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Where To Go In Lebanon – A Visitor’s Guide
Lebanon is a really compact country. It’s easy to get pretty much anywhere from its capital, Beirut, within a couple of hours. Lebanon is about half the size of Wales (the standard international unit for country size), has the most fantastic Mediterranean coastline and, moving inland, also boasts wonderful mountain ranges and beautiful valleys. It has a long and fascinating history and some spectacular sites to visit. Here are some ideas for where to go in Lebanon.
The great thing about Lebanon is that it’s possible to visit most of the attractions from Beirut within a day so it is possible to stay there as a base. Another option would be to tour the country and stay in some of the locations that you visit. We would recommend the latter as some of the attractions are a couple of hours’ drive away which would leave less time to explore the sites.
There are good accommodation and restaurant options close to the popular attractions. And you can be assured of a very friendly welcome.
For full disclosure, it has been some years since we visited Lebanon. However, this post aims to show you some of the many places that visitors can enjoy.
- Going Inland
- Lebanese Food and Drink
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Many of Lebanon’s major towns and cities are located along its coastline. It has settlements dotted along it every 50km or so from north to south, or indeed from south to north; this distance apparently being about a day’s journey for sea traders in ancient times.
Lebanon’s capital is the obvious place to start exploring this fascinating country. Beirut has a long and troubled history and is a city that is changing all the time. It was a prosperous trading city since the time of the Phoenicians and was the site of a famous law school in Roman times. Its location has ensured its position as a centre of commerce. Once dubbed the “Paris of the Middle East” in the middle of the 20th century, it gained a reputation as a place of glamour and decadence.
However, it suffered greatly during the Lebanese Civil War that took place between 1975 and 1990.
The city has a waterfront promenade called the Corniche, with two remarkable rock formations rising from the sea. They are called Pigeons’ Rock, which seems wildly inappropriate given their splendour. Rock of Raouché, for the neighbourhood they are located near, feels like a more suitable moniker.
The National Museum is definitely worth setting time aside for. It is located on what was the Green Line during the Lebanese civil war and was significantly damaged as a result. However, it was renovated and restored to its former glory – a grand and imposing building. These days it hosts fascinating displays that exhibit Lebanon’s long and rich history.
The Beirut Art Centre hosts regular exhibitions of Lebanese and international art.
Beirut has changed dramatically in the days since the war. The scarred buildings have been replaced with modern constructions. Sadly, a huge explosion at the Port of Beirut in 2020 damaged a significant part of the city. The Lebanese economy was in crisis at the time, and the blast has exacerbated this. But we have no doubt that this resilient city will rebuild once again one day.
One of the oldest continuously inhabited cites in the world Tyre was founded in about 2750 BCE. The centre of the Phoenician civilisation, it was later conquered by the Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Muslims, Christian Crusaders and Mamluk civilisations. It is located around 85km south of Beirut, around 20km from the Lebanese border with Israel.
Many cities have thrived on their ability to produce a highly desired commodity and Tyre became famous for the Tyrian purple dye, derived from a type of mollusc, that was so expensive and exclusive that only royalty could use it. (Our own city of Coventry became famous for its blue dye – known as Coventry Blue which held fast and coined the phrase, ‘true blue’.)
There are extensive Roman ruins to explore in Tyre – the UNESCO heritage sites of Al Mina and Al Bass.
At Al Bass the hippodrome is enormous in its scale, and considered to be one of the largest and best preserved in the world. It was primarily used for chariot races – you can imagine the excitement of the crowds cheering the horse and carriages thundering round the track.
Al Bass also boasts a triumphal arch and necropolis.
Al Mina is located close to the sea and you can walk along the colonnaded street.
It is interesting to see the ruins continue into the Mediterranean, a legacy from when sea levels were lower.
Another city with a long history, Sidon is located around half-way between Tyre and Beirut. It is thought to have been inhabited as early as 4000 BCE.
Its main attraction is the sea castle, built in 1228 by Christian crusaders, on a small island which is connected to the mainland via a bridge. It is thought that it was built upon a Phoenician temple – there is evidence of a Phonecian settlement under the sea nearby. It has been partially destroyed and renovated over the years. There is a small domed mosque, built during the Ottoman era, that sits atop the castle.
