Tuesday, 2 October 2018

The good life

In a previous post I shared THIS wonderful short piece by Bill Nighy about all the things that bring him delight.  I loved it so much that I wrote my own, prompted by a new pair of cotton pyjamas. Sexy they are not. But if you think after seeing woodland animal print pj's that I was not going to purchase them, then you're probably unaware of how obsessed I was with The Animals of Farthing Wood when I was eight. Fox & Vixen 4 ever!

Romantic country hotels. Wellies by the door. Curling up in bed with a hot water bottle on a rainy Sunday afternoon. Getting engrossed in a book. The Shipping Forecast. New pyjamas. The unfurling of spring. The bite of autumn. Perfect ranunculus. Mottled hydrangeas. Repeat-flowering roses. Choosing next years tulip bulbs. Food plucked from the hedgerows. Washing that dries on the line within the day. Watching the ocean in rough winter weather. Lighthouses. Bell towers. Pure wool jumpers and cashmere cardigans. The smell of toast. The tang of blackcurrant jam. Crisps. Rosemary. Walking country estates in autumn mist. Hand written letters. Taking the perfect photograph. Watching the countryside rush by from the window-seat of a high speed train. Switching on lamps at dusk in the wintertime. Waking to an unexpected snowfall. Finding the perfect gift for a loved one. Outdoor eateries lit by fairy lights. Alabaster lamps. Antique mirrors. Linen sheets. The sound of trees. Swallows doing aerobatics against candy-pink sunsets. Collective nouns. Cakes that turn out of the tin easily. Coming back indoors all weather-beaten from a walk. The cup of tea he brings me in bed as he leaves for work.

Kate  x

Friday, 28 September 2018

Jordan, Part 4: Petra

Petra is incredibly vast, in some of the most spectacular and isolated desert terrain, and ultimately it leaves you in awe of these ancient civilisations and all that they built.  Known as the Red Rose City owing to the colour of the stone from which it is carved, Petra was established as the capital of the Nabatean Kingdom in the 4th Century BC. 

The town of Petra sprung up to serve the tourist trade after the ancient city of Petra was re-discovered and declared a UNESCO World Heritage site.

We arrived in Petra as the sun was all but set. This ended up being quite fortuitous. As we checked into our hotel, the desk clerk asked if we would be interested in joining the Petra by Night tour that evening, we had little more than 30 minutes to get ourselves into our rooms and back down to the entry to Petra, but I was determined not to miss the chance. I had seen photographs online of the Treasury building illuminated by hundreds of torches, and I hadn't even considered that we might be arriving on an evening where this was happening, but I am so glad we did.

To reach the Treasury it is a 30 minute walk through the siq- a narrow gorge created by a geological fault. Of course, at night you get little sense of the amazing natural formation around you, let alone the carvings and elaborate ruins. After walking through the gorge, with little light to guide you, you suddenly come upon Petra's most elaborate ruin, the Treasury building, faintly illuminated by soft candle light. I can only imagine what a breathtaking vision it would have been over 2000 years ago for hot, dusty, exhausted travellers as they went by donkey or camel along these epic desert trade routes.

By daylight, the sheer size and impressive intricacies of this desert kingdom becomes crystal clear.

The Siq

Some of the small early signs of what is to come.

Then all of a sudden...


Not all storeys of the Treasury building are visible or have been excavated. The risk is that trying to properly dig out the now underground storeys would cause the upper floors to collapse.

You can pay to ride camels and donkeys through parts of Petra, but we chose to walk. And an epic walk it was. Luckily for us it was only around 30 degrees that day, but if you are going to commit to walk in as far as the Monastery, don't underestimate how far and tough the climb is even on a 'cool' day. From the Treasury it is around a 3 or 4 hour walk and climb to the Monastery. There is so much to see inside Petra, you couldn't possibly cover it all in one day, so make sure you purchase the entry pass that best suits your visit- one day or multi entry.

There is much to stop and discover along the route we took. I had little understanding of what Petra actually contained until I was there. I think most people are very familiar with images of the Treasury and not much else. Turns out that the Treasury is merely the beginning...

Monuments featuring stepping decoration like this one above means they were tombs.

Natural caves beneath a monument. Going inside monuments was the only way to get a short respite from the beating desert sun.

