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Day 5 – We See The Light in Petra

Thursday May 19 2022 – We got a lie in – yay! – well, compared to yesterday we did.  Alarm call at 0530, hasty breakfast and off we went to Petra with Ali, starting at 0700.  There were even fewer people today than yesterday, which meant even less chance of business for the hustlers near the visitor centre to find any marks to offer horse rides to; so their attendance was sparse, too.

Although the weather was similar today to yesterday’s (i.e sunny and eventually hot) the light was surprisingly different, as you’ll see from the myriad photos in today’s entry.  Many of them are similar scenes to yesterday, but the light was different; and in Petra, the light can be remarkable. Ali was encouraging us along at a brisk pace, as he wanted us to get to a particular point before the sun got too high. As we walked along the main drag from the Treasury, the stone was positively glowing, presumably because of reflected light from the surroundings; whatever the reason, the effect was striking.

Our objective today was to get to (sigh!) the highest point of the site, the High Place of Sacrifice. The conventional way to do this is (sort of) clockwise, with a steep ascent from just before the Theatre, and a longer but less steep descent bringing you back opposite the Royal Tombs (go and look at the map from yesterday if you haven’t memorised it, and take a black mark). Instead, Ali took us the other way round in order to get the light he wanted us to see.  It turns out that he is a professional photographer, which is why he took the light as a priority and why he kept suggesting shots to me yesterday.  His instincts were right, and so I continued to let him school me in fruitful angles, as you’ll see as you read on.

We passed some goats.

Nothing unusual in that, you’d (rightly) say. But how the hell did they get up there?

Stay tuned for more goat action, by the way.  The track led us past a series of caves – living spaces and tombs – and the colours that today’s light had brought out were marvellous (that’s Ali in the first picture).

One particular space, still in use by someone that Ali knew (actually, he knows everyone) had a particularly vibrant ceiling (he uses it to pen his goats – a sort of 5-star goat-el. Thank you. Thank you for listening to my joke.)

The tombs in the photo above are for middle-class Nabateans; looking across the valley, we could also see more tombs, also for the middle classes.

Between us and the tombs on the far side, you can see a couple of holes in the ground. These mark the area where there were tombs for lower-class Nabateans. Much of them have been covered in sediment that has built up over the centuries; generally speaking, somewhere between one and two metres of sediment  has accumulated, which means that the lower or ground-level storeys of many places appear to have low ceilings.  Actually, the floor has risen.

Reinforcing the “necropolis” description of Petra from Suhir, our Jerash guide, we past a further series of living space/tombs, many with names that have nothing to do with their original occupants, but either derive from local legend, or were simply coined more recently to identify them: the “Broken Pediment” tomb;

The “Renaissance” tomb (possibly the dwelling of the High Priest);

and the “Roman Soldiers” Tomb.

The name is a complete misnomer, because not only are the three figures on the face Nabatean rather than Roman, but also it’s not a tomb.  It was used as a meeting place for visiting dignitaries and religious high muck-a-mucks before adjourning to eat to the triclinium opposite (from which the above photo is framed); originally the space between the two was a colonnaded garden.

The triclinium itself is remarkably coloured

and shows the eponymous three sides. After this the religious dignitaries would form a procession, eventually to the High Place of Sacrifice but first to a small temple.

I hope the steps they had to climb were wider and better-formed than the ones there today, otherwise a dignified procession, particularly in priest’s robes and assorted paraphernalia, would be very challenging.

Forgive a plenitude of photos, here, but the temple had several features worth remarking on.  For example, outside it was a cistern

which was filled by rainwater let out from a 75 cubic metre reservoir above by unplugging a hole (just above centre left) which allowed water into a collector and down a channel which led to the cistern.

Damn’ clever, these Nabateans.  The pillars of the temple make a frame in one of my favourite images from today – the open space was once a garden, and at the far side is the tomb of the gardener…

from the temple they continued up to the Lion Fountain

which was itself fed from the same reservoir running water down a channel and out through the lion’s mouth, into a pool where the religious visitors could wash before making their sacrifice (the marks from a stream down the right-hand side is caused by escaping rainwater because the original channels and dams have eroded away). The lion is in Assyrian style. Ascending further gives another view of the Roman Soldiers tomb and a glimpse of the reservoir which fed these ingenious water distribution channels.

