‘Welcome to Jordan’ – A Christmas visit to Amman

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Not long after dad died, my thoughts went to Christmas and how I didn’t want to spend another Christmas at home, just me and mum, especially when our last 3 Christmases had been spent in Nursing Homes. I also didn’t particularly want to spend Christmas in country that went Christmas mad either, so I focused my thoughts on a none-Christian destination. It wasn’t hard to settle on going to Jordan, as I had wanted to visit for many years, so we booked a flight, a hotel and then figured out the rest later.

Arrivals. If you are travelling from the UK, then unless you are planning an epic overland trip, you’ll be flying in. The main airport is the Queen Alia International Airport (QAIA) and the only direct flights from the UK are via Heathrow with either Royal Jordanian or British Airways. If you want to fly from any other UK airport you can change via London or somewhere else in Europe, we flew with Royal Jordanian from Manchester via Copenhagen, but a quick Skyscanner search should give you lots of alternative options. Ryanair is also starting to fly to Amman as well as Aqaba, although they wont be connected to the UK, but you could potentially pick it up in a number of European cities, that’s if you’re on a tight budget and like adventure!

The country itself borders a number of interesting and potentially volatile neighbours, so some borders are closed or limit the number of travellers coming in. You could face difficulties if you wanted to cross over from the Syrian, Iraqi or Saudi borders, do your research first, but it can be done quite easily through the Palestine/Israel border. Popular routes can be through Eilat at the Southern end of the Dead Sea, or at King Hussein Bridge (Allenby) crossing at the Northern end of the Dead Sea. If you cross overland through Israel/Jordan border though, you will have a stamp in your passport that could stop you visiting other countries in the region, as some countries don’t look favourable on an Israeli passport stamp.

Unless you have a Jordanian passport, you’ll likely need a visa in order to enter the country. You can apply via the Jordanian Embassy in London or if you purchase a Jordan Pass it includes your visa as well as entry to a number of museums and sites in Amman as well as Petra, and the Wadi Rum. So if you are staying a week or so and plan to see as much as possible, it will be well worth it. It was my Christmas present from mum and on arrival, you just show your Jordan Pass barcode,  they stamp your passport and that’s it you’re in. Welcome to Jordan!

The main airport is about a 40 minute drive from the city centre, there are public buses available to get you into the centre of the capital as well as many taxi’s, they should charge around 22-25 JOD. Our hotel arranged for a taxi to pick us up, but another time, we just got a taxi outside arrivals and they charged the same price, the taxi’s should be yellow or white vehicles and then you know they are legit. The other option is car hire and all the usual car hire companies are based at the airport.

History Bit. Jordan’s location in the Middle East, located on the Arabian peninsula in the South West corner of Asia, means it’s played a very important part in the history of the holy lands, its history is extensive, complex and completely fascinating, with evidence of settlements dating as far back as 8500–4500 BC. The capital was originally called Rabbath Ammon by the Ammonites who settled here in the 13th Century BC, slowly changing its name to Amman over the years and still to this day remains the most populous city in the country.  In the early 7th Century, Jordan integrated into the new Arab Islamic Empire, which incorporated what is now Saudi Arabia, Syria, Israel, Palestine, North Africa and areas of Southern Spain. Many rulers and empires have come and gone over the centuries but when the Ottoman Empire gained control in the 1500’s they lasted for 4 centuries until 1918 at the end of WW1. The occupying nations at that time, which included Britain redrew the borders of the Middle East and by 1928 King Abdullah was given full autonomy of the area that was then known as Transjordan and in 1949 it was given its full title that remains to this day  Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.

Sights. I will stick to Amman for this post and write up my adventures in other parts of the country separately.  But more than likely, if you are making the trek to Jordan, you will want to see more than just the capital, in fact you must, but don’t rule out Amman either, there is enough to fill a couple of days here.

All ticket prices for the main sights in the country, can be found on the Official Jordan Website, so you may want to check whether it would be worth getting a Jordan Pass instead, but you need to book this before you land in the country.

Roman Theatre – built around 2nd century AD this theatre is pretty impressive, built into the side of a hill, it’s 3 tiers high with enough seating for 6000 people.  If you have the strength and long enough legs, climb the very steep steps to get to the top for great views, and then slowly work your way back down and explore the Folklore museum on the floor. The theatre is still used today for functions, so check local listings when you are there, I can imagine it would be pretty cool to see a live event here. Both the theatre and museums are included in the Jordan Pass, and don’t miss the I LOVE AMMAN sign out the front by the main road too, the perfect photo opportunity!

