Little Petra

One of the spectacular dwellings in Little Petra

A short distance to the north of Petra is Siq al-Barid, a small archaeological site commonly referred to as Little Petra, because it’s essentially a miniature version of the world-famous ancient Nabatean capital.

It’s thought that Little Petra is where many Nabateans lived as it’s mostly home to a series of dwellings with very few tombs and temples, unlike Petra, which is a largely ceremonial and commercial tomb-and-temple fest.

One of the many dwellings in Little Petra

Little Petra is quite small, but it’s dotted with a surprising number of houses, staircases and water cisterns, all carved into the rose-red rock, and I was stunned by how much there was to see. The buildings were much simpler than those at Petra, but were nevertheless, mindbogglingly amazing.

Looking up at some of the dwellings in Little Petra

We ventured inside a few of the houses – one had two rooms with a little alcove and a small ledge you could sleep on, along with large windows. Another had a black ceiling cause by the smoke from the oil that was used to heat the room.

The ceiling inside the Painted House in Little Petra

One of the most impressive dwellings we looked inside was one known as the Painted House because it boasts a plaster ceiling and walls, which are decorated with intricate paintings of flowers, vines, gods and goddesses (above). It’s incredible to think it’s survived for some two thousand years!

The precarious trail leading to the viewing platform at Little Petra

Little Petra sits within a gorge and there’s a very narrow, precarious flight of steps at the end of it where the ravine narrows considerably (above). We decided to clamber up the steps to see where it took us, which wasn’t easy as it was less a traditional staircase and more a perilous set of rocks.

The super cute ginger kitten at Little Petra

The slightly hair-raising climb was worth it though as it led onto a plateau where a few Bedouin lived. We didn’t meet any Bedouin as walked around, but we did meet a tiny and very friendly ginger kitten (above).

The view from the viewing platform at Little Petra

We walked past the Bedouin tent and came to the end of the rock, which looked out over the valley beyond (above). The view was, unsurprisingly for this part of the world, incredible, and we spent a good 10 minutes admiring the scene before us, before clambering back down to the archaeological site.

Looking down on Siq al Barid, otherwise known as Little Petra

I loved our trip to Little Petra and was glad we’d added it to our itinerary as I’m sure many people skip it when they visit Petra. It’s a fascinating place, and I was amazed by how many dwellings there were carved into the rocks, and how we were allowed to wander in and out of them with very few restrictions. It’s quite a small place, so it doesn’t take long to look around, but it was great fun and complemented what we’d seen at Petra.

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Petra – the Monastery

The Monastery and the nearby archaeological dig at Petra

On our second day in Petra, we set off at 7am to hike to the Monastery, an enormous monument cut into the rose-red rock, high on top of one of Petra’s many mountains.

Having learned our lesson about hiking in the searing midday sun the day before and with temperatures set to be even hotter (33°C), we were keen to leave as early as possible to complete our hike before noon.

The rose-red rocks of the Siq in Petra

It was quiet and peaceful as we strolled along the Siq (above), the narrow canyon that leads to the ancient capital, and in the stillness, I found myself noticing things I had missed the day before. The rocks appeared to be a slightly different colour to how I’d remembered them and I got the impression that Petra looks different on any given day, depending on the time of day and the weather.

As it was so early in the morning, there was no one around, in stark contrast to the day before when it was filled with people not long after 8.30am. It was a lovely moment when we reached the Treasury as there were so few people, we almost had it to ourselves. Aside from the odd traveller or two, the only other people around were the Bedouin guides and a film crew who were walking around inside the monument.

The rose-red amphitheatre cut into the rock at Petra

After taking some photos, we made our way past the tombs of the Outer Siq to the City of Petra, where we stopped to admire the marvellous amphitheatre (above), a glorious structure cut into the rose-red rock.

The day before I’d felt so ill as we walked through the City of Petra I wasn’t in a fit state to appreciate the incredible sights I passed, and so I was grateful we had a second day in the city and an opportunity to see them afresh.

The ruins in the City of Petra

We continued through the city (above) and after we passed the restaurants, we turned right to follow the trail up the mountain. The trek to the Monastery isn’t easy, with more than 800 steps to the monument. It was 9am by the time we reached the start of the path, the sun was already strong, and there was little shade as we began to climb.

The surrounding rocks on the hike to the Monastery in Petra

The trail was long with lots of twists and turns, and there were Bedouin stalls dotted along the route (I bought a lovely head scarf from one of them). It was a hard climb in the hot sun and every so often, as we came across a shady spot, we’d stop for a breather and some water.

When we finally reached the top, the first thing we saw was a very welcome café on the other side of a sandy plateau. We descended the steps towards the plateau, ready to make a beeline for the café, but before we did so, we stopped and turned around. To our right, much to our surprise, was the Monastery (below).

The Monastery at Petra

The Monastery is an enormous structure, similar to the more famous Treasury, but plainer and less ornate. It’s thought to date back to around the 1st century BC and is dedicated to the Nabatean king, Obodas I, who was worshipped as a god following his defeat of the Greeks and the Hasmoneans.

I can’t quite put into words what a fantastic moment it was stumbling upon the Monastery when we were hot, bothered and least expected it. There’d been no indication from the trail that we were about to reach it, nor did I expect it to look quite as huge and spectacular as it did.

I enjoyed the moment so much more than seeing the Treasury for the first time as I knew what to expect when I saw the Treasury, but this was such an unexpected surprise, it blew me away and is one of my all-time favourite travel experiences.

The plateau was deserted when we reached it, and aside from one young woman and her Bedouin guide, we had the place to ourselves, which somehow made the moment feel more special. After spending a bit of time staring in awe at the Monastery and pinching ourselves, we made our way to the café opposite, which was housed in a small cave.

We sat in the cool café, sipping lemon and mint juice, unable to take our eyes off the Monastery. The chilled, relaxing café was the perfect place to unwind after our long and sweaty hike.