Further up, we came across evidence of where stone was quarried,

in this case for a Crusader fortress which was built  little higher, but which was destroyed in an earthquake.

The steps in the photo above lead past a pair of obelisks representing the two principal Nabatean gods.

Whilst we were ascending them we heard the music of the rababa, the Arab flute (though distinctly not played by a professional musician).  The player turned out to be a Bedouin lady

to whom we donated a couple of Dinars for her musical contribution to our ascent, and who it turned out had quite a substantial retail opportunity up there.

And then having ascended those steps and overall some 185 metres (really? It felt like more) we reached the High Place of Sacrifice.

at the top of the picture is the altar whence the blood would flow through a channel into a reservoir below

(the Nabateans were clearly experts in fluid mechanics). In the middle of the area is the platform on which the giver of the sacrificial animal would stand before the sacrifice was carried out by the high priest

and the blood would flow through a channel across the area to be stored so it could be sprayed around as evidence of a good, old-fashioned and satisfactory slaughter.

No self-respecting High Place of Sacrifice would pass muster without offering the dignitaries a decent view

and we could also see some more goats (see, I told you there would be more goat action)

and we wondered, as before, how the hell they got there.

Shortly after and slightly below the High Place is an excellent tea stop-cum-retail-opportunity and Ali recommended we take advantage of it.  Apart from anything else, it offered some precipitous and spectacular views over the main Petra centre.

Some very good, sweet and energising mint tea was served by a young lad who was one of two people who ran the place

As well as a unique viewpoint over the main Petra site, which still showed signs of the glowing light that illuminated it earlier

we could also clearly see the Bedouin village where the government had moved people when they removed them from living on the Petra site itself.

Then it was time to start the descent to Petra, past several notable scenes.

until we got back down to Petra’s main drag.  We said farewell to Ali, and thanked him for doing a splendid job of showing us some out-of-the-way places and interesting photo scenes, and headed back (once again under hot sunshine) on the long pull up towards our hotel.  I took the opportunity to take a couple of final shots; for example, the light on the Façades was wonderful,

and there was still a glow to the rocks as they reflected light from the paths.

In front of the Treasury was busy and buzzy,

we  were passed by a couple of mounted Police, in distinctive pointed hats

and there were by now plenty of hustlers at the top of the path down waiting for marks to come by to try to get them to do a horse ride down to the site.

We’d done about 7.5 miles by this stage and were glad to get back to the hotel. Garmin reckoned we’d ascended a total of some 500 metres as we went down into Petra, up to the High Place, back down into Petra and back to the hotel.

so we felt we’d earned the short sleep we awarded ourselves back at the hotel, along with, of course, a cup of Twining’s finest Earl Grey.  After a few hours’ rest, Saeed came and picked us up to take us to a lunch consisting of a traditional Jordanian dish – Maglouba, or “upside down meal”. There’s a particular serving trick of turning the meal over from the pan onto the plate so that the rice is on top of chicken and vegetables; served with salad and yoghurt.   En route, he took us to a high viewpoint over Wadi Musa and Petra.

think you can make out some details of the site, but I’m not sure.

The fissure in the middle is the Siq, and you can make out some other details of tombs, but I can’t be certain of what I’m looking at.  Perhaps we’ll revisit the spot tomorrow, when the sun is more favourable, and be able to make out more.

Lunch was in a café/restaurant called TimeOut, in Tourism Street, Wadi Musa.  It looks like a rather ordinary café from outside

But behind the café front there’s a rather fine dining room

where we had a rather fine meal. Yes, I have a photo. No you can’t see it.

And that was pretty much it for the day.  Tomorrow we leave Petra for one of the other tourist tick boxes in Jordan, Wadi Rum.  We’ll be staying in the nearest I will allow myself to approach camping, a geodesic-shaped luxury tent.  According to the website, this will let me “wake up in the wild outdoors without compromising an ounce of luxury. Expect the same amenities and facilities as you would have in a top-class hotel.” I shall whinge ceaselessly if this has over-egged my expectations.

However, the luxury doesn’t extend to any form of online access, so I’ll be going radio silent for the next couple of days.  However, please keep the faith and come back over the weekend to catch up with whatever adventures have befallen us come our way in our absence from the whirl of the world-wide web.

