Jordan- So much more than Petra !
Undeniably it is Petra which has put Jordan on the tourist map.
After a 2 kilometer walk (which is in itself a destination) with rock carvings, water channels, soaring cliffs on either side and multiple shades of the red end of the spectrum, you round a corner…and whatever you have heard, seen or expected fades out into insignificance besides the reality of the first glimpse of the Treasury, soaring 40 feet into the sky in an incredible shade of rose. The sheer symmetry and majesty of this 2000 year old structure is like a kick in the solar plexus, stunning your senses. The crowd of humans and animals seemed unreal, and we were easily transported to a bygone era, where the only sounds were of hammer and chisel cutting into unyielding stone, the grunting of exhausted masons and the creaking of carts. There are palaces and walkways and tombs, but the Treasury dominates them all. For the strong hearted, a 2 hour steep climb or a precarious donkey ride takes you to the monastery, which is as awesome as the Treasury, and as grand, but without its colours.
Amman, a cosmopolitan, modern city with undulating roads brings to mind what the old Rome built on seven hills would have been. Limestone homes, olive trees and brown eyed titian haired women abound. From the citadel there is a view of the royal palace smothered by verdure and the city, suspended in a haze, which beckons you to come explore. The amphitheatre, more complete than the Coliseum with acoustics rivaling the Royal Albert Hall. The famous Dead Sea scrolls are revered and kept safe in a museum.
Out of Amman lies Jerash, the best preserved Roman city outside of Italy, complete with temple, amphitheatre, colonnaded street and stadium. There is a most entertaining show of Roman charioteers, soldiers and gladiators, not to be missed. On a nearby hill, allegedly the burial place of Moses, a view of Israel and the Sea of Galilee and Jericho.
At every turn you are steeped in history and religion and yet there are no overt signs of it being a religious state. In fact, Christianity, Judaism, and Islam are so interwoven in the structures, histories and stories that your faith in humanity is restored, and you begin to believe that maybe there is yet hope for all religions to coexist harmoniously.
Saladdin's Islamic palace interspersed with Moses' holy cross, a Roman city juxtaposed with a Christian church! Ah- Utopia!
The desert of Wadi Rum made famous by the film "Lawrence of Arabia" is made of larger than life rock formations in a barren desert. The colours bombard your senses and the silence deafens. Night falls suddenly and the heavens open up their treasury, where the stars shine brighter than the Queen's jewels! A camel ride in the period before dawn, chai made over a wood-fire, and a roller coaster ride down a sand dune is more therapeutic than a million psychotherapy sessions!
From the desert to Aqaba- modern Mediterranean city of the Red Sea, one of the world's best destinations to snorkel and scuba dive. We saw white coral for the first time and felt the feathery touch of tiny fish swimming past us. On the other side of the bay, a more prosperous looking Israel and Egypt, in the distance. No man's land at some point is only 400 meters wide. The river Jordan dammed higher up diverted results in lush vegetation on the Jewish side and rocks and gravel on the Jordanian side. God meant the river to flow and supply both its banks but we humans, in a mad race to self destruct tear asunder his divine works of art.
The Dead Sea offers posh resorts, black mud baths and the oily mineral, saline water which really REALLY does not let you sink! A whole industry abounds around Dead Sea products, salts, scrubs, oils, packs, and even edible seaweed!
Shopping in Jordan ranges from the mosaics of Madaba to "antiques" in Amman. For us, the most fascinating were the souks, or local bazaars abounding in spices, nuts, silks and happy shopkeepers! "Tobacco kills" is not a slogan heard of in Jordan- EVERYBODY smokes.
Food is a culinary delight, fluffy falafels, schwarmas, tender and piping hot, spicy kebabs and a variety of salads. Mansaf, a bed of fluffy yellow rice piled high with slices of succulent lamb. But the piece de resistance and what is a national treasure is the baklava- a crisp vermicelli and melt in the mouth pastry stuffed with a gooey mixture of pistachios, almonds and honey. Kanafaa- a cottage cheese and vermicelli preparation steeped in sugar syrup is also a must-try.
Jordan is well worth a visit. King Abdullah gazes down beatifically at you in various costumes though photographs of his beautiful queen Rania are hard to find. It is a country that though poor, is upwardly mobile! It is pulsating and alive as is evident from the multiple constructions, the constantly improving roads and the bouncing steps of young women clad in skin tight jeans albeit with heads covered. Go to Jordan and bathe yourself in history and culture and be a part of the world that once was, and what could still be- if only we'd allow it!
Man's quest and desire to scale peakes is as old s mankind, Mountains have a strange feeling of well being on mankind. Mankind usually heads to the mountains for holiday's, relaxation, meditation and for honeymoon. Easy accessibility and improved travel has led a flood of mankind storm towards the Himalayas, Alps and the Rockies.