View over the Monastery from the high place overlooking it

After a good rest, we headed to the high point behind the café, passing an archaeological dig along the way, so we could see the Monastery from above. We clambered up the rocks to the high point where we enjoyed breathtaking views of the ancient temple and the surrounding valleys (above and below).

Views of the surrounding valleys from the high place in Petra

We scooted down the rocks, and decided to follow a sign that promised the “best view in Jordan” on a rock a little further along the path. At the top of the viewpoint, we were greeted by an elderly Bedouin man and his nephew sitting in a small seating area on top of the rock.

View over the Wadi al-Araba from the Bedouin tent on the viewing platform near the Monastery in Petra

The view from the rock was superb as it looked out over the Wadi al-Araba (above), where the Bedouin told us they filmed The English Patient. The mountains in front of us were a dark green/purple colour, while the ones behind them were a light golden colour, in contrast to the rose-red rocks we were standing on. It was incredible to see so many different coloured rocks and mountains next to each other, and it was like nothing I’d ever seen.

We were invited to join the Bedouin for tea, which we gratefully did, and made ourselves comfortable on the low sofas and stools in the seating area. It was a precarious place to set up a makeshift café as it’s perched right on the edge of the mountain and there was a sheer drop all around us. But the spectacular views were well worth any health and safety quibbles.

Sitting on top of the mountain, sipping tea and chatting to the Bedouin, while gazing in awe at the jaw-dropping views all around us, was the perfect end to our morning adventure. It was a fantastic once-in-a-lifetime moment and I didn’t want to leave, it was so peaceful and relaxing.

Eventually, we rallied and managed to drag ourselves away, aware we needed to make our way back down the mountain before it got too hot. It was much faster going down the mountain than it was going up, but the sun was blazing and it was hard work as there were few places to seek shade.

By the time we reached the bottom, we were hot and uncomfortable, so we stopped off in the Tents restaurant for a drink, deciding to stay for an hour to rest and recuperate.

Two camels rest outside the Treasury in Petra

From the restaurant, we slowly made our way back out of Petra, constantly looking around us at the amazing sights and taking in every last drop of the ancient capital. At the Treasury, I took one last photo (above), and as we walked up the Siq, I turned around for my final glimpse of that magnificent monument. Once again, the Treasury looked a little different in the mid-afternoon sun.

I enjoyed my final walk through the Siq, but the last stretch between the Siq and the visitor centre was a long, slow, painful, uphill walk. The last stretch felt as though it took forever to complete, but we eventually made it to the visitor centre and from there to our hotel.

It’s hard to do justice to what an incredibly special and magical place Petra is. Petra is the reason I decided to spend a week in Jordan as I’d long wanted to see its famous tombs and the Treasury up close. I’ve sometimes found that world-renowned, iconic places don’t always live up to the hype when you see them in person (cough, Sydney Opera House), but Petra didn’t disappoint, and in fact was far more impressive than I’d imgained.

There’s so much more to Petra than the oft-photographed Treasury and Siq. The scenery is awe-inspiring, the hiking trails superb, and the Monastery and viewing points magnificent. It’s the one place I’d encourage everyone to put on their “bucket list” (for want of a better, less clichéd phrase) – it’s truly memorable and one of my top travel highlights.

Petra – the High Place of Sacrifice and the Royal Tombs

Looking down on the outer Siq in Petra

After our wonderful introduction to Petra via the Siq and the Treasury, we continued exploring the ancient Nabatean capital via the Outer Siq.

The Outer Siq is a large path that leads to the heart of the City of Petra, and the rocks surrounding it are home to countless tombs and dwellings. As we walked along the Outer Siq, we passed a number of Bedouin stalls lining the route, as well as a few Bedouin offering camel, horse and donkey rides.

Just beyond the tombs, we reached a staircase carved into the rock, which led to the High Place of Sacrifice on top of the Jebel Attuf mountain, and decided to follow it.

Looking down on the staircases and paths that lead to the High Place of Sacrifice in Petra

The trail wound round the mountain, following the natural path of the rock, and it was a long, but comfortable climb to the High Place of Sacrifice. Near the top, the path all but disappeared and we found ourselves walking over the bare rock face. The higher we got, the windier it became, and I didn’t feel particularly safe as we neared the summit, as there was nothing to stop us hurtling off the mountain if we were blown off our feet.

The High Place of Sacrifice in Petra

Luckily, as I approached the summit, an elderly Bedouin woman grabbed me by the hand and pulled me up. The High Place of Sacrifice (above), is large rectangular space cut into the top of the mountain, with an altar to the side, and it is thought to have been used by the Nabatean people for animal and human sacrifices.

Despite the slightly hairy end to the climb, it was well worth it as the views from the top, looking out over the main thoroughfare in Petra (below), were phenomenal.

The spectacular view from the High Place of Sacrifice in Petra

The elderly woman stayed with us as we looked around the High Place of Sacrifice and climbed down a series of steps on the other side of the altar to a viewing platform, where we sat on the edge of the mountain, enthralled by the view in front of us.

The views on the hike where we descended the High Place of Sacrifice in Petra

After a short rest, we said goodbye to the woman and decided to take a different path down the mountain, following a long, winding trail through the rocks. Thankfully, there was a light breeze, which helped reduce the effects of the strong sun that was now blazing down upon us.

As we walked, I was captivated by the incredible shapes in the rocks, caused by millennia of water erosion, and the vast array of colours – an intoxicating mix of reds, purples, yellows, blacks, greens, whites and even light blues.

I’d never seen anything like it, and try as I might, it was impossible to capture the full array of colours in a photo. The rock formations were spectacular and I kept finding myself tripping over the rocks on the ground because I was so busy looking around in awe at the astonishing geology.

Halfway down the mountain, we stopped at a shack belonging to a Bedouin woman for a welcome drink, before continuing along the trail.

