Category Archives: TRAVEL

Impressions of the Edinburgh Fringe Arts Festival

I obviously lied in my last post about the “regular updates” I would bring you from the Fringe. It wasn’t intentional, I swear. In my mind, I pictured leisured writing in a pub while sipping a drink, taking notes about funny happenings and then sharing them here. I forgot how all-consuming life at the festival is if you are producing a show and living with an untenable number of people for a month. It’s an un-natural atmosphere and one that doesn’t lend itself to extended periods of thinking.

I spent just over a month in Edinburgh this year and in that time played a part in producing 28 shows, including the world premiere of “50 Shades! The Musical“, a parody of the terrifyingly popular 50 Shades of Grey book series. It was exhausting, but incredibly rewarding work. Managing to persuade a crowd to come see your show every night and having people actually turn up is a great feeling, especially if they enjoy the show.

Stacks of Fringe guides on the last day of the festival

Edinburgh is a great place to be during the festival. From the early rumblings of excitement as the city wakes up and rubs it eyes, to the frustrating middle days as tempers run high and the public gets fed up with the endless reams of flyers and crowds. Then comes the sad end, as stages are wheeled away, thousands of performers and workers leave for home and the city loses a little colour.

I lived in a large apartment with 12 other people, which was nowhere near as horrifying as I expected it to be. It was not always a love-in but we did pretty well considering. I made some great new friends, renewed old friendships and gained confidence that maybe I’m not so aimless in life after all.

Path to Arthur’s Seat

Packing is such sweet sorrow…

I am Edinburgh-bound. For the second year in a row, I will be joining the ranks of Chicago’s “Baby Wants Candy”, a musical improv group who have been going to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival for over a decade. With bases in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, they put on a great show and I love working with them.

No matter how exciting a trip or a journey will be, packing is always torturous for me. I’m currently staring at my bag wondering where the faint smell of rubber lingering inside it came from and wondering if there will ever come a time when I am left with room to spare in my luggage.

I’m a light packer but there is always too much stuff. I’ll be gone for a month so realistically will need a considerable amount.

Throughout the month, I hope to keep you updated on my experience of the festival, which  really has to be seen to be understood. It is an injection of life and vibrancy into an already pretty lively city. I went last year without a camera and am determined to rectify that this year.

On to an adventure.

Volvo Ocean Race Finale 2012, Galway, Ireland

Galway was proud host to one of the biggest sailing races in the world, the Volvo Ocean Race, over the last few weeks. Here are a few photos of the experience. As well as in-port racing and sailing demonstrations, visitors were treated to free concerts every night and fireworks to celebrate the 4th of July for the American contingent. Galway was alive during the race and did its utmost to make sure everyone had a good time. Hopefully the race will stop in Galway again in 2015.

Eyre Square transformed into a mini-funfair for the kids

Galway Docks- Leisure boats

A crowd waits for the Saw Doctors to perform

Galway Bay

The Main Stage

A selection of the racing boats, including Abu Dhabi, Groupama and Camper

The famed “Sails” in Eyre Square were covered in patchwork by a local school

Galway Docks with Ferris wheel in the distance

Tallinn, Estonia- Trip Report

I immediately warmed to our hostel (16 Eur Hostel) in Tallinn. Reception was buzzing with people buying beer, asking for directions, or generally just hanging out. The wifi was free and the code highly visible on the walls. We arrived quite late from the Helsinki ferry but check-in was still not an issue. We climbed the few flights to our room, admiring the quirky common areas.
Our room was outlandishly big for the price, with comically small beds. We could have staged a ballet in there with room to spare. The ceilings gave the building away as a former office block. I washed my shoes and socks (still filled with ice-water from our morning trip to Helsinki’s Suomenlinna) and went to bed in high spirits.

We got up early the next day and headed over to Tallinn’s main attraction – it’s UNESCO-protected Old Town. In the main square, we treated ourselves to a cheap and cheerful breakfast. Yet more Raig (traditional rye bread) was had, along with porridge wheat (a first for me, which I have since re-created at home). We began our circular journey around the outskirts of Old Town, but not before being whistled at to move out of the way of a guy taking a photo.
Whistled at. Like you would to a dog. WHISTLED AT. I was filled with indignant rage but the slippery ice-covered cobbles prevented me from stomping over to the offender. I settled for a death-stare instead while trying to recall any German curse-words.

