|2/05/2019||Thurs||Newcastle to Sydney|
|3/05/2019||Fri||Sydney 6am to Dubai 2.10pm, Dubai 5pm to Bahrain 5.15pm, Bahrain 5.55pm to Amman 8.30pm|
|4/05/2019||Sat||Amman to Jerash to Amman|
|5/05/2019||Sun||Amman to Wadi Musa-Petra|
|6/05/2019||Mon||Wadi Musa-Petra to Little Petra|
|7/05/2019||Tues||Little Petra to Wadi Rum|
|8/05/2019||Wed||Wai Rum to Aqaba|
|9/05/2019||Thurs||Aqaba (flight to Amman ) to Jerusalem (Israel)|
|11/05/2019||Sat||Jerusalem to Masada to Dead Sea to Jerusalem|
|13/05/2019||Mon||Jerusalem to Nazareth|
|15/05/2019||Wed||Nazareth to Bethlehem (Palestine)|
|16/05/2019||Thurs||Bethlehem to Madaba (Jordan)|
|17/05/2019||Fri||Madaba to Amman. Amman 21.55 to|
|18/05/2019||Sat||Dubai 2.05am, Dubai 8.45am to|
Thursday 2nd May, 2019
Newcastle to Sydney
This morning we take the dollies to school then Mark heads off for work. I meet Chris and Kerrie at Café Inu for our usual Thursday lunch. Later I dye my hair then pack before Lauren drives us to Hamilton Station to catch the 4.20pm train to Central Station in Sydney. We’re staying at the Royal Exhibition Hotel – an old favourite in Surry Hills. Drinks and dinner downstairs in the bar then an early night.
Friday 3rd May, 2019
Sydney to Dubai to Bahrain to Amman
Our Emirates flight leaves at the super early time of 6am so we set the alarm for 2.15am to take a taxi to the airport. After checking in at 3 o’clock we buy Bacardi then eat McDonalds which is our usual airport routine. We also use the massage chairs – another Sydney airport routine.
So why are we going to Jordan? ‘Is it safe’ everyone asks us. Yes, even though Jordan borders both Syria and Iraq, it’s still a stable oasis. But it does have its own massive problems (I googled it). The Jordanian government often plays the role of mediator between neighbouring countries and has taken on enormous numbers of refugees – 2 million Palestinian refugees live in Jordan, many since 1948, and more than 300,000 of them still live in refugee camps. They’ve been joined by some 700,000 Iraqis, and most recently, one and a half million Syrians. Since the start of the conflict in Syria in 2011, Jordan has shouldered the impact of this massive influx of Syrian refugees with the Jordanian people paying the price as it places huge pressure on the country’s already over-stretched resources.
Another problem for Jordan is the Israeli/Palestinian situation which, God forbid, Donald Trump is sticking his dopey nose into. King Abdulla of Jordan met with Trump in April but couldn’t get a straight answer (who’d have thought) about the Israeli/Palestinian Peace Plan. The Jordanians need to know as it will impact Jordan because it borders the West Bank. If Jordan’s current stability depends on Donald Dump then God help them!
But back to the trip. Our Emirates flight leaves on time at 6am and we’re in heaven with a spare seat between us! And besides having three seats, the leg room is so much bigger than we’ve experienced in years. We usually fly budget airlines but even Qantas doesn’t have this much space.
So for the fourteen hours in the air, we read, sleep, eat, and watch the inflight tv. Mark is over the moon watching the last season of Game of Thrones while I watch The Mule, Crazy Rich Asians, Green Book and The Wife. The time passes quickly and comfortably.
Finally we see desert below and land in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. We only have three hours before our next flight at 5pm and need to get from Terminal 3 to Terminal 1. Getting there is confusing to say the least – up lifts, down other lifts, a train then a bus.
Luckily, our Gulf Air flight is running half an hour late. This is good for this connection but we’re flying to Bahrain with an hour to spare before our flight to Amman in Jordan. In the end we take off on the same plane but allocated different seats. The flight is only two and a half hours but it seems forever since we left our bed in Sydney. Arrive at Amman’s Queen Alia International Airport at 9pm where we take a forty minute taxi into the city.
Neither of us can keep awake, both nodding off most of the way. At last we’re dropped at Zaman Ya Zaman Guesthouse in downtown. It’s very cute and atmospheric but we’ll see it all tomorrow. For now, we collapse into bed.
Saturday 4th May, 2019
Amman to Jerash to Amman
At seven o’clock we’re up for showers and to head downstairs for breakfast. Our room is tiny but clean and the shared bathroom is close by so we’re happy. Best is the view from the landing – directly across from the two thousand year old Roman Theatre – a huge amphitheatre cut into the hillside. It can seat up to six thousand people and is still used today for concerts. Funny how our cheap little guesthouse has the best view in town!
We’re served breakfast in the foyer sitting on an old lounge and surrounded by very Arabic furniture and decorations. After scrambled eggs, baked beans, tomato, olives, sausage, hummus, yoghurt and pitta bread, we’re served hot mint tea.
Today we plan to visit the ancient Greco-Roman city of Jerash which, after Petra of course, is Jordan’s main tourist attraction. Mark organizes for a driver to pick us up at 9am. He’ll drive us there and back for $80AUD – this is not Asia!
Our driver is Ead, a friendly local man who drives very fast. Leaving Amman behind, we cross the fertile hills of Gilead (is this where Margaret Attwood took the name for the Handmaid’s Tale?) about fifty kilometres north of Amman – which, by the way, was once called Philadelphia.
The green countryside with olive groves, green-houses, goat herds and evergreen forests is a surprise as we expected all of Jordan to be desert. Actually only Eastern Jordan is characterized by desert terrain, dotted with a few oases, but here in the western highlands the climate is more Mediterranean.
After an hour we arrive in modern Jerash, a small town that has sprung up around the ancient ruins. These ruins are said to be one of the most complete examples of a provincial Roman city to be seen anywhere in the world.
We pass through a covered market and buy red and white chequered scarves worn by the local men. At the entrance, we’re given free entry as we show our Jordan Pass. We’d been advised to buy this on all travel websites. You have to buy it before you arrive in Jordan as you don’t need to buy visas on arrival and there’s free entry into most historical sited including Petra. For $140 AUD each, it’s a good deal.
For the next two hours we wander through the streets of ancient Jerash made even more atmospheric with the rugged backdrop of the Gilead Mountains. The colonnaded streets, theatres, public baths and fountains are amazingly well preserved despite the passage of time.
We especially love coming across young goat herders from the adjacent village watching over very long-haired goats. Music is coming from an amphitheatre above us where we find musicians playing traditional instruments.
The sun and heat is finally getting to us so we head back to the entrance where we find a table under trees to drink orange juice and coffee.
Back in Amman, Ead drives us to the Jett Booking Office where we hope to buy bus tickets for Wadi Musa tomorrow morning. A young woman takes our passports and says ‘you wait here’. She ignores us for half an hour until Ead comes in to see what’s taking so long. The woman tells him ‘bus full’ – wtf? Why didn’t she tell us?? No worries about the bus, though – we’ll sort something else out later.
Now it’s time to eat so Ead drops us off near Zaman. The street is hectic with traffic on both sides of the road. We find a restaurant with a second storey balcony that overlooks the madness down below and the Roman Theatre opposite. Young couples are smoking sheeshas and Mark orders a beer.
After a rest in the coolness of our room, we set off again at 3.30pm to find a taxi to take us to Al Pasha Turkish Bath. I’d found this on the internet after researching hammams (Turkish baths). The photos looked amazing and it doesn’t disappoint. The entrance is leafy and welcoming and the interior is awesome – like a huge Bedouin tent complete with real palm trees.
The main area is dominated by a large water fountain and surrounded by Ottoman couches, antique tables and chairs, mirrors, Arabesque tiles, coloured glass chandeliers and Persian rugs.
