Day 14/15

Let’s go to the beach! We let ourselves sleep in a bit, but we’re also excited for a lazy day ahead of us. We’d planned on some downtime Thursday to rest a bit from a crazy two weeks before flying out Friday.

We grabbed some snacks from a market on our two block walk to the beach, then started walking down the promenade to find our spot for the morning. Unfortunately, there were “beach closed to swimming” signs up and down the whole beach! We wandered for a while trying to find an “open” beach with no luck.

All of Tel Aviv’s beaches are public and heavily regulated. This means food establishments have to have certain items at certain prices, and the rental of chairs/umbrellas/etc is standardized along the whole coast, instead of relying on someone trying to hawk “their” chairs. There’s even an app for renting them! Neat!

We lounged for a while before I got stir crazy about the swimming thing and went for a walk. Lots of folks were swimming, and it seemed how strong of an enforcement there would be varied from one lifeguard tower to another. Supposedly the closure was for pollution, but as clear as the waters were and as many folks were swimming, we went for it.

After enough time swimming and baking, we decided to head back to the hotel to freshen up before wandering around on our way to early dinner resos. We stopped at a bakery for pastries, and then popped into a fancy restaurant lounge for drinks. Eventually we ended up at the recommended Cicchetti restaurant to indulge on some Italian cuisine with Israeli influences.

Our bartender was much friendlier than we found the average Israeli, and gave us great food and drink suggestions. We eventually even did a shot together of a local aperitif that was mildly herbal with plenty of fruit notes. Delicious!

We wandered back along Sheinkin Street, known for its trendy shops and nice nightlife. We bought a few last minute souvenirs, as we would be leaving early the next day.

Travel day / “Last Day”

Our schedule changed somewhat last minute to better accommodate Rosh HaShanahs impact on public transit and stores/restaurants schedules. So we were leaving around noon instead of midnight, with the intent of saving that hassle and getting home 12 hours earlier to boot.

Things did not go to plan. Delays taking off. Delays after landing. Transit system failure at Atlanta combined with ridiculously slow luggage and security lines. Needless to say, we missed our connection, and had to reschedule for later in the evening.

Fortunately after a few hours hanging around the skyclub, we finally boarded our flight which got us to Pittsburgh without further issues. None of our souvenir bottles of wine has broken when we picked up our luggage, and a relatively short ride home had us greeted by two VERY excited dogs.

An amazing, once in a lifetime trim spurred by the generosity of friends had come to a close. It was time for some sleep.

Day 13

The tour from the previous day had left our heads spinning, wanting to see and know so much more. We knew our time in Israel would be limited, but the amount of history in Jerusalem is overwhelming for such a short stay.

We decided to make the most of it, and had our luggage held so we could explore the old city past checkout time. We planned out our morning, and headed to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher first, taking advantage of an earlier hour, which our tour guide said would be less busy.

Sure enough, the crowds were significantly reduced, allowing for much better access to all the historical sights within. We were able to go up to the Calvary, where the Greek and catholic chapels are located on the second floor. After, it was still empty enough to easily observe the Stone of Anointing/Unction before passing to the main rotunda which houses the Aedicule. There was still a sizable line to enter, a site this significant for so many remains busy all day every day.

Afterwards, we changed course for the Dome of the Rock and Al-aqsa Mosque. Non Muslims can only visit at certain times, and we were told morning would again be less busy than the afternoon time slot. Entering requires going through strict security and then a long ramp that ascends over the western wall. At the top, the sprawling complex is majestic and serene, and much quieter than most of the city.

The architecture was very similar to our experience in Istanbul, little surprise due to its construction a thousand years ago by the same Ottoman Empire. We were not allowed to go inside to see the foundation stone, and instead stuck to enjoying the beautiful buildings, mosaics and gardens surrounding the famous gold domed building.

Our journey continued onward, this time to the oldest sites in Jerusalem, which are actually outside of the current walls of the old city. Exiting through the Dung Gate at the southern end of the old city, we headed to the City of David museum, a starting point to explore a series of ruins that date back to Bronze and Iron Age Jerusalem.

