Tel-Aviv

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I will not talk to much about Tel-Aviv. We stayed there for 3 days. It is a nice clean town with a lot of beautiful people that go to the beach and party hard. It was very sunny and warm all the time. It has great large beaches with very fine white sand, a very nice restaurants selection and a lot of bars and clubs.

On the cultural side, there is the Yemenite district with its narrow streets that is very animated on Tuesdays with the market. A bit South of Tel-Aviv, the city of Jaffa (now part of Tel-Aviv) offers a place a bit more interesting with a tiny Roman amphitheatre and Saint Peter’s church. Saint Peter is a very nice little church that is very well presented and exhale a great peaceful feeling. Definitely recommended even if you are not Catholic.

I did not really like being in Tel-Aviv because it reminds me too much of San Diego or Cap d’Agde for that matter and it is not really what I am looking for in this trip. I had a good time still and it would be unfair to knock down the city. It has a lot to offer if you are looking for a laid back vacation. But then, why go to Israel for that?

The Holy City

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Jerusalem was definitely interesting. Rod and I visited the old city back and forth over three days and it is a very impressive place. Petra was a great place to visit but it is a dead city while old Jerusalem is still inhabited and that makes it so much more impressive.

Some of the streets covered with shops catering to the locals (butchers, grocery stores, tailors…) and the other catering to the mass of tourists (souvenirs and whatever the tourists would want to buy) are bustling with activity while some other streets are just quiet and peaceful with just some locals minding their business or going home.

Old Jerusalem is also critical because of the 3 major holy sites it houses and it is sometimes like if every stone was of most importance to one religion or another (at the end, it might be better than when two or more religions fight over the same stone!).

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The church of the holy sepulchre is a major sacred site for Christians. It is a very impressive monument that exhale a lot of spiritual power. Also, even if it is not always perfect, the Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Armenian Apostolic, Coptic Orthodox, Ethiopian Orthodox and Syriac Orthodox churches all live together peacefully there.

Hiring a guide was more than rewarding as it would be difficult to make sense of all the rooms and places of worship on one’s own. He was stinking like a dead rat though and I stayed as far as possible during the whole time trying to never face him so as not to take the risk of smeling his rancid breath!

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We spent some more time around the church after the tour. My favorite places are the holy jail and the little Jacobin chapel located behind the Educule mainly because they were the quietest parts while being quite important spiritually.

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Since we already had seen 5 of the 14 stations of the Cross, we also went around and visited the other 9 stations located on the Via Dolorosa (a street of Old Jerusalem that is supposed to mark the path Jesus walked with the cross after his condemnation). Only one advice, try to not come on a Friday, Saturday or Sunday as it is more difficult to visit the holy monuments on these days ;).

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The Kotel or Wailing Wall or Western Wall might well be the holiest monument for Judaism. From a pure architectural standpoint, it is just a wall so there is not much to see but this is not really what matters. I went there twice. First on Saturday (Sabath for Jews) and it was impressive to see so many people there. The second time was the day after as part of a tour of the city and it was quieter. I realized that I don’t know enough about the Judaism and especially rituals since I could not make sense of everything that was going on there.

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The Temple Mount is a disputed site that houses two holy Muslim shrines today: the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock. The Dome of the Rock is an Islamic monument located on a sacred site to the three religions. It is an impressive monument that is usually a symbol of Jerusalem. Both monuments are closed to non-Muslims. It is a bit sad but after reading more about the situation, I kind of understand.

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The rest of Jerusalem is more like a Western city. On Saturday night, we assisted to something that looked like a Frat party with more Americans than I had seen in months! The fact is that on many occasions, it felt like all the American Jewish college kids had descended on the city.

Where is the bank?

 On Friday, I passed into Israel and made my way towards Jerusalem where I settled at a hostel in the old city.

After going through the immigration officer, recovering your bag and going through custom, the first thing you need to do is usually get money in the local currency. This time, I did not need to do it at once as Rod exchanged his Egyptian pounds he had left and I did not want to exchange the Jordanian dinars I have left since I am going back to Jordan soon. So, I borrowed some money from him and planned on getting cash from an ATM as soon as we would get to Jerusalem.

