Thursday, October 16, 2008

Jordan: Madaba - mainly, but not all, mosaics!

Chapter Five - Madaba - mainly, but not all, mosaics!

I loathed the idea of having to spend another night in Amman, and decided to continue on to Madaba and hoped that its only place to stay, Lulu's Pension according to Lonely Planet, had vacancies. Luckily for us, it had.

The place was easy enough to find. Signs to it are practically all over the city. The pension looks like an ordinary house, which it is. You have to open the iron gate and ring at the door. It has its name in pink-and-green neon lights on top of the roof, illuminated at night. I must confess that if I passed such advertising with that name ("Lulu's Pension") in the West, I'd more likely think of this place as a dubious joint, no doubt! It was with that thought in mind and a smile on my face, that I met the proprietor, Lulu and her daughter. Lulu is a great character and a very classy, older lady. It feels very odd to talk to and 'do business' with a woman in this country. The reason is that she, like many other people in Madaba, is a Catholic. Lulu told us that sometimes when she's out shopping and people arrive, they think it's closed or full, but that's not necessarily so. Therefore, she says, it's best to ring in advance if you can.

The rooms are spotlessly clean, spacious and nicely carpeted, but otherwise undecorated. The two of us stayed in a triple. I also saw a more cramped single room and a very nice one with a double bed. Bathrooms are shared, but there are two so there's no queuing problem. Both are also spotless, and one has a lovely, large bathtub. Great to have a soak in! The price was still JD10 per person. Breakfast is included, but it's 'self-service', meaning you have to prepare it yourself from what you can find in the kitchen. And there isn't much: tea, old frozen bread and some jars with marmalade. But I'm not complaining. This was the best place to stay in the whole trip, and great value for money. There is a huge living room where you can sit and talk to other travellers or watch TV. There's also a writing desk. Open the drawers to find a real treasure chest of information on Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, India, Malaysia, and many other destinations. All the information left by other travellers, and some of the other material to be read here, are real gems! On a clipboard is more information on Madaba, including notes by other travellers. This place was absolutely the best!

To return to the hotel situation in Madaba, it's no longer the case that there is just one place to stay. There are three now, at least that's what I was told. I'm sure of two, and a third was pointed out to me, but the signs were in Arabic only. The second is just called 'Madaba Hotel'. It's rather basic, I gathered. There are some signs pointing the way.

It's nice to see some accommodation here as Madaba really is a nice place. We intended to spend the night, take in the sights in the morning and continue on. I loved the place so much that we ended up staying for two days.

Apostles' Church mosaicFirst, we went to see the so-called 'Archaeological Park'. The entrance is near the Church of the Virgin and costs JD3 now. The same ticket does however entitle you to visit the Museum and the Church of the Apostles, too. The bloke in the ticket office was kind and helpful. The Archaeological park was, surprisingly, very well designed. The system of ramps and viewing positions works very well. The entrance fee is worth what you get in return for it, a rare thing in Jordan. Regardless of where you buy the ticket, ensure you don't pay the fee again at another of the sites you have access to, as nobody will ask if you've already bought one and will just hand over a new one, and if you're walking around asleep you'll have paid JD9 in the end, instead of 3.

Several mosaics from locations outside of Madaba have been moved here to preserve them. And some are very beautiful. Others are still in their original sites. The best of those are definitely the mosaics in the Church of the Virgin and particularly the Hippolytus Hall. The architects have done a great job here: they have covered the old buildings (of which the lower walls can still be seen) with new constructions, thus preserving them ànd the mosaics that lie inside. Alongside are walkways and ramps, some of them elevated to give a good overview. However, they could've been even better, because the best photographic viewpoints are inaccessible. Of less interest are the Church of the Prophet Elias and the Crypt of St Elianos.

