Nostalgia for Muscat on a cold day

It´s getting nippy in my new Spanish hometown in Torrevieja on the Costa Blanca, so I went through my pictures of much warmer places and got all nostalgic when I looked at the ones from Oman.
And here is the story to go with them:

When preparing for my 5 day trip to Oman, I was surprised to read on several informative websites that ‘there is not much to see and do in Muscat itself’. This being the capital of Oman and knowing something about the country’s colorful history, I seriously doubted the validity of this statement and, sure enough, I was right. In fact, there is so much to see that I would have loved to have more than one day for Muscat alone.
History does not always mean ‘ancient history’. Technically, yesterday is already history and, from that point of view, just over 40 years certainly qualifies as history. You see, most of the sprawling city which unfolded before my eyes on the way from the airport to my hotel on the beach was built after 1970. The panorama documents the history of oil wealth in the Middle East.

Mind you, Oman is not a rags to riches story. Located on one of the most important trade routes and with one of the world’s biggest natural harbors, Oman has always been a wealthy country, particularly in the 17th century under the rule of the Ya’ruba dynasty.
The discovery of oil however has given the country an unprecedented economical boost and it is my very personal opinion that the wealthy past has determined that the billions of petro dollars have been put to brilliant use. There is absolutely nothing ‘nouveau riche’ about modern Muscat. The difference to nearby Dubai is striking. Muscat has only one high rise, the Hilton Hotel and that has only 14 stories. Otherwise the buildings have all been designed in traditional Omani style with round towers, huge walls, carved wooden doors and small windows to keep out the heat. The only colors in evidence are white and sand, no garish paint, no gold, no colorful tiles, no adornment other than stone arabesques carved into the mantels. The overall impression is of cool elegance and understated wealth. Very, very soothing on the eye and beautifully in harmony with the country.

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Even Sultan Qaboos’ famous Grand Mosque, a massive structure which can accommodate 20.000 worshippers and was inaugurated in 2001, is made from Indian sandstone. The dome is gilded, but discreetly covered with white lattice, so that only the occasional ray of gold glitters through. The interior is another matter altogether, featuring the world’s second largest hand woven carpet made in Iran and an enormous chandelier made in Germany. Because I visited during Ramadan, I couldn’t see the interior of the mosque, that will be reserved for another visit.

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Already in love with the serene beauty of modern Muscat, my friend and I decided to visit the Muttrah souk, one of the oldest souks in all of the Middle East. During Ramadan, the souk is only open at night and, as Eid was approaching, people were out in droves to shop for clothes, jewelry and gifts in preparation for the festivities marking the end of the holy month. Two things held our attention: the ever present scent of frankincense which burns in every doorway and is one of the most important items on offer and the beautifully carved roof, reflecting the age old art of Omani wood carvings. In fact, so important is frankincense to Oman that a huge burner, high up on a hill is one of the most famous landmarks of Muscat.

The francinsense pot

The francinsense pot

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The next day we wanted to explore Muscat some more and also visit the part known as Old Muscat. To our disappointment, there is next to no public transport. We love to travel on local buses. But, at a price of 50cents for a liter of gas it doesn’t come as a surprise that everybody has at least one car. So, we took a taxi, passing by the modern, exquisite shopping complex in Ruwi on our way to the Sultan’s palace. It’s the only colorful building in blue and gold with nearly identical front and back which can be seen from the landside as well as from the water.
Flanked by two massive castles, Al Mirani and Al Jalali, the palace is surprisingly unguarded and you can approach right up to the gate. The two forts date back to the 15th century, when the Portuguese ruled over Oman and mark the entrance to Muscat bay. The best view is, again from the sea, as we found out when we embarked on not one but three boat trips.

The Sultan´s palace

The Sultan´s palace

The first took us out to sea to watch dolphins at play, the second along the breath taking coastline with alternating rock formations in white marble and black granite with tiny sand beaches in between. Boat trip #3 was dedicated to experiencing the coastline bathed in the rays of the sinking sun on board a traditional Oman dhow.

Living it up on a dhow

Living it up on a dhow

Although we missed the much praised fish market (again, due to Ramadan) we were lucky to discover Bait Al Zubair, a museum dedicated to the history of Omani art, crafts and folklore. Sadly, no photography is allowed inside, but admiring the fabulous silver jewelry and daggers, colorful clothes from all regions of the country as well as an explanation of the lineage of the current sultan caught our attention so much, that we forgot all about picture taking .But when I explained to the person in charge what I do for a living, they kindly sent me some images and gave me permission to use them.

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Belushi Dress - Bait Al Zubair Museum Collection 1
There are parks to wander in, narrow streets in Old Muscat to stroll through, some serious shopping to do in the souk as well as in the Ruwi shopping mall, more boat trips to enjoy, swimming in the Golf of Oman to be done, food to be sampled in the restaurants (again, all closed during Ramadan) that I really fail to see how anyone can say that there isn’t much to do and see in Muscat.

