Tag Archives: mosque

Tunisia

Tunisia is the northernmost country in Africa with a population of a little over 12 million. It is bordered by Algeria (west), Libya (southeast) and the Mediterranean Sea to the north and east. It also shares maritime borders with Italy and Malta.

Like most of the nations around the Mediterranean it has a long and potted history about who controlled the area that is now Tunisia. And this recorded history starts with the Berbers before the 12th century BC. In 146 BC the Romans defeated the city of Carthage and had control of the place for the next 800 odd years. In the 7th century AD, Arab Muslims had their turn and conquered Tunisia, moving in in huge numbers over the next few hundred years. In 1546, the Ottoman Empire took control for the next 300 years, until 1881, when the French conquered Tunisia. In 1956, Tunisia finally gained independence as the Tunisian Republic.

Tunisia has odd currency laws and will confiscate cash if you get them wrong.

Most countries allow you in and out of the country with the equivalent of USD $10,000 and more so long as you declare it.

But not here.

  • Here you are allowed to bring in 10,000 dinar (about $3300 USD) and
  • must declare amounts over 5000 dinar.
  • It is a criminal offence to export Tunisian dinar
  • so make sure you change everything back before you leave
  • any unchanged dinar will be confiscated
  • Anything over the 5000 dinar (equivalent) will be confiscated
  • about USD $1500 or 1300 euros

We found this out the hard way when I got my bag deconstructed by the agent (on the way out of the country) looking for cash. In essence, if I had any Dinar left over or more than about USD 1500 or 1300 euros in cash on me, they were within their rights to confiscate it from me. There are grounds to get it back if you get a receipt and return to the country within 3 months. However, nobody who had tried this (based on online commentary) could locate where the money could be collected from due to Bureaucratic runaround.

Tunis

Tunis is the largest and capital city of Tunisia with about 2.7 million residents in the greater Tunis area.

And is a great place to kick back and chill.

The biggest surprise for me was the cab drivers. As any regular traveller knows, cab drivers in almost every nation are as sketchy as hell and are always trying to rip you off. Yes, there are some exceptions, but for the most part, we have stopped using taxis (even in Australia) in favour of ride-share apps.

But that was not the case here. The cabs all used meters, without being asked, were reasonably priced and did not try and tout and prey upon unsuspecting tourists. A refreshing and pleasant change.

The Tunis Medina is (apparently) the best preserved in all of North Africa. It is the historical and cultural heart of the city, with buildings dating from the 18th and 19th centuries. It is home to the souks, the markets, workshops and ateliers. Allegedly there is a pecking order to such things and therefore they are arranged hierarchically around the Great Mosque.

The souk is nowhere near the bedlam that was Marrakesh, but there is still plenty going on. And the available artisan work is of the highest quality. It is cleaner, quieter, has less touts and is generally much more manageable for the shy tourists.

The Jamaa ez-Zitouna mosque, or ‘olive mosque’, is the oldest in the city. It was founded at the end of the 7th century or in the early 8th century, but its current architectural form dates from a reconstruction in the 9th century. The mosque is said to be one of the most important in all of Islam and covers 5,000 square metres, with nine entrances. The building includes many antique columns reused after the destruction of Carthage. Due to the nearness of the souk in the Medina, you only really get to see some columns and arches.

Being non-Muslims, we typically just admire the outside of mosques and rarely enter. In many cases, we are not allowed in anyway, but even when we are we tend not to. Some of the rooftops around the Medina offer amazing panorama views over the Medina, and some even stay open for after dark shots.

The Sea Gate (also known as the Bab el Bhar and the Porte de France) is the entrance to the Medina from the new part of town.

New Tunis

East of the Medina, is the modern part of the city called “Ville Nouvelle”. This area is often referred to by media and travel guides as “the Tunisian Champs-Élysées. It is a grand avenue lined with colonial-era buildings.

While Tunisia has had its share of security issues over the decades, at no point did we feel unsafe or uneasy. There was an off-putting security presence in the new town area that seemed extremely over the top for what was going on. Armoured vehicles, heavily armed military and blockades were everywhere and there was nothing going on.

A more timid day I had never seen, clear blue skies and almost nobody on the streets, but the grand avenue had a visibly present and unnecessarily confrontational security presence.

Doors

For some strange reason I found myself taking photos of the doors (especially in the Media) of Tunis. They were truly stunning. Some huge and ornate, while others simple but there was something about the doors in this place that just grabbed me.

