Ancient Roads and Crusader Castles

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Our drive from Amman to Petra was by way of the Kings Highway, an ancient route that winds past Crusader castles, rugged mountains, deep gorges and desert sands.

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The drive usually takes about 6 hours, but we lingered a bit at Mt. Nebo, the spot from which Moses saw the Promised Land (He must have had either better eyesight than I do or been there on a clearer day, because we could barely see across the valley).

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and saw the ancient Byzantine mosaics in the Orthodox church in Madaba.

We were also invited to see some spectacular mosaics at a private home.  Who could say no?  Note: The dark spots on the mosaic are due to the heat of a cooking fire.  The family lived in this home for generations, unaware that this spectacular Byzantine mosaic lay hidden beneath their feet until the day grandma decided to do some extra scrubbing and voila’!

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We also convinced Maher to stop the car and let us pet a donkey.  Hehe.

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During our lunch overlooking one of Jordan’s spectacular canyons, we found out our next stop, Shobak Castle, closed in 30 minutes. We were an hour away. Maher saw our disappointed faces and offered to make a phone call “to see what he could do.”

He returned to tell us that he phoned the guard at Shawbak Castle who agreed to hold the castle open for us. We knew it was our fault for adding stops for donkey petting and picture-posing along the King’s Highway and protested. Maher smiled and told us not to worry. I’m glad he didn’t listen to us. Our visit to Shobak ended up being a highlight of our trip to Jordan.

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road to shobak

Shawbak Castle sits high on a ledge overlooking wild and seemingly desolate surroundings. The sun was sliding behind the hills and there was a sharp wind  blowing through the abandoned villages along the approach to the castle.  We turned into the gravel lot and noted that we were the only people there. Rachel and I felt guilty about arriving late and  decided to forgo the local guide and tour the ruins ourselves. We thanked the gentleman who held the castle open for us and ran past the guard shack and up the hill, vowing to speed-tour the castle so everyone could go home.

We climbed over endless piles of rubble, found the foundations of ancient churches and looked for the catacombs, caves and passageways mentioned in our guidebook.

The self-exploration was not for the faint of heart…precipitious, unfenced ledges, dark, unlit passageways and pedestrian bridges made out of rickety wooden planks.  It was brilliant.

Eventually, high wind, cold and darkness drove us back down the hill to the exit where we were waved into the guard room for some tea.

The room was warm, cozy and filled with the haze of recently and frequently smoked cigarettes. The guard had a visitng friend who spoke a little English and they both clattered around arranging chairs and preparing the teapot and glasses.  They motioned for us to sit and poured scalding cups of cardamom and sage infused black tea into tiny, glass cups. His friend spoke a little English and asked about my family and if I had children.  He told me that in Jordan, I would be addressed according to the name of my oldest child.  I would be  “Umm Rachel” (Mother of Rachel).  This pleased Rachel immensely.  After we finished the first of many cups of tea, the guard pulled out a handmade instrument and proceeded to sing “a song of welcome” for us.  He also sang a song about Rachel’s beautiful hair :). And there we were, serenaded at sunset in a Crusader Castle high in the hills of Jordan.

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Jerash: Rome Away From Rome

We were groggy, disheveled and slightly jet-lagged after our late arrival from London. Our driver took one look at us slumped in the back seat on our way to our hotel in Amman, laughed, and  blessedly suggested a late morning start for our trip to Jerash. It turned out to be good advice. We visited the ruins of Jerash on a warm, spring day when the hills surrounding the city provided a backdrop of bright sunshine, grazing sheep and a carpet of wildflowers.  

Arch of Hadrian

Arch of Hadrian

Jerash, dubbed “Rome away from Rome” by the Jordanian Tourist Board, fascinated me. Americans consider something “old” when it exists for 100 or so years.  The Europeans hold the standard for  “old” at a respectable 300 or 400 years.  Middle Eastern countries start to consider something “old” when it dates back 1000 or more years.  Jerash certainly qualifies as ancient, even by Middle Eastern standards. The “city”, considered one of the largest and best preserved Roman ruins outside Italy, sits 45 minutes north of Amman on a site that contains evidence of human occupation dating back 6500 years.

