A quick guide to Petra

The Treasury, seen from above

Yes, that Petra. It featured in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade but was famous long before the movie was made. To give some context, the movie came out when I was ten years old and I’d already heard of it.

Yes, I was a bit of a bookworm. But let’s face it, a lost city in a hidden valley that you have to go through a narrow canyon to get to is exactly the sort of thing that captures the imagination at any age.

Getting there

Petra is in the south of Jordan, about three hours from the capital, Amman. To go to Petra you actually go to the adjacent town, Wadi Musa.

Wadi Musa translates as “Moses Valley” and both the town and the valley are named for a local spring. In the Bible, Numbers 20:9-11, Moses strikes the ground to force water to appear for the thirsty Israelites. Local tradition has it that the local spring is one and the same.

To actually get there from Amman the options are limited. Public transport isn’t great, though there’s apparently a limited inter-city bus service. Most people go as part of a tour group or rent a car in Amman. I hired a car and driver, which was easy but expensive. It should be said that in 2016 Jordan was cheap compared to the West but expensive for the Middle East.

You could probably visit Petra as a day trip but that would be tiring. I stayed in a hotel in Wadi Musa.

The town itself is built on the sides of the valley it shares its name with. There are quite a few hotels but the best option is to stay in one of the dozen or so that are within easy walking distance of the Petra Visitor Center. In any case, you’ll quickly realise that the town is dependent on the tourist trade.

Petra itself

The most famous feature of Petra is the rock-cut tomb known as “The Treasury.” Everyone knows that when you approach Petra through its narrow canyon, you only see the tomb at the other end at the last minute.

The canyon itself is called “the Siq” and is about a kilometre long. It’s rarely more than about 10 metres wide, is frequently narrower and has many twists and turns. But it’s easy to walk through and is paved. The walk itself is quite something and would be a tourist attraction in its own right almost anywhere else in the world.

While your first glimpse of The Treasury after walking through the canyon is supposed to be something special, it’s actually anticlimactic. By the time you’ve reached Wadi Musa you’ve already seen pictures of it dozens of times in tourist literature.

The other myth is that it comes on unexpectedly. After umpteen twists and turns you go around one last corner and Petra is there. Unfortunately this ignores the fact that the paved section of the canyon runs out. When you find yourself walking on sand it doesn’t take a genius to work out that the famous view will be around the next corner, which it is.

In other words, your first glimpse of Petra is unlikely to be the highlight of your holiday.

This is unfair to Petra of course. The site is genuinely impressive and there’s much more to it than just The Treasury. There are further tombs deeper inside the valley, there’s an entire amphitheatre carved from solid rock and there’s even a Roman street. Petra was built by the Nabateans but the Romans sure knew about it.

There are even a few treks you can do within the site. Sets of stairs carved into and between the cliffs lead you to vantage points with excellent views. One led me to a view of the Treasury from on high. Another, to what is called the “High Place of Sacrifice,” led to an even better view of the entire area. Descending from there I found myself climbing down ancient zigzags of sandstone steps like something out of an Enid Blyton novel. And there were no other tourists in sight.

Speaking of which, I have one more useful piece of advice about Petra: as everyone says, get there early. The site opens from about 6am in summer. As it happens I wasn’t there till at least half an hour later but there were still no other tourists in sight when I walked through the gate at the Visitor Center, and I saw maybe six other people in the Siq on the way in. Being early, quite frankly, means you get to enjoy the site with fewer of your fellow tourists for company. And that’s better.

The Melancholy Roman

Echo de menos Salamanca

Plaza Mayor

One of my favourite phrases in Spanish is echo de menos. It’s short, easy to understand and pronounce, yet it sounds nothing like its English translation. It means “to miss” in the nostalgic sense. “Echo de menos Salamanca” means “I miss Salamanca.” I stayed there for twenty weeks in 2011.

The city is the second largest in Castilla y León and around 200km west of Madrid. It used to be 2½ hours away by coach or train but the line from Madrid to Segovia has been upgraded and you can now get there in a little over 90 minutes.

And it’s worth it. In Spain, only San Sebastián in País Vasco rivals it for beauty. The jewel in its crown is Plaza Mayor, the finest town square in all the world. I visited again last week and the image at the top of this post shows how it looked on Thursday evening.

You may think it’s a pretty bold claim to say it’s the finest town square in all the world. I don’t. Not only is it beautiful, it’s the best used civic space I have ever seen. The plaza really is the centre of civic life in Salamanca.

Salamanca has other attractions, big and small. I photographed the astronaut in the stonework of the new cathedral:

El astronauta
Apparently controversial at the time, it’s now a firm favourite

And the victor symbols on the interior walls of the Palace of Anaya. Each symbol represents a Ph.D.

Victor symbols, Salamanca
The idea is of victory over the studies themselves

I also noticed more tourists in the streets than ever before. Maybe it’s because the weather was fine and unusually warm for October, and the old town has plenty of good places for outside dining. Or maybe it’s because the traveling time to and from Madrid has decreased.

Street dining
Diners and drinkers in Calle Rúa Mayor

Salamanca is also one of the most popular places in Spain for foreigners to study Spanish. The consequence is that you’ll hear more English spoken here than in most regional cities, it being the first or second language of a lot of language students. Still, the majority of the tourists on Thursday evening were clearly Spaniards.

Lastly, behold the façade of the university.

Part of the facade
Or part of it, anyway

The Spanish word for silver is plata. This style of stonework in the facade is called plateresque, the idea being that the stone is so finely carved that it looks like silverwork.

One popular pastime is to try to spot the small frog hidden in the detail. That’s not in the picture above. On the other hand, look at the writing around the medallion.

Medallion of the facade
The medallion of the facade, from a different photograph

The figures depicted are the famous Reyes Católicos. But what strikes me, even more than the inscription in Greek, is that Fernando’s name is given here as Ferdinand and Isabel’s as Elisabetha. They’re not known by these names in Spain and so I wonder why they’re inscribed as such here. I do not know the answer.

The Melancholy Roman

The guy we should mention, and the guy we shouldn’t

Ronald Goldman, in an image taken from Wikipedia

Having grown up in Australia, I must admit I’d never heard of OJ Simpson before the infamous murder case. I remember seeing the footage of him on the news, fleeing down the LA freeway in a white Ford Bronco. I’d never heard of a Ford Bronco before that, either.

It seemed to take forever for the case to come to trial, and then the trial lasted forever. What baffled me most was his name. “OJ” couldn’t have been his actual name, surely? It took months before I learned that the initials stood for “Orenthal James.” That’s how long ago this was. You couldn’t just look up the information on the internet.

And now OJ Simpson has been released and he’s a relatively old man of 70. I suppose if he manages to stay out of prison then in another decade or so we’ll hear that he has died. Already his name seems to belong to a different era.

But who now remembers Ronald Goldman? He’s gone down in history as the friend of Nicole Brown Simpson who was brutally murdered alongside her on the night of 12 June 1994. The nature of the crime means that if Nicole Brown (as she originally was) has been mostly forgotten, Goldman is remembered even less.

But a little bit of research reveals that he was 25 years old when he died. That seems incredibly young.

You understand, there was nothing special about Ronald Goldman. He seems to have been a typical 25 year old, with hopes and ambitions, and as he would’ve thought, most of his life before him. He deserved better.

To their credit, the Los Angeles Times ran a feature on Goldman on 3 July 1994, explaining who he had been. You can visit it here.

And forget about that other guy.

The Melancholy Roman