The Canadian Rockies are a unique blend of mountains, extending from Calgary where the Parieres end right upto Jasper and even further, this 400 km stretch of the trans Canadian highway passes through almost 5 national parks with innumerable lakes and water falls and breath taking scenery. (Picture A)
One starts at Calgary a lovely clean cosmopolitan city of Canada, and one starts the Rockies tour either by train, guided tour buses or best by self drive in an 8 seater.
The Rockies train is a nice way to sit and relax with a beer and watch the snow-clad mountains unfold, nature's best scenery around you in glass roofed compartments. These tours are either 2-3 or 7 days with without night halts at the national parks. The trains snakes through one of the best natural beauty in the world. If you call Switzerland and Kashmir heaven, this is ten heavens.
The ultimate way to see the Rockies and to enjoy the beauty is to drive through the national parks. Station yourself in Banff, or canmore or in Jasper or anywhere on the 500 odd km of the Rockies national park and enjoy driving around.
Calgary is where you will land for the Rockies and is connected by flights from Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver and even to almost all major US cities.
Landing in Calgary airport gives a great holiday feeling the airport has a festive air. Very reasonable car hire companies are at the airport :- Hertz, Avis etc. and in less then an hour of landing you can be mobile with your own van or car (depending on how many you are) or on a bus or train.
Canmore is the first town/village about a 100 km from Calgary where very descent and clean and reasonably priced accommodations are available. If you search internet Holiday resorts you can get 3-5 room bungalows with private open air hot water Jaccuzi's.
The 3 sister mountains towers over canmore town and the Nordic winter Olympics centre is a nice place to spend some time. (Mountain biking) and sking.
Canmore is just 20-30 km away from the entrance to Banff national park.
Rockies national parks are lakes, Snow Mountains, streams, natural rock bridges and waterfalls.
A one time entry fee of 14$ gives you unlimited access to all national parks per 24 hours. If you are staying in Banff or Jasper, it is advisable to buy a week's pass for 80 $ (Canadian).
SEVEN DAYS IN ROCKIES :
Day 1 Canmore : Nordic centre mountain biking and a half day river rafting.
Day 2 : Banff Gondola ride to sulphur mountain and the hike to the top and 2 hours of hot spring bath with snow clad mountains in the background. End the day with window-shopping and actual shopping in Banff streets and savor the food on the roadside café's or at good old Mc Donalds. But try the local cuisines it's the best way to know the country.
Day 3 : Do the lakes in Banff national parks. Lake Louise, Lake Emerald. (Picture B)
Miniwanke loop these are unbelievable scenery walking around, feeding birds, boating and watching out for wild Bears, Elks, Mountain Goats etc. You see lots of wild life on the roads. End your day in Banff in a café or seeing a movie or shopping for souvenirs.
Day 4, 5 and 6 : Prepare for a longish drive to Jasper with a half a day for the ice fields and glacier. The drive is heavenly and see all the spots on the way. You will see numerous lakes, waterfalls and view points. Stop every where a sign says view point-you won't regret and by the way you are on a holiday enjoy the views, walks, lakes and the glacier. The half frozen lake viewed from a mountain (Picture C) with amazing deep blue color cannot be described in words. Even in the month of June it was frozen, and it was a 2 km trek through the snow-covered roads and paths to come to this amazing lake view. (Picture C)
Lunch stop enroute to Jasper is a lovely resort serving hot, good, reasonably priced food of all sorts and ofcourse you can't resist the souvenir shops. If you can resist your appetite and wait the next best place to eat is at the glacier. This is the largest ice field probably in the world the Colombia Ice field. The ice glacier views are amazing, the ride to the glacier in the big snow bus with tyres as big as 10 feet diam., loft is an experience, and of course the hour spent on the glacier is heavenly.
Driving on the highway again you may now encounter wild life-wild black bears, brown bears, Elks, reindeers etc. stop is the word, when you see these wild animals so closely and out come the camera. (Picture D)
The two nights you plan to spend in Jasper-stay in the resorts next to the river, there are many and the cottages you get for 100 Canadian $ for two nights are lovely and honeymoonly. These are family cottage for a family of five. Explore Jasper and nearby sights, just driving around you will run into lots of wild life.
Day seven is time to go home if your are on a week's holiday. The place will invite you and seduce you to stay Longer and to come back.
Drive back to Calgary all the way will take almost 7-8 hours but its worth it and fly back from Calgary to Toronto and back to Delhi.
Holiday time over and we were back in Delhi's 47ºC after one of the most enjoyable holidays it was like 10 Switzerland in one – The Canadian Rockies.
Greece-land of the Iliad and Odyssey, Homer and Hippocretes, Archimedes and Helen of Troy!
