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.

Advertisements

Grottes de Bétharram

Stalagmites and stalactites inside one of the caverns at the Grottes de Betharram

On our final day in Béarn, we decided to spend the day exploring one of the region’s subterranean delights – the Grottes de Bétharram. The Grottes de Bétharram are a series of caves underneath the Pyrenees that can be visited on a guided tour, which allows you to explore the complex on foot, by boat and by train.

During the low season, the caves are closed between midday and 1.30pm, and as it was around lunchtime when we arrived at Bétharram, we decided to have a spot of lunch before the caves opened for the afternoon.

We stopped at a small shack nearby, which was run by an eccentric older couple who seemed thrown by having customers. When I asked for a cheese sandwich (one of the few sandwiches listed on the menu), the lady had to run to the fridge to check they had any cheese.

Preparing our food seemed to be a painstaking process, too, but 20 minutes later we had two sandwiches, a small portion of fries, two coffees and one earl grey tea. There were picnic benches on the grass near the shack, so we sat down at one to enjoy our meal.

Lunch over, we made our way back to the caves and found we had to wait until 2pm for more people to arrive before we could begin our guided tour. Once 2pm rolled around, we all piled on a coach, which took us to the caves’ entrance some 1km away, where we bought our tickets.

Looking down at the many flights of steps inside the Grottes de Betharram

Inside the cave complex, we were greeted by the sight of an enormous cavern featuring a series of steps that led down five storeys, as the caves are split over five levels (above). It was a cool 14° inside the caves, and our enthusiastic and friendly tour guide told us that the cave complex was home to another 12km of caves that were off limits to the public.

Stalagmites and stalactites in one of the incredible caves at the Grottes de Betharram

Rather than follow the steps down into the chamber, we were guided to the right, where we were taken on a tour of a gigantic cavern. The cave was spectacular with lots of stalagmites and stalactites, including a few gargantuan ones that had merged over the centuries.

The incredible mottled ceiling inside the Grottes de Betharram

The cave was full of beautiful and weirdly-shaped rocks, including ones that resembled a woman, Scooby Doo, a bear and a marmot. There were lots of pools, too, and an incredible mottled ceiling (above) that was unlike anything I’ve seen in a cave. It was a spectacular cave with lots of weird and wonderful features, and it was fascinating to walk through it.

Stalactites hang from the ceiling in the Grottes de Betharram

After thoroughly exploring the huge chamber, we came back on ourselves and made our way down the five levels of steps, taking note of the many incredible sights along the way. After a little while exploring the lower levels of the caves, we were ushered onto a long boat with a dragon’s head on each end, which took us on a 100m journey across a large pool of water.

On the other side of the pool, we continued walking through the caves, and for a time, were walking on a path alongside a small river that flowed through the cave complex.  Having followed the underground path for a while, we came to the final part of our tour – the train journey.

The little train at the Grottes de Betharram

The train was a small, multicoloured engine, similar to those you get in theme parks (above). We all clambered aboard, put on our seat belts and were off! We whizzed along the tracks at quite a speed and I was taken a back at how quickly we were going. I’d expected it to be slow and cumbersome, but the train was rather nippy. The train came to a stop above ground, and at the train station, there was a small shop and an excellent café housed in a grand early-20th century building.

I really enjoyed our visit to the Grottes de Bétharram. The caves were unbelievably beautiful and some of the best caves I’ve been to, with lots of interesting and unusual features. Our guide was friendly and welcoming, and the short boat trip and train ride at the end were great fun, too. Well worth visiting.

Ossau Valley

View from the top of the mountain at Artouste-Fabreges in the Pyrenees

I couldn’t very well spend a week in Béarn, in the shadow of the Pyrenees, without spending at least one day exploring the majestic mountain range. So we set off on a road trip that would take us through the Ossau Valley, one of a number of valleys cutting a swathe through the Pyrenees.

The Ossau Valley is the third largest Pyrenean valley in Béarn, starting just south of the regional capital Pau and running all the way to the Spanish border. We followed the D920 and then the D934 into the valley, passing a number of small towns along the way, the most notable being the charming town of Laruns.

After Laruns, we began steadily climbing as we continued to follow the road along the side of the mountain.