Carthage was a city I had heard mentioned in documentaries and the like, but never really knew where it was or much about is. As it turns out it is here on hte outskirts of Tunis and was one of the most important trading hubs of the Ancient Mediterranean and one of the richest cities of the classical world.

It has a history dating back to the 12th century BC. and between 650 BC to 146 BC, it was the most powerful trading and commercial city in the Mediterranean.

It had a sophisticated 200-dock circular harbor and the funds earned prompted investment in a sprawling metropolis of temples, markets, and estates.

And all of this is just a 20-minute drive outside modern day Tunis. It was quite the sight until 146 BC when the Romans came an lay siege to the place for 3 years.

Today there are 7 main sites that are left to see in Carthage and one ticket ($6 each) will get you into all the sites. The place is about 15-20 km out of town (a $7-8 cab ride) and our (flash) hotel was charging exorbitant rates for their tour (over $150 a head). So we hopped a cab and headed to the ruins.

But be warned the 7 places are a fair distance between each other. We made the mistake of thinking it was like the Roman Forum and was within an easy strolling distance. We got dropped off at the archaeological site and found ourselves stranded.

So we hiked about 1.5km to the Cathedral remains (Saint Cyprien) that were both shut and quite unimpressive. And then another 1.7km walk up to the roman houses and villas. The lady at the gate at the villas entry was busy talking on her phone. So Jill stood in front of her and waited, and waited and put her money on the counter and waited. After quite literally 12 minutes of this, she picked up her money, turned around and walked away. With some choice words.

Unsurprisingly, as soon as she took her money and turned away the girl got off the phone and was ready to serve Jill. Some more choice words and we continued to walk away from her, with some more choice words. About 500m further on we found ourselves at the Roman Amphitheatre where we paid our entry and entered with no issues whatsoever. And across the road was some more ruins.

Another 1.5km walk and we found ourselves atop Byrsa hill at the Saint Louis Cathedral and the acropolis of Byrsa. This is the site of the Carthage Museum and an impressive number of pieces of Roman Columns and the odd statue.

About 2km down the hill was the last of the sights (given that we boycotted the Roman Villas due to the attitude of the girl on the counter) the aqueducts. Built in the 2nd century BC by the emperor Hadrian, they brought water more than 100kms from Zaghouan to Carthage.

Ramadan

For some reason, Jill has taken to booking us into Muslim countries during Ramadan. Last year it was the Maldives and this year it was Morocco and Tunisia and later in Istanbul. This is a forced alcohol detox as the nations typically do not serve alcohol anyway and during the holy month there is no chance.

The other thing it means is that almost every restaurant is closed and by the time the sun goes down, you tend to be a bit peckish. Thankfully we found a little joint that served brilliant local dishes for a song. Our (flash) hotel was offering a set (abridged) menu for 100 dinar ($50) a head, so we hit the streets hunting for better. And did we find it.

A little hole-in-the-wall joint, with a huge upstairs terrace, great food and entertainment for 45 dinars ($22.50) a head. Dinner was salad (more dips really) and bread, traditional soup, and the main (that came cooked and served in a weird shaped pot) was a hearty stew type thing. We went looking the next night for something different but ended up at the same joint and had a seafood main and some form of crispy egg crepe in place of the soup.

We had planned a trip to Dougga, which is lauded as “the best-preserved Roman small town in North Africa”.  But I guess this will sit high on the list of things to do next time we come.

The Amphitheatre of El Jem is an amphitheatre in original town of Thysdrus although now known as El Djem. It was built for the usual roman spectator sports (gladiators etc) around 238 AD and is one of the best preserved stone in the world. It was one of the biggest amphitheatres in the world with an estimated capacity of around 35,000.

And sadly, this is one of the many things that we did not get to. So this (along with a bunch of other reasons) rates as a pretty good reason to come back.

Tunisia was great and there was so much more for us to see and do. It was a great pity that the currency issue as you leave puts a bad taste in your mouth. Other than this we really enjoyed our time here and will be back.

Oman

Oman (officially the Sultanate of Oman) sits at the mouth of the Persian Gulf. It shares land borders with Saudi Arabia and the UAE (west) and Yemen (southwest), while sharing maritime borders with Iran and Pakistan.

It has a population of a bit under 5.5 million.

