Friday, 4 October 2013

25th April 2012: JERASH, Jordan

First stop was to be Jerash, the best-preserved and most explorable Roman city in the eastern Mediterranean, about 50 kms. north of Amman.
Our first day, and a hot one. It had been our intention to drive further north after Jerash to Umm Qais, another Roman remain and from which you can look across at the Golan Heights and the Sea of Galilee, but we under-estimated the distance and time involved and so had to change our plans.
It's a lovely drive toJerash, once you've survived the intersection at the 8th Circle, through beautiful countryside lush with eucalyptus and olive trees. Being the Middle East, however, the Real World is never far away, the road taking us past Baqaa, the biggest of Jordan's UN-run Palestinian refugee camps (today a city of 100,000 plus).

Archaeological evidence shows the Jerash area to have been settled since around 1600 BC. The city itself (named Gerasa) was founded by the Greeks around 170 BC, and 'liberated' and granted autonomy by the Romans under Pompey in 63 BC. It was in the century after this that the basic town plan as it survives today was laid down.

Hadrian's Arch

This is the first monument we saw as we approached Jerash from Amman, an 11-metre high triple-arched gateway which originally stood to almost 22m. It was built in 129 - 131 AD to honour the visit of the Emperor Hadrian. Being sited over 400m. from the city walls, it was presumably expected to be a great city gate that was to be the entrance to a planned, but never built, vastly-expanded city.

The Hippodrome

This array of small arches belongs to the reconstructed south wall of the Hippodrome, the scene of ancient Gerasa's sporting festivals and chariot races. 244m. long, and seating 15,000 spectators, it is the smallest hippodrome so far discovered in the Roman Empire. ( The Circus Maximus in Rome could seat 157,000.)

RACE reenactments.

  1. Chariot Racing.

A company called RACE (Roman Army and Chariots Experience) stages in the Jerash Hippodrome reenactments of chariot races and displays of Roman military prowess. Based on extensive research, shows take place twice daily, all the costumes and equipment being made locally and everyone involved in the show being from Jerash.

We sat where the original spectators would have been sitting.

The Hollywood image of chariot racing, as shown in 'Ben Hur' and other films, is of gleaming, armour-plated war chariots, but in reality the Romans used chariots only for racing, not in battle, building fifty-kilogram wicker-work chariots, drawn by two horses.

     2.    Roman Legions and Gladiators.

Other Sights in Jerash

Our visit coincided with the arrival of numerous groups of Jordanian school children, all female. (We couldn't figure out whether teenage boys were not taken there or whether there was a policy of segregating the sexes during visits.) We proved to be a greater attraction to many of the girls than the site they had been taken to, following us around and constantly wanting us to take pictures of them with us! And, did they make a lot of noise!!

24 April 2012: AMMAN, Jordan

Marney and Andy Clarke had invited us last Christmas to visit them in Jordan before Marney's contract at the International school in Amman ended in July 2012.

We'd never been to the Middle East before so we were much looking forward to experiencing a new culture,not  least after the Arab Spring. And with its long-standing links to the UK, Jordan was undoubtedly a 'safer' option for sampling the region.

So on 24 April we set off from Gatwick. The plan was to stay with Marney and Andy in their flat in Amman and to use it as a base. We'd hired a car, and were determined to see as much of the country and the sights as we could in our 8 days there.

Armed with detailed instructions, provided by Marney, for the drive from the airport to their flat, we set off in the rust-bucket we'd hired. And it was quite a baptism of fire!! Jordanian drivers take no prisoners. It's every man for himself here.
It was with more than a bit of relief we navigated the 5th Circle, found the HSBC building and parked outside the flat.

Monday, 30 September 2013


Our last day; flight home leaving at 19.40.
Determined not to waste the day in effect waiting around for the taxi to JFK, after an early breakfast we set off for a lengthy 4 hour stint of culture-vulturing.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art:

The 'Met' was created in 1870 by the New York State Legislature as a kind of civic education project, and decamped to its present site in Central Park in 1880 though over time various additions have completely surrounded the original structure.
It's one of the greatest collections of art treasures in the world, owning over two million works of art spanning 5000 years of world culture - almost every civilisation on earth is represented.
We knew this couldn't be a mistake like the Guggenheim, and we were right. You could spend an entire week here and still not have seen everything or been sated by what you had seen. It's mind-blowing to see so many beautiful things in one place; they just keep coming!
There was no sense in bringing a camera as the whole point was to luxuriate in the brilliance here. But the link below will give you a glimpse of what's on offer.

