Riyadh – Three Side Trips Not to Be Missed

The land of a thousand and one fables and fantasies, impenetrable Saudi Arabia has long intrigued the world. As the country begins to relax its visa rules to welcome visitors, we share with you here three tasting of the middle east, side trip journeys reachable from Riyadh, its capital city.

The Asir Mountains
This hilly region is near the country’s border with Yemen. The local capital, Abha, a small town ringed by misty mountains, felt chilly as I strolled through its souk and chatted with stall holders selling incense of frankincense and myrrh, beads, gowns and brightly colored baskets.

The key attraction here is the restored village of Rijal Alma. Its tall, top packaging design companies tower-like houses were built nearly 300 years ago, acting as watchtowers. One house is now a museum with rooms and displaying jewellery, farm tools and even a bridal carriage designed to go on a camel’s back.

Medain Saleh
Medain Saleh is the country’s key tourist attraction. Located in the north-west, the 2,000-year-old Nabataean tombs, set in the stark desert, are a stunning sight. Imagine visiting the rock-cut architecture of Petra, in Jordan, but without the crowds. This was the second city of the Nabataeans, who created their 131 rock-cut tombs soon after they had finished work on Petra.

The Nabataeans, whose empire lasted from around 600 BC to AD 300, sited both cities on the same trade route and Medain Saleh would once have been a bustling city, though as in Dir’aiyah, the houses have long disappeared. The tombs are astonishing – many are cut so high in the rock that you have to climb a rickety ladder to enter them to see the burial niches cut into the sandstone.

Many tombs have inscriptions in the Aramaic language over their doors and these are translated into English, explaining who owned the tomb. One of the most striking is the beautiful row of tombs called Qasr Al-Bint. You can also head across the dunes to the tomb of Qasr Farid, when it turns a glowing pink at sunset.

Souk Al-Alawi is the star attraction here, a warren of narrow streets in the old town where I spent a happy morning shopping for leather slippers and beautiful wool shawls. The prices are fixed, so haggling is not welcome, but generally, the atmosphere in Jeddah is far more relaxed than in conservative Riyadh. Here, I spotted women going out without men accompanying them, and sometimes without wearing their headscarves.


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