Jordan road-trip & a glimpse of Lebanon

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April 21st 2020
Published: April 21st 2020
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Jordan & Lebanon

31st May – 16th June 2019

This is our first blog post since coming back from a year-long trip in 2012. Since then we have visited many amazing places, but our trip to Jordan is the first one which we decided to blog about, we loved it so much.

Since I was a kid I always wanted to see Petra – I read about it in books, I have seen it on TV and there was just something about it that made me say: “When I am old enough, I will travel all the way there (as a kid it seemed at the other side of the world 😊) and see it for myself.”

And this year I did!

As we were organising our holiday for this year we decided we will travel to Jordan (we were tempted by South East Asia again, of course, I can’t say we weren’t). Looking at flight options, Jan realised we could connect via Beirut, so he came up with the suggestion to combine the trip with experiencing Beirut for a few days on our journey back. I could not say no to that. We also sorted our Jordan pass, which includes access to pretty much all the major sites across Jordan plus the entry visa (would really recommend it, as it saves a lot of hassle and represents good value for money). And so, our trip began on 31st May.

Day 1 - Amman

We landed in Amman on Saturday morning and were picked up by the car rental service, to sort out the paperwork and picked up the car which served as our transport for the entire trip across Jordan. We did quite a bit of research and renting a car was highly recommended. Jordan is fairly big and accessing some of the sights can be tricky as they are a bit off the beaten track.

So, 30 minutes later we were comfortably sitting in our Kia, model something, something, and off we were on our way to Amman city center, towards our hotel. And boy if that was not a bit of a shock, as the traffic is, well, to say chaotic would be an understatement. How Jan got us to the hostel I still don’t know, hats off really. Since then we have also experienced the traffic in Beirut and compared to
Roman Theatre AmmanRoman Theatre AmmanRoman Theatre Amman

Playing telephone at the Roman Theatre
that, Amman traffic is organised, peaceful and almost enjoyable.

As we arrived for the final days of Ramadan, we knew getting food would be a bit of a stretch, but the guys at the hostel (Nomad, would definitely recommend it) were kind enough to offer us what was left of breakfast, which we both were super happy about. Then we went out to explore the capital. We had kind of a plan what we wanted to do, but we didn’t mind venturing into side streets and exploring what was there. As we were walking in the scorching heat, Jan decided it was time for some Turkish coffee, which ended with me being asked to take countless pictures with the shop owner. Welcome to Jordan! Ah, well, at least the coffee was good according to Jan.

Our very own first sight was the Amman Roman Theatre, which sits in the middle of the city and really is a sight to behold. It is so well preserved, and it was humongous! This is a must-see landmark in Amman, and it dates to when the city was known as Philadelphia. The guards, all very welcoming and chatty, told us about this neat trick: there are these canals just underneath the edge of the stairs and if you talk directly into the canals they serve as primitive telephones and can reach the other side of the theatre. It worked, and we tried this trick out at other antitheater’s’ across Jordan as well. It worked every time. We were also shown the middle spot of the whole theatre, where the acoustics are just insane.

We intended to walk all the way to the Citadel after, but when we saw how far it was, and as we were dying of heat, we decided a little siesta sounds like a better idea. On the way back we stopped for another Turkish coffee – this was becoming a routine.

After sundown, we ventured back out on the streets and were heading to a restaurant that was recommended to us, called Jafra. And man did we not regret it. As it was Ramadan a lot of restaurants offered buffets, and this one was just out of this world. The mezzes (hummus, mutabal, vegetables, salads, you name it), the meat…you can imagine the eyes were bigger as the stomach and we decided to skip the dessert. We left full, tried at least a dozen different dishes, all of them great and spend just over £30 between us. What a bargain!

We finished our first evening on a rooftop bar/restaurant opposite our hotel, drinking the newly discovered fresh mint & lime juice and smoking our first shisha of the trip and watching Champions League Finals. The fresh juices and shisha tradition followed us for the next two weeks. Spurs lost, Jan was happy and off to bed, we went.

Day 2 – Amman, Jerash, Ajloun Castle and Um Qais.

On the second day we packed up and we threw our stuff into the car and hit the road. But before we left Amman we stopped at the citadel. After doing a few loops around the city, trying to find the way, we finally arrived.

The citadel raises over the whole of the town and offers amazing views over the city. The citadel was also a nice intro to historic Jordan. We spent about 2 hours there, wondering around the few different sites and visiting the museum.

