Take off on an Arabian adventure: Saudi Arabia is opening up to tourism – and offers an abundance of historic wonders
- Teresa Levonian Cole spends a week trekking through ‘timeless’ AlUla County
- She explores tombs hewn from mountains and sees AlUla’s 2,600-year-old castle
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Sitting in a black Bedouin tent in the middle of the Arabian desert, I am nibbling hot, freshly made flat bread dipped in lamb fat.
‘This was the staple diet of the Bedouin, along with dates,’ says our host, handsome in flowing white robes.
‘On special occasions they would slaughter a goat. Desert hospitality requires that if any stranger comes to your camp, you must feed and water them for three days.’
Whiffs of dyspeptic camel waft in; outside, I can see a peregrine falcon swooping gracefully towards its owner’s arm.
This is Gharameel, in AlUla County, Saudi Arabia, and who would imagine Andy Warhol in this timeless landscape, his work exhibited in a futuristic gallery in the desert?
Thrilling: Teresa Levonian Cole explores Saudi Arabia’s AlUla County, stopping at the historic site of Hegra (above) along the way – a place that’s ‘popular with hot air balloon enthusiasts’, she reveals
In the desert landscape of AlUla, Teresa sees horseriders ‘gallop past in a cloud of dust’ (file photo)
Yet, as part of a push towards Westernisation, exactly such a surprise lies in store.
This secretive nation has opened to tourism, with easy online visas and the scrapping of the requirement for women (both local and foreign) to wear the all-covering black abaya.
Such measures, along with driving licences and better employment opportunities for women, are part of ‘Saudi Vision 2030’, a 30-year plan for reforms aimed at diversifying the economy and presenting a softer, more secular country.
AlUla, 12,500 square miles of desert in the country’s north-west, is the first in a number of planned tourist areas. Within seconds of my plane departing Riyadh, the modern city dissolves into a sea of sand.
This wilderness has a rich 7,000-year history, much of which is being unearthed for the first time by international archaeologists. Situated at a crossroads of ancient spice and incense routes and, later, a staging post on the pilgrim route between Damascus and Medina, AlUla benefited from diverse cultural influences.
Hegra is an important stop on the historic Hejaz Railway, built by the Ottomans and bombed by T. E. Lawrence in World War I.
Now restored as an open-air museum and popular with hot air balloon enthusiasts, it lies near what in 2008 became Saudi’s first Unesco World Heritage site — the remains of the southernmost outpost of the Kingdom of the Nabateans. Guided by Ahmed, a young local rawi (storyteller), I wander around some 100 house-sized tombs hewn from mountains.
‘Within seconds of my plane departing Riyadh (pictured), the modern city dissolves into a sea of sand,’ writes Teresa
Hegra is an important stop on the historic Hejaz Railway (pictured), built by the Ottomans and bombed by T. E. Lawrence in World War I
In the course of the week, I trek, clamber and whirl overhead by helicopter (a treat worth the extra riyals) to marvel at holy mountains covered in pre-Islamic scripts, petroglyphs that record religious offerings and an ancient Dadanite city currently under excavation.
Yet the abundance of archaeological treasures is only a part of AlUla’s attractions. Desert culture, as showcased by a 2.8 km heritage trail from Dadan to the Old City of AlUla, exerts its own magnetism.
Along this sandy oasis trail, between walls of mud brick and gates of palmwood, four riders on caparisoned horses appear from nowhere and gallop past in a cloud of dust. A cornucopia of fruit and vegetables is coaxed from these oases and we reach an orchard tended by a chatty former chief of police, who has returned to his roots.
Here, in the searing heat, just-picked mint tea, poured from a copper kettle, is the perfect restorative before our final push to lunch: a feast served in the shadow of AlUla’s 2,600-year-old castle.
Abandoned since 1982, the old town’s warren of mud houses remain sensitively restored, around a street of restaurants and shops selling local products.
Teresa wanders around some 100 house-sized tombs hewn from mountains in AlUla (above)
Pictured is the abandoned Old City of AlUla, complete with a ‘warren of mud houses’
Although there are critics of Saudi Arabia, my hosts could not be more friendly, courteous or hospitable.
And while traditional culture remains key to AlUla, the future beckons with spectacular new buildings rising like mirages in the sand. Chief among them, and temporary home to Warhol, is the Maraya art centre — sheathed in glass that mirrors the surrounding desert and vanishes into it.
But I am happy to sit beneath a diamond-studded night sky in Gharameel, eating roasted goat, inhaling essence of camel and listening to an astronomer explain how the Bedouin navigated by the stars.
The experience is magical. In the words of the great 14th-century traveller Ibn Battuta: ‘It leaves you speechless, then turns you into a storyteller.’
Windows On The Wild offers five nights B&B at Shaden in AlUla from £3,310 pp, including return flights, accommodation and transfers. windowsonthewild.com/alula.
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