A young man leads us to the changing area where we strip down to our swimmers before taking a shower. Inside, the hammam is other worldly – dark and steamy with stone floors and walls, arched ceilings and stone collumns.
First is the steam room which is stiflingly hot but made bearable by an ice cold hibiscus tea. Next is a hot tub with the emphasis on hot. I keep jumping out to sit on the side to try and cool down.
Next we’re taken to the scrubbing area where we’re loofa-ed raw then have buckets of water poured over us to wash away all the dead skin. Now back to the hot tub before an oil massage lying on old wooden tables – all so atmospheric! This is definitely the highlight but we still have more punishment to come.
We’re beckoned to a sauna which is so hot it’s unbearable and we don’t stay long. The final stage is to lie on our backs on top of a round marble slab for twenty minutes with our feet sticking up against the wall.
After dressing we’re given cold drinks near the fountain – loved it all! The cost was $50AUD each for two hours and worth every cent for such an amazing experience.
Returning to Zaman we can hear music coming from the rooftop of a house next door. About twenty people are crammed into a tiny balcony, some playing traditional instruments while the others dance and clap – so lucky to have seen this.
Before dinner we decide to walk up to the Citadel but after climbing hundreds of steps we think we’re lost and decide to see it when we come back in a couple of weeks.
Finding an interesting restaurant we head up to the rooftop bit. The weather is perfect and we find a table right on the edge overlooking the street and of course the Roman Theatre. The city looks especially lovely at this dusky time of day – all soft creams and whites. All buildings in Jordan are covered with thick white limestone or sandstone and apparently limited to four stories creating a very appealing and harmonious view.
While we eat pizza and drink Petra beer (Mark) and Bacardi with Pepsi (yuk) for me, we check out the locals – no tourists here – and the mini zoo. Ducklings, baby chicks, guinea pigs, bunnies and a tortoise run free under the tables and I’m scared someone will step
Later we move downstairs to the very Bedouin bar for more drinks and tapas.
Bed at 9.30pm
Sunday 5th May, 2019
Amman to Wadi Musa-Petra
Up at 6.30am to shower and have breakfast in the little sunny dining room. The same deal as yesterday and, as we’ll soon find out, will be the same breakfast every day and wherever we go – ha ha.
Last night we’d organized with the desk for someone to take us to Wadi Musa but now we’re informed that the driver is sick. There doesn’t seem to be anyone else but we’re told that we can get a bus at the Southern Bus Station – what? – thought they were all full! One of the guesthouse guys comes with us because he says there are two Southern bus stations and he’ll have to make sure the driver takes us to the right one – what, again?
Luckily there’s one last bus to Wadi Musa today but we have to wait till it fills up before we can leave. Unluckily we’re the only takers so far. This means a two hour wait but in the meantime I seek out the ladies toilet and meet some lovely ladies from Petra who’ve come to Amman for the day. Mark walks across to a shop to buy coffee but it’s so thick and black he chucks it away.
At 10.30am we’re on our way for the 250 kilometres to Wadi Musa. Wadi Musa (Valley of Moses) is the closest town to Petra which is our actual destination and where we’ll visit tomorrow. For the four hour trip, the scenery is flat and barren and nothing of interest to see but arriving in Wadi Musa is much more as we’d hoped. The town sits spectacularly on the side of a bare rocky mountain where our Rocky Mountain Hotel sits perched looking over the town.
The man on the desk is very friendly and explains about getting to Petra tomorrow and we order packed lunches to take with us. It’s been fairly easy to converse with the locals because, after Arabic, English is Jordan’s second language.
This is probably because Jordan actually came into being in the 20th century as part of the French and British division of the Arabian Peninsula then became a British Mandate under the UN’s approval until 1946, when it became independent.
Our room has a wonderful view but we’re too hungry to hang around and walk up the hill in search of food. We buy hot chips – nothing else to buy around here – which we take up to Rocky Mountain’s rooftop Bedouin dining room which doesn’t serve food – ???
We lie around on woven, red Bedouin cushions. In fact the whole room – ceiling, walls and floor is the same Bedouin fabric! Back in our room we sleep till 6.30pm then dress up (sort of) for a ‘posh’ night out on the town. We catch a taxi to the Cave Bar – another great find on travellers’ blogs. Occupying a 2000-year-old Nabataean rock tomb, the bar claims to be the oldest in the world. It sits almost at the entrance to Petra itself.
Inside are rough sandstone walls, solid rock columns, dim lanterns and even little niches carved into the rock walls themselves with individual tables. We’re lucky to be able to grab one of these – very romantic and good to sneakily top up my coke with Bacardi. Because the bar was once a tomb, Mark says there’s lots of ‘spirits’ around. Ha, ha! We order Caesar salad and chicken wings while Mark drinks Petra beer. Love, love it here!
One thing I must add here is that today is the first day of Ramadan. Ramadan is Islam’s holy month of fasting celebrating when God revealed the Quran to Muhammed. Between dawn and dusk Muslims are obliged to refrain from food, drink, sex – bloody hell!
I should have researched Ramadan dates for this year which I always have in the past if we’re going to a Muslim country. This is a big boo boo on my part especially since Jordan is 92% Sunni Muslims. Anyway, we’re lucky to find anywhere that actually sells alcohol.
Also from now on we’ll have to be mindful that while it isn’t illegal to eat or drink during the day, it’ll be pretty rude to be scoffing our faces in front of hungry Muslims. We’ll see how this will impact on our trip.
Outside I buy a hat at a market stall then we walk across to Movenpick. Love this too! We hang out in the gorgeous central area decorated with Arabic lights and a huge blue glass chandelier. Tall palm trees and marble columns add to the Middle Eastern feel. We check out the restaurants and other seating areas – all beautiful.
Outside we can’t find a taxi for ages but finally a young guy stops us and rings his brother-in-law to pick us up. Probably bullshit but soon Mohammed arrives and drives us to the Rocky Mountain for just a few dollars. We ask him if he’ll drive us to Little Petra tomorrow afternoon.
More drinks on the verandah off the dining room – another perfect night with the lights of Wadi Musa twinkling below us.
Monday 6th May, 2019
Wadi Musa-Petra to Little Petra
Today we’ll visit Petra. The reason for this whole trip. Showers at 5.30am then upstairs for a buffet breakfast – same, same – olives, pitta bread, yoghurt, boiled eggs, etc. We leave our bags at reception then catch a taxi to Petra Gate.
All travel blogs recommend visiting Petra as early as possible to avoid the crowds and it seems to be good advice. With only a couple of other people around, Mark walks the one kilometer to the Siq while I pay for a horse. Ha ha love it!
Even the ride there is fabulous – rock carvings and hand hewn caves dot the way while stark hills surround the path. Now we’re at the start of the Siq which is the main entrance to the ancient city. It’s a one kilometre dramatic passageway varying in width from three to twelve metres. We really enjoy the peace of the walk enclosed by the beautiful limestone cliffs and then suddenly, there it is! The Treasury!
The Treasury is the jewel in the crown of Petra and what everyone imagines Petra to be. It’s thought to have been constructed in the 1st century BC, but its purpose still isn’t clear. The façade is lit up as the sun rises above the cliff face opposite. Later it will glow pink which is the reason Petra is often called The Rose City.
Camels sit in the foreground with their Bedouin wallahs, creating picture postcard opportunities. Very few other people here so we take our time to enjoy ‘the serenity’.
But Petra is much more than just the Treasury. The city was carved into the rock face by the Nabataean civilization, a nomadic Bedouin tribe who roamed the Arabian Desert and who established Petra as a major trading hub. It became the capital around the 6th Century BC but was hit by a major earthquake in the middle of the first century before being abandoned by all but the Bedouin who inhabited the caves and tombs – their ancestors still live here today (Googled).
