Magical Madrid: The unique charms of the Spanish capital

Magical Madrid: The unique charms of the Spanish capital
Madrid the capital of Spain. (Shutterstock)
Updated 13 November 2018

Magical Madrid: The unique charms of the Spanish capital

Magical Madrid: The unique charms of the Spanish capital
  • Madrid is a European capital like no other
  • Madrid’s blockbuster sights regally lived up to their generations-old hype

LONDON: It was bad luck that brought me to Madrid — or perhaps fate. Midway through a two-month road trip around Southern Europe, diligently skirting the coasts of Portugal and Spain, but with no intention of venturing inland, my 20-year-old campervan broke down in the scorching Andalusian planes, some 30 km outside Seville, officially the warmest city in Europe.
My fate was sealed by the calendar as much as the location: It wasn’t just that I blamed the searing summer sun for overheating my ancient engine, but also for thwarting any chance of its repair. For the month of “Agosto,” I soon learned, the south of Spain simply shuts down. There wasn’t a garage in town with the faintest bit of interest in fixing my motor. And so, after a fortnight of shade-seeking 40-degree days and flamenco-filled nights in Seville, I impulsively rented a car and made a spontaneous six-hour road trip to Madrid. And whatever the repair bill ended up being, I wouldn’t change a thing.
Arriving exhausted at dusk, I emerged from my air-conditioned car to find the climate completely transformed, temperatures hovering in the pleasant mid-twenties, surrounded by commuters ambling amiably to street-side tavernas rather than racing to the metro — or hiding indoors like their southern compatriots.

Hurried logic (and a whiff of luck) had brought me to the south-western edge of the central Sol barrio, a maze of winding streets with colorful cafés and tapas joints that seem to be as busy for breakfast as in the early hours, entertaining a constant flow of customers and an insistent throb of lively chat. It was the perfect tonic for the breakdown blues.
Arriving without preconception or preparation had its benefits. I was free to follow whims, enjoying the kind of aimlessness which can only be bred through enforced limbo. Evenings drifted by nibbling gambas al ajillo (garlic prawns) and pimientos de padrón (padrón peppers), while practicing my newly acquired Spanish with friendly locals at Bodegas Melibea, an audaciously decorated café with wide open windows offering cooling vistas of the ever-changing street scene.

Madrid’s blockbuster sights regally lived up to their generations-old hype. The Plaza Major really could not be better named — a bright rectangular space built around the turn of the 16th century, lined with interconnected regal rows of identical three-story buildings, sporting a total of 237 tiny balconies.
Grander still is the Royal Palace of Madrid, a magnificent maze of 3,418 rooms which make it Europe’s largest royal residence. Be sure to stop at the nearby Temple of Debod, an ancient Egyptian temple donated to Spain and incongruously rebuilt in the early 1970s.
I had heard of the Prado Museum, of course, and held some inkling of its famed depth and breadth, but little could prepare me for the boggling floorplan and epic catalogue of art, which stretches from the 12th to 20th centuries. At any one time, only about 1,300 of the institution’s collection of more than 20,000 works is on display — but that still means that if you entered at 10 a.m., stayed until closing time at 8 p.m., and took zero breaks, you would have the equivalent of 27 seconds to view each work. Time is likely to be considerably tighter when an extension is unveiled next year, coinciding with the Prado’s 200th anniversary.




Temple of Debod. (Shutterstock)

More manageable and equally essential is the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, one of Europe’s greatest exhibitors of 20th-century artists which pays homage to the country’s headline exports Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dalí — including staging the former’s epic “Guernica,” a stark, monochrome Spanish Civil War epic which rightfully ranks among the century’s greatest cultural achievements. At 7.7 meters wide, it’s a work that no postcard or textbook reproduction can do justice to — a statement which needs to be experienced in the flesh, and studied up close, to appreciate even a jot of its power, scope or intent.
Madrid is simply magical. Not in that quaint, stately, Western European way of Vienna or Prague, nor with the pretentious powerhouse vibe of Paris or London. And nothing like the crumbling grandeur of Mediterranean neighbors Rome and Athens. It’s a European capital like no other — and it’s the one I’d move to in a heartbeat.