The Tomb of the Roman Soldier in Petra

We soon reached a large plateau, home to a number of tombs, including that of the Roman Soldier (above). We ventured inside the tomb and found a large, square room with black walls and a black ceiling. I was a little taken aback by how dark it was inside because for some reason, I’d assumed it would be the same rose-red hue as outside.

The Garden Triclinium tomb in Petra

There were a series of other tombs in the near vicinity, too, including the Garden Triclinium (above), the Broken Pediment Tomb and the Renaissance Tomb. But we decided against going inside them all, as they didn’t seem to be particularly exciting, and instead continued to follow the long, winding trail down the mountain. As we carried on along this final stretch, we were in the full glare of the searingly hot sun, and by the time we reached the City of Petra, I was feeling quite ill.

The hike from the Tomb of the Roman Soldier to the City of Petra

Once in the city, we headed to a large tented restaurant for lunch, where I felt too sick to eat. But after taking paracetamol and drinking plenty of water, I made myself eat – some salad, hummus and flatbread. I was still overheating, though, so I went to the bathroom and bathed my feet and face in ice-cold water in a desperate bid to cool down.

After an hour or so’s respite and feeling a little better, we set off along a trail towards the Ridge Church. Along the way, we enjoyed great views over the buildings opposite, including the altar, the royal palace and the market place. When we reached the church, we stepped inside to take a look at a series of fascinating mosaics that dated back to the 6th century AD.

The Royal Tombs carved into the mountain in Petra

From the church, we carried on along the path towards the Royal Tombs (above), stopping en route at a small shack for a quick respite, as by now, I wasn’t the only one feeling the effects of the sun. I poured water all over my face to try to cool down, and once we felt better, we set off again and soon arrived at the Royal Tombs.

The Royal Tombs are a series of enormous temples carved next to each other in the El-Khubtha mountain. The remarkable temples are thought to have housed the tombs of the kings and queens of Petra. We made our way inside the largest tomb, the Palace Tomb, and then ventured inside the Urn Tomb.

The rectangular chamber inside the Urn Tomb was massive, with an exceptionally high ceiling and recesses cut into the back wall and along the sides. The tomb was lovely and cool, and we sat down for a respite to admire the red, purple and white marbling effect in the rock. Despite there being no intricate carvings or decoration inside the tomb, it was a stunning sight thanks to the natural beauty of the rock.

A series of tombs cut into the rock in the Outer Siq at Petra

After a good look around the Royal Tombs, we rejoined the main thoroughfare in the City of Petra, stopping off along the way to look at the Bedouin stalls that lined the street.

We slowly made our way back through the Outer Siq (above) to the Treasury (below), where I was amazed by how different it looked in the late afternoon sunshine compared to the early morning. The ornate temple was now a rich, reddy-pink colour instead of the golden hue of the morning.

The Treasury bathed in the late afternoon light in Petra

It was a long, arduous walk back through the Siq and to the visitor centre – I’d forgotten quite how long it took to get into the city. But despite feeling hot, bothered, tired and a little woozy, it was well worth it because I’d had a marvellous day.

Petra is a remarkable place, quite unlike anywhere else on Earth. A natural geological stunner, it’s home to some of the most incredible archaeology on the planet and I couldn’t wait to get back to explore some more.

Stay tuned for the final part of my adventures in Petra, where I hiked to the Monastery and had one of my all time favourite travel experiences…

Petra – the Treasury and the Siq

The Treasury at Petra

I don’t mind admitting I’ve been dreading writing this post, not because I didn’t enjoy Petra or because I had nothing to write about, but because it’s such an extraordinary, unique place, it’s almost impossible to do it justice in a blog post.

How do you succinctly sum up one of the great wonders of the world in less than a thousand words? There are so many captivating parts to the ancient city, it’s hard to know where to begin, what to include and what to leave out. But here goes…

The Garden Triclinium tomb in Petra

The ancient Nabatean capital of Petra lay undiscovered for centuries, unknown to all bar a few local Arabs, until the Swiss explorer, Johann Ludwig Burckhardt, uncovered its secrets in 1812. Since then, the mesmerising site has been celebrated as one of the great archaeological wonders of the world.

Looking down on the outer Siq in Petra

The vast city, nestled among the mountains and valleys of what is today south-west Jordan, was carved out of the rose-red rocks by the Nabatean people more than 2,000 years ago. Home to countless temples and tombs, an amphitheatre and breathtaking scenery, this magical, atmospheric site still casts a spell to this day.

A series of tombs cut into the rock in the Outer Siq at Petra

On our first day in Petra, we were up bright and early, and at the visitor centre (a modern complex filled with shops) by 8am so we could reach its most famous temple, The Treasury, by 9.15am to see it bathed in the morning light. From the ticket office, we walked down the long, winding road to the start of the Siq, the narrow canyon in the Wadi Musa that leads to the ancient city.

Along the way, we passed a couple of Nabatean monuments, the Obelisk Tomb and the Bab el-Siq Triclinium. The impressive tombs cut into the golden-red rock were merely a taste of the spectacular sights that awaited us further on.

We soon reached the Siq, and as we began making our way through the 900m-long golden-red ravine, I was blown away by the natural beauty around us. I couldn’t help but think of the photos I’d seen of the Grand Canyon or the iconic rock formations in Arizona and Utah.

The elephant-shaped rock formation in the Siq in Petra

The geology was simply extraordinary and one of my favourite sights was the rock formation in the shape of an elephant (above). I was also awe-struck by the faint outline of a man and his camels carved into the rock (below), which had sadly eroded over time. We passed some of the original Nabatean paving, too, as well as a series of water channels cleverly cut into the rocks.

The remains of the carving of a man and his camels in the Siq in Petra

As we ventured deeper into the Siq, it became narrower and narrower, then as we neared the end, a shard of light appeared between the rocks and the magnificent form of the Treasury came into view. The world-famous temple, which dates back to the 1st century BC, is a magnificent spectacle.

