Monday 30 September 2013

Jerusalem, Israel

While we were in Jordan, we decided a visit to the neighboring country, Israel, was a must. Jerusalem is really old and rich in history. Because of Sukkot, a Jewish holiday, we had to book everything in advance as most places were full. We never heard of Sukkot before but we lived it for a few days. It is probably celebrated everywhere in the world where there are Jews but Jerusalem was obviously the best place to be to feel the emotional charge in the air as thousand of people were gathered to pray. This historic city is considered one of the holiest city in the world by three of the most popular religions; Islam, Judaism and Christianity. It is quite amazing to see how all of these coexist within the same walls. The old city actually has 4 quarters; Armenian, Jewish, Muslim and Christian.

We highly recommend the free walking tour offered every day as our guide was extremely knowledgeable. We joined our group close to Jaffa gate at 9:30 AM. It was a two-hour walking tour of the different quarters of the Old City. He made us go through 4000 years of history in that short period of time, this was a lot of very interesting information. In addition to a walk through the four quarters, we saw some roman ruins of what was the main road and market place. We saw the Western Wall. and we walked by the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where Jesus is said to have been crucified and buried. Actually, the whole tour was slightly different because we were not allowed to go to all the sites thanks to military road blocks related to the holiday. After our tour, we explored outside the walls for a few hours. We walked to the Mount of Olive, where we saw the "Grotta", the place where Jesus was betrayed, and also the tomb of Marie right next to it.

Walking through all the small pedestrian cobblestone streets of the old city was a delight with all the different smells and atmosphere of the four quarters. We enjoyed Jerusalem very much and we think it is a must. The city outside of the walls also have a lot to offer from restaurants to shopping as ethnic and cultural variety makes it a place for everybody to enjoy and find what they are looking for.

The wall outside Jaffa Gate
Damascus Gate
Friendly military cadet
Military road block
Western Wall
Rooftop view of the old city
Roman ruins of the old market street

Spice market
Inside the Church of All Nations
Dome of the Rock
Western Wall
One of the largest Jewish cemetery in the world
Outside the wall
Olive trees of Gethsemane
Tomb of the Virgin Mary

Saturday 28 September 2013

Exploring Jordan

After everything we have seen from this country, there was still more to see of it. Jordan is rich in history and nice areas to visit. We had to wake up early to catch the first minibus to go get the rental car in Aqaba as there is no car rental in Wadi Musa as far as we could find. The buses here, they don't run on a schedule, they leave when full and we had to wait for almost 2 hours. When we arrived, we were surrounded by taxi drivers, they are a little aggressive here. We walked away, towards the center to try to find the car rental agency. On their website, it said behind the Movenpick hotel, so we actually walked all around it, under a terribly hot sun and a forty degree celsius temperature, with our backpacks. We had to ask a security guard at a hotel who was happy to show us the way. We finally found the office and got the car. It was quite challenging to drive in Aqaba, as there are many round-about and Jordanians do not use them like we are used to. The round-abouts are 2 lanes wide and people will leave from the inside lane, cutting everybody off to get out... without any indicators.

We drove north along the Dead Sea Highway, where we saw lots of goats and camels. The highway was pretty quiet as the locals tend to use the Desert Highway instead. The road was very scenic. We passed a few checkpoints without any problem, just flashing our passports seemed to be all they needed. There are many checkpoints and watchtowers on the coast of the Dead Sea, probably to prevent any unwanted people travelling to Jordan illegally. We soon caught our first glimpse of the turquoise Dead Sea. We were really excited and were not expecting the lake to be that big. Because the Dead Sea is long and narrow, we could easily see Israel on the other side. We followed the signs all the way up to the Panorama Complex. The complex consists of a small museum, a restaurant and a small boutique that was not open. We decided to have a bite in the restaurant and enjoy the breathtaking views from above the Dead Sea. It was really hot outside, but we couldn't really see the sea from inside so we sat in the shade to eat some local specialties. 

After a filing lunch, we drove a little more along the Dead Sea, trying to find a free beach, but we were unsuccessful. We stopped at the Amman Tourist Beach, put our swimsuits on and walk down to the sea. We went in, and we could float! Of course with the amount of salt in the sea, sinking is pretty much impossible. We had fun, floating in a standing or laying down position, without moving our arms and legs. It is a weird sensation to float without even trying. We had to get out twice, as we both got some water in our eyes and it stings A LOT! It is almost impossible to open one eye once there is salt water in it. When we had enough of the salt water, we showered and decided to enjoy the pool a little bit. It was very different after floating without trying, in a regular pool this is obviously not possible! We felt very heavy.

Madaba is a confusing city, a little Amman, and what confused us even more was the fact that the GPS coordinate that the hotel provided, turned out to be inaccurate. We drove in circles for a while, before deciding to stop and ask taxi drivers if they could tell us where the hotel was located. Seb parked the car in a round-about, and went out to ask the taxi driver parked behind us. Soon enough, about 5-6 guys were discussing with Seb trying to figure out were our hotel was. One driver told us to follow him in the taxi. It was literally around the corner, but not visible from the main street. We gave our very helpful taxi driver a 2 JOD tip for his trouble. The hotel was okay, but we didn't get anything we booked. We had booked a double room, with wifi, fridge and garden view. We had a triple room, no wifi, a view of the neighbour's yard, with the barking dog, no fridge. We asked the girl to get a double room, and she showed us another triple room, telling us that at least ours had a TV in it. We decided to stay in our room, but even though we had a TV, it was unusable without the satellite decoder...

