Travel log – Rome and Vatican City | Dead Sea and Petra, Jordan

I have now run the Boston, New York and London marathons. Neither of the three have been fast races for me, but I am not as fast as I used to be. I have Berlin, Tokyo and Chicago marathons to go before I will have run all 6 Marathon Majors. I already have Berlin planned in September. The other two I hope to run in 2017 or 2018.

After the marathon, we went to a family gathering at Binita’s cousin’s house. Her family is very friendly and cool. I met a few of her relatives for the first time ever. We talked about work and travel and family and of course the marathon. My stomach is usually pretty screwed up after consuming all those gels and sports fluids on race day. I ate lightly and drank half a glass of wine. By the time we got home, it was late.

Early in the morning the day after the race, we flew to Rome. We flew a budget airline called Ryanair from Stanstead airport; what a zoo! I doubt if I will fly Ryanair ever again. It is just about the worst airline I have ever flown! We were sitting in premium seats but the seats were uncomfortable and the staff was rude.

It was a chilly Monday (April 25) morning when we landed in Rome. We reached the hotel (Hotel Della Conciliazione), checked in and relaxed. Our hotel was very close to the Vatican in the heart or Rome. My right leg was stiff making walking down stairways painful. Since we only had a couple of days in Rome, we decided to make the most of it and walked through town and see some of the highlights. It was slow walking for me but it felt good to loosen my legs. It would aid my recovery too.

Cloudy skies over Rome

Piazza Navona: Rome is full of Piazzas (public squares) and Obelisks. Apparently, there are more obelisks in Rome than all of Egypt. Piazza Navona has a massive fountain in the middle of the square with shops and restaurants surrounding it. Hundreds of people (mostly tourists) were strolling about. Random musicians were playing various musical instruments creating a heartwarming, fun ambiance. We stopped by for a while and soaked in the whole scene. The sun was peeking out from the mostly cloudy skies on this chilly day.

Spanish Steps: Unfortunately, a good portion of the Spanish Steps were undergoing renovations. I have no idea why these steps are so famous. Apparently, a few movies have been shot here (including Roman Holiday). The steps themselves are pretty cool and are at the end of a very fashionable street called Via del Babuino. I don’t really care for designer labels much (except maybe Lululemon), but this street has and impressive array of designer shops like Prada, Versace, Diesel, Chanel, Armani, etc. etc. Climbing up steps was slow and painful after the long run yesterday but I made it all the way to the top.

Trevi Fountain
Crowds at Trevi Fountain

Trevi Fountain: It is said that you can drink water from any of the Roman fountains. The water is clear and blue and this fountain’s water source was apparently established more than 2,000 years ago. The architecture and sculpture are nothing short of spectacular, but as you can see the crowds were nuts. If you want to get to the front of the fountain, you have to either squeeze your way in or be courteous and wait at least an hour!

We walked through various piazzas and obelisks on the cobblestone streets through alleyways and small streets lined with shops and restaurants. When we felt like it, we went in to explore curios and art pieces. It was a thoroughly enjoyable evening.

The Vatican City Walls

On our second day in Rome (Tuesday, April 26), we had tickets to a “semi-private” tour of the Vatican, Sistine Chapel and Museum(s) in Vatican City. We met our group of mostly senior citizen Americans (from Texas and Florida) and our guide who had grown up in Rome. We started the tour by visiting the museum first. I am not much of an art-buff but the works are unbelievable. I especially enjoyed the pigna (pinecone) adorned by two peacocks in the Belvedere’s courtyard. One could spend weeks in the museum with all the incredible art, sculptures, tapestries and ceilings.

We had to walk up and down plenty of stairs. It was painful for me to walk with stiff calf and quad muscles. My right quad was especially stiff! Fortunately, I wasn’t the slowest in the group as we had a few senior citizens behind me.

The Sistine Chapel is incredible. The works of art that adorn all ceilings and walls are masterpieces. The central masterpiece is the famous work of God’s fingers touching Adam’s. There were hundreds of people crowded in the chapel; some silently praying, some talking in soft voices, some trying to stealthily take pictures (photography is prohibited in the chapel), and all of us in complete awe.

