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Middle East Virtual
Day 1: Dubai
Day 2: Muscat
Day 3: Embarkation in Muscat
Day 4: At Sea
Day 5: Salalah
Day 6: Aden
Day 7: Aqaba
Day 8: Suez Canal
Day 9: Crete, Heading Home from Piraeus
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Day 7: Wednesday, Aqaba
AqabaIf our call at Aden was one of those "glad we saw it, now let's go" ports, Jordan's Aqaba, which lies on the northern tip of the Red Sea, was the exact opposite.

Though for cruise visitors the port is primarily a jumping-off point for visits to Petra (and we'll get to that in a minute), it is a bustling resort town. As we sped through the city on our way to Petra, numerous luxury resorts lined the beachfront -- more, even, were under construction -- and sidewalk cafes lined the commercial streets.

Aqaba is also known as a haven for scuba diving; indeed, the Red Sea is considered one of the world's best spots for underwater vistas at this point.

The city, with its Arabic-with-a-hint-of-European ambience, also has its place in history. Just recently, archeologists uncovered what is believed to be the world's oldest church -- older, slightly, than even the Church of the Holy Sepluchre in Jerusalem and the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, both of which date back to the 4th century. And parts of the walled city of Ayla, built during the earliest days of the Islamic era, were unearthed in the mid-1980's; it's located along the waterfront road (between the Movenpick Resort and the Royal Yacht Club). An interesting dichotomy.

And while Aqaba itself goes on our list of ports of call we'll want to revisit for a longer stay, you really shouldn't miss a visit to Petra. Petra, constructed some 2,200 years ago by the ancient Arab tribe of the Nabataeans, is the most significant and breathtaking archeological site. This ancient city carved into solid red sandstone mountains features temples, a monastery, tombs, a columbarium, monuments and grand boulevards. They're all still there though the city has long been uninhabited.

Considered remote in its day, it's certainly no more centrally located today, either. But the two-hour drive between Aqaba and Petra along the Desert Highway is fascinating in its own right, filled with rolling rock mountain ranges, and sand that changes hue under the sun's sparkle. And then there's the daily life component. Men and women wait for buses under shaded shelters. Simple one-story homes boast satellite dishes. My favorite sight was the numerous small rock sculptures created by members of the Bedouin tribe, who pass through the area. Notoriously good caretakers of their horses, they rest, feed and water them frequently, which gives them a lot of, er, down time. Building these rock sculptures, small stones in rosy hues perched on larger ones, helps pass the time. You will even see the occasional Bedouin campsite.

We passed the entrance to Wadi Rum, where the flick "Lawrence of Arabia" was filmed and which was also immortalized by T.E. Lawrence in his Seven Pillars of Wisdom. A veritable "theme park" in the desert, it's a place for desert trekking, camel rides, and hikes up and down its glorious sandstone mountains and into its canyons. It's as vast as its clifftops are tall. A protected environment, the ancient Wadi Rum dating back to prehistoric periods between the 8th and 6th centuries BC is home to numerous species of animals (we were intrigued by the Arabian Sand Cat; it's also home to the camel-spider).You can camp at its campground and our guide, the father of two sons from Jordan, says he brings his family here as often as possible to get away from the conundrums of his own contemporary life. Wadi Rum is definitely a next-trip stop.

But we drive on. The first real sign that we're getting close to Petra is a scenic pit-stop where, in the distance, you can see the tips of red rock mountain ranges -- though no sites of the town itself are available. The second real sign that Petra is near is on approach to the town of the same name that has sprung up outside the ancient city's walls. Geared entirely to tourists that come here by the millions, there are numerous chain hotels -- the Marriott, Golden Tulip, Movenpick and Sofitel -- along with Internet cafes and even a Pizza Hut. Most of them are relatively brand-spanking-new.

And there's a reason they exist in this dry, hot place that's hours away from the seacoast and, as well, a more significant distance from Amman, Jordan's capital city to the north. Petra is massive and there's no way that a single day will suffice -- we had about six hours to explore the place and our guide set such a brisk pace that we could've qualified for the race walking competition at the Olympics.

Let me amend that. Could've qualified if I'd worn smarter shoes. This is not the place to think about style, trust me on this (my Naturalizer sandals became a liability early on). Lace up your sneakers and wear comfortable socks while you're at it.

You enter Petra after a 45-minute walk along a sandy pathway that leads, more interestingly, into a narrow and deep tunnel cut into the mountains. (A hint: For those who don't want to walk too much you can ride, via horse and buggy or by donkey, from the ticket booth area to the beginning of the dead city.) You feel like you are meandering through canyons. Note the narrow aqueducts that are naturally formed as a result of water, which has relentlessly and with force actually carved ledges out of the rock walls. It'll remind you how ancient this place is.