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Cardo Maximus, the colonnaded street

Cardo Maximus, the colonnaded street

Ruts in the road made by Roman carts

Ruts in the road made by Roman carts

Archeologists  uncovered ruins exhibiting Greco-Roman, Mediterranean and Arab influences which suggested a long and complex  history of Jerash.

One of two theaters in Jerash

One of two theaters in Jerash

Seat numbers in the amphitheater.  These are the "expensive" seats.

Seat numbers in the amphitheater. These are the “expensive” seats.

Although Jerash (Gerasa) was an established and  relatively prosperous city in the 3rd century BC, it  came under Roman rule in 63 BC when conquered by the Roman General Pompey.  After the decline of the Roman Empire, Jerash was subjected to various invading forces and destructive earthquakes, which left the city abandoned and in ruins.

Tea for sale at the Temple of Artemis

Tea for sale at the Temple of Artemis

Temple of Artemis

Temple of Artemis

Mosaic floor of a Byzantine church

Mosaic floor of a Byzantine church

Oval Plaza, Jerash

Oval Plaza, Jerash

These magnificent ruins lay buried under endless meters of sand for 800 years before rediscovery by Ulrich Jasper Seetzen in 1806.  Excavation didn’t begin in earnest until 1925 and continues to this day as archeologists and historians are uncertain about how much of the original city remains buried.

We had a spectacular day at Jerash, culminating with our standing at top of the amphitheater as the call to prayer rang out over the ruins.  I don’t know if our guide actually planned this moment for us, but it was an unexpected ending to a spectacular day.

Things to Know:

We stayed at the Alqasr Metropole Hotel in Amman.  The rooms were basic, but clean.  I’m not sure if non-smoking rooms exist in the hotel, but you should check if that is a requirement.  The breakfast and serving staff were excellent and the hotel has a number of popular and well-regarded restaurants. 

Jerash is an easy trip by car and is located on a main road 30 miles north of Amman.

Wear good walking shoes and take a bottle of water for your visit.  Our tour was approximately 3 1/2 hours long and involved extended periods of walking and standing in the direct sun.

Consider using one of the local guides.  They are incredibly knowledgeable and charge a reasonable fee (negotiate before leaving the visitor’s center).   To hire a local guide, purchase your tickets, walk through “souk”, up the hill and through Hadrian’s Gate to the small building across from the restaurant.  Our Jerash guide was arranged through UTA travel prior to our arrival.  

Any implication of good planning is a result of Clair’s work at Audley Travel and their on-the-ground partners in Amman, UTA travel.

Information about opening times, etc. can be found here.

If you can’t make it all the way to Jerash, one of the “Whispering Columns of Jerash” stands in Flushing Meadows, New York.  King Hussein presented it as a gift from the Kingdom of Jordan for the World’s Fair in 1964.

Ir you have any questions about our stay in Amman or our day in Jerash, feel free to contact me!

Why Jordan?

The first question friends asked me when I told them I was planning a trip to Jordan was…”Why Jordan?”  The second question was “Is it safe?”

Both questions were easy to answer…

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I wanted to walk through Hadrian’s Gate in the ancient city of Jerash…

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dreamed about seeing the Pink City of Petra by night …

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obsessed about riding a camel in the Wadi Rum a la Lawrence of Arabia…

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and wondered if I really would be able to float weightlessly in the Dead Sea!

I managed to do every thing I wanted to do and more!  As I look back through my pictures (all 1000 of them…don’t worry, I won’t post them all) I am transported back to the beautiful sites and the wonderful people who shared them with me.  I hope the posts I’m working on inspire you to put Jordan on your bucket list.  I’m already plotting my return.

PS:  Jordan is safe and offers a perfect experience for anyone’s first trip to the Middle East.   Jordan’s welcoming nature and generous hospitality extends to refugees from neighboring countries and remains a safe haven for residents and tourists.

