One of the most relaxing places I visited in the past is Oman.
During the past decade the Oman underwent an intensive campaign to place the Country within the context of the most visited areas in the middle east. I have to say that the plan was successful. Such campaign attracted dozen of visitors from several Countries of the world: Italians, French, Germans and other European citizens being the main markets who got fascinated by this nice, tranquil and relaxing Country which offers quite a lot to see, spanning from natural to cultural and artistic sites, as well as the opportunity for several sport activities which also impacted on this specific tourism niche.
Oman is located at the South East of the Arabic Peninsula, bordering the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Yemen. Most of the tourists go the city of Salalah, on the shores of the Arabian sea, where large hotels and holiday clubs are located, others take advantage of the Cruises from the UAE to Oman and only visit Muscat. I am not a beach person (I can’t face beach life for more than a couple of hours) and I don’t like cruising, thus I planned a self drive tour of Oman in a way to visit the most interesting cultural sites and the natural beauty of the Hajar Mounts Range. I landed in Muscat in the evening, spent a night at a hotel close to the airport, and then move to the districts of Al-Dakhiliya, then to the district of Al-Sharkiya and finally to the district of Al-Batinah in 12 days. Such itinerary touched the main attractions of Oman including some of the largest cities, homes of beutiful fortresses and nice mosques, the mountain villages hanging on the rocks of the Hajar Mounts, the sand desert, the turtle natural reserve, the capital city, Muscat, and the nice, peaceful villages of the region al Batinah, which beside being famous for the beach resorts also offers plenty of cultural attractions in it’s mainland.
I visted Oman during Christmas break, thus for only 12 days, which was a sufficient amount of time to cover the area I choose, among the several apportunities offered by the Country. However, when I think back to my tour I think I would add some more days to also visit more natural attractions on the Hajar Mounts which i had to skip. Oman really surprised me for the pace and the tranquillity I felt, the natural beauty and the especially, the obsession of the Omani people for perfumes and insence…which also is one of mine. See my post about Omani perfumes here
Let’s start with the features of Oman which I found interesting and attractive.
Note: the photo embedded into this post were taken by my travel mate Gabriele Merlo, who also is an award winning amateur photographe (Londong Photo Festival). See his portfolio here
1 – The Omani People
Despite the size of the Country, Oman counts only 4.5 million citizens, only half of which are actually Omani, the rest is composed by migrants from several areas spanning from East Africa to Pakistan and India and other minorities. The Omani wear the traditional Arabic tunic called dishdasha for men, which is made of good cotton and white, in most of the cases, to reflect the sunlight. Such tunics are usually hand-made and that is why at every corner of each city, including in the big malls of the major cities and the souqs, 1 shop out 5 is a tailor. When you enter such shops you find dozens of fabric rolls, well placed on the shelfs, of different quality, depending on how much the customer can spend. However, regardless of the quality of the cotton, the tunic is always hand made. Under the dishdasha, men wear sort of an underwear, called wazar, wrapped as a pareo. The head of the Omani men is always covered with very refined hats called kumah which can be pretty coloured and embellished with embroideries. Others wear a turban called mussar made with a squared piece of fabric usually referred to, in the western world, as keffiah. When you see a man wearing the dishdasha you are 100% is a Omani. Women traditional dresses are very coloured instead, and composed of 4 pieces, called omaniya, which includes 2 coloured tunics, soft trousers and a head veil.
The locals are very kind and polite. Feel free to ask directions or explanations to anyone along the streets and people will help you in any possible way. When you are interested in an item seen at a shop or inside a souq be sure that you won’t be bothered or pushed to buy by anyone, as it usually happen in other Countries you might have visited, where a visit to the markets may turn into a nightmare. The Omani are happy to show their stuff in a very polite and kind way: You won’t feel forced or pushed to buy anything.
2 – The Souqs
As every Arabic and middle east and north Africa Countries, in Oman you will have to opportunities of visiting several Souqs. If you expereinced Souqs in other Countries and are familiar with the tourist-traps they organise and the way you are pushed to enter the shops (and in most of the cases pitpocketed), forget about that. The Souqs of Oman are very different. Cleanliness is the key. The Souqs of Nizwa and Muscat (the major I visited together with smaller ones), are extremely clean. All shops are organised in a way to well display their stuff in a pretty tidy way which allow you to see everything they have even from a distance. The sellers invite you very politely to have a look and won’t bother you for 15 minutes, proving your patience. One thing to bear in mind is that the Souqs of Oman are still interger in their nature and that the increasing tourist flows didn’t yet compromise the quality of the stuff they sell. Most of the shop still sell actual local products and are meant for the local citizens, thus what you buy is, in most of the cases, not a souvenir but something which is Omani authentic. The food sections of the Souqs are also pretty nice and clean and are divided by the type of items sold. There is something unique to underline here: the food Souqs of Oman always have quite a big section dedicated to Dates. I wasn’t very fond of dates until I visited Oman, where I discovered how many varieties they have, their very special taste, which is not the one I am accostumed to when I buy them at our stores, and the several ways you can use them to prepare tasty meals. One of the nicest experiences I had in Oman was to see the process of taking Tahini out of the sesame seeds with a big stone mill and trying it on a date of the best quality they have, offered by a local who understood how curious I was.