 


Farasani people find summer solace in ancient Saudi getaway

Farasani people find summer solace in ancient Saudi getaway
Al-Qassar village consists of old buildings and is located in the south of Farasan Island. (Supplied)
Updated 08 May 2021

Farasani people find summer solace in ancient Saudi getaway

Farasani people find summer solace in ancient Saudi getaway
  • Al-Qassar village becomes a top destination for those seeking moderate climates and potable water

MAKKAH: The village of Al-Qassar — located 5 kilometers away from the Farasan governorate — has long been a hub for the people of the Farasan Islands who are always in connection with the place.

This is especially noticeable during summer, when people migrate to the village to escape from the heat.
For more than 50 years, Al-Qassar’s historic homes have witnessed vibrant ceremonies, as their walls were built with stones, roofed from palm tree fronds, and adorned with seashells and beautiful Arabic inscriptions.
Saudi historian and poet Ibrahim Moftah said that Al-Qassar is one of the first villages that was inhabited in the Arabian Peninsula hundreds of years ago. The village enjoys moderate weather, is covered with palm trees, and is full of fresh wells and rich in history and events, he added.
“Farasan was a deserted island on all levels and the love of change is in the nature of Jizani people, so they used to go to Al-Qassar for change,” he told Arab News.
He said that at the beginning of the month of April, the village becomes a top destination for those seeking moderate climates and potable water. “Water in Al-Qassar can be found at a depth of six meters, whereas it can only be found in Farasan at a depth of 23 meters.”
Previously, most travel and trips to Al-Qassar village were during what Farasani people call the “Shaddah” season, where families ride camels to travel.
People of Farasan would postpone their wedding ceremonies in order to travel to Al-Qassar in summer, where the weather is cool during the Shaddah season.
Those trips to the village were done in two phases: One morning trip for a bride, who rides a camel carrying water and boxes with accompanying music, and another second trip during the afternoon for families.
“The Farasan people used to celebrate new brides in Al-Qassar in a unique way, especially if the bride was in the first year of her marriage, amid the chants and songs of joy,” said Moftah. “A calm and trained camel is chosen, then they decorate the camels with beads, pearls and silk, and copper bells that are fixed to its ankles to make sounds as it walks.”

HIGHLIGHTS

• For more than 50 years, Al-Qassar’s historic homes have witnessed vibrant ceremonies, as their walls were built with stones, roofed from palm tree fronds, and adorned with seashells and beautiful Arabic inscriptions.

• Previously, most travel and trips to Al-Qassar village were during what Farasani people call the ‘Shaddah’ season, where families ride camels to travel.

• People of Farasan would postpone their wedding ceremonies in order to travel to Al-Qassar in summer, where the weather is cool during the Shaddah season.

Moftah said that before a bride’s trip to Al-Qassar, “young women gather at the bride’s house and start singing, then they start their trip with the bride in the forefront. The camels would also be carrying wooden boxes that used to arrive from Aden and are made in India, loaded with expensive clothes and perfumes. The bridesmaid accompanies the bride, and she is usually of a similar weight. Men and women would stand on the sides to wave goodbye to the bride’s procession.”
The bride is then received in Al-Qassar with jugs of water and chants.
However, Moftah said that “nowadays, there are no more camels in Farasan” and that “life has changed and these traditions ended 50 years ago,” as cars, modern homes and air-conditioners have become common and Al-Qassar is no longer an escape or a shelter for anyone, now only home to “deserted houses and souvenirs.”
According to the Saudi historian, official festivals and a surge in tourism “was not fair” to the history of Al-Qassar village, as older traditions were not properly represented. “The region has lost one of the most beautiful cultural traditions.”
Saudi tourist guide Yahya Abbas said that Al-Qassar village consists of old buildings and is located in the south of Farasan Island, and includes almost 400 houses fixed with tree fronds, small stones and sand “to prevent water leaks.”
He added: “The history of this village dates back to the Roman era, and there are writings and drawings dating back to the Himyarite era.
“The village is considered the largest palm oasis in the region, with plenty of fresh wells.”
Abbas said that Al-Qassar has now become an area for tourists and visitors who want to discover its history and that of the Farasan Islands, as well as view the ancient houses in the village.