Main square

We carefully picked our way along the main sites, with some truly stunning theatres and churches to occupy our thoughts and our memory cards. The Russian Orthodox Cathedral was particularly impressive. We loitered outside as service was taking place, watching the opulent display through the glass.

Russian Orthodox Cathedral

There are a number of scenic viewpoints in Tallinn, where you can survey the city from a height. The first viewpoint (where I spotted the “love locks”, mentioned in a previous post) was where I saw my first tourist mishap with the ice. An old man fell impressively hard and with great gusto. I slithered over to assist him but he insisted he was fine and was relieved to “get it over with”.
Later in the day, I had my own close call. After many slides and “baby giraffe learning to stand” manoeuvres, I skidded dramatically and was faced with certain unintended horizontality. Luckily (or unluckily, depending on your perspective), I stubbed my non-sliding foot against a protruding cobble and managed to stop the fall. There was a brief moment where I though the force might have broken my foot but I pushed on, reasoning that it was already “on ice” (harr) so nothing more could be done.

As we walked and slid along, we saw a group of young children being led around by their teacher. They were all joined together by leashes, like a toddler chain-gang. I bought some kitschy souvenirs and stopped off at Rimi supermarket to get food and return to the hostel for lunch. At Rimi, I had my first ever 100% Estonian conversation. Sure, it was basically “hi, yes, thanks, bye” but hey, little victories. We relaxed at the hostel for an hour before returning to Fat Margaret’s Tower to continue exploring.
We found our way back to the main square, thoroughly enjoying the feel of the place, the great graffiti and street-art and all the small side-streets and alleyways. It reminded me a bit of my hometown of Galway, with all the medieval buildings and cobbled alleys.

We had a delicious dinner of Estonian garlic bread (cooked in thin strips) and goat’s cheese and cherry tomato pasta in Restorant Kohvik. Down one of my beloved side-streets, I found a small shop selling original prints of the city and bought an unframed one to take home.
We briefly watched a fire-thrower near the boundary and then headed back to Rimi, where we had spotted very cheap souvenir chocolates earlier in the day.
Retiring to the hostel with a few ciders, we passed an off-license bearing the unfortunate name of “Go Alko”. We’re still considering this advice.

We had a leisurely morning the next day, a relief after the pretty busy travel schedule of the previous few days. We watched the Athletic Championships and a travel show about Oman (which an Ozzie had enthusiastically recommended to me in Jordan) while packing our bags for Ryanair’s brutal judgement.
After a brief stroll through Old Town, we headed to the bus stop to get the airport bus (1e).
We got off a little too early, as the Estonian for “airport” and “busport” are extremely similar. When we did get to Tallinn airport, we found it to be unexpectedly modern. I amused myself by skyping in a futuristic pod while having my ears assaulted by the tortured screams of a small child who, of course, turned out to be on our flight.
On the plane, I thought back over the highlights of the trip while the girl next to me attempted to engage me by asking how much I had spent on everything in Tallinn. She bragged that she had spent less than anyone had ever spent on a trip, while showing me a suspect-looking tuna, apple and pea wrap she had gotten “for nothing”.

Tallinn was the end of a longer trip to Stockholm and Helsinki and I would visit each again. The level of English and public transport was good in each city. Personally I found the Estonians to be the friendliest and most willing to chat, but the Swedes and Finns were very helpful when asked. Both Sweden and Finland have reputations for being extremely expensive to visit. I’m living proof that this doesn’t have to be true. By booking individual legs of flights (eg. Dublin-Stockholm, Stockholm-Helsinki) and working my way back to the start point, it worked out cheaper than simply booking a return flight. Accommodation is expensive in Stockholm and Helsinki but if you are creative (utilising sites like Hotwire or Airbnb) you stand to save a lot and maybe end up in a place you otherwise wouldn’t have gotten to see. Public transport is reasonably priced in all three cities and should be more than sufficient. If we were to have gotten taxis everywhere, we would have been crippled by the price. Food can always be cheap, if you budget the odd meal out while using the (usually) complimentary breakfast provided by your accommodation and going to supermarkets for the odd meal.
Alcohol is expensive in Stockholm and Helsinki (the cheapest drinks we found in bars were about 6/7e), whereas it is much more affordable in Tallinn. We did not purchase city cards for any of the cities and think it worked out well without.

