Morocco serves up a slice of history, hospitality

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Updated 03 January 2016
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Morocco serves up a slice of history, hospitality

This was my first trip to an African country and I couldn’t have chosen a better destination: Morocco. It had everything I love — history, culture, old rustic buildings and lots of sunshine.
We landed in Rabat where the Salé Airport was so small, it felt like we had taken a step back in time. The security officer looked at our passports for a long time and then asked, what our nationality was, though our passports clearly proclaimed that.
The first thing I noticed about Morocco was that, it was generally clean and the people were very thin (In comparison, we looked like the ‘Incredible bulk’).
Morocco is a tourist friendly country which is well connected by trains, taxis and buses. The trains are inexpensive and clean. A trip from Meknes to Tangier (about 250 km) in first class cost $32 roundtrip. There are two types of taxis: The small ones seat only three people and count even a small child as one (My Moroccan friend told me, they even count a pregnant woman as two). There is plenty to see in Morocco. There is something for everyone. If you are fond of historical monuments, mausoleums and ancient souks you will be right at home in Morocco. It is amazing how the old and new blend and come together. You will find an ancient monument not too far from a modern McDonalds or Pizza Hut.
You can go hiking in the blue city of Chef Chaouen, go camping in the Sahara Desert or visit beaches in Agadir or Casablanca. There are plenty of affordable tours that you can book online. We found hotels to be more expensive (about 150 Euros a night) so we booked apartments online using Air B&B. We found apartments in Rabat, Meknes, Tangier and Casablanca between $75 to $95 per day. These apartments were centrally located, clean and came with a maid service. (And for $5, the maid cooked our meals too). You can also rent a room in a Moroccan home that is 100 to 300 years old and enjoy the history and hospitality for $50-$100 per night.
My favorite thing in Morocco was the ancient city walls. A drive through Rabat, Meknes, Fez, or Marrakesh and you will see these beautiful, majestic walls that are about 20 feet high. They looked like they were made of orange clay. They had beautiful, carved gates and towers. These walls had tiny holes which I thought were for the archers to protect the city. Then I discovered, the holes were made hundreds of years ago by the construction workers who used wooden scaffolding to build them.
I also loved the 2000 old Roman ruins of Volubilis. An hour from Meknes, at the foot of the Atlas Mountains, these ruins are still majestic and worth seeing. Beautiful arches, artistic mosaic all bear witness to the amazing architectural prowess of the Romans. A great, vibrant and colorful place to visit in Morocco is the Medinas. All major cities have them. I loved the cobbled streets and the electric atmosphere in the bazaars. I was amazed at the thought that people have been coming to these places for the past hundreds of years. In the square outside the souk, there were musicians and acrobats, performing. There was always a snake charmer who carried a long snake and tried to get your attention, telling you to wrap the snake around your neck and take a picture for pocket change. I was always too scared, and screamed, making sure our paths never crossed. My favorite was this pair of little monkeys who sat huddled together in the cold in a market square at Meknes, wearing little cardigans.
I especially went to Fez to see what is considered to be the oldest university in the world — University Al-Karaouine. What I found most intriguing was that a woman Fatima Al-Fihri had founded it in 859. The university is still operational today. Some of the famous students who went to Al-Karaouine were Ibn Khaldoun the famous historian, geographer Muhammad Al-Idrisi, Jewish philosopher Maimonides and even a pope by the name of Sylvester II.
If you don’t speak Arabic or French in Morocco you won’t get very far. We relied heavily on Google translate, because one kid in our group was allergic to nuts. I was amazed that my very, broken Arabic which I picked up during my years in Saudi Arabia actually worked. I was able to tell a roadside bread maker to make a new one for me, “Mumkin itni sawwi khubs jadeed” and of course my favorite, Wallahi Ghaali ana miskeen that always got me some discount. (My confidence turned to embarrassment when I was trying to say, ‘I can’t hear you’ and said, ‘Maafi idhn’, and my daughter with a horrified look told me, ‘Mom that means, you have no ears).
Things are pretty inexpensive in Morocco. A kilogram of fresh beef cost $1. Delicious T-bone steak cost $12. And do not forget to haggle. If you are good, you can buy the stuff for 60 percent less than the original price. As our driver told us, ‘In Morocco everything is negotiable’. I totally loved Morocco... I saw my first olive tree and was surprised to see the olives are picked by shaking the trees hard. I learnt some interesting facts too like it is impossible to buy a gun in Morocco. If caught, with an illegal gun, the person could land in jail for life. If you eat in public in Ramadan, you can get six months in jail. Rice and gasoline are both expensive. A PhD student who we met on a train ride to Fez, said, “Eighty-eight percent of the people in Morocco make less than $2 a day. His dream was to move to the USA and asked us if it was safe for Muslims to stay there.”
And my favorite person in Morocco apart from our driver Adil and maid Fatima was the shopkeeper who spoke English, sold Indian Navratan oil, gave Pakistanis a thumbs up and said he loved Benazir Bhutto!

