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
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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.

Jordan travel guide

Wadi Mujib in Jordan

If I had to guess, I’d wager that Petra is the reason most people visit Jordan and it was certainly why I booked my trip. I’d long been keen to visit the ancient Nabatean city, but little did I realise it’s just one of a number of incredible places to see in this fascinating country.

Jordan is home to wonderfully preserved Roman ruins, the lowest and saltiest point on Earth and Moses’s alleged burial site, as well as cracking Crusader castles, spectacular deserts, and relaxing beach resorts. It’s also one of the most beautiful countries I’ve seen and boasts breathtaking scenery that rivals the great American vistas of Zion and Arches national parks.

Jordan has a long and fascinating history, playing host to a number of cultures and peoples over the millennia; the food is delicious; and the people are warm, friendly and hospitable. I spent a week travelling around the country last year and needless to say, I loved every minute of it. Here’s my mini travel to Jordan…

Sightseeing

Amman

I wasn’t hugely impressed by Jordan’s capital city Amman, it didn’t seem to have much of a centre to it and you needed to drive everywhere, so it felt a little soulless. But there are some impressive places to visit, including the old Citadel (above) on top of a hill in the centre of the city and the Roman amphitheatre below it. The Jordan Museum, which is home to some of the Dead Sea Scrolls, is also worth a visit – it’s small, so only takes an hour or so to look around, but it’s full of interesting exhibits about the country, its history and its culture, and has an excellent display about the origins of language.

Jerash

One of the largest and best preserved Roman sites in the world, Jerash is a fascinating place. The ancient city is much bigger than I was expecting and even though we spent a good two-and-a-half hours there, I still felt as though we rushed our trip and didn’t quite see everything there was to see. The spectacular ruins include two almost perfectly preserved amphitheatres, numerous temples and an intriguing mosaic on the floor of an old church.

Dead Sea

The mineral-rich lake that lies between Jordan and Israel is 411m below sea level, making it the lowest point on Earth. There are a number of resorts dotted along the edge of the Dead Sea where you can while away an afternoon floating in the thick salty waters.

Make sure you don’t spend longer than 20 minutes in the sea at any one time before washing all the minerals off your body and avoid getting the sea water in your eyes or other sensitive parts of your body. Look out for small pockets of mud along the shore, which you can use to slather over your body, then wait for the mud to dry before washing it off in the sea – it will leave your skin super soft!

Biblical sites

As part of the Holy Land, Jordan is home to a number of important Biblical sites. Mount Nebo, for example, is home to the Memorial Church of Moses, which commemorates the prophet Moses who reportedly saw the promised land from the spot, and features Moses’s reputed burial site, as well as some fantastic mosaics. The mountain, which lies at the top end of the Dead Sea, also boasts fantastic views over Israel (you can just make out Jerusalem, Nazareth and Bethlehem in the distance, above).

St George’s Church in the town of Madaba, meanwhile, features an incredible 6th century mosaic map of the Holy Land (above). Only parts of the map remain, but what’s there is fairly topographically accurate and it’s possible to make out the Jordan River, the Dead Sea and Jerusalem.

Kerak

Perched high on a hill and dominating its namesake town, the crusader castle at Kerak is enormous. The sandstone structure is an imposing and formidable fortress. Much of it is now in ruins, but you can clamber about inside the dark chambers and passages, exploring what remains and there are fantastic views over the nearby valleys.

Petra

The jewel in Jordan’s crown and one of the seven wonders of the world, Petra does not disappoint and is a must for anyone visiting the country. The most surprising thing  about Petra is its size, it’s enormous, and you’ll need at least two, if not three, days to see it all. I spent two full days in Petra and could have done with an extra day.

Petra is famed for its ancient tombs, but surprisingly, they’re not the most spectacular part of the city. Rather I was blown away by its incredible landscapes – it’s one of the most beautiful places on earth. The colours in the rocks – greens, reds, whites, purples, blacks, even bright blues – are like nothing I’ve seen before.

