Oman Part 4: Muscat and More Mountains

This is the fourth of six posts on our visit to Oman in March-April 2022.

If you just want to see the pictures from this part of our trip go here.

Muscat

The capital Muscat is by far the largest city in Oman. Backed by jagged mountains it sprawls along the sea front and beach in a rather pleasant way. There are no high rise buildings and plenty of the newer ones have been built in a traditional style.

We stayed at the Crowne Plaza which is on a headland at the north-eastern end of the beach. The views from our room or the pool area were magnificent.

Pool at Crowne Plaza, Muscat

Pool at Crowne Plaza, Muscat

The old commercial centre Muttrah is round the headland to the east and is easily accessible from Muscat by a fast road round the back of the headland. We spent our first full day in Muscat exploring both areas.

Ramadan

Ramadan, the Muslim period of fasting with no food or drink from sunrise to sunset, began in Oman on the evening of 2 April which was the day we arrived in Muscat. We had been warned that some places might be closed during this time, but this rarely affected the rest of our trip.

In fact some places were a good deal quieter than they might otherwise have been. Saqer observed Ramadan and said that he was completely used to it and that there would be no problems.

Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque

We began our day at the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque which is the largest mosque in Oman and the only one which non-Muslims are allowed to enter.

Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque, Muscat

Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque, Muscat

It was my turn to wear the headdress (a shawl) which Saqer had given me over my head. I also needed to cover my arms and legs.

Ready for the Grand Mosque

The mosque was completed in 2001 and is simply stunning. The approach is on beautiful clean paving past gardens with green lawns which were being watered and tendered. The inside is intricately decorated with ornate Arabic writing as well as other elaborate motifs. I took plenty of photos of which just a few are in the picture gallery which accompanies this post.

A huge finely woven prayer carpet covers the floor in the main prayer hall. According wikipedia it measures 60 x 70 metres and took 4 years to make. Visitors are only allowed to walk on a plain blue carpet which does enable you to have close look at the main carpet.

Carpet,Grand Mosque

Carpet, Grand Mosque

The central chandelier is 14 metres tall and is said to contain over 1100 bulbs. Smaller chandeliers hang all around the edge of the prayer hall. The mihrab, a niche in the wall which indicates the direction of Mecca and thus the direction of prayer, is very tall and decorated all over with soothing colours.

Mihrab, Grand Mosque

Mihrab, Grand Mosque

Muttrah Souqs

After leaving the mosque we moved on to Muttrah, where the souqs are the main tourist attraction. The fish market was first. I do like eating fish and I also like visiting fish markets – we have even been to the giant one in Tokyo. Here I took pictures of yellow, red and a blue fish, all of which looked very fresh.

Blue fish, fish market, Muttrah

Blue fish, fish market, Muttrah

Nearby somebody was mending nets in a small boat tied up near the market. It was all rather quiet but this meant that we didn’t have to battle through throngs of locals and tourists in order to see anything.

The locals did not mind having their photos taken. I managed to get good ones in the fish market and in the vegetable and fruit market.

Vendor, Muttrah vegetable souq

Vendor, Muttrah vegetable souq

We bypassed the building labelled Sale of Meat, perhaps because it was Ramadan.

The tourist souqs are really the heart of Muttrah and there are many shops selling souvenirs which seemed mostly to have been imported from southeast Asia. The shopkeepers appeared to be mainly Indian or Pakistani. Martin would have had no difficulty buying one of the round hats which Omani men wear. Saqer had a different one every day and they all matched the spotless dishdashas which he changed every day.

Muttrah souq

Muttrah souq

Cultural Heritage at Bait al Bagh

Bait Al Bagh in Muttrah is part of the Bait Zubair complex, a large privately owned showcase of Omani cultural heritage. At the entrance we were greeted by two life size models of Arabian oryxes, one of which was painted in several bright colours.

Model oryx outside Bait A Bagh Museum

Model oryx outside Bait A Bagh Museum

The first thing we saw inside was a huge and detailed illustrated map of Oman showing the culture and major activities of each area.

Part of map, Bait Al Bagh Museum

Part of map, Bait Al Bagh Museum

Bait al Bagh also has a number of excellent information boards showing various aspects of daily life and dress. The main collection consists of firearms, Omani daggers, antique jewellery and the like. There are several sets of life-size models including seven dressed for a wedding ceremony.

Models at a wedding, Bait Al Bagh Museum

Models at a wedding, Bait Al Bagh Museum

I was also intrigued by a detailed painting which illustrates various methods of food preparation, all carried out by women.