The Rub’ al Khali or the Empty Quarter is the desert portion of Oman but also encompasses parts of the UAE, Yemen and Saudi Arabia. It is 1,000 kilometres long, and 500 kilometres wide and has sand dunes with heights of up to 250 metres 

Our early research had us a little more excited about Oman as at first glance there seemed to be plenty to see and do. We were a little terrified coming into it as our Aussie dollar exchange rate came in at 25 cents. This meant that one of their real was worth $4 for us. Jill put us right in the heart of tourist land.

Our hotel room was not a shadow on our one from Abu Dhabi. It was the width of a bed and this was the door.

As I am a touch taller than Jill, I sconned myself on this door (and others around the hotel) on several occasions.

One of these has given me a gash to the head, concussion and likely brain damage.

The seaside area of Mutrah was to be our home for the next few days. Sadly the room paled in comparison with the luxury that we had in Abu Dhabi but the location was fantastic. Looking straight out of our window we had direct views of (and about a 300 m walk to) the Mutrah Fort.

At the bottom of our hill (250m), we were on the Mutrah Corniche. This is a 3km long promenade along the waterfront, which of course is lined with cafes, restaurants, and markets. You have views of the Oman Port and harbour (including the Sultans Yacht) and the Hajar Mountains with its Portuguese watchtowers on the other side.

Our first task was getting up at 6 am and walking along the Corniche to the fish market and dhow harbour before breakfast. Even the dodgy, smelly fish market was impressive. Stainless steel troughs. mosaic tiled walls and of course the freshest of fish that you could find.

As finding food in the Middle East had proven a touch challenging at times we have taken to getting breakfast included in our hotel. And so far, Oman is winning.

After our breakfast, we climbed the hill, paid our admission and hit the fort. Now this was a first. There was nobody there. We had the entire fort to ourselves for about 30 minutes. We roamed and explored and took our photographs with absolutely nobody else to contend with. When we were finished and were walking out the door, we passed the baton to two German guys who then also had it to themselves. Hitting the bottom though a group of about 10 arrived, so their solitude would have been short lived.

Having finished at the fort we hopped the local bus for a 4-5km ride to the National Museum of Oman.

Along the way you see a bizarre space ship looking thing on the right.

Apparently to celebrate the 20th National Day of Oman in 1990 this monumental incense burner was built on top of a prominent hill at Riyam Park. 

Getting off the bus was a bit of a catch all as within a short walk of where the bus drops you off, you have the Museum, the Al Alam Palace (the official palace of the sultan), two Portuguese forts of Al Jalali and Al Mirani and some major government buildings.

But the Museum was first.

The palace was the next obvious place to head as it was only a few hundred meters away in a straight line. But it was also in full sun with no shade and no respite.

The next was the forts, which were basically each side of the palace. Unlike the Mutrah Fort, these were unable to be entered and climbed upon. But they were kind of big enough and obvious enough to get some nice photos.

At this point we had melted. While the actual temperature of Oman is lower than places like Saudi Arabi, the humidity raises the “feels like” factor considerably. While walking around at 1:30 in the afternoon we got our own personal record when we hit the “feels like” temperature of 52 degrees centigrade. We were cooked.

The last stop before running away to hide from the heat was the Muscat Gate Museum.

Having got our gate photos we grabbed drinks (melting) and were waiting the 5 minutes for the bus to arrive. At this point a taxi pulled up and beeped (a common thing-touting for business). But this guy already had a customer. He was already being paid and was going past the Souk (our get off point) and took us for free – just to save us waiting in the sun. Now that was a first.

So after hiding through the afternoon (after showers and attempts to wash the sweat from clothing) we waited for early evening and made our way down the hill to the Mutrah Souk. This is one of the oldest markets in Oman and was right on our doorstep. We had briefly wandered through during the afternoon but it is the evening when the Souk really takes off.

The next day, another amazing breakfast and on a bus back towards town to see the things we had passed on our way in. Stop number one, the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque. It was officially opened in 2001 and has become Oman’s most important spiritual site. It was closed on the Sunday that we tried to visit. While we did not get to enter the mosque we still had access to wander the grounds outside and get some happy snaps. The mosque was built to hold 20,000 worshippers and is home to the world’s biggest 1-piece handmade Iranian carpet and the second-largest chandelier in the world.

Directly opposite the grand mosque is the Omani Parliament building. It was built in 2013 and sits on more than 100,000 square metres. It has more than 5 km of facade and the centrepiece is a 64 m clock tower (the highest in Oman) with each of the clocks having a 4.8 metre diameter. The building is known locally as the Majlis Oman.