Petra gets very busy, especially the area around the Treasury (above), so it’s worth getting there as early as possible. It was incredibly hot and sunny when I visited in May, so we did the bulk of our sightseeing in the morning before the temperatures became unbearable.

Petra’s very hilly so you’ll need to do a lot of hiking to reach some of the more interesting parts of the city. My favourite place was the Monastery (above), high on top of one of the city’s hills, and for me, more spectacular than the iconic Treasury. My surprise when I turned around and saw it after a long hike to the top of the mountain will stay with me forever.

It’s also worth carrying on past the Monastery to the look-out points on the rocks nearby. There’s one overlooking the Monastery and one further on with a Bedouin tent on top of a precarious-looking rock – don’t miss either highest point and stay for tea with the friendly Bedouin. The view from the rock over the Wadi al Araba is extraordinary and one of my favourite travel moments.

Wadi Rum

The beautiful desert of Wadi Rum was immortalised by Lawrence of Arabia in The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, his detailed account of his time in the Middle East helping unite the Arab tribes. The Seven Pillars of Wisdom is named after a rock formation in the wadi (an Arabic term for valley) and there’s even a carving of TE Lawrence on a rock in the desert. Wadi Rum is also home to an old, unused train station with a train you can clamber aboard, as well as ancient Nabatean carvings. You can also spend the night sleeping under the stars in a Bedouin camp where you’ll be treated to great food, music and dancing.

Aqaba

Aqaba lies at the top of the Red Sea and is the only port in this otherwise landlocked country. I spent a day on a glass-bottomed boat on the sea, snorkelling in the coral reefs. The current in the sea can be very strong, but the marine life is incredible – I was lucky enough to find myself snorkelling with a turtle, which was definitely a pinch-myself moment.

Food and drink

Jordanian food is fairly typical Middle Eastern fare – think lots of delicious salads, hummus, baba ghanoush, pickled vegetables, tabbouleh, falafel and flatbreads. Other foods to look out for include kibbe, which are little meat croquettes; mansaf, a dish of goat or lamb served with rice and topped with a yoghurt sauce; and mussakhan, a chicken wrap with onions.

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Alcohol is rare in Jordan – the only places I saw it for sale were in Petra and Aqaba – and instead you’ll find lots of fantastic fruit juices in the restaurants. My favourite was lemon and mint juice, which you’ll find everywhere, although it varied in taste depending on where I had it. Sometimes it was sweet, other times really sour. I also drank lots of mint tea while I was there and tried some fermented goat’s milk, an interesting local delicacy, during a picnic in Wadi Mujib.

Climate

Wadi Rum

Jordan is in the heart of the Middle East and so is a hot, dry country. It’s baking hot in the summer, but cooler in winter, around 5°C to 10°C in January. I visited in May when the sun was searingly strong, so I tried my best to avoid the midday sun, venturing out in the morning or late afternoon and seeking as much shade as possible. I still struggled with headaches and overheating though, despite taking every precaution to protect myself.

Safety

“Is it safe?” was the one question everyone asked when I told them I was going to Jordan. “Yes,” I’d reply wearily, “it’s perfectly safe.” And it is. I didn’t have any concerns about my safety during my trip, and if anything, I probably felt safer there than I do in most European countries.

The Jordanians take their security seriously, so every tourist site has a police presence and there were numerous police checks along the roads. There was also airport-style security at the entrance to a number of hotels. I didn’t find this scary, rather I found it reassuring that the Jordanians know the country’s a likely target for terrorists given its location and are taking the necessary steps to keep everyone safe.

Share your experiences

Have you been to Jordan? If so, I’d love to hear what you thought of it and if you have any tips I haven’t covered here, please share them in the comments.

Cascais

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“If you’re going to Lisbon, make sure you go to Cascais,” said my father before I headed off to the Portuguese capital.