Its enormous ornamental facade, expertly carved into the rock, features many decorative symbols and touches, such as vines, eagles, gods and goddesses.

The Treasury in Petra

Around the sides of the Treasury, I noticed lots of small holes in the rock. The Nabateans drilled these holes into the rock and filled them with wood, which they then wet and left, so they expanded, causing the rock face to collapse and leaving them with a flat, sheer piece of rock for carving.

You can’t go inside the Treasury, but if you stand beside it and look down, you can see the entrance to the ancient tombs below. It’s a breathtaking sight and we spent a good 20 minutes admiring the golden-red carving and taking lots of photos.

The Treasury in Petra in the early morning sunshine

The Treasury is an extraordinary sight and quite unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Bathed in the golden hue of the early morning light, the temple almost glowed and it was easy to see why it’s one of the most iconic, most photographed places on earth. It’s spectacular and the perfect introduction to the many wonders of Petra…

Stay tuned for part two of my adventures in Petra as I visit even more temples, including the Royal Tombs, and hike to the High Place of Sacrifice.

Jerash

Looking down over the Forum in Jerash

The most striking thing about the ruined Roman city of Jerash is its size – it’s a vast site home to two extraordinarily well-preserved amphitheatres, two temples and even an intact mosaic floor. Known as Gerasa in ancient times, Jerash in north-west Jordan dates back to the 3rd century BC and today lies in the middle of its namesake modern city.

Hadrian's Arch in Jerash

When we first entered Jerash via the stunning and imposing Hadrian’s Arch (above), the ruined city looked deceptively small and it was only when we began walking around the site that we realised just how big it was. Through the arch, we came upon the remains of an ancient church featuring an uncovered mosaic floor, as well as what was left of an old olive press.

Opposite the church, we passed through a doorway into a vast space that once housed the city’s hippodrome, which played host to Jerash’s sporting events and chariot races. Much of the hippodrome has been lost over the millennia, but you can nevertheless get a sense of its size and appreciate how big it must have been.

South Gate in Jerash

From the hippodrome, we walked towards Jerash’s South Gate (above), passing through it and along a passageway to the photogenic Forum (below). The huge oval space, flanked by 56 columns, was practically complete and sensational to look at.

Part of the oval forum in Jerash

We made our way through the forum to the Cardo (below), a long street leading off from the forum, which is also flanked by a series of columns. As we began walking along the Cardo, I got a better sense of the size of the site as the street seemed never-ending.

As we walked its length, we stopped every so often to take a look at the interesting ruins leading off from it – among the various sites we visited were the former market place, an eighth-century mosque and a few churches.

The long colonnaded Cardo in Jerash

Towards the end of the Cardo, we veered off to the left to see the first of the site’s two large amphitheatres, the North Theatre (below). The pretty and impressive amphitheatre was completely open to visitors, so we clambered up the steps to the top of the theatre to get a better view of the stage and the rows of seats facing it.

Looking down over the North Theatre in Jerash

We then made our way towards the magnificent Temple of Artemis (below). Built using a series of ropes to hoist one enormous stone on top of another, I was amazed that so much of the temple was still standing, especially when I learned that it survived the devastating earthquake of 749AD intact. A few of the stones were out of alignment having moved over the centuries and if you popped your hands in the gaps between the stones you could feel the enormous pressure holding the stones in place.

Columns in the Temple of Artemis in Jerash

Walking south from the Temple of Artemis, we had a great vantage point over the ruined city and it brought home just how big Jerash was. We continued walking until we reached the city’s second amphitheatre, the South Theatre, and stepping inside, we found three men in front of the stage performing for the crowds – one of the men was playing the bag pipes.

It was a little surreal to be sitting in a Roman amphitheatre in Jordan listening to the bag pipes, but we learned that the bag pipes were introduced to the country by the British during its occupation following the First World War. The acoustics inside the amphitheatre were incredible, so much so that if you stood on the first stone laid in the centre of the theatre and talked, you could hear what was said throughout.

View over the Forum from the Temple of Zeus in Jerash

Having enjoyed our bag pipe show, we made our way to our final stop in Jerash, the spectacular Temple of Zeus. Unlike the Temple of Artemis, the Temple of Zeus didn’t survive the 749 earthquake because it was built on an artificial hill made of sand, which subsided during the quake. Subsequently rebuilt, the temple boasted fantastic views across Jerash, with around 85 per cent of the ancient city visible from the temple (above).

The remains of the Nymphaeum in Jerash

Jerash is a fascinating place and we spent around two-and-a-half hours walking around the enormous site. I was stunned at how well-preserved its ruins were and amazed that we were free to wander all over the site, there weren’t any restrictions on where we could or couldn’t go. It’s one of the most impressive ancient sites I’ve visited and I really enjoyed our visit.

Jordan

The Treasury in Petra

With spectacular scenery, countless archaeological gems and one of the seven wonders of the world, Jordan is an extraordinary country. Almost entirely landlocked, bar a slither of coastline along the Red Sea, the country is flanked by Syria to the north, Iraq to the north-east, Saudi Arabia to the east and south-east, and Israel and Palestine to the west.

Given the catastrophes playing out in its northern neighbours and the uneasy, violent tensions among its western neighbours, it’s amazing that Jordan has so far emerged relatively unscathed amid the turbulent chaos of the Middle East. That’s not to say the wars playing out around it haven’t impacted the country, for the Jordanian Government says it has taken in an estimated 1.3 million refugees fleeing the war in Syria.

Despite all the chaos surrounding it, the country remains a safe destination for travellers, although if it wasn’t for Petra, I’m not sure I would have visited Jordan as it wasn’t really on my travel radar. I’d long been keen to see the once-lost Nabatean city, seduced by all the gorgeous photos of the Treasury and the Siq, but the rest of the country had barely made a blip in my consciousness.

