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Saudi Arabia’s surprising secrets

By Nigel Wright [email protected]

Nigel Wright, and his wife Sue, moved to Portugal seven years ago and live in the countryside near Paderne with their three dogs. They lived and worked in the Far East and Middle East during the 1980s and 90s, and although now retired, still continue to travel and enjoy new cultural experiences. His other interests include tennis, gardening, photography and petanque.

The fragrant aroma of oriental spices was overpowering. The sun had set, the baking heat of the day was subsiding and Jeddah’s Old Town bazaar was exploding into life.

We always enjoyed strolling through its busy streets, squeezed between the city’s bustling port, glitzy shopping malls and modern apartment blocks.

This atmospheric Arab souk is one of Saudi Arabia’s best-kept secrets, with its narrow streets overlooked by ornately decorated old buildings constructed from coral limestone – their beautiful teak doors lovingly carved by master craftsmen of the past.

Handsome Endangered Arabian Lynx.
Handsome Endangered Arabian Lynx.

Apart from an amazing selection of spices, the souk sells everything from carpets to camel harnesses. Amongst the teeming crowds of shoppers, the Saudi women were clad top to toe in black robes (abayas) and fully veiled – a reminder of the Kingdom’s puritanical strain of Islam. As the muezzin in the nearby ancient mosque noisily summoned the faithful to evening prayers, the street hawkers ceased calling, shops hurriedly closed their shutters and the streets were left to foreign residents and a handful of tourists.

The elegant Nassif House is one of the Old Town’s premier attractions. This magnificent mansion has been sympathetically renovated and become a symbol of Jeddah’s rich cultural past as the country’s gateway for the annual Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca.

Austere Beauty of Al Wahaba Crater.
Austere Beauty of Al Wahaba Crater.

It was the home of an important local family and camels were trained to go up and down the stairs of the building’s five floors carrying goods! During restoration work on some of the area’s old, crumbling buildings, a 15th century underground canal was unearthed – built to bring water 15 km from the mountains.

Our destination that evening was the beautifully preserved Al Alawi Moroccan Restaurant, where we dined in a mystical 1001 Arabian Nights courtyard setting. The sumptuous highlight was Tagine, a tasty vegetable stew with succulent lamb, flavoured with spices, olives, almonds and raisins, and served in its own special clay pot.

The Hejaz and Asir Mountains

Jeddah sits strategically on the arid Tihama Plain bordering the Red Sea. The holy city of Mecca is just a short road journey from the coast but entry is forbidden to non-Muslims. Behind the dusty plain, the spectacular Hejaz and Asir Mountains stretch all the way to the Yemeni border and soar to 3,500m near the town of Abha.

Blessed with relatively abundant rainfall, these mountains hide numerous tiny villages, whose green fields are protected by craggy peaks. The abundant wildlife includes wolves, ibex, baboons and the rare Arabian lynx (a cousin of our own endangered Iberian lynx).

The hiking and camping opportunities within this superb landscape are immense and there are many secrets awaiting discovery – centuries-old camel trails, picturesque streams, ancient dams, 2,000 year-old rock graffiti and Bedouin encampments.

Although Saudi city dwellers can be quite ambivalent towards foreigners, we found the nomadic Bedouin to be jovial characters and quite prepared to offer us camel rides!

The Asir Mountains are an hour by plane due south from Jeddah. Abha itself sits at 2,000m on an escarpment edge and is popular as a cool retreat away from the country’s scorching summer temperatures.

The distinctive local multi-storey houses are made from mud and clay and sometimes brightly painted. Our itinerary began at the Meftaha Art Village, a laudable project designed to encourage young Saudi artists.w

The nearby souk was full of eastern promise and a rare opportunity to see a market run solely by women. An intoxicating smell of incense and musky perfumes pervaded the stalls that sold handicrafts, pottery, baskets, honey, almonds, dates and tamarind fruits.

The indigenous tribal women from the Asir region who ran the market, were liberated by Saudi standards, wearing colourful embroidered robes and mainly unveiled.

A cable car whisked us 1,000m up to the summit of Al Souda, the country’s highest point, where we lunched whilst admiring the superb views. A second cable car ride allowed an easy descent down a vertiginous precipice to the famous Hanging Village at Al Habala.

This remarkable commune of primitive dwellings was originally only accessible to its residents by rope and balances amongst treacherous cliffs! Its few fertile terraces are fed by permanent spring water gushing from the rock face.

The Al Wahba Crater

The extraordinary Al Wahaba crater was our favourite Saudi Arabian destination and lies hidden deep in the desert 400km from Jeddah. This photogenic crater is the largest of its kind in the Middle East, 2.5km wide with cliffs dropping 270m to its flat base, in the centre of which is a dazzling white saltpan.

It may have been created by meteorite impact, but more probably by volcanic activity in the form of an almighty underground explosion. It is the ultimate desert camping destination involving a long adventurous journey off road across soft sand and best guided by a GPS.

Our group’s three 4×4 vehicles travelled in convoy for safety and we camped on the crater’s edge, close to an area of tortuous lava flows frozen into weird artistic shapes at the moment of the crater’s birth.

As night fell in this beautiful peaceful setting, we barbecued tasty kofta (minced lamb) kebabs well seasoned with cardamom, cumin, turmeric, cinnamon and ginger – giving the same delicious aroma as Jeddah’s wonderful spice souk.

Visiting Saudi Arabia

Only specialist travel companies offer tours in Saudi Arabia and they will provide the most suitable way to obtain a visa. The country is huge so air travel is recommended to places like Abha.

There are superb hotels in Jeddah and the food and service is excellent. Local travel agents will help tourists explore some of the secrets of the Hejaz Mountains and organize scuba diving or snorkeling on the pristine Red Sea reefs.

Although the conservative nature of the Kingdom’s Islamic religion means that alcohol is forbidden and ladies are required to be very modestly dressed at all times, the country has much interesting history and physical beauty to offer to adventurous tourists.

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