Cruise giant to set sail from new homeport in Jeddah, but what can guests expect on the MSC Magnifica?

Cruise giant to set sail from new homeport in Jeddah, but what can guests expect on the MSC Magnifica?
Updated 05 May 2021

Cruise giant to set sail from new homeport in Jeddah, but what can guests expect on the MSC Magnifica?

Cruise giant to set sail from new homeport in Jeddah, but what can guests expect on the MSC Magnifica?

DUBAI: It’s the ultimate in all-inclusive, luxury holidays and no doubt on the bucket list of many an avid traveler — postcard-worthy cruises have long been sought after by holiday makers looking for a destination-hopping good time. 

Now, for the first time, global cruise company MSC Cruises is offering passengers the chance to sail the Red Sea from its new homeport in Jeddah. 

From Nov. 13, the MSC Magnifica will sail seven-night itineraries, including visits to Aqaba for Petra in Jordan, Safaga for Luxor in Egypt, and the Saudi ports of Al-Wajh and Yanbu before returning to Jeddah. 

However, the behemoth ship is a holiday destination itself, with restaurants, entertainment and shopping venues, as well as a planned aqua park which will be added this summer. 

The ship’s leisure facilities include a spa, an open-air pool complex and an indoor pool with a retractable roof, so guests can enjoy a dip regardless of the weather. 

For all the athletes, sports and activities include tennis, minigolf, bowling, billiards, along with a high-tech gym and a jogging track.

There are themed venues on board the MSC Magnifica for kids and teenagers. (msccruisesusa.com)

For kids and teenagers, there are themed venues on board the MSC Magnifica, along with kids’ clubs with dedicated programs of daytime activities that will help the children break the ice and make new friends. 

The boat offers multiple ways for guests to spend their leisure time, including a 1,200 seat theater. (msccruisesusa.com)

When it comes to evening entertainment, the boat offers multiple ways for guests to spend their leisure time. These include a disco, 4D cinema, a cigar lounge, a 1,200 seat theater and live music in the lounges.

The ship also has a disco, 4D cinema, a cigar lounge, a 1,200 seat theater and live music in the lounges. (msccruisesusa.com)

There are currently two restaurants on the boat — Oriental Plaza and Quattro Venti — with an additional two restaurants to be added this summer. 

Oriental Plaza is an Asian restaurant that offers authentic Japanese, Chinese and Thai dishes, while Quattro Venti offers dishes that range from traditional Mediterranean meals to international recipes. 

There are currently two restaurants on the boat with an addtional two restaurants to be added this summer. (msccruisesusa.com)

From the summer of 2021, MSC Magnifica’s cruise experience will be enhanced with an extra 8000 sq ft sundeck, 215 new staterooms of which 116 feature a balcony, two new restaurants, a new aquapark, a new kids area and new shopping venues. 

The ship will sail its Red Sea itinerary through March 2022 and bookings opened on May 1 for future guests.

Those who book a December trip will be able witness Saudi Arabia’s inaugural Formula 1 Saudi Arabian Grand Prix 2021 on Dec. 5 in Jeddah.