According to the blurb the Parliament building has been equipped with a range of well-paced spotlights, with modern LED technology and underground lighting fixtures. This means that at night the whole 38-metre high wall is illuminated with a controlled washing effect over almost all of the surface.

The Royal Opera House area which is an event in itself. The building is imposing and our first glimpse of it was in the taxi on the way in (mosque and parliament too), which prompted us to get back here a few days later. It isn’t just the opera house but more of an entire precinct for the arts and cultural pursuits. It is regularly used and has the capacity for 1,000-seat concert and opera theatre. But with 15,000+ square metres, over six levels with three basement floors, it can easily change its configuration to cater to most events.

So Oman is our favourite so far. It is authentic. It has actively resisted the current trend (looking at you UAE) of advancement at all costs and has maintained those things that make it special. There are tons of forts all over the country and deserts and oases worthy of exploring.

Qatar

Qatar occupies a peninsula of land (100km wide and 200 km long) that juts into the Arabian Gulf. Since its independence from Britain in 1971, Qatar has emerged as one of the world’s most important producers of oil and gas.

It shares a southern land border with Saudi Arabia and maritime borders with Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Iran. Qatar includes several islands the largest of which are, Halul, Shraouh and Al-Asshat.

Before we get into the Doha post a special mention has to go out to the Flynas Airline. This is a Saudi budget airline that actually have their seats set at reasonable distances apart. Jill and I got on the plane and actually had legroom (something that Qantas had done away with decades ago). This was only a short flight (about an hour) but that little bit of extra space made it very comfortable and pleasant.

We were not in business and did not pay extra, they just had their seats set at reasonable intervals. So much so that I had about 3-4 inches of space between my knees and the seat in front. It even meant that when that person reclined, there were no issues. And all of this from a budget airline. Take note Qantas, one or two less rows of seats in a plane greatly increases comfort and customer satisfaction.

Doha

We had transited here once before on our way to Greece, but never made it out of the airport (but we did enjoy the platinum lounge) and got to take some happy snaps around the airport. This time we got off and got to experience the friendliest and most helpful airport (possibly) on the planet. Granted it is not as efficient as places like Kuala Lumpur or Singapore, but it is much more friendly and welcoming.

We were approached (which is all too commonplace at foreign airports) as soon as we had cleared customs and hit the outer terminal. But this time it was not by a tout, a taxi driver or a sim card seller. It was by a paid information officer. He wanted nothing, other than to help us with the smooth transition towards what we wanted. In our case, this was to find the metro and buy tickets to take us to our hotel. He was one of many, was super friendly and super helpful.

The metro was stunning, clean, air-conditioned, cheap, easy to decipher and a pleasure to ride on. I immediately loved Doha. Hopping off the Metro we were still a way from our hotel so we then hopped an Uber to take us the rest of the way. This too was clean, cheap and efficient. Doha was such a refreshing change after Saudi Arabia.

It was hot, seriously hot. We had lost 5 degrees in actual heat (from 44 to 39) but had picked up 60% more humidity. This has the effect of increasing the (feels like) component of the weather.

Souq Waqif ( سوق واقف) is the old marketplace in Doha – dating back to the late 19th to early 20th centuries. It is the Middle Eastern experience that we had been hoping for from the beginning. It is a traditional market selling garments, spices, handicrafts, and souvenirs. It is also full of (overpriced) cafes, restaurants and shisha lounges.

We came early in the afternoon – before it had really opened – so got to experience it before the true bedlam set in (typically around 5 pm). Stunning buildings with narrow alleys and the sights and smells of spices were all amazing. We of course were spotted as tourists and drew the throng of touts offering sightseeing trips.

Fanar Mosque towers above the area of the Souq Waqif and the Corniche. It is unique due to its spiral design. Until 2009 it was the largest mosque in the country but still remains the tallest.

It performs as a mosque and also as the Qatar Islamic Culture Center.

The Corniche is one of Doha’s most iconic attractions. It is basically a seven kilometer stretch of waterfront promenade. It has a crescent shaped walkway around Doha Bay and offers the best views of the skyline (if you can see through the smog). We walked along the Corniche for a while but the almost 40 degree, high humidity day precluded doing the full stretch (obviously).

Dhow Harbour is the area that offers the best views of the city (smog permitting). The thing that we weren’t expecting was the abundance of Dhows. Dhows are the traditional Arabian wooden boats that have been used in the region for centuries. Originally they were used in the fishing and pearl diving industries, but today they are almost solely used for nighttime dinner cruises for tourists.

