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Being a tour guide - 1

We had visitors this month - my sister, her husband and our niece who came for a sunshine break from a dreich Scotland. So, around my work duties we acted as tour guides for them and revisited some parts of Riyadh we hadn’t seen in a while.

First up was the old centre of the city, and a visit to the Masmak Fortress. I have reported on this before, but it’s worth a recap. This was the original city fortress that was captured by the Al Saud dynasty in 1902 when they took over Riyadh on the route to unifying the current kingdom. It was built in 1865 yet looks almost medieval. Put in a timeline perspective, Brunel’s highly engineered and aesthetically beautiful Clifton Suspension Bridge was completed in 1864. But let’s be fair to the Saudis, until relatively recently they were a nomadic camel and goat herding people and had little use for a built environment. The fortress in Riyadh was an exception as it guarded the agricultural lands of the wadi. The written history of the fortress is shown in Arabic and English within. There is no entrance charge and on a hot day it’s an air-cooled and interesting hour to spend.20221011_200322 002jpg

Nearby are a handful of souvenir shops. Yes, they do sell some tat like fridge magnets or ashtrays inscribed with “Riyadh”, but the majority of goods on offer are reproduction Arabic and Indian(!) household or campsite accoutrements. The shopkeepers all appeared to be Kashmiri. This is all adjacent to Deira Square where the judicial punishments are carried out. There are some souks about, including the gold souk, an abaya souk, and an indoor mall in which the majority of shops are fabric and clothing focused. In here we sat for a few minutes and enjoyed traditional Arabic coffee (cardamom seed based). My brother-in-law was highly amused to note that the coffee stall holder also dispensed Nescafe instant too.

We drove the visitors over to the Wadi Hanifah area but it was a disappointment with much of the area closed off for construction works. The revitalised area near the big flagpole was out of bounds, and I found out later that this was in connection with a visiting horse showjumping event – the “Longines Global Champions Tour”. An alternative entry point down into the valley was found, and we had a short drive as far as the road was open. Here there was further works in evidence, it appears that a paved cycle route is being built. That will be a welcome addition to Riyadh’s leisure offerings, a safe place off the roads for cycling.

During my days at work the visitors indulged in the more mundane activities of shopping and lunching in some of the many city malls. Getting to and from them was either via our compound’s shopping bus - a complimentary service laid on for the residents, or by private limo hire with a regular personal driver. The latter is more expensive but much more convenient. And of course there was plenty of opportunity for relaxing by the pool in our compound too.

We had a trip north of the city into the desert for a Friday brunch with a couple of Saudi friends and their 2-year old daughter. The plan was to find a nice quiet spot and erect a gazebo-type sun-shelter that our friends would bring, and get the barbeque going. It was a nice mild autumn day with the temperature around 35 degrees C - just perfect for a picnic. But then we hit a snag – the cover for the gazebo frame hadn’t been packed! We discussed going back to the city to collect it, but decided that was just too far, so we improvised with whatever fabrics we could rustle up from our two carloads. My sister came up with the inspired idea of opening all the ladies’ abayas and zipping one to another. This at least gave us some shelter from the sun, and made the day much more memorable. On our way back into the city we went via the King Salman Country Park, which is a massive picnic gardens on the Banban – Airport Road. We drove around and agreed that it would indeed be a grand place for a BBQ/picnic, however the ladies would have to keep their abayas on if we did so.

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Improvising for shade. The occasional passer-by must have assumed we were crazy. 

As well as eating “at home” we ate out at a diverse selection of restaurants. Riyadh has something for everyone, except of course those who expect pork or alcohol. The highlight was a visit to a traditional Arabic-style restaurant called Najd Village. There are three or maybe four of these restaurants in the city, all built in the style of an old Arabic fort, almost mini versions of Masmak. One is in a nice setting in the old Diriyah quarter where it blends sympathetically with the rebuilt historic townscape. But the one we visited is on a busy city street located between a nail spa and a German kitchen showroom. With an underground car park of course. However, once inside it was truly stunning, and with the doors closed and the traffic noises eliminated we were transported to a time of nomadic cuisine and hospitality. We ordered a mixed traditional spread and after a welcome Arabic coffee and dates sat down at carpet and had a feast of meats including chicken, camel and sheep, with a fine array of sides, dips, breads and vegetables. Our Yemeni waiter was excellent and assisted us with any questions we had, and made sure we were well fed and watered.

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Najd Village dinner ...

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... and tea / coffee

At the other end of the culinary experience was a visit to the British Embassy for the Corona Ball – the ex-pat ladies organisation that is, not the scourge of the 21st century. This was a highly organised and choreographed formal black-tie and ballgown event with a six-course dinner and drinks to match. Per person it cost about 4 times as much as the visit to Najd Village, and to top it off there was a big raffle. Tickets for that were approximately £5 each, but the prizes were classy too. The top one was a pair of Qatar Airways return tickets to anywhere it serves in the world. No, we didn’t win that. The semblance of a society ball evaporated after the meal when the 1-piece electronic orchestra struck up. Even so, it was a night to remember, and I don’t think our guests had ever experienced anything quite like it. 

All too soon their time was up and they headed back to a wet, windy and cold Scotland. I think their impression of Saudi Arabia was somewhat different from their expectation, in a positive sense of course. But this time they had only experienced Riyadh and its immediate environs. This is a very big country, there is so much more for us all to see and experience. Thanks for coming, it was a pleasure seeing the city again through the eyes of first-timers.


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