Paul's Travel Pics

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Desert Oases of Central Oman - Part 1: Dubai to Muscat

This was a solo trip I never thought I would take on. And by the journey's midpoint, I wasn't traveling solo anymore.

Oman had never been on my radar as a traveler, which is probably also true for most travelers I know.

So what the heck was I doing there?

At the time I was on short-term assignment in Dubai, which was as non-traditional as it got in the Muslim world. My coworkers always joked that it was the Las Vegas of the Middle East, where underground booze flowed freely and money could buy all sorts of pleasurable delights so long as you didn't do it in public.

As a foreigner it's easy to adapt to such a liberal and forward-looking city, which was (and still is as of 2014) striving to truly become a first-world metropolis in both infrastructure and personnel. But as a traveler I cringed everyday at the rapid Westernization of the city and yearned for something genuine and conventionally Middle Eastern.

So I frequented places like the fishermen's moorage on the creekside, photographing their Dhows and getting invites for tea on their boats as I craved for that last remnant of pre-globalization in the world's most rapidly developing city. I knew that I had to leave Dubai to find the Middle East I wanted to see, before my short-term assignment ended.

That's when I realized that the more conservative Sultanate of Oman was within striking distance from Dubai, the legendary capital of Muscat being a half-day's bus ride away. And the most interesting part of Oman IMHO, the landlocked desert regions of Dakhiliyah and Dhahirah, were also accessible by long distance bus. Within days I put together a trip plan, called a few places in Oman in advance and hopped on a bus to Muscat.

Originally I wanted a bus ticket to my ultimate destination of Nizwa, but the religious holiday of Isra and Mi'raj was on and tickets in the direction of Nizwa/Salalah were sold out. At the end I settled for Muscat as a jump-off point for the trip, where I would need to rent a car and drive to Nizwa for the first night.

The 6 hour bus ride turned into 9 hours as the Omani border customs was flooded with thousands of Emiratis and migrant Indians waiting to cross. As a Canadian I had to hand my passport with a "handling fee" to my bus driver in the hope that he'll return it stamped for admittance. We didn't get to the lunch stop until 14:00, and it was close to 17:00 when we finally arrived at the Ruwi neighborhood of Muscat.

This complete stranger insisted that I take his picture. Being merely several hours removed from the frantic pace of Dubai, laid-back Muscat felt a world away with its friendly locals and historic architecture. My first day here lasted two hours as I picked up my rented Nissan Tiida and hurried off to Nizwa, but on the third day I came back, along with a Spanish traveler I picked up in Nizwa, and explored the city in more depth with his guidance.

For 2000 years this has been one of the world's famous trading ports, where civilizations collided and jostled for control of the maritime trade routes between the East and the West. The Persians came and went, and so did the Portuguese and the Ottomans. The grandeur of the forts and palaces in existence today still reflects the city's great wealth and power in the 18th Century, when it controlled territories as far away as Zanzibar.

The Portuguese made their mark in the 16th Century with impressive fortifications such as the al-Jalali, still standing guard at the outer edge of Muscat's old harbor to this date. The Corniche below the fort has recently been adorned with a curious collection of foreign sculptures including a Chinese carp, reminding of the city's glorious past as an international trade hub.

Sheltered between two Portuguese forts is the one unmistakable landmark of the city, the boisterously golden and blue palace of Sultan Qaboos. Despite being the nation's most photographed sight, the courtyard outside the al-Alam palace was practically devoid of tourists during our visit, which was quite a shock as I had grown used to Dubai.

Having some free time we drove by the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque, one of the largest in the world and the only in Oman that opens its doors to non-Muslims. Here my Spanish companion pointed out one inconvenience about Oman for backpackers -- public transportation was difficult to come by, and it's nearly impossible to get around without renting a car.

My favorite place in Muscat was the old Souq of Muttrah, said to be one of the oldest marketplaces in the Middle East by virtue of its location at the Corniche of this ancient trading port. While its outward appearance has no doubt changed through the centuries, even after 2000 years it remains a dark labyrinth filled with the exotic aromas of frankincense and spices.

But what I loved most about the Souq was the genuine slice of daily Omani life on display. Here I learned to appreciate the multi-ethnic nature of Muscat, seeing Omani children growing up with Pakistani ones while their mothers joked and laughed from the nearby market stalls. That's quite the opposite from the closed, tribal towns and villages around Nizwa ... but I'll talk about that in the upcoming articles.

Just look into the dark sparkling eyes of these children. They are the future of Oman, and will decide whether the country will remain the sleepy backwaters of the Arab world it has been for the past hundred years, or to be developed into something more influential in the model of nearby UAE or Qatar.