If you haven't seen the pictures of major Petra highlights beforehand (or, frankly, even if you have), nothing will prepare you for your sudden emergence out of the long, tunnel-like city entrance into the sunlight -- and into the courtyard of the Al-Khazneh. This grand facade fronts the treasury building and its architectural style is utterly unique, offering influences that meld Eastern and Hellenistic architectural styles not to mention the Nabataean artisans' own touches. When you see the intricately carved columns and sculptures it's hard to believe this was created out of rock!

The camels, although spread throughout the city, are a particularly amusing diversion in this courtyard -- they are decked out, quite stylishly, in saddles that look like they're made out of Turkish carpets, and present in various stages of reclining. Occasionally young kids (we couldn't figure out why they weren't in school) would ride them, at a breakneck pace, through the streets of the city.

Now, at this point I wished our frenetically paced guide would take a Valium. He rushed us through the city, breathlessly pointing out the various highlights, like the Urn Tomb (immense and breathtaking, it served as a Byzantine church), the Sextius Florentinus Tomb, the Palace Tomb, and the Street of Facades and the Theater (okay, we were the ones out of breath). In the latter, which seated at one time some 7,000 people, I insisted on a catch-our-breath rest on one of the carved benches, as much because I wanted to absorb the atmosphere quietly as to take a break.

Most people were on some kind of tour, shore excursions operated on behalf of Europa, the only ship in Aqaba that day, or for folks who were staying in nearby hotels. In all cases, the pace was rush-rush-rush, which is why a second day (at least) in Petra would be beneficial. You could do the tour on the first, garnering the historic info shared by guides, and then spend the second meandering through.

Also, there's a fabulous hike you can take up to the top of Umm Al-Biyara -- and that's a daylong event in itself.

Some of the structures are built relatively high into the rosy sandstone mountains. For instance, plan on an 800 step climb to Ad-Deir, the monastery; the exterior will stun you with its stylistic marvel but the views from this perch are also memorable.

One funny thing: For all the effort that the Nabataean artisans put into the exteriors of these buildings there was little evidence of intricate carvings in the interiors. You could go inside most of them -- I found they were quite pleasant, a bit damp and cool -- after the hours of race walking in under a tropical sun.

The Europa tour group left Petra midday to head for lunch at the Movenpick resort, adjacent to the city, and I thought that was a shame. We didn't want to miss a minute of our already-too-short visit. Our lunch on-site, at a buffet restaurant with tables pleasantly situated under a grove of lush trees protecting us from the sun, may not have been fancy (and the flies and the wild cats were quite aggressively interested in anything on our plates) but our view, facing rust-hued architectural rock carvings, made us feel like even if for a moment we were experiencing a "living" aspect to a visit to Petra.

I was happier, even still, just to sit down in the shade for a few minutes! The hot desert sun is draining (bring your own bottled water and sip it, liberally, throughout your hike).

One other really memorable stop was a shop, believe it or not (otherwise, though there were kiosks of typically touristy trinkets located here, there and everywhere -- and frankly a bit obtrusive). This one is special. Look for a hot pink sign, located roughly in the center of Petra, labeled "Welcome to the Why Not Shop." First of all it's a good place to take a break -- have a glass of hot tea (really) or an ice cream or buy a bottle of water. The shop, located underneath a canopy, features on the left side the same kind of tourist trinkets (silver items, daggers) that we've seen all along our itinerary. But don't miss the exquisite stuff on right side: display upon display of gorgeous jewelry, all of it made from amazingly luminous rocks gathered from the site of Petra -- in colors ranging from pink to red and green to blue -- then affixed to beautiful silver chains. Aside from the fact that the beautiful necklaces really reflect the nature of the site (and as such make a perfect memento), they're also made by women as part of a project started by Queen Noor (the U.S.-born queen who was married to the late King Hussein) to teach Bedouin women in this region how to make a marketable -- and economically rewarding -- craft.

Speaking of Bedouins, tribe members were the last actual residents of Petra. In a move still considered controversial, they were made to leave the ancient city in the 1980's and were resettled nearby.

At last, tired, spent and exhilarated, we headed back out of Petra through the shady canyon and then along the dusty, hot sand trail. It's a sign of how weary I was that I contemplated riding a donkey back out -- but didn't have enough energy to get on his back! Ironically, after all our rushing around, we had a half-hour to kill at the entrance so we headed into the bar of the Moorish-style Movenpick resort. A glass of foamy, frothy, cold beer has never before or since tasted so good.

Back onboard Europa, we headed up to Sansibar to test out the theory told by our guide that from a high vantage point in Aqaba, from its perch at the northern tip of the Red Sea, you can actually see Israel, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia. We could definitely point out the first two -- but Saudi Arabia seemed obscured if not by mist than perhaps by wind-blown sand.
Day 6: Aden red arrow Day 8: Suez Canal

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