Wadi Rum

The sun sets over the desert at Wadi Rum

In the run up to my trip to Jordan, I began reading TE Lawrence’s The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, in which the former British army officer recounts his time in the region supporting the Arab Revolt during the First World War.

In his memoir, Lawrence also raves about the beauty of Wadi Rum, a vast desert in southern Jordan that boasts astonishing rock formations and the place I planned to spend a night in a Bedouin camp.

Unfortunately, The Seven Pillars of Wisdom turned out to be a crushing bore and I only got halfway through before my trip (I eventually finished it a few months later in between other books), which meant I learned very little about Lawrence’s thoughts on Wadi Rum. I, however, had ample opportunity to form my own opinions.

Roadside camels on the way to Wadi Rum

We travelled to Wadi Rum from Petra by bus, and as we approached the valley, the scenery began to change. Camels roamed freely by the roadside and the terrain became increasingly desert-like, with enormous rock formations jutting up from the sandy floor.

View from Wadi Rum Railway Station

Our first port of call was Wadi Rum Station, where an Ottoman train was ambushed on the tracks of the Hejaz Railway in 1916 by members of the Arab Revolt. The perfectly-preserved Al Hijaz Steam Train (below) is rather an odd sight, standing all on its lonesome in the middle of the desert, surrounded as far as the eye can see by sand and rocks.

We spent some 20 minutes looking around this curious relic, taking the opportunity to pop inside the wood-panelled carriage that was open to visitors, before continuing to the Wadi Rum Visitor Centre.

There, we headed up to the viewing platform to take a look at some of the desert’s most famous rock formations, including the iconic and impressive Jebel Makhrad, otherwise known as the Seven Pillars of Wisdom after Lawrence’s book (below).

The Seven Pillars of Wisdom from the Wadi Rum Visitor Centre

After soaking up the views, we made our way to our home for the night – a Bedouin campsite in the desert, consisting of a series of tents that included a large seating area, a dining room and 14 bedrooms. As we arrived at the camp (below), we were offered some tea by our Bedouin hosts, and then spent a couple of hours relaxing, away from the searingly hot sun.

Our Bedouin camp in Wadi Rum

In the early evening, we hopped in a jeep for a tour of Wadi Rum. As we drove around, I was taken aback by the vivid hue of the orangey-red desert sand and the magnificent rose-red rock formations. It’s a beautiful place and I was surprised by how many (albeit pretty dry) shrubs there were growing amid the barren landscape.

Carving of Lawrence of Arabia on a rock in Wadi Rum

At Jebel Umm Ulaydiyya, we stopped by a small Bedouin camp, opposite a huge sand dune. We got out of the jeep and slowly climbed the arduously steep dune (a real thigh burner), and when we eventually reached the top, sat down to enjoy the splendid view and relax. Afterwards, we made our way to the Bedouin camp for tea and stopped to take a look at the images of Lawrence of Arabia (above) and King Faisal carved into a nearby rock.

Faint outline of ancient Nabatean carvings on a rock face in Wadi Rum

We hopped back in the jeep to continue our desert adventure, stopping at a small raised viewing platform that boasted fabulous views of the valley below. From there, we carried on, stopping again by another large rock to take a look at a series of inscriptions carved into the stone a few thousand years ago. I was particularly taken by the wonderful camels depicted on the rock face (you can just make them out in the photo above) and was amazed they’d survived for so long.

Driving around Wadi Rum just before sunset

We continued our tour through the desert, enjoying the delightful scenery around us and stopping for a final time to climb a large rock, from which we watched the sun go down. The sunset was sensational (below), and once the sun had disappeared, we clambered down from the rock and sat on the desert floor, where we had tea with our Bedouin guides.

Three camels set off into the desert in Wadi Rum at sunset

It was lovely sitting with the Bedouin, sipping our tea and chatting. The desert was so still and peaceful, it felt as though we were the only souls for miles. I could have happily stayed there for hours, but as it was almost dinner time, it was time to head back to camp.

Our tour through the desert had lasted two-and-a-half hours, but I enjoyed it so much, it had whizzed by and I was surprised to discover how long we’d been out.

Unearthing our dinner in the Bedouin camp in Wadi Rum

Back at the camp, we watched as our Bedouin hosts uncovered our dinner, which was buried in a pot under the sand, and carried it into the dining room, ready for serving. Our hosts piled my plate high with food – a mix of spiced chicken and goat, rice, potato and carrots, served with flat bread, yoghurt, baba ganoush, hummus, and a tomato and cucumber salad. It was delicious and filling.

At bedtime, a few of us brought our mattresses out into the campfire area, where we slept under the stars. I’d expected the desert to be silent at night, but it was quite noisy – I could hear dogs barking in the middle of the night, as well as the call to prayer in the early hours of the morning. Nevertheless, I awoke – super relaxed – at 5.30am.

The desert and rock formations of Wadi Rum in Jordan

Spending a day and night in Wadi Rum was an incredible experience, and I enjoyed exploring the vast barren valley, learning how the Bedouin have traditionally lived in such a harsh environment, and marvelling at the area’s natural beauty. I can see why Lawrence of Arabia – among countless others – was so taken with it, it’s a spectacular place and well worthy of the gushing, lyrical praise it’s inspired over the years.

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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.

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 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.

