Hello hounds: well, I keep hoping to add images to this report, but haven't got around to finding a website to host them...so figured I should just post part 1, and hopefully will get the pics aspect all worked out by the time I write Part II...
Anyway, I just returned from three weeks in Jordan. The purpose of my trip was to help my 20 year old daughter, who has just enrolled in a semester away program to study Arabic at the University of Jordan, get settled, and to see for myself that she would be happy and safe at her new school. Not really a pleasure trip, but I couldnt see going all that way and not having a bit of fun and touring the country as well. So, before getting down to the business of helping find Jess find a place to live, get registered for classes, get a visa extension, and all the rest of her preparations, I splurged on a trip for the two of us to see the country.
This was the first trip for both of us to Jordan and to the Middle East. We werent sure what to expect in terms of tourist facilities, ease of travel etc., particularly for two women travelling independently. Given that, and since I didnt want to have to drive but wanted flexibility in setting a tour schedule, we booked a private car with driver for a seven day trip around the country (since it is a small country, about the size of Virginia, a week is a good amount of time to see the highlights). This option turned out to be very affordable: one can rent a car with driver for a comparable amount to that of the rental car alone in the US, and since hotels and meals are considerably less than in the US, as long as one doesnt insist on five star places, our overall costs were quite reasonable. I booked this tour on-line through a company called Jordan Eco-Tours and highly recommend them for reliable, friendly, and good value service.
But this is primarily a chow posting, not a travel log, so on to the chow. I had gotten a few tips off of the board and from CH connections, but most of those were for Amman, and will go into the Amman portion of my report. Happily, however, as good fortune would have it, our driver for the trip south, and for some of our tours around Amman, Ahmed, had the heart of a chowhound. His tips provided some of the eating highlights of our journey ..These included:
Magaba: This town in Central Jordan, on the road to Petra, is known for its Byzantine Church with a map on the floor, composed of mosaic inlay that is the oldest known map of the Middle East. The church courtyard is a pleasant place to linger, but first we needed a snack, and Ahmed led us across the street to a stand where I had the best falafels of my life. Unfortunately, the name was only in Arabic, and when I asked Ahmed later for the name, he confessed that he never remembered the names of places, only locations. Sigh. Oh well, at 1 JD ($1.40) for four falafels, one cant go wrong trying more than one stand. To try and find the one he led us to: it is across the street from the Church courtyard and catty corner a half a block to the right. It is a tiny place big enough for about three people to stand in, obviously take out only .Since Ahmed ordered, I dont know if English is spoken, but just hold up fingers for how many you want, and point. Everything is made fresh in front of you; and if you want a drink, grab a soda from the cooler behind you. Simply delicious.
Petra/Wadi Musa: Most of our time here was spent in the Archeological Zone, where eating choices are limited. We enjoyed Bedouin tea at one of the stands in the park area, and since it was quite cold, we appreciated their campfire as well. There is a lot to see as well as spectacular hiking at Petra, so bringing a picnic lunch would be a good option (there are several small grocery stores in town where supplies can be purchased). However, we didnt plan in advance, and thus had lunch at the Basin, one of only two restaurants in the zone. It is upscale, run by the Crown Plaza Resort. Lunch is buffet only.
A comment: often we came across buffet meals as the only option offered at hotels outside of Amman. I am not a big fan of buffets generally, but the quality of the buffets in Jordan was always quite high and they were often good value (though not cheap), especially if one follows the Jordanian custom of eating the main meal of the day in the mid-afternoon and then having a light supper.
The buffet at the Basin was one of those instances even though it caters to a captive audience. There were many salads to choose from, all with lovely and fresh local vegetables and fruits (highlights included a roasted beet salad, good fattoush, tabouleh, corn salad), main dishes such as lamb mensaf, stews, and roast chicken, and at least seven different deserts. In addition, there was a barbeque grill, with kabobs and chicken cooked to order. Cost (unlimited servings) was about $12 p/p including tax, tip, soda and bottled water.
As for Petra itself, well, I've wanted to see it ever since first hearing about it as a college student hooked on Agatha Christie mysteries :-)(several of which take place there)and it didn't disappoint. Should be on every traveller's 'must see' list, IMO, and well worth travelling half way around the world to see....
We were in Petra two nights, stayed at the Crowne Plaza Resort. Our first night Jessica was somewhat ill, and not interested in eating, and being on my own I was fairly tired, so stuck to the hotel restaurant. Another buffet was offered, but I asked for and was brought a nicely prepared mixed grill (lamb chops, lamb sausage, kabob) instead. The wine selection was (not surprisingly) both limited and expensive. After paying about $7 US for a very mediocre glass of wine here, I decided to go with the flow and stuck to bottled water, soda, tea and coffee for the rest of the trip ...
Our second night, after we had befriended our local Petra guide, he invited us to his home for dinner, in order to meet his younger sister who was also soon to be enrolling at the University of Jordan. This was the first of several meals that we had in private homes; Jordanian hospitality is justifiably famous. Ali introduced us to all of his extended family, and his mother took over serving us a home cooked meal. Among other treats we feasted on a chicken and rice dish, maqlouba, which is baked chicken on a bed of rice with onions, olives and cardamom, served with yoghurt. Delicious!
After leaving Petra, we spent a night in the desert at Wadi Rum, at the Wadi Rum Deiseh Camp. Camping is the only current option for those wanting to spend the night in the desert (though I think some hotels may be planned, which is not necessarily a good thing), and I highly recommend it. The Wadi Rum area is indescribably beautiful: we spent an unforgettable afternoon touring by jeep and on foot.
Back at camp, Jessica and I shared a private tent, with shower and bath facilities similar to that which one might find at a state park campground in the US. It was still quite cold, and with nighttime temperatures at close to freezing the camp was nearly empty: only guests besides us were a couple from Port Townsend, Australia. Dinner was served family style in a large carpeted Bedouin tent, heated by a kerosene stove, and was preceded by tea, dancing and live music around the stove(on warmer days they might build a campfire, but once the sun went down it really was too cold to sit outdoors, even with a fire.) The main course was lamb (a whole lamb might have been used had the camp been full, but with just a few of us it was large pieces of leg and shoulder), wrapped in cloth and foil and roasted over hot coals placed in a pit in the ground, then covered with sand. The Bedouin staff and Ahmed thought this concept of food cooked in the ground would be a unique one for us and the Aussies, and kept asking us if we had ever seen anything at all like it, which we found amusing (we finally had to explain that yes, we had: it was very reminiscent of a luau, with lamb instead of a pig) It was also delicious. Accompanying the perfectly cooked lamb were various hot sauces, flat bread heated on the stove, rice, more salads, tangerines, and sweets (honey cake and baklava). Yumm! After waay to much to eat, we enjoyed more tea and Turkish coffee, and spent a few very pleasant hours teaching the camp staff how to play poker (for chips only, since Muslims dont gamble) and in return getting seriously beat at a form of backgammon.
I was worried that it would be too cold to sleep, but the warmth of all of that good food and company did the trick, and we slept like babies in our cozy tent (with the help of about five fleece blankets each :-))
In the morning, after more tea to warm us, breakfast was coffee, freshly made flat bread heated on the stove, hard boiled eggs, and hummus. After more desert touring, we headed further south to the coast town of Aqaba but that which will be included in my trip report, Part II .
It may take a few days, but look for more posts soon. Feel free also to email me off line for contact information for our tour company or for our (highly recommended) driver....