Taif, the rose capital of the Kingdom

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Updated 10 July 2013

Taif, the rose capital of the Kingdom

Taif is a city that offers a rich culture of history. It is situated on the eastern area of Al-Sarawat Mountains. It is known as the summer capital of Saudi Arabia as people escape the summer heat and flock to this cool, lush city that offers beautiful scenery in a relaxed atmosphere.
I always wanted to visit this place after hearing the never-ending stories of my father and grandmother who talk about how magical this place is. So I finally decided to see it for myself and of course I needed someone to show me the best places to go. My guide in this trip was Ali Alshamrani, guest relation manager at the InterContinental Taif, who showed me the real face of Taif.
Alshamrani said Taif is named after different Arabian tribes from around the Kingdom who used to gather here and enjoy the weather and exchange merchandise before visiting Makkah for Haj or Umrah.
Taif is indeed interesting; all you need to do is know where to go.
Taif’s attraction:
If you are not afraid of heights, then you should definitely take a trip to the second highest point in the Kingdom, Al-Shafa Mountain, and enjoy the fantastic fresh, cool mountain air. You will definitely love how quite the air is and get the opportunity to see the area from 2,200 to 2,500 meters above sea level. Al-Shafa is a small village that is rich in agriculture products. Many like to take camel rides to enjoy the culture to the max. Others like to picnic along with family and friends to enjoy the breezy weather away from the noise of the city.
Shubra Palace was built 150 years ago and it was the resident of Al-Shereif Abdullah Ben Oun but in 1949 King Abdulaziz bought it to be the Royal family’s summer house. The 155-room palace is today a museum that features historical photos of the old Hijaz along with authentic tools and money.
The Turkish Fort is another historical attraction that was once an Ottoman military base. It is located near the Rock Carvings and legends have it that Lawrence of Arabia fought here in 1917. You might be disappointed when you see it, for it is abandoned because the floor is covered with leftover food and trash, and the walls are defaced with graffiti. However, it is a magical place if you know its history.
Shopping in Taif is interesting; there are a number of great bargains at the old Souk Al-Balad. It used to be the gate of the old city of Taif. This is an old traditional souk where you will find small shops that offer everything from handmade merchandise to local honey, spices and ghee. A part of the souk is dedicated to gold and silver. You can get great deals from local salesmen who are very proud to show off their own designs from gold burqas to crowns made especially for brides-to-be. Another interesting shop sells traditional clothing for both men and women. If you don’t like the designs feel free to buy material and they will be more than happy to tailor for you. Just don’t forget to bargain for a better price.
If you are looking for more of an international shopping experience, then hit Shahar Street where you will find stand-alone boutiques and a one stop shopping mall. There are also international restaurants for you to choose from but I highly recommend the Romana restaurant and Bait Al-Tayebat restaurant, both of which offer a great variety of Arabian dishes. If you are looking for something more local, then you can try Al-Jouna or Al-Qaryah for they are known for the best Saudi food in town.
One of the best things to buy in Taif is organic fruit. The area is known for great berries, pomegranates, grapes, dates, peaches, watermelons and more. You can find fresh fruit stalls right off the local souk; feel free to try out free samples and fall in love with the real taste of Taif.
Souk Okaz is a unique tourist landmark and one of its kind in the Kingdom. The Souk Okaz of today is located in the same place as it was in the historical past. It is visited by a large number of tourists who wish to take a closer look at the historic Souk as it featured in the depths of the old Arab past.
The importance of the Souk lies in its historic symbolism as the original source of Arabic culture. It was the destination for ancient Arab intellectuals and poets and people passionate about culture and literature. Visitors today will enjoy a taste of culture that is one of its kind and offered by the organizers through a series of lectures, seminars and events that brings to mind the glorious Arab past with the authentic heritage values, particularly the Al-Mo’alagat (The Seven Golden Odes). Each version of the Souk Okaz celebrates one of the poets of the Al-Mo’alagat in an attempt to emphasize the important role of culture in linking the past with the present.
