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Getting around

Part 3: Desert castles, Dead Sea

19.12: Munich -> Amman
20.12: Amman
21.12: Amman -> Jerash -> Ajloun -> Amman
22.12: Amman
23.12: Amman -> Desert castle loop -> Amman
24.12: Amman -> Dead Sea
25.12: Dead Sea
26.12: Dead Sea -> Mt Nebo -> Madaba -> Petra
27.12: Petra
28.12: Petra
29.12: Petra -> Aqaba
30.12: Aqaba
31.12: Aqaba
01.01: Aqaba -> Nuweiba
08.01: Amman
09.01: Amman -> Munich

23.12: Amman -> Desert castles -> Amman
Hotel Ibis, Amman.
Weather: sunny, blue sky the whole day, no clouds. Warmer than yesterday. In the desert east of Amman we have to wear T-shirts because it is too warm.

Today we do the desert castles loop, starting from and ending in Amman and visiting the Harraneh, Amra and Hallabat castles. We'll miss the Azraq castle and visit instead the Azraq wetlands reserve. A whole day spent driving, leaving late after 10am and getting back at 6pm.

We leave the hotel at 10:15am. The Nokia 5800 GPS navigation system initially is unable to catch the signal (only after a few minutes it gets the satellites) but the major problem is that I'm unable to enter the destination - the Nokia 5800 does not recognise neither Qusayr Amra, Qasr Amra or Amra castle. Strange enough the map24.de site which uses the same Navteq maps which the Nokia 5800 uses, knows "Amra castle" as a possible destination.

Again we rely on screen shots of map24.de maps saved to the computer for navigation. Later, when the Nokia 5800 catches a GPS signal, we activate the map display so that we can see where we are. The max. allowed speed on major roads gradually increases from 60km/h until 100 km/h as we get out of Amman.

We manage to reach the first castle, Qasr Harraneh, at 11:44am. Qasr Harraneh is a solid rectangle and is in a good state of conservation. When we arrive there are no other tourists visiting the castle and we are greeted by the local staff. After buying the ticket (1 JOD/person) the staff hands me over the keys of the castle. The interior of the castle consists of a number of rooms on the ground floor and first floor. No paintings, frescoes or other ornaments.

A bit after 12:30pm we leave Qasr Harraneh and drive to Qusayr Amra, the world heritage castle. It takes less than 20 minutes to arrive there. Qusayr Amra has a more complex shape than Qasr Harraneh and has a number of cupolas and one external building. Inside the main building there are impressive frescoes, relatively well preserved. Quite astonishing to find this kind of art in such a place in the middle of nowhere. Some frescoes show medieval hunting scenes.

By the way, neither at Qasr Harraneh, nor at Qusayr Amra there are restaurants or places selling food.

At 1:30pm we continue the trip and drive towards the Azraq wetlands reserve. It takes some effort to find it, because the street signage is inadequate and we twice miss the narrow road which leads to the reserve. It takes us over an hour to get there, even if the distance is not so big. Most of the people we ask for directions only speak Arabic.

The Azraq wetlands reserve has been devastated very recently by a fire which burnt down a large chunk of reed vegetation and burnt some trees. It looks as if the fire just finished burning, because there is still some smoke. The reserve could be interesting, but is currently very small and it will take some time until the vegetation has grown again.

Around 3:10pm we start driving back, this time taking the other road which passes through Zarqa. The road situation is mixed: there are pieces of very good road and pieces of very poor road. Overall very little traffic and mostly straight roads. It is possible to drive quite fast out of towns.

We reach the last castle, Qasr Hallabat, shortly before 4pm. Qasr Hallabat is currently undergoing restoration and it's not possible to enter. After half an hour at the castle, we start driving back to Amman at 4:25pm.

On the way back the Nokia 5800 GPS navigation system works fine for most of the time, but then fails when we are in Amman, just 5km from the hotel. Thank you very much Nokia. A lot of asking people for directions and finally we are back in the hotel at 6pm.

24.12: Amman -> Dead Sea
Hotel Marriott, Dead Sea (near Sowayma). 102 Euro (discounted early booking rate) for a double room with two queen size beds and everything a four star hotel has (nice furniture, beds with soft mattresses, telephone, fridge, tea making equipment, ironing board and iron, bathroom with hair dryer etc.) Internet access is not included and costs 6 JOD/hour or 12 JOD/day). Resort complete with several restaurants and bars, several pools, shops, own beach with access to the Dead Sea.
The hotel lies in a hotel zone adjacent to other hotels (Mövenpick, Dead Sea Spa etc.). Outside this hotel zone there is nothing for many km. No shops, only one restaurant about 4km away. The nearest village (Sowayma) is about 15km away.
The restaurants in the Marriott resort offer good, but expensive food. For more affordable meals head to this restaurant 4km north of the Marriott hotel.
Tight security everywhere. There is a checkpoint along the road parallel to the Dead Sea; when you want to drive into the Marriott hotel at the gate they check if you have a reservation, then inspect your car, below with a mirror and they check the boots. At the entrance to the hotel building there is an airport security style check (bags are ex-rayed + you have to pass through a metal detector gate and if it beeps which is almost always the case there is an additional body search with a handheld metal detector.