Taif — the Saudi city of roses is ready to bloom

Taif — the Saudi city of roses is ready to bloom
Roses are planted every year at the beginning of ‘Al-Tarf’ season — one of the agricultural seasons that encourage the branches to bear the rose fruit. (Supplied)
Updated 04 May 2021

Taif — the Saudi city of roses is ready to bloom

Taif — the Saudi city of roses is ready to bloom
  • Roses are then harvested from March 20 in a process that continues for 35 to 45 days. The start of the harvesting season varies every year from 10 to 15 days

TAIF: The Taif Rose Festival, organized by the Saudi Culture Ministry, will attract visitors from around the Kingdom with activities, shows and displays running until May 11.
Latifa Al-Adwani, supervisor of the Taif History Center, told Arab News that the Taif roses are at the heart of the city’s aesthetic identity.
“Legend has it that five centuries ago an Ottoman sultan offered seedlings of the Levant rose to a noble man in Makkah, who ordered that the flowers be sent to Al-Hada Mountain to be planted there, as this area is known for its mild and cool weather, similar to the weather of the Levant.”
Taif roses were first documented by Swiss traveler Johann Ludwig Burckhardt, who visited Taif in 1814. They were then mentioned by Maurice Tamisier in 1834, Leon Roches in 1841, Charles Didier in 1854 and other travelers.
One of the main historical stages of these roses was marked by a report developed by a committee and published by Al-Qibla newspaper in 1920. Farmers in Saudi Arabia also own old documents, such as Al-Tulhat and Al-Kamal families in Al-Shafa in 1880; and Al-Qadi and Al-Halwani in Al-Hada in 1887.
Khaled Al-Amri, a researcher and specialist in Taif roses, told Arab News that Taif is known for its roses in Saudi Arabia and around the world.
“Rose farms across Taif produce nearly 800 tons of rose water yearly with 40,000 tolas of rose oil. Each tola is made from 12,000 roses and is sold for SR1,500 ($400).”
Taif is home to 2,000 rose farms. It is situated 1,900 meters above sea level, giving it an ideal atmosphere for roses to grow, he added.
“However, it is very important to search for the best rose farm, one that is located away from pollution. Al-Shafa Mountain is one of the best locations, given its big agriculture areas located far from main roads and residential areas. Roses there have a stronger scent.

FASTFACTS

• Taif roses were first documented by Swiss traveler Johann Ludwig Burckhardt, who visited Taif in 1814.

• Home to 2,000 rose farms, Taif is situated 1,900 meters above sea level.

• Rose farms across Taif produce nearly 800 tons of rose water yearly with 40,000 tolas of rose oil.

“Taif roses are very sensitive and, thus, require the proper agricultural environment; 10,000 roses in Al-Shafa are enough to make a tola, unlike roses from other Taif farms, where 15,000 are required to make one tola, which proves the necessity of providing an adequate environment for these roses,” he said.
Al-Amri said that roses are planted every year at the beginning of “Al-Tarf” season — one of the agricultural seasons that encourage the branches to bear the rose fruit.
Roses are then harvested from March 20 in a process that continues for 35 to 45 days. The start of the harvesting season varies every year from 10 to 15 days, he said.
According to Al-Amri, the third week from the start of production marks the peak of the season and roses bloom one year after planting. An average of 50 roses per day bloom on each sapling. Each tola costs somewhere between SR1,500 and SR2,000.
As for the production of the fragrance, Al-Amri said the process goes through several phases.
“Between 12,000 to 15,000 roses are placed in a large pot containing 60 liters of water. The pot is sealed and heated up for water to evaporate through a pipe connected to a water tank and allowed to condensate. It is then poured into a 20-liter vial, where oil extract can be found floating on the intense rose water surface,” he explained.
The extracted oil is called “aroos” (bride), he added. The same process is repeated, and 20 liters of water are extracted, representing regular rose water. Rose oil is then poured into tolas (11 to 12 grams).
Aroos water is used for medicinal and cosmetic purposes, while regular rose water is used in foods and desserts.
As for the benefits of Taif roses, Al-Amri said that the elderly view them as beneficial for the heart and teeth.
When mixed with honey or sugar, rose water is considered a cure for phlegm and stomach ailments. It can help relieve headaches and allergies as well, and can also be added to water as a sweetener. Rose petals also can be added to tea.