The next stop was the antique town of Jerash, where, it is said, one can find the best-preserved Roman ruins outside of Italy.

The site is humongous and amazingly preserved. You can imagine how busy the streets were back in those days as you walk along, what used to be, the high street, there are remnants of old baths, temples, another Roman theatre, and on the other side you can also find the hippodrome. We walked around for a few hours and I don’t have to mention how hot it was, so heading back to the climatized car was a blessing.

Then we headed to the old crusader castle of Ajloun. The castle was built in 1184 AD as a fort to deter the Franks from invading Ajloun. It also served to overlook and protect the trade between Jordan and Syria.

Again, as the castle is on the top of the Ajloun town, you can see why the site was chosen as the best location to oversee the whole of Jordan valley. The castle is amazingly preserved, and I said to Jan the other castles across Jordan have a lot to live up to. I could have easily just moved into the castle and stayed there.

Renting a car proved to be a great choice. In less than 24 hours we visited three different sites in three different cities. All this while blasting tunes from an old iPod, which hasn’t been used in years. Living in London we rarely drive, making this experience really special.

So, off to the car, driving through the beautiful Jordan valley and heading to the last stop for the day, Um Qais. Um Qais is a town where you can find another Roman settlement, the ancient Gadara.

Um Qais is a small town/village on the very North of Jordan, very close to the border of Syria and Israel. From the viewpoint, in Gadara you can see the beautiful Jordan valley, the Golan Heights, the sea of Galilee in Israel.

As we were starving after the long day, we couldn’t wait for sundown and for at least one of the food places to open. We ventured out hoping 1 of the 3 places that we could see would be open, but we were wrong. All shut down for Ramadan. We were returning to our room when a man smoking in front of his house goes “what are you looking for?”. And we explained we were looking for somewhere to eat. He gave us a look, flipped a half-finished cigarette from his fingers, and the next second, we were invited to join him and his family to break Ramadan and eat with them.

The amount of food that they put on our plates was phenomenal, as was the food itself. Then we were greeted by a lady, who asked where we were from, and we said from Slovenia. She then responded “oh, I have a cousin, who lives in Maribor”. Small world indeed. We talked about it a little, she explained she was in Slovenia when it was still part of old Yugoslavia, and that her cousin married a Slovenian and stayed there.

After we finished our meal, we wanted to thank our hosts and asked if we can somehow compensate them, and all they said was “no, this is part of Jordanian hospitality”.

We learned within hours of landing in Jordan that people there are genuinely welcoming and friendly. It is a part of their tradition, they aren’t trying to sell you anything, or expecting something in return, in most cases they just want to exchange a few words. Unless, of course, you are dealing with taxi drivers, as other travelers told us. The hospitality is second to none – well, on par with what we experienced in Syria when we visited way back in 2009.

Accommodation: we stayed at Gadara rent room ( b&b). We had the whole flat to ourselves and the owner was very friendly and made sure he left some food for us, so we didn’t go hungry during Ramadan.

Day 3 – Um Qais, Jordan River, Mt Nebo and the Dead Sea

Before we left Um Qais we ventured back into Gadara to see the ruins and then we headed back on the road, driving all the way to the Dead Sea.

On our way, we stopped at Bethany – where John the Baptist baptised Jesus Christ. It was a guided tour, which was rather nice for a change. We were in the middle of a desert, in what used to be called Jericho. We saw the spot where the baptism took place and then we went all the way down to river Jordan. Now this made for a bizarre experience: we were on one side of the river looking at the opposite bank, where people dived into the river Jordan to baptise themselves in the holy water. Nothing weird here, what was weird, was that they were in Israel and we were in Jordan. Just a small river in-between. A few strokes and you are across the border. I’m not sure how happy the heavily armed security guards would be about that?

Then we drove all the way up to Mt Nebo, where the landscape looked like we just landed on the Moon or Mars, it was beautiful and surreal. It stopped being about the end goal, and more about what was behind the next corner. Mt Nebo is the spot where Moses first saw the Promised Land. Shortstop on the top, with just enough time for Jan to photo-bomb a tour group from India. They didn’t mind, in fact, they all wanted to sit up-front with Jan who was then bombed with requests for selfies. He didn’t mind. We soaked up the views and then we were off again, finally heading to the Dead Sea.