The spa village of Eaux-Chaudes on the banks of the Gave d'Ossau

At Eaux-Chaudes (above), we stopped briefly to stretch our legs. The small village is situated on the side of a mountain above the Gave d’Ossau, and in the 19th century was renowned for its hot springs. The pretty, peaceful village is still home to a spa, but there were few signs of life during our visit.

With no cafés or bars open, we hopped back in the car and continued our journey, passing the town of Gabas and a fair few hydro-electric stations, before reaching our destination, Artouste-Fabrèges. The Pyrenean village is essentially a mini-tourist resort and is home to a large dammed lake (below), shops, restaurants, a cable car and a tourist train.

Artouste Dam and Lac de Fabreges in the Pyrenees

The village was busy, far busier than anywhere else we’d been in Béarn, and there were quite a few bus loads of tourists milling about. Our plan, after we’d had a spot of lunch (goat’s cheese and tomato crêpe), was to take the cable car to the top of the mountain and to hop on the tourist train. The little yellow train claims to be the highest train in Europe and runs from the top of the mountain to the picturesque Lac d’Artouste, which is otherwise only accessible via a three-hour long walk.

The only snag in the plan came when I went to buy the tickets and found they were sold out for the day – at 1pm! Undaunted, we decided to take the cable car to the top of the mountain and have a look around instead.

The mountain was very steep and I was glad the cable car was doing all the hard work for us as I wouldn’t have wanted to climb it. From the window, I spotted a number of furry creatures, which looked like mountain beavers, running along the side of the mountain. They were super cute and I later found out they were marmots, which are a familiar sight in the Pyrenees.

View from top of the mountain at Artouste-Fabreges in the Pyrenees

After alighting the cable car near the top of the mountain, we decided to keep going until we reached the top so we could get an even better view of the valleys and peaks around us. The views were spectacular and it was an incredible sight. The mountains and lakes were stunningly beautiful, and we spent quite a while soaking up the sights and watching the cows and horses milling around the mountain top.

We then made our way back down to the café next to the cable car station, where we stopped for a hot chocolate, which we sipped on the outdoor terrace overlooking the valley below. Having soaked up our fair share of glorious mountain views, we travelled back down the mountain in the cable car (and saw more marmots), before making our way back up the Ossau Valley and home.

Hanoi – Street food

imag1570-2

One of the things I was really keen to do in Vietnam was try some street food. So on my second night in Hanoi, I joined a street food tour. And I’m so glad I did, it was a brilliant night and ended up being one of my favourite experiences in Vietnam.

After meeting our guide Thian, a cheery Hanoi native, and the rest of our group, we headed to a large wholesale market nearby for baguettes filled with Vietnamese paté. The baguettes are a tasty and popular snack, combining Vietnamese flavours with the classic French baguette. Having devoured the baguettes, we had a quick look around the market, which sold all sorts of food, including more varieties of dried mushrooms than I knew existed and dried fish including squid.

imag1584-2

We came out the other side of the market, where there were a number of streets filled with food shops, as well as a couple of women selling flowers from their bicycles. A policeman was sitting at a table in the middle of the road keeping an eye on all the vendors.

We wandered around the shops, fascinated by all the food stuffs on offer. There were shops selling spices, onions, fruits, nuts, pulses and more, and each vendor specialised in a particular food stuff – the onion vendor, for example, just sold lots of different varieties of onion. Outside the shops, women were sitting on the street in front of buckets preparing their produce, throwing their scraps onto the street.

We stopped to try some local fruits that Thian had bought from one of the vendors – pink dragon fruit, which is sweeter than the white variety, and jack fruit, which had a slightly banana-like flavour. I’d never had jack fruit or pink dragon fruit before and the juicy flesh of the dragon fruit was a revelation and I spent the rest of my time in Vietnam seeking it out.

We headed further up one of the streets, passing vendors preparing and selling meat (all parts of the animal, including the intestines, tongues, ears, feet and so on). The streets used to be home to only the one trade and so were named after the trade they represented – silk street is one such example. One of the streets we passed was the paper street and its shops sold Christmas decorations of every kind, including tinsel, santa suits, lights and more.