Saudi Arabia’s ancient human ‘mustatil’ structures revealed in new study

Saudi Arabia’s ancient human ‘mustatil’ structures revealed in new study
Findings revealed that about 1,000 of these mustatils cover an area of 200,000 square kilometers and appear to share similarities, suggesting that they all originate from the same time period. (Supplied)
Updated 02 May 2021

Saudi Arabia’s ancient human ‘mustatil’ structures revealed in new study

Saudi Arabia’s ancient human ‘mustatil’ structures revealed in new study
  • Newly found rock buildings in northwest of Saudi Arabia believed to be among earliest stone monuments in history

JEDDAH: More than 1,000 prehistoric stone structures have been revealed as part of an archaeological discovery in northwestern Saudi Arabia.

The structures are believed to be among the earliest stone monuments constructed by humans in the world.
Based on findings published by Cambridge University Press on April 30, experts revealed that the neolithic rectilinear structures could date back more than 7,000 years.
A team of archaeologists from the University of Western Australia led by Dr. Hugh Thomas has conducted aerial archaeology surveys and targeted excavations across the northwestern region of Saudi Arabia, predominantly focusing on the AlUla and Khaybar provinces.
Research was completed as part of a program by the Royal Commission of AlUla’s (RCU) Aerial Archeology in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia AlUla project (AAKSAU).
The structures, named mustatils — the plural form of the Arabic term for rectangles — consist of two thick-walled ends, connected by two or more long walls to create a series of giant rectangle courtyards, ranging in length from 20 meters to more than half a kilometer.
The base of the mustatils feature circular or semi-circular cells constructed outside the main entrances.
Findings revealed that about 1,000 of these mustatils cover an area of 200,000 square kilometers and appear to share similarities, suggesting that they all originate from the same time period. The largest of the structures is located near the Khaybar lava field and measures 525 meters in length.
A number of aerial surveys have also been conducted, while structures first discovered in the 1970s have been studied.

FASTFACT

The structures, named mustatils — the plural form of the Arabic term for rectangles — consist of two thick-walled ends, connected by two or more long walls to create a series of giant rectangle courtyards, ranging in length from 20 meters to more than half a kilometer. The base of the mustatils feature circular or semi-circular cells constructed outside the main entrances.

Several mysterious “gates” that were analyzed are believed to have functioned as elements of procession for ritual sacrifices, as remains of animals including cattle, sheep and gazelle were recovered. No human remains or domestic occupation were discovered in the excavation process, but further digging will take place.
The new findings differ from similar rock structures in the area known as “kites,” which are constructions resembling polygons, funnels and triangles that date back to about the same time as the mustatils. Researchers believe they were used as traps for herding animals, while other theorists say they could have been used as burial grounds or tombs.
In 2018, the RCU commissioned the AAKSAU, a broad ranging archaeological study of AlUla province, as part of the Indentation and Documentation of the Immovable Heritage Assets of AlUla program. Another program focused on Harrat Khaybar was also established in 2019 by the RCU.

 


Beautiful Botswana: Exploring the Okavango Delta

Beautiful Botswana: Exploring the Okavango Delta
Updated 01 May 2021

Beautiful Botswana: Exploring the Okavango Delta

Beautiful Botswana: Exploring the Okavango Delta
  • With the pandemic decimating the tourist industry, locals are delighted to welcome visitors back to this magnificent wildlife haven

OKAVANGO DELTA: Reclining in the middle of a dug-out canoe, slicing through a clump of reeds that gives way to a large open pond covered in lily pads, the wonder of the Okavango Delta truly becomes clear.

A mokoro ride is a staple of a visit to Botswana’s tourism crown jewel — the place where the mighty Okavango River flows in from the Angolan highlands, splintering off across 15,000 square kilometers of African plains towards the Kalahari Desert. 