At the decline of Petra, following its annexation by the Romans and later the 363 earthquake, the caves and monuments around Petra became home to the Bedouin tribes. Petra was all but forgotten about, the Bedouin lived there undisturbed for hundreds of years before Petra was rediscovered in 1812. When it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in the mid eighties, many of the Bedouin were relocated to a nearby settlement, a very small handful stood their ground against UNESCO and remain living in the ruins to this day.

Here, people in front of the Royal Tombs, gives a small indication of the size of some of the monuments.

Inside, the tombs provide incredible acoustics. We listened to a group of four women sing Hallelujah and it was so beautiful and special to hear.

After a morning walking, climbing up to tombs, and being in the blazing sun, we stopped outside a very modest looking cafe to ask whether they were serving food and refreshments yet. It was then that we met Bdoul Mofleh, one of those last remaining Bedouin men living inside Petra. The most genuinely friendly man imaginable, he said the cafe was not yet open and invited us up to his cave for tea. Of course, these moments are what makes travel special. So we followed him up the rocky steps behind the cafe, along narrow cliffs to his home in an old tomb. We drank tea, chatted about his life in Petra, the changes he has seen since tourism really took hold, and his refusal to submit to UNESCO and leave. He also showed us many foreign language magazines and travel guides in which he is featured. Bdoul (meaning Bedouin)  Mofleh is something of a travel guide icon, featured in Lonely Planet and written about by the likes of National Geographic. It was such an intriguing and beautiful experience. We sampled some bread he'd made and he pointed us in the direction of monuments and back routes he said we should follow, and he even invited us to stay with him next time we came to Jordan. Honestly, hospitality is second nature in Jordan. When people extend this hospitality to you in places such as Jordan, where poverty is extensive, usually you would give a few dinar to say thank you. I was incredibly moved by Mr Mofleh's generosity inviting us into his home, and I tried to give him ten dinar. Which he point blank refused. I include this only because it makes what happened next even more touching. As we were putting our hats and backpacks back on to climb back down and continue on our way, he disappeared inside for a moment and returned with a little foil parcel. He unwrapped it to show us a small collection of ancient Roman coins, then he gifted us each one. I'll never forget that. 

Alex's Mum was a little nervous of the height and sheer drops from the cliffs.

Back on the main trail, we pushed on up the mountain to get to the Monastery, and honestly there were moments when I doubted we'd ever make it. The climb is gruelling. I never seriously considered paying for a donkey, I felt too sorry for them, but I can see why people do hop on them. The route is worn smooth, and in places is a sheer drop down a gully or off a cliff-side. 

We paused often to rest. At this point in the climb I could see back to where we had been earlier in the day at the Royal Tombs. It is such unforgiving terrain it is hard to believe they carved a city out of stone here.

And then, just when you think you cannot take another step, you come upon...

...The Monastery. I can't even remember if this is the furthest on this particular route that you can walk, but frankly we wouldn't have been able to make it any further. It was worth it though, for me anyway. Alex's Mum might say otherwise. 

Again, the scale is mind-boggling. That's me standing there to give it some perspective. Petra undoubtedly deserves its place on the list of Ancient Wonders of the World, and is so worthy of UNESCO World Heritage status and protection.

I'd go back in a heart beat.

Though, at that particular moment, outside the Monastery, facing the climb back down and kilometres of walking in the heat ahead of me, I'm not sure I'd have sounded so enthusiastic about a return visit.

We walked through the gate to Petra at 8.30am, and walked back out at around 4pm having taken over 23,000 steps and climbed the equivalent of 76 flights of stairs. Like I said, don't underestimate the stamina you will require to see this incredible place. If you can go, GO!

Needless to say, I consumed my fair share of bread, hommus and fattoush that night.

I learnt from my friends whilst we were there that Saudi Arabia is getting ready to open up a similar ancient site to tourism. Of course, when you think about these ancient routes across the world it makes perfect sense that Saudi Arabia would be connected and boast sites of similar stature and importance. Traditionally though the borders to Saudi Arabia have been so tightly controlled that very few people have seen it yet. 

Kate  x

To read more about Bdoul Mofleh, click HERE.

Sunday, 16 September 2018

Jordan, Part 3: The Dead Sea

 The Dead Sea, and in the distance Israel, 
as seen from The Dead Sea Museum.

At the midway point of our trip through Jordan, and on the hottest day (39 degrees C) of the holiday, we arrived at the luxurious Movenpick Dead Sea Resort. It was incredibly timely; I was in desperate need of a plush bed with crisp white cotton sheets and a long refreshing swim. Alex and I joke about how I am a 6 star traveller, and this resort was a solid 6 stars for me. 

