‘Jordan…. You’re not going to Jordan, are you? Is it safe?’ A question that is asked all too often of prospective tourists. And a question that, along with the thousands of refugees massed on the border with Syria, is creating havoc in the Jordanian economy. In a country so heavily dependent on tourism, over the last two years, tourist numbers have dropped by over 50%. And yet, with the exception of the Syrian border area, the country is untouched by the wars that rage around it. It presents no more serious a danger to tourists than a bout of indigestion from over consumption of delicious dishes such as the hummus with foul that I had at Amman airport. (Now why can’t other airports offered offer breakfasts like that?…)
Sadly I only had four days so I had the choice of a whistle stop tour around all of Jordan or basing myself in Petra (the rose red city) and ‘doing it properly’. So that is what I did – and was very pleased that I had. My base in Petra was the Fig Tree Villa – a delightful B&B perched high above Wadi Musa (the local village) within ten minutes (steep) walk of the entrance to Petra. The Fig Tree villa is run by Jolanda, from Holland, one of the many European women who have fallen in love either with Jordanians or with Jordan and have settled around Wadi Musa.
(By chance one of my Daunt Books travel purchases before I went had been the biography of Lady Jane Digby, a mid 19th century beauty who had lived a splendidily scandalous life in Europe before travelling further and ever more adventurously east. She was one of the first Westerners to visit Palmyra to which she was escorted by a Bedouin sheikh with whom she feel in love and who she eventually married. The last 20 years of her life were divided between her various European houses in Damascus and Homs and months spent in the desert as the wholly Bedouin wife of the shiekh. It was interesting to note the many similarities beteen Lady Jane and her modern, if rather less glamourous counterparts!)
Jolanda could not have been more welcoming or charming – provding me with blankets against the surprisingly arctic weather when I arrived, feeding me on lovely vegetarian Dutch/Jordanian food and finally whisking me off to the spectacular desert at Wadi Rum for a night under the stars – of which more here….
Petra is rightly famed for its extraordinary tombs and its archeological remains but the most extraordinary things about it were actually created by nature rather than by man. The city lies in the middle of a rift in the largely sandstone rock, carved over millenia in to the most intricate and elaborate forms and shapes. These natural sculptures, combined with the striations of granite and varous coloured sandstones make visiting Petra hugely worthwhile even if you never go near a tomb
The main entrance to the city is through the Siq – a 2.5 kilometre long and over 300 metre deep ravine whose overhanging cliffs all but meet over the narrow path below which can only just accommodate the horsedrawn ‘carriages’ that ferry less able vistors to and from the city. The Nabatene builders of the city were excellent hydraulics engineers and water courses are carved into the side of the Siq to channel rains (which can be quite violent) down for use in the city. For the builders of Petra the Siq formed the most perfectly defensible gateway to their city; to the modern visitor it offers hundreds of neck-achingly wonderful vistas.
However, the best is to come as towards the botton of the ravine the path narrows to allow a tantalising glimpse of the rose pink ‘Treasury’ – a 100metre high classical façade carved into the rose pink rock side of a natural forum or meeting place. Almost perfectly preserved, the façade is literally just that – a deep relief work with only a small chamber hollowed out of the rock at its base. If you are lucky enough to catch it with the morning sun slanting down onto its columns, it truly is magical – only set off by the hurly burley of horses, camels, donkeys, Bedouins and tourists milling about in the ‘square’ in front of it.
Facades seem to be what the Nabateans, the builders of Petra between around 100BC were all about – although, since it is now thought that 85% of the city still remains to be unearthed, this may only be because it is only the facades that we can see.
But what facades they are! Lining the walls of both the main and some of the subsidiary valleys, they are huge, hundreds of meters high, carved high up on the cliff face – how, goodness only knows. Did they build scaffolding – but in many places there would be no where for its feet to go… Did they abseil down – but from where? The tops of the cliffs are hundreds of meters above….
And as if the carvings were not enough, you have the amazing striations and colours of the rocks themselves, some within the hollowed out shallow chambers beneath, looking like a Kandinsky run wild!
For those interested in archeology, the remains of the town that have been excavated will keep you busy for many a long hour. Being more interested in the rock formations and the facades, I spent a happy morning climbing up to the ‘Monastery’, another astonishing façade perched high on one of the peaks surrounding the town. The climb up, through miniature ravines, partially over the rocks, partially over long carved or more recently improved steps, accompanied by extraordinarily sure footed goats, is tough but perfectly managable. And if you think you might struggle, you can always take a donkey…. Reputedly a lot scarier than climbing – especially coming down!