That all changed when I started researching my trip to Petra and discovered that Jordan was host to an array of fascinating places, and I found myself wanting to tour a much bigger swathe of the country.

The long colonnaded Cardo in Jerash

I spent a week travelling around Jordan, starting in the vast Roman city of Jerash (above) in the north-west of the country, before travelling south to the lowest and saltiest place on earth, the Dead Sea. From there, I explored some of the nearby sites, including Mount Nebo (said to be the place where Moses was buried) and Madaba, home to an extraordinarily accurate mosaic map of the region that dates back to the sixth century AD.

The desert and rock formations of Wadi Rum in Jordan

Continuing south, I stopped by the superb crusader castle at Kerak, before arriving in Petra, where I spent a few days exploring the phenomenal Nabatean city, as well as the nearby smaller site of Little Petra. After the wonders of Petra, we continued south, spending the night in a Bedouin camp in the breathtaking desert surroundings of Wadi Rum (above) on our way to the port of Aqaba, where we spent an afternoon snorkelling in the Red Sea.

From there, we made our way back north to the Jordanian capital, Amman, where we spent a day exploring the city’s sites, including the ancient citadel and amphitheatre, as well as the superb Museum of Jordan (the artefacts on display included some of the Dead Sea Scrolls).

Wadi Mujib in Jordan

One of the things that struck me most when travelling around Jordan was the breathtaking scenery I encountered. The rock formations and colours were out of this world, reminiscent of the far more celebrated rock formations in Arizona and Utah.

The most extraordinary thing for me when I visited Petra wasn’t the tombs (as fascinating as they were) but the geology and the vast array of colours in the rocks. It’s the only place on earth where I’ve encountered rocks in vivid shades of blues, reds, greens, blacks, purples and more. It’s sensational.

I often find when I’m travelling that the people I meet are warm, hospitable and friendly, and it was true of Jordan, too. When I was staying in Petra I was lucky enough to be welcomed for dinner by a local woman who’d grown up living in the nearby caves. She cooked us an amazing feast and happily told us about her life, and was more than willing to share a few of her delicious recipes with us, too.

Meze at the Don Quichotte Restaurant in Amman

Jordan is a culinary delight and I had many great meals in the country. I ate lots of flatbreads and dips (baba ghanoush, hummus), an abundance of salads and pickled vegetables, along with regional specialities such as kibbe (fried minced meat patties), mansaf (lamb or goat served with rice and topped with a sour yoghurt sauce) and mussakhan (roast chicken and onions with sumac).

I can’t say I enjoyed everything I tried, the goats milk/yoghurt drink I had in Wadi Mujib was definitely an acquired taste. But my favourite thing was a flatbread filled with falafel, hummus and salad from a roadside shop just outside Amman that was packed with locals and cost just 30p. As an Islamic country, alcohol is rare in Jordan, but there are lots of great fruit juices to be had – I developed a penchant for lemon and mint juice. Tea, especially mint tea, and coffee are ubiquitous, too.

Laying claim to being the safest and most secure country in the Middle East is something of an achievement given the volatile nature of the region, and I have to say I felt incredibly safe everywhere I went in Jordan. It was clear the country takes threats to its security seriously with police checkpoints along the main roads and a noticeable police presence at all the main visitor sites.

In all the hotels I stayed in, I had to pass through airport-style security to get in, too. Far from making me feel anxious or worried about my safety, I found it reassuring and was glad the country was taking such proactive steps to make sure its citizens and visitors were safe.

The Monastery in Petra

I came back from Jordan raving about the country – telling anyone who’d listen how spectacularly beautiful it was, how great the food was and all about the many interesting and varied places I’d visited. Petra should be on everyone’s travel to-do-list. It’s a magical place unlike anywhere else on earth and I don’t think you can truly appreciate its wonders until you’ve experienced it. But I’d encourage anyone thinking of visiting Petra to spend a little time exploring the other, less celebrated parts of Jordan, too, as you may very well fall in love with it.

Cuba travel guide

A blue classic car parked outside a house in Trinidad, Cuba

Travelling around Cuba can feel like you’ve stepped back in time – the iconic classic cars from the 1950s are everywhere, the architecture is from a bygone era and it’s perfectly normal to see a horse and cart in the street or a man using oxen to plough his field.

The Caribbean island, famous for its rum, salsa music and cigars, is a fascinating country boasting attractive scenery and great food and drink, and is home to a warm, hospitable people. I spent a little over a week travelling around the western and central parts of the island, and loved every minute of it. So without further ado, here’s my mini-travel guide to Cuba…

Havana

The outdoor book market at the Plaza de Armas in Havana

The Cuban capital is a must for anyone visiting the country and the old, historic centre is easily explored on foot. Browse the second-hand books and posters for sale in the market in the Plaza des Armes (above), stop for a drink in Ernest Hemingway’s favourite bar La Bodeguita del Medio or step inside the beautiful Catedral de San Cristobal.

Memorial to Jose Marti in the Plaza de la Revolucion in Havana

The Plaza de la Revolución is a fascinating tribute to the revolution and the men who inspired it, with an incredibly tall monument dedicated to José Martí, a national hero in Cuba, at its centre (above). Before I went to Cuba, I was told if I did one thing in Havana, I should go to the Hotel Nacional and enjoy a cocktail on the veranda – I did and it was wonderful.

Pinar del Río

Shelves full of bottles of guayabita flavoured rum liqueur for sale in Pinar del Rio, Cuba

Situated on the western tip of the island, Pinar del Río is best known for its cigars and rum. During my brief trip to the city, I visited Fábrica de Tabacos Francisco Donatién, a small cigar factory where I learned about cigar-making while watching the staff hand-rolling and cutting cigars, as well as a rum factory. Pinar del Río produces its own particular type of rum liqueur, guayabita (above), made from little guava fruits and is a must-try if you’re in the area.