Highlights of the trip were the museums in Stockholm, the scenery on the outskirts of Helsinki and the Old Town in Tallinn.

Helsinki Trip Report

Day 1- Stockholm to Helsinki, Temppeliaukio Kirkko

4.10am saw us up,alert and surprisingly okay. We were making the journey from Sweden to Finland today. I shuffled to the bathroom, half-expecting to see semi-naked guy again but I was sorely disappointed. We checked out while feeling sorry for the lonely night shift receptionist (Connect has a 24hr reception).

We waited for a bus just outside the hotel to take us to Telefonplan t-bana station and onwards to Centralen. From there, we got the Arlanda Express train. It was quite swanky.

Arlanda Airport was easy as pie. There is self check-in and security is fast. Boarding was easy and the airport staff zipping about the place on scooters was our morning entertainment. Slightly perturbed by the fact that my passport was not checked at any stage (I could have been a drug-dealing murderer!), I enjoyed the short and underbooked flight.

Once in Helsinki Airport, we got a Finnair bus to the main rail station and continued on our lumbering journey to our accommodation in Ramsinniemi. We hadn’t planned for the amount of snow that was on the ground (it was late March) and dragged our wheelie cases through snow drifts before reaching our spectacularly picturesque hotel, courtesy of Hotwire.

Extremely relieved to be free of our baggage,we got the train back into Helsinki and went to see Temppeliaukio Kirkko, the Rock Church. On the outside, the place was a pile of rocks and snow with a cross stuck on it. Nothing special. On the inside though, it was stunning. Interior carved from the rock, wood beams, plush purple pews and a giant bronze dome. We were lucky enough to arrive 15 minutes before it became available for public viewing. A small trickle of mass-goers exited and gazed at the tourists which vastly outnumbered them.

Interior

Outside of the Rock Church

Most places had closed by the time we got back to the city centre, so we people-watched in a shopping centre for a while before having dinner in an Italian restaurant. After picking up some essentials (read: copious amounts of snacks), we headed back to Ramsinniemi.
We had purchased a day transport ticket, which was proving good value.

Once back at the hotel, we wandered the grounds for a while to take in the view.

Day 2- Suomenlinna and Ferry to Tallinn (Estonia)

We checked out and took lots of scenic pictures on the hotel grounds to bore people at home with. The water was solid. An early bird had built an igloo under the emergency buoyancy aid. One brave man was walking his dog on what is normally a deep lake.


We got the metro in to the city centre, stowed our luggage in the rail station (giant, giant day-long lockers are 4e) and set off for Suomenlinna.

Suomenlinna is a series of small islands just off the coast of Helsinki. (For Irish people: picture the Aran Islands). A regular ferry takes people on the short journey to the islands. Tickets are reasonably priced. (The islands are inhabited so it’s not exclusively a tourist service).

Suomenlinna was beautiful, but pretty treacherous in parts due to thick sheets of ice coating the paths and hills. The snow and ice melted over the course of the day and made the going easier. We walked on the fortress, witnessed the might of the Baltic Sea for ourselves and rambled over to the smaller islands (one of which is a naval training academy).
Many of the buildings were closed for winter and were quite decisively snowed in.

We got the ferry back and were entertained by the regular cries of “Wow Chiwawa!” by two small boys, as they delighted in the waves splashing the boat.

On Mannerheim, we stopped at an all-you-can-eat pizza buffet. We retrieved our luggage from the rail station and made our way to South Harbour, after some confusion about which harbour houses the ferry terminal to Tallinn. (The West houses the Stockholm ferry, the South the Tallinn and St. Petersburg lines. Of course, thinking about this now, this makes basic geographical sense).
We arrived at the airport-like terminal just in time to witness a massive brawl, reminiscent of traveller fights at home. Balls to the wall, everybody involved, an ever-growing smattering of blood on the ground.

About a dozen police officers broke them up while our taxi driver waved happily at us, completely oblivious to the violence. I laughed that a guy despondently dragging a crate of beer after him and sporting a bloody and broken nose was my last impression of Finland.