Once arrived in Jerusalem, we walked into the old city and found a very nice (except for the curfew and some other rules) hostel to stay at. The next step was to get money so we started going around in the old city and could not find any bank or ATM here. I asked to many shop keepers about that and they confirmed the fact: No ATM inside the old city! You have to go out and walk a bit to find one.

Alright, so after having lunch, we went on and exited North by the Damascus gate in the search of a bank. I think we might have walked more than 1 hour in streets bordering the old city but could not find any banks. Asking the locals proved not easy as they either did not understand me (how do you say “Where is the bank?” in Hebrew yet?) or they just did not know where there was one close by! We had come to the conclusion that people in the old city do not use banks and keep all their money under their mattress!

Anyway, since Rod had enough Shekels for 2 for the day, we decided to postpone the money hunt and resume our visit of the old city and neighboring vicinities by hiking to the top of the Mount of Olives and strolling around in the streets of the old city after getting back in through the Lions gate.

We actually gave it another try later in the evening by going in the other direction once out of the Damascus gate but without any more luck. Whatever! Rod still had enough money and worst get worst, I could change some of my Jordanian dinars :).

Yesterday, we decided to resume our search after visiting the Wailing wall and the Church of the Saint Sepulchre as well as some of the other stations and one of the church where the last supper might have taken place. We got out by the Jaffa gate and started walking North on Jaffa street as many people had told us there were banks up on that street. The added benefit being that it was in the direction of what is called the new city that is the animated part of town so we could check it out!

We walked for like 10 minutes: no sign of banks. And  with all the shops closed on Saturday, there was no way to ask people.

We continued on walking for like 5 minutes more and here it was: A bank!!! I have never been that happy to find a bank with an ATM.

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And it has never been so hard to find one in any city I travelled to before! I usually just need to get out of my hotel and walk for 2 minutes maximum before I find one. But not in Jerusalem if you are in the old city.

Funny hey!?

Floating like a cork

Today was a transition day as Rod and I were traveling from Petra to Amman.

On our way, we stopped at Karak to visit a castle built by the crusaders. Not much to say about the castle as it is very comparable to castles built in France at the same period. The nice thing about it is that it is built very strategically close to the King’s road that was the main commercial way at that time and offers great views of the surroundings including the Dead Sea.

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Our second stop was at a public beach (The Amman beach) on the shores of the Dead Sea. This was a compulsory stop in my trip as everybody I spoke to told me I had to swim in it if I was going to Jordan or Israel. Yes, you actually float very well as the pictures that are coming soon show. Seating, bouncing, walking and practicing yoga positions are activities that then replace the usual swimming. It is also really very salty as I was able to taste after splashing the water a bit too much :). It was also very hot out there so we did not stay too long. After two hours, we were back on the road.

We finally made it to the capital, Amman. It is a big city so it is difficult to get a good feel about it in one evening but so far, I qualified it of Cairo meets Hong-Kong. I will let you make up what it means for now ;).

Roaming in the streets of Petra

Petra

Since I started to organize my trip, Petra has been figuring high up on my list of places to see with Ancient Egypt. So it was with no lack of excitement that on my first day, I hiked the 30 minutes necessary to go from the entrance, through the famous Siq, to the even more famous monument of Petra: the Treasury (Al-Kazdneh).

While walking through the Siq (a very narrow path in the mountain at the bottom of a crack), I could not resist and heard myself whistle the song of Indiana Jones thinking of the scene in the holy grail where he is in Petra. Don’t repeat that though! The Siq in itself is quite a sight and to think it is completely natural is mind boggling! As in the rest of Petra, the colors of the sandstone are beautiful and intertwined in complex random patterns giving the rock a never ending appeal calling for picture after picture. I was quite trigger happy the first day so I had to control myself the following two days I was roaming around Petra.