It was a glorious late afternoon swim. The sea was glassy smooth and the light was golden. The actual temperature of the water was perfect, warm but refreshing. 

As we walked towards the beach area, I watched people bobbing effortlessly in the water, and I was overcome with excitement about getting to experience swimming in the Dead Sea for myself. I have long had a fascination with the idea of being unable to sink in this particular body of water. As we approached the rocky shore I said to Alex's Mum, "My brain can't quite comprehend what is about to happen."

Alex's Mum

We both wore our saltwater sandals into the sea. The shore is very rocky and they were very handy to be able to wear in and out of the water. I gave mine a really good rinse in the shower afterwards given how salty the water is, and they are fine.

The best way I can describe what it feels like is to imagine having pool noodles for limbs. No matter what, if you launch yourself into the sea, you will float to the top. I hooked my arms under my bent legs and sat in the water, floating around watching the sun dip lower and lower over the hills in Israel. Bizarre, and breathtaking. I can confirm, it is impossible to sink.

It's salty! That goes without saying. Don't get the water anywhere near your eyes or mouth. And don't shave in the day or two leading up to swimming, it will sting. But afterwards (even with my sensitive skin turning a very angry but temporary shade of red), once all the salt had been washed off in the shower, it made my skin feel lovely. I spent a small fortune on bringing home Dead Sea beauty products- mud, salts, gels- to try to recreate the restorative spa like feeling I got when we were there. Incidentally, the Dead Sea was one of the very first health resorts, favoured by Herod the Great. The density of minerals in the mud and water must be good for you... maybe.

The Dead Sea is quite narrow, you can see how close Israel is, and the border between the two countries goes straight up the middle. The surface of the water is 420 meters below regular sea level, and the Dead Sea is actually landlocked. It is the deepest hypersaline lake in the world and is 9.6 times more salty than the ocean. The level of salinity makes life for animals and plants near-impossible, hence its name, the dead sea.

Watching the sun set behind Israel was magical. The lights flickered on across the water, and we dried off with smiles on our faces. It was quite an experience. I am not typically a resort holidayer, and we never usually seek out sun and surf, but I would happily spend a few days back at Movenpick on the Dead Sea sleeping late, relaxing in the water and in the spa, and enjoying long buffet dinners as the sun sets.

Earlier that day we had visited Bethany beyond the Jordan to see the baptismal site of Jesus. This was an interesting place, it felt hugely remote and almost desolate. The sun was absolutely beating down on the desert, and we had to walk a fair way into the site in near-forty-degree heat. There are numerous churches of various faiths built on the hills around this stretch of the River Jordan, signalling its importance as a religious site for Christians. 

The baptismal site

Israel, taken from the Jordanian side of the river

Interestingly there seemed to be very little military presence at this part of the border. I couldn't see any Israeli soldiers, and on the Jordanian side there was a single soldier. The ropes stretched out on the water were the only physical barrier separating worshippers in Israel from those in Jordan.

Kate  x

Saturday, 8 September 2018

Jordan, Part 2: Jerash and Umm Qais (Gadara)

I pulled water from a 3000 year-old Moabite well in the basement of a Catholic Church. At that same church I listened to a mass spoken in Arabic. In every village, town and city we heard the Mosques calling Muslims to prayer, the sound of Salat echoing out through valleys and off hillsides. I observed the twinkling lights of Israel from across the Dead Sea, and took in views of the Holy Land from atop Mt Nebo. At the Baptismal site of Jesus, the River Jordan is just five metres wide, the border delineated by a thin rope floating on the river's surface. On the Israeli side a group from the Greek Orthodox church were carrying out a religious service with olive branches and holy water from the river, on the Jordanian side, a single soldier rested in the shade, rifle by his side. From Roman ruins to Crusader castles, from roadside stalls selling figs and remote cafes on back roads (where a mobile phone and Google translate was the only means of communication)- everywhere we went and from everyone we met, the common refrain was, "Welcome to Jordan."

Jerash is an extensive site, containing some of the best examples of Roman masonry and stone vaults in the entirety of the Roman Empire. The area has recorded human history since the Neolithic age. As a city of significance in the ancient world, Greek inscriptions reveal Jerash's Hellenistic history dating back to the 2nd century when it was occupied by veterans of Alexander the Great's army. The Romans arrived in 63BC and Jerash was annexed by the Roman province of Syria.