We boarded a raucous ship (the “Superstar”) after watching 3 teenage boys be escorted off the Baltic Princess, bound for Russia. We wondered if they were runaways or stowaways. We sat on a large leather couch outside the on-board perfume shop, with a view of the arcade games. Before the ship had even begun to rumble to life, a man took up residence at the poker machines and proceeded to play two games at once (one machine with each hand). The girls behind us shared a litre of white wine while, bizarrely, the Corrs (an Irish band) came on over the sound system. I traipsed over to the supermarket to stock up and accidentally bought carbonated water for what seemed like the hundredth time that trip. The motion of the ship threw me off-balance while waiting to pay. I returned to my seat, dizzy. (And fizzy. Badum-tish!)

Tallinn awaited.

Stockholm Trip Report

Day 1

The first Swede we saw was an Adonis. Tall and muscular, floppy white-blond hair and startlingly blue eyes. Turns out Alexander Skarsgaard is kind of an average joe. Landing in Skavsta airport, we got a flygbussarna to the city Terminalen. It took a little longer than anticipated and we briefly considered throwing ourselves out the window after half an hour of being bored to tears by business men and women talking in great depth about lipstick profit margins and growth projections. Unfortunately, the windows didn’t open wide enough.

When we got to the Terminalen I had a brief scuffle with an ATM, which I couldn’t insert my card into. A Japanese guy was having the same problem and between us we discovered that the ATM wanted us to put our cards in upside down, chip down. It’s the silly little things like that about travel that can really throw you. You get all the way to your destination only to be stumped by a mystifying lift or slightly different ATM. We crossed the road to the t-bana (tunnelbana, the stockholm underground train system) and proceeded to work out how to get to our accommodation in Alvsjo. We bought our tickets in the convenience shop (standard practise, there are no single ticket machines). Three trains later (we would later discover there was a commuter train we could take instead to make things simpler), we arrived and looked forward to laying our heads down. It was late and we were tired.

We were staying in the Connect Hotel in Alvsjo, courtesy of Hotwire. It’s a nice, if unusually-structured, hotel. The reception is on the third floor of what seems to be an office building and it doubles as a bar. We made quite the scene trudging in with our bags at 11 at night, edging past the people enjoying a beer after a day conducting business at the International Fair Centre (Stockholmsmassan) across the road. Almost exclusively frequented by Swedish business people, we stood out. However, the staff had perfect english and we were soon opening the door to our…eh,”compact” room. To be fair to the hotel, we knew the room was going to be small, but we still had a bit of laugh to ourselves upon seeing it for the first time.

We had bunkbeds and I, reliving my childhood, took the top one. The bed had been cleaned and fresh sheets were folded neatly on it, but it was not made. Obviously someone forgot, so I gamely began to dress the bed. I don’t know if you’ve ever attempted to dress a top bunk, but it’s slightly difficult. Clinging to the stairs with a vice leg grip, I clumsily dressed it to my satisfaction. I went to sleep vaguely bitter that the wifi was restricted. (Not uncommon in Sweden, but a part of me dies when wifi signals stop passing through my body).

I like to plan a lot before trips, so the day isn’t wasted deciding what to do. That way you can adjust as you go if something catches your eye or you hear on the ground that you should give something a miss. However, my friend and I were a little overwhelmed by the amount of museums in Stockholm. I can safely say I have never heard of so many museums in the same city.  So, we had a very loose plan for the next day. We decided to start in Gamla Stan.

Day 2

8.15 start. We crawled out of bed, unjustifiably tired. I had a rather startling encounter with a half-naked gentleman in the unisex bathroom in the hall. Connect provided a nice complimentary breakfast which was pretty standard fare but nice and fresh. It was here I had my first introduction to intense swedish rye bread. It was cold outside and we sacrificed style for warmth, unlike a lot of the very fashionably-dressed Swedes. We got the t-bana to Gamla Stan and began exploring. We walked by the water over to City Hall, which is incredibly photogenic. We doubled back to see the Riksdag (parliament) and the Palace. We were in time to see the changing of the Royal Guard, which turned out to be pretty easy, as the ceremony was never-ending.

