As we drove on a wide thoroughfare, edged by well-tended shrubs and trees, it seemed that we were travelling from town to town rather than traversing the city of Muscat, Oman's capital. All along this boulevard and its roundabouts, covered with flowers and greenery, were eye-catching sculptures of artefacts from Omani history and life. It was truly an imperial avenue uniting a 40 km (25 mi) spread-out city, inviting in its historic and modern attractions.
Greater Muscat, with a population of some 800,000, in reality consists of three large towns: Muscat, Muttrah, Ruwi and their suburbs, all divided from each other by low hills.
The old town of Muscat sits at the southern end, a city with an illustrious past. Overlooked by scenic ancient forts and beautiful mosques, it remains, as it has for centuries, the crown jewel of the Sultanate of Oman. Unlike almost all the other towns on the eastern Arabian shores, it does not have an artificial air, having been for centuries an important trading centre and an imperial capital.
Poised on lofty crags, guarding the mouth of its harbour are two renovated citadels. They were built by the Portuguese during their 16th - 17th centuries' occupation of parts of Oman's coast and expanded by the Omanis after these European invaders were expelled.
Overlooking the walled city, in the midst of which is located the flamboyant Sultan's Palace, the Mirani Fort stands on one side and on the other, the Jalali Fortress, housing a museum which requires a special permit to visit. It was exciting to explore and savour the city by foot while we reminisced about its history. After our tour of this immaculately clean compact town with its impressive structures, we stopped for a while to photograph the Sultan's Palace and then left for Muttrah, 4 km (2.4 mi) away.
We parked our auto on the long sweeping Corniche, and then walked the seaside avenue, edged by plaques of fibreglass birds representing Oman's wildlife. Crossing over to the other side of the Corniche, past men playing the ancient seashell game of hawalis, we walked back under the shadows of the many architecturally delightful old merchant houses, dating from the 19th century.
Turning right we entered Muttrah's souk - the most interesting traditional market in the Arab Gulf States. Its meandering alleyways, sprawling in all directions, are filled with tiny shops, stocking everything from stainless steel products to the handiwork of the Bedouins. Above all, frankincense and myrrh, traded in Oman since time immemorial, were on sale everywhere. It was as if we had walked back into history.
From Muttrah we drove on the main motorway until we reached Ruwi - Greater Muscat's commercial heart. Here and there along the thoroughfare, man-made specimens of Oman's wildlife like ibex, oryx, and tahr, lurked - in the roadside vegetation, beautifying the sides of the road. Soon, we were driving on Ruwi Souk Street, where it is said 'everything sold in Oman can be found.' Here, merchandise is sold at a lower price than what we paid after bargaining in Muttrah's souk.
Leaving Ruwi, we drove on to explore Qurum, Madinat, Qaboos and other newly built sections of the city. It was a transformed world. Where a quarter century ago there were no paved roads, virtually no grass and shrubs or even water and electrical systems, greenery now covers the city landscape. Mile after mile of lush turf, trees and bright flowers beautify the
city - already possessed with the natural attractiveness of beaches, mountains and sea.
Thanks to fibreglass, amid all this man-made natural beauty, there are giant silver-painted pieces of Omani jewellery, coffee pots, chests overflowing with treasures, and much more decorating the sides of the avenues. Hence, it surprised no one when Muscat came first in the 1995 'Arab Cities Prize Organization Awards,' winning in the most beautiful city category.
- Visas to enter Oman: see website:
- To rent an auto, visitors need a valid international driving license. Most car hire agencies have offices at Seeb international Airport, in Muscat.
- One should start a vacation in Muscat by a tour of the city offered by tour companies in numerous hotels. This includes visits to the old walled city of Muscat, the Qurm museum and the picturesque sea front as well as Mutrah and its famous souk. Many other tours are offered - see:
- The unit of currency is the Rial Omani comprising 1,000 Baizas. One Rial is equal to about U.S. $2.59.
- For hotels in Muscat:
- For Muscat restaurants:
- In Muscat local craftsmen excel in arts and handicrafts. For souvenirs, the best buys are: all types of silver products, carved handmade daggers, coffee pots, rose-water sprinklers, incense burners, and frankincense and mirth.
- Nightclubs and discotheques are found in the larger hotels, and alcoholic beverages are served only in these hotels and licensed restaurants.
- For most of the year, only light, loose-fitting clothing is needed. To comply with Omani traditions, women are advised not to wear revealing dresses.
- Muscat and the whole of Oman are safe; the crime rate is very low when compared to Western countries.
- The best time to travel to Muscat is from December to March when the weather is at its best.
- Muscat Festival: a great celebration held annually in the months of January and February; it features children's activities, dances, exhibitions, music, plays and sports
Bait al Zubair: houses a vast collection of ancient household equipment, costumes and weapons.
Fish Market: visit the Market on a Friday; it will be an amazing experience.
Oman Museum: covers the history of Oman's long and eventful past.
Habeeb Salloum has authored numerous books, his latest: Arab Cooking On A Saskatchewan Homestead: Recipes And Recollections - winner of the Cuisine Canada and The University of Guelph's Silver Canadian Culinary Book Awards in Winnipeg in 2006. He contributes to Forever Young (Oakville), Contemporary Review (Oxford, UK), Canadian World Traveller (Quebec) and the Toronto Star.
Transportation, visas, health, maps and temperature
Airlines (Wikipedia): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_airlines
Embassies/Consulates (Embassy World): http://www.embassyworld.com/
Health precautions (WHO): http://www.who.int/ith/en/
Google interactive map: http://maps.google.com/
Temperature (Temperature World): http://www.temperatureworld.com/
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