Clinging to the edges of the path are the tables endless sellers of local trinkets offering endless tiny cups of Jordanian tea. To those of us used to travelling in India or North Africa where street sellers can make one’s life a total misery, the long procession of tables of scarves and rocks and jewellery are depressing – until you realise that Jordanians, even when the tourist trade is really bad, do not hassle visitors. They offer, but if you say no thank you politely they will accept it and genuinely wish you welcome and a good stay – and let you pass.
And when you do make it up to the top, there is a café facing the ‘monastery’ where you can sit to cool off and drink the MOST delicious drink of cool lemon juice with mint…..
But while lemon juice with mint ruled in the ‘Monastery’ café, I was amused, if sad, to see that PepsiCola have not lost their ability to reach to places that no others can penetrate! In an abandoned hut on the top of the viewing peak beyond the Monastery there was a somewhat tatty and disconnected PepsiCola chiller. Goodness knows how they got it up there – by some miracle of donkey transport I presume – or how they thought they could run it once it was there, but at some point it had obviously functioned!
The other spectacular climb, for which you can also take a donkey although how they keep their feet I have no idea, is to the High Place of Worship – literally a flattened mountain top overlooking the valley – on which which I found a lone seller of jewellery! I believed her when she said it took her an hour and half each morning to climb up from her cave (many of the Bedouin in Petra still live in the surrounding caves although there is also a government built village) – and I did buy a pair of earrings….
The hike down from the High Place of Worship was particularly spectacular. I was entirely alone on the mountain – literally did not meet a soul for well over an hour till I found a lone seller of jewellery sitting disconsolately at the bottom of the trail. I was her first sale of the day.
Both men and woman man the many stalls selling trinkets but it is the men, many young and extraordinarily handsome (I can quite see why Lady Jane fell for her sheikh!) who organise the donkeys, horse and camel rides. Because it is a long walk from the entrance, through the Siq and then through to the city, your entry ticket includes a horse ride to the treasury after which you can take a donkey or a camel to transport you through the city or up to the high places.
Sadly, the tourist trade having been so damaged by the Syrian war, there are currently many more donkeys, horses and camels than there are visitors – which is really bad for the Jordanians. However, it does mean that this is a wonderful time to visit if you do not like fighting your way through the crowds. This, for example, was the main road through the ancient city as I was heading out two hours before the park closed – not a soul to be seen…..
If you are not looking for ‘grande luxe’ (you do have to share a bathroom, for example) the Fig Tree Villa is the perfect place to stay to visit Petra. It is close to the site and is a lovely house with gardens and terraces on which to relax, sip tea and watch the spectacular sunsets – in the company of ginger cats Pumpkin and Ginger. (Here they are keeping me warm on the first very chilly night that I was there…)
Jolanda is a friendly and genial host (and an excellent cook provided you enjoy vegetarian food) and is happy to suggest other trips and activities to complete your ‘Jordan experiences’ – hence our trip to the desert. She will also organise to have you collected from the airport.
And you get to meet an interesting selection of other guests. In my case another Dutch girl and an America who had been working for a NGO in South Sudan. Then, on day two, a Polish air hostess working for Emirates out of Dubai, via a stint as a financial adviser to a multinational company based in Ennis in County Clare in the West of Ireland…..
And I bet it had never occurred to you that national characterstics were all too clearly defined by attitudes to air hostesses….. Japanese are delightful, Swedes (and Brits) drink to excess and are a pain – and Indians and Pakistanis are the pits because they see air hostesses as being ‘untouchables’ and behave accordingly…..
Find out more about the Fig Tree Villa at www.petrafigtreevilla.com.
A note about food.
Most Jordanian food is good for those with either dairy or wheat/gluten problems although almost every meal is accompanied by one of the many varieties of flat bread. But, of course, you don’t have to eat it. However, there are lots of fruits and vegetables and the main cooking ingredient is oil. Jolanda at the Fig Tree Villa is vegetarian but is happy to exclude either wheat/gluten or dairy products for guest as long as she gets advance warning.
My gastronomic discovery? Za’tar! (A herb/spice mix with sumac and sesame seeds.) I have known about it for ages but never really homed in to how totally delicious it is on almost anything!!