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Jeddah Al-Balad’s new heritage hotels offer glimpse into bygone era

Updated 01 March 2024
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Jeddah Al-Balad’s new heritage hotels offer glimpse into bygone era

  • Launched by the Historic District Program, the restored houses fuse region’s rich history with contemporary comforts

JEDDAH: Nestled in the heart of Jeddah’s historic district are heritage hotels launched by the Jeddah Historic District Program under the patronage of the Ministry of Culture and in partnership with Al-Balad Development Co.

These hotels, including Beit Jokhdar, Beit Al-Rayess and Beit Kedwan, have been meticulously restored while preserving their architectural features to provide guests with an authentic glimpse into the rich cultural heritage of the region.

The restoration and rehabilitation of these heritage hotels was carried out in alignment with the highest international standards and the guidelines set out by UNESCO, which designated Jeddah Historic District as a World Heritage Site in 2014.

The opening of the first three heritage hotels in Jeddah Historic District marks a significant milestone in efforts to preserve and promote cultural heritage. (Instagram/jeddahalbalad.sa)

Tariq Omar Al-Saggaf, the project manager, told Arab News about the extensive work involved in reviving about 600 heritage buildings in the area. “These buildings are not only being restored but also repurposed for various functions ranging from hotels to residential, administrative, commercial and cultural purposes,” he said.

Through a harmonious blend of historical restoration and modern hospitality, these hotels offer guests an opportunity to immerse themselves in the rich history and architecture of one of Saudi Arabia’s most iconic districts.

HIGHLIGHTS

• The recent agreement between the Jeddah Historic District Program and Al-Balad Development Co. signals a new chapter in the operation of the heritage hotels. • Beit Jokhdar has one of the largest wooden facades in Al-Balad and distinctive elements such as stained glass. • Beit Kedwan, facing Beit Nassif, stands out for its wooden rawasheen and mashrabiyyas.

During an exclusive tour at Beit Jokhdar, Milica Markovic, the general manager of Al-Balad Historic Hotels, told Arab News that the restoration process aimed to maintain the original charm of the buildings: “80 percent of the building has been restored to how it originally was. This building has the biggest roshan window in Jeddah. It has nine rooms and suites and it’s the biggest out of the three that we have.”

She added: “So, that’s why the architecture is actually very unique. It is very important for us to reflect for the guests, although these are hotels (they have) a very homey, elegant vibe.”

The opening of the first three heritage hotels in Jeddah Historic District marks a significant milestone in efforts to preserve and promote cultural heritage. (Instagram/jeddahalbalad.sa)

The attention to detail in preserving elements such as the roshan window, wooden ornaments and oil lamp hooks gives guests an insight into the heritage of the region. Local craftsmanship and artistry are also integral to the interior design and ambiance of the hotels, reflecting the cultural richness of Saudi Arabia.

“The ceilings are also original with wood ornament carving that is handmade. We even preserved the old hooks, where they used to put the oil lamps to lighten up the room. Most of the art and furniture you see … most of it has been done locally, so we really try to showcase fully not just the interior design and architecture of Saudi Arabia but also ... the work of the artists,” Markovic said.

Each of the three heritage hotels showcases a different architectural design that highlights the historical and aesthetic value of the buildings.

Beit Jokhdar, for instance, has one of the largest wooden facades in Al-Balad and features distinctive elements such as plaster decorations, arches, stained glass and ornate wooden interiors.

Beit Kedwan, facing Beit Nassif, stands out for its wooden rawasheen and mashrabiyyas, while Beit Al-Rayess is celebrated for its location and architectural features both internally and externally.

Markovic said: “The whole renovation process, I believe, took a little bit more than two years. But to set it up at the hotel and the hotel operation … it’s been only actually three months so we’ve been hardcore working to set everything up for the year.

“The most beautiful thing about these hotels is we don’t have to come up with a fancy marketing strategy or anything, we can just embrace them and share this beautiful history story,” Markovic said.