Our research identified an amazing space ship looking building that ended up being the National Museum of Qatar. So the metro once again got a run for our happy snaps and then an Uber home as it was getting seriously hot by now.

The next thing that I wanted to see was the Pearl. It is one of the largest real-estate developments in the Middle East that sits on 4 square kilometers of reclaimed land. Once fully completed it was expected to create over 32 kilometers of new coastline and increase housing for up to 45,000 residents.  We got off the free transfer bus from the metro in the qanat quarter which is a Venice-like community complete with an extensive canal system, pedestrian friendly squares. piazzas and beachfront townhouses.

While we looked at the Qanat quarter we did get to drive past the numerous high-end residential towers and malls that make up the rest of the Pearl Island development. To get a real idea I had to grab one of their promo aerial shots from the tourist website.

Museum of Islamic Art is at one end of the Corniche and obviously holds a collection of historical Islamic Art.

Katara Towers is a seriously bizarre circular style building looking a bit like pincers. It was allegedly inspired by the national emblem of Qatar, which features traditional scimitar swords. I grabbed the first photo from the tourist website just to show the difference that the smog makes in real life.

The Torch is a hotel that stands 300 meters tall beside the Khalifa International Stadium. It was built for the Asian Games in 2006.

Zig Zag Towers is an apartment building in the West Bay Lagoon area. They are the highest and largest residential zig-zag twin towers in the world.

It is also connected to the Lagoona shopping mall. The idea of major shopping malls has been huge throughout the middle east so far. As two people who hate shopping malls our only real entries have been to hide from the extreme heat at times.

Qatar was lovely. We were here at the worst time of year for weather purposes, but if we had picked our timing better, I am certain that we would love this place. The food was great, the people welcoming. The only detraction was the air quality.

Saudi Arabia

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia occupies most of the Arabian Peninsula and is most famous for its oil and the fact that 85+% of the population worship the ultraconservative form of Sunni Islam.

Because of this there are some fairly strict rules in place, particularly when it comes to dress standards. Local laws require both men and women to dress modestly covering shoulders and knees in public. They should also avoid tight-fitting clothing or clothes with rude language or images.

Most men still tend to wear the traditional Saudi Arabian dress (Thobe) on a daily basis.

This is a long flowing (mainly white) robe and a ghutra (a white or red and white checked headdress, held in place by a double black cord known as an iqal

For me it meant in extreme heat I had to wear long pants and a long sleeved shirt the whole time.

Since 2019, it is no longer mandatory for female travellers to wear the traditional robe or abaya (a loose-fitting, long robe that covers the entire body save for the face, hands, and feet) and veil. This eased the pressure on Jill to fully cover up (although she had already bought the scarf just in case).

Saudi Arabia is bordered by the Red Sea (west), Jordan, Iraq, and Kuwait (north), the Persian Gulf, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates (east), Yemen (south), and Oman (southeast). It has the third most valuable natural resource reserves in the world (petroleum and natural gas) making it one of the top twenty economies in the world.

The country is home to Mecca, Islam’s holiest city and the birthplace of the Prophet Muhammad. Mecca is 70 km inland from the Red Sea, in a narrow valley 277 with a population of around 1.5 million.

The first thing that strikes you about the place is (obviously) the heat. We got off our plane in Riyadh at 3 am to be greeted by 31 degrees. Jill had arranged with the hotel for a driver to pick us up which took away any potential airport drama (specifically the money exchange and taxis) in the middle of the night.

The second thing to hit you is that at that time of the morning the place is busy. Not just the airport, but the whole place. I guess as a symptom of debilitating heat during the day the work pattern has shifted and the evening and early morning hours are where stuff gets done.

Given our early arrival off the flight and 3:45 arrival at the hotel it took another 45 minutes to wind down before we could sleep. We set an alarm for a few hours later so we could get up for breakfast, and then went back to sleep. Avoiding the heat of the day at all costs (in reality everything is quiet during the heat) we hid in our room until after dark before heading out for dinner.

Stepping out of our hotel at 7:15 pm we were punched in the face with a 38 degree hot wind. Clearly, our decision to avoid the afternoon heat had been a good one. A check of temperatures later on when we got home showed that 46 was on the cards but the wind (breeze) kept it down to 44.