From The Treasury we walk through a passageway where donkeys are tied up ready for the tourists to pour in later in the day. We walk past hand dug caves and tombs to emerge in a huge open area where we see the Royal Tombs just above the Lower Road. On both sides of the road are lots of decorated Nabataen burial facades.
Nearby we stop at a small open-sided café for tea then continue on past the amphitheatre to the Colonnaded Street. No point in describing it all – just as amazing as we’d imagined and we can see why it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site and named as one of the New 7 Wonders of the World. We can also see why it was immortalised in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade as the lost city in Indiana Jones’ hunt for the holy grail.
The sun is scorching by now and shade is non-existent. So, completely unlike me at least, we decide to climb up to The Monastery – supposed to be a long hard walk but we’re only here once, as they say. I’d also promised Den that we’d do it after he watched a documentary on Netflix.
We decide to ride donkeys instead of walking and set off uphill. Ha, ha – Mark’s donkey is mental and careers off in the wrong direction bringing back memories of Egypt when it always happened to him. The donkey guy starts to lead us up the steep rocky path then tells us to go up on our own! But, oh shit, the edge is right there and all donkeys are fucking crazy so we scream at him to come back. He’s not happy but we throw him 5 Dinar and set off walking. Rather die of exhaustion that fall off a cliff on the back of a donkey.
With 850 steps to the top we take our time and even stop in the rare shade of a cliff at one stage to drink poppas packed by our hotel. We notice a hole in the cliff wall high above us then out come a herd of about twenty goats followed by a lady goat herder. Some Bedouins still live here, living nearly the same as they would have a thousand years ago.
Most of the way is stairs carved into the rock but they’re uneven and shallow and we also have to dodge the many donkey turds. Lots of other people are on their way up or back so it can’t be that hard. The worst thing is the heat, 34 degrees C by now and still no shade. The steepest part is towards the end but at last there are small Bedouin stalls lining the path and we’re at the top!
But wait, the Monastery looks just like the Treasury although the setting is much less spectacular and the façade not nearly as ornate. All the same, it’s bloody awesome! So happy to see people sitting opposite on a wide rock ledge. Even happier to find a cave with lots of seating and we can even buy cold drinks and ice-creams. Our faces are as red as beetroots but we’re very proud of ourselves to have made it. We chat to a friendly English woman and her husband who can’t believe they reached the top as well.
Of course, the walk back down is less strenuous but we still have to dodge donkeys, donkey poo and tourists. We feel very smug seeing other people still on their way up – ‘nearly there’ we lie – ha ha.
I actually start to feel a bit weird and my skin feels clammy – think I’ve got heat stroke (just did my First Aid course so I’m paranoid!) At the bottom of the trail we stop to buy two big bottles of cold water that I pour all over myself to try to cool down.
Now we just want to leave so I talk Mark into getting donkeys back to the Treasury. The site looks very different by now with tourists crawling all over it. There are thousands! Apparently cruise ships pull into Aqaba which is only a couple of hours away and buses ferry the hordes up and back every day. I really don’t think we would have been so impressed if we’d come at this time of day nor had that wonderful first impression in the calmness of the morning.
We leave the donkeys at The Treasury and walk the one kilometer back through the Siq which is packed with people and so, it too, has lost all its atmosphere. I ride another horse to the gate because I’m lazy but a fabulous experience too – not going to miss out on anything! Hey, I’m riding a horse in Jordan!
Back in Wadi Musa we stop at a pizza place to buy cold lemon sodas plus hot chips and chicken wings – fun. Mark asks the owner to call Mohammed and we’re soon back at the Rocky Mountain Hotel to pick up our bags.
Now we’re off to Little Petra as we’d booked a tent for tonight at Little Petra Bedouin Camp. Little Petra is only about eight kilometres north of Wadi Musa on the edge of the Arabian Desert. The road follows the edge of the arid mountains around Petra then through the small Bedouin village of Umm Sayhoun. The Camp is just off the road and sits in a compact canyon surrounded by tall sandstone walls.
The owner, another Mohammed, is very friendly and shows us to our tent – a double bed and that’s it. Showers and toilets are in a separate building behind the central fire pit. We love the raised chill-out area lined with the red and black Bedouin fabric we’ve come to expect. There are lots of floor pillows, Turkish rugs and sheeshas so we feel very at home.
After a read and a sleep – our afternoon routine – we’re up for dinner in the Old Cave Restaurant. It actually is inside a cave and the buffet meal is good – meat balls, chicken, coleslaw, tomatoes, hummus and lots of sweets to choose from – we try one of each.
Dark by now and the cliffs surrounding the camp are lit up like fairyland. We didn’t realise how many little caves there were in the day but tonight each one is lit up with a light inside. It’s truly magical.
We sit around the fire while a local man boils water for tea which we’re served in tiny glass tumblers. I do have my duty free Bacardi so I just order a coke but no beer or any other sort of alcohol for Mark. I reluctantly share my Bacardi until one of the staff tells Mark that he can get him a beer. Heaven – until Mark reads the label – zero percent alcohol. Anyway we have a lovely time sitting out here on this warm, starry night.
Tuesday 7th May, 2019
Little Petra to Wadi Rum
Our plan for today is to check out Little Petra then somehow get to Wadi Rum. We also need to book a camp at Wadi Rum but we’ll work that out after breakfast. This is back at The Old Cave Restaurant with the same breakfast we’ve had since we arrived in Jordan – olives, hummus, boiled eggs, tomatoes, flat bread plus coffee and hibiscus tea.
Next we set off for Little Petra which the owner says is ‘that way’ as he points in a vague westerly direction. We ‘hike’ across rough ground, hills and dry gullies, past Bedouin tents and herds of brown Damascus goats. In the distance we can see a few buses so we must be going the right way.
Little Petra or Siq Al-Barid, was given its name because of the similarities with the main site and is entered through a narrow opening similar to the Siq. But everything is on a much smaller scale – a mini-me. Besides tombs, temples, water channels and cisterns carved out of the rock we stop to watch a very old man playing a stringed musical instrument and a very old lady spinning goat hair. We like it here.
Walking back to the Camp we pass a simple Bedouin tent and meet a young boy herding the family goats – not much for them to eat around here. He races back to his tent to bring a pack of dusty old postcards – we buy them.
Seeing real Bedouins is a special experience. Some Bedouins, meaning desert dwellers, still practice pastoralism and still drive their herds of goats, sheep or camels across the desert for grazing. They camp in one spot for a few months until the animals eat all the grass then move on. This is probably why the camp looks so temporary.
Back at our tent we ask the owner to ring Salman Zwaedh Camp at Wadi Rum – only $70AUD a night for the two of us including food, a jeep tour and camel ride. We still have a few hours before Mohammed (the first one) picks us up so we have showers, repack and chill out in the chill out area.]
Right on noon, Mohammed arrives and we’re soon speeding back through Wadi Musa and on our way to Wadi Rum. The landscape is very uninspiring with ugly wind farms most of the way. Besides this Mohammed is on his phone constantly and even when I chat him he soon goes back to it. No more trips for you Mohammed – you’ve blown it!
As we near Rum Village we see box shaped houses which is where most Bedouins now live. Very unromantic compared to the black camel hair tents. Instead of leading a nomadic lifestyle these Bedouins have settled down and make a living growing crops.
At the Rum Visitor Centre we piss Mohammed off, ‘promising’ to call him to drive us from Aqaba to Madaba on Thursday – ha ha. We’ve been met by the very handsome Salman who piles us into the back of his jeep. Off we fly through the Arabian Desert passing dramatic sandstone and basalt mountains that jut out of its sandy floor and sometimes caravans of camels.
We stop at an area of rolling dunes where a few other jeeps are stopped. Mark climbs to the top of a huge dune while I spend the time cracking up at a group of Chinese ladies posing for photographs. They’re having a ball and they even have the guides laughing.
