Welcome to my travel log! You will find here a lot more than in the travel reports, stripped from political correctness. Enjoy!
Jul 05, 2012 12:00 AM In Warsaw. In Transit.
Once again in Warsaw. Yet first time in 2012. I could see the airport was upgraded...
This time, I was only passing through Poland's capital. In transit to Russia. My plane from London landed at 11pm, so there was no time to do anything in Warsaw. That is not entirely true. If one wanted, there would be still plenty to do. But my flight to St Petersburg was next morning, in the morning...
I booked a room at the Radisson Blu Warsaw Center, as the hotel made a good offer. I think I paid GBP80, which was about acceptable for one night. I had stayed at that hotel a few times in 2010. I had not been overly impressed, I have to admit. The rooms had been so so, the beds really uncomfortable and the aircon not very efficient. The lobby bar had not employed the most professional bartenders in the world and the personnel overall had been cold...
So, how did it happen that this time, I had been given an incredible three room suite? Well, two-and-a-half room suite. It had a sitting room, a study, a bedroom and a massive bathroom, plus a toilet in the hall. I was impressed. Such a shame I was staying there only a few hours...
Jun 05, 2012 12:00 AM Jordan - Jerash
One of the problems of staying in a decent hotel, or worse - a resort, is that it can be hard to leave. Everything is clean, organised, the personnel is professional, attentive and friendly, food and drink is up to scratch, etc. Marriott Dead Sea Jordan Spa is not too bad at all. Three pools, countless seating areas where friendly and efficient waiters on rollerblades reach you in seconds, made me snooze with a chilled bottle of wine for lunch. I had plans to go and see Mount Nebo, Bethany upon Jordan (Jesus’s baptism site), Salt and Jerash, before reaching Le Meridien in Amman. I booked a car to take me to all these places, except Mount Nebo for 2pm. The agent, however, did not tell me that my plan was impossible to do. Had I left at 10am, it would have been possible. Not at 2pm! The problem was Bethany upon Jordan.
WARNING! One needs at least two hours to visit Jesus’s baptism site (apparently). The problem is that this is on the river Jordan, which effectively is also a border between Jordan and Palestine/Israel territories. It is a heavily militarised zone, and only organised tours are allowed on the site. One has to wait for a shuttle bus to take groups to the river bank. How frequent those buses were, I do not know. But I was told that these were irregular, depending what size groups were arriving or how many individual, independent travellers turned up. Then, the visit to the site took approximately 1.5 hours, included guided tour, visit to a museum or something, etc. Not my kind of visiting, anyway. What I wanted is just a glance of the spot. That’s it.
So, Salt was also out of question at this late hour. That was because of the early closure of the Jerash site. I was closing at 4pm, I was told. It was actually 5pm, but I was warned that traffic could be a problem as one had to drive through Amman. Going via Salt and stopping for occasional photograph would mean an hour extra of driving. Jerash was a more important place to visit, more prominent and more significant. So, I decided to whizz from Dead Sea directly to Jerash. I reached it after about 100 minutes of driving (all dual carriage way).
Jerash was amongst the largest Roman sites in the Middle East. And even now it shows. It had at least three main gates, and at least two arches. Only most important cities had arches. And having more than one was a big deal. Jerash also had two theatres (!!), the city main spa (baths), agora, nymphaeum, and even a hippodrome! The colonnaded avenues, particularly the one leading from one gate to another through the main arch is in a remarkable state of preservation. Little is left to imagination how grand this avenue was. The pavement stones still in their place! Another incredible sight was the oval Forum. Surrounded by columns! Entry was 8 dinars and guides cost 20 dinars. But no guide was necessary. The sight was easy to navigate, but visitors unfamiliar with ancient Roman cities, would need a map to make sure they can identify the more prominent features of the site (apart from the obvious theatres, fora and hippodromes).
It took me about 90 minutes to navigate the entire city, stopping for photos and admiration (of which there was fair amount), and I walked quickly. I was told that to take the entire city in, one needed about two hours. Guided tours with all the narrative took longer.
Jerash is 40 kilometres from Amman. It took about half an hour to reach the Le Meridien hotel - all on dual carriage way. I got a proper reception when I arrived. The hotel upgraded me to the master suite. Such a shame I was staying at the hotel only one night! And could not even sleep in. Taxi to the airport booked for 5 o’clock in the morning!