Day 4 – Siq, and ye shall find

Wednesday 18 May 2022 – It was never really one of my bucket list items to be the first to breakfast at a big international hotel, but we achieved it anyway this morning.  The alarm went off at 0500 and we arrived just in time to push open the breakfast room door and ask them whether they were open. Fortunately, they were and we had a swift but satisfying breakfast (Twinings Earl Grey included) and were a couple of minutes early to meet Ali, our guide for the day.

The Mövenpick is literally just across the road from the Petra visitor centre, so we were on our way into the site within minutes.  To give some context to the day’s peregrinations, let me give some idea of size and distance.  Here’s a map of the site.

Something I hadn’t internalised is that the site is 27 square miles. The thing that everyone knows about from the Indiana Jones film is The Treasury, which is a third in from the right.  Our destination today was the Monastery – top left.  In all, including some great detours that Ali knew about, we walked 12 miles and ascended over 500 metres (sorry for the mixed units, but you’re all international folk so you can work it out, can’t you?).

Like Marwan did in Amman, Ali gave us a huge amount of historical, geographical and cultural information, only parts of which have stuck, but I’ll try to include some of what he told us.

The first thing he kept mentioning was the Nabatean Kingdom.  I confess that I’d never heard the term before, and I was of course too embarrassed to confess this, so I looked it up. The Nabataeans were one of several nomadic Bedouin tribes that roamed the Arabian Desert in search of pasture and water for their herds. They emerged as a distinct civilization and political entity between the 4th and 2nd centuries BC, with their kingdom centered around a loosely controlled trading network that brought considerable wealth and influence across the ancient world. They were allies of Rome, annexed into the Roman Empire by Emperor Trajan (trajuced?) in 106 AD. This explains much of the Roman bits and bobs we came across on our visit today, although there was much other pagan content in their culture and practices as well as later Christian influence. Petra was the capital of the Nabateans.

After a short walk from the visitor centre, you come to the location of the formal gate to Petra, though the arch that once signified it no longer stands, as it (along with masses of other buildings and monuments) has fallen prey to the multiple earthquakes that have shaken things up, or possibly down, over the last two thousand years.  However, there are a couple of things that mark the gate, the most striking of which is the Bab Al Siq, the gateway to the Siq.

May I ask you, please, to take note of the moon in the first of these pictures, which signifies that the time at this time was 0637, exactly the sort of hour you’ll only find me awake when I’m on holiday.

One of the reasons we started so early was to try to avoid the worst of the day’s heat.  The second was to try to get ahead of the crowds, which we largely did, although we weren’t entirely alone  as we walked along the Siq.

(There are many enterprising locals who will offer you camel rides or horse rides if you want to take the weight off your feet. Some of them have a little problem understanding the words “no, thank you”, but not to an upsetting degree.)

Then you enter the Siq, a narrow gorge resulting from natural splits in the mountains which was the main entrance for religious people (the tradesmen’s entrance was round the back).  Down each side of the Siq run water channels

which work quite well, given that the entire thing runs downhill. Quite a considerable amount of time and effort has been spent in damming and maintaining the various water courses to keep them (a) running and (b) not drowning people, as there is a potential for heavy rain to bring huge amounts of water into Petra.

On the way along the Siq, Ali pointed out various phenomena, both natural and man-made. There are many niches to various deities, some of which were permanently resident and had recognised symbols representing them

and some were left empty for visitors to install their own gods. There is a natural formation which looks a little like an elephant (actually I think it looks more like a manatee, but apparently I’m in a minority, here),

and there are other man-made carvings such as this, which if you look carefully, can be recognised as a camel and a man, albeit somewhat eroded by wind and rain.

 

After just over a kilometre, you begin to get a glimpse of something vast and man-made

and so you soon arrive at The Treasury, the largest structure in Petra.

Having started out early, we’d been very lucky that there were relatively few people there, but the place was still afflicted by people who simply couldn’t bear to have a picture of the noble historic works of ancient civilisation without them gurning in front of it.

Ali pointed out some details on the Treasury.  For example, up the side you can see marks where the original workmen installed ladders so that they could work on the structure from the top downwards.

At the top of the centrepiece is a funerary urn which was reputed to contain a Pharaoh’s treasure. So, obviously, you shoot bullets at it to try to open it.