We stayed at the Pella Inn in Athens, best described as adequate! What it lacked I niceties was amply compensated by the outstanding location, nestled between the the busling Plaka and the rocking night like of Psiri, and the stunning looks of its proprietor Costa. Right in front in all its glory –the Acropolis! The seat of government, learning , arts and culture of a civilization which dominated the world for centuries. By day it is impressive but by night, floodlit and luminous it hangs suspended over the city ethereal and eternal. A steep trk and you are amongst the ruins,where you may be lucky enough to catch a theatre performance. Close up it is a trifle disappointing. There are hardly any whole structures but the gigantic proportions and superb symmetry of the still standing pillars stun the mind. The archaeological museum has exhibits which remind us of the intellect and artistry of an era long past. The Plaka is a tourist trap of shops with statue replicas and gold jewellery. Quaint cafes with loud blaring music nestle in the shadow of the Acropolis. Athens is a bustling like any other large European city, only more dusty and noisy than most. Fake designer goods are available at every corner. Statuesque women with bright lips and nails, the sparle of their jewels rivalled only by the sparle in their eyes are everywhere. And the men-oh the men , with olive skins and smoldering liquid eyes-an epic can be written exclusively on them alone !
No trip to mainland Greece is complete without seeing Delphi and Meteora. Many organised tours are available but can easily be done independently by bus, train or taxi. Delphi has vast ruins with amphitheatres, homes, statues, pottery and pathways. It is tiring and hot to trek through but worth a short visit.
Then onward to Kalambaka, the base town to see Meteora. Kalambaka has numerous hotels reasonably priced, and charming cafes where a happy, inebriated group of locals initiated us into some vigorous Greek dance moves. Meteora-immortalized by the James Bond film" For Your Eyes Only. "If one has only one day in a lifetime to see Greece-it should be spent in Meteora! It is undescribable and awe inspiring. Monasteries reach into the sky clinging precariously to tall cylindrical rock projections. What human hands and what marvellous engineering feat achieved this thing of beauty, is a question yet to find an answer. Four to five monasteries can visited in a day, and though vehicles go part of the way, it is still a fair hike. Steep steps lead into the hushed interiors of a place of worship, where jewelled colours glow in the deep dim recesses of pulpits and ceilings. The faint scent of incense burnt over centuries, the echoes of a hymn, the whisper of a passing monks cloak in these tiny but perfect chambers, bring you one step closer to God! Meteora is beyond beautiful—it is unreal!!!!
After the historical wonders of Athens and Delphi, it is time to feast on the fruits of the Aegean - the Islands. there are so many to choose from and each one different. After much debate and advise from the locals we decided upon Santorini. The islands can be visited by air, hovercraft or ferry. The ferries are large and comfortable and gives one an opportunity to truly appreciate the emerald and aquamarine waters of the Aegean ,dotted with islands of dark green.
The island of Santorini, now one of the most popular destinations on the tourist map, is a product of volaco eruption eons ago. The whole town is on the slope of the volcano, with the culder (crater ) being the centre. You can take a boat tripright into the heart of the volcano and in fact swim in the sulphurous waters. The potential danger of actually being IN and active volacano, adds spice to this particular outing. As for Santorini - white and more white. Church spires reaching into the sky, whitewashed dwellings with azure plunge pools offering bed and board , at prices guaranteed to make wallets happy. In the blinding sunlight, Santorini appears sparkling and pristine ,but come dusk, one of the most wonderful sights in the world is revealed. The entire hillside is dotted with the glow of a thousand fairy lights shimmering and waving in the breeze in direct contrast to the pitch black of the culdera below, while far in the distance on high seas, are visible the lights of massive ships. The island is best explored on four wheeled bikes called quads which need neither a licence or talent to drive. Small waterfront cafes and old tea houses dot narrow winding raods. The food in Greece is amazing. Fish and meat is equally favoured. Taramasalata, made with fish roe and potatoes, a delicate pink in colour, bursts upon the tongue in an explosion of flavours. Dolmas-vine leaves wrapped around rice or meat, drenched in olive oil and Tzatziki(delicately spiced creamy yoghurt with eggplant or cucumber), tickes your tastebuds. Fish, especially shellfish is on most menus. Feta-a goat cheese, fat juicy grapes and olives of all colours are washed down by wine . The national drink is ouzo-an aniseed flavoured drink ,deceptively mid on the palate but packs a whoppng punch. Amazingly, even on weekdays, the Greeks are seen relaxing over ouzo, fine food and thick coffee in which a spoon can stand, with the eternal cigarette between their lips, as if there is no tomorrow!!Relaxation seems to be the key to a happy people of a beautiful land ,which needs to be visited at least once in a lifetime. Let us all toast this philosophy - as they say in Greece—"Yiamas"!!!!!!