The medina is another essential place to visit – a labyrinth of alleyways in the old stone city, it’s perfect for exploring and getting lost in. There is a soap museum which was originally a factory. You can see the ingredients and understand the techniques used to make soap. And, of course, buy a bar or two.
Beiteddine is located south-east of Beirut and is easy to visit as a side trip when seeing Sidon. It is an Ottoman palace built between 1788 and 1818 and set in a lovely valley close to Deir el Qamar. The palace itself is a place of very great beauty – with gorgeous architecture throughout it is adorned with mosaics and has serene courtyards and fountains.
Many of the interiors are carved with cedar wood. It is also the location of the Beiteddine Art Festival which is held every year and showcases the work of local and international artists.
North of Beirut, Byblos also has a claim to being the world’s oldest continuously inhabited town. The Phoenicians developed their alphabet there and it is thought that the word ‘bible’ is derived from Byblos. It is a fascinating town to explore with its castle and museums.
The Crusaders arrived in 1103. They called the town Gibelet, after the Lords of Gibelet, members of the Embriaco family from Genoa. They built a castle which was sacked when Saladin attacked the town in 1188 and parts of the walls were taken down.
The town was then recaptured in 1197 by the Crusaders and the castle’s fortifications reinforced. They remained in power until the 13th century.
Byblos boasts an excellent beach and also has number of bars and restaurants by the harbour area where you can enjoy a drink or mezze watching the sun set over the sea.
Further north up the coast Tripoli was a town where we particularly enjoyed exploring the souks. Everywhere we went we were welcomed warmly. One of Tripoli’s main attractions is the Citadel of Raymond de Saint-Gilles, a crusader fortress originally constructed in 1103 which has been rebuilt over the centuries.
It’s a great place to explore and you can climb onto the walls to get spectacular views of the city.
Qadisha Valley and Bcharre
The Qadisha valley is a beautiful area at the foot of Mount al-Makmal and is home to a number of Christian monasteries. Qadisha means ‘holy’ in Aramaic and the river, Nahr Qadisha, flows through the valley. There are some lovely walks in the area.
It was here that we discovered Kahlil Ghibran, a Lebanese poet, artist and philosopher, who was born in Bcharre. There is a fascinating museum dedicated to his life and works in the former monastery of Mar Sarkis. His book, The Prophet, a series of 26 fables in the form of poems, is one of the most translated books in history and has never been out of print since its publication in 1923.
The source of the Nahr Qadisha lies in a cave and is located very close to the Cedars of Lebanon. These are known as the Cedars of God and comprise hundreds of trees, some of which are thought to be over 1000 years old.
These trees are so important to the country’s heritage and culture, Lebanon’s flag features the cedar at its emblem.
Crossing the Lebanon mountain range into the Beqaa Valley we arrived at Baalbek.
There are many spectacular ruins throughout the Middle East, including in Lebanon and also the Roman city of Jerash in Jordan. But the ruins at Baalbek, a UNESCO site, are astonishing in their scale.
Baalbek was known by the Greeks as Heliopolis, which means ‘Sun City’, and was the place where the Phoenicians worshipped the sun god Baal.
The Temple of Jupiter is the largest complex and, even though it has suffered extensive damage over the years, is still hugely impressive. It is thought that construction started in around 16 BCE.
The temple comprises a main plaza set upon a large base comprising foundation walls and a podium. It holds many archaeological mysteries, notably the enormous monoliths from which the walls were constructed – they weigh between 300 and 1200 tonnes. The stones came from a nearby quarry but it is not fully understood how they were placed as it is believed that known Roman construction equipment of the time would not have had the capacity to move them. It’s possible that a bespoke crane was constructed for the purpose or the stones may have been rolled downhill from the quarry.
Originally the temple was encircled by 54 columns, but only 6 remain intact.
The Temple of Bacchus is the best preserved of all the temples as it had been partially buried and hence was protected from multiple earthquakes over the centuries. It was thought to have been completed in 190 CE by Septimius Severus.