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My favorite boat trips

I love to travel by boat;  day trips, night trips, ferries all is welcome. I am not that fond of cruises though because after a while I feel trapped and bored, I even walked off one because I couldn´t stand it any longer, causing quite an uproar as you can imagine.
Therefore here is a selection of the best boat trips I have been on in very different countries.
Sunset trip Muscat/Oman
And the winner is…. Yes, this unforgettable sunset trip on a dhow, following the coastline of Muscat. It can´t be beaten for romantic, exotic and breath taking, white rocks alternating with black rocks, spits of sand in between and lounging on the cushions and carpets of the gently swaying dhow.

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Paddle steamer on the Chiemsee
Chiemsee is a lake in the south of Bavaria/Germany, surrounded by mountains and with two islands in the middle. Herrenchiemsee is the location of King Ludwig´s last dream castle and Fraueninsel holds a famous monastery. The paddle steamer of the Fessler Chiemsee fleet is sooo wonderfully old fashioned.

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Ferry Vigo to Islas Cies/Galicia
Vigo is a big port town on the Atlantic Ocean in Galicia/Spain. Located several miles off shore are the paradisic islas Cies, a nature reserve with the whitest and finest beaches, lush vegetation and an abundance of hiking paths when you are finished with sun bathing and swimming. The ferry ride is only about half an hour but it´s pretty to see the twin islands rising up out of the water.

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Miami River tour with Dr. George

Surprisingly, not that many visitors to Miami know that there is actually a broad river flowing into Biscayne bay. The Miami river comes from the Everglades, is regularly dredges do allow the traffic of container ships and the tour, offered by the Historical Museum of Southern Florida in Flagler Street, leads along historic landmarks, expertly explained by a historian only known as Dr. George.

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Getting (nearly) blown off Oman´s highest mountain

What I had in mind when setting off for a five day trip to Oman a few year ago , was a vacation of nothing more than relax, rest and luxury.

I planned on lounging on this fabulous, secluded, private beach of the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Muscat, swimming in the crystalline waters of the Golf of Oman, enjoying the sights and sounds of Ramadan in a deeply religious Muslim country and living the Arabian drea

 

Sultan´s palace in Muscat

Sultan´s palace in Muscat

August in Oman with temperatures in the 100s, surrounded by my beloved Middle eastern culture seemed  just the thing to get back on my feet. Mind you, I did all the above, but, you know how it is. If the prospect of adventure comes calling, all ‘good’ intentions of doing nothing fly out the window. A true traveler suddenly feels no pain anymore, he/she just can’t resist  the temptation. Idly leafing through the brochures at reception, I came upon this trip and I quote: “..proceed to Wadi Gul (village of abandoned houses) and other remains. Al Hamara- an old oasis then proceed off road to Jabel Shams (mountain of the sun), the tallest peak in Oman, towering  to 3009m with spectacular scenery as you climb through winding mountain roads”.

Abandoned houses, off road travel, mountain peaks and spectacular views???? YESSSS! Who needs a beach if they can see that?.  This time I was traveling not on my own but with a friend who has the same interests and curiosity as I have and who can’t resist an enticing trip either. As it was Ramadan, there were very few guests in the hotel or visitors in general which meant that we had the brand new 4X4 and charming driver all to ourselves.

Our trip took us first to the formidable castle of Nizwa which was Oman’s first capital and then onwards and upwards into the mountains, all in all about 200km southwest of Muscat in the country proper.

Majestic Nizwa

Majestic Nizwa

Wadi Gul

Wadi Gul

 

Oman’s mountains are something to behold, steep, surprisingly green, cut through with wadis, sprinkled with oasis where the famous date palms grow and multi colored stone. Marble in sheer white and pink alternate with black granite.  As we climbed, we reached the abandoned houses of Wadi Gul, glued to the mountain side, some still inhabited, but the majority turned into a ghost town.

The higher we climbed, the more the temperature dropped and when we came to the turn off towards Jabel Shams, some seriously dark clouds were gathering overhead. Rain, in Oman? Certainly not?  Certainly yes!! Whilst we were still looking down into the dry wadis, the heavens started to open and a downpour a dramatic proportions filled them with water within minutes. We were glad to be in a 4X4, because suddenly the track was flooded, water splashed as high as the roof of the car and when we reached th summit, we could ahrly open the door because the wind was so strong and the rain was lashing our clothes. Within seconds we were soaked through, but it didn’t matter at all, because what awaited was a the view down a canyon and gorge which left our head spinning.

Clinging with one hand to a rickety steel rope which was the only protection from a fall  of about a 1000m and certain death, we laughed from the sheer exhilaration and the thrill of danger, taking pictures with the other hand.