Being punted along by a wiry villager from a neighboring village, who stands sentinel at the back of the canoe with a large pole, reminiscent of a Venetian gondolier, is a favored experience for international tourists, and the waterways are often full with foreign faces taking in the country’s famed wildlife. But not this year, of course.

A mokoro ride is a staple of a visit to Botswana’s tourism crown jewel — the place where the mighty Okavango River flows in from the Angolan highlands, splintering off across 15,000 square kilometers of African plains towards the Kalahari Desert. (Shitterstock)

The serenity of floating through one of the Delta’s famed papyrus-lined channels is the hard-earned pay off for the assault course you have to conquer to arrive here.  The two-hour speedboat ride to your mokoro involves papyrus reeds, branches and large insects whipping your face while a strangled boat engine threatens to cut out as your guide deftly navigates the overgrown channels. 

There are no tourists around this year, our guide explained, and therefore less boats puttering through the channels to keep the fast-growing papyrus that dominates the Okavango back. Some channels are at risk of being swallowed forever. 

It was at Mopiri Camp that we took to the water on a mokoro ride. (Shutterstock)

Botswana — like so many other tourism-reliant countries — is suffering from the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on international travel. It closed its borders on March 24, 2020, and reopened eight months later, in a bid to lure back travellers. It hasn’t yet been successful. During our trip to three camps in the Delta in January, we were only the second international guests to have arrived since the reopening. The vast majority of lodges across Botswana remain closed.

But there is a flip side to this. Botswana — which has long marketed itself as a luxury tourism destination (Prince Harry got engaged to Meghan Markle here) — offering opulent all-inclusive lodges that routinely run up to $4,000 per night, has had to bring down its nightly rates to incentivize locals to travel. The country has traditionaly favored a sustainable travel model similar to Rwanda and Bhutan — keeping prices high to ensure no mass tourism. Until now, most lodges in Botswana did not have “international” and “local” prices. But introducing the dual rates, sometimes a quarter of the international price, has worked to some extent. During December and the first week of January, Roots and Journeys, which operates water-based lodge Mopiri and land-based lodge Nokanyana, reported full houses. 

We spot lions crossing a tar-sealed road, gazelle aplenty and — the highlight — a pack of wild dogs reclining on a roadside. (Shutterstock)

The company adamantly believes there is a mid-range market just waiting to be catered for in Botswana. Their $500 all-inclusive offering is a fraction of the cost of other camps in the area, and though it’s a more rustic experience, you do get to see the same wildlife. 

It was at Mopiri Camp that we took to the water on a mokoro ride.

While it can seem like a gimmick, the half-day excursion in a mokoro also demonstrates just how entwined many of the lodges are with their local communities. Food is purchased from the tiny nearby village of Etsha 6. Our mokoro guide, Alco, is from the neighboring village of Tsau.

Botswana has long marketed itself as a luxury tourism destination. (Shutterstock)

“Corona was an eye-opener,” our camp guide Sediq says. “The locals poured in because it was cheap. We survived because of them.”

The 5-star experiences are finding it just as hard. Nearby is one of Botswana’s most famous lodges: Belmond Savute Elephant Lodge. Located right in the middle of Chobe National Park, on the edge of a watering hole frequented by giant elephants, we are its only visitors. The camp has stayed open regardless — a commitment to keeping its staff in jobs. 

The staff member showing us to our rooms laughs as I suggest she must be annoyed at our interruption of a rare time of quiet.

Botswana — like so many other tourism-reliant countries — is suffering from the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on international travel. (Shutterstock)

“No way,” she says. “We are so bored. We miss our guests. We get excited when people come.”

The elephants seem to agree. They’re out in force over the next few days, perhaps reveling in the lack of tourists. We spot lions crossing a tar-sealed road, gazelle aplenty and — the highlight — a pack of wild dogs reclining on a roadside. 

Our guide tells us we’re “very lucky”. But perhaps it’s just the animals reclaiming what’s rightfully theirs.