After being disturbed by the barking dog almost all night, we got up, had breakfast (never been so excited to get bananas.. I think we miss fruits!). We drove to Mount Nebo, where Moses is said to have been showed the promised land. The views over Israel were stunning. We also saw some well-preserved mosaics. After enjoying the views and the bus of tourists, we drove along the Dead Sea highway again, not sure if we wanted to go back for a dip in the Dead Sea. Actually we wanted to go back, but not to pay. Amman charged us 16 JOD (around 25 $ CAD) per person to use their facilities the day before. But because it was Friday, the resort was very busy, making up our minds quickly. We took a really small mountain road (street is probably more accurate) leading all the way up to the Panorama viewpoint. We made it back to Madaba where we parked the car before exploring the city on foot. We walked in the tourist quarters, but did not enter in any of the churches. When we walked in front of a shop, the owner asked us if we wanted to have tea. Turns out he knows a lot of Canadians as over 10 years ago, he dug in his garden, only to find some archaeological ruins. He then shared his garden with archaeologists from Montreal and Toronto. After drinking a lot of tea and chatting with the two men, one Orthodox and one Christian, it gave us a different overview of the country through the eyes of people from different religions.

The next morning, we drove to Wadi Mujib National Reserve. We bought some river shoes so we wouldn't ruin our good walking shoes. The guy working at the reception told us we were going to be wet, and he was right! The trail is only 2 km, 1 km to get to the waterfall and back. The fun thing is, it is just like the Siq in Petra, but with a river in the bottom! The walls are as impressive as Petra and rich in colours. We walked in the river, with water about knee high for a while before arriving to our first challenge, a small waterfall that we had to climb. The water current is pretty strong as the water comes from quite higher before arriving in the Dead Sea. We had a lot of fun, the three small waterfalls were not that hard to cross thanks to the ropes and ladders, but still walking against the current is tiring. After our exhausting morning, we stopped to have lunch, while admiring the views of the Dead Sea. 

We drove to Al Karak, were we visited the castle. It is perched atop a mountain, protected by the natural obstacle of climbing said mountain. It was also fortified during the Crusades to prevent the people living in the city to get in uninvited. The castle ruins are pretty impressive, they include few levels of rooms made for different purposes. We enjoyed our visit once we could get rid of the guide who was following us and trying to force us to take his tour, not mentioning that he was expecting to be paid at the end. Karak is a very busy city, with many cars honking to try to get the traffic to go faster. Oddly enough, it doesn't work, haha! When we left Karak, we were aiming to come back to Madaba by the King's Highway, but we somehow ended up on the Desert highway. We drove north following 3 different maps that had different roads on them, and we had to go all the way to Amman. They are also working on the road and there was no turn-around for a while. When we finally found one, it was really narrow, and didn't look legit, but we finally made it back to the hotel. We went for a walk to find supper and almost decided to just by some hummus and forget about a real supper but we saw some locals sitting at a table by the street, eating falafel sandwiches. We had a really cheap supper! 1 JOD for 2 tasty falafel sandwiches.

Jordan is a great country that we loved visiting. From the food to the people, it was great. This was a good taste of the Middle East for us and we will be back. We are going to visit another country in the Middle East and we will share it with you in our next post.

Dead Sea Highway
View of the Dead Sea from above
Mount Nebo
Dead Sea
Road going up in the mountains
Al Karak
One of Al Karak's chamber
Al Karak underground passage
Ruins, Al Karak

More ruins, Al Karak
Kings Highway
Viewpoint over a valley, Kings Highway
Classic Jordanian transport
View of Wadi Araba desert
Camels on the side of the Desert Highway
Sunset over Wadi Musa
Nightshot of Wadi Musa
Sunset over the valley of Petra 

Sunday 1 September 2013

Wadi Rum, Jordan

Have you ever dreamed of wandering in the desert? Well, in Jordan, it is a must. It was a really hot day, but that was to be expected. Camel rides were our introduction to the desert. They are really impressive animals, walking and moving smoothly, making growling noises we would expect from a dinosaur. We joined the rest of our group, another two persons, next to a sand dune. This is where our Jeep expedition started, in a Mitsubishi SUV (they call all their SUV tours Jeep tours even though there isn't that many jeeps around). Our friendly Bedouin guide brought us to the main sights of Wadi Rum and we drove around for three hours. We climbed and ran down another huge red sand dune and saw some Nabatean hieroglyphics carved in the stone of a dried out canyon.

We stopped for a typical Jordanian lunch in a quiet area, including a well deserved two-hour nap. Next, we explored the desert some more, visiting the mushroom rock, and also climbing on Umm Fruth Rock Bridge. The climb to get to the top of the arch was not very long, but seemed very hard for some other travelers. The view from the top was lovely, and we even got a good picture of us jumping on the arch. After enjoying the rock bridge with our new friends, our guide drove us to a nice mountain so we could watch the gorgeous sunset. The setting was perfect, quiet, with a wonderful view of the desert valley. 

Later, our guide drove us to the Bedouin camp where we put our bags down, enjoyed a really hot shower (amazingly hot thanks to the solar panels) and had a nice supper. We spent the rest of the evening chatting with our new friends while watching the stars before retiring to our cabin for an undisturbed sleep. The desert was so silent, it was very different than Amman or Wadi Musa, where we can hear the prayers five times a day and every car using their horns to communicate.

 Following our excellent night sleep, we woke up and had breakfast, before being driven back to Wadi Rum where the minibus picked us up in front of the office of Jordan Tracks. While sitting in the bus, we thought this experience should have lasted longer as we enjoyed it so much.