Still an active archaeological site, they have great timelines of their discoveries, and evolving access to what you can see. One of the keystone features is accessing a tunnel that carried water from an ancient spring to farmland, a key asset in allowing the ancient city to exist. You can walk in the water in the dark tunnel hundred of feet, but we opted for a dry route nearby that was a tunnel used by soldiers to protect the water supply.

We finally emerged in the middle of a residential neighborhood, where we walked a few blocks to the very recently discovered, and still being excavated while we were there, pool that was fed by the spring. We opted for another underground route back to the start, not realizing that it was going to be nearly half a mile underground! The tight tunnel, often short enough you had to hunch far over to continue, was a drainage channel for the stepped road likely built by Pontius Pilate.

Exhausted from our miles of trekking, with heat and humidity rising, it was time for a sit down and some lunch. We stopped at a well reviewed kosher spot for what turned out to be delicious lamb pizza and a beer. After, we gathered our bags and hopped on the train to head to Tel Aviv. Unfortunately we arrived at rush hour, and taxis were impossible to catch at the downtown station, requiring another mile-plus long walk to get to our hotel.

After some showers and cooling off in AC, we gathered our strength to track down dinner. We checked out the Carmel Market along the way, tried some local beer nearby, and settled on sushi for dinner after striking out at our first option. Absolutely exhausted, we settled in for an early night, ready to see and explore more of TLV the next day.

Day 12 – on to Israel

With a departure of 6:50, we awoke quite early to get packed and catch a ride to the airport. The airport itself is only 10 years old and felt quite modern, and we made it through passport control and security with plenty of time to spare.

The flight itself was only 20 minutes long, as we were barely traveling 60 miles between the two cities. The sun had just come up, giving us great views of Amman on our departure, and Tel Aviv on our arrival. We fortunately knew our way through the poorly signed customs and security process much better this time, and we were catching the train to Jerusalem not long after that.

A half hour train ride and a short light rail ride later, we arrived at the office for our apartment that night and dropped our bags, since our room wouldn’t be ready until the afternoon. Abby had scheduled a free tour for late morning, so we grabbed a delightful breakfast first, realizing we hadn’t eaten since getting up at 3:30 in the morning.

The tour guide, Ryan, had a very funny mannerism in speaking, but relied heavily on irony and came from a background in archaeology, so we both quite enjoyed his quirks. We slowly zig zagged through the old city, making stops in each of the four quarters. He did a great job walking the tightrope that is politics, culture and religion in Jerusalem.

We wandered Arabic Suqs, visited the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, saw the Western Wall, and gazed at roman ruins. the amount of history was staggering, and the intertwined timelines of so many different cultures was hard to miss. Perhaps the best piece of irony that Ryan made part of tour was the name Jerusalem, meaning city of peace.

With the tour concluded, we grabbed a late lunch from a fantastic kebab shop in the Muslim quarter before heading back to the office to grab our bags and check in. Our host graciously upgraded us to a larger unit, giving us space to unpack and unwind before heading back out for more exploration.

Our host was Armenian, and it was the history we knew the least of, so we headed to a tavern in that quarter for some drinks and to sample that cuisine. The sampler platter was delicious, and we had ample time to unwind and reflect on the past 10 days that had gone by like a blur.

Eventually we had to head to dinner, our first time exploring the new city. We dined at Satya, which combined European and middle eastern styles centered around seafood, and the results were outstanding. Absolutely stuffed from a wonderful meal, we walked back to the apartment for an early evening, planning to head back into the old city one last time in the morning.

Day 11 – one last day in Jordan

I woke up before sunrise with the goal of getting some extensive hiking in while temperatures were still (somewhat) cool. By 6:30 I had entered the park, and began taking a side route that bypasses the heavily travelled main siq path.

Winding along barely marked trails, I was on the plateau above the deep gouges left by millennia of wind and water, allowing for wonderful views down on the sights seen the day before. As always, there were carved caves aplenty, lit by a slowly rising sun that had yet to creep over the distance hilltops.

Eventually I made it to the place of high sacrifice, a stop that needs little explanation to its purpose, and offers sweeping views of the eastern end of the former city. From here I descended twisting, winding, very steep steps almost 400 feet down to the wadi floor below.