 

Roman Citadel – If you stand with your back to the Roman Theatre and look up and slightly to your left, you’ll see the highest hill in Amman – Jebel Al Qala’a. Up here is a large area to explore full of ancient remains, some dating back to the Bronze Age as well as Roman and Byzantine periods. There is a lot to see up here, including the Temple of Hercules with its impressive large pillars and podium which you can see back down in the heart of the city.  The Ummayad Palace spreads out quite far round the back of the Archeological Museum and is full of places to explore. You get great views across the city as well, we spent quite some time up here, a really fascinating place. Both are included in the Jordan Pass.

 

Taxis are everywhere up on the hill and there is a car park available too if you are brave enough to drive in the capital. Myself and my 71 year old mother though, walked (with a rest stop in-between) from the theatre and citadel and then back into downtown quite comfortably.

Rainbow Street – This large street is a destination both during the day and night, and is choked full of bars, cafe’s, restaurants and shops. There are some lovely places to stop and eat, the snack shop Falafel Al-Quds, is really popular, you’ll probably be able to spot it due to the queue forming at the window, whilst we were there we were told the King had popped in the previous day for his lunch, its reputation is that good. There are some other good places to eat and drink here too, which I’ll pop in the eat and drink section below.

The Jordan Museum Jordan is hilly, but walkable if you have decent shoes, we walked slowly after lunch from Rainbow Street, down the busy King Talal Street, past a miriad of shops selling all kinds of produce, from shoes, pipes, and live birds to the main museum of the capital. Open 6 days a week, (closed on Tuesdays) from 9 am to 4 pm and Fridays from 2 pm to 5.30, it’s the go to place if you want a comprehensive overall view of the history of the country. Highlights include one of the oldest human statues in the world, the Dead Sea Scrolls and a really great exhibit on energy and water consumption and how the country manages both, with water in short supply. There is a lot to see here, in fact we didn’t have time to take it all in, and would have stayed longer if we could. There is also a free bag and coat store, clean toilets and has a £5.00 entry fee

 

King Abdullah I Mosque The reason we didn’t stay as long as we’d like at the Jordan Museum, was we wanted to go see the only mosque in the city that permits none muslims to enter and is only open certain hours of the day. When I was there back in December 2018, the hours were 8-11am & 12.30-2pm Sat-Thu and it was about £2 to enter. This includes the museum as well as the main buildings and use of the black robes knows as an abayas, there is also a charity bazaar ram jammed full of all kinds of crafts as well as free tea on offer (of course!). We were lucky in that our taxi driver who we hailed outside of the Jordan Museum was also a tour guide, although his business used to include trips to Syria and Lebanon, which he can no longer offer, so he delights in taking tourists round his home town instead. For an extra £5 he took me and mum on a personal tour of the mosque himself, even introducing us to the head Iman, we struck lucky, he was a great guide. He also explained that the reason it is the only mosque opened to none muslim tourists, is that its the best preserved in the city and the only one worth a look, no other reason. With a capacity for 10,000 worshippers, a minaret that shoots out a laser beam 1 KM into the sky and a beautiful octagonal prayer hall topped by a magnificent blue dome, i’m really glad we made the effort to go.

 

 

Eats  – On our first day after visiting the Citadel we built up an appetite by taking the steep climb up to Wild Jordan, but it was worth it. This centre not only houses a great cafe with exceptional views overlooking the city, but there’s a wonderful shop highlighting hand-made crafts which supports local communities. There is free wifi and and 4 hubs, should you need somewhere to chill or upload photos. You can book eco-tours here including guided hikes and handicraft workshops, book a stay in one of the lodges or just learn about the rural communities in Jordan that are being supported by the work here. Oh did I mention the food, it’s really delicious, using fresh local ingredients, with vegetarian and vegan options, along with smoothies, teas and strong but tasty coffee.

All guide books recommend the oldest restaurant in town, and its a must for an authentic Jordanian experience.  Called Hashem don’t bother dressing up, you sit down on plastic chairs, a waiter covers your table with plastic and before you can say falafel, your table is loaded up with flat breads, dips, salad, unlimited tea and of course falafel. Once you’ve finished, you pay, the sheeting is scooped up and more than likely the table is ready to go all over again. We had a great dinner here, paying around £4, it was full of locals and tourists alike, as well as photos showing visits by King Abdullah II and family.

Probably our favourite restaurant we visited was Al Quds (Jerusalem) we went twice, its super friendly, with a high fiving head waiter who took great care of mum and me. There is a huge menu full of traditional Jordanian food, with a few veggie/vegan options and the most delicious assortments of desserts, my favourite being Kunafeh a sticky pastry stuffed with cheese and sprinkled with pistachios.