Cascais is a small fishing town on the Atlantic coast to the west of Lisbon, renowned for its beaches and charming character. The town had been one of my beach-loving father’s highlights when my parents visited Lisbon and despite not being much of a beach lover, I decided to take a trip to see what all the fuss was about.

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Cascais is a 40-minute train ride from Cais do Sodré station and after my visit to the Oceanarium, I made my way to the train station to spend the afternoon by the sea. The train ride is great as the railway line follows the coastal path, passing the resort of Estoril along the way, and providing fantastic views over the ocean. It’s a beautiful stretch of coast and as we made our way down to Cascais, the train steadily emptied with each passing station as the crowds of people who got on the train at Lisbon gradually got off, heading to the various beaches that line the coast.

I arrived at Cascais a little after 2pm, and having not yet had lunch, was famished. As someone whose life is often ruled by her stomach, my main priority was filling that gaping hole. My plan was to grab a quick sandwich before exploring the town and its beaches. The plan seemed full proof, but I hadn’t anticipated that it would take around 40 minutes to find a sandwich shop.

Cascais is full of cafés, bars and restaurants, some of them off-puttingly touristy with plastic menus and waiters accosting you in the street, many offering big meals and sit down service. This was the last thing I wanted, so I ignored all the entreaties to have lunch and instead walked up and down the streets looking for something lighter and quicker, until I eventually found a tiny shop selling sandwiches where I bought a tuna and salad baguette that I promptly devoured.

Happy I’d finally eaten, I made my way back through the town towards the beach, looking at the various sights and shops I passed along the way. Cascais was busy that afternoon and the beach, which was much smaller than I’d anticipated, was heaving with people so I decided against spending time there with my book and instead, having seen almost all there was to see in the town, decided to explore further afield.

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Around a 20-minute walk outside Cascais is a series of caves known as Boca do Inferno (hell’s mouth in English) for the sound the waves make when they crash against the rocks. You can reach the caves on foot by following the coast road to the west of the town, so I made my way out of Cascais, past the Palace of Cascais Citadel and through the marina, where I was amazed at how many expensive-looking yachts and boats were moored there.

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Just outside Cascais, I came across the Santa Marta Lighthouse (above), an intriguing square-shaped white and blue tiled watchtower. I stopped off to climb its 8m-tall tower, admiring the stunning tiles that line the inside of the lighthouse and the beautiful views from the platform at the top. The lighthouse is fantastic and a great place to unwittingly stumble upon. There’s a museum attached to it, too, but as it was getting late, I decided not to stop and look around, but instead to carry on to the caves.

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A little further along the coast, I reached the Boca do Inferno. The caves are carved into the coastline and there’s a small cove you can look down upon from the cliffs above. On the day I visited, the sea was calm and there weren’t too many waves crashing into the caves so I didn’t hear any otherworldly sounds. There were also a lot of other tourists, some of whom were clambering over rocks they probably shouldn’t have been clambering over as they didn’t look too safe, and I had to patiently wait my turn to get close enough to see the caves.

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The Boca do Inferno is a pretty part of the coastline, but nothing spectacular and the sort of scenery you see regularly along the coasts of Wales and Scotland. Needless to say, it was nice to look at, but I was a bit puzzled as to why it’s such a tourist attraction as it’s nowhere near as dramatic as the name suggests. After stopping to look at all there was to see and take a few photos, I headed back to Cascais to catch the train back to Lisbon.

All in all, I was rather underwhelmed by Cascais. It’s a fairly average fishing town and I’m not entirely sure why it’s often listed as one of the top things to do when visiting Lisbon. It’s a pretty enough place, but very touristy, which takes away from its charms, and its beaches are disappointing. I may just have been grouchy with hunger pangs when I arrived, which coloured my view of the town, but Cascais was the one place I visited during my Lisbon trip I could happily have skipped.