The narrow valley was littered with old carved facades, impressive water collection and storage systems, and retaining walls to fill in the gaps nature had left. Most impressive and surreal was a room carved into a section of rock that had beautiful rainbows throughout.

From here I set my sights on my next target: The Monastery. A mile walk across the desert sands, now on full sun, had me begin my ascent up another branch of the wadi musa. Quickly the path becomes stairs, climbing over 800 feet as it winds up the canyon, lined with shopkeepers along the way. After another mile of climbing, I reached the spectacular building carved from the hilltop.

It was time to meet up with the rest of the crew at the treasury, so my time at the top was brief before descending all those stairs again. Another walk across the desert floor had me back in the first siq we had seen the day before, and rejoined in front of the treasury.

Sadly, that meant it was time to pack up and head back to Amman, for our last night in Jordan. Loaded up with snacks, we hit the road for the 3 hour drive back. More winding along desert highways eventually gave way to the familiar sights of the airport, then the suburbs, and then the city proper of Amman.

Abby and I set about last minute errands and washing all of our clothes before our final leg of the journey. Then it was time for one last dinner all together before heading to sleep.

Day 10

I woke up early, just as the sun was rising. It was maybe the quietest morning experienced to date. No cars, the very rare plane, and zero appliances humming away. You could hear wind rustle, and the flapping of birds wings.

I took a short stroll and climbed a bit up the outcropping abutting our camp for a better view. The shadows shifted as the sun slowly climbed the sky, camels walked by below, and then eventually vehicles started moving as the desert came to life.

The rest of our party slowly roused and we made our way to breakfast. Another traditional spread of savory and sweet items got our day started, followed by a chance to try out the local transportation.

We had arranged for a short 20-30 minute camel ride around the camp area, which offered beautiful morning views along with the novelty of being more than 6’ off the ground.

Our short ride over, it was time to pack our things back into the Land Cruiser and head back to wadi rum village, the van, and the desolate highway to our next stop: Petra.

The drive was largely uneventful, though their was a detour that sent us along several smaller roads. The Jordanians have a fondness for speed bumps and tables, especially along smaller roads, but getting to see more of the “country side” was worth it. As we descended into Wadi Musa, it was clear this was a much more touristy destination than anywhere else we’d gone over the past week.

We grabbed lunch while waiting for our hotel rooms to finish being prepared, another spread of kibbeh, kofta, lentil soup and chicken. We settled into our rooms and freshened up before Abby and I set back out to get a brief excursion into Petra.

The most famous icon of the complex, the treasury, is a little over a mile into the historical site from the entrance. A slow descent in full sun rapidly shifts into a winding path in a wadi as the canyon walls rise up quickly on both sides of the path.

Built by the Nabateans around 2000 years ago, the city was the capital for decades and traded with, and later joined, the Roman Empire. Master engineers, they carved buildings into the sandstone cliffs and rerouted water to keep the wadis dry and provide irrigation to crops and buildings.

There are numerous small carvings and statues along the mile walk, before slowly revealing the iconic treasury facade visible at the end of the winding canyon. Over 100’ tall, and nearly as wide, the ornate building mimics Roman architecture of the time, and stands impressively above the wide siq floor.

We went a bit further to check out the amphitheater ruins before turning around to head back to the hotel to meet up for dinner. Abby and I stopped along the way for a happy hour drink at the “cave bar” which sounded touristy, but in fact ended up being a very cool bar inside a carved cave.

Back at the hotel, we had rooftop drinks all together before heading inside for dinner. We once again fell into the great pattern of food food, conversation, and drinks before heading to bed.

Day 9 – packing for mars

Our final morning in Aqaba was a leisurely one. Sleep in, breakfast, dip in the Red Sea. We definitely took full advantage of a noon checkout.

Our next destination was Wadi Rum, a collection of sandstone mountains similar to plateaus of the American west, with wide expanses of sand in between. The red color has made a perfect filming location for many an alien landscape, notably in movies like The Martian and Star Wars.

It was an hour and a half drive to the village of wadi rum, a collection of houses, vacation rentals and a few food establishments. The desert scenery shifted themes a few times on the drive before settling into the reddish hue that makes the area famous.

