Escaping to the sun

After Moscow in February, something completely different – the Canary Islands in March! I needed to escape the cold weather and all the relentlessly miserable news about Coronavirus.

The first island on my trip was La Palma, also called La Isla Bonita (the beautiful island) in Spanish. I was rather dreading the early morning EasyJet flight from Gatwick, which made me get up at 05.30, but in the event, Gatwick was pleasantly well organised, and the flight was pretty comfortable. From a miserable 8C in London the plane touched down to a nice pleasant 20C and bright sunlight in Santa Cruz de la Palma.   From the airport I hired a car and drove through the countryside, admiring the strange plants and bright flowers – the Canary Islands are a botanist’s dream, with many unusual species including palm trees, cactuses, wild aloe verde, the dragon tree, and other really strange things that I thought looked like a woolly mammoth’s trunk.

This is definitively not London……

I was soon ringing on the door of the holiday house I’d booked, an old merchant’s town house in the centre of the city. 

Traditional town house at Santa Cruz de la Palma

At the entrance was an old cast iron gate, then steep stairs leading up to a landing and a dining room with balcony over the street, kitchen, bathroom, a sitting area underneath a glass sunroof, and….. the house’s very own private chapel with a statue of the Virgin Mary and various images of Christ.  

Hi! this is my new home for the next couple of days

Another steep staircase up led to another bedroom, bathroom and a living room with large windows on all sides and views over the city.  Yet more stairs led to a roof terrace with a table and a couple of sun loungers, with a pretty view of a nearby church, and the mountains in the distance.

the landing

The house was decorated with portraits and old photographs of the family that had owned the place and even the christening dress of one of them. The furnishings were antique – old wooden beds, old chairs and tables, a gramophone player and an ancient radio.   There was a smell of old wood, and a sound of creaking floorboards whenever I moved.  It felt like the house described in Isabel Allende’s book, the House of the Spirits. 

the dining room
the private chapel
view from the roof top

Having explored my home for the next four nights, I set off to visit the town.  Santa Cruz is a small but pleasant place. Old town houses like mine with balconies line the streets, reminding me a bit of the Middle East, but there was also a sprinkling of ugly modern holiday flat buildings. I walked East to the edge of the town. where on top of a rock bursting with brightly colours flowers, there was an old fort with nice views of the sea.

view from the old fort

Next, I headed back into town, and found a very pretty square, lined with trees bearing bright red flowers, and with a church, a museum and a music school around its sides. In the middle was a large stone urn with a huge fern tree. Water dripped down the sides of the urn, offering a nice cool drink to some doves in the heat of the afternoon.

Pretty square, music school, church of Saint Francis

 It was siesta time. Hardly anyone was out on the street, and had the square to myself to sit and enjoy the atmosphere.  After a short rest, I continued my walk and found another pretty square in the centre of town.  This square also had its own pretty stone church and was also the location of the old town hall. 

the town hall
Church of San Salvador

In the street were the tables of bars and cafes; siesta was over, the streets were becoming livelier, and people were sitting down to beer and tapas. I continued my stroll until I reached the end of the old town, where the pretty town houses gave way to modern holiday flats.  Then I retraced my steps and offered myself an aperitif sitting outside at a café in yet another pretty square. After 6 months of the London winter, it was so nice to sit outside and feel the sun on my fur.  I was pleasantly surprised how cheap the beer and tapas were – mass tourism has yet to spoil La Palma.

When I finally I arrived home, it was dinner time. I popped into the Spar next door to buy some ham, cheese, wine and fruit that I enjoyed on my roof terrace.  A nice end to a busy first day on La Palma……..

Living in Style in Moscow

For my last week in Moscow I treated myself to a stay in a flat in a famous building – the “Stalin skyscraper” on Kotelnicheskaya Embankment.  This is one of the “seven sisters” – buildings commissioned by Stalin in the early 1950s in an imposing Soviet style that now dominate the central Moscow skyline.  Today, two are ministries, one is the Moscow State University, two are hotels, and two are blocks of apartments. 