At the end I stayed for only one night, my last night of the trip, in Muscat, optimizing my time in the fascinating desert region of Dakhiliyah instead. That first evening I drove 200km straight to Nizwa and settled down at a local guesthouse, in anticipation of the famed Friday Livestock Market of Nizwa the next morning.

Monday, June 30, 2014

2 Nights in Bacharach on the Rhine

After checking out of the castle-hotel of Burg Liebenstein, we took the KD ferry to Bacharach for the final two nights of our 1500km voyage. In 24 days we had journeyed through the Low Countries, the Black Forest, the Alsace, the Mosel Valley, and now came to our last stop in the Middle Rhine Valley.

There were good reasons why we chose this charming medieval town as our last stop -- worlds away from metropolitan Frankfurt, yet only 90 minutes by train from Germany's largest airport for a cheap flight back home. Why waste the last night before our flight in a nondescript urban sprawl when we could spend it in a historic town of UNESCO World Heritage designation, on the Romantic Rhine, under the shadow of a picturesque castle?

Quaint little Bacharach is located in the south of the Middle Rhine Valley, 10km upstream of the legendary Lorelei Rock and a short and scenic ferry ride from the more popular destinations of Oberwesel or Sankt-Goar. A half-day cruise on the Rhine would reach Koblenz for transferring to boats up the Mosel Valley, or further downstream towards Cologne. And by rail, Frankfurt, Cologne and even Heidelberg are within a two hour radius by ICE trains via nearby Mainz. That's big city convenience at a tiny town of less than 2000 residents.

For independent travelers like ourselves, Bacharach makes an excellent base for a multitude of reasons: beautiful timber-frame houses from the Middle Ages, outstanding hiking with panoramic views of the Rhine, great public transportation and of course, some of Germany's best Rieslings growing out of the steep local hills. Not so great if you're solely looking for shopping or night life I must warn, but perfect for some relaxing day-cruises, trail hikes and wine tasting.

Bacharach's historic core is a haven of half-timber architecture from the 17th Century and beyond, forgotten by time after its harbour silted up and the once-prosperous town slumbered through centuries of anonymity. The oldest building, aptly named the Altes Haus, dates from the mid 1300's and continues to serve up traditional Rhenish dishes to townsfolk and newcomers alike. The Town Hall is about the same age, and the Tithe House is only slightly younger at 600 years old.

Compared with the more popular Oberwesel and Sankt Goar, we found Bacharach more compact and better preserved overall as a historic enclave still surrounded and sustained by its centuries-old vineyards. During daytime it gets slightly overrun with day-trippers from nearby Koblenz or Frankfurt, but that all changes at twilight when its rural serenity returns to the town's cobblestone streets.

One of our favorite spots was an unsightly modern lookout known as the Postenturm. Despite the tower itself being a complete eyesore, it offers the best vantage point of Bacharach with its lush vineyards, the mighty Rhine and a medieval skyline of gothic ruins and church steeples.

From the Postenturm there's a well-used trail that snakes around the town's perimeters amidst the well-manicured vineyards of Spatburgunders, Rivaners and Rieslings. It's a brisk but excellent hike that took us past the town's medieval defensive towers, crumbling town walls and ultimately led to the local castle on the hilltop.

The brooding presence of Burg Stahleck stands a hundred metres above the town, watching over the river traffic on the Rhine and offering panoramic views of the territory. The 12th Century castle had been completely rebuilt over the past hundred years and now operates as an extremely popular youth hostel with modern amenities. It's also a great place to break the hike and sit back with a drink to accompany the view.

We would have chosen this as our base for two nights, except for its inconvenience of location for a taking stroll in the old town or accessing the train station. Hiking down to the station should take less than 15 minutes without baggage, but I wouldn't try to come back up in the evening without a taxi. That said, if you ever want to stay overnight in a castle on a tight budget, this would be my recommendation as long as you can book in advance.

The trail zigzags past the castle above some sheer cliffs on its way down towards the train station. Directly across the Rhine is the hamlet of Lorchhausen with more prototypical Rhenish landscapes of idyllic villages and terraced vineyards stretching for miles.

The hike from one side of the town to another, starting near the Postenturm, climb up to Burg Stahleck and returning to the town near the train station, should take about an hour without stops. For us it probably took about twice as long as we took frequent photo stops and paused for a drink at the castle. It's a breathtaking way to spend a leisurely afternoon.

Our favorite eatery in town was the locally celebrated Weingut Bastian, housed inside a 15th Century half-timber house right next to the Altes Haus. While it's more of a lunch spot/watering hole rather than a proper restaurant, the limited repertoire of snacking bites was terrific, and the wine of course was fantastic as expected.