When you go to Taif, you have to pay Al-Hada Mountain a visit. It is known for its baboons that live on the sides of its highways. Some say they are dangerous and wild while others bring them fresh fruits every day. Al-Hada also has offers cable cars that will show you the extremely fantastic scenery of Taif’s Mountains. The cable car is the largest in Saudi Arabia and the Middle East; it will drop you in Al-Kar Tourist Village, which is mainly a water park area. “The ride is twenty minutes each way so remember to go early to avoid the long lines,” said Alshamrani.
Taif is famous throughout the Kingdom for making pure rose water and oil in a very basic and traditional way. AlShamrani took us to one of the biggest and oldest Taif Rose factories called Al-Qahdi which opened in 1982. This factory only operates in March and April every year, which is the season for roses in the Kingdom. The factory uses organic Taif pink roses and turns them into water and oil for sale. The process of making rose water starts with putting around 20,000 roses in a pot and adding 70 liters of drinking water into it. They then close the pot carefully and leave it to boil for 8 hours. On the other side you will find a huge glass bottle where the water pours into. Once done, you will find an amount of aromatic oil settled on top of the water. The oil is bottled and sold for around SR1,500. Make sure you get yourself rose water bottles that cost only SR50, a great gift for anyone; Hejazi people add drops of rose water to their chilled drinking water and enjoy the aromatic taste.
The National Museum is another interesting place to visit, a venue that showcases the old life before technology in Saudi Arabia. You will find items that used to be used for different professions along with old cars and other interesting items that were used by Bedouins in the desert.
Last but not least is the famous Al-Massara International Equestrian Center that offers many interesting learning programs for everyone. The center was found in 1982 and is reputed to be one of the largest horseback riding centers in the Middle East. It is also an auction house for Arabian horses. The center holds horse beauty pageants and more. You can book a session with one of the coaches that will teach you everything you need to know about horses and the techniques for being a professional equestrian; the center is also an academy that offers certificates to horseback riders.
Where to stay:
InterContinental hotel in Taif is only 15 minutes drive from the airport. It was built in 1978 and is the hotel that welcomes all Royal family members and businessmen on their visits to the area. It has 155 rooms and suites and 42 private villas. It also has one buffet restaurant that offers International, Arabian and great Saudi cuisine that cannot be missed. It is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
I loved this hotel for its spaciousness; even though the hotel was fully booked I could hardly notice the crowd. The InterContinental offers two huge ballrooms where it is known to host group weddings organized by local charities in Taif. The hotel is very big on social responsibility. So, on your next visit you might see one of the fun activities offered by the hotel to any welfare society in the area.
The InterContinental in Taif is perfect for the disabled as they have a number of rooms especially equipped with emergency buttons, special lights and vibrations for different kinds of disabilities
The hotel’s spacious corridors offer natural sunlight to make you feel at home. Knowing Taif’s weather, you will enjoy the outdoor pool area where you can have a cup of coffee or snacks and enjoy the greenery and the beautiful pool. There is also a kids club where your children can play safe and you can see them through a glass window while you are enjoying your pool snack.
I like to describe the hotel as vintage; it makes you think of the 1970s because my room has a vintage radio as a bedside table and other items that reflects the old and the new at the same time. The rooms are spacious and designed in a French style with the antiques tables and earthy colored furniture.
When going to Taif, you have to take your camera with you because everything looks like desktop wallpaper and you will want to save this memory. Ask the concierge to book you a car to tour the area.