Stalin’s skyscraper on Kotelnicheskaya Embankment – my new home for 10 days

To get to my flat I had to walk through a pretty central entrance, guarded by an old babushka concierge, and then take a small lift up to the 5th floor.  I was really happy with my flat – the furniture was antique Russian style from the 50s, but very comfortable, and there was a spectacular view of the Kremlin.

The view from my flat

I also managed to sneak up to the 24th floor, where the view from the emergency escape staircase was even better

Better not to have vertigo….
What a view!

From this amazing base I organised my last week in Moscow. First I hosted a party for all my Russian friends.  I invited a lot of people, and luckily my (human) artist friends Oleg and Masha offered me use of their studio for the evening, which was bigger than my flat and a really cool venue. 

My friend Oleg in his Art Studio

I caught up with everyone’s news over food and drinks, before one of our musician friends gave us a short concert on a spinet (an old instrument like a clavichord) that had somehow found its way into the studio. 

Alexei in front of his spinet before the concert

Then we all ventured up a steep, rickety staircase (the teddy bear equivalent of the north face of the Eiger) up into a long-neglected tower, to a spectacular outdoor viewing platform with a 360 degree view of Moscow.  The view was amazing, but I had to hold on tight because of the wind and was glad that my fur protected me from the cold.  The studio is on the “Garden Ring”, an eight-lane road forming a circle around the centre of Moscow, and in Stalin’s time KGB officers were stationed in the tower to report on the movements of suspected spies and other enemies of the people.

The view from the tower

Next of course I had to revisit two famous cultural venues – the Bolshoi theatre, to watch the opera “Sadko”,

Night out at the Bolshoi

Applaud for the Sadko’s performers

and the new concert hall in the Zaryadye Park, right next to the Kremlin.  The park is a short walk from home and on the way there were nice night-time views of the building I am living in….

My home at night

In the 1960s the area was a Soviet era hotel that was demolished to make way for a new conference centre, but the developer ran out of money and later had to flee the country after falling out with the new Putin government. For years the site lay vacant, until the current mayor hatched a plan for a new park and concert venue.  Work lasted four years and was only finished in 2018. The result is really impressive – an artificial hill has been built, with a view of St Basil’s cathedral and the Kremlin, the old churches along Warvarka street have been restored and are beautifully lit up at night, and the new concert hall has great acoustics. I went to hear the famous (well in Russia anyway) pianist Matsuev play a programme of music by Tchaikovsky.  After the concert I strolled around the park and took lots of pictures of the park at night, and in particular the imaginative lighting installations.

Warvaka street today with its churches
View from Zaryadye park

I also visited the Illusion cinema, housed in the very same building where I am staying. It’s a lovely old place, decorated in 1950s Soviet Style, and tickets for a film cost only 300 rubles (4-5 euros).

Me in front of the cinema
Inside the cinema

I could also use my new flat for business meetings. Russians are very serious in business and never smile when being photographed, even if you have concluded a deal with them.

Meet my partner

I also had time to revisit some of my favourite drinks and dinner venues.  Except for wine, restaurants are much cheaper in Moscow than in Paris or London. In the last few years the quality has improved enormously and it was very hard not to eat and drink too much.

First, I enjoyed the Bosco café on Red Square

Prosecco time at Bosco Cafe

And then I headed to Twins Wine Space, a very small restaurant specialising in interesting wines, with a short but excellent menu.

Twins Win Space : one of my favourite restaurant in Moscow

Finally, my new home was a good base to walk and explore the south of Moscow. I was lucky with the weather – my last two days were very sunny and warm (well, warm for Moscow in February – around +5C).  Everyone was saying that spring had already come, and the streets were crowded with people enjoying the sun.   I lost count of the number pretty churches with golden domes I photographed – here are just a few.

lovely churches

This one is one of my favourites – the Church of the Resurrection in Kadashi. On my first visit to Moscow in 2009 it was totally derelict, but now it has been restored to its former glory.  

 My walk also took me over the old bridge leading to the Kremlin and Red Square.

An another view of the Kremlin
and in front of Saint Basil’s cathedral

I finally got home in the late afternoon.  My pedimeter said I had done 20,000 human steps – that’s 200,000 teddy steps!  I slumped down in a big armchair and admired the sunset. A brilliant end to a fantastic month back in Russia!