It’s a splendid structure with remarkable details in the stonework showing vines, poppies and wheat, symbols of Bacchus and highly appropriate for the god of wine and festivities. Sometimes you can get lucky and have the whole place to yourself!
The final temple is the Temple of Venus, also known as Nymphaeum.
A special mention has to go to the Palmyra Hotel in Baalbek, a glorious, decadent building that was built in 1874 and has remained open ever since. Filled with original Jean Cocteau paintings it has hosted artists, musicians, writers, celebrities and even royalty over the decades. It has most definitely seen better days but was a fabulous place to stay.
Anjar is a fortified town that is completely different to other sites in the country. It was a city developed during the early 8th century CE and is the best example of an inland centre of commerce in the region. The Umayyads, the first hereditary dynasty of Islam, created an empire from around 660 to 750 CE. They were highly skilled in planning and development and the empire prospered until they were defeated by the Abbasids.
It’s a fascinating site to explore. Umayyad Caliph Walid I commenced construction in 714. Based on a Roman layout , Anjar had over multiple shops, a Grand Palace, a mosque and thermal baths. However, the site was later abandoned.
The Grand Palace is one of the best preserved ruins. It has an impressive courtyard that is heralded by magnificent arches.
Lebanese Food and Drink
A trip to the Middle East wouldn’t be complete without a mezze. Mezze is often described as middle-eastern tapas – a selection of small dishes shared by everyone at the table. It’s a lovely, sociable way of eating and you can get to try a variety of dishes.
Amongst the many dishes on offer we had creamy hummus heavily laced with tahini and drizzled with olive oil, smoky baba ganoush (aubergine dip), crispy falafel (deep fried chickpea fritters), foul (bean stew, pronounced ‘full’, not ‘fowl’!), spicy, herby kibbe (small meatballs of lamb mince and cracked wheat), cauliflower tarata (a sauce of tahini sesame paste, lemon juice, garlic, and parsley), multiple salads, including fattoush, which has lots of bread to soak up the lemony olive oil dressing. All enjoyed with delicious flatbreads and sometimes chips.
Grilled meats are popular for main courses – they are delicately spiced and very juicy. Lamb and chicken are likely to be the meats on offer.
And you can’t go to Lebanon and not try the street food. Shawarma is a flat bread filled with grilled meats and chips!
Alcohol is freely available in Lebanon. The spirit of choice is Arak – a distilled aniseed flavoured drink. It’s a bit of a love-hate thing, Colin loves the flavour and could easily drink it all day, Mitch really can’t bear aniseed and shivers at the thought of it.
It’s a little known fact that Lebanese wine is absolutely awesome. Lebanon is one of the oldest wine-producing countries in the world (along with Georgia and the Caucasus region in general). Vineyards are mainly located in the southern part of the Beqaa Valley and they produce delicious and very quaffable fruity reds. Chateau Musar is one of the most famous wine producers.
Chateau Ksara is Lebanon’s oldest and largest winery and it is possible to visit the vineyards and winery. Dating from 1857, Jesuit monks planted French vines and stored their wine in local caves. Their wine is absolutely delicious. They do export it so try to get hold of a bottle or three if you can.
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A Visit to Bhutan’s Punakha Dzong
Punakha Dzong is both the second oldest and second largest dzong in Bhutan and is of huge historic and cultural importance to the Bhutanese people. It was the site of the former capital of Bhutan before the administrative centre moved to Thimphu in 1955. It is the location for one of the many festivals in Bhutan that are held throughout the year.
- Getting to Punakha
- Visiting Punakha Dzong
- Punakha Festival and the King’s Birthday
- Other Things to See in the Area
- Exploring the Rivers and Suspension Bridge
- Sangchhen Dorji Lhuendrup
- Chimi Lhakhang
- Staying At A Local Farmhouse
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Getting to Punakha
When travelling in Bhutan independent travel is not encouraged and the government set a minimum daily price for visitors. When we visited there was a high season and low season and prices varied accordingly. The costs included transportation, accommodation, a driver and guide, and meals. Some of the money raised is used by the government as part of a sustainable development fund for education and healthcare for the Bhutanese people.
