Tag Archives: Landscapes

Oman Day 8 – Muscat Ramble

Thursday 28 Feb. We spent the morning with Rashid, who took us to see some of the highlights of Muscat before lunch. We certainly packed it in – Grand Mosque, Opera House, Souq, Sultan’s Palace, National Museum. I took loads of photos, but really feel that I need to get to a PC to tweak them to do the sights justice. Here are a few, and I will come back and update them with improved versions once I can get my hands on decent RAW processing software.

The first item on the itinerary was the Grand Mosque, a gift to the people of Oman from Sultan Qaboos, with the intention of spreading a clear message of inclusive and peaceful Islam. It’s an impressive building, certainly on a par with the Sheikh Zayeed Mosque in Abu Dhabi, Through a knowledgeable and impassioned exposition of information about the mosque, Rashid also showed that he has a serious and thoughtful approach to his Ibadi Islam religion. (Ibadism, a school of Islam pre-dating Sunni and Shia denominations, is dominant in Oman and is noted for its realism, tolerance and preference for solving differences through dignity and reason, rather than confrontation).

I could drown you with photos and information, but I’ll try to include just the bare essentials and will set up a full Flickr page on the mosque in due course.

Right from the first approach, you get the sense that the building is intended to inspire awe and devotion. It combines places of worship (white marble) with places of enquiry, scholarship and administration (pink marble).

The Grand Mosque, Muscat

As you approach the central hall, there are many impressive views of the buildings.

The Grand Mosque, Muscat

The Grand Mosque, Muscat

The Grand Mosque, Muscat

Before entering the main hall, Rashid showed us that this is also a place of learning and scholarship. An impressive door leads into a library

Inside the Library

where people may read, study and learn. There are also imams on the site who will give guidance to anyone who asks for help.

Then we entered the main hall of prayer, which is hugely impressive. It really is difficult to convey this in photos. Here’s an overall impression

and here are some other highlights as you walk around: A vast carpet, hand stitched in Iran by (I think) 43 women over four years, and valued at around 10 million pounds

Prayer Hall carpet

(interestingly, it has no lines in it to instruct worshippers how to line up – the Abu Dhabi mosque does – but apparently they line up OK anyway. See later for more lines). The detailing all around is very intricate and beautifully done

Prayer Hall - ceiling detail

and there are detailed carvings and mosaics all around the walls. Some are functional – this contains copies of the Quran

Niche inside Prayer Hall

some are decorative

Here’s a set of individual Quran chapters laid out in a niche.

and here’s a view of the central dome and massive (Austrian crystal) chandelier.

Prayer Hall - chandelier and carpet

Outside the main hall of worship are several courtyards where worshippers can find a place when the main hall is full.

The Grand Mosque, Muscat

In the above photo you can also see carved script running around the walls; the entire Quran is written in the fabric of the buildings – albeit in a highly caligraphic style which is difficult to read, apparently.

The lines you see in these courtyards are lines along which (male only) worshippers stand and kneel to pray. The number of courtyards with these lines in really underlines that the mosque can accommodate a huge number of worshippers, the vast majority of whom will be male.

Females are by no means excluded, oh, no, absolutely not. Here is the hall where women can worship.

Women's Prayer Hall

As you can see it’s much smaller than the spaces reserved for male worshippers. This is because it is apparently OK for women to pray at home, but men have a duty to attend a mosque to pray if they can. Women pray separately from men in order that the men don’t lose focus on the act of worship by catching sight of a fetching female, albeit one wrapped up in a scarf.

For a fan of architectural photography such as myself, there are many opportunities for striking photos.

The Grand Mosque, Muscat

The Grand Mosque, Muscat

We left the mosque with one final view

The Grand Mosque, Muscat

before heading to our next stop – the Opera House. This is a pretty monumental slab of architecture – modern because recently built (at the behest of the Sultan, who was educated in England and acquired a taste for opera there, poor sap).

The Royal Opera House, Muscat

Inside is, as you’d expect, very nicely done, with a posh ticket hall leading to the auditorium.

Ticket Office, Inside the Royal Opera House, Muscat

(on the extreme left you can see the security scanner whch prompted the nice guard chappie there to relieve me of my Swiss army knife for the duration of our visit, just in case I had considered running amok with it). The auditorium itself is large but not huge – a capacity of 1,100 poor unfortunates – and with a very large royal box (not a surprise, given whose idea the building was).

It’s all very comfortable, with screens in the back of each seat showing the translations which are so critical when trying to make some kind of sense of the ludicrous plots that are unfolding before you.

You may have guessed that I don’t like opera, and you’d be right. It’s the singing that I hate, mainly. In fairness the auditorium is also used for ballet, orchestral, local and international song and theatre productions…

Anyhoo – our next stop was the Souq – Muscat Souq is in an area of the town called Mutrah. Jane was looking for some of the kind of glass receptacles that were used on our camp majlis tables:

and we thought, of course, “Souq and ye shall find”. So we souqht, among the many colourful boutiques:

Muscat Souq Scene

Muscat Souq Scene

and were offered many, many opportunities to buy all sorts of things, but mainly Kashmiri cloth and incense; but the requisite glassware was not around, although there were some other nice scenes.