Like the majority of visitors, we headed first up the Grand Staircase for the European Paintings 1250-1800  (galleries 600-644), but between us we also covered

  • Modern and Contemporary Art (900-926 and 917-925),
  •  Asian Art (200-253), 
  • Medieval Art (300-307), 
  • the Robert Lehman Collection (950-965) and
  • 19th and early 20th century European Paintings and Sculpture (800-830).
And what a fabulous place to have lunch .... not just for the food (which is delicious and not expensive) but also for people-watching. 

Today was a truly special way to round off a happy, memorable and thoroughly enjoyable week!

Big Apple Advice:
In no particular order ....
If you're planning a trip
  • Do it!! You won't regret visiting New York.
  • invest in a weekly subway card (we certainly got more than our money's worth).
    • check out in advance what subway station(s) your hotel is near. We didn't, but Wall St. turned out to be a great station to be using as all the main lines, including express lines, went through it so we never had to change. 
  • be ready to walk MILES.
  • New Yorkers are friendly and helpful. They'll stop and help if you're looking lost. Try getting that in London!
  • Holiday Inn Express on Water St. was clean, comfortable, very convenient for everything AND has a complimentary breakfast (hot and cold) too. The lady who runs the breakfast room couldn't have been nicer and takes such obvious pride in her work.

And ...Thanks for the memories:
  • Pastrami on rye.
  • The coffee shop that gave Steve 2 chocolate cakes as the one he had originally ordered wasn't available.

Thursday, 26 September 2013


The Brooklyn Bridge

'....a shrine containing all the efforts of the new civilisation of America' (Joseph Stella, Italian immigrant painter).

One of several spans across the East River, the Brooklyn Bridge is today somewhat dwarfed by the lower Manhattan skyscrapers, but for twenty years after its opening in 1883 it was the world's largest and longest suspension bridge and - for many more years - the longest single-span structure.
Crucially, it expanded the scope of New York City, paving the way for the incorporation of the outer boroughs and the creation of a true metropolis.

Its construction was not without difficulties:
  • early in the project, architect and engineer John Augustus Roebling crushed his foot taking measurements for the pier and died of tetanus less than 3 weeks later
  • his son Washington took over, only to be crippled by the bends after working in an insecure underwater caisson: he subsequently directed the work from his sickbed overlooking the site
  • twenty workers died during the construction
  • a week after the opening day, twelve people were crushed to death in a panicked rush on the bridge's footpath (mercifully, no panic on the day we crossed by the same footpath).
You can safely walk along the bridge on the walkway above the cars, so on Thursday morning we set off.

One of the first things you see is Pier 17, where we visited on our first evening in New York.

 As you walk along you can't but notice the complexity of the construction ......

.....and the constant rumble of vehicles is a reminder of what's below you. But you do need a strong stomach to look down..

Once we got about midway, we looked back at the giants of the Financial District behind the spidery latticework of cables.

 And, of course, there's no better place to admire the architecture.

The Empire State Building

Chris was convinced this one had been designed by the same architect as was responsible for a very similar building in Dusseldorf, near the E-on building he used to work in. 
And, of course, that statue again!
We could have got off the bridge at Downtown Brooklyn but we had decided against it as we had more to see and do in Manhattan, so we retraced our steps across the bridge.

The United Nations

After 1945, New York was the obvious choice as the permanent home of the newly-created United Nations Organisation. Lured by John D. Rockefeller's $8.5 million donation that bought  land on the east side of Manhattan, construction started in 1947 and wasn't completed until 1963. The end result is the product of a suitably international team of architects, including Le Corbusier (though he pulled out before the work was completed).
 The decision to build here was clearly of lasting political significance but, despite the symbolism of the UN, the building and site are unfortunately all- too- obviously the result of  'architectural design by international committee', and  inordinately dull and uninspiring architecturally.

Bikes at the ready for departing Assembly and Security Council members?
 On the day we were there we passed a man carrying a placard declaring 'Obama: Jewish Puppet'. Could this, below, have anything to do with how he drew his twisted conclusion?