St. Peter’s Basilica was next. It is impossible to describe how big it is and how many unbelievable and incredible works of art even the Basilica houses. The famous one is right at the entrance with Mother Mary holding an adult Jesus (Pieta) in her arms. It is a work by a young Michelangelo (he was in his early 20s) with his name carved right on the sculpture (there’s an interesting story behind this; you should Google it). The main dome will give you neck strain if you look up because you will stare at its beauty forever. There are 4 statues around at the 4 corners around the dome. Veronica (she has a piece of cloth that is said to have Jesus’ face on it; she gave to Jesus to wipe his face as he was dragging the cross just before he was crucified). Constentine’s wife St. Helen (she is holding a cross as she brought the cross from Jerusalum back to Rome and pieces of the cross are said to be inside the Vatican), St. Andrew (he was St. Peter’s brother) and St. Longinus (with a spear because he took mercy on Jesus after he was crucified and helped him die faster by spearing him).

St. Peter’s Basilica

St. Peter’s square is massive. It was also very crowded with thousands of tourists and pilgrims. Apparently, more than 20,000 tourists visit the Vatican museums and St. Peter’s Basilica daily. Unless you are in a private or semi-private tour, it is a difficult place to navigate. I bought a book called
Guide to the Vatican: Including Saint Peter’s Basilica and the Vatican Museums” before the tour that I would recommend. It doesn’t have colored pictures but it gives you excellent information on the masterpieces you should see in the Vatican. It is written with somewhat broken English, but it reads like a Vatican guide is talking!

Swiss guard at the Vatican

I am not religious; and far from Catholic but the Vatican is a must see place. Rome itself is an old city with cobblestone streets lined with cafes and restaurants in every nook and cranny. It has old-world charm with monuments and churches to match. It is also the city of fountains, statues and obelisks all over the city. It is said that there are more obelisks in Rome than the entire country of Egypt! The food is quite good (although I preferred Florence food). Our purpose for visiting Rome was primarily to visit the Vatican. Mission accomplished in 2 days! We were off to Amman, Jordan on Wednesday (April 27).

We flew Royal Jordanian from Rome to Amman. Everything about the airline and flight was absolutely superb. The food, the service, the on-time performance and the seats were all exceptionally good. The only negative was the slight smell as if someone had smoked a cigarette on board last week. We were in business class and it was almost empty. We had two beautiful and smiling flight attendants waiting hand-over-foot for us. I haven’t flown any other middle-eastern airline; I hear they are all very good (Emirates, Etihad, etc.).

We cleared immigration quickly (note: US Passport holders are given a 30-day visa upon arrival; it costs 40 JOD per person and the credit card machine is frequently down – but there is an ATM right there). After clearing customs, our driver was waiting for us. In no time, we were on the highway en route to Movenpick Hotel at the Dead Sea resort (an hour drive from the airport). By the time we arrived, it was late evening with the sun setting in the western horizon. We could see Palestine and Israel clearly with city lights from Jericho and Jerusalem.

The Movenpick Hotel rivals any fine resort in Mexico. It has a stone façade and is spread out with multiple balconies and verandas overlooking the desert and the Dead Sea. After checking in, we relaxed on one of the verandas for a drink and dinner. The food was superb. We had a mix of traditional middle-eastern foods (hummus, baba, tabbouleh, fatoosh, etc.) mixed in with wine and a badly made margarita.

The next morning (Thursday, April 28), I went for a late morning run for a couple of miles to loosen my legs. My right leg was still stiff but feeling a lot better than Monday. The Dead Sea is around 430 meters (about 1,300 feet) below sea level. The concentration of oxygen is higher at this low altitude but it is also hotter by around 10 degrees. After running in the cool temperatures of London and Rome, I was slow and hot. I only ran for 2 miles.

At the Movenpick Resort after a dip in the Dead Sea

The highlight of this destination was easily the swim (float) in the Dead Sea. With more than 30% salinity (10 times as much as the oceans), the buoyancy is incredible. The water pops you up instantly. It is impossible to sink. You simply lay on your back and relax. The sun was harsh but I still took a quick mud-rub before rinsing off. Pretty soon, our car came to pick us up and we made the 3-hour drive to Petra.