Alcohol isn’t available at most traditional restaurants, but is available at some hotels, tourist bars, and in supermarkets.  I was happy to sip mint tea with dinner, but I did fancy trying a local beer, so we went to Books@Cafe just off Rainbow Street to sample a pint of Carakale, Jordans first ever craft beer.

Coffee and Cake  –  Thick Turkish coffee is available everywhere, just one small cup will fire you up for a good few hours of sightseeing. I particularly liked the coffee served at Wild Jordan, but i’m also a fan of green tea, so had to visit Turtle Green Tea Bar located on Rainbow Street, here they have an extensive tea and coffee menu as well as cakes and good wifi. As for traditional pastries, we tended to visit local bakeries, asking the staff for good suggestions and then loaded up, we would snack as we explored the city. If a smoothie is more your thing, Amman had quite a few juice bars dotted around the downtown area too, but often we would just be handed some free mint or ginger tea from a local stall seller as we purused the markets.

Other sights – An art space and gallery Darat al funun holds exhibits, talks, as well as films and it would be a good place to really immerse yourself in modern day Jordanian culture. Known as the Caves of the Prince – Iraq al-Amir is located on the outskirts of the city, here you can explore historic caves and ruins from the 3rd Century BC dotted into the hillside among the olive groves. If I return though,  I would also love to visit Grandma’s House Beitsitti, this is a cooking school/restaurant, where you join a cooking class run entirely by women, learning how to prepare a traditional 4 course Arabic meal and then you all sit down to eat it, sounds amazing.

Always Be Polite – Thank You -‘shukraan‘ Hello ‘marhabaan‘ Goodbye ‘wadaeaan

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tokyo Tales

I visited Japan back in 1999, eek! I had just graduated from University and had a friend who had moved out to Tokyo to teach English. Prior to going to University I was a temp, so I got a summer job doing admin work to save up (my parents graduation present to me was the flight!) and then I took off for a month to the Land of the Rising Sun.

You still cannot fly direct to Tokyo from any UK airport other than London Heathrow, with Air Nippon, Japan Airlines and British Airways being the only airlines flying direct. If you plan to fly from any other UK airport and want a cheaper option too, then you’re best choosing a European or Middle Eastern airline and changing somewhere like Amsterdam or Abu Dhabi ( I once had a very nice breakfast in Abu Dhabi airport and its maybe the most modern futuristic airport I’ve ever been too).

The main airport is called Narita International and I remember feeling extremely jetlagged and pretty ovewhelmed immediately with the noise, the lights, the mad colours, the people and the language, it was my first time in Asia, and I was completely confused and spellbound all in one go. Luckily my friend had travelled in from the capital to meet me and was on hand to give me a crash course in Japan 101 before I was let loose on my own. As I am always travelling on a budget, I tend to use public transport to get myself to my accommodation, unless I am arriving somewhere late at night alone. When arriving in Narita Airport it is pretty easy to get yourself into Tokyo and onto other surrounding regions by public transport. There is the electric railway or Skyliner which takes about an hour with one change,  the high speed Narita Express which goes direct to the city centre or you can take the cheapest option, the Bus which takes about an hour and drops you off at Tokyo Station. What I will say   is, figure out where you are going and have detailed instructions about how to get to your hotel/hostel/house before you arrive at any of the main train stations in Tokyo.  They are big and busy with multiple exits and just navigating yourself out of some of the stations through the correct exit is a feat in itself, never mind if you have just stepped off a long flight and dont speak any Japanese.

Streets signs are so cute, I didn’t mind getting lost or confused

 

As it was so long ago when I was in Japan, there is no point writing this post up as a factual day by day account of everywhere I visited, ate and drank, but I do remember the main sites I explored, I kept a travel diary and I have photos to help me recollect, the main historic sights are still there to this day though of course, so hopefully that may be of some use to someone.

What I do remember though was being rudely awoken on my first morning by an minor earthquake, it’s was about 4am, and I couldn’t get back to sleep, probably because my bodyclock was still back in the UK. So at about 5am, I grabbed my friends spare key, left her a note (she was working that day anyway) and headed with my guidebook and detailed metro instructions to get to Tsukiji Fish Market. Back then anyone could turn up as soon as the doors opened, not just the fishermen and wholesalers, but the general public too and we were allowed to walk all around the smelly and sometimes still alive stalls of fish, at what is said to be one of the largest fish markets in the world. In fact my Rough Guide to Japan that I still own suggests getting there just after 5am to see the best of the actions and the auctions. But it seems this central wholesale market was never built to become the huge tourist attraction that it is now, and as a result gets so busy, that it seems tourists are no longer allowed into the market until 10am, leaving the professionals a few hours to do business before the public descend.  There are also lots of places to eat around the market, food stalls as well as restaurants, but I was still tired & limited in my language skills, feeling slightly nervous of ordering something unknown, so after being totally flummoxed at the menus, I gave it a miss.