However, since Bhutan opened up following the pandemic, the minimum price has increased significantly, and the tourism fee is charged on top of the travelling expenses.
We were shown this amazing country by our delightful guide Dawa and driver-extraordinaire Tring. Punakha is located east of Bhutan’s capital and it takes around three hours to drive from Thimphu.
One thing that you get used to about driving through Bhutan is that the roads are rarely straight – they will wind their way up the mountain passes through multiple hairpin bends and then wind their way down. It’s a lovely way to travel although we were told that some visitors can occasionally suffer a degree of travel sickness.
On the way we crossed the Dochula Pass, at an altitude of 3100m, which offered wonderful views of the surrounding mountains.
The pass is noted for the 108 Druk Wangyal Khang Zhang Chortens (also known as stupas) which are located on a hill beside the road. They are a memorial to Bhutanese soldiers killed in a battle between Bhutan and Assam insurgents in 2003.
Visiting Punakha Dzong
Punakha Dzong is located at the confluence of the crystal-clear Pho Chu and Mo Chu rivers, respectively the male and female rivers, which join to form the Puna Tsang chu or Sankosh river. A dzong is a fortified monastery and its architecture is typical of this region.
One of the lovely things about Bhutan is that the country has a happiness index, created by the 4th King of Bhutan, who declared that ‘Gross National Happiness is more important than Gross Domestic Product.’ He was absolutely right. Punakha Dzong has another name: Pungthang Dewa chhenbi Phodrang which means ‘palace of great happiness’.
The dzhong was built in 1637-38, conceived by Ngawang Namgyal, 1st Zhabdrung Rinpoche, the Buddhist lama who unified Bhutan as a nation state. There is a legend that the architect had a vision, inspired by Zhabdrung, which encouraged him to design and construct the building.
The main central tower, the utse, is a hugely impressive piece of architecture. It is a fortress as much as monastery and as such has defensive walls all around. The entrance is defined by a very steep staircase and a huge wooden door. The interior is filled with beautiful murals depicting the life of Buddha as well as three large gilded statues – of the Buddha, Ngawang Namgyal and Guru Rinpoche, the most important saint in Bhutan, credited with bringing Buddhism to the country. He is also known as Padmasambhava, which means ‘born from lotus flower.’
There are three courtyards within the dzhong, known as dochey. and these are surrounded by administrative offices and a bodhi tree, a sacred fig, which is hugely revered in Buddhism.
The last courtyard is home to the Nag Yul Bum Temple. National treasures such as the embalmed body of Zhabdrung and the original Kanjur, the holy book, are stored here. No one is allowed to enter besides the king and the chief abbot.
The dzhong also has a covered wooden bridge which crosses the clear blue waters of the Mo Chu. The original bridge was built in the 17th century but was destroyed during a flash flood in the 1950s. A replacement was completed in 2008.
When visiting monasteries in Bhutan conservative dress should be worn. We were advised that we should wear long sleeves when entering temples. If the weather is warm it’s fine to put on a light jacket (we used our light raincoats). Also, photography is usually forbidden inside temples and it’s important to respect this.
Punakha Festival and the King’s Birthday
Each year the Punakha festival is held in February or March, depending on Bhutan’s lunar calendar. It lasts five days. There are all sorts of displays throughout the festival. Punakha Drubchen celebrates the Bhutanese victory of the Tibetans, who invaded of Bhutan in 1639, with dramatisations and re-enactments of the battle. In 2005, Punakha Tshechu was introduced and this focuses on traditional Buddhist teachings. Folk dancing is an important part of the festivals. Everyone dresses up in their finest traditional clothes. Men wear a gho, a knee-length tunic and women wear a long ankle-length dress called a kira.
We just missed the festival dates but were lucky that the timing of our visit enabled us to join the festivities for the king’s birthday, a three day celebration for Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, the fifth and current Druk Gyalpo. (We were doubly lucky because we later travelled into Nepal, where we joined in celebrations for the Hindu festival of Holi.) Even though we had arrived quite early, the festival was well under way. There was plenty of dancing…
… and informal.
