Sunday, January 29, 2006

Winter walks - 29 January 2006

Church at WooburnIt was another beautiful London sunny winter weekend, frosty mornings followed by clear sky days. The big advantage of a heavy frost is that it freezes the mud so when you go walking the mud does not cling to you boots making each footstep heavier than the last.Wooburn from the path

Saturday saw us heading round the M25 to a little village out past Waltham Abbey, called Bumbles Green. The 6-mile walk along ridges through Epping Forest land was supposed to reward us with fine views over London. The haze put paid to that.

Hedgerley village pondWe headed west on Sunday out the M40 to one of our favourite walking areas, the Chilterns. White Horse PubStarting from a cute town called Wooburn we walked four and a bit miles to an attractive little village called Hedgerley; had lunch in the White Horse Pub and walked back by a different route.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Ghent - 21 January 2006

Canal by nightCanal by dayEurostar tempted us away with a weekend to Ghent, a picturesque town between Brussels and Bruges. Since it happened to almost coincide with a birthday, we packed our bags and headed for the continent. The city authorities have done an excellent job of lighting the buildings at night, making the old town just as attractive to view at night as it is in the day. The beautiful buildings along the GrasleiGraslei by night
We stayed in a monastery that had been converted into a hotel, makes a change from the typical hotel architecture!

Picture from Web Gallery of ArtThe must-see attraction in Ghent is a 1432 painting, The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb. For €3 you get an audio guide with a fascinating commentary about this polyptych altarpiece and it’s history. The fact that you can see it all in one place is amazing in itself, given its chequered history. The painting is a fascinating theological treatise with amazing detail, e.g. the 42 identifiable species of plants in the central panel.

WMD, Weapon of Mass DisappointmentAnother interesting piece from the C15th or C16th (depending on which web site you read) is a cannon weighing over 16 tonnes and a little over 5m long that was designed to fire 340kg cannonballs. However, according to the guide on the boat trip, it only ever fired twice and the average distance this massive gun hurled these huge projectiles was 50 cm. Obviously enemies were terrified in the face of this WMD (Weapon of Mass Disappointment).

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Russian New Year - 14 January 2006

Happy New Year - almostWent in to London to see the Russian New Year festival and especially the Kremlin Guard who were performing outside of Russia for the first time ever. The set up in the square for viewing when there are tens of thousands of people is totally inadequate so unless you are willing to patiently wait in the freezing cold and slowly worm your way to a vantage point, it is very hard to get a decent view. Still, it was an historic occasion and we had chosen to wait in the warmth of the National Gallery so we had to take our chances. At the end they used a laser to write Happy New Year down Nelson’s Column and although with to the eye it appeared to be there all the time, the camera, not enjoying persistence, saw a different image.

What an amazing privilege, to be able to view the fantastic old masters in the gallery for free, any time you feel like it. There was an excellent photographic exhibition where the artist had used a composition of an old master and re-interpreted it in a modern, Hackney, setting. Some of them were really clever.
A fuzzy picture of the Kremlin GuardWe passed by Fortnum & Mason’s store and their window displays were a tableau of Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol”. As one would expect, they were excellent. Unfortunately you have to ignore all the reflections in the pictures to get the effect.Christmas Carol tableau 1Christmas Carol tableau 1 words
Christmas Carol tableau 2Christmas Carol tableau 2 words
Christmas Carol tableau 3Christmas Carol tableau 3 wordsChristmas Carol tableau 4Christmas Carol tableau 4 wordsChristmas Carol tableau 5Christmas Carol tableau 5 words
Christmas Carol tableau 6Christmas Carol tableau 6 words

Saturday, January 07, 2006

Yellow Submarine: 3rd January 2006

The Yellow SubmarineThe last excursion was billed as the “Yellow Submarine” and the VJV rep told us we would go 3m under water. The only bit that was correct was the ‘yellow’. We may have been viewing from 1m under water, if that, and in that sense it was “sub” marine. All in all it was a total rip-off that our wiser companions avoided paying for.

The flight home was delayed 2 hours which meant that by the time we had got back to central London the Tube had stopped running. Our only option was a rather expensive taxi ride home, £35 as opposed to £2 each on the Tube. The world famous “Knowledge” for the black cabs obviously does not extend this far as I had to tell the driver where to go.

