Tuesday 19 September 2017

Jordan: Middle East of Eden

Long-haul holidays

The city of Petra in Jordan is a Unesco World Heritage Site and a Wonder of the World
The city of Petra in Jordan is a Unesco World Heritage Site and a Wonder of the World
Aine O'Connor doing a cookery class in Petra Kitchen with chef Tariq

Aine O'Connor

There are places in the world that make you wonder what happened to us. Jordan is one of them, says Aine O'Connor.

With a civilisation that dates back many thousands of years, Jordan, like Rome, Greece, Egypt, China, even Newgrange, begs the question: how did humanity lose for millennia so many of the engineering skills it had? Rich in culture and history, even a short trip affords sights and experiences that truly are once in a lifetime.

We lucked out with Mohammed, a certified Jordanian Tourist Board guide who is not only incredibly well informed but also great fun. The flight from London to Amman is five hours but the time difference is just two and after a night's sleep our first stop is Jerash, a city less than an hour north of the capital. Jerash offers the first examples of how advanced humanity was long before we think of modernity beginning. There is a water system so complex it has yet to be understood, which still functions today despite vastly depleted water supplies.

All that wandering and pondering makes you peckish, and at lunch, in Sufra Restaurant back in Amman, the pitta is handmade before our eyes. It's hard not to fill up on the hot bread, which is used to scoop up the ubiquitous hummus that accompanies every meal. The local olive oil is delicious and it's easy to focus on the "healthy" part rather than the "fat" part. There are lots of salads, yogurt-based dressings and the meat is mostly lamb. Every meal is great - you'd want to like hummus and aubergine - and the sharing style means you can eat as much or little as you like. Which usually meant much rather than little.

Dinner is in the Grand Hyatt Hotel and amongst the wide range of culinary delights, both local and international, lurks a surprise from Co Cork, executive chef Thomas Brosnan from Schull. His hospitality career began early with his mother's B&B, which was where Maeve Binchy used to go to write. He has fond memories of being hushed as a child so the genius could flow, not, he is quick to point out, hushed by Maeve.

Downtown Amman is busy at night. There is no dresscode; more conservative female clothing is suggested for the old town and in holy places, although the hijab is not a necessity anywhere. Otherwise you can wear what you want and there is no harassment. Many, but not all, of the Jordanian women wear the hijab or colourful scarves but very few wear the burka. Legally they are equal to men, with high education and employment rates. In the evening there are many groups of women in the shisha bars on Amman's famous Rainbow Street. One shisha, which is good for two or three people and a nice way to sit and watch the world go by, costs about five dinars (€6.30). It is possible to buy alcohol. By law only non-Muslims are allowed to own off licences, and alcohol is for sale, if expensive, in most hotels. There is a long tradition of Jordanian wine - it is said to have been served at the Last Supper. A glass costs on average about €10.

Aine O'Connor doing a cookery class in Petra Kitchen with chef Tariq
Aine O'Connor doing a cookery class in Petra Kitchen with chef Tariq

After a brief visit to the citadel that overlooks Amman's old town, we drive towards Petra, stopping on the way to visit Mount Nebo, a holy place in many religions from the top of which you can see in the distance Hebron, Bethlehem, Jerusalem, Jericho and Nablus. The drive down into the town of Petra, which is built up but is not especially resorty, is steep. We stay in the Movenpick Hotel and Resort but get to cook our own dinner at Petra Kitchen. Our menu consists of lentil soup, babba ganush, tahini, fattoush, galaya bandura and kabsat dajaj. I suggest Google for a detailed outline, but suffice to say our very funny chef Tariq oversaw the peeling of many tomatoes, onions, cucumbers and enough garlic to kill the entire cast of 'Twilight'. It is good fun and remarkably delicious and we come away with the recipes, great intentions and a bag of sumac from their shop. A spot more shisha (be a shame not to) and early to bed, for Petra, at whose gate the hotel was, beckoned early.

Words, and pictures on your phone just can't do Petra justice. But the early morning start is really worth it because of the heat and because of the lack of crowds. High season begins in September but a place like Petra, World Heritage Site and a Wonder of the World, will always be busy. The open entry path, where you can hitch a ride on a donkey, camel or carriage for about €13 each, slopes down to the beginning of the complex tunnel and water systems the Nabataeans built to defend their city. On the outskirts it is a city of the dead, tombs, even the smallest of which are remarkable, and stairways are cut directly into the sandstone and up until 1812 were known only to the Bedouins, who used the caves as homes, not knowing they were graves. The entrance to Petra is the Siq, a natural deep channel in the rock - the one Indiana Jones rode through - that opens on the most famous building, known as the Treasury. The Nabataeans controlled the water supply to protect the city built to capitalise on its central trading position. It was visited by caravans from as far away as China and covered 264sq.km. The city in which they lived and traded is behind the city of the dead and it would take days to visit it all. We don't have days alas, as Wadi Rum is calling.