Muscat Souq Scene

Muscat Souq Scene

Muscat Souq Scene

Most places were selling tourist tat, and so our occidental appearance was very much grist to the mill of the local importunate selling technique. We just said “shukran” (meaning literally “thank you” but in this context “no, thank you” and eventually escaped so that we could visit our next stop, the fortifications and Sultan’s palace on the outskirts of Muscat.

The Royal Palace is stylistically a bit off the mainstream in my humble opinion – it looks more like something that Gaudi might have dreamt up.

Royal Palace, Muscat

Overlooking it is Al Mirani Fort, one of a pair of ancient forts guarding Muscat from those marauding Riffs from Nizwa (the other is called Al Jalali and is across the harbour from Al Mirani).

Al Mirani Fort, Muscat

As you look away from the Royal Palace, you see a monumental street with monumental buildings and, at the end of it, the National Museum.

National Museum, Muscat, Oman

I’m not normally a great one for museums and my back and feet were aching for some respite – lunch, say; but in we went. The museum is not vast but the scope of its exhibits is, covering Oman’s prehistory and history, renaissance, relationships with the world, Islam, heritage, maritime history and the land and the people. There’s an airy central atrium

with lots of exhibition halls going off it. Some things were very striking, such as the relief map of an irrigation system from mother well, through habitations and finally to the plantations

Sample irrigation plan

which, if you look closely, is beautifully done in layered wood to show the contours.

Sample irrigation plan

Another such relief map illustrates clearly how Muscat nestles among mountains.

Muscat Harbour relief in wood and photo

We also found an exhibit hall dedicated to the “beehive tombs”

and a selection of very imposing gates such as this one

which was made in 1126 and guarded the entrance to ash-Shibak fort. If you look closely, you can see the UK Royal Coat of Arms among the other calligraphic, floral and animal motifs. It reflects the close ties between Oman and the British East India Company in the time of the Mughals.

After such a sprint round the tourist boxes-to-be-ticked, we were ready for a break, and Rashid took us to the Turkish House for a seafood meal – wonderfully grilled prawns and some sort of snapper, accompanied by calamari, hummus, a spinach salad and some wonderful flatbread – a nice way to round off the day’s touristing.

By the time we’d finished lunch (around 2.30pm) the traffic had really built up, as this was a Thursday and therefore people were heading out for the weekend. So it was a bit of a grind to get back to the hotel, but we made it in time for (complimentary) afternoon tea followed by (complimentary) G&T and an opportunity for me to update the blog. We have one more day in Muscat and you’ll simply have to read the next instalment to find out how that went.

Afterthoughts: So…..Croatia, eh?

In the midst of dealing with the fallout from being away for a fortnight (laundry, mainly, though having lots of nice cups of tea also features heavily), I think it’s worth gathering our thoughts about the last couple of weeks and sharing them here, just in case it helps others planning something similar. Generally, both Jane and I thoroughly enjoyed our experience of Croatia and would heartily recommend it (particularly the Dalmatian coast) as a walking and/or sailing destination.

Timing. July and August can be fiercely hot all over Croatia. The best time to visit is May or (like we did) September. This is the second time we’ve visited in that month and the weather we experienced was, by and large, lovely. The Croatian tourist season runs out at the end of September or very early in October and things start to wind down quite markedly, so getting hotel rooms later than September might be challenging.

Walking. Our experience of walking in Dalmatia is very positive, but it was definitely a good thing to have thoroughly researched the level of difficulty in prospect, and the levels of fitness required, before booking the walking tour. We were operating towards the top end of our range with many of the group younger (and fitter) than us… Anyhoo:

  • The tracks are plentiful and well-marked (though I wonder how many of them we would have found without having an expert guide to do this for us).
  • Most of the routes we undertook were short on shade, which means that the walking can be pretty hot work, and taking lots of water is essential.
  • The tap water is perfectly drinkable, so take your own bottles and refill.
  • Very few of the walks we did passed any outposts of civilisation, so it’s advisable to take some food with you as well.
  • Mobile signal appeared to extend over much of the terrain we covered.

Sailing. This is big business along the Dalmatian coast. There are lots and lots of sailing boats, even some small towns sport large marinas and generally this part of the Adriatic is a good place for sailing, with or without an engine (take note, however, of the section below about the weather).

Landscape. The Dalmatian landscape tends towards being mountainous and scrubby – the land is difficult to farm, being stony. So the trails through it are pleasant enough and will occasionally offer great views from the tops of hills, but are otherwise not particularly scenic and are in some cases quite challenging. Our admiration for the local people who used these trails simply to get from A to B (often with their livestock, and often despite advanced age) grew day by day! We followed a couple of trails through woodland, which were more rewarding.