Riyadh

Riyadh is the capital of Saudi Arabia and is the main financial hub. It sits on a desert plateau in the centre of the country and is home to almost 7.7 million people. The physical layout was designed and structured to be uniform with 2km x 2km city blocks running along a north/south and east/west axis. Within this grid are more than 4,000 mosques and numerous busy (air-conditioned) shopping centres.

The next thing that hits you is the sheer size of everything. All the roads from the airport to town were a minimum of 3 lanes and up to 8 in parts. Add to this the buildings that you drive past that are all very large and imposing.

Our hotel choice was almost perfect. It was the little cheapie (comparatively) on Olaya Street, directly across the road from the Kingdom Centre (RHS of this picture).

The Kingdom Center is one of the city’s major tourist icons.

It is a 99-storey skyscraper that was built in 2002 making it the tallest building in the country. As you would expect, it has been surpassed several times since then. The building features a 300 meter high sky bridge that connects the 2 towers. And of course, of an evening the lights cycle through a range of colours changing the appearance every 20 seconds or so.

Once you have paid your entrance fee there are two lifts needed to get to the bridge. The first will take you to the 77th floor, and then another to the 99th. Arriving at the 99th floor you immediately come out onto the skybridge with amazing views north and south. And if you are super keen you can lean over and get a photo looking down.

Dinner at the Kingdom Centre was a failure (something that became commonplace in our time in Saudi Arabia) and ended up being an overpriced, bland meal from a shopping centre food court. In fact all of the meals that we had in Saudi Arabia were fails, with the exception of the hotel breakfasts.

We had high hopes for the food but each attempt failed. It was virtually impossible to find a restaurant (other than chain store junk food). Maybe home cooking is the go, maybe we were just in the wrong spot. But our culinary exposure in Saudi Arabia was less than stellar.

The next day we once again hid from the heat of the day, not venturing out until 5 pm. As we walked out of the air-conditioned hotel we were once again hit with 41 degrees while we waited for our Uber to take us to the historical Deira district. The aim of the journey was to visit the Masmak Fort and its museum.

The fort was built in 1865 and is made almost entirely out of wood, straw and mud. The fort is made up of six distinct parts: the gate, the mosque, the majlis (sitting room), the well, the towers and the courtyard.

Just like the building opposite us, after dark they light up the fort in a rotating set of colours too.

Along the way, you do pass some fairly interesting buildings and architecture. Some of these include the King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture, the National museum, the Al Murabba Palace Museum, and the Al Rajhi Grand mosque. But these tend to all look and feel the same. They are all 2-5 storey, yellowish, sandstone blocks (which seem to be pretty much everywhere in town.

Who would have thought that in the middle of a desert, there would be sand, sandstone and yellow-coloured buildings? The broad, flat, low profile of the buildings probably relates mainly on the base (sand) that they are built upon. This is all very logical and sensible, but in terms of visual appeal, it is all very much the same.

The amazing thing to us was the traffic. With 3-8 lanes of traffic available everywhere, it was almost always in gridlock.

It took us about 40 minutes to travel the 12 km to the fort and about the same to get back. The next day (while hiding from the heat and looking out the window) it was considerably worse (and this was Sunday afternoon).

The car is king here, there is virtually no such thing as public transport (but there is a plan). The “King Abdulaziz Project for Riyadh Public Transport” is underway to develop and deliver a public transport network (metro and buses) that will eventually move 3.6 million passengers daily. The finished product is supposed to have: 6 metro lines (with 84 stations), 180 bus routes (with 2860 stops and 842 buses).

But, today there are no metro lines and only 24 of the proposed 180 bus routes are in operation. There is no cycling (that we have seen) and in the heat, the pedestrian traffic is virtually non-existent. So you drive, take an Uber or taxi or stay put. An all of this in a city of over 7 and a half million people.

Needless to say, this level of automobile use comes with a pollution issue. The place is shrouded in a constant haze. This was a real surprise to me, as I expected clear desert skies and not a constant smog film. This obviously wreaks havoc on our photographs.

At the other end of our little strip of road you will find the Faisaliyah Tower. This and the Kingdom Centre kind of bookend this strip of Riyadh. I have seen them described as the bottle opener (Kingdom Centre) and the Pointy one.

Faisaliyah Tower (also called the star dome) is at the other end of the strip and was the first high-rise built in Saudi Arabia.

The round bit at the top is a three storey, fine dining, restaurant called “The Globe” that offers 360 degree views of the city.