Hadrian's Arch

This beautiful Greco-Roman city of wide colonnaded streets, temples and amphitheatres flourished until the mid Eighth Century BC when the powerful 749 Galilee earthquake destroyed much of it. It crumbled further when the 847 Damascus earthquake struck.

Re-inhabited, it became a centre for ceramics in the Early and Middle Muslim periods, though the city suffered more damage in the Crusade period. Throughout its incredibly varied history, Jerash has been occupied by Christians, Muslims, and Jewish settlers, for the most part cohabiting in peace. Excavation is ongoing.


Leaving Jerash behind, we drove further north to quickly stop by the ruins of the 12th Century Muslim castle of Ajloun, built by one of Saladin's generals. It sits high on a hilltop on the land of Jabal Ajlun, named after the Bedouin tribe that captured the area in the 12th Century. The castle commanded the fertile land below, containing three wadis that are directed towards the Jordan River Valley. From the highest point of the ruins it is possible to look across the Jordan Valley in all directions to Lake Tiberius (The Sea of Galilee in the Bible), Jerusalem, and to the north, Syria and Lebanon.

From its strategic position high above the valley, Ajloun Castle was an important link in the communication system connecting major cities of the region, including Damascus, Baghdad and Cairo. From here postal communications were sent out via horses and carrier pigeons. It was also one of several citadels that could issue fire signals in the black of night that would reach as far away as the Euphrates River to the East and The Nile to the west.

The remarkable thing about Jordan was the depth and breadth of human experience, past and present,
that it contains. This is especially emphasised given the proximity to places such as Syria, Israeli-occupied Palestine, and Iraq. Much like the physical ancient roads of the Roman and Nabatean Empires, it feels like Jordan contains a more metaphorical cultural crossroads where nearly all of recorded human history has passed through or is linked in some way or another. It speaks of a time when the boundaries of religion and culture and race all met, became intertwined, and for the past 2000 years has failed to be successfully or peacefully disentangled. I really got a sense of how the significance of 'place' can be the catalyst for so much... 

The myriad of human experience is especially poignant at Umm Qais, where Jordan meets Israel, Syria and Lebanon. As you stand at the ancient hilltop ruins of Gadara, Syria is so close, just across the narrow Jordan valley. Damascus is a mere 100km, as the crow flies.

Through the haze is Syria and Lebanon, across the valley 
to the left is Israel, and the hills bathed in sunlight 
to the right is Syria. So close!

It is at Umm Qais that Palestinian immigrants and refugees, who were expelled or fled following the creation of the Israeli state, come to look back over their former homeland.

Gadara was founded by the Ptolemies as a frontier station on the border to the Seleucid Empire. The Seleucids conquered the city in 218BC, and then a century later it was seized by the Jewish Hasmoneans. When the Roman General Pompey instated order throughout Syria in 63BC he had Gadara rebuilt as a personal favour to a Gadarene freedman. Roman rule saw the area flourish, especially post-annexation of the Nabatean Empire in 106AD. It became a sort of pleasure city for Romans; poetry, philosophy and theatre drew citizens to Gadara from across the Roman Empire.

Golan Heights and into Syria

In the haze below is the Sea of Galilee, where the Bible cites as the place Jesus carried out many of his miracles: turning water into wine, walking on water, instructing fishermen to cast their nets over the other side of their boat etc. It is also the body of water said to have been parted by Moses.

As you stand looking out over some of the Holiest places in the Christian world, there is an inscription of the words of ancient philosopher Albiouss (355AD), a citizen from Gadara. They are the words he had inscribed on his own gravestone:

"Whoever is passing through here... The way you are now
I was... 
The way I am now
You shall be... 
Enjoy life because you are gone"

It felt quite special to be there as dusk approached; the hills glowed in the warm light of the sinking sun, the haze had a soft golden-pink quality to it. It was the perfect time of day to take in everything about this place. Just the geography of where I was standing in the world blew my mind a little, let alone the religious significance and all that has stemmed from that in recent history.

[If you visit Gadara, do make sure that you take your passport with you. Given its proximity to the Syrian border, there is a military checkpoint that you need to go through when you leave the site. Slightly unnerving, especially when the soldier checking our passports thought that I might try to take photos of the checkpoint- I wasn't, my camera was just on my lap- but nothing to worry about.]


I'll cover "Bethany beyond the Jordan" and The Dead Sea in the next post.