Townscape. The cities we visited all had old towns, which are all worth looking around. The towns and villages are by and large somewhere between pretty and handsome – well-maintained, tidy and picturesque.

Money. Croatia is no longer the cheap destination it was, but it’s not too expensive, either. In the towns, debit cards were widely accepted in shops, cafés and restaurants, and it was easy to find ATMs. You might find places that will accept Euros, but it’s best to have local currency (Kune) available. If you’re off the beaten track, you’ll need cash to be able to buy anything.

Eating out. Tourism is an important industry in Croatia and so there is usually a plentiful supply of cafés and restaurants in the towns, with English spoken and good service.

Cuisine. As you’d expect, there’s some good fish on offer, and seafood (especially squid and octopus). But emphasis tends to be towards meat and potatoes – the vegetarians in our group had some difficulty getting anything more imaginative than a plate of grilled mixed vegetables on occasion. For non-vegetarians, a couple of traditional dishes are worth seeking out: Pašticada, a slow-cooked beef stew; and Peka, a baked dish of meat and, yes, vegetables, cooked under a dome in barbecue coals. But there’s no problem finding more cosmopolitan fare such as steak, pizza or burgers – the burgers I had were very good, and served without bread, which I prefer.

Drinking out. You’ll find that most restaurants have a limited selection of wines and what is offered is likely to have been made locally or nationally. Croatia has a well-developed wine-making tradition and the local wines are perfectly good without being stellar. Local beers tend to be of the lager persuasion and are perfectly good.

Liqueurs. Something of a Croatian speciality is the production of liqueurs based on local produce – one we found to be very nice is based on sour cherry, but you’ll also come across walnut liqueur and something called Prošek, which is grape-based and quite sweet, among other variations such as olive and cornelian cherry. These are quite often offered as a welcome drink and I think it’s polite to sample at least one…

Bloody Cruise-Ship Tourists. Many of the larger or more attractive towns in Croatia are magnets for the big cruise liners – Dubrovnik and Split have a constant stream of them during the holiday season, for example, and Trogir during the height of the season is reportedly an utter zoo. So you may find that such towns are crowded during the day.

Bloody weather. Actually, for the most part our weather was pretty much perfect – a bit hot for me for going uphill, but sunny, warm and lovely for sitting outside when eating or drinking. But the Bura wind that we experienced is capable of wreaking havoc on sailing boats and travel itineraries. I was grateful for the experience of our captain to know it was coming (it took many others by surprise) and plan accordingly; if you’re considering sailing in the Adriatic, this is the sort of thing that can become very suddenly of very great pith and moment. Having said all that, and with the benefit of hindsight and no havoc having been wreaked, we’re glad to have experienced it; apart from anything else, the Bura clears the air and the visibility after it died down somewhat was vastly improved.

For anyone interested in sailing, walking, history, archaeology and/or pretty places to visit, the Dalmatian coast of Croatia is somewhere that we think should be high on the list. We hope that these thoughts, along with the descriptions of our various vacation days, help in understanding the possibilities that Croatia presents to the tourist.

Day 7 – Boiling Bojinac

September 21 – Jane’s morning:

There has been a settlement on the site of the modern town of Starigrad (“Old Town”) since Roman times. Until the tourist boom of the 70’s it was a small village whose inhabitants decamped during the summer months with their sheep and goats to summer pastures in the mountains, travelling up in May and back in September or October, depending on the altitude of their pasture. Our walk today followed one such path – although calling it a path is pitching things a bit high

as it is only barely distinguishable from the surrounding rocks! We started early but still toiled upwards in direct sun

Our guide Zeljko had spent two summers as a shepherd in the mountains while he was at university 35 years ago, helping an elderly couple whose sons had taken conventional jobs, and he explained that everything needed was hauled up by mule or donkey, and people lived – and died – in the mountains. If somebody died a party of 6 men carried the body down the trail, since as devout Catholics the body had to be buried in consecrated ground with due ceremony; and church, priest and cemetery were in the village far below. The pall bearers were only allowed to put the body down to rest at certain spots (just one place on our route, about half way down) and the resting place of the body was marked with head – and foot – stones. Later flat slabs would be laid at the spot, and such “graves” can be found on various trails on the mountains.

Headstones would be marked with some arbitrary design or shape since the people were illiterate.

Up we toiled, rewarded with wonderful views,

scrambling over sharply eroded rocks

And encountering fierce wildlife

Until after about 3 hours we reached the first flat pastures

and a shaded spot for a well earned lunch

Just another 15 minutes led us to the highest point of our hike at 840m, known as the Doorstep, with amazing views and rock formations

And then it was (mostly) downhill to the pickup point where our driver was waiting.

Steve’s morning:

Drinking beer and bringing the blog up to date as far as September 20.

Our evening was spent with a final group meal in the hotel restaurant, doing the usual end-of-holiday stuff such as exchanging e-mail addresses before retiring for the night and some well-earned sleep before the excitement to come – getting back to Dubrovnik. Read all about that varied day in the next exciting instalment!