It is good night from me!

Living on Alexander Solzhenitsyn street

After a week in Moscow, I moved to a different part of Moscow, called Taganskaya, and to my great surprise I settled in a cosy flat, located on the 6th floor of a brick building (this time with a lift!) and above all with a fantastic view over the church of Saint Martin the Confessor.

Church of Saint Martin the Confessor

This is a perfect place for a Teddy Bear like me! Once my suitcases were in the bedroom and after sharing a tea with the nice young owner of the place, I had to rush for my Russian class.

My new home for a week
with a large comfortable bed just for me

But on my way, I could not resist taking a few pictures of the surroundings. Along Alexandre Solzhenitsyn street stand old lovely colourful aristocratic-like houses. This street has all the charm of old Moscow. I just love it!

Alexander Solzhenitsyn street

I will be staying on Solzhenitsyn street for a week, giving the opportunity to explore an area I hardly know. The street was only renamed after the Nobel Prize Winner ten years ago. It used to be called ‘the great communist street’ and it is only more recently that the President of the Russian Federation, Vladimir Vladimirovich, inaugurated the statue of the great dissident on the same street. You will not find Solzhenitsyn’s flat here but the interesting Museum of the Russians Abroad named after him.

Statue of Alexander Solzhenitsyn

But first I had to reach Taganskaya metro station if I do not want to be late. It is one of those pretty stations on the brown circle line and serves as a hub for the connection with two other lines. So it is pretty handy and I am only at 3 stops from my language school. Just to show you the beauty of the Russian metro, I took pictures of two more stations.

The metro station, the church of Saint Nicholas on Bolvanovka
and one of the 7 Stalin’s sisters
Inside Taganskaya station – the dome
inside the station
Kosomolskaya station
Details
Station Prospect Mira

On my way back from school, I decided to execute my plan and explore my new environment: first I would start with the church of Saint Martin the Confessor, the one just opposite to my room. Then I continued up Stanislavsky street. For those who do not know, Stanislavsky was an actor, a professor and theatre director who created a method of acting which was very popular in the world of theatre and cinema not only in Russia but also abroad. I would learn later that he was also an old believer. And of course, this part of Moscow is not short of theaters and artistic scenes. I passed Fabrika, a sort of artist studio, exhibition rooms installed in a former industrial building, to reach the churches of Saint Alexei and Saint Sergius Radonezh and the Monastery Saint Andronikov, well-known for hosting the museum of icons painted by Rublev.

Church of Saint Alexei
This XVIIIe century building with a tower that looks like a light house was a police station. The tower used to serve as a fire tower. This is now a business center.
Me in Nicoliamskaya street

My investigation of this district of Moscow took me the Pokrovski Monastery dedicated to Matrona. As you know, I went several times to this Monastery and I already mentioned it in a previous post. But I did discover more churches….the Russians are not short of holy places and they are never empty!

Pokrovski Monastery

The Taganskaya area is also known for Stalin’s bunker which was used during the cold war as a command centre . The bunker is located 60 meters below street level….a bit too much for my little legs. When you visit the bunker, it is possible to hear the vibration of the nearby metro.

Me in front of the entrance to Stalin’s bunker

While I was living there, I went to the museum of Russian Icons, the largest private collection of icons, more than 4000 pieces are referenced there. The founder of this museum, Michael Abramov, was a collector and an Art Patron, who died last year at the age of 55. It was pretty impressive to see the door giving access to the collection. I thought that I was entering the safe of the State’s treasurer. But then it is an amazing collection which is on display and is highly recommended for those who love icons.

Entrance to the exhibition….seriously protected!
some of the icons

I also went to the Museum of Russians Abroad, telling the story of those Russians who emigrated during the troubled times of the revolution to other countries, most of the time holding one suitcase as their only belongings, believing that they would come back one day. The museum is named after Solzhenitsyn who contributed financially to its realisation but not much is shown about him. I really like this small museum and the way things were displayed, with interesting testimonies.