View of the city from City Hall

We agreed that the nearby Royal Armoury Museum was a good place to start. It’s obviously run by people who love history. There are three floors: the top is an interactive learning experience for kids (and childish adults), the middle is where the costumes and weapons are kept and the bottom houses some royal carriages. There was also a small Modern art exhibition taking place entitled “What you would do with the royals”. Artists had painted images of how they would spend the day with a particular royal. It was surprisingly light-hearted and funny. Perhaps the royals have a sense of humour?

The museum cost 80KR and was worth it, in my opinion. I got to see the blood of Gustavus Adolphus and the gun that killed him.
(I realise I may sound oddly excited about something so morbid, but I spent a significant part of my history degree writing about GA and to see his clothes and see that he really was real was quite the experience).  My friend enjoyed the gorgeous Afghan daggers and gifts from foreign dignitaries on display.

While we gathered some free maps by the door, the Royal Guard passed outside the window.

Our next stop was the Nobel Museet.  A very nice man let us have the student rate even though it’s been a while since we were students, so entry with audio-tour was 80KR.  I went in knowing next to nothing about the Nobel Prize and came out thoroughly educated. It has a fascinating history, from Mr. Nobel himself to the current-day winners.
I hadn’t know that the same person could be nominated over a number of years, nor did I know that Mr. Nobel insisted rather cryptically that all the prizes should be awarded in Sweden, except for the Peace Prize, which must always take place in Oslo. It was interesting and exciting to hear about the developments in physics, chemistry, literature and peace. The special exhibit at the time was dedicated to Marie Curie and there was a large French contingent there to see her. (They have enthusiastically claimed her, despite her being Polish). I enjoyed the museum quite a lot. From reading online, not everyone shared my favourable opinion so I guess it’s a judgement call.

I went to the bathroom before leaving and had just sat down when the bathroom was suddenly filled with the booming voice of  Nobel-winner W.B.Yeats, telling me to “COME AWAY, O HUMAN CHILD!”. At the time, it was un-nerving. In retrospect, hilarious. When we were handing back our headphones, we noticed the royal guard passing outside the window yet again and wondered if they ever just sat down for a while. On the way out, the automatic door revolted and smacked me bodily in the shoulder. As I stumbled around trying to regain my balance, the very nice man ran out exclaiming “my god, that’s never happened before!”. Taking it as a sign that the museum had “tapped me” as a future Nobel Prize winner (for Literature, obviously), I strode out happily. My friend theorised that it could also have been the museum forcibly ejecting me. I prefer my idea.

We went for a quick meal in a tacky margarita bar nearby. There we were treated to the dulcet tones of Celine Dion. On Repeat. Trust me, that doesn’t help the food go down. My friend browsed for souvenirs while I went my own way (I have an aversion to souvenirs because I sell them) and looked in some shops selling local art and craftwork. The streets of Gamla Stan are an attraction in themselves and make for a nice, soothing walk.

We reluctantly headed back to the Gamla Stan t-bana station, while admiring the slushie-like appearance of the half-frozen water. I had worked out that we only needed to get one train (a commuter, outside of the t-bana system) to get back to Alvsjo but my friend insisted we go for the 3-train option again because it was tried and tested. It’s the one frustrating aspect of travelling with someone who is overly cautious but great in every other way. It was rush-hour, but we gritted our teeth and it wasn’t too long before we were back in our beloved Alvsjo. Not before hearing one young Swedish girl’s plaintive cry on the t-bana: “JUSTIN!!! (Bieber) JUSTIN, FOREVER!!”. Once back in Connect, I utilised the sole computer available for guests in the lobby. It has a 10-minute limit but I figured that would be lots of time to check emails and do basic stuff. Unfortunately, for some inexplicable reason, it took 4 minutes for it to load a single page. I thought my head would explode at the slowness of it and I gave up.

Back in the room, we made plans for the next day and watched “Tunnelbanen” on Kanal 5. It follows the t-bana security and medics responding to calls from the public about incidents in the stations. There were no english subtitles and we didn’t understand any of it, but I still consider it to be the best show ever made.