The next landmark is the street of façades.  This is a street which, amazingly enough, has façades carved into its walls.

As you walk along you will notice many caves carved into the walls.  We took a look at one of the more colourful ones

but inside it’s pretty much like all of the others,

a living space with cavities carved into the walls for ashes, or sometimes actual remains.  This bears out a comment from Suhir, our guide in Jerash, who rather dismissively said that Petra was basically a necropolis.  I think maybe he was a little sensitive about being a guide to a place which, although impressive, didn’t quite match Petra for charisma.  But he has a point; virtually every cave was a living space plus storage for the dead; and some of the other structures were just tombs, albeit quite fancy ones, like these.

At this point, Ali took us off the main drag to show us some of the lesser-visited parts of the site and thus demonstrated to value of having a guide, as we wouldn’t have found these things by ourselves.  Firstly, a couple of great views over a part of the site, including (in the first picture) a prime minister’s tomb;

and a superb view over something that I hadn’t realised (until today) existed in Petra – a Roman Theatre

(although, as we now know after our tour of Amman, this was more in the Greek style, being sculpted from the surroundings rather than standalone); secondly, some great caves

including a spectacularly coloured one – truly breathtaking.

This one was used for hospitality by a Bedouin who had been born in such a cave (but lived in a nearby Bedouin village). We took tea with him whilst Ali snuck off for a quick smoke.

Thirdly, we got a surprise Church, not something one might have expected on a site such as Petra.  It was probably built around the fifth century AD, thus making it Byzantine in period, and has been only slightly restored after being devastated in various earthquakes.

On either side it has – brace yourselves! – mosaics! Yay!

(These are depictions of beasts known across the Roman Empire.)

Finally, Ali led us to a fantastic view over the Great Temple.

At the right hand end of the picture is a three-pillar gate to this end of the city.  As we walked down towards it, some reconstruction of Roman Guard shenanigans was under way.

And that marked the end of the guided part of our day. So we bade Ali farewell, and embarked forthwith on Phase II – the ascent to The Monastery, billed as climbing over 800 steps to the top of a mountain.

It’s a little awkward and/or steep in a couple of places, but the trail is clear, and all one has to do is to toil upwards, avoiding some oncoming traffic occasionally

(you will be offered donkey rides incessantly as you go up.  One of the things that I hadn’t expected was the ubiquity of retail opportunities as people try to sell you souvenirs and handicraft items.  See later).

The easy availability of donkey rides means a liberal amount of donkey shit on the steps, so you have to watch your step.  We came across this lady who appeared to be cleaning it up

but since there was still a vast amount of the stuff around she was either totally ineffectual or was simply collecting it for fuel.

There’s some great scenery to be viewed on the way up.

and, as I say, several retail opportunities, where one is hailed as a great buddy or asked to support the families.

We made the mistake of falling into conversation and drinking tea with this lady, who turned out to be a great salesperson; we didn’t get away without paying really quite a lot of money for a couple of items, but it would have been awkward just to leave.  She was later seen in action with others.

I would recommend smiling and being firm with a “no, thank you” unless you want to get involved with a sales transaction. The attitudes are not aggressive, but sometimes a little persistent.

Then, before we knew it

we’d reached the top.  It didn’t look altogether ancient and monastic, to be honest.

but then we turned the corner….

Ali had mentioned that you could walk past the Monastery for a fantastic view over the far valley.  I wasn’t too sure of the route until we looked around a bit.

So we followed the signs and arrived at the viewpoint and, well…

It was precipitous, mind.

We headed back down to the Monastery and I took advantage of another route promising to be the best view in the world.  Frankly, it wasn’t, but en route, I got a brilliant angle on the Monastery.

After all that clambering about, it was time to head down, and we reached the bottom without any mishap. It was getting quite hot by this stage, and some people were suffering a bit as they walked up (frankly, I think that some of them were showing more courage than common sense).  Some people cheated.

 

Our original plan had been to have lunch when we reached the bottom, but we decided instead to head back to the hotel, rest for a bit and then get a late lunch.  All this was prior to the excitement of the evening which was to see “Petra By Night”.

Something that I hadn’t appreciated until we started the walk back was quite how far below the level of the hotel we were. It was a long, hot and relentless uphill pull for the best part of three miles, and as far as I can tell the hotel’s altitude is not far below that of the Monastery.  There were a couple of diverting moments on the way back.

and the Treasury was considerably more crowded than it had been at 7am.