Me in front of the museum dedicated to the Russians abroad
I found a friend….
Solsjenitsyn and his Nobel Prize

There were also a small exhibition about Admiral Alexander Kolchak with a display of documents bought at the recent auction organised in Paris. Admiral Alexander Kolchak was also known for leading several expeditions in the great north and for leading the white army against the Bolsheviks but was executed by them in 1920. His life was the subject of a recent film which was very popular in Russia. So it looks like the Admiral is not any more ‘an enemy of the people’.

Portrait of Admiral Kolchak with an extrait of a letter to his wife

What a busy Teddy Bear I am! My little head is full of images of new discoveries. Too much to listen and read in one go, I will definitively come back to the Museum of Russians Abroad!

Moving to Petrovka street

Wednesday was a busy day for me as I was moving to a room rented in a private flat on Petrovka street. This is a very central street running from the 700 year old Petrovki monastery to the Bolshoi Theater. The street is lined on both sides with luxurious shops, restaurants (for all budgets) and coffee rooms. To add some cultural life to this place, the MOMA opened last December a museum to promote Russian contemporary/modern artists. My room was big but not so great, but I was not planning to lock myself inside!

First thing was meeting my friend Ludmilla at Turandot restaurant. She had a really great special offer, and for the unbelievable price of 1850 rubles we had a starter, a main course and a desert with a cocktail in a fantastic venue. Every thing being well presented and served by a charming girl.

Ceiling at Turandot restaurant
Yummy-Yummy dessert!
Where is the pianist?

We thought that we had made a wise choice by seating on the balcony, when a large group of Chinese tourists took possession of the ground floor…..

In the evening, I met friends for dinner in the restaurant Cutfish, only 4 minutes away from where I was now living. Interesting concept, nice taste but I thought that this would not be enough to keep me full. We finished at the Mendeleev bar, a cool underground bar hidden at the back of a noodles shop, but a secret venue which is not any more so secret and very much a standard of Russia’s nightlife scene.

Perfect for those who are always on diet…

During my stay, I visited the Petrovski Monastery, which founded in the 14th century although the buildings and churches standing now date from the 18th century and were built by an Italian architect. It is interesting to see the different periods of construction but the best of all is to listen to the bells in the late afternoon on Sunday.

Petrovski Monastery
The walls of the monastery at night

Opposite the monastery, the other side of the road is occupied by the MOMA museum. I had fun exploring the exhibition even I am not sure I understand what the artist was trying to say. Outside in the garden stand some of Tsereteli’s monumental sculptures…. He is a very popular artist in Russia but not anywhere else!

One of Tsereteli’s gigantic sculptures…and she is not alone!
Is the artist expecting money?
…more my style

During the next few days, I tried a few places for coffee and snacks. For example the Bordera for its eclairs (not too sure) and pain aux raisons (more tasty).

I found a rather large friend at Bordera. Obviously he seems to be well treated here…

“Mandarin Goose”, a sort of selfservice in a traditional decor and really not bad at all,

Me, my bortsch and my salad at Mandarinovi Goose

Lepim and Varim with their pelmenis – a traditional Russian dish. The ones with beef were really good. Of course the best place for dinner was at my friend’s home, Olga, who lives in a street parallel to Petrovski, Dmitrovska.

I really loved those pelmenis!

Of course, I could not do without music and I also went to a concert at MosConcert with my friend Nadia, listening to violin and piano performance with Paganini and Sibelius on the programme.

But that was not all, my friend Rika and I went to see Vasily Polenov’s exhibition at the New Tretyakov Galleria. Vasily Polenov was not only a painter but also an architect and designer for theater performance. One of his most famous paintings is the Moscow Courtyard representing Arbat in 1878 (difficult to realise the transformation of this part of Moscow in a 150 years). He did not only paint pretty countryside scenes but also scenes of the Christ’s life which were displayed in number.

Vasily Polenov’s most famous painting
I like his painting of the dead sea
Winter in Russia, of course

After our cultural activity, Rika invited me to a delicious Japanese restaurant. We really enjoyed our time together.

Me at the Japanese restaurant

Back to Moscow!