Unpacking Paris


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[audio http://baetlanguedoc.blog50.com/media/02/01/128839201.mp3]

My first trip to Paris was in 1995 with three children (8,7 and 1). My husband and I spent most of our time feeding the pigeons in Tuileries Garden, too intimidated to take 3 children into a series of museum galleries, much less a nice restaurant.  I did insist  the children gaze upon the Mona Lisa (Miss R’s famous line: “It’s SO SMALL, Mommy!”) and bask in the beautiful colored windows of Notre Dame (where Miss B loudly announced “Look Mommy!  THAT’s where Esmerelda prayed in the movie!”). Miss M was still a little blob and swears she doesn’t remember anything, which is likely true. Fast forward 15 years, and we’re back again…and again, and again. I can’t explain my attraction to this city.  The charms of Paris are obvious…the Eiffel Tower, the lights, the Seine, the museums, the food, all of which are worthy of admiration and a trip from anywhere.  But with so many other places in the world I haven’t seen, what is it about Paris that keeps me coming back?  Is it the romance and history, the food and architecture?  Perhaps…

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Is it because Paris is such a walkable city, even when you don’t know where you’re going…

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because Parisians believe there should always be flowers, even when it’s snowing in February…

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or is it the seamless melding of old and new?

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The glorious architectural eye-candy?

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Is it because Paris inspires the expression of love and romance…

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and an appreciation for the finer things in life?

Or a better way of living, if only for a day, a week, a month?

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What is it about Paris?

Monuments and Memories in Pere-Lachaise

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The cobbled path to the heart of Pere Lachaise was uneven and icy.  I questioned the idea of touring a windblown Parisian cemetery on a cold February afternoon, but my love of old cemeteries overruled any common sense.  My fascination with old cemeteries is rooted in my love of history and my curiosity about the people that lie beneath the stone…the lives they lived, the world they lived in and the stories they left behind.

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Pere-Lachaise lies in the 20th arrondissement and holds the remains of over one million people, seventy-five thousand of whom are current residents. The walled 100 acres are a maze of pathways winding through, around and over monuments and tombstones in various states of repair.  There are maps marking the grave sites of the most famous residents (Oscar Wilde, Gertrude Stein, Jim Morrison) but the magic of Pere-Lachaise is uncovered by aimlessly wandering through the curious and beautiful monuments and decyphering the stories and lives depicted in the carvings and monuments of the lesser known.

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So many of the monuments themselves are works of art.  Stunning sculptures and intricate engravings grace the tombs of the relatively unknown while the graves of the famous (and infamous) are often unremarkable.

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Many of the tombs, monuments and mausoleums were graced with flowers and attention, but just as many were barren and in a state of elegant disrepair.  It is easy to understand the continued devotion to French icons, such as Edith Piaf

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but I wondered what  inspired a person to climb a monument and place a fresh, red rose into the hands of someone dead for almost 200 years 

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or create and lovingly place a sculpture and artsy sign on the grave of a musician …

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while nothing lies at the tomb graced with the title of Prince Henry De La Tour D’Auvergne Lauraguais, which is tucked away in obscurity amongst 70000 others?  So much to ponder with so few answers. We eventually tired of such quiet company and decided to seek out a warm refuge where we could contemplate the long list of interesting names collected in Pere-Lachaise and enjoy a hot meal and a bottle of good French wine.

Things to know

You can reach the cemetery by taking the number 2 or 3 metro line to the Pere-Lachaise stop and entering through the cemetery gates.

If you are interested in a comprehensive list of notable figures buried in Pere-Lachaise Cemetery, click here

It can be difficult to find particular tombstones, even with a map.  The Mister and I looked for, but did not find Victor Noir, Isadora Duncan, Balzac and (at The Mister’s request) Fourier. Next time, hopefully.

I was puzzled by some of the notable, non-French figures buried in the cemetery (Jim Morrison?) and researched the requirements. To be eligible for burial within PL, one has to be either a resident of Paris or expire within Paris’s boundaries.  There is a current waiting list for burial plots, which are leased for 10, 30, 50 years or in perpetuity. Yes, burial sites and tombs are reused.