Wadi Rum: 2nd January 2006

Seven Pillars of WisdomOnce again ignoring the tediously tooting touting taxis we walked downtown and did the shops. We met a man who proudly showed us his photos of him and Peter O’Toole and him and Omar Sharif. He had been their double in the filming of Lawrence of Arabia. One of the men on our trip was making his first return to Jordan after being involved with the filming and these two had a good old reminisce.

Across the wadi by 4WDIn the afternoon we boarded the coach for an excursion to Wadi Rum, where the film was set. The first stop was photo opportunity by the “Seven Pillars of Wisdom” a rock outcrop named by Lawrence and also the title of his book. (From Proverbs 9:1) We transferred to the backs of open 4WD, to journey deeper into the desert, ultimately stopping to watch what should have been a spectacular sunset, but wasn’t.

A real Bedouin tentOnce back on the buses we were taken to a ‘genuine’ Bedouin tent and campsite for dinner.

Pharaoh’s Island: 1st January 2006

Pharaoh's IslandWe walked to the Royal Yacht Club to board the Aladdin for a 2-hour cruise to Pharaoh’s Island, just off the coast of Egypt. (Our second Christmas holiday one-day visit to Egypt.) After mooring off the island we were ferried to the island for a quick tour around the fort then back to the boat for snorkelling over the coral reef. Not as spectacular as Fiji but interesting nevertheless. Back on board for a barbeque lunch then it was time to cruise back to Aqaba.

Dead Sea: 31st December 2005

The last day of 2005 saw us at our lowest point since our travels began and arguably the lowest point in our married lives. The only consolation was that we were so low the only way we could possibly go was up. When you get to the lowest point on the planet, 422 metres below sea level, there is no other option.

Jerusalem in the mosaic mapIt was an early start for the coach trip along the ‘King’s Highway’ or Desert Highway to Madaba (Medeba as it is known in the Old Testament). After the obligatory stop at a tourist trap roadside souvenir shop, the first real stop was Madaba where there is a fine C6th mosaic map of the Holy Land on the floor of a Greek Orthodox Church.

Moses probably didn't have the signboardThen it was a short drive to the top of Mount Nebo where Moses stood to look at the Promised Land that he could not enter and where, reputedly, he is buried under the church. We should have been able to see Jerusalem but could only just make out Jericho through the haze.

Then it was down from 900m to –422m to the Dead Sea Spa for lunch and a float. Sunset over the Dead SeaIt is truly an amazing experience to be able to float vertically without treading water and to experience the buoyancy of 34% salt solution. After sunset over the Dead Sea the return trio to Aqaba down the Jordan valley was, unfortunately, in the dark and we could only see the lights of Israel.

Late night entertainmentOn our return to the hotel, a pleasant surprise was waiting for us in the form of an invite to the hotel’s New Year’s Eve party, courtesy of the tour operator, Voyages Jules Verne. There was special food laid on and a belly dancer for entertainment.

Aqaba: Friday 30th December 2005

Relaxed start to the day for the 2-hour trip back to the Aqaba Gulf Hotel, quite a bit flasher than the Petra Palace Hotel we just left. After check-in we walked along the waterfront to the old fort, past the public beaches where the women were sitting in the shallows fully clothed. Leaving the fort we wandered back up through the old town and the markets, then modern ‘downtown’ and back to the hotel. The next excursion was to Safeway supermarket at the far end of town after which we threaded our way back through the ‘residential area’, which was fairly scruffy.

As we got closer to the hotel are we were accompanied by a local man who effusively welcomed us to Jordan and asked where we were from. After clearing up the misunderstanding of ‘Switzerland’ = ‘New Zealand’ he identified NZ as No 1 in water-skiing (not sure about that). As we walked along be asked if my belt was made in NZ. It was, a very old (70’s) tooled leather belt. He asked if he could swap to have a souvenir of NZ. He seemed so keen to do so, so we checked sizes and, satisfied, made the swap. He stated that he was ‘over the moon’ and I am now the proud owner of a rather plain, genuine Jordanian belt (made in Italy.)