We met up with some of the staff of the camp we were staying at, and then grabbed a quick falafel lunch before getting our “jeep tour” out to the camp. There are dozens of small camps and associated operating companies spread throughout the protected area, ranging from truly rustic tents up to much more modern “bubbles” that have become popular recently. Ours were on the more rustic end of the spectrum, while still having access to power and (non-potable) water.

Our Jeep was of course not actually a Jeep, but a Toyota Land Cruiser, in rough but running shape. Toyota clearly has a monopoly on rugged vehicles in the area, as 80% of the vehicles we saw had their badge. The tour took us to several notable spots where we could hop out and take photos while exploring the landscape.

The stops would get crowded, the most popular one a famous “bridge” of stone with nothing below had around 100 people there. But the stretches in between would once again be desolate, often only able to see one or two other vehicles at all. We eventually settled on an outcropping to watch the sunset, sharing tea and trying a local snack: pita with raw onion. Or maybe that’s all the guide had in his glovebox.

A marvelous sunset over, we made it to our camp and got our things unpacked into our Bedouin-esque tents and waited for dinner to finish cooking. A buffet of traditional fare was prepared, with the highlight being zarb: chicken slow roasted underground til it falls off the bone.

The meal was followed by a fire and more tea. Traditional music followed, along with dancing and singing as dusk turned to night. Above us, a few faint stars had now turned to a brilliant night sky, including the band of the milky way stretching across above us. It was bedtime as we returned to our tents, the desert rapidly cooling around us.

Day 8 – Aqaba

We woke up in the lap of luxury at the Al Manara hotel, and not long after we’re enjoying views of the bay with breakfast. The relatively ‘cool’ morning temperature of 85 started rapidly warming towards what would be an unseasonably warm 109 later in the day, so we planned our activities carefully.

Our first stop was the castle of Aqaba, a historical site through many stages of history, ranging from a stopover for pilgrims of Mecca to an ottoman fort overtaken in the Arab revolt. Built and rebuilt over the centuries, it is now available to tourists to weave through and climb what remains of the ruins.

Nearby is a square memorializing the Arab revolt, including a massive flagpole flying the revolt flag that can be seen from most of the city. We took a brief break in a coffee shop from the heat before hiring a glass bottom boat for an hour long tour along the coast.

There are plenty of reefs along the coast, and Jordan has added to these with artificial sources by sinking large objects like a tank and a plane. The former is close enough to shore we were able to circle it several times observing fish swimming in and out of the former war machine. The water was so clear, the glass in the bottom was barely necessary.

As the sun was approaching it’s zenith overhead, we once again ducked back inside the hotel for lunch. Our afternoon destination was a water park nearby, a relatively new development in the area, and one that felt lavish in a water scarce country. It was an absolute blast for kids, and the adults certainly enjoyed partaking as well.

Once again we embraced the air conditioning in the hotel for dinner before retiring to our rooms for the second night in the south of Jordan.

Day 7

Travel day, time to head south.

Our next few days were aimed at experiencing other parts of the country: Aqaba, Wadi Rum and Petra, along with the vast rural deserts between.

The first leg had us drive down next to the Dead Sea. Once we got past the resorts at the northern end of the sea, the road wound along the shoreline with nothing but high mountains on one side and the sea and distant shores on the other.

I made us stop to take some photos and attempt to grab some salt from the shoreline, which proved to be a successful, but extremely warm, adventure. Our next stop was Wadi Numeira, one of the many winding canyons carved into the mountains by centuries of limited running water.

We were able to walk along the floor of the towering canyon very easily, taking in the twisting, winding, smooth walls around every curve. Shockingly there was still a decent amount of flowing water, which had been dammed and guided into tubing by locals to irrigate crops.

Sweating profusely, we piled back in the van for our final two hour stretch to the historical port city of Aqaba. Having been involved in ancient pilgrimages to Mecca and Medina, to a significant battle in the Arab revolt, to an industrial port for exports, to a growing tourism sector with resorts, the city has maintained its importance for hundreds of years.

Our hotel was no stranger to the luxury bestowed upon the resorts in the area, offering up hundreds of elegant rooms surrounded by plentiful amenities and direct access to the Red Sea. We quickly settled in before heading to the one thing on everyone’s mind: the pool.