Japanese phrases written in my Rough Guide

 

Not surprisingly, the fish market is located close to the shoreline, so in order to explore some other main Tokyo Districts and tourist spots, you need to get back on the metro. There are tonnes of cool areas to explore in Tokyo, I would pick maybe 2 wards (as they are known) a day to explore, as they all have their own history, style and atmosphere. I do have lots of pictures from Japan but they are all locked away on a hard drive I currently cant access, so hopefully I can add them at a later date.

Shibuya – this ward is truely an unmissable area in Tokyo to explore, you have probably seen so many photos of it maybe without realising, as it features the iconic Shibuya Crossing, possibly the busiest intersection in the world and it is right outside Shibuya Metro Station. I crossed it maybe 2 or 3 times, but remember another time when I arrived during peak commute hours, it was so busy and overwhelming, it took me a couple of goes to pluck up the courage to cross. They say there may be up to 1000 people crossing at once during peak hours, along with the noise, the people and the vast neon electric billboards towering up above, it is most definately an unforgettable and unique Tokyo experience, a must see!

Close by and in the Shibuya region is the Meiji Shrine a stunning complex of shrine buildings that must also be on your list. A short walk from Harajuku station you know you will have arrived when you see the Torii Gate. There is lots to do here, visit the museum, witness a wedding maybe, make an offering, buy a good luck charm or write your wish on an Ema, which is what I did.


Other things I remember doing in the Shibuya region whilst I was there, included the Yoyogi Park (opposite Meiji Shrine). If you go on a Sunday through the East entrance, you will see many of the young locals dressed up in Punk, Rockabilly and Manga costumes, an absolute must see.   The park is one of the largest in Tokyo and you can rent bikes and grab some food here too, its a nice retreat from the busy city centre. The Yebusi Beer Museum is also in this area, which I remember visiting as well as so many truely unique Japanese shops, not surprisingly there is a huge Hello Kitty store here.

Another area I spent a lot of time in was Asakusa.  Here you can visit Senso-Ji Temple, Tokyo’s oldest and one of its most important Buddhist Temples. Again, its easy to find the entrance of any temple in Tokyo by the large gates, in this case look out for Kaminariman or Thunder Gate to welcome you inside. Once through the gate is Nakamise -Dori Street, which is full of stalls selling food, clogs, traditional gifts and so much more, so plan enough time for a good wander.

Outside Kaminarimon Gate (I’m blond!)

 

Asakusa is also the oldest Geisha district, so keep a look out for the immaculately dressed women carefully walking the streets in their wooden sandals (Geta), ornate wigs and beautiful Kimono’s. Also look out for the Golden Turd, it is close to Asakusa station and is home to the Asahi Beer Hall, no more description needed!

The final area I will recommend is Chiyoda where you can find the Imperial Palace and impressive Palace gardens. Although you cannot freely walk around the palace grounds, you can apply online or at an information office on site to book a free guided tour, the tour is in Japanese but foreign audio guides are available. You can however visit the palace gardens of which there are multiple entrances, the easiest one being by Otemachi Station. In the immediate area there are many other shrines and a cathedral, and the area is said to be heavy with Cherry Blossoms too come the spring. If you still haven’t shopped till you dropped already, then Akihabara known as Electric City, is where you can geek out over the latest tech gadgets and even if you aren’t in the market for a new camera or phone, still head over for amazing people watching and window shopping.

Still got time, then visit Ueno Park and the National Museum, Ginza for more shopping, see some Kabuki at a theatre and if you have a head for heights see the amazing city views atop the Skytree.

Busy Ginza
Easy day trips from Tokyo include – Disneyland which is accessible by public transport and Daibutsu which is the beautiful giant Buddha in Kamakura – one hour on the train direct from Tokyo Station.

Daibutsu

 

Some handy helpful Japanese phrases –

Hello – Kon’nichiwa

Thank You – Arigato (gozaimasu -add to make it polite)

Ano – Excuse Me (casual)

Goodbye – Sayonara
I’ll write up my other Japanese adventure at a later date, think this post is long enough!