“Prices go usually from SR5,000 ($1,333) and more per night, but depending on the seasonality event in Jeddah, it can go a certain percentage lower or higher depending on the occupancy.”

Hospitality and dining in all hotels is inspired by an authentic Saudi flavor, “We have hired fantastic young chefs that are basically developing dishes that are inspired by Saudi cuisine, but with a bit of a more modern fine dining and elegant twist,” Markovic said.

The recent agreement between the Jeddah Historic District Program and Al-Balad Development Co. signals a new chapter in the operation of the heritage hotels.

With 34 heritage houses set to be managed under this partnership, Al-Balad Hospitality aims to offer authentic hospitality experiences that celebrate the culture of the region.

The commitment to preserving the history and providing enriching experiences positions Jeddah Historic District as a sought-after destination for visitors worldwide.

The opening of the first three heritage hotels in Jeddah Historic District marks a significant milestone in efforts to preserve and promote cultural heritage.

 


Baha’s historic architecture echoes its heritage

Updated 25 February 2024
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Baha’s historic architecture echoes its heritage

  • Tourists and visitors are captivated by the architectural brilliance of Saudi forefathers in constructing these palaces and fortresses, admiring their skill in crafting stone edifices

RIYADH: The historical castles and fortresses that dot the landscape of Baha in southwest Saudi Arabia serve as bright reminders of the country’s great founding story.

From quaint villages to bustling settlements, each corner of the region has its own piece of history in the form of majestic castles and fortresses.

These architectural marvels serve as proud caretakers of tradition, telling stories from bygone ages and adding to the rich tapestry of Saudi civilization.

Baha’s architectural marvels serve as proud caretakers of tradition, telling stories from bygone ages and adding to the rich tapestry of Saudi civilization. (SPA)

Tourists and visitors are captivated by the architectural brilliance of Saudi forefathers in constructing these palaces and fortresses, admiring their skill in crafting stone edifices.

Among the notable landmarks is Bin Raqoush Palace, now a hub of cultural and historical significance, drawing dignitaries and visitors from far and wide.

FASTFACTS

● Among Baha’s notable landmarks is Bin Raqoush Palace, now a hub of cultural and historical significance, drawing dignitaries and visitors from far and wide.

● Efforts to revitalize have gained traction, particularly during national celebrations like Saudi Founding Day.

Similarly, the Bakhrush bin Alas Fortress in Qura governorate; the ancestral castles of Al-Osaidhan family; and the charming village of Shabraqah, north of Baha city, hold their own historical charm.

Baha’s architectural marvels serve as proud caretakers of tradition, telling stories from bygone ages and adding to the rich tapestry of Saudi civilization. (SPA)

The imposing Al-Akhawayn Fortress overlooks Al-Malad village, a monument to history amid ancient heritage homes. Meanwhile, Al-Ayed Heritage Guesthouse in Bani Kabir village and the Mishref Palace in Baljurashi add to the region’s allure, commanding views of the historic Saturday Market.

Despite the passage of time and exposure to diverse elements, these ancient fortifications stand tall, a testament to the craftsmanship of builders and their resilience.

With their distinctive conical shapes and towering heights of 20-25 meters, these structures boast intricate designs and are adorned with white marble stones, exuding a captivating aura.

Baha’s architectural marvels serve as proud caretakers of tradition, telling stories from bygone ages and adding to the rich tapestry of Saudi civilization. (SPA)

Originally built for surveillance during times of conflict, these strongholds now serve as poignant reminders of the region’s history, tucked within village courtyards or towering atop hillsides, offering a glimpse into a bygone era.

Efforts to revitalize have gained traction, particularly during national celebrations like Saudi Founding Day.

By organizing heritage events and artistic showcases, authorities aim to preserve Saudi cultural identity, encourage awareness for the country’s rich history, safeguard cultural heritage and societal norms, spotlight local talents, and improve tourist experiences at heritage sites.

With locals taking pride in their heritage and taking on their restoration as well, these sites have become magnets for visitors, photographers, and enthusiasts alike, offering opportunities to document and explore diverse aspects of Saudi heritage.

Their eagerness to capture the essence of these historical sites has led to a flurry of activity, with documentaries being produced in various fields including architecture, fashion, jewelry, culinary arts, agriculture, and weaponry.