Finally cooled off, we felt more human and found hunger returning from the days adventures. We got ourselves cleaned up and sat down to enjoy dinner before returning to our rooms for our first nights sleep in a new bed in a while.

Day 6

Our last full day in Amman.

Having hit up a fair number of the “mainstream” mdurum’s and attractions, we decided to work down the list of other interesting sights while here. Todays was going to be the royal automobile museum, which took a 10 minute ride to get to a bit north and west of the apartment.

Housing a large collection of the late kings personal and work vehicles, they have all been restored or kept in amazing physical condition here. There are a few other notable vehicles mixed in, like those from locally filmed movies.

Many of the cars still operate perfectly and are retrieved for parades and other ceremonial functions, like the recent wedding of the prince. We wandered around the curving path of the museum for well over an hour, constantly surprised by both the quantity and quality of the collection.

Once that wrapped up, we explored the surrounding parks briefly since there was a bit of a heat wave happening, bringing temperatures well into the upper 90s. It was clear everyone was taking note of the heat, as the park was sparse with people, and we directed our walking to our next spot: the mall.

Once you think about it, it is not too much of a surprise, but malls being popular amongst Jordanians was not on our radar. But the large shopping centers, fully air conditioned, make sense as a great activity on such hot and sunny days. As soon as we got inside, the hustle and bustle missing from the neighboring park was quickly found.

We grabbed a cheesy lunch from the food court before exploring the shops. There was a mix of local brands, more European ones, and truly American exports, across four floors of ice cold bliss. After buying a few necessities for our upcoming travels, we wrapped our errands up and went back to the apartment.

Next we went to soccer practice! Well, kids went to soccer practice, we just watched. The careful coaching by the staff was admirable for a bunch of children running around, and we had great nostalgia about our largely unsuccessful childhood soccer careers.

That evening K took us to the embassy for dinner and a brief tour of the grounds. It’s a beautiful, if not massive and slightly imposing building, that reflects the long connection Jordan has had with the US. The extra high temperatures and activities had us all very tired, and it was time to call it an early night.

Day 5

More time in Amman!

roman amphitheater

M+K both had work things to do (how dare they!) so we set off on our own to check out some of central Amman. We started the day by catching a ride down to the amphitheater, part of the roman city of Philadelphia that existed in the same location around 2000 years ago.

neighborhood around the amphitheater

Built into the hillside using the same local limestone of all the modern day buildings now surrounding it, the steep stone structure would have allowed 6000 people to attend events there. The center sections have had minimal repairs and stand as they did since the 2nd century, only worn with use and time since.

View from inside amphitheater

The two outer wings were rebuilt using the same materials and techniques in the late 50s, when two museum buildings were attached as well. These buildings, part of the folklore and popular history museums, housed modest collections of clothing and lifestyle items of various regions and eras of near history in Jordan.

Folklore museum

Afterwards, we walked around downtown, wandering into the multi-block souk (market) carrying a wide variety of products ranging from nuts and spices to candies to essential oils to toys and more. Crammed into the alleyways between two busy thoroughfares, it reminded us of markets in Turkey, but with less hustle and pressure to buy. We did end up with a handful of purchases after some careful bridging of language gaps.

Souk

By mid afternoon we once again needed to find more shade, some water, and a snack. Abby located a delightful cafe called Zajal that was on a second story overlooking one of the busy streets below. Once again we had a delightful spread of arabic food: stewed Aleppo pepper sausage, creamed wheat and chicken and of course hummus, spiced in what was called Beirut style.

St Regis

We caught a ride back home and regrouped with the gang before prepping to head back out for a just adults ‘date night.’ Our first stop was a rooftop bar at a prestigious hotel, The St. Regis, that gave sweeping views of Amman in every direction. After a round of fancy cocktails and conversation, we walked 10 minutes south to enjoy dinner at Solaya, a well reviewed higher end restaurant of the area.

view from zenith

The menu consisted of far more Western style fare and was delightfully prepared. We ordered a selection of relatively local/regional wines, and enjoyed conversation well into the evening.

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