For my first days in Moscow, I booked a room ‘chez Michel’, a nice small hotel located on the fifth floor of a building near Barricadnaya metro startion with a restaurant also called ‘chez Michel’. Contrary to expectations, none of the staff spoke French (or even English) so I was very puzzled why they chose that name for their hotel and restaurant, unless they wanted them to look French (they did decorate with some French artefacts). I was the only non- Russian Teddy Bear there and I was probably given the smallest room possible. I like cosy places, so that was fine, even with my suitcases. Anyway, I was only there for one night just to get my registration (a document foreigners need if they stay more than a week in Russia, and only easily available from hotels).

Chez Michel on Krasnaya Presnaya street
My cosy little room

My plan was to start my Russian class and take the advantage of spending two days in this part of Moscow to explore it. On the Tuesday, I was woken up but the sound of people I mean clearing snow from the pavement, and I knew before opening the blind that it has been snowing over night. I was very excited and looking forward to dipping my paws into the snow.

By the time I arrived at the station, the street was already cleaned of snow

To get to my school, I had to take the famous Moscow metro. It is a piece of history and art. My nearest station was Krasnayapresnenskaya and only two stops from my school. On my way, I admired the elegance of the stations Bielarusskaya and Novoslaboskaya.

Decoration at Krasnayapresnenskaya station
One of the glass panels at Novoslobodskaya station
Bielorusskaya station

After my class, I decided to explore the area around my hotel. I discovered that there was more than just the zoo where some of my Russian cousins live.

Me in front of the Zoo

I initially thought of having a look at the Russian White House, home of the Russian government and Prime Minister since 2016. My route took me to the back of the building, where remains of the attempted 1993 military coup were scattered  along the street. At that time, the building housed the parliament which have moved since 1994 to the Duma building near the Red Square. To my surprise, sadly I found stones marking the death of young people and red and black ribbons knotted to the branches of trees and other railings.

One of the stones marking the death of young people

There were also poems dating back to the Great Patriotic War (Second World War to westerners) hanging on some railings and panels explaining the events.

One of the poems written in 1944 on the Belorussian front

I carried on my way and went around the White House, leaving on my left the monument dedicated to those who fought in the 1905 revolution.

Monument dedicated to the heroes of the 1905 revolution

In front of the White House, I met two interesting and opposite individuals. On one side stood a lady with a large board denouncing the corruption of prominent people in the Moscow administration and on the left side, a keen supporter of the president. I was invited to attend a meeting which I kindly declined… a Teddy Bear should never get involved in politics. But reflecting on those two individuals, I thought that probably this was an accurate picture of the current situation in the country.

A lady protesting against corruption in Moscow
A supporter of the Russian President
The Russian White House

Finally I headed off to the historical and memorial museum of “Presnya”. 

Me in front of the museum

This little museum is not only about the events who took place in 1905-1907 in this part of Moscow, when workers rebelled against the Tsar and his army which led later to the revolution in 1917 but also about the evolution of home interiors and the way of life in soviet society during the communist period. Not many people visit this little museum and all the staff was whispering behind my back while I was looking at the exhibits. Maybe they have never seen such a soft visitor like me!

One of the exhibits….the kitchen
A vintage room

I finished my visit with the diaroma of the december 1905 revolution. Now I understand why metro stations in this district are called: Barrikadnaya, Street 1905 and Krasnopresnenskaya. I thought that this part of Moscow must have been pretty ‘red and communist’ and maybe this is still the case.

The 1905 diaroma

For my evening, I had a plan to catch up with a friend who works at the French Lycée in Moscow. The lycée is named after the French writer of the Three Musketeers, Alexandre Dumas. The book is so popular in Russia that all Russian families have a copy and reading it is part of the Russian education… alas not any more in France!

Me in front of the French Lycee in Milioutinsky pereulok

My friend and I entertained ourselves in a Uzbek restaurant. A lovely evening where I could delight myself with the Uzbek tomatoes: unbelievable delicious!

One cannot imagine how tasty are those Uzbek tomatoes…

Before going back, I took a few pictures of the festive decorations still in place on Loubyanka. It was rather magical but I was a very tired Teddy Bear, ready for my night.

Festive decorations on Loubyanka
Loubyanka, its Christmas tree and behind the KGB/FSB building

Saint Matrona & The Old Believers

This morning, Moscow woke up to a beautiful blue sky. It was going to be a real winter’s day, sunny and cold. My phone was telling me that it was only -13 degrees but for a Teddy Bear like me, full of wool, this was bearable!