The drive from Dead Sea to Petra goes parallel to the Dead Sea for about an hour with Palestine on the other side before taking a sharp left turn into the mountains. The terrain is dry and desolate but the road is quite good. We stopped by for strong Jordanian coffee atop one of the mountain passes before making the descent and into Petra. Just before entering the town of Wadi Musa (Garden of Moses, the town that Petra is set next to), we stopped by the holy rock that is mentioned in the Old Testament.

“Then Moses raised his arm and struck the rock twice with his staff. Water gushed out, and the community and their livestock drank.”

There is a permanent natural spring with crystal clear water. We drank from it. I am now clean of my sins (cynicism intended). The rock is inside a non-descript white building with no signs right next to the highway. If you don’t know where it is or what to look for, you will surely miss it! There are no guards, there is no entrance fee, there are hardly any people and it is surely not a tourist attraction. It has graffiti around it in Arabic and English. Locals go there to collect clean water and to pray.

We arrived into Wadi Musa in the evening. Our hotel was the relative simple Petra Moon Hotel right near the entrance to Petra. If you have $$, spring for a few bucks and stay at the Movenpick in Petra. We went inside to draw some cash from the ATM and it was far better than our hotel.

We had dinner at the Three Steps Cafe based on Tripadvisor recommendations. I was not impressed.

It was chilly out. We were in Petra for one thing; to visit the incredible city that the Nabateans built more than two thousand years ago. There was a night program offered called “Petra by night” that we and about a hundred others went to. It was lead by a native Bedouin who gave us quick instructions to simply follow the lanterns for a couple of miles through a narrow gorge to the Khazana (The Treasury). We walked in relative silence first on a downhill dirt trail and eventually on a semi-paved trail with cliffs towering above us on both sides. There were hundreds of lanterns lined up on both sides guiding us. We could see faint formations and carvings on both sides but it was too dark to make out what it was.

Petra by night

After walking about 2 miles, we finally reached the Khazana. There were hundreds of lanterns adorning the grounds. I could only imagine how the Nabateans lived thousands of years ago in this serene and beautiful place. The Bedouin asked for silence and commenced to play the flute and then the rebab (a single-stringed violin-like instrument). He then told us a story about his spiritual mother and their relationship with this divine place. In a couple of hours, it was time to return back to the hotel. We walked back slowly in silence soaking in the ambiance of this magical place.

Walking to Petra

The next day (Friday, April 29), we had hired Omar, our guide who would take us down to Petra again. After sleeping hard, we were at it again; this time in the light of day. We walked, we explored tombs and petroglyphs, we learned about the masterful architecture, we learned about how the Nabateans mastered the art of storing and supplying the most coveted commodity; water.

Petra Khazana (Treasury)
Camel rides are offered in Petra (no, we didn’t)

I took dozens of photographs but none of them can do any justice of the expanse, beauty and magnitude of Petra. The Romans came and conquered Petra and built their style of architecture on top; but even the incredible Roman architecture paled when compared to the original carved-in-stone works of arts that the Nabateans left us. There is delicacy in the beauty of what the Nabateans built. They were obviously a prosperous people and masterful traders who must have traded with the Chinese, Indians, Europeans, Africans and Arabs.

Our guide (Omar) performed a small ceremony where we got “married.” I’m not sure if he made up this story but there were two small niches in the stone walls where apparently the Nabateans used to perform marital rights. We stood and held hands with our other hand over our hearts as he pronounced us husband and wife! He also snapped this picture. It was a little corny but a lot of fun.

Getting married in Petra

Petra has been on my bucket-list of places to see since I was a child. Mission Accomplished. The Jordan that we saw was mostly dry and desolate; but Petra….oh my….Petra. There are no words that can describe Petra.

Dwellings and tombs in Petra

It has been about a week since we returned back to Arizona. It was strange coming back to an empty house. I miss Simi and Missy more than ever.

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