Jun 04, 2012 12:00 AM Jordan - Wadi Rum (from an hot air balloon)
04:45am rise and 05:00am transfer from the hotel to the hot air balloon randez-vous point in the Wadi Rum desert. The desert was only about 35 kilometres from Aqaba, and some 70 or 80 kilometres from Petra. The sun was rising at about 6 am in this part of Jordan, and the morning yawns reminded me why I chose to travel all the way to the boring Aqaba. It was easier to rise at 04:45am than at 03:45am for the balloon ride.
The hot air balloon captain and the crew arrived a few minutes before 6am. They released a couple of helium balloons to check on the thermals and winds. This was important, as wind in the Wadi Rum always determined whether it was safe for hot air balloons to fly. No-one wanted to drift to Israel or to Saudi, really. The captain, originally from Chechnya, was the only one in the Wadi Rum area to fly hot air balloons. Yet, there were a few travel agents, who’d charge a variety of prices for the very same thing. It was better to contact the captain directly, like my hotel in Aqaba did for me. One just need to search Royal Aero Sports Club of Jordan on the net. The captain’s official rate was JOD130 per person.
There were four other people for the balloon ride that morning. Two from Belgium and two from London. My hotel driver, who had never been in a hot air balloon, was also invited and he was so excited.The ride lasted about 90 minutes, but the captain did not cover a lot of the the area. Perhaps 10 square kilometres. He went up, reaching 3,500 feet. It was great for the view, but I would have preferred to fly lower but cover more area. Like I did in Cappadocia. Anyway, it was still enjoyable and I could see quite far out, although the haze did limit visibility. Wadi Rum is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one could definitely appreciate this both from the air and from the surface. The desert resembled similar rock formations in Mali, South Africa, as well as Utah and Arizona of the US.
By 09:30am I was back at the hotel, catching the last half an hour of the buffet breakfast. At 10:45am, I left Aqaba. The next stop was Karak.
Jun 04, 2012 12:00 AM Jordan - Karak
For some reason, I expected that Karak would be a better preserved castle. Yet, I might have mixed this one in Jordan up with the other in Syria. Both have the same name. It was still a great place to visit. For 1 dinar, one could roam entire site freely. Karak was an impressive and large castle, built by the Crusaders at the end of the 12th century. It was unlike many castles I had seen before, except perhaps the one in Girokastra in Albania. It has very spacious, almost cathedral-size, passages on at least two levels. It had massive arched-ceiling rooms. Being perched on a hill, it offered great views across the valley.
The city of Karak was not very impressive otherwise. It had a few examples of very old, perhaps also dating back to 12th-13th centuries, buildings and houses. But apart from the mighty castle, it did not really have much else to offer. I did not linger there much longer. My next stop was the Dead Sea.
Jun 04, 2012 12:00 AM Jordan - the Dead Sea
I reached the Marriott Dead Sea Spa at about 4pm. It was a large resort with slightly paranoid security. It had three large pools and friendly personnel. But there was really no beach at the sea! It was very disappointing. I had expectations to see a wide beach with nearby salt formations. Not such thing! Just a few rocks, a hole with Dead Sea mud (apparently with medicinal powers) and that was it! Being on the eastern bank, it was a great spot for sunsets, though. And the sunsets were spectacular!
There was not much else to do in the area, so I lounged at the pool bars and drank cold beers. In the evening, the hotel put up a belly dancing show. The ladies were Russian, and they were not very good. Shakira and Beyonce, although not Arabic, could shake their hips better. A good effort, I might say, but that good was simply not good enough. I ordered a bottle of locally produced Chardonnay, called Mount Nebo (the biblical site, where Moses was given a peek of the Promised Land across the Dead Sea, soon before he died), and the show got better a little.
Jun 03, 2012 12:00 AM Jordan - Aqaba
I had all the intention to grab some sort of public transport from Wadi Musa to Aqaba. Instead, I browsed the net after breakfast and ... decided to rent a taxi. It was only JOD40 for the entire 120 miles. Not bad. Had I opted to rent a car, it would have cost me more than that. The risk of taking a taxi in the Middle East is whom you get as a driver. My driver did not think twice before risking my life. He was talking on mobile phone and texting. I had to be rather strict with him! No tip, in the end.