Our next stop was Banh Cuon Gia Truyen for banh cuon, a super-thin steamed rice pancake filled with mushrooms and topped with coriander and fried shallots that you dip in a dipping sauce before eating. All I can say is they were really good and didn’t last long.

We continued on to Thai Dat, an outdoor barbecue place that sells textiles by day. We sat on little stools in the middle of the street with a cooking pot on a small table in front of us. Everything went in this pot – frog, chicken, pork, beef, corn, aubergine, cherry tomatoes, pak choi, even sweet, honey-covered bread. We then dipped the food in a mixture of dipping sauces, including chilli sauce, tamarind sauce and kumquat juice mixed with chilli and salt. Everything was delicious and we washed it all down with a cold Hanoi beer.

imag1613-2

As we continued our tour of the old town, Thian pointed out a Vietnamese hearse, which was adorned with ribbon, a rosette and a statue. He then took us up onto a railway line that snakes its way through the city, hidden from the streets below. I was blown away by the railway line as people were living on either side of the tracks, without any barriers separating them from the trains.

We walked alongside the railway line, amazed as the locals (including children) hopped across the tracks. People were hanging their washing outside their homes right beside the tracks and there were even restaurants that opened out onto the railway line.

imag1622-2

We carried on along the track when Thian suddenly announced a train was coming. We quickly hopped off the narrow path onto someone’s porch as the enormous train came whizzing past at breakneck speed.

While we were all acutely aware we were walking beside a railway line, I’d just assumed that small, slow trains used the tracks. I certainly hadn’t realised that massive, rapid locomotives were passing through. We were all dumbfounded as to just how close we had been to the deadly train and were left in no doubt as to how dangerous it was to live right beside the railway line.

imag1632-2

Jaw-dropping experience over, we continued through the old quarter until we reached a tiny dessert place, Hoa Beo. Again we crouched down on little stools as we ate our pudding – a selection of seasonal fruits (strawberry, mango, dragon fruit and so on) mixed with condensed milk, coconut milk, cubes of coconut and water chestnut jelly, and four-to-five tablespoons of ice. The dessert was sweet and delicious, especially the water chestnut jelly.

imag1637-3

For our final destination, we stopped at a secret rooftop café, Café Pho Co, that overlooks Hoan Kiem Lake. We had to walk through a silk shop to reach the café, where we discovered a ton of scooters parked inside the entrance. We then headed up a series of rickety staircases to get to the rooftop. It was a relaxing little hideaway and we were here to taste Vietnamese coffee.

Vietnamese coffee is a cup of coffee topped with a foaming mix of condensed milk, egg yolk and sugar (above) and I had to give mine a good stir before drinking it as the mixture had separated. I don’t like coffee, so I can’t say I enjoyed it, but the foamy mixture was drinkable enough, if rather sweet. The hideaway café was an unexpected delight and a great end to a fantastic, whirlwind tour of Hanoi’s food.

Santa Clara

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

Images of Ernesto “Che” Guevara abound throughout Cuba, but I was taken aback by the sheer scale of the Conjunto Escultórico Comandante Ernesto Che Guevara memorial dedicated to the revolutionary doctor at the Plaza de la Revolución in Santa Clara. It’s staggering and an impressive sight. At the heart of the giant memorial is an enormous statue of the guerilla that sits atop a tall plinth (above).

Underneath the memorial is an interesting museum dedicated to Che’s life, featuring biographical information, intimate photographs of him, as well as some of his belongings. There’s also a poignant mausoleum where Che, his mother and 38 of his comrades from Bolivia are buried. Their remains are interred in a cave with a jungle setting and each comrade has his own dedicated memorial. At the far end of the cave, an eternal flame marking their sacrifice – and lit by Fidel Castro – burns.

Tren Blindado monument in Santa Clara, Cuba

Santa Clara is also the site of one of the most decisive battles of the Cuban revolution of the 1950s. The Tren Blindado Monument (above) in the city is a series of train carriages and concrete statues of explosions that’s dedicated to the train derailment masterminded by Che Guevara in December 1958, which allowed him to conquer the city. Inside the train carriages are artefacts from the derailment. Situated next to the railway line where the battle took place, it’s a clever and effective way of commemorating the event as it imaginatively captures how it unfolded.