Off again to later stop at a Bedouin camp for tea. More handsome men are here all wearing loose white robes and the traditional red and white shemagh wrapped around their heads. A roaring fire in the middle is used to boil water in big blackened kettles then the guys dress Mark and I in traditional clothes – fun because we’re the only ones here. Soon though more jeeps arrive and out pile the Chinese tourists.
At the entrance to the camp is a boulder with the face of Lawrence of Arabia carved into the rock. Wadi Rum was actually introduced to the western world by T.E. Lawrence, a British officer-turned-author, who was based here during the Arab Revolt of 1917. I’d just watched David Lean’s 1963 movie, Lawrence of Arabia starring Peter O’Toole a few weeks ago. It’s why we’re adding Aqaba to our itinerary.
We don’t drive too much further as the wind has come up so we head for Salman Zwaedh Camp which will be our home for tonight. The camp is tucked into a protected natural niche in the orange cliff face with black goat hair tents forming a ring around a central area. The camp also includes a kitchen, a dining tent and an outdoor sitting space squeezed into a crevice in the rocks.
We love our tent – very spacious and even our own bathroom. After a rest we prepare for our sunset camel ride. Our camel wallah is waiting for us and Mark is given a blonde beauty with a snooty expression. We’re led across the silent, red sand desert.
Wadi Rum is named “The Valley of the Moon” because of its other-worldly landscape. But with reddish sand and mountains looking like the arid and red surface of Mars, Wadi Rum has also been the location of lots of films set on the red planet. We saw The Martian a couple of years ago but didn’t realise then that this is where it had actually been shot.
We eventually stop at a rocky outcrop where we leave the camels to climb to the top to watch the sunset. This must be the best place to watch the sun go down as we can see jeeps and other tourists on camels heading for this same spot.
Riding back to the camp the wind has come up and we cover our faces with our scarves – very Lawrence of Arabia! A brilliant experience!
At camp we’re in for another unique experience. Dinner is zarb, a sort of Bedouin barbeque which is all cooked underground. A cylindrical metal cage with layers of chicken, lamb and vegetables is lowered into a pit of burning coal, sealed then covered with sand and left for about three hours. We’re just in time to see it being pulled up out of the ground. The sand is dug away and the metal cage lifted up. When the lid is removed, the smell is amazing!
We head for the dining tent and sit around the walls on floor cushions to chat to the others. About twelve other people are staying here as well and we recognise the lesbians who’d also been at Little Petra last night. They’re hilarious and come from Italy while a gay couple from France tell us how they didn’t make the climb to the Monastery at Petra. A very funny night. A young Norwegian couple talk about their adventures in Israel so we gather some good information. Later we all sit out near the fire and drink tea.
No alcohol here so we don’t stay long. Before going to bed though Mark grabs a blanket each and we wander away from the camp to see the stars.
Out tent is warm and cozy.
Wednesday 8th May, 2019
Wadi Rum to Aqaba
We’ve organized for Salman to pick us up at 7am so we’re up very early to pack and walk out into the desert to watch the sun rise. We climb up to the top of a sand dune to wait for the sun. As we look back at the camp, a caravan of camels passes below us. Oh, yes!
It’s freezing up here and we’re glad when the sun finally rises and we can head back for breakfast. You guessed it – pita bread, tomato, olives, fuul, cheese and boiled eggs.
The sky is especially clear today so it’s a nice drive to the Visitor Centre where we’ll catch a bus to Aqaba. But apparently the bus left at 630am but, of course, no-one bothered to tell us. And there are no more buses today and there are no taxis – ever. Mark asks a man leaving in a car if he can drive us to Aqaba and luckily he agrees for $40 – a good deal for him too.
The only issue is that he’s just as mad as Mohammed – spends most of the time ringing people on his mobile. Must be just calling everyone he knows! We’re sick of these arse-holes!
We ask him to take us to Tana Bay which is where the best snorkeling is supposed to be. Snorkelling is one of the main reasons we’ve come to Aqaba after our amazing experience in the Red Sea in Egypt many years ago.
Aqaba is Jordan’s most important access to the sea and we see the city on our right as we head down the south coast. Our driver tells us that from here we can see three countries at the same time – Jordan, Israel and Egypt!
We’d booked a room yesterday on booking.com at Darna Village Resort for only $35. There seems to be a string of these ‘resorts’ along this road opposite the beach. Darna is a bit on the shabby side and our room is featureless but we do have a nice pool and pool area.
The temperature has climbed so we’re straight into the pool. Mark then walks down to check out the beach then we hire snorkeling gear from the Darna Dive section. Lunch first of chips and tuna salad then a quick nanna nap. We’ve been waiting for the breeze to die down and at three o’clock we set off for the beach. Not as spectacular as Egypt but we still experience the amazing underwater world that still blows me away.
At Darna we have another swim then dress up for a night in a posh hotel further down the coast. Darna is Arabic so no alcohol – goodbye!!
Outside we find a funny taxi driver called Mamoud who invites us to his house to break the fast (it’s Ramadan – remember) with his family. We really, really should do this but since we’re both drunks we want to get straight to Movenpick.
We organize for him to drive us to the airport in the morning as we’ve decided to catch a plane back up to Amman then cross into Israel tomorrow.
At Movenpick we’re in time for Happy Hour drinks so we order up big. We’re sitting outside on a second floor balcony overlooking the lovely hotel grounds and served by sweet waitresses – one from the Philippines, one from Thailand and one from Kenya. Mark has four beers and I have four Bacardi and cokes then we share a seafood platter. By now it’s very dark and we can see the lights of Egypt twinkling on the opposite shore. Sitting in the warm still night air, we really enjoy this place.
Now we catch another taxi back to Darna but head for a bar next door. It’s very Arabic looking and the beer is non-alcoholic so Mark tops it up with Bacardi. Flashing coloured lights and loud music must be an attempt to draw a crowd but we’re the only ones here. Ha ha – lucky for us!
Thursday 9th May, 2019
Aqaba to Amman to Jerusalem (Israel)
We deserve our hangovers but it was worth it! At 6.30am we meet Mamoud outside as arranged. He’s asleep in his taxi and says ‘you drive’ when we get in – ha ha – he’s been up partying with his family all night. He said he’ll go home to bed after he drops us off. We give him a bag of children’s clothes we’ve brought with us.
We’re off now to Aqaba Airport, known as King Hussein International Airport. Mamoud stops at a petrol station – not to get petrol but to buy us drinks, biscuits and apples – ‘you miss breakfast’, he says. Oh, how sweet! A guard stops at the airport gate and asks ‘where you going?’. Mamoud turns to us and says ‘where he think we going – swimming?’
While we wait for departure everyone stands at the windows to watch three bright red jets belonging to Royal Jordanian Airlines performing impressive manoeuvres then landing right in front of the terminal.
We take off at 8.40am for the short trip to Amman’s Queen Alia International Airport. We stop at Starbucks for coffee, a hot chocolate and a cheese cake then catch a taxi to the border – $60.
It seems to be in a busy village area and we really don’t know where to go. We ask a few people and eventually find the right window – we think. There isn’t any signage and no-one is inside. People say ‘you sit, you sit’. Next we’re sent to another window and then back to the original. Finally we’re put on a bus to drive us to the Israeli border across the King Hussein/Allenby Bridge.
After much research I found that this is the only border where you can cross from Amman to Jerusalem and back on your single entry Jordan visa.
Even though we’re technically in the West Bank here, it’s Israel controlling the border crossing. Uniformed men with guns protect the border but it doesn’t take long to receive our piece of paper which is the equivalent of having our passports stamped. This is a fairly new thing as before if you had an Israeli stamp in your passport you were refused entry into any Arab nation.