We watched the dancing from underneath the bodhi tree. As part of the celebration an enormous tapestry, known as a thongdrol, is unfurled. It is the most beautiful and colourful tapestry, taking up the side of a whole building within the complex. You can see a portrait of the king at the base of the tapestry. Respect for the king is enormous in Bhutan and his image can be found in most people’s homes.
Inside the temple complex there were further celebrations with masked dances performed by the monks.
Above all else, it was a happy festival. Everybody welcomed us. We got chatting to some of the local ladies – they were very keen to practice their English (which was excellent) and we talked about the traditions in our countries.
Other Things to See in the Area
Exploring the Rivers and Suspension Bridge
This is the longest suspension bridge in Bhutan and it crosses the Po Chu river, linking the Dzong to Shengana, Samdingkha, and Wangkha.
It’s 160m long and is emblazoned with prayer flags that wave vigorously in the breeze.
There are some good walks along the Mo Chu river upstream. It’s a really beautiful area. And, if you’re feeling adventurous, there may also be some opportunities to go rafting on the river.
Sangchhen Dorji Lhuendrup
The Sangchhen Dorji Lhuendrup nunnery is located in Wolakha. It provides a permanent training and meditation centre for nuns. There are also opportunities for the nuns to learn various skills such as tailoring, statue making and thangka painting (a traditional style of Buddhist painting).
The temple has an impressive stupa.
Chimi Lhakhang is located around 10km from Punakha. It is a monastery built in the 15th century after being blessed by Lama Drukpa Kunley, also known as the ‘Divine Madman’, who had an, er, unusual approach to teaching Buddhism which often involved singing, dancing and generally being shocking. He brought from Tibet a wooden phallus adorned with a silver handle and this is housed in the monastery.
It is used to strike pilgrims, particularly women who wish to become pregnant, on the head as a blessing.
All through the area you will see paintings of phalluses on housing walls. It is a tradition in Bhutan that the phallus protects people from evil.
Staying At A Local Farmhouse
We spent the night in Chimi Lhakhang Farm – we had a cosy attic room and cooked dinner with our lovely hosts.
Our guide often asked what sort of food we would like to try – of course we asked if we could enjoy traditional Bhutanese food.
We had great fun in the evening and spent time in the kitchen preparing dinner with our hosts. Dawa and Tring joined in with the cooking as well.
The main dish was shakam paa, which comprised dried beef cooked with chillies and radish slices, spiced with dried chillies.
We also learned how to make khewa datshi, a dish of sliced potatoes with cheese.
And, of couse, the ubiquitous and utterly delicious ema datshi – chilli cheese.
All served up with red rice, it was a feast!
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Visit Petra in Jordan
The Rose Red City
There are many magnificent archaeological sites in the world and the Rose Red City of Petra is undoubtedly one of the greatest. It had long been an ambition to visit and it was top of our list when exploring Jordan. Here is a guide to a visit to Petra.
- The Rose Red City
The most famous image of Petra that of Al-Khazneh, The Treasury (the one you see in the film Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade) and we knew that we would walk through a dramatic canyon, known as As-Siq, to reach it. What we didn’t realise was quite how extensive the site is.
The History Of Petra
Petra was built by the Nabateans, an ancient Arab tribe, around the 1st Century BCE. The Nabateans were involved with caravaneering, trading in goods from all over the Middle East and Far East, and they became very wealthy protecting the region’s trade routes. Goods came from as far as China and India. What was fascinating about the Nabateans was that they were a clever, enlightened people. They believed in cultural inclusivity and appropriated technology from all over the world, absorbing influences from the places they traded with. You can see many different architectural styles throughout Petra.
In 106 CE the city was overtaken by the Romans who renamed it Arabia Petraea. The city did thrive under Roman rule for many years but its importance as a trade route declined as sea trading routes developed and became more important for transporting goods. It was significantly damaged by an earthquake in the 4th Century CE. It declined further during the Byzantine era and the city eventually was abandoned became ‘lost’ for centuries. It was re-discovered by explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt in 1812.