After having seen the Archaeological Park, the Museum was below average. I think it would be a better idea to eventually get it integrated into the former, as on its own it's definitely second rate. Like I said, entrance is covered by the combined ticket of JD3. The place is open every day now, and no longer closed on Tuesdays, when, as I was told, the chap who used to man the ticket desk had his day off. The staff are friendly. The 'Banche & Satyr' mosaic in the Traditional House of Madaba is the best piece in the museum, although the 'house' is not well illuminated. The mosaic depicting 'Paradise and its Fruits' is now housed in the 'Byzantine Room'. The room where some of the traditional costumes are displayed, is interesting enough.

The Church of the Apostles (the third and last place included in the JD3 ticket) has some stunning mosaics, very well worth a visit. Most fellow visitors didn't seem to agree with me on that - I think they were poorly informed or only interested in the map at St George's Church - because the place was virtually deserted. Perhaps it's because it requires a walk out of the town centre?

Little is left of the old church itself, but what there is, has been covered in pretty much the same way as at the Archaeological Park. There will eventually be similar ramps and viewing positions. The place is very much under construction, and the mosaics are still being restored. The most important one (dating from 578 AD) can already be seen. A rectangular band with a very nice personification of one of the seasons on every corner encloses a medallion depicting Thalassa, the personification of the Sea. It is really beautiful and the whole mosaic is big, measuring roughly 5 by 10 metres. When visiting, ask one of the attendants to wipe the mosaic with a wet cloth. You will be stunned by the incredibly lively and intense colours. Baffling, really! The staff at the entrance are very friendly and informative; they also do their uttermost to learn the foreign languages they hear. Ask for a guy called Mouafak. He's a really nice bloke to talk to. I ended up spending a couple of hours in the church. (If you visit, please give Mouafak my best wishes!) It's possible to buy a little photocopied booklet with information about the different mosaics of Madaba.

Mosaic Map, St George ChurchThe famous mosaic map of Palestine & Lower Egypt in the Church of St George was as nice as I had expected it to be - interesting and something that should be on the itinerary of every visitor to Jordan. Entrance was JD1, certainly not too much, but asking a fee to enter a functional church is not something I can approve of. I know it happens elsewhere in the world too, yes, but still...

The small church is full of tourists and it's sometimes hard to get a good look at the map. They have started to impose a limit, with only a certain number of people at a time allowed inside. Luckily for us ànd for the mosaic, it's fenced off by a rope so it's impossible to tread on it. Strangely enough, everybody who calls himself a guide seems to be exempt from this and they hop happily all over it, pointing at the parts of interest. Besides the map, it's worthwhile to have a look at the interior of the church itself. It's quite plain, but rather beautiful nevertheless. Photography is no problem. I heard that earlier, at times when there were few visitors, the map was covered with a carpet. Those days seem to be a long way in the past, but should it be the case, you can ask the man at the small booklets/postcards stand inside the church to have it removed.

Of lesser interest was the Burnt Palace and its mosaic. It's still very much a construction site. We couldn't enter the nearby Martyr's Church - and there was no way to talk my way in - but the chap manning the shop of the "National Society for the Preservation of the Heritage of Madaba and its Suburbs" (phew!) showed us some pictures of what to expect when it's opened to the public. The main mosaic there is amazingly beautiful! It's too bad we couldn't see it. The man at this shop, which incidentally is cheap enough, is amazing too! He speaks excellent English and is an endless source of information, much better than the Tourist Information Office staff! He showered us with folders and brochures of all kinds and showed us hundreds of pictures from all kinds of books. He also proudly showed us the official documents from the city council of Ravenna, Italy, that confirmed that Madaba is officially twinned with their city. If you visit Madaba, visit him too. You won't regret it!

Signposted all over the town and impossible to miss is Madaba Zaman, a handicraft 'village' that claims it will show you 'the real Jordanian traditions'. It's clearly very touristy, but it can be nice to get an impression of some of the handicrafts: carpet weaving, mosaic making, Hebron glass blowing and making 'Petra' sand bottles. There's a quite pricey cafe and restaurant.
Recommended by many travellers as the best place to eat in town was (surprisingly perhaps) the Mankal Chicken Tikka. It turned out that it was, in terms of price & quality. The food was cheap and the service was friendly. Across the road from the church on King Hussein Street (which no-one in Madaba seems to be able to point out to you), is a good shawarma stand.