 


Al-Arousa — AlUla’s rocky marvel attracts visitors

Al-Arousa rock formation is commonly thought to resemble a woman standing tall, wearing a dress. (SPA)
Updated 17 February 2024
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Al-Arousa — AlUla’s rocky marvel attracts visitors

  • Al-Arousa, which is about 100 meters high, was formed thousands of years ago and has kept its current shape due to natural conditions

MAKKAH: The captivating Al-Arousa rock formation, located 100 km north of AlUla, is one of the region’s most prominent attractions.

It sits amid a collection of distinctive rock formations, and according to Dr. Salma Hawsawi, a professor of ancient history, the archaeological evidence found in the area is proof of the civilizations that once lived there.

AlUla is located in the middle of Wadi Al-Qura, surrounded by mountains from the east and west.

FASTFACTS

• Al-Arousa, which is about 100 meters high, was formed thousands of years ago and has kept its current shape due to natural conditions.

• The rock formations in the AlUla region are considered natural wonders of the world because they were created without any human intervention.

High temperatures, strong solar radiation and dry continental winds are a feature of this desert area in summer. The temperatures decrease in the mountainous highlands, and in the spring and autumn the weather is characterized by moderate coolness and warmth during the day.

Hawsawi said: “Climatic and geographical conditions have led to the formation of rocks in the area in human and animal shapes.”

Al-Arousa, which is about 100 meters high, was formed thousands of years ago and has kept its current shape due to natural conditions. The formation is commonly thought to resemble a woman standing tall, wearing a beautiful dress.

Behind the figure is another rock formation that could be considered an extension of the dress, especially as it appears the figure is holding onto the hem of the garment. It could also be imagined as a seat with inscriptions on it. The figure has been interpreted by some to resemble an aristocratic woman or a queen due to the shape of the dress, which in local culture and customs would fit a grand occasion.

All the rock formations in the area are considered natural wonders of the world because they were created without any human intervention. Other distinctive rock formations in the area include Ship Mountain, Elephant Mountain and Arch Mountain.

Hawsawi said that AlUla has a rich historical and cultural depth with visitors feeling like they are traveling through different civilizations in time.

The diverse landscape of AlUla and its rich history and heritage continues to attract visitors. From researchers interested in studying historical sites to tourists wanting to explore the Kingdom’s landmarks and engage in recreational and adventurous activities, AlUla’s grand beauty and allure makes it one of the most prominent regions.

 


Baha’s ‘cave resort,’ a new type of rural tourism

Jabal Shada Al-Asfal, where abandoned caves have been transformed, offers unique accommodation in a geological wonderland. (SPA)
Updated 16 February 2024
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Baha’s ‘cave resort,’ a new type of rural tourism

  • Jabal Shada Al-Asfal, where abandoned caves have been transformed, offers unique accommodation in a geological wonderland

RIYADH: The wide range of landscapes in Saudi Arabia are proving increasingly popular with tourists from both inside and outside of the Kingdom, but the southwestern region of Baha is offering a new and unusual attraction with the “cave resort” of Jabal Shada Al-Asfal in Al-Makhwah Governorate.

There, the local people have transformed 10 abandoned mountain caves once inhabited by their ancestors into modern, fully-equipped accommodation with all modern amenities.

Jabal Shada Al-Asfal, where abandoned caves have been transformed, offers unique accommodation in a geological wonderland. (SPA)

The caves are located on Shada Al-Asfal, a mountain rising around 1,700 meters above sea level, and renowned for its agriculture, as well as its caves, and for its Shadawi coffee farms and the annual Shadawi Coffee Festival. The mountain is also an important site for scientific research.

Abdulrahman Nasser Al-Shadawi, owner of one of the revamped caves, said their designs were inspired by the surrounding landscape.

Jabal Shada Al-Asfal, where abandoned caves have been transformed, offers unique accommodation in a geological wonderland. (SPA)

Another owner, Mohammed Saleh Al-Shadawi, explained that each cave includes a living room, kitchen, bedrooms, and spectacular views over the governorate.

Visitors and tourists also have the opportunity to explore untouched ancient caves that were home to indigenous people thousands of years ago, as well as the ancient local geological formations.

Jabal Shada Al-Asfal, where abandoned caves have been transformed, offers unique accommodation in a geological wonderland. (SPA)

Nasser Al-Shadawi, a local historian, said that, according to a geological study, the area has some of the oldest geological formations on Earth, at around 763 million years, creating otherworldly shapes throughout the landscape — another tourist draw.