There is nothing around the Dead Sea apart from resort hotels, so we stayed in a fancy hotel, the Movenpick Resort and Spa. As soon as we arrived, we went straight into the sea, and what a weird/awesome experience it was. You cannot swim, you just need to relax and, well, float (oh and be careful not to get the salty water in your eyes, Jan can testify it’s anything but nice). As the Dead Sea also has healing mud which is apparently good for your skin as it absorbs all the toxins, we went crazy with it and slathered ourselves with the mud. It felt amazing.

As we are still backpackers in our heads, we said we will not have dinner at the resort and we would find something cheaper – the only option was the nearby mall, where we managed to find the place with the most awful food. It also ended up being quite expensive, giving us a completely wrong impression of Jordanian food. Don’t even want to think about it. A (very expensive) cocktail and shisha at the resort made us feel a bit better.

Day 4 – Wadi Mujib and the ride to the Red sea

Before we had to check out we went to float a bit more (Jan absolutely loved it), took advantage of the private pool and then we headed out.

I was rooting for a trekking experience in Wadi Mujib natural reserve (a river canyon, enters the dead see 420 m below sea level), so we put on our hiking clothes and shoes and headed there. When we arrived, the guy at the reception said to leave our valuables in the car, so they don’t get wet. We ignored the signs about using lifejackets (we can swim, what!) didn’t think anything of it, and we started the trek. But it wasn’t a nature trek, it was a trek through this amazing gorge, filled with water, which turned out to be a river. We thought nothing of it and went straight in. As we continued for about 10 minutes we came across this group with a guide and he wanted to know where our life jackets were. We were a bit confused and the guy said he can’t leave us to continue without life jackets. As they were finishing their trek, we got given 2 lifejackets, so we did not have to return to start. How annoying was that? Don’t they know we can swim? As we continued it became very apparent why we needed them, as the water turned fierce, there was a lot of climbing, dragging ourselves with the help of ropes, until we finally got to the end and the main waterfall. Let’s just say that without the lifejackets, well….

It was amazing, but exhausting, as we came totally unprepared for the combination of gorge trekking and canyoning. Not unusual for us, we just rocked up without any idea what we were getting ourselves into.

After we changed ourselves into dry clothes, we headed to the Red Sea and Aqaba. We switched driving in between and I found myself driving on the road in the middle of a mild sandstorm – interesting but not recommended, there were camels crossing the road, so I was concentrating really hard. We finally arrived in Aqaba and, yes, you know it, it was after sundown, so it was food time. There were a few places just underneath our hotel (we stayed at the Lacosta hotel) but we thought we would walk around first. As we didn’t find anything we liked, we ventured back and sat at a small place that seemed to be packed. And, oh, my…The food people! The food…it was just, I can’t even…it was short of amazing. And it was our first time eating mutabal. Before going to Jordan Jan promised he will eat all the hummus they had, but from this day onwards he regularly cheated on hummus, and we ordered mutabal wherever we went. Let me tell you, my tummy was singing after that dinner.

Day 5 – Aqaba and diving in the Red sea

When at sea, one needs to go into the sea, so we went out to look for an entrance to the beach. No luck, we were so wrong, all the beaches are connected to the resort hotels and to get in you had to pay, and not a little. So, we ended up driving out of town towards South beach.

So, Jan has been wanting to try diving again for ages. As we got to the beach, he got talking to this group of divers that seemed to be running dives not far from where we were sat. It was a bit impromptu, but they agreed to take Jan out for a fun dive there and then. Jan came back and said, “I explained your situation (after a super bad experience in Thailand, I swore I would never try diving again) and they just want to chat to you”. I went over with Jan and the next thing I know I am in full gear and on my way to the sea. So much for “chatting”. But, it was amazing, they were so professional, I felt comfortable and safe, and they let me loose to go and swim on my own. We saw the coral reef and as we came out, Jan loved it so much, he wanted to do a second dive on the spot, to see a shipwreck. It was all very relaxed, and the tour guides from the Coral Garden Dive Centre were amazing.

As we were waiting, we got chatting to 2 other tourists from Germany, who were also just in between dives, Mirko and Theresa. A few minutes later it was decided – we were going to go to Wadi rum together the next day.

We met Mirko and Theresa again for dinner that night (yup, same place) and as it was the end of Ramadan, the city was so lively and packed, and the experience was completely different. We went for a drink and a shisha after, and Jan was super popular with a group of girls out on town and ended up starring on their Snapchat feeds. It seems long hair and curls are a thing in Jordan.