It took only about an hour and twenty minutes to reach Aqaba. I expected much longer journey. Aqaba is in Jordan’s Special Economic Zone, which means tax free shopping. So, before entering the city limits, there was a customs station. If you are from a dodgy country, your luggage could be searched. Apparently, England was not a dodgy state to the Jordanian customs, so I passed with no other questions asked.
Aqaba was hot. I was staying at the DoubleTree by Hilton Aqaba Hotel, right by the corniche, so I could indulge in the plushness of the facilities. I snoozed a little, trying to wait out the heatwave of the midday. I got lunch at the hotel and tried my luck in organising the hot air balloon trip in Wadi Rum. The hotel manager was very helpful in this regard. He quickly found all the details I needed. He contacted the ballooning company, enquired about the transportation and checked the weather. For if the wind blows too much, no ballooning takes place. I guess it was a bit extravagant; the private ballooning, private transfer to the Wadi Rum desert... Oh, well. The hot air balloon was going to cost 130 dinars and the return transfer to Wadi Rum plus waiting time was 85 dinars.
At about 3pm, it was time to explore Aqaba. My objective was to find a few seafront cafe and bars, takes some pictures of prominent sights. Stroll a little.
Aqaba, Jordan’s only city on the coast of the Red Sea, had yet a way to go to match the extravaganza of Eilat, just a mile across the border in Israel. It had moved on since the last publication of the available travel literature. A few more facilities had been built, including toilets and showers on the main city beach, and pavement shaded with new palm trees. And yet, Aqaba had rather little to offer. There are no sights, no points of interests and seriously nothing to do. What was I thinking, I thought when I arrived. Well, I guess I just wanted to check the country’s only Red Sea resort. Whether it was still in the making or not.
Aqaba had a 200 yard-long stretch of a basic beach with even more basic facilities. There was just one beachfront bar, which served snacks and soft drinks only. Their service was ever more basic that the beach and the facilities. Although it seemed like the hangout place of Aqaba, it was still a long way to go. The authorities seemed to take it seriously and work was being done to enhance the spot. The pavement was being levelled and the beachfront promenade received a concrete seal. The place had a potential. It would be interesting to see how the spot looks like in about 5-10 years.
Apart from taking a ride in a glass bottom boat, of which there were many moored on the beach, no other ‘water sports’ were available.
For more resort-like life, one had to head about 2 miles south of Aqaba. Near the border with Saudi Arabia, there was a string of resorts, complete with private beaches and all the big holiday facilities. But why would I be bothered to go there? I was not a beach person anyway, and if I wanted a few drinks a stone throw from the beach, I was certain I was going to find something in central Aqaba.
I tried F.R.I.E.N.D.S bar near the marina, adjacent to the McDonald’s and the Ipanema Brasil shopping centre was one of the more popular spots, I heard. It has a small dancefloor, a few seating spots around tables, and a fabulous bar service literally ice-cold beer in frozen jugs. That was a total bliss in the 42C cloudless weather. Incidentally, Jordan, in June 2012, was still a place on this planet where 25+ year-olds thought it was extremely fashionable to dine and hang out at American fastfood restaurants like McDonalds, KFC and Pizza Hut. Intriguing, huh? Anyway, F.R.I.E.N.D.S were amongst few bars in Aqaba, not belonging to large hotels, that made the cut, nightlife partying being concerned. If that was awkward, then trying to find the entry to the spot was even more peculiar. One had to enter via the main mall gates, although the terrace of the club was misleadingly overlooking the main coastal road. Many were confused. I directed them from the terrace.
Jun 02, 2012 12:00 AM Jordan - Petra
I had an ambition to get up very early, before anyone else and make my way down to the Treasury of Petra. The alarm clock went off at 6:30am. I looked outside the window and it really looked like no-one else was up yet. I snoozed for an hour, went for breakfast and then descended to the main gate. There were already a few travellers around. The day ticket was JOD50, two days ticket was JOD55, and three day pass was JOD60. Not cheap at all. Even compared with access fees to archaeological sites in the West. Well, the Petra ticket included horseback ride from the gate to the entry of the canyon leading to the Treasury. Unless one cannot live without riding a horse, I’m not sure it was worth it. Plus, the horsemen always tried to extract some money of you anyway. They called it a ‘tip from your heart’.