Monastery of Pokrovsky
where relics of Saint Matrona The Wonderworker of Moscow are kept.

In record time, I got ready and headed of to the Community of Old Believers, 45mn by (teddy bear) foot. I was intrigued by a short note in my guide book about this religious center, off the beaten touristic track. On my way, I decided to stop again at the Monastery Pokrovsky dedicated to Saint Matrona.

The Bells of Monastery of Pokrovsky

The crowd of pilgrims was still very long so I just entered one of the churches for a little prayer and to leave a candle. I really like the peacefulness of the Monastery, far away from the bustle of the city.

Pilgrims queuing to pay honor to Saint Matrona

To get to the Community of Old Believers, I just had to continue along the uninspiring  Nijnegorodskaya street, so I thought that this would be easy to do on foot. Things started to become challenging once I reached the “3rd ring” road. I had to go under it, crossed a junction and go under the railway line. I was asking myself if this was really a good idea. But finally when I arrived, I was simply overwhelmed by my discovery.

The community of Old Believers
Community of Old Believers

The territory is enriched by three different churches and other old buildings and in the middle stands the church “dedicated to the bells”.

The church dedicated to the bells

Only one church with its colorful cupolas was open but that was enough to make me happy.

The church of Saint Nicholas
Inside the church Saint Nicholas

Behind it stands the cemetery.  This is a religious place for the old believers. Old believers are orthodox people who did not agree with the reforms imposed by Patriarch Nikon of Moscow in the 17th century, which were mainly aimed at aligning church rituals and the texts with the Greek  Orthodox church. The old believers were persecuted and many of them died for their faith.

view from the back
Church Saint Nicholas view from the back

Leaving this beautiful site behind me, I headed back to Taganskaya metro but this time by bus. I was now on my way to meet Russian friends at the Grand Cafe Mania on Loubyanka and I really appreciated spending a cosy afternoon in their company.

Since we had a little snack in the middle of the afternoon, I thought that I should only plan a light dinner for later on. I really fancied those delicious tomatoes produced in one of those ‘Stans’ (the Central Asian countries south of Russia), so I decided to go to Danielovski market. This is an amazing place for people who love good food. Under one roof, you can find every thing, beautiful displayed and organised.

Danielovski market from fresh fruits
to delicious dried fruits.

In the metro, I even enjoyed listening to a young violinist in the metro. I was a very happy Teddy Bear on my way back home.

Friday and Saturday many young musicians entertain commuters

Amman and GoodBye to Jordan

The next morning I set off to explore Amman by foot.  Amman doesn’t have a great reputation amongst travellers, but for one day I found it an interesting and very welcoming place. First I climbed the steep hill just behind the hotel to the Citadel, a hilltop with a view of all of Amman and yet more Roman ruins. After Umm Qays and Jerash, the few remaining standing columns and Byzantine church were not that impressive, but the view was nice and there was a pleasant early morning breeze. 

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From the Citadel I strolled back down into the valley on the other side of the hill and then up more steps and another steep hill to the modern art institute called Dara Al Funun, which turned out to be an unexpected highlight of Amman.  The steps led past some cool shops and coffee houses and interesting street art, before reaching the entrance to the institute, where there were Byzantine ruins in a peaceful garden.

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After the bustle of the city centre the place was idyllic and I sat down to enjoy the peace for a few minutes.  Then yet more steps led up to some beautiful old buildings – built in 1920s Venetian Mediterranean style according to my guidebook.  The buildings housed Jordanian modern art of various styles. I had a look around and then settled down on a beautiful shady terrace to a cold lemon juice from the café next door.  A little fountain burbled quietly in the centre and hummingbirds buzzed around the bright red flowers.  Suddenly the quiet was broken by the call to late morning prayers from the cities mosques – a magical sound that echoed around the valley.