It was now just about midday and the sun was (a) very hot and (b) directly overhead, so my hope of finding some shade from the high walls of the Siq was ill-founded.

so we sweated and stumbled our way all the way back to the hotel, pausing only to take a photo of the Roman guards at the gate.

The rest and lunch at the hotel were very welcome indeed.  We treated ourselves to some proper western food, and the hotel burger and chips were a transport of delight for me.

At 6pm, Saeed delivered our Petra By Night tickets, and we set out some moments before its official start time and joined the queue in the souk by the visitor centre.  There is some entertaining, and probably borderline illegal marketing at work for some of the boutiques there.

I bet they didn’t ask Harrison Ford for his permission.  There was quite a crowd for the event and we started shuffling along down the track to the Siq

and it was all going quite nicely until people started using torches and other lights, and talking loudly (mostly rubbish) which completely ruined the atmosphere that we infer the organisers wanted by lighting the way by candle light. Long story short, we eventually got to the Treasury where lots of lights were arrayed and people were sitting waiting for the show to begin.

The show, or at least the bit we stayed for, was music with a strong local cultural content – an Arab flute and a rebaba, an Arab one-string instrument. The flute playing was OK, but the rebaba was accompanied by shrieking vocals and with appalling audio quality, so we left. The walk back was much nicer, because it was much less plagued by fuckwits with torches.

And so we come to the end of a long, long day.  We’ve walked over 15 miles, ascended and descended 750 metres and we have to get up  in six hours to basically do it all over again, although we’ll be visiting a different part of the Petra site. So stay tuned to see whether we survive….

Day 3 – We hit peak Mosaic

Tuesday 17 May 2022 – We had an early start today; once again, the only times we have to get up early is when we’re “relaxing” on holiday.  Anyway, come 8am, we were on the road that would lead us eventually to Petra, but which had several stops on the way.  Almost all of these stops seemed to involve mosaics, so I hope you like mosaics.

The first stop was in the town of Madaba, the “City of Mosaics”, to visit St. George’s, a Greek Orthodox church. The reason that so many people visit it is that it is the home of a very famous mosaic, the oldest surviving original cartographic depiction of the Holy Land, dating from the 6th century AD. The mosaic was rediscovered in 1884, during the construction of a new Greek Orthodox church, St. George’s, on the site of its ancient predecessor. Outside (and replicated on cards in the on-site retail opportunity) is a large display explaining what the remaining areas of the mosaic are.

The map mosaic itself is very difficult to convey photographically, because it is so large.  I took a couple of snaps, of course I did, but I also tried to give an idea via video.

It is amazing that there are still areas of the mosaic that are still hiding under tiling work that has been laid on top of it, for some bizarre reason.

As well as this historic ancient mosaic, the church has an incredible array of modern mosaics, made in the Madaba School of Mosaics (these days called the Madaba Institute for Mosaic Art and Restoration), which can be found on every available display surface.

They are very intricate and beautifully made.

On searching for the etymology of the word “mosaic”, I learned that it has its roots in the Latin for the Muses.  It’s also true that Mosaic (capital M) means “pertaining to Moses”, which is relevant for our next stop, which was at Mount Nebo, the site from which Moses was allowed to see the Promised Land, and where he then died. It is obviously a site of great historical and religious significance, but the Moses Memorial church there (originally built in the 4th century AD and restored by the Franciscans in 1932 to working monastery status) is quite a plain building, and not ornate at all.

Since this is where Moses could see the Holy Land, you might expect there to be a decent view.  You’d be right.

It’s a popular spot for people to look from, and marked by a representation of Moses’ staff.

On display outside the church are a couple of the mosaics from the original building

but it’s inside the church where the real action is, mosaic-wise.  The most impressive is a 6th Century mosaic in the Diakonikon Baptistry in the church, pictured as captured on a non-Diako Nikon camera.

There are many, many, wonderful and intricate mosaics there.  Some have the shapes often found in stained glass, and there is also some real stained glass cunningly shaped to look like a mosaic.

I’d love to go into more detail, but honestly there is so much there it would become dull if I were to share all the photos I took.