Back in the bus we’re driven somewhere else where there is more stamping before we find a mini-van to drive us to Jerusalem. So far Israel looks very much like Jordan – barren, dry and rocky – as we hoped and expected. Soon we see The Dead Sea on our left as it actually straddles the border of Israel and Jordan. We see goat herders and small basic settlements before reaching the outskirts of the city which sits picturesquely high up on a plateau in the Judean Mountains.
Jerusalem is the capital of modern day Israel and said to be the religious and historical epicenter of the world. The city is holy to Jews, Christians and Muslims but more about that later.
The van drops us all off but we have zero idea where we are. We decide to try to get a room at Abraham Hostel which has a big rap on the net. We catch a taxi which costs a fortune and I hate the area he drops us on sight. It seems to be in a business district with no character at all. I also hate the look of Abraham Hostel but we go in anyway.
The foyer is buzzing with backpackers so things are looking up. But, bloody hell, they want $140AUD for a double room! We settle instead for a dorm room on the third floor. It only has four beds and we’re sharing with a European guy who can’t speak a word of English so we just smile and nod to each other.
On the first floor is the vast dining/chill-out/bar where we find a seat near a friendly Canadian girl called Sarah. She’s very smart and here on some sort of work/holiday thing – a good night.
Friday 10th May, 2019
While it’s been an experience staying here at Abraham’s we’re leaving this morning. First we have breakfast downstairs which is an all-you-can-eat buffet style.
I check out booking.com and find a great hotel very close to the Old City. So after a quick pack we find another expensive taxi to take us to the Addar Hotel. When the driver tells us what the price will be, I whinge, “but it’s just over there!” He laughs and says “how many days you stay in Jerusalem?” I say “One!”. He laughs again. Very funny – this place is super expensive!
We like the Addar Hotel which set in a quiet side road diagonally across from the gorgeous old American Colonial Hotel – our destination for tonight, for sure! The Addar is an Arab Hotel – the real thing and decorated with brass urns, arches, mosaic tiles, velvet lounges and a huge blue glass chandelier hanging from the vaulted ceiling in the foyer. It has just the right amount of shabbiness and we love it. Our room is big with a verandah and all the trappings for the same price as a bunk bed at Abraham’s!
A quick shower and change and we’re ready to take on the Old City. Our taxi driver had warned us not to go today which is the first Friday of Ramadan and it will be packed for some reason. We’re going anyway.
We walk along Nablus Road past lovely old buildings, a school and churches all behind high stone walls overhung with vines. Nearer the Old City we walk through a market then come out near the very impressive Damascus Gate.
There are seven gates in all but we keep walking to New Gate which is the main entrance to the Christian Quarter. By the way, the Old City is divided into four uneven quarters – the Muslim, Christian, Jewish and Armenian quarters which all flow into one another. We’ll be able to visit them all today because the entire Old City is only one kilometer square. We plan to do a general walk around today then come back to see things more in depth on Sunday.
Entering through North Gate we’re immediately transported back in time. The Old City remains as it was thousands of years ago and people still live and work here in these ancient buildings. It’s an exciting, exotic and spiritual world of narrow cobbled laneways. Thick stone walls and archways lead to dark alleyways lined by eateries and souks. We stop in a cave-like café for coffee and tea and love it here already.
But this is the Christian Quarter and the star is without question the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. We wind through narrow alleys to find the church fronted by a small square busy with tourists and pilgrims.
Inside, the church is a beautifully ornate and cavernous structure with many small chapels and intricate art work. The church dates back to at least the 4th century and houses the site where Jesus was crucified at Calvary, the tomb where he was buried and resurrected and the last four Stations of the Cross.
We light candles for Angie and for Grace who is very sick. I don’t know if there really is a presence here but I start to cry – takes me a while sitting outside to settle down. I don’t have a religious bone in my body but something unusual is happening here.
On the funny side, I’d read about this thing called ‘Jerusalem Syndrome’. This can apparently happen to some people who get totally carried away with the religious thing after visiting the Holy City. They can be found roaming the streets of Jerusalem wearing biblical robes, taking on a different name and refusing to leave the city. Mark thinks I’m starting to show the signs!!
Near Zion Gate is the Armenian Quarter which is the smallest quarter of the Old City. It’s the home to Christian Armenians who arrived in Jerusalem in the 4th century AD. We visit St. James Monastery and the Cathedral of St. James. The Jerusalem Armenians are known for their distinctive hand painted tiles and handmade ceramics and lots of small shops sell them – too hard to bring home, though.
From here we follow the signs to the Jewish Quarter. We come across the excavated ancient Roman remains including the Cardo, which would have been the colonnaded main street during Jesus’ lifetime. But of course the major attraction in this quarter is the Western Wall also known as the Wailing Wall. This is the last remaining part of the 2nd Holy Jewish Temple which was destroyed in 70AD.
The Western Wall opens up to a large plaza and Jews come from across the globe to worship here. We’re supposed to be able to place a prayer note with a personal message to God between the large stones of the Wall but it looks like only Jewish people are here so we stand back.
Traditionally, all Orthodox Jewish men wear black trousers and coats with a white shirt. They have short cropped hair except for long ringlets hanging down in front of each ear – very unsexy! Mark says eye glasses must also be part of the costume because they all wear them. As for the women, once they’re married, most cover their hair with a wig or scarf.
Within the Old City are the most important Jewish, Muslim and Christian religious sites in Israel but we can’t visit Islam’s most sacred site today. Only Muslims can visit the Dome of the Rock because of Ramadan. We can walk through the rest of the Muslim Quarter though and we find a cool, dark restaurant for a late lunch.
Later we wander around the Muslim area which suddenly fills with men returning from the Dome of the Rock. Thousands swarm through the tiny alleyways heading for Damascus Gate. We’re ready to leave as well so we join the mass.
But once outside we can’t get out of the area which has been roped off as Israeli police herd people into lines to wait for a continuous procession of buses. These will ferry passengers to other towns throughout the country and possibly back to Palestine.
We wait with the lines of people and we see a little girl of about three with hair growing all over her body – like a little monkey – heart breaking. Finally we get to the top of the queue and hightail it across the road and into the market.
We both have showers after this very sweaty day then dress for another ‘posh’ night. This is at the American Colony Hotel which was built in the 19th century on the ruins of an older Ottoman style building. The outdoor seating area is lovely with tables set in a leafy garden with candles and a fountain. But we want to visit the Cellar Bar and are lucky to grab the only table left.
The Cellar Bar is small and intimate with a Middle Eastern ambience. The bar is still floored with the same warm pink stone that’s been here for the past one hundred and thirty years. Mark orders tapas while we drink beers and margaritas. Soon an English couple asks if they can sit with us. They’re hilarious and we have a fun night together – best friends already. It’s a shame they won’t be here again tomorrow night as they’re moving on.
Saturday 11th May, 2019
Jerusalem to Masada to Jerusalem
Yesterday we’d booked a day trip to Masada, so we’re up early to have breakfast in the sunny dining room. This opens up onto a small garden where other guests are smoking – we’ll stay in here.
We start to walk to the pick-up place but realise that we won’t make it in time and grab a taxi. A crowd of people are milling around outside a big hotel where tourist buses pull in to pick up passengers. We soon end up on a coach with about twenty other people.
We head out of Jerusalem driving south through the Judean Desert. Arid mountains are on our right with the Dead Sea on our left the whole way. The Dead Sea is actually the lowest place on earth and the water so salty that nothing can live in it or even on its shores. We’ve never seen anything remotely like this before.
After a couple of hours we arrive at the foot of the UNESCO World Heritage site of Masada. The fortress sits high on a flat plateau next to the Dead Sea.
Off the bus we’re met by our guide, a young local woman who explains some of the history of Masada. It was built in 30 BC by the Roman King Herod. But in 68 BCE, there was a revolt against Rome and Masada was conquered by a group of Jewish zealots – Masada became their last stronghold. But more about this tragic story later.