Fully refreshed, I headed back into town.  Next I visited an old traditional house in the town centre, before sitting down to lunch at Hashem restaurant.  This restaurant is a simple but famous place that specialises in traditional Jordan cooking, and is hugely popular – including with the royal family who occasionally pop in to snack there. I was lucky to get a table in the alley leading the main restaurant and could watch the crowds of Jordanians and tourists making their way in and out. I had falafel (the speciality of the restaurant), a big bowl of hummus, and mint tea, which cost $5 in total.  I don’t normally eat lunch so it was big effort to get up from table and climb yet more steps to explore Rainbow street during the day and do souvenir shopping.  

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I then headed back into town and took in the atmosphere of the souks – my favourite was the fruit and vegetable souk with its brightly coloured displays of fresh produce and interesting smells of spices.

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 I had been walking for five hours, so next it was back to the hotel for a rest, pack my things, and order a taxi for a 5am departure the next morning.  

For my early evening aperitif, I found a nearby hotel with a roof terrace and enjoyed my last Jordanian sunset over the city with a cold Karakale beer. Whilst writing my blog I enjoyed listening to the call to prayers for the last time.  In the bar I met some surprising teddy-sized friends……….

 

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I spent my last night in Jordan in a trendy bar with a beer and a final bowl of hummus. My flight back home was early next morning. I checked the London weather forecast……… 8C and rain. It didn’t seem that I arrived just over 2 weeks ago – the time had flown past.  In fifteen days, I had explored the desert in a 4×4, hiked through Petra, floated in the Dead Sea, visited some amazing Roman ruins, been scuba driving in the Red Sea and walked in the footsteps of Jesus and Moses.  My trip had taken me to the borders of Jordan with Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Palestine, Israel and Syria. But most of all I remembered the smiles and greetings of “Welcome!” from the many Jordanians I met along the way.  I hope their country remains a beacon of stability and tolerance in a troubled part of the world. 

The countdown begins…

Another day, another huge Jordanian breakfast, after which I just had the energy to get up and walk to the car for the long trip back to Amman. I stopped on the way at Jerash, to visit yet more Roman ruins. Jerash is known as the Pompeii of the East and is a huge extended site with ruins that are much better preserved than at Umm Quays. I ended up driving all the way around the perimeter of the site until I finally found the parking area. Even though there had been a minor terrorist incident here a couple of days before (a madman had injured a few people with a knife), security was very relaxed and I strolled in to the usual Jordanian chorus of “Welcome!” without anyone even checking my bag.
The path in led through the impressive Hadrian’s Gate and then on to a colonnaded forum and huge temple of Zeus sitting on a small hill.

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Next up was the first of two amphitheatres, where for some bizarre reason a Jordanian bagpipe band was playing. There were more tourists than at Umm Quays but the large site swallowed them up with ease and when I reached the northern areas I was completely alone and could take some good photographs.

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I found the second theatre and rested in the shade – the site is very exposed to the sun, but luckily it was a slightly cloudy day and not too hot. After that I visited the Temple of Artemis, one of the highlights of Jerash, but after two days I was becoming saturated by old ruins, no matter how impressive.

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I made it back to the car in the full heat of early afternoon and continued my drive. Next stop was the Royal Automobile Museum on the outskirts of Amman. The previous king of Jordan, English-educated King Hussein, was a serious petrolhead and had built up a huge collection of luxury cars, which now form a museum. I don’t think there was a single brand of car that he did not own, but his favourites seemed to be Mercedes and various British luxury brands.

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I was glad that the museum also contained a teddy-bear sized exhibit.

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I’m not a big car enthusiast (cars are not very useful in the jungle where I live) but I still found the museum interesting because it also charted the history of King Hussein’s reign. He first mounted the throne at age 17, after his father was assassinated, and immediately had to handle the Israel/Arab/Palestine conflicts of the 1970s. There were several attempts on his life, including some that occurred whilst he was driving cars exhibited in the museum. King Hussein survived and over the years became one of the most successful rulers in the Middle East, helping his country through the Arab-Israeli conflict, and then huge influxes of Palestine, Iraqi and Syrian refugees as many neighbouring countries descended into chaos. I suppose this justifies the king of a relatively poor country (no oil!) having such extravagant taste in cars.
Now it was time to return my hire car. Driving south out of Amman to the airport, the traffic became denser and more aggressive. I was determined not to scratch my car in the last few km and drove slowly. At the airport the nice people at Avis forgave the thick layer of dust that had built up over the past two weeks, and the heavy duty workout that the wheels had had on the bumpy roads. I took a taxi back into Amman (and for the first time on the Jordanian roads I was scared…) and checked into a modest hotel, but with an unbeatable location next to yet another Roman theatre. I was just in time to catch the end of the sunset from the hotel’s roof terrace.