Like most Weinstubben the place focuses on its collection of local vintage from the immediate region, many coming from the steep hillside just above the town. I had heard about its popularity among Americans courtesy of Rick Steves, though on this Saturday afternoon almost all of the clientele were German speakers aside from ourselves.

We started with a clear broth and the regional version of Vesperteller platter with Schinken, cured sausages and cheeses to share between the two of us. I pondered ordering the 15-wine-sampler for 20 Euros, but realizing that I might not make it back to the guesthouse on my feet, I settled for a delectable glass of local halbtrocken Riesling that was certainly among the best of our trip.

Equally as good was the classic combination of Zwiebelkuche and Federweisser, an autumn favorite available only as long as the season's supply of the sweet, half-fermented wine lasted. I would have loved to return for more, but we ended up spending the next day in Oberwesel and Sankt Goar and didn't get another chance.

Bill for Two Persons
Vesperteller10.5 Euros
Zwiebelkuche2.7 Euros
Chicken Broth4.0 Euros
Glass Riesling4.8 Euros
Glass Federweisser2.5 Euros
TOTAL before tips24.5 Euros (CAD$34.3)

Our only proper dinner in town was spent in a traditional little Gaeststatte in an inconspicuous alley. I don't remember how we came across Jaegerstube, but as it turned out it was also recommended by Rick Steves and thus had become somewhat of a tourist hangout. That's usually not a good sign as far as the quality of food is concerned.

To its credit though, prices were unbelievably cheap even for a rural small town. Where else would you find a whole Eisbein with Sauerkraut for 8.5 Euros (CAD$12)? My wife's Jaegerschnitzel cost only slightly more, though I have to say ... the flavors were nothing too memorable. Rick's good at spotting these authentic little joints, but I don't think he ever claims to be a gourmand. As I mentioned, I'd rather go back to Weingut Bastian.

Bill for Two Persons
Eisbein8.5 Euros
Jaegerschnitzel12.5 Euros
Glass Rivaner3.7 Euros
Glass Federweisser2.8 Euros
TOTAL before tips27.5 Euros (CAD$38.5)

This pleasant and unassuming little town served well as our base for exploring the rest of the Middle Rhine Valley. We stayed at probably the closest Privat Zimmer to the train station, operated by an elderly Oma named Ursula Orth, for some of the cheapest B&B prices we've come across in Western Europe. While the room may appear spartan without even a TV, the place was clean, came with a private bathroom, and of course came with a hearty German breakfast in the morning. Leave me a message below if you want her daughter's email contacts for booking.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Day Trip on the Middle Rhine - Sankt Goar, Oberwesel and Koblenz

Staying at Bacharach as our base, we devoted a full day for exploring the left bank of the Middle Rhine Valley by train. This was the legendary Rhine Gorge of UNESCO World Heritage fame and, I thought at the time, a fitting climax for our second-last day in Germany. I didn't take into account the fact that it was SUNDAY ... but I'll talk about that later.

We already had a glimpse of the Rhine's picturesque landscape as we floated upstream on the KD ferry, but this was our last chance to get intimate with its charming small towns. So we finished our characteristically hearty German breakfast at Ursula's guesthouse, boarded the convenient Mittelrheinbahn and arrived in 15 minutes at Sankt Goar, a town slightly larger than Bacharach yet equally sleepy on a holiday morning.

Halfway between Koblenz to the north and Bingen am Rhein to the southeast, Sankt Goar once controlled one of the narrowest sections of the Middle Rhine along with its sister town Sankt Goarhausen, merely 250m away on the opposite bank. For years the local government has proposed a bridge across these rapid waters, but as of 2014 the tiny Loreley Ferry remains the only way to cross ... just as it's been for centuries past.

This strategic location naturally sprung a collection of medieval castles on both shores throughout history -- the comically named Burg Katz and Burg Maus on the Sankt Goarhausen side, and the stern and masculine Burg Rheinfels on the Sankt Goar side. This was exactly what we came for -- the largest and arguably most impressive castle ruin on the Middle Rhine, perching on a sheer cliff above the busy shipping lanes.

What remains today is but a mere shadow of the mighty Burg Rheinfels from the middle ages, reduced to crumbling ruins after being blown up by the French in the late 1700's and subsequently quarried for its wealth of quality cut stones. But even with half of the castle destroyed, enough of the 13th Century turrets and ramparts remain to witness what a serious piece of business this must have been.

It's easy to spend half a day just exploring the maze-like tunnels and ramparts, and trying out various instruments of medieval punishment. As a side note the Burg also features one of the most fascinating public washrooms anywhere ... with a hand-operated water pump for faucet and an old copper pipe for hand dryer.

