Tag Archives: Scenery

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

Day 1 – Northern Jordan: Umm Qais, Ajloun and Jerash

Sunday 15 May 2022 – Five hours’ sleep was all we got, but that didn’t seem too much of a problem as we got up and headed down for what turned out to be a perfectly decent international hotel breakfast, with a target of meeting Said at 9am.

The itinerary for the day involved heading right up to the north-west of Jordan, some 120km and a 2-hour drive.  Many useful things happened during that time: a rapid education into a more detailed understanding of the highly variable quality of Jordanian road surfaces (made more so by the apparently random insertion by The Powers That Be of some pretty aggressive speed bumps); the driving philosophy among the locals, which appears to rely heavily on the “Insh’Allah” school of self-preservation; and small repayment on my sleep debt.

The bits of Jordan we saw revealed a country with charming and hospitable natives, exceedingly crappy road surfaces, a complete disregard for the rules of the road and a pervasive roadside rubbish problem consisting mainly of plastic bags littering the verges. (I realise that we in the UK haven’t got much grounds for moral superiority here, but it was noticeable.).  The speed bump thing appears to be a test of concentration for the driver, as the bumps are sometimes mild and sometimes aggressive, placed without any connection to reality and surrounded by  some pretty impressive potholes at times.  The net effect, when combined with the locals’ attitude to speed limits, road positioning and courtesy, is to make everyone cram the anchors on a few yards before each speed bump and then accelerate off as fast as possible once having established that tyres and suspension are still OK.  It doesn’t do much for fuel economy or passenger comfort but it stops life on the road being dull. And it didn’t detract in any way from our enjoyment on the day, because, Insh’Allah, we weren’t involved in any accidents.

So, a couple of hours after we started out, we arrived at Umm Qais, or, more specifically the proximate ruins of the ancient Gadara. Compared to Jerash, which we visited later, it’s a compact site – no need for a dedicated guide, as Said showed us around and talked about the history as we went.  The site’s museum has on display some lovely mosaics

and fine statuary

which have been extracted from the ruins.  It also has some wonderful displays of the intricate pottery that the people from the Graeco-Roman period were capable of

as well as some considerable ability to mould massive stone into useful things such as doors.

There are the remains of ancient shopping arcades

a very impressive Roman theatre

and many slabs of remarkably well-preserved carved marble to marvel at.

From the top of the site, you can see the Golan Heights

and the Sea of Galilee

which gives a clear indication of how near the site is to the border with Israel.

Having got to pretty much the top of Jordan, we then turned south, and our next stop was the historic castle at a town called Ajloun (reached via a stop-start drive through the traffic congestion of the rather scruffy city of Irdib. Jordanian traffic congestion isn’t as bad as Indian traffic congestion, but that doesn’t mean I’d be prepared to risk my bodywork by driving around there). However, en route we got a few more sidelights into Jordanian life.  For example, we were in peak chickpea season.  Said was given a bunch by a mate in the Umm Qais car park

and we saw several pickups loaded to the gills with harvestings.

Roadside fruit stalls are commonplace.  Some of them look well-established and flourishing

but others not so much.

These stalls are clearly a good way to get produce cheaper than normal markets, but the corollary of this is the need for alertness for people screaming to a halt unexpectedly in front of you to pick up a few loquats or whatever.

Anyway….

You can see Ajloun Castle from a distance away –

yes, there it is on the top of the hill.

It’s a massive slab of masonry, originally started by Saladdin in the 12th Century as part of his successful attempts to get rid of the Crusaders.  Since it sits at the highest point hereabouts, it gives a great view over the surrounding countryside if you happen to be on the lookout for marauding Lionhearts.

It is very photogenic.

so a pleasure to walk around, as well as being quite well described by information boards. There was one thing that gave me pause:

“Tourism Police”?  “I’m sorry, sir, but I must arrest you for wearing Bermuda shorts that aren’t garish enough.  And those sunglasses!  Couldn’t you afford Oakleys?”

In the car park area outside where cars and buses were randomly strewn about there was a rather lovely coffee stop, which underlined the hospitable nature of Jordanian life.  It was clear that Said was well-known by the people running it and we were invited for some delicious  cardamom coffee served by an imposing but charming chap called Nazih.

And then it was time for lunch, which we took in Jerash.  Well after time, actually, since it was nearly 4pm by the stage.  Said took us to a restaurant called Artemis, obviously a popular tourist destination, judging by the number of tourist buses in the car park and from the bread-making theatre going on outside.

 

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It’s rather a neat way of serving customers with the bread that accompanies their meal. The restaurant offers a very tasty buffet meal and there’s a lot of room inside so it was easy to get a decent lunch.

Jerash is a large city and it contains a very substantial architectural site featuring neolithic, Graeco-Roman, Byzantine and early Muslim influences.  It’s sufficiently substantial to warrant having a guide specially to take you round the site; ours was called Suhir and he did a very good job of conveying the history of the place.  Some of the Roman ruins are the largest remaining in the world, eclipsing even those in Rome – the most striking example is the Forum.

