Medina to the Red Sea

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November 20th 2021
Published: November 20th 2021
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Heading south from Medina, we climb into the mountains to reach the city of Taif. This is a different Saudi Arabia, we have moved from the undulating desert with odd outcrops of rock to real jagged 2,000 metre mountains. Taif is Saudi's summer retreat, being high and therefore cool, and there are 55 palaces in the city. These range from those owned by the 2,000 strong Saudi royal family, hidden behind large gates, to abandoned semi-derelict old palaces. Taif is also the centre of the rose growing area where 900 farms produce over 300 million roses each year; many are turned into rose water perfume.

There are a many traditional stone watch towers still standing in the mountains and one of the traditional stone villages has been restored. Its 58 stone houses, last occupied fifty years ago, are scattered up the steep hillside, connected by passageways and hundreds of steps. Each house was home to an extended household of as many as 16 families. The climb to the top is hot but well worth it for the view over the green valleys where we spot bananas, coffee and huge basil bushes – and lots of things we cannot identify.

Many people in the high mountains built their houses in caves and we have the opportunity to visit some of the old cave-houses but we need a 4x4 and a local driver to get us there. An old man then walks us up further the mountain side, weaving amongst boulders to show us the cave where he was born. The boulders are huge and the cave-houses are hidden under them, with smoke blackened roofs and piles of rocks blocking any gaps. It all seems rather precarious but he assures us that none of the rocks have moved in his lifetime.

On our run down to the coast and Jeddah, we pass along the Mecca by-pass so that we can catch a glimpse of the famous clock tower. Our first attempt to get close is blocked by police but our second try is successful, although the view is dusty and somewhat underwhelming.

Jeddah is another huge city, set on the Red Sea. There is a long corniche along the sea front, dotted with expensive sculptures (all abstract, no animals nor people) and at the northern end the preparations for the Formula One Grand Prix continue; it is in two weeks and the track is not yet ready.

Traditional Jeddah, the old town lies in the south, beyond the Bab Jadid gate. This is a different Jeddah, one of dusty lanes and wonky buildings. Most of the buildings have wooden enclosed balconies which were cooling and also allowed the occupants to see out but not be seen. We stop for a coffee on the roof of an old coffee shop as the light fades and, from the silhouetted minarets, the call to sunset prayer echos around us. As we wander back, the souk is open for business. It is Friday evening (Friday and Saturday are the weekend here) and everyone is out to shop. Once again, many locals stop to say a few words to us and ladies smile from behind their veils.

We had expected Jeddah to be more liberal than elsewhere but most women here are wearing the full abaya and veil. The government and the power of traditional values limits personal freedoms. There are no laws about what to wear but one has to be brave not to follow traditional values; even western women are expected to stay covered up. It was never illegal for women to drive here but it is only in recent years that any did.

Tourism is still in its infancy but the Saudi 2030 plan is for it to become a major industry. There is construction everywhere – although some of it may be destruction, it is hard to tell. At every major site, car parks are being enlarged and buildings are being refurbished. However, the toilets are still small and basic and most guides only speak Arabic and broken English. And, of course, there is that alcohol ban; after two weeks in this hot climate, we could murder a cool beer and a g&t.

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