We woke just after dawn and trekked through the narrow tunnel of the Siq until the magnificent Treasury revealed itself. It shimmered under the early light, and we lingered at its base for most of the morning before hiking up to the Monastery.
Petra was buzzing – tourists were clambering for the perfect photo, Bedouin children were selling donkey rides or dusty postcards, and jewellery touts were spruiking their wares. There were no kids testing out new bikes, no warm wishes of ‘Merry Christmas’ and no promise of a big traditional Christmas dinner. In fact, if I don’t get a move on there will be no Christmas dinner at all.
I’ve elected to spend the evening in Petra Kitchen, working alongside local men and women and learning how to prepare a traditional Jordanian meal. On the menu tonight is green wheat soup (shourbat freekeh), Arabic salad, baba ganoush, tabbouleh, cucumber and yoghurt salad (salatat khyar) and cheese triangles (sambousek b’jibn).
Our main meal will be chicken and I’m sure there’ll be chicken on the table at Nan’s house too. Although I am guessing hers will be the right way up. Ours, however, is called upside down chicken (magloubet) – it’s a Jordanian speciality and, as it’s a regular item on the buffets around the country, it’s not the first time we’ve eaten it. But it is, judging by our collective asp as the chef adds six handfuls of salt, the first time any of us have seen it being made.
After our memorable lesson in seasoning, I return to my station where I’m in charge of preparing the Arabic salad – an excellent choice given my level of cooking expertise. Still, even dicing the tomatoes is beyond my ability so I do it quickly, rather than perfectly, and then start mashing those eggplant for the baba ganoush.
At another table some fellow travellers are rolling up the cheese triangles ready for the deep fryer. Another group is juicing lemons and chopping mint leaves for the tabbouleh.I look around the room. No aunts and uncles, no grandparents, cousins, brothers, sisters or parents. Just a mix of young and old travellers – from Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, England, Ireland and the US – all wearing aprons and all in various stages of preparing their first authentic Jordanian dish.
My job is soon over. The cold starters are ready and the hot starters have come out of the deep fryer. We clean up, set the tables and watch as the chicken is inverted onto a large serving plate – hence the name ‘upside down’.
We devour our meal and when we are done the cooks at Petra Kitchen give us a copy of the recipes. I think of my grandmother again. I’ll take them home so she can add them to her collection of recipes. But this will probably be my last Middle Eastern Christmas.
‘Twas the night before Christmas
If there was one thing more magical than Christmas in Petra, it was Christmas Eve in Petra. We caught our first glimpse of the Treasury after a walk through the Siq, guided by the glow of 1800 candles. Once in front of the glowing facade we were entertained by Bedouin musicians and offered Bedouin tea. The Petra by Night tours start at 8.30pm every Monday, Wednesday and Thursday.
Christmas travel ideas
Turkey: The name certainly sounds Christmassy but that’s about as much of the festive season as you’ll experience in Turkey. Christmas will be slightly warmer than in the UK, and by travelling in winter you’ll avoid the high-season crowds. If your Christmas is lacking in Santa action, pay a visit to the Church of St Nicholas in ancient Myra (modern Demre). The Byzantine church houses the tomb of St Nic, the 4th century bishop who was the inspiration behind the fat, red, beardy guy we know and love today.
Egypt: You’ll feel like all your Christmases have come at once when you’re spending December 25 sailing down the Nile on a felucca. A trip to Egypt is glorious any time of the year but at Christmas you’ll avoid the scorching heat of summer and the crush of the crowds. It will still be warmer than the UK so if you don’t mind falafel for Christmas dinner it could be the perfect festive break.
New York: Nowhere does Christmas like New York City. See all of Manhattan’s iconic sights – but with a festive twist. The top of the Empire State Building will glow red and green, the department store windows will be Christmas themed and the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree will be standing tall. Take a carriage ride or go ice-skating in Central Park for a little extra winter magic.
Lapland: Imagine visiting Santa in his home this Christmas! The big guy lives in the Arctic Circle and opens his house to visitors every year (you’d think he’d be too busy). While you’re in Lapland you can also go dog-sledging, snow mobiling, cross-country skiing and ice-fishing. Cap off your Christmas with a trip to a reindeer farm owned by a local Sami family, and don’t forget to visit the famous ice hotel in Jukkasjärvi. Make sure you’re prepared for the short days and the cold weather, though.
Iceland: You’re pretty much guaranteed snow if you spend your Christmas in Iceland. Check out the capital Reykjavik but don’t forget to head out of the city to warm up at the Blue Lagoon, the famous geothermal spa where the water is about 40˚C. Christmas is also a great time to spot the magnificent Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis). There are many Northern Lights tours that can be booked from Reykjavik.
Skiing in Europe: Christmas is an ideal time to go skiing in Europe – you’ll have a white Christmas and you’ll be having so much fun on the slopes you won’t get homesick. If you’re a solo traveller there are plenty of package deals or ski group tours that can organise your accommodation and meals, including Christmas dinner, as well as group you with other Christmas ‘orphans’.
Christmas in the heat
Kenya: If you’re from the southern hemisphere you’ve probably had enough hot, summery Christmases. But if you’re eager to get some sun this winter you could head to east Africa for a Christmas safari. The main tourist season in Kenya is January and February, when the weather is hot and dry. This climate is ideal for spotting animals on safari as they tend to gather around watering holes (much like we do in summer). Because this is peak season make sure you book early to get a good price on accommodation.
» Rebecca Galton travelled with On The Go (020 7371 113), which offers 6-14 day group tours including Petra and Wadi Rum from £499