Viñales

The countryside around Vinales in Cuba

The beautiful Viñales Valley (above) boasts superb scenery thanks to the unusual and distinctive mogotes (the limestone rocks covered in lush green vegetation) that dot the landscape. There isn’t much to do in the town itself, but the countryside is well worth exploring. I had a wonderful time in Viñales walking through the countryside and meeting some of the local fruit and tobacco farmers.

Cienfuegos

Sunset by the beach in Cienfuegos, Cuba

The southern coastal city of Cienfuegos is a UNESCO World Heritage Site thanks to its perfectly-preserved historic centre. Parque Marti in the middle of the city is surrounded by beautiful, historic buildings, including the Catedral de la Purisima Concepción and the Teatro Tomás Terry, which is well worth a look inside. With its enchanting bay-side location and historic centre, the city has been nicknamed the Pearl of the South.

Trinidad

Plaza Mayor in Trinidad, Cuba

Walking around the centre of Trinidad can feel like you’re in another era thanks to its cobbled streets and colourful colonial-era buildings. This UNESCO World Heritage Site was my favourite place in Cuba. There’s a laid-back charm to the city and I happily spent a couple of days mooching around, popping into its shops, restaurants, museums and churches, browsing the handicrafts market, and soaking up its rich heritage and culture.

The view over Trinidad and the surrounding countryside from the bell tower at the Iglesia y Convento de San Francisco

If you like cocktails, make sure to visit Canchánchara, a small bar in the city that’s famed for its namesake cocktail – a delicious concoction of honey, rum, lime and water. And don’t miss the nightly Casa de la Musica on the stone steps beside the Plaza Mayor (above) where Trinidadians come to dance, listen to music and sip mojitos.

Santa Clara

Memorial to Ernesto "Che" Guevara in Santa Clara, Cuba

If you’re looking to delve into Cuba’s revolutionary past, then head to Santa Clara. For the city was the site of the last, decisive battle in the revolutionary war of the 1950s. The Tren Blindado Monument recreates the train derailment, orchestrated by Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara, that prevented the then-dictator Batista from moving his soldiers and weapons to the east of the country.

The city is also where Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara is buried and his burial site is surrounded by a jaw-droppingly enormous memorial, the Conjunto Escultorico Comandante Ernesto Che Guevara (above), that has to be seen to be believed. The site also includes a small museum dedicated to the guerilla leader.

Food and drink

Cuba tends to have a bad (and unfair) reputation for its food. There’s a lot of pork, rice and beans on menus, but I feasted most nights on delicious platters of seafood. My favourite meal was lobster and shrimp with plantain chips and salad (which I ate a lot), but I also enjoyed a great paella, red snapper and a scrumptious tuna sandwich, which to my surprise consisted of a flavourful marinated tuna-steak and salad in a roll.

A cup of canchanchara at the Canchanchara bar in Trinidad, Cuba

The island is famous for its rum and the spirit beloved by sailors can be found everywhere – bottles of the ubiquitous Havana Club rum are incredibly cheap. Rum is most often drunk in cocktails – you’ll find piña coladas, daiquiris, cuba libres and mojitos on most drinks menus. But you’ll also find the odd local speciality, such as Trinidad’s Canchánchara cocktail (above), and Pinar del Río’s guayabita rum liqueur, too.

Where to stay

To experience some Cuban hospitality, it’s worth staying in a casa particular, a private home that rents out rooms or apartments to paying travellers for the night. It’s a handy way for Cubans to earn a little extra money. I stayed in two casa particulares when I was in Cuba – one in Viñales, the other in Trinidad – and in both cases, my hosts were warm and friendly, and the accommodation excellent. They also served superb breakfasts in the morning.

Currency

If you’re planning a trip to Cuba, it’s worth noting that you can’t buy Cuban money outside the country. And confusingly for first time visitors, the country has two currencies – the Cuban Peso, which is mostly used by Cubans, and the Cuban Convertible Peso (known as CUCs), which is mostly used by visitors.

You can buy your CUCs from a kiosk at Havana Airport, as well as at banks and cadecas throughout the country. British Pound Sterling and Euros are accepted. It’s also worth bearing in mind that the country charges travellers a departure tax – so you’ll need to keep 25 CUCs aside to leave the country.

Have your say

Have you been to Cuba? If so, please feel free to share your travel tips in the comments below. I’d love to hear your thoughts about the island, too.

Hay-on-Wye

The clock tower in Hay-on-Wye

One of my favourite places to visit in Wales is the small market town of Hay-on-Wye. Straddling the Welsh-English border, and flanked by the River Wye and the Black Mountains, the attractive town is probably best known for its many bookshops and annual literary festival, which has attracted the likes of Salman Rushdie, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton over the years.

When I was growing up, my family and I used to make an annual pilgrimage to Hay, usually the week after Christmas, where we’d wander around the town, browsing in its shops (Hay used to be home to an amazing jigsaw shop, which has sadly closed) and scouring the shelves in the many bookshops on the lookout for interesting and unusual tomes. This year, for the first time in a number of years, we decided to carry on the family tradition and paid a visit on New Year’s Eve.

Millionaire shortbread at The Granary in Hay-on-Wye

We arrived in the town at lunchtime, and after parking the car, strolled down to The Granary Café and Restaurant for tea and cake. The café sells home-made traditional fare such as soups, jacket potatoes and toasties, and always has a good selection of cakes (above). The only downside is it’s often heaving, and on the day we visited, it was as busy as I’ve ever seen it, with the queue almost out the door. Luckily, we were able to get a table, and despite the huge queue, were served relatively quickly.

