Thursday, 2 July 2009
Channel 4 DJ Neil 'Jay' Grayson asked what there was to do in Jordan. And here's an answer. It's not necessarily the answer, but it's an answer!
I do miss the place, you know... probably why I ended up writing this rather long post.
Jordan provides the setting for Mr Unpublishable's second book, Olives, and is also somewhere I have spent a hell of a lot of time and where I have many good friends. Here are some of the many excellent reasons why it's well worth taking a long weekend break, at the very least, and exploring the place for yourself. And yes, thank you, if you're from the Jordan Tourist Board, you can send the envelope with used 10JD notes. Thanks.
Oh! Talking of which, do make sure you get there with 10JD per person in your pocket in local currency for your visa otherwise you'll just have to leave the visa queue, change money and rejoin it - which ain't fun.
I stay at the Grand Hyatt for preference, but the Four Seasons is also a great hotel. The Kempinski in Shmeisani is cheaper and not bad. Martinis in the Four Seasons is a famous Alexander treat, taken in the Square Bar in the summer and the downstairs lobby lounge by the fireside in the winter. The Hyatt's fish restaurant 32 North is expensive but stunning, its Italian is also famously good and Indochine downstairs is also excellent.
The Citadel is the central of Amman's original 7 hills (it sprawls over 22 or so now, apparently) and contains important Roman, Islamic and Byzantine remains. Brilliantly, the government has excavated to the most important era in each case and it's a great place for a wander.
Still used for live performances, Amman's ampitheatre is a brilliantly preserved piece of Roman architecture. Standing on the brass button centre stage and talking in a normal voice not only lets you be heard at the furthest seat but you also feel the pressure of your own voice on your ears. Spooky. To the right side of the stage there's a small but wonderful museum of bedouin things which you should not at any price miss.
The Motor Museum
King Hussein was an avid car collector and this museum is based around his personal collection. Well worth a visit.
The Eastern City
I like to wander around the streets in the Eastern City, particularly around the bird market, and just soak it all in. It's pretty full-on and don't for the love of God keep your wallet in your back pocket.
North of Amman
See the castle at Ajloun and the Roman ruins at Umm Queis. There's a smashing Arabi restaurant at Umm Queis around the back of the ruins and overlooking the Golan with a quite marvellous view and I recommend it most highly.
Do not leave Jordan without seeing Jerash. Simply don't. It's a huge Roman city, preserved with amazing streets and buildings - also called the city of 1,000 pillars, it rivals Petra in its wonderfullness but doesn't get as much attention as the Rose Red City. You can do Jerash, Umm Queis and Ajloun in one day, but you'll just end up rushing things. Better to take two days over 'em IMHO.
You can eat really well in Amman these days. Arabic restaurant Fakhreddine is one of the great restaurants of the Levant. Vinaigrette is popular with the beau monde, as is Whispers, both near Shmeisani. The Blue Fig is a great place to have drinks with friends.
THE DEAD SEA AND ALL THAT
I love driving down to the Dead Sea and my preferred hotel has always been the Movenpick, although the Kempinksi and Marriott are preferrd by Jordanians in general. The spa at the Movenpick is great, we found the staff and treatments at the Marriott Spa were better. The Marriott can get very noisy with families. The Dead Sea itself is obviously a treat - and always significantly warmer than Amman.
The Baptism Site
A few kilometres north of the hotels on the Dead Sea, tucked away on a left hand turn off the main road back to Amman, is the site where John the Baptist baptised Jesus and a lot of other people. It's also legendarily where Elijah ascended to heaven on a chariot. You can see the sad remains of the River Jordan here and also look out over the tamarisks to Jericho. A must-see.
Madaba is the site of the oldest and most important Byzantine mosaic in the Levant and also the location of Haret Al Jdoudna, one of my favourite restaurants in the Middle East. Dunno why, just love the place.
It was here that Moses showed his people the promised land and on a clear day it's some view. The mosaics preserved here are simply beautiful and Nebo is a must-visit, even if you're the Pope. Popes like Nebo.
The crusader castle in Kerak, on the escarpment overlooking the southern Dead Sea, is important and worth visiting. There are Christian families living here descended from the Crusaders, which is pretty bonkers if you think about it. TE Lawrence was here.
We are very fond of driving down to Petra from Amman on the King's Highway (criss-crossing the railway line that old TE spent so much time trying to blow up) and then looping back up using the 'old road' and travelling through Tawfileh (the butt of Jordanian 'dumb person' jokes), past Wadi Dana (where microfinance projects have created an ecoresort and also jewellery makers whose fine silversmithery can be bought here and at the Wild Cafe in Amman) and Kerak then up the Dead Sea to the spa hotels. It's a fantastic drive that will take you through the deep country, past escarpments, hills and bedouin encampments. It's deliciously Mediterranean countryside and you'll go through a range of small townships where the rural poverty can be a tad 'in your face'. Poor people in Jordan are very poor indeed and rich people are very rich. Everyone you meet will delight in telling you that Jordan has no middle class, and although that's no longer quite the case, it's not a bad model as they go.
Stay at the Movenpick in Petra. It's the closest to the old city and it's a dandy hotel. Drinks and shisha on the rooftop are a big treat.
You should really give Petra a couple of days and the night-time tour down into the 'Rose Red City as Old As Time Itself (TM)' is popular and visually incredible. The 3,000 year-old Nabatean city is every bit as impressive as you'd think and then some. You walk quite a way down into the Siq (yes, I'd take one of the carriages but haggle) before coming to the Treasury and then down into the city built up into the hillsides around you. There are a bunch of hawkers and gee-gaw sellers here and that's just fine. Further down the track, you'll come to the Roman ruins and at the bottom there's a museum that's worth a trip. From here, you can walk up in every direction, trekking through the hills back up to find side streets and bits n bobs all over the place.
Wadi Rumm is famously beautiful and can take days to explore. It's something of a schlep from Amman, so I'd suggest staying over at Aqaba, which is the Red Sea resort town of Jordan, home to the ASEZA free trade zone and hotels with famously indifferent service. If you thought you'd be rediscovering the little down in Lawrence of Arabia, forget it. Aqaba itself is about as charming as Gordon Brown.
I am quite sure I have missed out thousands of things to see and do in Jordan, but then you can have fun discovering them for yourselves.
I hadn't realised I had made so many trips here over the years until a couple of years ago when I was staying at the Hyatt just after the Amman bombings. I actually went over to attend an art exhibition protesting the event, which we sponsored. I still have two of the prints from the event and they are very dear to my heart, tragically both are calligraphies of the 60 victims' names. There were only 16 guests in the hotel and I went to my room to find a gift-wrapped book on my bed. I thought it was a kind of 'thanks for staying with us because the lobby's a wreck and nobody else will come here because of the bombing' gift, but when I opened it I realised that it commemorated my fortieth stay at the Hyatt! In all, I must have made over 60 trips to Jordan and they have left me with an abiding fondness for the country and its people. I like the country so much, I wrote a book about it...
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