Day 3

Another 8.15 start, extended to 8.45 due to laziness. I met the semi-naked man again in the bathroom for what was becoming a semi-regular, semi-naked encounter. We had heard good things about Skansen (a large open-air museum and zoo in Djurgarden) and decided to brave it, despite the cold. We got the train to centralen and a tram from there. (Stockholm train tickets are transferrable to connections within a certain time frame). It’s worth mentioning that the transport authority is extremely vigilant about fare dodgers. We had our tickets checked every single time.

Skansen seemed only half-open when we got there, which we had expected. It’s very much a summer-orientated idea and a lot of attractions were closed. We learned more than we ever wanted to know about tobacco and matches in the museum of the same name. (I can still smell the dried tobacco leaves). We headed off in search of some nicotine-free animals. We were in luck.
Owls, wolves, wolverines, foxes, bears, otters, seals, bison, deer, goats, horses, boars and reindeer were all in our crosshairs. Skansen was very quiet, with only a brave few taking on the ice and the cold. It meant we got an unobstructed view of the animals. The bears had come out of hibernation early and were the stars of the show. It was some time before I realised they were ice-skating. Ice-skating bears, folks.


Apart from the animals, we took in a traditional Sami village, some nice windmills and great views of Stockholm. Flourescent children on school tours belted fearlessly through the ice as haggard teachers slid awkwardly after them.
We started to get “properly” cold after a so we crossed the road to the Nordiska Museet (Nordic Museum). Before we got in the door, I gave the most complicated directions anyone has ever given to some lost Russian tourists. They were using a Cyrillic map and, even though I can read Cyrillic, the place-names were in Swedish and made no sense to me. In broken Russian, English and French (don’t ask), I managed to get them where they wanted to go.

The museum building itself is very impressive and attractive. We got a free audio tour and free postcards. The audio tour proved to be our downfall. It gives directions at first but then leaves you to it. We kept coming into exhibits “backwards” for the audio tour, so the audio would be in the wrong order. We eventually gave up on it. The museum is very comprehensive but wasn’t quite to my taste. They had one or two great photography exhibits on the ground floor, which I really enjoyed. But the focus of the rest of the museum was very heavily on textiles and fashion and the design of living (furniture design through the years, etc). It got a bit tedious at times. However, the giant stature of King Gustavus Vasa in the foyer is well worth seeing. Colourful and imposing, it’s quite the achievement.

Nordiska Museet

Gustavus Vasa

After an hour or two, we headed back to the city on the tram. We browsed the shops for a while. I made a killing in H&M and Gina Tricot, finally procuring some reasonably-priced earmuffs. An item I would never consider wearing at home for fear of looking ridiculous, I embraced the earmuff in Stockholm. We got the J-train back to Alvsjo, where we ate in the hotel. I had a nice salad with Cheese Paj (Pie, kind of like a quiche) with a glass of wine, which was the deal of the day (105KR). My friend ordered a burger and chips and was happy with her choice. For all its quirks, the food in Connect is very good and the staff are extremely pleasant.

I showered in the disturbingly spotless bathroom on the hall (no sign of semi-naked man). I caved and got a 24hr internet connection, timing it so I would have internet until we left for Helsinki. We planned to visit the National History Museum the next day.

Day 4

8.15 start again. We got the t-bana to Universtitet to go to the Natural History Museum. We were going to see some dinosaurs. The museum was good, if a little lax on English (or Russian, etc) translations in some of the temporary exhibits. There were a few quirky rooms like the “Animals in Music” room, featuring album covers involving animals. The dinosaur, evolution and human body exhibits were all great, and positively teeming with kids. I discovered that I have low blood pressure, can jump as far as a frog and have *some* lung capacity. (My swedish let me down in my understanding of that result).
There was a pretty poor food selection in the canteen so if you plan a trip, bring snacks.

After a few hours, we returned to the hotel, exhausted. We stocked up on supplies in the adjacent supermarket and I indulged in some online browsing. We needed an early night for our extremely early start to get our morning flight to Helsinki from Arlanda airport.

Something unexpected

I feel like one of the simultaneously best and worst things about travel in the digital age is that you can get a pretty good idea of what to expect on your trip.

This is good. You know to avoid certain areas that are rife with street crime or too touristy. You can find out if you’ll be able to get your wheelchair up the steps to that monument.

