie in archaeological museum
Apart from all the historical sites Amasya has to offer, the place is famous for two other things: the best apples in Turkey and poppies. I sat in a public tea garden and ate what I had found nowhere else in Turkey before: gözleme covered with a thick paste of poppy seeds. And that resulted in one of the most filling snacks I have ever eaten.
I needed about an hour’s walk along the river promenade to help it all settle and arrived back in my hotel just as the lights came on and all the statues along the river and the tombs up on the mountain side began to shine. Listening to a legend, I had discovered a true Turkish gem, visited by few tourist or rather only by those ‘in the know’ and thankfully devoid of any the gaudy and garish ‘attractions’ which so often mar the natural beauty of the resorts along the Aegean Sea.
Posted by inka on Nov 22, 2010 in Lebanon
This tale is just too good not to be told, because it shows many things: a real cure that works, imagination, a good heart, and an interesting trait of the Lebanese character.
A frequent traveler like myself does develop a quite resilient stomach. Therefore it happens rarely that any nasty bugs, germs or salmonella get the better of me, but, two days ago, they did. Maybe it was chicken, maybe it was a sauce or just something in the air: the sad truth is that I was sick like a dog, suspended between bed and bathroom in my apartment in Beirut and not able to help myself because my brain had also stopped functioning properly. By the way, there will be no pictures in this post because they would not be pretty!
The phone rang. My friend, unaware of my plight, asked me how I was. What could I say? “Call the undertaker or the doctor, whatever is needed first”. She laughed. She laughed!!! “Not to worry, I’ll take care of it”.
Half an hour later, there was a knock at my door. I just about managed to drag myself there and open up. A young boy was standing at the door, three cans of Diet Pepsi in one hand and a steaming Tupperware container with six boiled potatoes in the other. As verbal communication was not possible because I know no more than six words of Arabic, he put the stuff on the table and vanished.
I assumed that I was supposed to eat the potatoes and to drink the Pepsi and what can I tell you? A few hours later, my stomach settled, nausea was gone and I felt that I might live another day. I even had the strength to call my friend back and ask her how all this had come about.
She had called reception and told them to get boiled potatoes and Pepsi to my room pronto. Of course, they had neither, but resourceful as Lebanese are, they sent the guy out to buy the cans and potatoes from a nearby supermarket. He then took the potatoes home to his mom, who boiled them, put them in the Tupperware and sent him back to my room.
I was so grateful and touched by all that kindness and, as soon as I could stand, went downstairs and left a big tip.
Facit: this curious combo really works, so you might want to try it if food poisoning strikes. Never fear if something happens to you in the Lebanon: you will not be abandoned and, it seems to me, that so many years of hardship and suffering have increased the Lebanese’s innate hospitality even more and made them resourceful into the bargain. A lesson to be learned for any traveler.
Posted by inka on Nov 21, 2010 in Peru
, Private trips
Just look at this picture and don’t tell me you could remain indifferent. Those mists of the Andes, those ancient walls, the images and tales of the fabulous Inca culture that spring to mind, the achievements and the tragedy and the life of their present day descendents..all of it has a pull so strong that I would pack my bag and go right now, were I not immerged in the equally fascinating culture and history of the Middle East for the next few months. But after that, nothing is going to stop me from heading West and visiting the country of my name sakes.
An added reason is the fact that I was lucky enough to come across Ancient Summit Inc. and its founder and owner Nina Fogelman. Another glamour granny of the first order who, in the 1980s came to Peru and was hooked. So much so, that she adopted 4 Andean Indian kids (having by now 11 little ones as she says) and decided to share her experiences and supreme knowledge of all things Peruan with discerning travelers who generally hate organised tours but appreciate to be guided as opposed to be herded.
Ancient Summit came into being and it seems to me the ideal way to visit the country, its culture and history. The trips are measure made so as to accommodate women and men of our age who are fit but also need a bit more rest than the 20 somethings. Having said that, Ancient Summit caters for all ages!
Nina will show us the famous sites, but she will also use her personal knowledge and lead us to a village she is very anxious NOT to transform into a tourist hot spot. We will have a chance to observe real life and to share in her humanitarian efforts. We may leave our footprints but in the most beneficial way possible.
And we will have a chance to sample the cuisine from modern adaptations to the old fashioned ways, meeting chefs in elegant restaurants and Andean peasant women browsing the markets.
Please check out her blog and website. www.ancientsummit.com
Frankly, I can’t wait and maybe we’ll meet on a joint trip in the not so distant future.
Pictures curtesy of Nina Fogelman and Ancient Summit Inc.