If already in Madaba, one shouldn't miss out on a visit to nearby Mount Nebo, the alleged site of Moses' death. A taxi from Madaba costs at least JD5 but, as another traveller told me, extremely hard bargaining may bring this down. He said that Jordanians pay just one JD ?? We had our own car, so no problem there.

The church on the Siyagha peak is where the tourists flock. And lots of them too! Upon entering the grounds, we were presented a 500 fils entrance ticket. The fee is per group. If you're alone, you're considered a group. The ticket salesman, who pretended to speak practically no English (I asked him some questions about the place but he seemingly didn't understand a word), asked if we were together with a bloke from Paris who was walking behind us. We said we were. I saw no need to make him pay another half a Dinar. We were handed a ticket and proceeded. The Frenchman thanked us and asked what exactly had been going on. Suddenly the ticket seller spoke English. He had overheard us and knew we weren't in fact together. He was angry and insisted on us buying another ticket. I started pretending to speak no English, just as he had done, but this got him only more angry so I handed him another 500 fils. We hadn't been exactly honest, but neither had he. At the time, I really disliked that bloke. Actually, I still do. If it was to do with money, he miraculously spoke another language. Paying the entrance fee entitles you to a card (one per group obviously) with a layout map of the site. There's not much to it. Just the church and the modern bronze sculpture outside on the platform in front of it. It's new but very nice all the same. It symbolises Moses lifting up the snake and Jesus on the cross and was done by Fantoni of Florence. The views over the barren Promised Land (including the Dead Sea) from the terrace are fantastic, and so - to a lesser extent - are those from the parking lot. Inside the newly erected church building are remnants of the old basilica and the Siyagha mosaics. The mosaics, as well as the church, are again beautiful, especially the main one.

When we were there, a bus-load of elderly German tourists was tramping around the holy place, making more noise than you'd hear in a Weinkeller in, say, Rüdesheim. The doorkeeper was not impressed. Neither was I. In consequence we, and all others after us, were lumped together with them. We left with what you could call a Weinkeller hangover, so decided to explore the area further, which was quite rewarding: nice views all around! It was one of those times you consider yourself very lucky to have a car at hand.

The hot spring resort of Hammamat Ma'in was next on our list. The drive there from Madaba is very pleasant, offering great views - especially from the hilltop before going down towards the resort. You can barely see Hammamat Ma'in down below in the valley. Beige and dark red-brown rugged mountains all around. On your left-hand side you see the road winding down the steep hillsides. Incredible! The road goes down fast. It's very steep. Suddenly - almost before you see them coming - you're flying over some pretty high artificial ramps in the road. Just as you're wondering what the hell they're for, you have to slam on the anchors to make the compulsory stop at the gateway to the resort. Just entering it costs JD2. Crazy! There seems no way of avoiding this, other than doubling-back to return to wherever you came from. I found the whole resort a depressing place. It must have looked OK in its hey-day, which in fact can't have been long ago, but now it feels like you're wandering around a place that has been closed down. Luckily, the 25-metre high waterfall made up for a lot of this. Indeed, it doesn't only look great, but also feels good after a dusty day in the hills.

I checked out the places to stay here, but they were far too expensive for my liking and for what they offered. I would only get more depressed if I was to pay the c.100 US Dollars that the Ashtar Hotel asks for a double-room. Maybe some Jordanians, used to a drier-than-dry climate, think they're in paradise when they come here, but I certainly didn't. Perhaps I'd consider paying that amount in a European resort, but definitely not here! The Drop & Shop Supermarket there at least has some cheap things on offer (cheap for this place, but still expensive in general). "A bag of crisps and a Pepsi, please..." Can't say I felt sorry when I left the place. On our way out, the men at the gate decided to give us a hard time over our tickets, which we couldn't produce quickly enough. Some good advice: cherish and store them in a place where you'll always have them handy. They will actually be required to be able to leave, or you will have to pay another JD2! As if we could've entered the place with a car without passing through the gateway... Nuts!

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