Visit Petra In Jordan – Practicalities
The site is located around 240km from Jordan’s capital city, Amman. The time it takes to reach the area does vary depending on the traffic, especially in Amman, which can be quite congested, but also the route you take. It’s around three hours by car on the modern desert highway or five hours on the King’s Highway. It is possible to do a day trip to Petra from Amman by bus, leaving early in the morning and returning in the evening, but the visit would be very rushed. It is also possible to reach the site using a hire car (the driving would be easy except in Amman where the roads are quite chaotic) or via a private tour – there are many options available.
We had travelled to Petra via Mount Nebo and the Dead Sea having spent some time in Amman, and after visiting the Roman city of Jerash.
You can’t stay in Petra itself (edit – that is, there are no hotels in Petra), but there is a town called Wadi Musa nearby. Our hotel was about a ten minute walk from the site entrance at Wadi Musa, which was a further kilometre away from the start of the Siq. Included in the ticket price is a horse ride to the Siq, which we declined. We don’t feel comfortable using animals when we are travelling as we can never be sure how they are treated, so avoided these. We prefer to walk anyway. Since we visited, an initiative has been established to use electric vehicles that will replace the horse-drawn carriages.
We had two full days to explore. We needed them. You cannot enter the site without purchasing a ticket at the visitor’s centre at Wadi Musa and we recommend finding a guide for at least part of your visit. We found the most delightful guide at the visitor’s centre who was with us the first morning; he showed us Petra’s main features and explained a lot of the history. We spent the rest of the time there exploring the site for ourselves. (This link will take you to current entrance fees and costs for guides.)
Just before the entrance to the Siq you can see the Obelisk Tomb and the Bab as-Siq Triclinium.
Then you enter the gorge itself. The Siq is about 1200 m long. It is deep (up to 80m in places), at times narrow, and stunningly beautiful. You can see all sorts of natural features, rock formations and fossils, as well as the remains of carvings showing caravans and camels.
The photo shows drainage channels carved into the rock, inspired by Chinese bamboo irrigation channels, which carried water to Petra.
Then, at the end of the walk, you get a tantalising glimpse…
…of the Treasury, Al Khazneh. It’s actually a tomb of a 1st century Nabatean king. It’s about 30m wide and over 40m high. As with all the tombs at Petra, it was carved from the top down. (This process is similar to the amazing underground churches of Lalibela in Ethiopia.) You can see lots of indentations in the sandstone at the side of the structure. No-one is really sure about what they were for, but they could have been used by the craftsmen and masons for climbing to the top.
The Treasury is just the start of the site. It’s the only place you are not allowed to go inside. Everywhere else is open for exploration. There are no restrictions and no barriers so you need to take care.
From the Treasury you follow the Street of Facades, which has rows of tombs, all intricately carved from the rock.
At the end of this street is the amphitheatre, carved into the rock, which appears to have a Roman influence. Its maximum capacity was around 7000 people.
At the end of the street you can see further Nabotean tombs to the right…
If you make a left turn you will walk along a colonnaded street, with marble pavement much of which is still preserved, which was effectively the city centre. It would have been lined with temples and public buildings.
At the end of the street is the route to the Monastery.
We climbed 800 steps to Ad-Deir, The Monastery, which we found to be a moderate walk. It is classed as difficult on the trail guide because some of the steps have worn over the years. We needed to scramble a little on some sections.
When we arrived we were delighted to discover that the Monastery was as spectacular at the Treasury.
If you look closely at the photo below you can see a man sitting on the building, high up on the central colonnade. We had watched him climb all the way up the adjacent cliff face and then onto the building itself, leaping across the colonnades with absolute confidence – an amazing form of parkour. It was utterly terrifying watching him.
Exploring The Trails At Petra
There are numerous trails you can follow, some of which involve pretty tough climbs where the stairs have been eroded. The guide indicates the options available and the trails are well marked with brown signs.
The other walk we did was the Al Khubtha trail, a climb to view The Treasury from above. We met a woman who was on her way down who said she had counted the number of steps, and sadly we can’t quite remember what her count was, but it was several hundred. The view was fantastic when we reached the summit.
We also really loved the colours of the rock as we explored the various tombs. The white is silica, the red is iron oxide and the yellow, sandstone.