The Dead Sea

At 431 m below sea level, the Dead Sea is the lowest place on earth. A slither of receding water between Jordan and Israel, the Dead Sea is actually a large lake, part of the Jordan Rift Valley, and it’s where I spent a late afternoon relaxing during my week-long sojourn in Jordan.

Road signs on the way to the Dead Sea

As we approached the Dead Sea, the super-salty body of water looked enchanting as it glistened in the late-afternoon sunshine. With a salinity level of 33.7 per cent, the Dead Sea is one of the saltiest bodies of water on Earth and is almost 10 times saltier than the water you find in most seas. It’s this high salt concentration that gives the lake its name, as it’s so salty no living creatures can survive in it.

We planned to stop at a resort on the shores of the lake, which was surrounded by derelict wasteland and home to a small private beach and a couple of swimming pools. As soon as we arrived, we made our way down to the beach, eager to try our hand at floating in the famous body of water.

The water was clear, and in the shallow waters by the shoreline, I could clearly see the white salt crystals glinting on the floor of the lake (below). The salt crystals can be really sharp, so you need to wear shoes when you enter the water.

Salt crystals on the floor of the Dead Sea

As I waded into the water and sat down, I immediately began to float, and found myself lying on my back with my feet in the air. The sea was still and there weren’t many people around, so it was very peaceful, quietly bobbing on the surface of the water. The high mineral content of the water made it feel quite oily and it felt quite unusual against my skin.

We stayed there, floating in the sea, for some 20 minutes, before getting out. And almost as soon as we were back on dry land and began drying off, I could see a fine layer of white salt crystals forming on my body.

The glistening Dead Sea

I washed the salt water off, then made my way back to the shore, where I found a spot of mud, hidden at the bottom of the lake near the water’s edge. I plastered my skin with the mud and let it dry off in the sun, and as it did so, I could see my skin begin to crease and tighten. Once it was completely dry, I waded back into the water to wash it off and was immediately left with baby soft skin.

I had another quick dip in the sea and by the time I’d washed off the water and dressed, it was almost 7pm and starting to get dark. So we decided to stay and watch the sun set over the Dead Sea – and Israel in the far distance. We were pretty much the only people left in the resort by this time and it was such a quiet and peaceful moment, looking out over the beautiful giant body of water as the sun slowly disappeared from view.

Tips

  • Whatever you do, don’t get any salt water in your eyes or in any sensitive parts of your body – it will sting like hell
  • Do slather yourself in the sea’s mineral-rich mud, which you can find in small pockets along the shorefront, leave it to dry, then wash it off for super-soft skin
  • Because of the water’s high salt content, don’t stay in the sea for longer than 20 minutes at a time – and make sure you rinse all the salinated water off you as soon as you get out
  • Don’t forget to wash your hands thoroughly after getting out of the sea before touching your camera or phone, otherwise you risk them becoming encrusted with salt

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.

Béarn

Artouste Dam and Lac de Fabreges in the Pyrenees

In the shadow of the Pyrenees, lies the ancient region of Béarn. A wild, untamed land dominated by its stunning scenery, it’s an area of myths and legends, and has an otherworldly, spiritual feel. It’s a collection of rugged, impossibly tall mountains, and lush green forests and fields, and is home to an abundance of wildlife, including magnificent birds of prey and adorably cute marmots.

The village of Eaux-Chaudes in the Ossau Valley in the Pyrenees

Having spent childhood holidays on the eastern and western fringes of the Pyrenees, we decided it was time to explore the central part of France’s natural border with Spain and booked a gîte for a week in Béarn.

Henri IV's chateau in Pau

Our week was spent following the pilgrim trail to Bétharram and Lourdes, and sightseeing in the region’s capital, Pau, home to Henri IV’s elegant chateau (above). We also spent time touring the wine-growing areas of Madiran and Jurançon, going underground at the Grottes de Bétharram, and of course, exploring the Pyrenees themselves in the Ossau Valley.

A wooden board with cheese and bread

Given the varied, and at times, imposing terrain, the region’s food revolves around hardy mountain animals. Goat’s and ewe’s milk cheeses are abundant, the local standout being the delicious Ossau-Iraty, which is made using unpasteurised ewe’s milk and has a slightly nutty taste. We were lucky enough to be staying near a fabulous fromagerie and had great fun picking out cheeses. Tomme de Pyrenees and a wonderful blue goat’s cheese from the region were among our favourites.

Grapes growing on the vine at Aydie on the Madiran route du vin

With all the great cheese the region produces, it stands to reason that it also needs some good wine to help wash it all down, and luckily, the Madiran and Jurançon regions provide just that.

We spent a day driving around the small towns and villages of the Madiran region on the look out for vineyards producing the robust, earthy red and ended up sampling (and subsequently buying) a number of bottles in the local wine co-op. I’d never heard of Jurançon, a white wine produced in the region around Pau, before visiting Béarn, and being a fussy white wine drinker, I was surprised to find I rather liked the dry version, Jurançon Sec.

Lourdes photographed from the town's chateau

Béarn might not be top of most people’s list of places to visit in France, but I found a region steeped in history with excellent food and drink, lots to see and do, and of course, breathtaking scenery. I was surprised at how much I enjoyed Lourdes (above), Pau (the shopping’s superb) and Bétharram, and all in all, I loved my week in the region. If you’re looking for somewhere to go in France that’s a little off the beaten track with unspoilt landscapes, great hiking and a fairly traditional way of life, you can’t go far wrong with Béarn.