On the way, there were a few rock carving, mainly tombs and unfinished facades. The Treasury appeared mysteriously like on the Indiana Jones film. There was a cafe-come-shop right at the foot of it, which was a great spot to rest one’s feet.
Further down, was the main part of Petra, which included avenue with multiple facades of unescavated edifices, the theatre, the Main Petra Temple (only re-discovered in 1992), grand royal tombs, churches, etc. All to be restored, though. The theatre was nothing much, but some of tombs (the Sextius Florentinus, the Palace, the Urn, the Silk, the Corinthian) looked spectacular, carved into the solid rock, reminded me of Persepolis and the nearby royal tombs in Iran.
At about 10:30am, I started the climb to the Monastery (Ad-Deir). There were supposed to be 800 steps. I did not count. At the beginning, it was relatively easy. But then, the steps became steep and the sun started t heat up the air. It became tiresome. I’d say that people over 50, who weigh over 100kgs should attempt this route prepared: hats and water - at least 2 litres, depending on the heat. And make breaks. There were a few benches on the way up and stretches of high curb to sit on. Most souvenir stands would serve tea for about a dinar, if you were desperate. There was one real cafe serving cold drinks, snacks, tea and coffee - yet not until 3 minutes from the top.
The climb was worth it. The Monastery was definitely my favourite spot. As the facade faced west-south-west, the light conditions should be best at sunset. I reached the Monastery after at about 11:30am and I lingered there until 1pm. The facade appeared not to have been finished, compared with the richly decorated and Hollywood-famous Treasury. Actually, it made sense. Treasury was rich, and Monastery was austere. The Monastery had a single, and rather small room inside. It was amazing to see how much effort was made to make the exterior look like this, an yet the interior was so basic.
On the way back downhills, which was so much easier, I was a witness to a few daredevil stunts.
“Brrbrr, ghrrgrr, brrbrr!”
“Are you okay, ma’am?”, asked a very slim olive-skinned Jordanian boy.
“Is the donkey okay?’, asked a full size thick middle-aged woman with terror in her eyes, as the poor animal struggled on the very steep and slippery steps leading up to the Monastery.
“Yes, ma’am. The donkey is okay”, the boy replied politely.
“I think it’s tired”
“Brrbrr, ghrrgrr, brrbrr!”, said the donkey again.
This donkey was definitely tired. Really very tired! And it was struggling uphills. But the way down was not easy either. The 800 steps were slippery. Some parts were just full of loose rocks. Near the top, where the steps were the steepest, I saw a couple of women attempting to hold on the donkeys navigating their way down.
-”Oh, my God! Oh, my God”, said one of them.
-”Oh, no. Oh, no. Oh, no! I think I’m walking from here”, said the other.
-”My donkey is out of control!”, cried the first one.
I told them that I was impressed how brave they were, and that this experience would become unforgettable. One of them said that only if they make it down. Well, five minutes later, I saw them give up.
Climbing down was easier and more pleasant. It took about half an hour without that many photo stops as on the way up. And, for most part, I was the only person on the path and steps. It was weird. I would expect to see more people around. Yet it was around high noon. Normal people should not be out and about in the desert at that time!
When I was back at the treasury, it was already in the shade.Its facade is flooded with sunrays only in the morning. Yet, I was under the impression that although it was not flooded with sunrays, the afternoons made it flooded with visitors. The spot seemed a lot more animated than it was at 9:30am. At about 2pm, the crowds made it almost impossible to take photographs comfortably. And that is not only the travellers. It were the locals, too. The donkey owners, the carts owners and touts, kids selling postcards (12 postcards for 1 dinar, same price as in town), etc.
Even the stroll back in the canyon, all the way to the main gate, felt differently. In the morning, I was walking pretty much by my own, overtaking small groups of tourists, listening to their guides speaking seven main European languages (English, French, German, Italian, Spanish, Polish, and Russian). Almost all in the same Arabic accent, except Polish, which was spoken with a strong Russian accent. Anyway, in the afternoon, there was always someone else in the line of sight in the canyon. It did not feel the same.
In the evening, there was time for an award. I must have walked and hiked for at least 20 miles. So, a large pint of draft beer was in order. I hiked to the Cave Bar, adjacent to the Crowne Plaza and the Petra main gate and ordered my pint (JOD4.750). It was a bliss. The bar was very elegant. Their drinks menu was comprehensive (JOD5.500-JOD6.500), the air conditioning was very effective (the door to the cave remained opened at all times), the subdued lighting created a great ambiance, and they also served shisha!