As you would expect, the Globe is one of the most sought-after restaurants in Riyadh, with a price tag to match. The website dictates a minimum consumption of SAR 288 (about $120 aussie) per person. This doesn’t seem ridiculously steep, but when you look at the menu, finding something that cheap may be a challenge. The cheapest tasting menu starts at $170 and the 7 course kicks in at $320, each.

For what is on offer the numbers are not crazy, but sadly they were outside of our budget (photos from their Facebook page).

The edge of the world is the name of the 1,131 m height cliff that lies about 100 km from Riyadh. It sits at the end of the 800 km Tuwaik Mountain range. Given its distance from town, the expense of tours, the warnings about remoteness and the major hike required to get here we did not even entertain going.

The one thing that absolutely disgusted me was the attitude of the Saudis (predominately the men). There was an overwhelming sense of arrogance and entitlement that the rules did not apply to them. We were treated fantastically at every interaction. But we witnessed some of the most atrocious behaviour and treatment of others that we had ever seen.

Example 1: While leaving the country we were waiting in the airport line to check in and get our boarding passes when a 13 (ish) year old Saudi boy was verbally abusing, talking down to and berating a porter (non-Saudi adult). This immediately rubbed me up the wrong way and if he had tried talking to me that way the would have received quite the attitude adjustment.

Example 2: On the plane, we were seated in row 2 directly behind business class. One person was in row 1 (who had clearly paid extra) but the Saudi man (about 50) opposite us berated and was rude to the flight attendants because he was not allowed to sit there. When she explained that the other guy had paid for the privilege this was not a good enough answer and pointed to his outfit and claimed that this should override the lack of paying for the business class seat.

Example 3: On the next flight we were further back the plane when a Saudi Male (about 25) reclined his seat while still at the gate. The flight attendant asked him to put his seat back up and he objected. She pushed the button and sat him upright. As soon as she turned he reclined. She saw this and sat him upright again. This pattern recurred a further 12+ times until she finally just gave up.

Example 4: On every one of these flights, after the don’t use your phones announcement Saudis (both male and female) kept talking on their phones right through the takeoff and landings.

Saudi Arabia itself was okay, but for the most part, we were unable (or unwilling) to get out and about to see the sights due to the heat and poor transportation system. So this meant that much of our time here was spent waiting around the hotel room for a time that was suitable to go out and explore.

In reality, this is probably our failure in not resetting our travel patterns appropriately. The people were lovely to us, but had an overwhelming demeanor that the rules just did not apply to them. While we can now say that we have been and spent some time here, I probably would not put this on the comeback list.

Kossovo

Kosovo lies landlocked in the centre of the Balkans, With a population under 2 million. It is bordered by Serbia (north and east), North Macedonia (southeast), Albania (southwest), and Montenegro to the west.

Its capital and largest city is Pristina.

In about 1950 the Serbian/Albanian population mix in Kosovo was about 50/50, today it is 5/95. Kosovo is the newest country, having declared its independence from Serbia in 2008. The day of that declaration it unveiled the newborn monument. At the unveiling the monument was signed by the President and Prime Minister of Kosovo, followed by 150,000 citizens celebrating their independence.

By the time we had arrived the shine and gloss may have worn off the idea of being a sovereign nation for some. Somebody had come in late at night and moved the letters around so that it now read No New BR with the words broken republic printed an the letters.

The earliest historians can trace back evidence of settlement in Kosovo to the stone age. There are indications that cave dwellings might have existed, such as Radivojce Cave (Drin River), Grnčar Cave (near Viti) municipality and the Dema and Karamakaz Caves near Peja.

The strategic position of the nation coupled with the abundant natural resources has made the area favorable for the development of human settlements throughout history. There are hundreds of archaeological sites identified throughout Kosovo.

Pristina

Pristina is the capital and it is a safe and easy place to travel in and around. There are not a lot of attractions and activities to see and enjoy but the ones they have are ok. The public transportation is frequent, cheap and reliable with majority of buses air conditioned.

As we came in fairly late in the afternoon and there was not too much to see and do in town we decided to cool off in our hotel before heading out to dinner. We picked a local Italian joint nearby. This was our first introduction to just how cheap this place was. I ordered a pasta and a small (22cm) pepperoni pizza while Jill just had a Margarita pizza. And these were washed down by two beers each. Total bill was 13.80 euros which is $23.17 aussie. $23 for two pizzas, 4 beers and a pasta. That is just crazy.