There is also plenty of opportunity for outdoor exercise, including cycling and climbing.

 


Bangkok: Ancient culture and cutting-edge health care 

Updated 19 February 2024
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Bangkok: Ancient culture and cutting-edge health care 

  • The Thai capital is becoming an increasingly popular destination for those seeking both traditional and preventive medical treatment 

BANGKOK: Thailand has long been a favorite destination for travelers from across the world, thanks to its beautiful beaches, stunning scenery, vibrant cultural heritage, and always-on-the-go cities. But another facet of Thailand is now attracting numerous visitors to the Southeast Asian nation every year: it’s cutting-edge healthcare. 

An increasing number of visitors are drawn to Bangkok not just for the Thai capital’s ancient temples and bustling markets, but by the promise of world-class medical treatment. 

 

Khalaf Al-Otaibi traveled from Riyadh to Bangkok for medical treatment this month. (AN photo)

Thailand has emerged as a global hub for healthcare seekers, offering a unique blend of traditional hospitality and state-of-the-art medical expertise — the pursuit of health is interwoven with the rich tapestry of Thai culture. 

 

Rajeev Rajan, the chief business development officer at Bumrungrad International Hospital, told Arab News that quality of care and winning the trust of patients are the staff’s main concerns. 

“A patient wanting to travel to Bumrungrad can (simply) send us an email with a medical report. We take that report, and we give them an expert opinion with the cost of everything in advance,” he said. “Once the patient receives the appointment confirmation, they provide us with their flight details. When the patient lands, he or she is received from the gate of the plane, and escorted through our fast-track immigration office. We also have a complimentary shuttle service every 15 minutes from the airport to the hospital or to a nearby guesthouse.” 

Typically, the patient will enter the hospital the next day, where Rajan said there is a support team of more than 170 people who speak Arabic. A member of the team will accompany the patient throughout their treatment. Several of the doctors also speak Arabic.  

The hospital also offers prayer areas and Halal food choices for Muslim guests, and Rajan explained that the hospital also remains in close contact with relevant embassies, offers visa extension services, and provides dedicated offices for medical liaisons from diplomatic missions. 

Chulalongkorn University, home to Thailand's oldest medical school. (Shutterstock)

Of the 1.2 million patients Bumrungrad receives each year, Rajan estimated that 50 percent are from overseas, and of those around a quarter are from the Gulf region. 

Rajan said the hospital will soon open a coordination office in Riyadh and noted that the ministries of health in both Thailand and Saudi Arabia are in discussions about technical collaboration opportunities. 

Rajan said that Thailand received 50,000 visitors from Saudi Arabia in the last four months of 2022, and that he expected the total figure for 2023 to be around 250,000 to 300,000. 

“If you look at anywhere in Europe (or elsewhere in the West), you know, it’s expensive (to visit from the Gulf),” Rajan said. “Thailand is very close. Flights are affordable, and the destination itself is very affordable. This might be one of the only destinations where you have 100 percent security, and you have the halal foods, mosques, beaches... So, it is a culturally favorable ecosystem.” 

At Bumrungrad, Arab News also interviewed Khalaf Al-Otaibi, a 55-year-old from Riyadh, who had come to the hospital for treatment. 

“Once I arrived here, it took less than 10 minutes to see my doctor. Their services are great. They respect their patients. They explain everything in detail, and doctors (really listen) to what you say,” Al-Otaibi said. 

One of the rooms at Bumrungrad Hospital. (Shutterstock)

Jiruth Sriratanaban, associate dean for planning and development at Chulalongkorn University’s faculty of medicine told Arab News that his university is the oldest medical school in Thailand. 

“We work closely with the King Chulalongkorn Memorial Hospital, which belongs to the Thai Red Cross Society,” he said, adding the hospital is the only site in Thailand that provides proton therapy for cancer patients. 

Tanupol Virunhagarun, CEO of BDMS Wellness Clinic, part of Bangkok Dusit Medical Services, said that health and wellness was an increasingly important factor in people’s travel plans. 

“Our patients come twice a year, usually, to check their body fat and blood. Those from the Arab countries are mostly interested in advice about longevity, anti-aging, weight loss, and sexual health,” he said. 

“At our clinic, we pay attention to physical, mental, and even spiritual health, because we believe that to have a healthy body, you should have a healthy mind. That is how our clinic is different from a hospital; we do a lot of preventive medicine here,” he added. “We want people to check their health before they get sick.”