Day 6 – Wadi Rum

After breakfast, we picked up our new friends and drove together to Wadi Rum, where the famous Lawrence of Arabia spent his time. Mirko and Theresa were staying overnight in one of the Bedouin camps on-site, so we went there first, and waited, and waited, and waited. We were then whisked up, we sat on the back of the 4x4 and the fun began. The desert was beautiful and so vast. There were endless canyons which added to the colors of the desert, it all looked surreal. We would stop at different locations, drink tea, walk around, climb, and then we were off with our 4x4 again. The whole experience was amazing, but surprisingly tiring. The ride was, to say the least, ‘bumpy’. Jan’s smartwatch recorded over 50 flights of stairs walked, while he was doing nothing but holding to the rails. We also experienced a bit of rain, which is not at all common. By the time we got back to Aqaba, all I wanted was to eat and sleep, which is what we did. Mirko and Theresa were talking about this desert they could not get enough of, knafi. It is melted goats’ cheese, covered with pistachios and honey. We went to find the place to try it (as per hotels’ recommendations) and Jan absolutely loved it. I liked it, but as it is heavy, I could’ve done with a smaller portion. Although Jan was happy to finish mine.

Day 7 – More driving and off to Petra we go

As we still had some time before we headed to Petra, Jan convinced me to do another dive (we just reached out to the guys we did the first dive with). This time it was a sunken airplane. Another great experience and a nice farewell to the Red Sea as we headed out to PETRA!

It was quite a drive to get to Petra, but as soon as we arrived at the Shaqilath Hotel we unpacked the car, changed our footwear and headed straight in there, to at least see the treasury before it closed for the day.

Petra was initially built as the final resting place for the Nabateans. As the Romans invaded the area – attractive for the silk road – the Nabateans then moved into Petra and hid into the vast caves. Treasury is just one of the tombs for the rulers of Nabatean Kingdom, but was named Treasury, as people were convinced there are vast treasures hidden within the tomb.

As we entered Petra, we found ourselves walking and walking and walking through this amazing gorge. As the sun was setting the light reflecting on the stones made the gorge look magical. Jan was wasting time taking pictures and annoying me. But I was not having it, every corner I asked, “are we there yet?”. And as we finally turned THAT corner, I mean, wow…I was finally here, looking at the treasury and it was magical. But the Treasury was just the beginning as we realised over the next 2 days. It’s incredible and all, but it’s just a tiny, almost insignificant part of Petra. Even without it, Petra would be just as impressive.

We left Petra for that evening and ventured out into town to find the recommended place to eat, called Al Wadi. All I can say about that place is “yum, yum, yum”, worth the visit.

After dinner we wanted to stretch our legs a bit, so we went for a walk around, when Jan got an invitation for a beard trim from a barber. He started shaping Jan’s beard and Jan wasn’t super confident, as the barber’s English was not so good. Then the barber showed me this box of what looked like wax and points to Jan “may I?”, and I thought he was going to wax Jan’s ears and nose, but he started to cover Jan’s whole face. He let it dry and then he started to pull the mask off, with Jan screaming, and me laughing - it’s kind of a combination of wax meets facial mask. He took some of Jan’s stray hair and cleansed all his pores. He then proceeded to ask me, if I wanted the treatment too. I was like “hell no”. But Jan looked a million years younger (which he mentioned every second he could over the next week – ‘feel my skin, feels so much younger than yours, doesn’t it’?). The barber then left again and came back with a friend (turned out he lives in California and was visiting the family for Ramadan). He then translated what Jan wanted from the trim and helped us “negotiate” the payment and gave us a few tips.

Day 8 – More Petra

We got up early-ish, 6.30, so we could be in Petra before it gets hot. We intended to do some hiking over the canyon and the rocks, which you don’t want to do in the scorching heat. Petra is vast, I mean huge. Apparently, you would need 14 days to go through Petra.

We walked in, past the Treasury, to the first climb towards a viewing point – High place of Sacrifice. We climbed the stairs, we climbed, we climbed, the views become amazing, there were fewer and fewer people, and we got on top. As we were looking around, I hear someone yelling and waving at me. Well, if it wasn’t Mirko and Theresa!

We explored Petra together for a few hours. As they only had one day, they decided they would do the climb towards the Monastery (about 900 stairs), and we decided to leave it for the next morning, and we went and explored the tombs. What can I say, the architecture, the remains, the views, breath-taking. After 6 hours we had had enough. We had one more day. We met up with Mirko and Theresa for dinner, then knafi and shisha, and we called it a night.