This is bad. You can watch videos taking you on a walk-through of the exact path you will take on Macchu Pichu. Live feed. You lose the element of surprise.

Planning is good. But I think we’ve become somewhat afraid of the unexpected in travel. Be prepared but don’t be too prepared.

I stumbled onto these “love locks” on a recent trip to Tallinn, Estonia. If I had read more guidebooks I probably would have known about them and even been given directions to them.

But finding them for myself made it feel more special.

Jordan Trip Report- Wrapping things up

It’s an early start to catch our flight but we still manage a quick breakfast at The Abbasi. The Abbasi is probably my favourite place (hotel, motel, hostel) I’ve ever stayed in. It’s a little shabby in places but it is such an interesting building and the people there are not at all cliquey. The common room is filled with old books, carpets, instruments and weapons. You felt like the staff actually cared whether you made it through the night. There was a free computer to use whenever you wanted. Not forgetting, of course, the cheap tours to most big spots, which saved us a fortune.

Hani (a driver we had met on our return from Musa) delivers his promise of a cheap taxi to the airport and we’re there in little under an hour. He needs to break a note to give us our change so we stop at the cafeteria. He tells me to go in and break it because they staff will be more likely to do it if a woman asks. Sure enough, once they understood what I wanted, the guys there nearly did themselves an injury getting the notes. We waved Hani off and trudged into the airport. It was too early for much to be open but Amman airport has a reasonable amount of shops to keep you occupied.

We’re some distance from the BMI desk when, bizarrely, the guy at the desk there yells “Garvey?”. “Yes?”, I yell back from ridiculously far away, trying to weave through those godforsaken bollards. (I’m guessing we were one of the last to check in and he took a lucky guess). We go through security twice- one general and one for the particular gate we’re going to. Each time I forget that women are searched separately and have to be pointed towards the cordoned-off area to the side where a bored looking burka-clad woman with her shoes off frisks me.

The flight is enjoyable, despite getting decked by a falling baby basinette and spilling the most orange juice anyone has ever spilled on another person on the unfortunate man next to me. He’s very good-natured about the whole thing and we fall into conversation. He’s taking his wife, daughter and grand-daughter to visit his engineer and doctor sons in America for 4 months. When he hears I’m Irish, he says: “I went to Leeds once. That’s close, right?” “Eh…kind of. I mean, it’s in England. But it’s closer than Jordan!” After about half an hour he turns to me and says: “Riverdance”. Looking proud, he continues “I like Riverdance”. An hour later he adds “Riverdance and Irish coffee”.

Jordan Trip Report- Day 6: Ajloun and Jerash

In the morning, we prepare excitedly for Ajloun and Jerash. Jerash had been something the two of us had been looking forward to in particular and we couldn’t wait to see if it was as incredible as reports made it sound. We were sharing the car with two French women: Florence and Frederique. Their English wasn’t the best so I brushed off my French and spoke briefly with them. Like us, they were doing a week’s holiday in Jordan. Pretty much everyone else we had spoken to was visiting as part of a larger trip or a round-the-world trip. They were from Lyon and I embarrassed myself trying to talk about rugby for a while before the conversation faded out. Our driver, Hani,  stopped and bought us some still-warm khubez which was indescribably delicious. I’ve been trying in vain to find something to rival it since coming home.

Our first stop was Ajloun Castle, in Ajloun. Admission is only 1JD and the first thing we noticed was that it was full of Jordanian tourists, always a good sign. Ajloun is an attractive castle with a small drawbridge and a surprisingly well-stocked museum. My favourite item was the home-made grenade on display. There’s access to the castle roof and the views are great from up there. This was the closest we would get to Syria and the topic was on the english-speaking guides’ minds when we passed them on the way out.
I think Ajloun gets overlooked a lot of the time by Western tourists but it’s definitely worth a look. In fact, I would recommend it over the Madaba Mosaic.

Next is Jerash. Jerash is fantastic. I’ll let the pictures do most of the talking but I can say that it’s an amazing site. You have the strange juxtaposition of new and old Jerash beside each other. The area of ruins is vast and very little is fenced off (except if unstable).
We happily spent hours there before rejoining Hani, Florence and Frederique and heading back to Abbasi.