There is a steep walking trail but most people including us, catch the cable car. We spend the next hour or so exploring the ruins and taking in the incredible views across the Dead Sea and the Judean Desert.
Under a sweltering sun, we visit the Roman bathhouse with its colourful mosaic floor, the western palace, store rooms and watch towers. Now our lovely guide tells us of the terrible final days of Masada. In 72 BCE the Romans besieged Masada by building a huge earthen ramp on its western side. The Jews living on Masada chose to commit suicide rather than end up as Roman slaves.
Down to the bottom in another squashy cable-car, we‘re back on the bus to stop at the Israeli oasis of Ein Gedi. This is not really our vision of an oasis! We pull into a crowded car park then cross into a sort of huge ticket office. From here we follow a path to end up at the most pathetic ‘oasis’ you could imagine – wtf? A few families are splashing around in a puddle then we walk to a ‘waterfall’ (it’s tiny) where we cool off but it’s pretty funny!
Off again on the bus we head towards Jerusalem. We’re sitting behind a couple of Turkish guys – one has been annoying everyone the whole trip – always butting into the guide’s talk without a clue that her body language is saying ‘shut the fuck up!”
Now on the bus, as we follow the shore of the Dead Sea, he literally takes hundreds and hundreds of photos – clicking incessantly. But the scenery is the same the entire way, you freak – dry, barren, treeless – dead! We imagine his friends back home will be heading for the hills if he invites them over for a slide-night – ‘sorry, busy!’ – ha, ha.
Finally our bus stops at a Dead Sea Resort. This has a sort of family café/restaurant/swimming pool feel but we by-pass all this and head straight for the water.
And, true to form, we see people floating on their backs and others covered in black mud. We want to do it all – a bucket list thing!! One of the good things about swimming in the Dead Sea is that there aren’t any sharks – actually there aren’t any fish at all, absolutely nothing can live in here – ‘dead’, get it?
So down on the shore, we find a place that isn’t too crowded and wobble our way into the sea. This isn’t easy because the sea floor is covered with not only sticky black mud but rocks, rocks and more rocks.
The Dead Sea rules include:-
- Do not, I repeat, do not get any water in your eyes. Regular sea water burns enough and this is ten times worse.
- Do not shave for a couple of days before your visit. If you do, it will burn.
- Wear an old bathing suit as the mud and salt water combination can be a bit rough on the fabric.
- Bring some reading material if you want a cool photo
- Consider wearing water shoes or thongs in the water; the rocks and crystallized salt can be hard on the feet.
- Don’t forget to lather yourself with handfuls of thick, black mud.
So okay we obey it all!
It really is the weirdest feeling floating on my back reading a magazine. Mark does the same then I smother myself with the black mineral-rich mud which supposedly has near-magical healing properties. Hope so!
And we definitely make sure we don’t get any water in our eyes but finish with a wash under a fresh water shower. Everyone has to line up but then we all let people in who haven’t obeyed the rules and who are blindly heading for the shower with arms out-stretched – mostly Asians who are laughing their heads off. So funny!
Heading back up to the Resort, we join the crowds in the big swimming pool then shower before meeting our bus driver in the car park.
Back in Jerusalem we walk through the market to our hotel. The market is lively with carts laden with bread rolls and vendors shouting out to customers to come and buy. After showers we have a lovely night doing a sort of posh hotel crawl of our area ending up at our favourite American Colony.
Sunday 12th May, 2019
We’ve decided to spend another day in Jerusalem but to also find a guesthouse in the Old City. Breakfast is in the sunny dining room again then we catch a taxi to New Gate. We drag our wheeled backpacks over the cobblestones to our little guesthouse sitting at the top of a steep staircase. The shabby lounge area is vast with a tall ceiling and arched coloured glass windows at either end. The building is very old with lovely features but has been left to rundown. We like it – the real deal!
Our room and bathroom are similarly shabby but we have two tall arched windows overlooking the Square and the Citadel – a million dollar view for a pittance!
We set off through the Armenian Quarter passing nuns, monks and friars in their habits to reach Zion Gate (also called David’s Gate). In 1948, during the Arab-Israeli War, this area saw severe fighting when Israeli soldiers tried to breach the walls when the Jewish Quarter was under siege by Palestinian Arab forces. The gate’s exterior is pockmarked with bullet holes from that time. Today hundreds of Israeli soldiers, male and female, are milling around here, all carrying assault rifles, but they’re laughing and chatting in groups so no worries for us.
This place has so much history – besides the biblical stuff and the Arab-Israeli War, this area became famous as a gathering place of lepers in the 19th century.
And then of course there’s Mount Zion itself
And then of course there’s Mount Zion itself. Winding our way through paved alleyways lined with tall stone walls we reach The Cenaculum better known as The Room of the Last Supper. This is simple but very beautiful with carved columns, chandeliers and stained glass windows.
Below the Last Supper Room the tomb of King David sacred to the Jews. Mark has to wear a kippah (skull cap) and I’m given a scarf to cover my head. Later we climb the stairs to the roof for good views of Mount Zion and The Old City. Opposite we see the Mount of Olives and the Garden of Gethsemane which is where Jesus went after The Last Supper. It’s where he was caught, handed over to the Romans and sentenced to die on the cross.
Heading back into the Old City we have lunch in a pleasant square in the Jewish Quarter then shop in the Arab Quarter souk. Mark buys a herbal concoction meant to cure diabetes and made up by a local man. We then buy fresh orange juice made on the spot – find them everywhere here. We could spend days just wandering these tunnels and alleyways.
Back in the Christian Quarter we find the monastery where Graz lived and worked back in the nineties – we send him a photo. Now we follow the directions in the Lonely Planet to follow the Via Dolorosa or the Way of Suffering. This is the path that Jesus walked, carrying his cross, on the way to his crucifixion.
The Via Dolorosa is just under one kilometer long on a winding up and down path with fourteen stations on the way.
These Stations of the Cross signify events that happened on the way.
1st Station: Jesus is condemned to death.
2nd Station: Jesus accepts the cross.
3rd Station: Jesus falls the first time.
4th Station: Jesus meets His mother.
5th Station: Simon of Cyrene helps Jesus carry His cross.
6th Station: Veronica wipes the face of Jesus.
7th Station: Jesus falls the second time.
8th Station: Jesus meets the women of Jerusalem
9th Station: Jesus falls a third time.
10th Station: Jesus is stripped of His clothes.
11th Station: Jesus is crucified.
12th Station: Jesus dies on the cross.
13th Station: The body of Jesus is taken down from the cross.
14th Station: Jesus is laid in the tomb.
A lot of other people are doing the same thing, some in groups singing or chanting and all stopping at each station. Exciting and moving at the same time.
Returning to our guesthouse is easy – we’re right here! We shower to cool down then have a read and nap before heading out for the night. We want to check out Downtown and the easiest way is by the light rail. This is a short, but uphill, walk from New Gate and we’re soon leaving the old area and into modern Jerusalem.
Here we wander around the Mahana Yemuda Market then stop for tapas and drinks in a few trendy bars.
Monday 13th May, 2019
Jerusalem to Nazareth
Our plan today is to visit more of the Old City then catch a bus to Nazareth this afternoon. We want to see the Temple Mount before all the crowds arrive so we set off early.
First we stop at the Western Wall. This is the most sacred site in the world for Jewish people and thousands of pilgrims visit the Wall every year to pray. The prayers are either spoken or written on pieces of paper and wedged into the cracks between the stones.
The Wall was built by King Herod in 20BCE as an expansion of the Second Temple. But then the Temple was destroyed by the Romans fifty years later and now only the wall remains.
To get to Temple Mount we pass through Mughrabi Gate near the Western Wall. There are rules; dressed modestly, no weapons, no sacred Jewish objects and show our passports. The line is long and we’re glad we came early.