Note the member of the armed forces outside the hotelOne feature that was very evident at all the hotels was the emphasis on security. They all had, obviously new, scanners at the doors, all the driveways were blocked with bollards to prevent car bombers and the main road to the hotel area of Aqaba was permantently restricted to one lane with police stopping and inspecting cars passing that point.

Little Petra: Thursday 29th December 2005

The town we were staying in was Wadi Mousa or literally “Valley of Moses” as he is supposed to have travelled through this area. It was a relaxed start this morning for the bus trip to Little Petra,Little Petra in some ways the similar to Petra but also quite different. It was one of the four trading outposts that surround Petra and where tolls were collected from the camel caravans traversing the desert.

One of the “restaurants” had fabulous roof paintings that had, tragically, been damaged by guides throwing pebbles at it to point out salient features (i.e. the best bits!) and then the whole thing had been covered in soot when soldiers camped there during a recent war. In spite of its mistreatment you could still make out various features that had been delicately painted into wet plaster. Our more enlightened guide used a laser pointer and torch to show us the features. The vibrant colours of Petra

The Neolithic settlement of Baydha, occupied about 6500BC, is a short walk from the Little Petra bus park so that was the next stop before heading back to Wadi Mousa were we had a free afternoon.

Petra across the valleyWe headed back down through the Siq into Petra and about half way through the tombs climbed up a trail to the High Place of Sacrifice, with magnificent views over the Petra valley. A different trail took us down to see some out-of-the-way tombs on the far side of the ridge before heading back to the main tourist area of Petra to visit the Byzantine church and the fabulous mosaics that were discovered in 1990. Mosaic

The evening entertainment was “Petra by Night”; two or three thousand candles in brown paper bags lit the path down through the Siq to the Treasury where there was a Bedouin playing the single-stringed rebaba, another playing pipes and a third “telling stories”, all a bit lame really. However, it was accompanied by refreshing mint tea.

Roped into the entertainmentWe then carried on, walking by candlelight, down to the restaurant at the end of the main Petra tourist area where there was dinner and some decent Bedouin entertainment.

Petra: Wed 28th December 2005

Looking out of the Siq to the Treasury at duskFamously described as “A rose-red city half as old as Time” in a poem by J W Burgon; and he had not even visited the place at that stage. When he did, sixteen years later, he wrote to his sister “there is nothing rosy about Petra, by any means.” Nevertheless the colours are fabulous and varied.

We walked from our hotel to the Petra gate and down through the Siq to the “Treasury” (which it never was)The Treasury in the morning sun then down past various other tombs (the whole place is one huge cemetery) down the colonnaded street for lunch at the restaurant. After lunch we climbed the 900 steps up to the “Monastery” (which it never was – it was another tomb or possibly a temple). It is a fabulously huge edifice with expansive views to be had nearby. The Monastery afternoon sunThen it was a 2-hour walk back down to the valley floor then up through the main part of Petra and back to the hotel. After dinner there was a quite interesting power-point presentation about recent digs in Petra, most of which they have covered in again. The valley floor outside the Treasury is actually 7m higher than it was when the Naboteans carved the place. In some places the rubble that has washed down in the intervening centuries is 9m deep.

Jordan: Tuesday 27th December 2005

It was an early start to ensure we made the connections through to Gatwick. Heavy snow was forecast for the region and we were concerned that the trains might stop running. However the first flakes fell after we arrived at Gatwick and as we flew out over Kent we could see the ground below was very white.

We were advised to arrive early to procure a seat with extra legroom. The standard seat pitch on Astraeus Airlines (the charter operator) was just 29” and many web reviewers had lambasted the airline on this point. On arrival at the check-in we found that extra legroom seats were available at £20 per person one-way. Decided it was worth the extra money and were assigned seats in row one, a bulkhead row. This meant that there was extra knee room and there was no one in front to recline their seat but it also meant that you could not straighten your leg out at all. One of the problems with my bad knee is that I cannot sit with it bent for extended periods of time, so all in all the extra cash was a waste of money.

After a 5-hour flight we arrived at Aqaba and were put on coaches for a 2-hour drive to Petra.