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Irresistible Istanbul: Turkey’s cultural capital

Updated 22 April 2019

Irresistible Istanbul: Turkey’s cultural capital

  • The historic city — part European, part Asian — still has the power to capture hearts

DUBAI: Although the bulk of Istanbul’s historic sites lie across the Golden Horn in Sultanahmet, there’s something magnetic about Beyoğlu. It personifies Istanbul’s confidence and economic energy, is at the heart of the city’s most exciting nightlife, and has acted as a battleground for Istanbul’s modern cultural identity.

It is also home to the city’s main commercial artery — Istiklal Avenue, a wide pedestrianized thoroughfare that stretches from the steep cobbled gradients of Galata to the vast open space of Taksim Square. For most of the year it is populated by an endless sea of people either wrapped up against the onset of winter or basking in the glory of spring and summer.

Beyoğlu is where you’ll find much that relates to the world of art and culture. Orhan Pamuk, the Turkish Nobel laureate and author of novels including “My Name Is Red” and “Snow,” lives and breathes the district’s neighborhoods. You can follow in his footsteps if you like, tracing your way from Sahaflar Carsisi, the used-book bazaar that he used to frequent as a child, to the The Museum of Innocence and its quirky minutiae of 20th-century Istanbul life. The latter was created by the author as a companion to his novel of the same name and is located in a 19th-century timber house in Cukurcuma.

Then there’s the food. Take Ficcin as an example. Spread across a number of venues on either side of Kallavi Street, this wonderful restaurant serves both classic Turkish cuisine and Circassian specialties. That means kofta, artichokes, grilled chicken and an aubergine salad with yoghurt and garlic, and specials such as manti (Turkish dumplings) and the dish that the restaurant is named after — a meat-filled savory pastry baked like a pizza.

If you’re looking to stay in the Beyoğlu area, not far from Ficcin is the Pera Palace Hotel, a late 19th-century masterpiece designed by the French-Ottoman architect Alexandre Vallaury. Renovated and refurbished just under a decade ago, its grand, high-ceilinged interiors are awash with dark reds, velvet and gold, while the colors of the lobby, tea lounge and library are deeper and richer than when Agatha Christie and a cavalcade of early 20th-century celebrities made it their hotel of choice.

A short stroll from the Pera Palace is the former medieval Genoese citadel of Galata, now known as Karaköy and lying at the southern end of Istiklal. Its central, striking feature is the Galata Tower, built by the Genoese in 1348 and a reminder of the wonder of Istanbul’s pre-Ottoman past. Karaköy’s steep cobblestone streets are sprinkled generously with cafés and boutiques selling everything from Orientalist soap tins to Turkish towels and there’s a relaxed, laid-back kind of vibe.

From Galata you can walk down to the shores of the Golden Horn, crossing the Galata Bridge towards Sultanahmet and the district of Fatih (once the Byzantine city of Constantinople). It is here that you’ll realize the full impact of Istanbul’s allure. In peak holiday seasons it will be almost impossible to move within the maze of alleys that make up the Grand Bazaar, a colossal covered market that covers 64 streets and has 22 separate entrances. It’s easy to get lost, which is part of the appeal, but with up to half a million people visiting every day it can get extremely claustrophobic.

For a more sedate experience (although expect queues), Sultanahmet is a UNESCO world heritage site and home to both the Hagia Sophia and The Blue Mosque. At the latter you can sit beneath the continuous vaulted arcade that surrounds the mosque’s great courtyard, or marvel at the grandeur of its interiors, while the former’s magnificent giant dome and stunning mosaics remind you of Istanbul’s Byzantine past.

All of Sultanahmet’s main historic attractions are within easy walking distance of each other, including the Topkapi Palace, with its lavish courts and holy relics, and the underground delights of the Basilica Cistern. The sites are also within 10 minutes’ walk or so of the Ajwa Hotel Sultanahmet, a fully halal luxury boutique hotel that first opened just under two years ago.

If you find the time, head to Pandeli. First opened in 1901, the restaurant is reached via a steep set of stairs near the entrance to the Spice Bazaar and is defined as much by its shimmering blue iznik tiles as it is by its traditional Turkish food. Expect views of Eminonu Square and delights such as lamb stew served on a bed of mashed roasted aubergine.

One thing’s for sure, visitors to Istanbul will not be bored. The many delights of this city straddling two continents could keep anyone busy for months. As the French poet and politician Alphonse de Lamartine wrote in the 19th Century, “If one had but a single glance to give the world, one should gaze on Istanbul.”