The Murder and Mayhem bookshop in Hay-on-Wye

Refreshments over, it was time to hit the bookshops, and as an avid bookworm, I made a beeline to my favourite bookshop, Murder and Mayhem, on Lion Street. The small second-hand bookshop specialises in murder mysteries and features classics from the golden age of detective fiction from the 1920s and 1930s, American hard-boiled detective fiction, as well as popular modern crime writers such as Ruth Rendell and Ben Aaronovitch’s River of London series.

I love raking through the shelves in the upstairs room and spent ages picking out books. I ended up with a massive pile that included one of Dorothy L Sayers’s Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries and a British Library Crime Classic by Mavis Doriel Hay. I also picked up a Lew Archer mystery by one of my favourite hard-boiled authors Ross MacDonald and a few novels from the Crime Masterworks series, including Anatomy of a Murder by Robert Traver. All in all, I was very pleased with my haul.

The Hay Cinema Bookshop in Hay-on-Wye

Laden with books, we strolled through the town, browsing in the many clothes shops, bookshops and food shops, before finishing up in another of my favourite bookshops, the Hay Cinema Bookshop, so named because it’s housed in an old cinema. The cavernous shop sells all manner of books and it’s great fun browsing the shelves, not knowing quite what you’re going to find. I ended up buying a couple of novels by Graham Greene and Alexandre Dumas that I haven’t read.

By now, we were thoroughly bookshopped out, so decided to make our way home. And I’m now armed to the rafters with enough books to last me until next Christmas.

Bordeaux

Place de la Bourse in Bordeaux

Following my week-long sojourn in Béarn, I headed north-west to Bordeaux for a whistle-stop 21-hour tour of France’s ninth biggest city. It was almost 4pm by the time I arrived in Bordeaux and checked into my hotel near the city’s central railway station, the Gare Saint-Jean.

Having dumped my stuff in my room, I set off for a walk around Bordeaux and soon came to rue my decision to arrive in the city late on a Saturday afternoon as it was heaving and far too busy to stop in the street to look at the places that interested me or (more often) work out where the hell I was.

The Basilica of Saint Michel in Bordeaux

My hotel was a 15 to 20 minute walk from the heart of the city centre, and as I strolled in that direction, I was soon distracted by the sight of the enormous 14th century Basilique St Michel (above) and La Flèche, the tall belfry next to it. I continued walking towards the old town and decided to veer off via the backstreets, but soon got utterly lost, ending up at the city’s Marché des Capucins.

Completely disorientated, I went back the way I came before veering off down another side street and soon found myself before the Grosse Cloche (below), one of the oldest belfries in France. Its giant bell is rung at midday on the first Sunday of the month and at six other times during the year to mark special occasions such as Bastille Day.

Grosse Cloche in Bordeaux

I didn’t spend long at the belfry because it was unbelievably busy, making it almost impossible to stop, as there were crowds of people walking past in all directions, as well as lots of cyclists who seemed to defy all rules of the road. There were quite a few interesting shops in this part of Bordeaux, but it was too crowded to stop and look at them as the pavements were so narrow, if you stopped, you blocked the path.

Disorientated and somewhat stressed by how busy it was, I soon lost my way again and found myself at the Place de la Victoire, far from where I wanted to be. Once I realised my mistake, I corrected course and carefully kept to the Cours Pasteur, passing the Musée d’Aquitaine on my way to the Cathédrale Saint-André and its bell tower, the Tour Pey-Berland.

I stopped for a little while to admire the architecture of the two magnificent structures, then headed into the old town, where I spent the next hour or so wandering up and down the streets, browsing in the area’s many shops. The old town wasn’t anywhere near as crowded as the other parts of the city (although it was still busy) and I found it much more bearable and relaxing, so much so, I finally started to enjoy my time in Bordeaux.

The Place de la Bourse in Bordeaux

After an hour or so exploring the old town, I made my way down to the Place de la Bourse (above), a grand, elegant square with a showstopping fountain in its centre, the Fontaine de Trois-Gráces.

From the square, I crossed the road to take a look at the Garonne River and the enormous Pont de Pierre that spans it (below). The Garonne was huge and much, much wider than I was expecting, and after marvelling at how attractive everything was in the warm evening sunshine, I set off for a stroll along the river bank on the way back to my hotel.

La Garonne River in Bordeaux

The next day I was up and out of my hotel by 9.20am as I was keen to see as much as I could during the little time I had left in Bordeaux. But this being France on a Sunday, I was also aware that most places were likely to be closed for a while.

Undeterred, I set out in the direction of the old town along the Cours d’Alsace et Lorraine looking for somewhere to have breakfast. Every café and shop I passed was closed and the streets were practically deserted, in sharp contrast to the hustle and bustle of the day before, so I was finally able to take my time to look around and get my bearings.

A croissant and hot chocolate at Le Duffour par Alfredo in Bordeaux

I’d spotted a nice looking boulangerie, Le Duffour par Alfonso, on the Cours Pasteur the day before, so I decided to head in its direction on the off chance it was open. Luckily it was, and I sat down to a simple, comforting breakfast – a croissant and hot chocolate (above).

After breakfast, I made my way to the Cathédrale de Saint-André and the Tour Pey-Berland. The bell tower already boasted a long queue of people waiting to go inside, but with my limited time left and poor weather and visibility, I decided not to join them.

Cathedrale de Saint-Andre in Bordeaux

Instead, I popped inside the cathedral (above), only to find (unsurprisingly) that the Sunday morning service was about to begin, during which time, the cathedral was off-limits to non-worshippers. As the service had yet to start, I nipped past the tape to keep out non-worshippers and had a quick nosy around. The cathedral was an impressive sight inside with wide, grey stone high-vaulted ceilings and an enormous stained glass window behind the altar.

The Musee d'Aquitaine in Bordeaux

When I stepped outside again, the heavens had opened and it was raining heavily, so I decided to spend my remaining couple of hours in the dry surroundings of the Musée d’Aquitaine (above) as I was keen to learn more about the region’s history. Inside the free museum, I made my way to the permanent exhibition on the ground floor, which takes visitors on a journey through the region’s history from prehistoric times to the end of the 18th century.