3 – The Forts
There are fortresses in every Country of the world, meant to protect the landlord of a specific territory from attacks. In the European context such buildings usually display massive walls in facing bricks, big bastions and shoe-shaped foundations to reinforce the stability. In Oman the forts are different: the scope is the same and the main features are also equal to those you find in Europe, but the colour is different. All the forts I visited were golden in colour, in a way to reflect the light, keep the interior chill even under the scortching summer heat of the Arabic peninsula, and to create a sense of continuity with the main colours of the landscape around them. Big portions of the interiors are meant to provide accommodation to the troops and the guardians of the landlors and are shaped in the form of intricated mazes to disorient possible intruders. Other areas are meant as the residence of the landlords and the members of their family. The majority of the forts I visited, are well restored but the interiors are empty, except as for some rooms which have been refurbished to provide visitors with an idea of the way of living inside this palaces. Along my itinery I met 12 forts and all of the are worth a visit.
4 – The Desert
The Arabic peninsula is the land of the so called “Fourth Void” which is the immense sand desert which covers a big portion of the area. The fourth void of Oman is located at the borders with UAE and Saudi Arabia but there is another sand desert, which is smaller, in the district of Al-Sharkiyya, whose gate is the small village of Bidiyah. You have to book quite in advance because accommodations in the desert are limited. Let an experience local driver take you to your camp. Unless you are accostumed to driving on the soft sands of the deserts, your chances of getting stuck are very high. There are several companies that organise tours inside the desert, therefore, is you are self driving, like me, this is a time you have to park your car in the village and board a Jeep supplied by the local agency.
This is were you can experience what the Sahara really looks like: sand dunes as far as your eye can see, Bedouins compounds and many Camels. Although there is not much to do in the desert, you may want to spend more than 1 night here, enjoy the view of the sun, which illuminates the dunes from several angulations during the day, changing the landscape every minutes with a turnation of shades and reflections really is quite a view. Sunset is an amazing experience in the desert: allow yourself a couple of them. Although I am totally against the use of animals for touristic purposes, I understand it would be impossible to live in the desert without the support of the Camels. Thus, if you like, take a camel ride on the dunes. A guide will lead you as getting disoriented is very likely to happen in the desert.
This list is obviously non exhaustive as details and highlighst in Oman are a lot more, thus keep following for more details about the attractions and the highlight of Oman.
Some basic information:
Currency: the Oman Currency is called Real and it’s a pretty strong one, with an everage exchage rate of 2.50 US (2.20 Euro), which makes the Country a bit expensive. However, meals can be very cheap if you enjoy the local restaurants, instead of the hotel ones.
Food: most of the restaurants are run by migrants, thus it is a bit difficult to find real Omani cuisine (The desert camps are probably the best places for that), but in return you may find foods you are familiar with, mostly of the Indian Tradition.
Culture: Oman is a Sultanate (Kingdom), based on the principles of Islam. Respecting the local culture involves paying attention to behaviours that may be offensive to them, such as wearing short clothes. At the entrance of specific sites, such as the Mountain Villages, you will find signs inviting you to cover your legs and arms. Drinking alcohol is allowed but mostly at the hotel. Temperature in Oman are high also in winter thus, even if you like havig a beer or a glass of wine, enjoy the local “lemon mints” and refresh your arteries for once.
Temperatures: if you visit during the northern emisphere winter, Oman will be a delightful destination as temperature are warm but very mild. During the Omani Summer, wich spans from April to September, the heat can be pretty proving. Regardless of the season you will find that from 1.00 pm till 6.00pm there are very few locals around and shops are closed. To avoid the extreme heat of the area in fact, the locals move out of their homes in the morning, then they spend the warmest hours of the day at their homes. That is why the malls and the city centres get pretty lively after 6.00 pm.
Getting there: beside the “beach resort packages” whose destination is Salalah, for which charter flights are usually operated, the main entry gate to Oman is the Capital City, Muscat, which is well connected with several European hubs by the national airline (Omanair) as well as other major airlines. I flew from Torino to Frankfurt and then from Frankfurt to Muscat in approximately 7.20 h. To enter Oman you need a Visa. Citizens of a number of Countries can apply and pay for the Visa at the airport of Muscat, others must apply and get the Visa in advance through the e-visa portal of the Police of Oman