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At the end of the Siq, the Treasury appears progressively in front of you. It is just massive! The refinement of the carving and the size of it cannot leave you insensible. The almost perfect rose color of the whole piece adds to the dramatic look. I was in awe!

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But this was nothing after all as this is just one of the many other great places that you can see in Petra. Petra is a complete city with hundreds of cave habitations, tombs, an impressive amphitheatre, places of sacrifice located at the top of the neighborhood mountains, churches and a monastery. It was created and modified over many centuries from the Nabateans to the Romans.

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It even had suburbs like Sabra located 7kms away that I visited on my first day. This was my first long hike that took me through climbing two low mounts as I had lost my path and was relying on my compass to find the place. Sabra is not usually visited by the tourists because it is out of the way and requires a long walk to reach it. It was interesting for me because it turns out Bedouins still leave in some of the caves/monuments there and it shows how Petra must have been not so long ago before it became a tourist attraction.

For my second day in Petra, I was joined by Rod. For the record, I met Rod in Dahab around 2 weeks ago. He is a cool Aussie, hey! And since we had a good time hanging out in Dahab and we were kind of going the same way, we decided to travel together for a bit. Since I knew Rod would join me in Petra, I did not do the main hikes on the first day. We hence visited the main city and did two of the main hikes that day. The first one was to one place of sacrifice located to the top of the mountain facing the Amphitheatre from where you get a great view towards the main city and also over the Treasury. I actually had done that hike the evening before but I did not mind seeing the view in the morning.

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On our way down, we crossed the path of a goat herd that was going up the stairs toward the top of the mountain without any human intervention. As I was walking by the last goat, this one bigger than the others and that might have been the alpha buck looked at me with a “what are you doing on my territory look?”. I starred back but soon realize I was on the wrong side of the staircase meaning not on the mountain side! Hum, I was a clear winner (don’t you think?) and just ran downstairs to celebrate the victory as this looser just continued climbing in the other way. OK, OK, goats 1 – David 0.

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Our second hike was to the second most famous monument in Petra: the Monastery. It is a monument similar to the Treasury that was carved at the top of one of the mountains but even bigger: 40 meters high by 47 meters wide with a facade carved at least 2 meters deep! The monument is very impressive and as the Treasury, it is very well conserved since protected of the wind by its location.On the third day, Rod and I went for a hike through a canyon going from the entry of the Siq to the main city. It is a little tricky at some points but it was very rewarding with cool spots and great stone colors all over. We also hiked to another place of sacrifice located on a mountain top at the left of the amphitheatre from which you get a 360 degrees view of the place.

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On our way down, we crossed a small herd of goats (again!?!) but did not get into any kind of confrontation ;). Actually, very soon after, we started hearing the cry of a goat coming from a hole in the rock. This kind of hole is plentiful in Petra and I think they were simpler tombs. Anyway, a goat that looked pregnant had gone down inside the hole and seemed not able to get out. We debated a while about the best way to get it out and finally, a girl that had joined us offered to drop big stones on one side of the hole so as to provide a step to the poor goat. We dropped some stones and encouraged (read pushed!) the goat to get out. It did not want to move but thinking this would be enough and not knowing what else to do, we decided to retire and leave it alone. Soon after, it had got out and came to the edge of the stairs to say thanks to us! OK, maybe not but let me dream for a second :).

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Beaten down by so much hiking and climbing, we ended up chilling at the top of the amphitheatre that overlooks the main street and provides an ever ending attraction with the Bedouins offering camel and donkey rides to the tourists as well as overpriced souvenirs or drinks.

Three days were enough for me. I did not see everything in Petra but I had a good feel about the whole place and visited the most important sites. It is not an easy visit if you do not use the donkeys or camels as it is a very wide place and covering it all requires walking a lot. Walking from the main gate through the Siq to the city center can become boring (hence the hike through the canyon on the third morning!).

After all, my favorite place has to be the amphitheatre because of its feel and its location in the city as well as its coolness in the afternoon when it provides you with a more than welcome shade while offering a great view on the rest of the site and the people.