Hanging on for dear life!

Hanging on for dear life!

One of the tents of Living Adventure

One of the tents of Living Adventure

 

There is a resort around Jabel Shams where you can live in an Arab tent or rent a room and indulge in all sort of mountains sports. It’s called Living Adventure and if you are the hiking and climbing type it’s certainly an experience worth considering. Not to my interest though, I was quite happy to teeter on the edge as it was and then climb back into our car and return to the wonders of Muscat and the comforts of the Crowne Plaza.

 

 

 

Art by Nature – Muscat’s stunning coastline

Art by Nature – Muscat’s stunning coastline

I have seen some breath taking coastlines during my travels, but Muscat is my absolute favorite. My friend Wendy and I went on no less than three boat trips in five days because we simply couldn’t get enough of the ever changing scenery. It’s like a vast open air museum with massive sculptures created by the greatest artist of all: Nature. Not for nothing do some actually have names, like ‘The elephant’ or ‘The Lovers’.

Add to this the changing sunlight from early morning to sunset which bathes the brilliant white and deep black  rock formations, sitting side by side and I guess you can understand our fascination. I didn’t dig deep enough into the geological background to find out how all that came about, but I didn’t feel the need. Just looking at it and enjoying the beauty was quite enough. I’m happy to share it here with you in this photo blog.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The colorful dresses of the women of Oman

When I visited the Bait Al Zubair museum in Muscat tow weeks ago, I was already fascinated by the fabulous silver work and the huge collection of jewelry, khanjars and other items which first catch your eye.

Turning a corner and proceeding to the next room, my fashionista heart started to beat faster: I came face to face with a collection of the most colorful, richly embroidered and decorated dresses. I had no idea Omani women wear such a great variety of colors and fabrics, as opposed to their sisters anywhere else on the Arabian peninsula. Showcase after showcase exhibited garments which vary from region to region. All I wanted to do was to try some of them on! Alas, that was impossible and, to my dismay, photography wasn’t allowed either.

Yet, I was so enthralled that I wanted to share what I saw with my readers and got in touch with the museum. Musab Salim Said Al Jabri, the museum’s communications and IT officer,   most generously provided me with the coveted photographs and now I can reproduce them here  ( with the museum’s permission) and tell you all about it.

Muscat

Let’s start with the dresses which are typical for the capital of Oman. Generally, there are three components: the thawb or robe, worn over pantaloons called sirwal and the headdress. In Mucscat, the thawb is made from cotton with flower or geometric pattern. A different colored piece of cloth is often added at knee height. Neckline and cuffs are decorated with gold and silver embroidery. The head is covered in a 3 m long shawl matching the thawb and adorned with gold and silver tassels at the shorter ends.

Dhofar

Dhofar forms the southern part of Oman with the fertile planes of Salalah as its biggest city. The frankincense tree grows here and an extremely valuable honey is gathered and produced in the mountains.

In this region, the thawb is made from velvet. In front is reaches the calf lengths, whereas the back is very long and sweeps the floor like a train. The pantaloons are embroidered at the ankle. The headdress is called shabaka and consists of a black cloth decorated with bead. Ladies from Dhofar like their jewelery and wear plenty around their neck, wrists, ankles, fingers and toes. The Dhofar outfit is my personal favorite, among other things because of the elegance of the cut.

Musandam

Musandam is an enclave of Oman at the northern end of the country, separated from the rest of Oman by a part of the UAE. The peninsula juts out inot the sea with ragged mountains which makes for a spectacular coast line. Equally spectacular are the dresses the ladies of Musandam wear. First come the kandoura, a long cloak, embroidered at the chest with a gold or silver rectangle. Over it they wear a transparent flowing robe, matching the color of the kandoura and made of chiffon. Panatalon are embroidered at the ankle and the head dress is a light cloth resembling lace. In this region, women often cover the lower part of their face with a veil when leaving their home.

Al Shargyah

Let’s see what the women of the desert wear, because that’s where A Sharqya is located. East of the Hajar mountains and with the Wahiba desert to the south it’s a much sought after area for dune driving.

The thawb falls well below the knee and is made from various types of silk. A long cloak, traditionally made from thin. black cotton and called gab’a is worn over the thawb, all of which is richly embroidered in front as well as in the back. The pantaloon is distinctly narrow in the lower part.

A long rectangle, ususlly made from crimson sik is worn over the head and wrapped around the person when leaving the house.

Just four examples of beautiful clothes, so very different from region to region. As the museum most kindly has provided me with more pictures and it would be a shame not to use them, they  follow here with a brief caption.

Al Dahirah dress (west of Hajar mountain range)

 

Al Dakhilia dress (central Oman, area around Nizwa)

 

Belushi dress

 

Lawati dress