We went back into Madaba and visited the Madaba Arts and Handicraft Centre.  We got a very interesting insight from a chap there who explained about how both old and modern mosaics were made.  There were several people at work creating mosaics – the centre is a co-operative which provides training to budding mosaicists, many of whom have special needs.

As well as what anyone would understand to be mosaic work (with pieces of stone down to about 2mm in size), the centre also has work that is “micromosaic” – creating art with pieces of stone so tiny that they can only be worked through a magnifying glass; or indeed with dots of powdered stone “paint” – pointillisme in stone.  The resultant work is remarkable.

Ostrich eggs are common bases for this kind of artwork, and the chap was such a good salesman that Jane failed to escape without buying an example.  The co-operative does good work in supporting disadvantaged people, mainly women, and has the financial support of Queen Noor of Jordan, so we’re pleased that the money is going to support a good cause.  No, really.

So that was peak mosaic, and we left to continue our journey towards Petra.  En route, we passed an unusual roundabout decoration.

We have been unable to understand why this choice of decor has been made but we’ve seen more than one example.

Saeed drove us along the King’s Highway*, a scenic and historic route so-called because it once linked the realms of three kings – Ammonite, Moabite and Edomite.  It’s preferable to the Desert Highway, which is straighter, faster and has fewer speed bumps, but is dull.

By contrast, the route that Saeed took us had some wonderful scenery,

an unusual new marketing look to a fast-rising supermarket chain,

some more fantastic views,

a remarkable, if ramshackle, tea stop-cum-retail-opportunity run by yet another welcoming Jordanian (pictured below with Saeed),

and stopping for a visit to Kerak (or Karak) Castle, a 12th-century Crusader castle which also had a significant strategic role up to the Ottoman period in the 19th century.  It was badly damaged in a siege and has really only partially been restored.  It has a looming presence over the surrounding countryside.

It looks impressive from the outside and is huge and rambling on the inside, but lacks information boards and other things to help understand its story.  You can understand its strategic importance, given that rule 1 of such a place is to have a commanding view over the countryside so you can spot any unwanted marauding going on by your enemies.

but the site itself, while it has several impressively castle-y lumps of masonry

didn’t have a story to tell, or at least not one that came over to us.

The town of Kerak would actually be a wonderful photo site – all tiny narrow streets, chaotic traffic and colourful shops.  We didn’t get a chance to see it beyond one rather optimistic piece of marketing.

Shortly after this we stopped for lunch at an unusual restaurant-cum-retail-opportunity called Midway Castle

where we had a taste of the National Dish of Jordan – mansaf (slow-cooked lamb with rice, flatbread and a special yoghurt sauce).  Yes, I have a picture of it.  No, I’m not going to share it with you.  Then we pressed on, again largely avoiding the Desert Highway, which meant we saw camels

sheep and goats,

more impressive scenery

and the “Smallest Hotel in the World”.

We also passed by Shobak Castle

but didn’t go in, as we didn’t need a loo break.  Our final stop, as we hit the outskirts of Wadi Musa (the “Valley of Moses”, where Petra can be found) was at the spring that is the source of the water running through the valley, and may be the place where Moses struck the rock with his staff and water came forth for his thirsty Israelites:

It’s remarkably low key for something that bears the name of Moses.  People can stop by and fill their containers with water

underneath the writing taken from the Koran that says  something along the lines of “From water, all life begins.”

And so our journey ended at the Mövenpick, Petra. We immediately had a meeting with Ali, a representative of the organisation that provides tourist guides for Petra, because we had decisions to make.  Unfortunately, The Powers That Be have decided to close a hiking route that we had planned to take (from Little Petra to Petra Monastery) in a couple of days’ time, so we had to work out what our alternative was going to be.  Oddly enough, “sitting in the bar and drinking gin” didn’t seem to be the right thing for me to suggest, so we’ve got two hikes set up for tomorrow and Thursday, both of which involve quite a lot of walking and climbing of stuff.  And because we want to beat (a) the tourist hordes and (b) the heat of the day, we have to get under way at 0630 tomorrow.  O, the joys of being a tourist!

But, assuming we survive, the coming days should be absolutely wonderful, despite a 5am alarm call.  So do please stay tuned to see how things turned out.

 

 

*  “Along the King’s Great Highway, he drives his merry load /  at 90 miles per hour in the middle of the road.”  With thanks to Flanders and Swann