Day 9 – even more Petra

Another “early” morning and we started the day with climbing up to the Monastery. As we finally got to the top (it really wasn’t as bad as I expected) the Monastery took my breath away. Is it better than the famous Treasury – definitely, but it’s far, so most people never get to see it. If you thought the Treasury was amazing, check out the Monastery. We then proceeded to climb to the viewing point, where again, you can see the whole of Petra and it's mind-blowing how big it is. We just stayed there, talked to the Bedouin, who has a small shop there about tourism, politics, life in Jordan…We drank tea with him, he played some music. It was so lovely – no payment expected, all part of Jordanian hospitality.

Then off we were, exploring final bits of Petra, before we headed out, after another 6 hours.

We were sweaty, we were tired, we needed a Hammam. OMG, was that an amazing idea! I hadn’t felt so clean in a while.

We finished our last night in Petra with a lovely dinner at Zawaya, where the owner is super lovely came to chat with us, and we ended up getting dessert on the house – Jordanian hospitality, once again!

Day 10 – Castle day

We had a long ride in front of us as we needed to head back to Amman. Of course, there were some final pit stops we needed to make on our way, and this day was all about the crusader castles.

The first stop was Shobak Castle, a massive defensive fort built back in 1115. Hmmmm, my expectations were high, after Ajloun, so seeing that Shobak Castle is not as well preserved (it is in ruins), my head went Ajloun 1, Shobak 0. Although don’t get me wrong, it is still an amazing site to visit.

The next stop was Karak castle. It was a stronghold controlling Bedouin herders and trade routes from Damascus to Egypt and Mecca. Karak castle overlooks a huge city of Karak (go figure!) and you can just imagine how awe-inspiring it must have been way back when…looming on top of the hill, majestic and frightening at the same time. OK, I think, first place Ajloun, Karak is a close second, and then Shobak. Sorry, Shobak Castle.

Off we were to Amman, driving on the Kings highway, an experience of its own. Driving in Jordan proved to be simple. Most of the roads are good and Google maps get you anywhere you need. Before we left Jan saved all the highlights from the Jordan pass in Gmaps and we used it as our guide. Expect many checkpoints and we got stopped by police quite a few times. For the most part, it was just ‘Where are you from, where are you going?’. Quick chat, a ‘Welcome to Jordan’ and off you go. Only once were we asked to show our passports and car’s paperwork. As we only had a copy of the registration and not the original, we got the ticket but were told: you did nothing wrong, it’s not your fault, just give it to the car rental company’ and so we did. We were later told that replacing a lost registration is a huge hassle, so the car rental companies rather risk getting a ticket than a tourist losing a license.

We arrived back at the scene of the crime, Nomads hotel in Amman. And of course, before we left, we needed to try the famous Hashem falafels. It was packed with locals and tourists and as we started munching on falafels, we understood why. They were the best falafels I have ever had. Our bellies full, we went for a final walk around the city, we sat for our final shisha in Amman and headed back to the hostel. Next day was the airport day.

What can I say? Jordan was just a phenomenal experience: amazing people, amazing food, amazing country. 10 days felt a good amount of time to see the main things. But to do that, you do need to rent a car. It would have taken us twice as long as using public transport. I will stop on that note.

Few words about Lebanon

After leaving Jordan we stayed in Beirut for 5 days. We didn’t do much and mainly relaxed and enjoyed some incredible food. Same as in Jordan most places serve dishes in small portions (mezzes) giving you the opportunity to try a variety of things in one go. To top it off, almost every shop, no matter the size, serves coffee, usually in the shape of potent espresso.

The traffic in Beirut is something else, I haven’t seen anything like it before. Missed an exit on a highway – no problem, just stop and reverse back to the exit you missed. Two-lane roads turn into 4 or even 5 lanes. The easiest and cheap way to get around is to use Uber as private taxis are a pain.

Beirut has a very European feeling, with heaps of great bars and restaurants, as well as night clubs. We went to B018 an old army bunker for a Thursday’s 80/90s night out which was great fun! We got adopted by a group that had their own table and a few bottles of spirits that they were happy to share.

We ventured to Jeita Grotto and Byblos, which were both worth a visit. We really didn’t do Lebanon justice and would love to go back to discover the rest of the country! In shāʾ Allāh.

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