Jun 01, 2012 12:00 AM Jordan - the arrival
I was staying at the Sheraton Skyline Heathrow Airport, which made it very convenient for the 10:30am departure. Rising at 07:30am felt much better than having to get up at least 90 minutes earlier than that, if I had to make it all the way across London.
At the check-in, I secured a business class seat. Award tickets for gold diamond club members on flights operated by bmi should automatically be booked in the business class cabin. Yet, my flight was not. The quality of the call centre in India has been steadily declining far below utter rubbish. The flight was overbooked, so the check-in clerk did not have to think twice before giving me a comfortable seat number 5A. As I stretched my legs in the executive lounge a few minutes later, I wondered what strings I would need to pull on the way back to secure a similar deal.
After 4.5 hour flight, I landed in Amman, about an hour late. The cash machine in the immigration hall was not working properly, only to give the same bank an opportunity to run a bureau de change with rubbish rates (£1 = 1.02 dinars (JOD), instead of the normal 1.09) and scandalous commission (at least 6 dinars)! And one needed 20 dinars for the single entry visa on arrival. Oh, well. But the immigration process was painless and silent. No questions asked. Not a single one. Unless one wanted to engage in conversation For example enquiring about the multiple entry visas, which were not available on arrival, by the way.
A car arranged with my hotel picked me up and I speeded away to Wadi Musa, setting me back by JOD80 (£75, €90, $113 - if normal rates were used). The ride took just under 3 hours. But it could take at least half an hour less. The highway was good and my driver drove about 100km/h. Unlike many cars and trucks, which happily overtook us. If he was driving 120km/h (still within acceptable limit; 110km/h plus 10% tolerance), it would have taken exactly 30 minutes less.
Petra, which is mainly an archaeological site, is served by a small town, Wadi Musa, which simply grew around it to accommodate the visitors. This is where the hotels, restaurants, cafes, clubs, transport hubs are all located. Some of which are almost adjacent to the entry to Petra, but many are a good mile hike away. My hotel, the Edom, was some 20 yards from the main entrance. It came at JOD66 for two nights (including 10% service charge and 8% tax) in a single air-conditioned room with a balcony with views of Wadi Musa, the mountains, or desert. The beds were comfy and had crisp white linen. The room did not come with 20-inch flat-screen TV or wireless internet access free of charge, although it was advertised as such. The bathroom with simple toiletries and white clean towels was modern and spotless.
It was 11pm when I reached my room, so there was not much time for nighttime exploration of the vicinity.
May 13, 2012 12:00 AM Jordan - the trip plan
Still work in progress, here is the plan for the overdue short visit to Jordan.
Friday - landing in Amman, transfer to Petra
Saturday - Petra and round trip to Shobak
Sunday - Petra and transfer to Aqaba
Monday - Aqaba to Sweimeh (Dead Sea) via Karak
Tuesday - Salt, Jerash and Amman
Wednesday - flight back to London
Mistyblue (Amanda)'s inspiration, one of our Globo leaders, has prompted me to think of more side trips. Wadi Rum, the UNESCO-listed rainbow desert, seen from a hot air balloon sounds very photogenic.
Plus, I should perhaps see a couple of Biblical sites: the Jesus's Baptism location at the Jordan river and Mt. Nebo, from the top of which God offered Moses the view of the Promised Land. Both of which seem to be on the way from Sweimeh to Salt...
Apr 24, 2012 12:00 AM Gdansk - yet more regular air connections
Today, the Gdansk-based airline, OLT Express, announced additional regular connections between Gdansk and 13 cities across Europe. The routes will open on the 29 October 2012, and the tickets are available for purchase now, starting from as low as PLN149 one way, all in.
The airline added the following routes:
Daily – Amsterdam, Brussels, Cologne/Bonn, Hamburg, London Gatwick, Memmingen
3 x week – Frankfurt-Hahn, Rome FCO
2 x week – Marseilles, Paris Orly, Venice VCE, Verona
1 x week – Reykjavik
Seven of the above are completely new destinations, including Reykjavik and Venice.
The timing of some of the flights is not perfect, so we will see how long this network will hold.
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