Inside is a vast peaceful space with lots of trees, arches, fountains and the imposing Dome of the Rock. We end up with a guide who explains it all – The Temple Mount is a holy site for Jewish, Christian and Muslim people. After Mecca and Medina, it’s the third holiest site for Muslims where the Prophet Mohammed made his “Night Journey” to the throne of God. When the Muslims conquered Jerusalem in the seventh century, they built the Dome of the Rock exactly on the spot where the Jewish First and Second Temples existed. It’s said to be the most fought over piece of land on earth.
The golden dome can be seen all over Jerusalem and is much bigger than expected when we get up close. The exterior is covered with blue tiles with Quranic verses written all around it. Non-Muslims aren’t allowed inside so we don’t get to see the actual rock.
Next we visit the Al-Aqsa Mosque but get bored so we pay off our guide and head back into the Old City. Before we leave I have to visit the Church of the Holy Sepulchre just one more time to light candles for Angie – Mark really is starting to think I’ve got Jerusalem Syndrome! The truth is, it’s all been fabulous historically but I still don’t get the religious thing. I wish I did – for Ange.
This morning we’d noticed a cute French-looking restaurant in an alleyway near our guesthouse so we head here for lunch. This is The Versevage, all dark wood with stone floors and tall iron and glass doors. We sit in the little courtyard and order a cappuccino for Mark and a tea for me. Mark also has an avocado and mint drink and we share a very fancy chocolate and cream dessert.
Back at our guesthouse we pack then find a taxi to take us to the bus station. The direct bus to Nazareth doesn’t leave for ages so we decide to catch a bus to Haifa on the coast and then pick up another bus to Nazareth from there. We may as well see some of the countryside rather than sit here doing nothing.
The two hour trip passes through the Israeli countryside with small towns in the distance. We don’t go through Tel Aviv but we can see its tall buildings way off to our left. For the last hour we travel along the coast of the Mediterranean Sea then reach Haifa about four o’clock. At the bus station we need to catch a smaller bus to yet another bus station where we have time to buy a snack of chips and coke.
Haifa is built on the slopes of Mount Carmel so it’s a very hilly city. On our third bus today, we drive across the Carmel mountain range and arrive in Nazareth forty minutes later.
The bus drops us off on the side of a hill near the Old City which is where we booked a guesthouse online this morning. Nazareth’s Old City is no different to Jerusalem’s Old city – lots of narrow winding alleyways, cobbled or paved streets and stone buildings. It seems like a place where the clock stopped a few centuries ago. It’s an intriguing maze of pointed arches, ivy covered walls, old men smoking cigarettes, fragrant coffee houses and where the call to prayer echoes from the nearby White Mosque.
It takes a while but Mark eventually finds our guesthouse, The Vitrage, a yellow painted building with the exterior walls decorated with all sorts of kitsch like garden gnomes and Santa hats.
Inside is much the same, a homey jumble of bits and pieces with a pond in the centre. A small waterfall spills into another pool with ceramic frogs and other animals perched on the rocks – a handyman’s job if we’ve ever seen one!
The friendly owner shows us around the building which is a rabbit warren of stairways and hallways. Our room is clean and okay for one night. We rest for a while then set off for a night out in Nazareth – never thought I’d say that.
We wander around the Old City but head for Mary’s Well where we’ll supposedly find cafes and bars. We do. A string of restaurants are all vying for business. All have tables and chairs outside and under the trees opposite. It’s really lovely sitting out here in the warm night air.
Tuesday 14th May, 2019
Breakfast is served in the tiny kitchen/dining room – all very kitsch like the rest of the place. And breakfast is the same as everywhere else – is this what the locals eat?
Anyway, we’d read that the Fauzi Azur Inn runs free walking tours every morning so we set out to find it. This is part of the Abraham Hotel chain in Israel but whereas the hotel in Jerusalem was in a featureless block, the Fauzi occupies a two hundred year old Arab mansion.
Inside, the courtyard is an oasis of trees, hanging plants, wicker chairs and water fountains. A handsome young guy greets us and the two other people on the tour. We follow him upstairs to a beautiful lounge area with a soaring ceiling intricately moulded and painted. Arched stained glass windows, a marble floor and antique furniture add to the elegance. We wish we could stay here tonight but we’ve already booked a hotel online.
Our guide explains the history of Fauzi house then takes us out into the cobbled streets of the Old City. We visit other old Ottoman-era mansions, some left abandoned, a market, a coffee house where old men are playing a card game and drinking coffee. The room is cave-like with stone walls and honestly the biggest chandelier we’ve ever seen.
We explore the narrow alleyways lined with solid limestone walls then it’s time to check out of the Vitrage and book into the Antique Guesthouse. This sits on a bend in a twisty laneway with a welcoming entrance of plants and flowers. This is another cute place full of Middle Eastern atmosphere – we’ve picked well again thanks to being able to see photos on Tripadvisor. After settling in, we head off to explore the sights of Nazareth.
This is where Jesus spent his childhood – Jesus of Nazareth, get it. Today Nazareth is the largest Arab town in Israel, with a mixed population of Christian and Muslim Arabs. It’s a city of churches and a place of pilgrimage for the world’s Christians, who believe it to be the site of the Annunciation – when the Archangel Gabriel announced the birth of Jesus to the Virgin Mary. (Google)
But there are two churches here who claim to be built on the spot of the Annunciation. One is St. Gabriel’s Church (also known as the Greek Orthodox Church of the Annunciation). It was built over the village spring, where the Greek Orthodox say was where the Archangel Gabriel first appeared to Mary. We look down into a dark stonewalled well to see the spring below. Some people are filling water bottles from a tap fed by the spring. In the upper church are lovely frescoes and we light candles for our darlings here and gone.
In the park outside we find Mary’s Well then head for the other Church of the Annunciation. In the floor is a large octagonal opening with a view of the lower level and the Grotto of the Annunciation. This church is really unappealing – I can’t like it.
Next door to the Church of the Annunciation, within the same compound, is St. Joseph’s Church which stands on the site where Joseph once had his carpentry workshop.
So now we’re ‘churched’ out and head up the hill to the Shuk (market). After wandering around for a while we stop at a big restaurant for lunch but it’s soon invaded by a noisy group of pilgrims (everywhere on the Jesus trail) and leave to eat at a small place at the bottom of the hill near the fountain.
A rest in our cute stone-walled room then about six o’clock we set off in search of the Alreda Restaurant. We find it near the Greek Orthodox Annunciation Church and located in an aristocratic Palestinian family house built over 200 years ago during the Ottoman empire.
I’d heard about this place and it’s even better than expected. With stone exterior walls and old brass coated arched doors and windows we love it already. Inside is one open space with a pink stone floor, natural coloured walls, an old timber bar and tables and chairs all in wood plus stacks of atmosphere – I take dozens of photos for inspiration.
The restaurant is said to be the best in Nazareth serving traditional Nazarene recipes with a Mediterranean twist. We order small plates to share while being serenaded by Egyptian music playing in the background. At first we’re the only ones here but then a large dinner crowd arrives chatting loudly in Arabic and Hebrew.
Love, love this place but decide to move on to one of the bars we’d found yesterday. Another great night.
Wednesday 15th May, 2019
Nazareth to Bethlehem (Palestine)
Breakfast is help yourself in the dark downstairs dining room full of old world charm. The bus to Jerusalem is leaving in half an hour so, under sunny skies once again, we drag our packs down the hill to the main street. We wait for nearly an hour after it’s due and, seeing that this is the first stop, we realise that it isn’t coming.
One strange thing about Nazareth is that it’s hard to get here and get away even though it’s high up on the Jesus Trail. I guess most people come here on tours rather than relying on public transport like us.