After a walk round the area surrounding the Sultan’s palace in Muttrah with glances at the huge yacht moored nearby which we were told belonged to one of his relatives, our planned schedule for the day was complete, but Saqer asked us if we wanted to see the Royal Opera House in Muscat as well. We had been past this building on the way to the mosque and were keen to see the inside.

Royal Opera House, Muscat

We were not disappointed. The Opera House is built in the traditional style and with intricate carvings in the stone and wooden decoration inside.

Royal Opera House, Muscat

Royal Opera House, Muscat

The stage is huge for performances with a large cast but we were told that the front part of it can be removed for more intimate events. If there had been a performance while we were in Muscat we would definitely have tried to get tickets.

The Opera House was another initiative of Sultan Qaboos and it opened in October 2011. A glance at its web site and entry in wikipedia indicates the quality of the performances it is able to attract.

Royal Opera House, Muscat

Royal Opera House, Muscat

We were back at the hotel in time for a late lunch. Ramadan was observed to some extent but most of the other hotel guests were European and the restaurant staff appeared to be Indian. In the evening instead of having the hotel’s iftar Ramadan evening meal, we took the hotel’s shuttle bus back to Muttrah and ate on a balcony overlooking the sea at at Bait al Luban, a well-known traditional restaurant which was recommended by our guide book and by Saqer.

Barka

On our second full day we went out of Muscat first going north along the coast to Barka where there is a large fort which had apparently been closed for some time.

Barka Fort

Barka Fort

We were able to view the outside before going to another fish market which had quite a few customers. Somebody was trying to sell what looked like a sting ray. The modern town of Barka is large enough to have a Lulu supermarket where we picked up some food for lunch.

Mountain roads

From Barka we turned inland on the start of a journey to the mountains. We stopped to photograph another fort at Nakhl which had also been closed for some time. In contrast to Barka this fort is rich brown in colour and was surrounded by trees. We looked at it across a dried river bed.

Nakhl Fort

Further on we passed a road sign for a camel and a bit later on a camel walking on the road. I noticed that its front legs were hobbled.

Camel on road

Camel on road

Saqer then took us on a mountain drive in the Western Hajar through the area known as Wadi Bani Auf. This journey is described by the Rough Guide as “widely considered the most memorable off-road drive in the country”. It goes on to say “This is Oman at its most nerve-janglingly dramatic, with stupendous scenery and a rough, vertiginous track which challenges the skills of even experienced off-road drivers”. We needed to buckle up metaphorically as well as physically but it was quite an experience.

Mountain road

Mountain road

Martin is quite a fan of roads like this but even he was glad that he was not driving. Saqer obviously knew the route very well and we stopped at several viewpoints. He easily dealt with the situation when we met one truck coming in the opposite direction – I was just glad the vertiginous drop was on the other side of the road at this point.

Can we get past this truck?

Can we get past this truck?

There are some small wadis and villages in this area including one with an artificially green football pitch. We saw some students getting off their school bus (a rugged 4×4). They must have come from Balad Sayt which was the only place we saw which had a road sign.

Yes, there's a village in these mountains

Yes, there’s a village in these mountains

You can go hiking in this area although I didn’t see any proper trails. We stopped to eat our lunch at a lodge called Bait Bimah and were able to chat to the one person who was working there.

Bait Bimah travel lodge

Bait Bimah travel lodge

Saqer took Martin on another drive higher up but I felt I had had enough and just admired the scenery for the 30 minutes or so that they were gone. On the way back we had a chance to photograph the entrance to Wadi Bimah “Snake Gorge” which is a very narrow canyon.

Snake Gorge

Snake Gorge

Because of the twisty road I had rather lost my sense of direction but looking at the map after we got back I saw that we had not been far from Al Hamra which we had visited on our second day with Saqer and was just on the other side of the mountains.

Evening and Iftar

We had to say a very reluctant goodbye to Saqer when we got back to the Crowne Plaza. He was going home for a very welcome rest.

Saqer and his landcruiser

Saqer and his Landcruiser

Our last evening in Muscat was our first real chance to explore the outdoor area at the Crowne Plaza. Steps lead down to a private sandy beach where we watched the sunset and even got our feet wet. There was another magnificent sunset.

Sunset from Crowne Plaza

Sunset from Crowne Plaza

We decided to eat the hotel’s Ramadan iftar evening meal. The tables were very elegantly laid and there was even more food in the buffet than we had seen on our first night there. Much of it was Middle Eastern and Asian which we like. Plenty of the other Europeans in the hotel were trying it as well.

Someone else would come to take us to the airport on the next day for our stay at Salalah in the south of Oman. How different would it be?

Picture gallery: Oman Part 4: Muscat and More Mountains

Click to enlarge

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