It is possible to see a night-time sound and light show at the Treasury. Walking through the Siq in the dark to see the Treasury lit up by lanterns is an ethereal sight.
Practicalities To Visiting Petra In Jordan
There are restrooms on site at either end of the colonnaded street and nearby cafes which offer refreshments. We recommend the lemon juice with mint drink – it’s refreshing and delicious.
It’s advisable to wear a sunhat and use sun protection if you are exploring the walking trails as there is no shelter from the sun. Good walking shoes are advisable. Make sure you carry water with you. Use the bins provided to dispose of rubbish.
Keep on the trails. You may meet local people as you walk – we ended up chatting with some people on the Al Khubtha trail and were invited to enjoy a cup of tea with them. (We weren’t asked for money but we did offer a contribution towards the tea.)
After Your Visit To Petra – A Foodie Evening At The Petra Kitchen
After a full day’s exploring we were pretty tired and there’s not a lot to do at Wadi Musa. But we did manage to join a cookery course at the Petra Kitchen on one of the evenings. One of the chefs was the uncle of the guide who showed us around the site. We learned to make Jordanian food and then eat it – a fine way to spend an evening. We made Shourbat Adas (lentil soup), Baba Ganoush, Fatoush, Tabbouleh, Tahina salad, Galayet Bandora, Araies Iahma (Bedouin pizza – pittas stuffed with minced meat and covered with Galayet Bandora) as a mezza. The main course was Maqluba, an upside-down hotpot, which was scrummy. Sadly, we were too busy cooking – and eating – to take photos! But we do plan to cook the recipes at home and will no doubt blog about them in the future.
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Making Friends in a Conflict Zone
The Nagorno Karabakh region of Armenia is an area where there is territorial dispute with neighbouring Azerbaijan. Although it had been a war zone since the late 1980s a cease-fire had been established in 1994 and, when we travelled to Armenia a few years later, the local guide felt that it was safe to visit. Along with a group of other visitors we were invited to travel to the region to see the Noravank Monastery and the hotel we had been staying at, in Armenia’s capital Yerevan, threw in a picnic lunch.
Noravank is a beautiful monastery, built in typical Armenian style. It contains a number of buildings, the dominant structure of which is Surb Astvatsatsin (Holy Mother of God). As with many Armenian monasteries there are a number of khachkars – carved stone slabs which each bear a cross – which can also been seen around the complex.
When we arrived at the site we discovered that we weren’t the only visitors. A local family were gathered together around a makeshift table and were clearly having a celebration. A fleece lay draped across the branches of a nearby tree, a sheep having been slaughtered at the site and was now roasting over a fire.
We know how we would feel if a coach-load of tourists turned up to a family celebration, that is, a bit miffed. But Armenia is still a relatively unusual destination and, when we visited, tourists were rare. We were welcomed with open arms.
We had no idea what event the family were celebrating. We could speak about seven words of Armenian and they could speak no English. The family beckoned to us to join them. Of around twelve visitors in the tourist group, only we and one other joined the party. Such a shame – the other nine missed out on a fantastic celebration, totally their loss. (You can see the grumps in the background of the photo below, sitting on a hill, waiting for their hotel picnic and watching us having a good time.)
The family had clearly prepared – they had brought 40 buckets of home-made wine with them and they generously plied us with drink. We were offered barbequed lamb so fresh it had been bleating just hours earlier, flat breads, pickled walnuts, the freshest salads and fruit. All delicious. Food always tastes better with friends, even if you have only known them for minutes.
This happened over 20 years ago. We still have precious memories of that afternoon; of a most delicious meal, of gorging on wine, toasting a group of people who had been kind enough to invite some foreign visitors to their party, of being made to feel unbelievably welcome. We could not properly speak their language (although we were able to thank them in Armenian), they could not speak ours. We had no idea what the correct etiquette was, but we learned that day that communication does not have to be verbal. What we could express was our gratitude – with a huge smile, a raised glass and a farewell hug. We may have been picnicking in a region where there was a territorial dispute between two countries, but our experience quite simply reflected the very best of humanity.