Now with our bus not turning up, the only other option is to hire a driver. We ask at a couple of places but they want crazy prices.
Then suddenly Mark sees our bus pulling up on the opposite side of the road. We’re so relieved and really enjoy the trip back to Jerusalem which is a direct route today meaning we get to see a different part of the country.
Back in Jerusalem we catch a taxi to the Arab bus station over near Damascus Gate where the buses to Palestine come and go. We’re off to Bethlehem for the night!
Even though Bethlehem is only twelve kilometres from Jerusalem it’s part of the West Bank so Israeli transport is banned from entering. Only certain Arab bus lines can be used.
We pay only 5ILS on the blue 21 bus which takes us on a route through nearby Beit Jalla. As we near Palestine we see the huge concrete wall that cuts off Jerusalem from the West Bank. The Israeli government officially refers to it as a “safety fence” to keep out terrorists while the Arabic name for it is the “apartheid wall”.
Even though I read up before coming to Israel, I still only have a minute understanding of the very complex relationship Israel has with its Palestinian neighbours in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Who’s right and who’s wrong??/ I’m totally confused!
There is even a border crossing where we have to show our passports.
Finally through, we’re on our way to Bethlehem. The bus drops us off at the top of a ridge where we catch a taxi to take us into the old city.
We wind down through narrow streets into the Old City to find that the guesthouse we’d booked this morning is in Star Street just a few steps from Manger Square. This is one of the top attractions in Bethlehem being flanked by two other major attractions – the Church of St Catherine and the Church of Nativity – talk about that later.
Our guesthouse is called Dar al Majus and entered off the street by a tall metal door. The guesthouse is inside a historical hosh, which is a compound of buildings surrounding a small courtyard. It’s a little oasis run by a friendly family. They don’t speak English but we manage to communicate anyway. Our room is located in the historical part of the building and overlooks the street and market stalls opposite. It’s huuuuge with our own bathroom, a queen bed, a single bed and a chill out area near the windows complete with floor cushions. But best of all is the architecture – stone walls, arched ceilings and rounded windows. It’s the best place we’ve stayed in this trip – plus it’s cheap!
Now we’re ready to take on more Jesus sights. Not bad going for a couple of atheists! It’s all about history anyway and visiting places we’ve heard about since our days at Sunday School. So the first stop is the Church of the Nativity.
Everyone associates Bethlehem with the story of the nativity; Mary and Joseph travelling on a donkey from Nazareth to Bethlehem for a census where Jesus Christ was born in a manger. The Church of the Nativity has been built on the spot where all this happened. It is one of the oldest working churches in existence today.
We enter through the Door of Humility, a small rectangular entrance that dates to the Ottoman period. The doorway was minimized to prevent Ottoman raiders from entering on horseback and pillaging the church. The wide nave is held up by forty four pink limestone collumns covered with paintings of Mary and Christ. On cue, a black robed priest with a long white beard crosses in front of the elaborate altar.
We’re just about to enter the doorway to the stairs leading down to the Grotto of the Nativity when a group of pilgrims beat us to it. We leave them to it. Back out in Manger Square we head off into the maze of cobbled laneways of the Old City. They say you can get lost here and we do. At one stage we hit a dead-end at a family home where three young children come out to talk to us. They sing ‘Johnny Johnny’ for us, the same song that Abi and Elkie sing at home.
We love the traditional architecture of the old city with its curvy stone streets, sometimes topped by rocky arches, and domed houses with beautifully ornamented doors and windows. We come across an interesting fresh food market where local Arab ladies shop for fruit and vegetables. We feel like we’ve stepped back in time a thousand years.
On dark we find that Manger Square looks especially beautiful with the Church of the Nativity all lit up as well as the striking Mosque of Omar, which looks a bit tacky really, covered in strings of fairy lights.
We sit in the crowded Peace Centre Restaurant – crowded because this is still Ramadan and now it’s time for the Muslim population to come out to play – and eat of course. Whole extended families are here ordering mountains of food and having a roar of a time.
After we eat we move on to the next street where we find a Bedouin bar – we’re the only ones here because I guess Muslim people and devout Christians don’t drink.
Next is a big hotel which is packed with people eating and drinking so we sit ourselves up at the bar for some excellent people watching.
Thursday 16th May, 2019
Bethlehem to Jerusalem to Madaba (Jordan)
We don’t sleep in because we need to get back to Jordan today which means crossing the border. This could be easy or it could take hours so we want to give ourselves plenty of time. Our lovely hosts have set up breakfast for us in the underground dining room. In fact their whole house is underground – awesome!
We do the reverse of yesterday, getting a taxi to the top of the hill then wait for the Jerusalem bus to arrive. As we cross the checkpoint, Israeli soldiers climb on board to look at everyone’s passports. They stay on the bus the whole way. Back in Jerusalem we walk to a mini bus depot to get a lift to the Jordan/Israel border. This takes no time at all and we’re soon speeding towards Madaba in a taxi.
From the Dead Sea at 400 metres below sea level, we wind our way up and up to Mount Nebo at 820 metres above sea level. Mount Nebo is the site where the Old Testament says Moses saw the Promised Land. What he would see today is Jericho, Bethlehem, the hills of Jerusalem, the Jordan River valley and the Dead Sea. Maybe it wasn’t so ‘dead’ in those days because the Promised Land was also called The Land of Milk and Honey. Talk about climate change!
We’re staying at Hotel Saint John which is a featureless place but the only one really close to the main attractions. We wander around the shopping area and find some interesting cafes and restaurants. We do have an afternoon nap before heading for Haret Jdoudna.
This very atmospheric restaurant is set in a restored Ottoman house with a leafy courtyard in the centre. Like our experience in Bethlehem last night, the place is packed to the rafters and we finally give up waiting to be served.
Instead we head up to the roof top restaurant at our hotel. This has lovely views of this ancient city and much nicer to be in the cool night air anyway. Young people are up here smoking sheeshas but we stick to our alcohol.
Friday 17th May, 2019
Madaba to Amman to Dubai
We’re not leaving Madaba until five o’clock this afternoon so we have all day to check it out. It seems that everything we want to see will be in walking distance.
After breakfast on the roof, we walk up to Church of the Beheading of John the Baptist – sounds gruesome. Inside is a typical church but it’s the vault beneath the church that we’re here to see. Down a circular stone staircase we find the Acropolis Museum with a well dating back 3000 years – it’s still operational.
By now Mark is becoming totally Christianed/churched out and I’m over it as well. But we do have one more to go. This is St George’s Church at the bottom of the hill. The church is home to the famous (never heard of it) Madaba Mosaic Map which is the oldest known map of the Holy Land – 6th century! It’s made up of more than a million pieces of coloured stone. Very impressive but we hightail it out of there. No more churches please!
So now we wander around the shops and cafes but most are shut. Ramadan remember – but it’s also Friday so even less chance of anything being open in this mainly Muslim town. We do find a few souvenir shops and buy an expensive hand-painted plate to remember this City of Mosaics. At another souvenir shop we buy Arab versions of Ken and Barbie for the dollies – funny.
Later we buy a small carpet from a Christian man who can open his shop today. And we’re lucky to find a tiny cave-like restaurant open as well. Lunch is fresh fruit juices, pitta bread and a vegetable hot pot.
We spend the rest of the afternoon getting ready for home then catch a taxi to the airport at 5pm.
Saturday 18th May, 2019
Dubai to Sydney
We fly out at 10 o’clock arriving in Dubai at 2am. The problem is, this is Al Maktoum International, Dubai’s second International airport and 65kilometres from Dubai International Airport where our Sydney flight will leave. We’re just lucky that we have plenty of time to get there and extra lucky that a bus is ready to leave right now. Things always work out.
At 9.45am we take off for the fourteen hour flight.
Sunday 19th May, 2019
Land in Sydney at 7.30 in the morning. A train home to our darlings