The site is really quite large, with the main drag being over 800m long.  There are any number of fascinating historical details to be seen en route, for example the tracks left by the chariots on the main street.

There are smaller details to be seen:  recesses which held olive oil lamps

manhole covers enabling access to the drainage system

and some phenomenal mosaics.

There’s the inevitable tourist attraction, of course,

but the chap was still charming even when we didn’t want to buy anything.

At the north end of the main street is the colonnaded road leading to the Damascus Gate

(the main gates are all named in recognition of the countries that border Jordan – Syria to the north, Palestine to the west, Egypt to the south and Iraq to the east).

At the north end of the site is a Roman Theatre,

But the highlight of the day happened as the sun was sinking and we were walking towards the other Roman Theatre, near the Forum.  As we neared it, we heard a completely unexpected sound and so we went in to see what was going on.

 

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On investigation, it turned out to be a Jordanian bagpiper whose only English (apart from the word “welcome”) was to emphasis how he’d been to Swindon and to the Edinburgh Tattoo. Jane got him to play the Skye Boat Song (and told him its history) and he then jammed a few other numbers whilst a little impromptu Scottish dancing went on around him.  I’ll spare Jane’s blushes by not publishing that video clip, but it was surprisingly affecting to have this confluence of very different cultures in such a remarkable setting.

This was the end of the day’s tourism, and we headed back to where Said was waiting to whisk us back to our hotel. A couple of apples, a couple of dates, couple of gins and a mug of Twinings Earl Grey have been the necessary fuel to feed this blog posting. It’s been a long, intense and enjoyable day; a full-on introduction into the sort of thing we can expect over the coming weeks as we travel round Jordan.  I hope you want to come along for the rest of the ride.

Gran Canaria Day 8 – Bandama Run

Friday March 11 2022 – The day started with the usual mixed feelings; sad to be leaving, but with a sneaky feeling that it might be nice to be home again after two splendid weeks away.  Read on to see whether that latter hope was actually realised.

We checked out of the hotel, having given the excellent Augustin at reception our feedback on the restaurant (which, by the way, he seemed to be in agreement with).  Then, since Jane hadn’t done the hike up Bandama, the local volcano, that I had enjoyed, and since there was a road available to its top, we thought we’d spend a few minutes driving up to take a look. It’s a drive with its own idiosyncrasies.

We made it without actually crashing in any significant way, and went right up to the mirador to look at the view.

In one direction, it’s a great panorama.

In the distance, towards the right of the photo above, you can see the island’s capital, Las Palmas, and the peninsula of La Isleta beyond it.

Walk round to the other side of the mirador, and this is what you see;

further proof, were it needed, that you can put a golf course on the side of a volcano. This is the same crater that I saw during my hike of a couple of days earlier.

Before wisdom prevailed and I forswore golf for the rest of my days, I had developed quite an astonishing slice; I think I would have been in real trouble right from the first tee, given that playing your ball from inside a volcanic crater is not easy.

That view was the last great piece of scenery of a great couple of weeks exploring two of the Canary Islands.  The rest of the day was spent in the relatively dull administrative side of getting home – returning the hire car, sitting on a delayed flight awaiting takeoff, stumbling through the dark and cold and rain from the taxi back in the UK, discovering that the boiler had broken down a week before and the house was freezing, that kind of thing.

That last item quite ruined our plans for a relaxing final glass of something cold in a post-vacational glow at home.  Instead, we put a drip tray under the apparently now-leaking boiler, made a cup of tea and climbed into pajamas to try to keep warm during the night, with a firm plan to try to get the boiler mending people out on the next day. This last plan was also kyboshed by Jane’s honesty in confessing that we’d been in The Foreign for a couple of weeks; now, it turns out, we have to do two Covid LFT tests, 24 and 48 hours after we landed in the UK, before (assuming they are negative) they’ll even consider looking in the appointment diary; so it may be several days before we’re warm again. The only consolation is that excess electricity provided by our very recently-installed solar panels has at least furnished us with hot water in our tank without actually collapsing our roof.

 

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(We’re also lucky in having a gas fire so we can at least keep warm whilst we check that we are not plague-ridden in order to receive the necessary service visit.)

And that’s about it for the holiday.  It’s now Saturday 12th March, and we have kept our spirits up by continuing what had become something of a habit during our time in the Canaries – a glass of something cold followed by a decent lunch (although we had to cook this one ourselves).

We’ve had a great couple of weeks, exploring two very different islands.  The weather was by and large wonderful, the scenery was superb and overall the experience was just what a holiday should be.  If you’ve been following the blog for the last couple of weeks, thank you for your company, and come back to these pages in a couple of months (all other things being equal)  to read about our next excursion, which should be a great deal more exotic.  See you then!