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At night I headed out on foot for dinner. Amman was busy with lots of small shops and restaurants and a continual flow of traffic; after the quiet of the countryside I liked rediscovering the buzz of a big city. I discovered that Amman is built on very steep hills and the walk up to “Rainbow Street” was hard work. The route rose through some steep dark backstreets and up a long flight of human-sized steps, so I was ready for dinner. I had booked the fanciest restaurant in town, which was packed, but I made a mistake by not ordering the safe chicken/rice combination and got a plate that turned out to be something like a haggis made of lamb intestines. It wasn’t the best meal I’d had in Jordan, but my motto is “nothing ventured, nothing gained” – otherwise I would not be a real vagabond teddy bear. To make up for the meal I headed up to a nearby rooftop bar (a speciality of Amman) and enjoyed a cold beer, before the walk back to the hotel and bedtime.

 

 

The North of Jordan

I slept well and woke up to admire the view from my bedroom window – in front of me were the Golan heights, which separate Israel and Syria, and just to the left of them was the Sea of Galilee.

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It was a good motivation to get ready for breakfast. In a country that specialises in huge breakfasts, this was the biggest and best yet – yoghurt with honey and cumquat from the hosts’ own garden, delicious fried eggs mixed with tomato and chilli, hot freshly made bread and many different types of jam, ranging from fig to pumpkin.

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Realising that even a bear could not possible eat everything, I ate my fill and then set off in the car to Ajloun, about 90minutes south of Umm Qays.

Due to a mistake in navigation I ended up going through Irbid, Jordan’s second biggest city, so the route was not particularly scenic. I was just getting bored driving when the majestic castle of Ajloun appeared on top of a hill before me.

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It was a very impressive site, and more intact than the other castles I had seen in Jordan. It was built by the Ottomans to defend themselves from the crusaders, with the first work started by Saladin in 1184, and with different rulers adding on bits in later centuries. Unlike the crusader castles, Ajloun was never taken. Inside, there was the usual entertainment of clambering up and down stairs and passageways, and great views out over the surrounding countryside and city.

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After the castle, I headed a few km away from the city to a nature reserve and made a short hike. It was probably the first place I’d been in Jordan that wasn’t completely dry, and the trail wound past oak, carob and pistachio trees. I also disturbed a small snake sunbathing on the path; despite my small size, he was more scared than I was and immediately disappeared into the bushes.

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After the reserve, I took a different route back to Umm Qays; this was a better choice than the rather dull direct road, and much of the driving time I enjoyed fine views over deep wadis running down from the mountains into the Jordan river valley.

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I reached Umm Qays at around 2 o’clock, in the hottest part of the day, and went to visit the Roman ruins lying on top of the hill overlooking the village. In Roman and Byzantine times, Umm Qays was a large and thriving city. It was destroyed by an earthquake in the 8th century, after which the Ottomans built their own village on top of parts of it. Some of the ruins have three layers of construction – Ottoman, Byzantine and Roman. I first walked down the long and wide main street, taking in the grand scale of the ruins and the scenery.

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I explored the caves in a Roman mausoleum buried under a Byzantine church, and then visited the well-preserved amphitheatre, where I stopped and drained a whole bottle of mineral water in one go.

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After a bit more exploring I sat down to an early dinner at a well-known restaurant located inside the historic site. The place had an amazing view over the Golan Heights and Sea of Galilee, and my dinner was very good – fresh lemon juice with mint, lamb kebabs and lamb stew (finally a change from chicken!).

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I enjoyed yet another fine Jordanian sunset and the changing colours of the Sea of Galilee. As the last traces of the sunset finally faded, the restaurant closed for the day; I hunted down the place where I had parked my car (not so easy in the dark and on such a big site) and returned to the guesthouse to digest dinner, eat some more delicious cumquats, and write my blog.20191109_165559

 

 

 

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