The next morning we were up, breakfasted and on the bus to town to see the sights. The bus fare was 50 cents for a one way or 80 cents for a 24 hour ticket for as many trips as you wanted. We rode the bus getting off on Bill Clinton Boulevard near the statue of Bill Clinton. This was done to thank former U.S. President for his help during their struggle with the government of Yugoslavia.

From here we wandered up the hill towards the Cathedral of Saint Mother Teresa. It was opened in 2010 on the anniversary of her death. This is about the 4th country in a row that is claiming a great affinity to Mother Teresa. She was born in Skopje (hence their claim) of Kosovar/Albanian descent (that’s them covered) but she took off at 18 and was never seen again in this part of the world. So the attempts to claim her throughout the Balkans seems a bit of mystery.

From here, the road was blocked off for a festival leading its way down to the park and the incredibly odd and controversial National Library of Pristina. The current building began in 1982 and consists of a total 99 domes of different sizes and is entirely covered in a metal fishing net. It has been described by many as the ugliest building in the world.

After this you find yourself at a long pedestrian mall, full of the usual shops, businesses, statues, restaurants and cafes. Nothing really to see and tourism hasn’t really kicked in yet. But it is neat and attractive and a pleasant place to stroll.

Following the end of the Kosovo conflict in 1999 and no longer under Serbian rule, Kosovo Albanians in 2001 erected a monument within the centre of Pristina to Skanderbeg. He was a medieval Albanian who fought against Ottoman forces in the 1400’s.

HEROINAT is a statue opposite the Newborn statue that depicts the face of a typical Albanian woman using 20,000 pins.

Each pin represents a woman raped during the Kosovo War from 1998 to 1999. The pins are at different heights, creating a portrait in relief.

That pretty much did it for Pristina. There were a few mosques around the traps, the odd statue and a church. We did find one local beer and managed to sample another couple of new ones but they were from elsewhere.

Bulgaria

Bulgaria is a southern Balkan country bordered by Romania (north), Serbia and North Macedonia (west), Greece and Turkey to the south.

Bulgaria is renowned for its diverse terrain that includes the Black Sea coastline, a mountainous interior and rivers, including the Danube. Based near the European crossroads it has long been a cultural melting pot with Greek, Slavic, Ottoman, and Persian influences.

Before I get into the exploring, I need to talk about first impressions. This place is fantastic. We got off the plane and onto the Metro for a run into town for our hotel. A slight mishap with the ticket scanning saw me through the barrier and Jill stuck on the other side. Seeing the dilemma some random woman came up and swiped her card, letting Jill through and just wearing the cost.

We then got to our hotel and were met by the friendliest and most helpful dude that we have come across thus far (and that bar has been set pretty high). This friendliness was genuine and extended the entire time through our stay. So much so that on the morning that we were due to leave he even offered to wait around for us (after his overnight shift) and drive us to the bus station, so that we didn’t have to lug our heavy bags.

Our room had a fridge so we popped out to the shop on the corner and bought 4 large beers (2x500ml and 2×1 litre) and a soft drink each and got change from $12 Aussie for the lot.

I’m really gonna like this place.

Sofia

Sofia is the capital of the Balkan nation of Bulgaria. It’s in the west of the country, below Vitosha Mountain. The city’s landmarks reflect more than 2,000 years of history, including Greek, Roman, Ottoman and Soviet occupation. When doing our early research it looked a bit light on, but on arrival we were happy to see that there was much more on offer than the tourist blurbs suggest.

Hopping off the Metro we landed right on top of one of the listed landmarks, the Lions Bridge.

Well that was easy.

It is a bridge over the Vladaya River that was built 1889–1891 and connects the Central Railway Station with the city centre.

It has 4 very large lion statues on it.

Just around the corner from our hotel, we randomly happened upon the Church of St Paraskeva which is the third largest church in Sofia.

It is a Bulgarian Orthodox church dedicated to Saint Paraskeva,

We were aiming for something else but sure enough this popped up and was pretty cool.

StAlexander Nevsky Cathedral was what we were actually aiming for. It is one of the 50 largest Christian churches in the world taking up an area of 3,170 square metres and being able to hold 5,000 people inside. Construction started in 1882 but most of it was built between 1904 and 1912. The cathedral was created in honour of the Russian soldiers who died during the Russo-Turkish War of 1877–1878 when Bulgaria was liberated from Ottoman rule.