Stylist’s editorial assistant Moya Lothian-McLean discovers rich culture – and food – in Amman
Sandwiched between Israel, Syria, Iraq and Saudi Arabia, Jordan isn’t the first place that springs to mind for a sophisticated weekend getaway, despite only being a five-hour flight. But its capital could be the best-kept secret in travel right now.
At least that’s what I think as I reach out to touch the 2,100-year-old remains of the Temple of Hercules that lie scattered on Amman’s highest hill, the Citadel. The city’s history is so rich, well-preserved and plentiful that there’s nothing holding you back from it. You can even trace the inscriptions carved into ancient stones with your fingers.
“That theatre was built in the Roman era,” says genial tour guide Ayyad, who comes part and parcel with our packed 72-hour itinerary. He’s gesturing at the magnificent, coliseum-esque Roman theatre that seats 6,000, cut into a hillside far below us. “It’s still in use today for sporting events,” Ayyad continues. I’m amazed: it’s literally living history.
Living history is the bedrock of Amman, I discover. An ancient settlement where some of the world’s oldest statues have been discovered, it’s also comparatively progressive for the region; you’re expected to cover up your shoulders and thighs, but there’s no punishment if you don’t and hijabs aren’t required. Which is good because Jordan’s dry 28°C May temperatures might not be quite so manageable for tourists if you’re buried under many layers, despite the cooling breezes.
If you’d like a refreshing beer, it’s also easy – and legal – to buy alcohol in most restaurants and cafes, despite it being a dry Islamic country. “We’re liberals,” says Ayyad of the national mood.
As a city that survived, and thrived, during the rise and fall of some of the greatest empires ever seen, the rich seams of culture that run through Amman are constantly re-purposed and reshaped. Which is the case with Darat Al Funun, a contemporary gallery showing works by Jordanian and Arab artists, set in a stunning hillside building that served as the residence for a British commander during the First World War.
We admire thought-provoking contemporary works on issues such as the refugee crisis (Jordan has opened its borders to an estimated 1.3 million Syrian asylum-seekers since the beginning of the country’s civil war), then slip down stone steps to the ruins of a Byzantine church where concerts are frequently held. Delightful. Art lovers can also visit the Jordan Gallery of Fine Arts, which contains over 2,800 paintings, sculptures and ceramics from across the Middle East and wider Arab world.
For those who prefer to take their treasures home, the artisan offerings are a goldmine. Lit by late-afternoon rays, we wander to Memos Ceramics, one of the city’s many independent craft markets. Owner Raed al Badri specialises in beautiful pottery pieces – everything from small bowls to large lamps – all handmade and decorated by local women. After a tour of the workshop, including a visit to the kiln room that leaves us sweating, we depart, several kitchenware packages heavier and better versed in the art of haggling.
Luckily, Ayyad’s indispensable services come with a tour bus we can leave our purchases in, and he shepherds us to city’s next must-see. Or rather, must-taste: the other unmissable aspect of the city is the incredible food.
Melted cream cheese, sugar syrup and semolina, it transpires, is a perfect combo. It’s what’s used to make the addictive national Jordanian dessert, knafeh. We snack on it at the Habibah Sweets stand – the oldest of its kind in the city – before lunch, which isn’t wise: Jordanians are famous for their hospitality, even more so for their overfeeding. This becomes apparent at each subsequent meal.
We’re plied with dozens of plates heaped with mouth-watering mezze – including hummus so creamy it appeared to be, well, cream – and do serious battle with our self-control in order to allow room for mains. It’s worth it to sample delights such as mansaf, a lamb dish that requires a quick DIY assembly: tear some flatbread, soak with salty fermented yoghurt, add rice and lamb, then top off with more yoghurt and politely go to town on it with your right hand. Equally memorable was musakhan, a dish made from heaped bread, chicken and onions doused in olive oil and spices, which I inhaled at Sufra, a restaurant surrounded by beautiful blooming flowers.
Foodies will also appreciate BeitSitti (‘grandmother’s house’ in Arabic), a cooking class run by three sisters who have transformed their grandmother’s gorgeous stone house into a space where they teach traditional Arab recipes. As the sunset daubed the taupe buildings around us in a dull orange, I found myself – a firmly established non-cook – dicing cucumbers like a semi-pro as an imam’s call to prayer boomed out over the city. It was magical.
Thankfully, after all that food, there was a spacious suite waiting at the newly opened – and I mean really new; the hotel soft-launched in April – downtown W Amman for me to roll into. A response to the growing international interest in Amman as a destination, it pays homage to Jordan’s history – the hallway is constructed to look like the entrance to famed desert city Petra – but with every luxury a 21st-century girl could ask for: spa, gym, the works. You won’t even need to bring an adaptor.
My giant bed was the perfect place for me to collapse after conquering Amman’s numerous hills, and waking up to panoramic views of the city made rising at 7am to fit in maximum tourist duties a breeze. As did the promise of more food. After all, a girl is only as good as her last meal.
TravelLocal (travellocal.com) offers three-night stays in Amman from £670pp, including accommodation at the W Amman, plus all excursions, transfers, drivers and a tour guide. See visitjordan.com for information
Images courtesy of Visit Jordan and W Amman