Weather: sunny, blue sky the whole day, no clouds. Warm at the Dead Sea, people wear T-shirts. A bit windy in the late afternoon, but people still swim in the pools and in the Dead Sea.

We check out of the hotel Ibis around 10:20am and start driving towards the Dead Sea. Today surprisingly the car navigation system works and guides us as we leave Amman. Brief stop at a petrol station to refuel the car, then we continue driving. Steep motorway-like wide street with many lanes, going down the mountain towards the Dead Sea. Brief stop at 11:20am when Natasha vomits in the car.

Shortly before 12pm we arrive at the Baptism site on the Jordan river. It's quite warm and actually the temperature is perfect to visit right now in winter. I can imagine that in every other season of the year it would be too hot to visit this place.

The entry ticket is 7 JOD/person (kids don't pay) and you have to take a shuttle service to access the real site a few km away, because this lies in a military zone. We take the 12:30pm shuttle (there is one every half an hour) and until 13:30pm visit the site with a guide. We see a number of places, some with churches, spread over an area + the site believed to be the place where Jesus was baptised by John the baptiser.

We are back at the Baptism site parking shortly before 2pm. By the way there is an unbelievable number of flies in this place. We then drive south towards Sowayma and look for the hotel Marriott. After some driving we finally find it and check in. Cumbersome security check (see the hotel description section above).

By the time we have settled with our stuff in the room and are ready to explore the area it's almost 3pm and the day is almost gone (the sun sets before 5pm in December here). Time flies, maybe we should have started our day earlier than 10-11am. Since we haven't yet had lunch today we head to one of the restaurants in the Marriott complex. We were thinking of having some "quick" sandwich to  cover the hunger, because it is just a few hours before dinner, and order some sandwiches. We are served huge portions and the bill is also high. Maybe we'll look for some less expensive places to eat later.

It's 4pm when we are finally done with our meal and start exploring the resort. Several pools on different levels. There is a hotel beach on the Dead Sea and some people are swimming in it. It's quite fresh and the sun is not warming anymore (thick haze/fog layer in the sky). The water in the Dead Sea is surprisingly warm (much warmer than the water of the Jordan river which is ice cold). I'll swim in the Dead Sea tomorrow.

Later in the afternoon we check the area around the hotel. It seems that we are in sort of an oasis in the middle of nowhere, because besides these hotels there is nothing in this area except for a tiny shop and a restaurant about 4km north of the hotel zone. The food in this restaurant costs less than half than the food in the Marriott hotel. After some dinner in this place we head back to the hotel and sleep early.

25.12: Dead Sea
Hotel Marriott, Dead Sea. The breakfast is less impressive as I imagined: no freshly squeezed fruit juices, limited choice of fresh fruit (only bananas and oranges), only cheese is a very salty goat cheese, limited choice of cereals. 
Weather: sunny, blue sky the whole day, no clouds, no wind. Warmer than yesterday, mainly due to the lack of wind. Better visibility, less haze.

We get up a bit earlier than usual and manage to finish the breakfast before 10am. I have a look at the beach area on the Dead sea. The air is still, there is ablolutely no wind, the water surface is as smooth as glass. Perfect conditions for swimming in the Dead Sea in winter. There are a few people on the beach. Some Asian women applying mud on their skin.  A pile of mud on the beach, apparently placed there by the hotel staff as a service to the tourists.

Shortly after 11am we leave the hotel by car and drive south along the coast of the Dead Sea. Approx. 4km south of the hotel zone there is Amman beach. Amman beach, as the name tells it, is basically a beach, not that big, of which some parts are managed and have some facilities (chairs, parasols, a pool). We get out of the car and initially run into places which charge a fee to access the beach - 10 JOD/person, very expensive. Further south it is possible to access the Dead Sea for free.

We continue driving south along the coast until almost the Mujib bridge. The scenery is more or less the same: the road follows the Dead Sea, is quite straight allowing easily to travel at higher speeds, occasionally there is a beach or place allowing access to the Dead Sea. Several Jordanians swimming in the Dead Sea, because today is Friday (the weekend here in Jordan). In some spots there are salt formations along the shore.

At 12:15pm we drive back to the hotel. Once there we swim in the hotel pool, which is heated making it possible to swim outdoors even in winter. We are in the pool until 2pm, then we bring the kids back to the room. After taking care of them and letting the smallest sleep, Shirley goes to the Dead Sea beach for mud treatment and swimming.

Shortly after 3pm it's my turn. You have to wear shoes when you walk into the Dead Sea, because on the stones in the sea there are sharp salt crystals. The water is warm in the highest layer, while below it is quite cold. Cool feeling of floating in the sea.

In the evening we have an early dinner in the Vis a Vis restaurant we spotted yesterday. Later in the room I finalise the rest of the trip and make the remaining bookings (hotels, return flight Sharm el Sheikh-Amman).

Copyright 2010 Alfred Molon