On the road our guide remarks that the extra large black goatskin Bedouin tents must mean a wedding, and suggests we pop in. A Bedouin himself, he feels sure they won't mind. And neither do they although the little boys who greet our arrival keep shouting "women" and pointing to a tent lower down. In their tradition the men are in one tent, the women in another and we four women seem out of place. But the men invite us in and we sit in their well-ventilated tent drinking cardamom coffee and 'Bedouin Whiskey' - aka very sweet mint tea. They just sit looking at us and smoking - it is unusual but fascinating. The groom is off getting showered in a friend's house, as per tradition; the bride is being prepped in the women's tent. They most likely have known each other all their lives and it is expected that romance will blossom after the wedding, which is set to take place after sunset. Wadi Rum is still calling, so off we set again, hitting the red desert mid-afternoon.

Our accommodation is on the glamping side of the desert camp - the tents have bathrooms. Which is in no way a complaint. There are more basic versions, but ours, Captain Camp, is built around a large central entertainment and eating area. Only Bedouins are allowed to work in Wadi Rum and our guide has us pile into the back of a pickup truck and drives us through the dunes and over the sand. It is great fun and he stops to show us a plant the Bedouins use as soap and how to make rouge out of rock dust. So it is good to know that we will at least look and smell okay if lost in the desert. Lots of people take jeeps out into Wadi Rum to see the sunset. We, however, take camels, the boarding and disembarking from which is not entirely simple. They may be hardy, but their rising/sitting engineering is bumpy. The worst part is when my camel has a bucking bronco moment and my screeches can be heard echoing across Wadi Rum. The sunset is fantastic and I spend the rest of the trip back trying out words I think might sound soothing to a camel. The tent, although luxurious, is hot at night, and there are mosquitoes, so not everyone is well rested when we get the 6am call to see a camel race. But it is, again, worth the effort.

And so then to the Dead Sea. The town is built up and our hotel, Crowne Plaza Dead Sea, is enormous and like a resort in itself. Much of Middle Eastern cuisine is very similar but Lebanese is held to be the best - and it is delicious in the hotel's Burj al-Hammam restaurant. So delicious it is just as well you can't sink in the Dead Sea.

All cossied up, we head down to the cordoned off piece of the world's saltiest sea. You step in gingerly, for there are rocks, and it is hot as soup. Another step and already it is getting hard to put your foot down, such is the float factor. By the time you're up to your knees you have no choice but to submerge and float. You can't swim, you can't sink, but you can drown, apparently. It is a strange, magical experience, a little, I imagine, like being in space. You are endlessly warned not to get it in your eyes. I do and can endlessly warn you not to do that for you end up stumbling up the rocks blinded and screeching "My eyes, my eyes" until a nice man with a bottle of sweet water saves your sight. Then you go slather yourself in muck, which tingles on the skin while it dries.

It is meant to be amazing for skin, especially mild irritations, and afterwards - one more dip in the sea and few more singes of the retina later - I'm vision-impaired but I have lovely soft skin. Many of the women in the water are very covered up and there are burkinis perched beside skimpy bikinis around the pool.

Mention must be made of the security issues that the Middle East inevitably conjures, especially as Jordan is bordered by Saudia Arabia, Iraq, Syria, Israel and Palestine. It is a crime in mainly Islamic Jordan to speak badly of other religions, and our guide explains that the examples from neighbouring countries of what can happen when hate escalates play a role in keeping the peace.

It is clear this is not a peace they take for granted. Yet despite the safety, there's been an estimated 70pc decline in tourism since 2010. The Department of Foreign Affairs advises caution, but not avoidance - there is no risk associated with Jordan, bar in border areas, which are closed.

I had always wanted to visit Jordan and am happy to report it does not disappoint.

Getting there

Royal Jordanian (rj.com/en) flies daily from London Heathrow to Queen Alia International Airport, Amman. Return fares start from £501pp (approx €594) inclusive of taxes.

For further information, visit visitjordan.com.

Double rooms at the Grand Hyatt Amman start from approximately €265 per night. See amman.grand.hyatt.com for more.

Double rooms at the Movenpick Hotel and Resort, Petra, start at approximately €53 per night. See movenpick.com.

At Crowne Plaza Dead Sea, large double rooms start from around €100 per night. See crowneplaza.com.

A private tent at Captain's Desert Camp starts from £98 per night. See captains-jo.com.

Take Three: Top attractions

Petra

A UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the Seven New Wonders of the World, Petra has a lot to live up to. And it does. Best caught in the early morning, a wander down the narrow passage the Nabataeans built to limit access to their city of the dead opens on to the unfailingly amazing sight of the Treasury, towering, still being discovered and cut straight into the pink rock.

Wadi Rum

The Valley of the Moon more than delivered on its reputation for our visit. We did a camel ride out to watch the sun set and on the return journey we saw the moon rise over the other side of the extraordinary red desert. Across Lawrence of Arabia’s track into the remarkable stretch of reddish sand and rock where only Bedouins may work today, the jeep rides and desert camps are great experiences.

Dead Sea

Spoilt for choice in Jordan, the Dead Sea is another of the attractions that does not disappoint. Although the resort itself is more traditionally touristy and built up than other attractions, the experience of floating in a sea, technically a lake, that is almost 10 times saltier than any other is once-in-a lifetimely weird. You can’t sink, you can’t swim, you just float.

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