We decide to take a walk through Downtown Amman to get some food and visit the Al-Husseini Mosque. The streets are buzzing with the sound of horns beeping, music blaring from every shop and stall and people talking and laughing. Everything is for sale here. Knock-off phones, dvds and cds, jewellery, western and traditional clothes. The Al-husseini mosque stands imposingly and makes an attractive addition to the square.

We get a cheap kabab from a street vendor and head back to the Abbasi to pack (BMI actually have quite generous baggage limits so this was fine) and say goodbye to people there.

Jordan Trip Report- Day 5: Little Petra

We attempted a lie-in today after our strenuous few days hiking for hours in the heat. We were still up at 9am on the dot. We had a leisurely breakfast in the dining room and noticed, not for the first time, that this hostel was empty compared to the bustling Abbasi in Amman. There’s probably too much accommodation in Musa which could explain it but the manager also notes that business has gone way down since the conflict in Syria began. The US department of foreign affairs put out a warning about Jordan just because it’s located next to Syria and this was enough to put many off. I had seen the warning before coming (the US site is good for up-to-date info about countries) and it had been worded scarily. I wonder just how much information on that website is hyperbole as we sit down for tea with the manager. He gets a bit nostalgic and says he wants to keep in touch by email. The cynic in me says he just wants it to make sure I give him a good Tripadvisor review but, true to his word, we’ve corresponded on and off even since I gave Qasr a positive review.
Mohammed arrives to bring us to Little Petra. More tea is had. Unused to the amount of caffeine I’ve taken on over the few days, I take a few sips and then let my friend take charge of my cup.
We drive through Baydha desert and some Bedouin camps to the entrance of Little Petra, but not before getting some more bousa (ice cream). I had come prepared this time to reciprocate Mohammed’s generosity by bringing him a few bags of jelly beans which were ubiquitous after my stint with Baby Wants Candy.

Entry to Little Petra is free and there are barely any sellers. Those that are there are stationary at the entrance and part of official Bedouin projects in co-operation with the government and various charities. Little Petra is amazing- beautiful and deserted. We walk alone through what feels like a mini version of Petra’s Siq and admire the small facades cut into the rock. A bedouin man is sitting outside one of the facades and greets us lazily, enquiring if we are Japanese. He tells us to make sure that we see the cave paintings.

Following his directions, we climb a set of steps hewn into the rock (not for the faint-hearted) and enter a small cave that was once a kitchen. Behind some thin bars, the paintings. They are spectacular. It boggles the mind that they could have survived this long, considering they were painted with natural materials. Intricate vines and flowers are depicted, with the odd cherub for good measure. We sit and eat some snacks while taking in the paintings for a while before descending the stairs.

It’s not long before we’re met with more stairs, which are a little tricky to climb due to uneven rocks. When we come to the top of them, it opens out onto a really great view. Hundreds of small facades decorate the rocks opposite us, so close together they look like apartments. Unlike Big Petra, there is some greenery here and it joins in to make it worth the hike. Again, we are completely alone and the silence just adds to the beauty. The landscape is unchanged, exactly as it would have been when it was used as a an outpost and teeming with people.

Scary stairs! You can see a bedouin near the top if you look closely.

We make our way back slowly and take a look at the charity-driven shops. There is a gorgeous handmade silver and turquoise bracelet decorated with carvings found in Little Petra which melts even my souvenir-hating heart.

Mohammed stops at a reservoir he wants to show us. It’s a crude building and used to be where the water for Petra was stored. Since modernising, it has been lying empty. There’s still a little but of water in it but, by rights, it should have been above our heads. It’s the little touches like that that made me grateful to have Mohammed as a driver. He was genuinely excited to show us his favourite hideaways and was constantly thinking of things to keep us entertained.
I give him some more jelly beans and we leave for the bus.

The ride to Amman was uneventful and it was dark when we got back. We were determined to do Ajloun, Jerash and possibly Um Qays on our last day and luckily there was a tour running the next day to Ajloun and Jerash. It was pretty convenient and saved us worrying about an expensive taxi fare if we did it ourselves. It was nice to be back in the Abbasi, such a contrast to the quiet Qasr. Our view changed from the rose-red sands of Petra to the hustle and bustle of Amman, we slept.