The Chrysler Building
If the UN was disappointing, it did at least afford a splendid view of the Chrysler Building. Dating from 1930, for a matter of months it was the world's tallest building until surpassed by the Empire State Building in 1931. The building's car-motif friezes, hood- ornament gargoyles, radiator-grille spire, and the fact that the entire building is almost completely fashioned from stainless steel, evokes the golden age of motoring (the Chrysler Corporation moved out decades ago).
There's a delicious story of how its designer, William Van Alen, indulged in a feud with an erstwhile partner, H. Craig Severance, who was designing a building at 40 Wall Street at the same time. Each was determined to have the higher skyscraper. Van Alen secretly built the stainless steel spire inside the Chrysler's crown, and when 40 Wall St. finally topped out a few feet higher than the Chrysler, Van Alen popped the 185- foot spire out through the top of the building and won the day!!


The Waldorf-Astoria Hotel:
After Sue's disappointing foray into the Algonquin Hotel a couple of days ago, Chris was determined to be more successful with a visit to the famed Waldorf-Astoria.
Originally built in 1893 on the site of the now-Empire State Building and relocated to its present site on Park Avenue in 1931, this is one of New York's finest, and most expensive, places to stay: a favoured choice for presidents and visiting heads of state.

The central lobby is vast and opulent .....

....and the bank of reception desks is redolent of Hollywood movies. All that was missing was the bell-hop: but then we weren't bringing bags!

Katz's Deli.

'Send a Salami to Your Boy in the Army' (Katz's slogan that originated in WW2 when the three sons of the owners were overseas).

We took the F subway to Lower East Side-Second Avenue for the culinary high spot of the week: pastrami on rye.
The Lower East Side is the epitome of the American ethnic melting pot. The first tenement buildings were constructed here in 1833, followed soon after by the development of Kleindeutschland (Little Germany). Thirty years later the Irish dominated the neighbourhood, and by the end of the century it was attracting international humanitarian attention as an insular slum for more than half a million Jews, many from Eastern Europe,  who'd come in search of a better life free from persecution but instead found themselves scratching out a living in the burgeoning garment industry.
These Jewish immigrants indelibly stamped their character on the Lower East Side with their shops, delis, restaurants and synagogues. Even now, with Chinatown overflowing into the neighbourhood, the area exhibits remnants of its Jewish past, not least at Katz's Deli at 205 E Houston St., opened in 1888 and the oldest functioning Jewish deli in New York.
In the early 1900s Katz's was originally located on the east side of Ludlow St. but moved to the other side because of the construction of the subway. The present section of the store where we were was added in 1946 to cope with the hungry crowds. What hasn't changed, though, are the same methods of smoking, pickling, spicing and curing that were first used when the store opened.

When we visited on Thursday afternoon there was no obvious evidence of any 'I'll have what she had' moments  (the film was shot here on location, just one seat behind where we were sitting) ......

.....but the place was so packed it would have been difficult to tell!

Waiter-service is available, and if you're a regular who has gone in solely to get something to eat we can see why you might choose it. But if, like us, you want to experience the real atmosphere the only way is to take your place in line and wait your turn.

You're given a ticket as you come through the door and then you head for the appropriate queue. What's on offer is chalked-up on boards and ranges through standard Jewish staples ( like chicken noodle soup and matzo balls) to burgers and fries, but 90% of the people we saw were having what we'd come in for too.

We ordered one of these each and heaven only knows how we managed to eat it all, but we did!!

AND it comes with huge pickles!
Chris looks as if he's nearing the point of no return.
When you're done you queue up with your ticket to pay, cash only. Any lost tickets carry a flat charge of $50. No wonder there's a burly security man at the door!

Our Last Evening:
Despite our mega lunch (we'd been abstemious at breakfast) we, or at least Sue, put on our glad rags and set off for our last night out in the Big Apple.
The plan a few days back had been to meet up with Sue's cousin, Jack Kelly (a native New Yorker now living in Washington), for our final dinner, but unfortunately the arrangements never came together. So our Trusty Guide (Chris, who's been manning the maps all week) directed us to the Knickerbocker Grill in Greenwich Village.
A great choice:

  •  good food (oysters, flat iron steak and black fish)
  • unpretensious atmosphere
  •  reasonably-priced wine (hallelulia after our previous experience of Greenwich Village)
  •  a helpful and well-informed waitress
  • and even a pianist twinkling the ivories.