Most of the information about the displays was only in French, but my rudimentary understanding of the language meant I was (for the most part) able to follow it. The exhibition was okay, the highlight being the many Roman artefacts on display, which included quite a few very well-preserved mosaic floors. Bordeaux is an old Roman city and many of the artefacts were found in the streets surrounding the museum, and it was interesting to learn about this aspect of the city’s history.

Effigy of Eleanor of Aquitaine at the Musee d'Aquitaine in Bordeaux

The museum’s medieval and renaissance displays, by contrast, were rather disappointing as I’d been hoping to learn a lot about the region’s history and the people who shaped it, but there was very little about these periods. Even Eleanor of Aquitaine, one of the region’s most famous rulers, was barely mentioned, bar a marble effigy (above).

Having seen all there was to see in the permanent ground-floor exhibition, I headed upstairs to the first floor where there was a huge exhibition about Bordeaux, covering the years 1800 to 1939.

The exhibition was really well curated and well designed, with lots of interesting artefacts on display, supported by information in French, Spanish and English. My only quibble was that a few of the information panels were illegible because they were written on glass or they’d failed to use contrasting colours on the panels, which meant the text blended into the background.

Display about Bordeaux's maritime history at the Musee d'Aquitaine in Bordeaux

The exhibition began by looking at the city at the turn of the 19th century, its growth and architecture, the wine trade and its notable citizens. It then moved on to a display about the city’s lengthy maritime history (above), featuring some superb model ships, and a sobering, thought-provoking and extensive display about the city’s links to the slave trade and the development of the French colonies in places such as Haiti, Martinique and La Réunion.

The display didn’t hold back as it explored the appalling treatment of the black slaves and the pervading racism at that time. I’ve visited a number of museums over the years that have glossed over the ugly aspects of their region’s or country’s past, and I was pleased that the museum did no such thing, but rather openly confronted and criticised the shameful aspects of Bordeaux’s history.

Recreation of an old grocery shop at the Musee d'Aquitaine in Bordeaux

The exhibition then turned its attention to life in Bordeaux as it developed into a modern city, including the development of its railways and commerce (above). All in all, it was a fascinating exhibition and I learned a lot. I came away with a much better understanding of the enormous impact the slave trade and the nation’s colonial history had on the city’s wealth, growth and development.  It was informative and eye-opening.

By now it was 1pm and time to head to the airport to catch my flight back to the UK. I left Bordeaux with mixed feelings. It’s a very handsome city with a long history, striking architecture, rich culinary heritage, great shops and lots to see and do, yet I can’t say I particularly enjoyed my time there.

However, I think this was largely down to my own stupidity in choosing to spend 21 hours in the city when it was at its busiest and quietest, and if I’d chosen to visit at any other time, I’d probably have had a fantastic time. I’d love to go back to Bordeaux, preferably some time during the week, to test this theory out as I suspect Bordeaux has the potential to be an incredible place for a short city break.

Travel tip

If you’re travelling to and from the city via its airport, hop on the number 1 bus, which will take you from the airport to the Gare Saint-Jean in the city centre, stopping at numerous points in the city en route. Tickets cost €1.60 and last an hour – you’ll need to buy your ticket before you board the bus, you can do this from a ticket machine or at your hotel.

Chapelle Notre-Dame at Bétharram

Chapelle Notre-Dame de Betharram

On the way to the Grottes de Bétharram, we spied an unusual church by the side of the road in Lestelle-Bétharram. So on the way back from the caves, we stopped to take a look.

The Chapelle Notre-Dame, which lies on the banks of the Gave de Pau, was built in the 17th century on what has been a popular site with Christian pilgrims for centuries. The chapel’s unusual shape and blue-grey hue was eye-catching and intriguing in itself, but inside I was blown away by how opulent the road-side chapel was. It’s one of the most lavishly decorated churches I’ve visited.

The area around the chancel was filled with an elaborately carved gold display with lots of statues, while the walls and ceiling were painted teal with a gold star pattern. There were marble columns, huge paintings framed in gold that looked as though they cost a fortune, as well as two ginormous crystal chandeliers. It was amazing and looked like something that belonged in Naples rather than a small chapel in a rural town in the Pyrenees.

Tomb of Saint Michel Garicotis inside the Chapelle Notre-Dame de Betharram

After our surprising experience in the main body of the chapel, we wandered down a corridor to another small chapel. This chapel was much simpler and home to a shrine dedicated to St Michel Garicotis, featuring a plush gold and glass tomb just behind the altar (above).

Shrine, part of the Way of the Cross, beside the Chapelle Notre-Dame de Betharram

Having seen all there was to see inside the incredible chapel, we ventured back outside to have a look at the shrine in a small building (above) to the right of the chapel. Inside, behind locked gates, there was a marble statue depicting an episode from Jesus’s life. We could see more of these unusual shrines dotted along a walking trail on the nearby hillside, so our curiosity piqued, we decided to follow the trail up the hill.

Church on top of the hill along the Way of the Cross in Betharram

As we climbed up the hill, we came across more and more shrines, and realised the trail – the Way of the Cross – led all the way to the top of the hill. We carried on until we reached the top, where we  found a simple church (above). Opposite the church, there were yet more shrines, as well as three statues depicting the crucifixion of Jesus in front of a graveyard (below).

Statues depicting the crucifixion of Jesus beside a graveyard in Betharram

For the second time that day, we were stunned by the scene in front of us as we hadn’t expected to find such an elaborate display when we started out. It was a little eerie on the mountain top as it was completely deserted, until a keep-fit class emerged towards the end of our visit. I really enjoyed our impromptu hike up the hill and our visit to the Chapelle Notre-Dame. The chapel was exquisite and the shrines oddly fascinating, and it was a wonderful, random and unexpected ending to our final day in Béarn.