If you're really fascinated with castles and want to enjoy Burg Rhinefels as your backyard, the castle does operate a private hotel right outside its front gate. While its view of Sankt Goar is splendid, I must point out that there are cheaper castle-hotels in the region such as Burg Stahleck at nearby Bacharach, Burg Liebenstein at Kamp-Bornhofen or Burg Arras on the Mosel.

We hiked back down to Sankt Goar right at lunchtime and headed straight for the cluster of traditional Gasthofen around the town square. My terrible reading knowledge of German barely deciphered enough of the hand-scribbled daily menus to spot one of my favorite seasonal ingredients ... frische pfifferlingen, or fresh chanterelle mushrooms. Autumn is a great time to be in Germany.

Prices at Hotel am Markt were reasonable for its prime location on the waterfront, directly across the Rhine from lovely Burg Katz. To the right were the piers for ferries and pleasure boats on the Rhine, and a two minute walk uphill led to the town's tiny unmanned train station. It doesn't just get more convenient than this.

Amazingly this was only the first time that we came across chanterelles in the form of a creme soup ... all our previous encounters were in the form of sauces on top of main dishes. This was certainly nowhere as magical as a Boletus mushroom soup we had earlier at Heidelberg, but it's fresh, wild-picked and still notches better than any creme of champignon.

My wife's broiled trout came out as perfectly charred as one can ever ask for. As I remember the flesh had a slight muddy taste, meaning that the fish was probably farmed rather than caught. That said, I don't think anyone could complain about the price of 12.9 Euros for an expertly cooked fish with a side salad, on a town square facing the Rhine.

Arriving last was the seasonal special of Schweinebraten with Chanterelle mushrooms. While I'm never a huge fan of German pork roasts, there's just something about the woody flavor of wild fungi that turns mediocre dishes into memorable ones. The portions were generous as usual, and now we're quite ready to move to the next town and walk off those extra calories.

Bill for Two Persons
Creme of Chanterelles3.9 Euros
Broiled Trout12.9 Euros
Schweinebraten with Chanterelles14.9 Euros
Glass Rivaner-Kerner x 25.8 Euros
TOTAL before tips37.5 Euros (CAD$52.5)

We walked back to the unmanned train station, hopped on the Mittelrheinbahn again and arrived at yet another unmanned station 8km upstream. Every town along this stretch of the romantic Rhine seemed to be crowned with its own medieval castle on a hilltop, and Oberwesel was no exception with the colorful Schoenburg adorning this section of the river gorge.

What elevates Oberwesel above all its peers along the Middle Rhine Valley is its remarkable collection of defensive towers, scattered along remnants of the old town walls dating from the 1200's. Surrounding the town are hills after hills of the region's prototypical vineyards that outputs some of Germany's best Rieslings and Spatburgunders.

A few towers are open to inquisitive hikers and offer excellent views of the town, while others remain private properties of the townsfolk. We even saw one fitted with a doorbell and occupied as a residence, possibly of a family who has dwelled in parts of the wall for centuries. This is a community with a long history -- a number of churches survived from the late Middle Ages and some private houses date from the Renaissance era.

We walked along sections of the extant town wall facing the riverfront, turned uphill after the round turret of Ochsenturm and went for a short hike along upper edges of the town. We could have hiked up to the Schoenburg for some afternoon tea and an inside look at yet another castle-hotel, but we're quite content to stay within the town and enjoy the folk architecture.

The historic Market Square of 18th Century timber-frame houses would have been a lively spot for people watching, except almost EVERYTHING in town was closed on this day, including all stores and most restaurants. It was then that we realized ... it's Sunday in a region of the world where observance of the Lord's Day is taken literally. The only two stores open were an Italian ice cream parlour, and a Turkish Donerhaus that sold us a life-saving bottle of water.

As quaint and fascinating this little town was, it was time to move on to a busier place for some more sightseeing and, if we're lucky, last minute shopping. Armed with our regional train daypass (Rheinland-Pfalz-Ticket) we hopped on the Mittelrheinbahn yet again, this time heading north towards the regional hub of Koblenz.

We previously traveled through this stretch of the Rhine by ferry and by local train on the Right Bank, and this train ride on the Left Bank afforded some more great views of the castles along the route, including the white and stately Marksburg above the town of Braubach. I still prefer the KD ferry as the best way to see the Middle Rhine, but I also appreciate these local trains for their frequency and speed for day-trips.

We arrived at Koblenz to find just about EVERYTHING being closed on Sundays. That's everything including the major shopping centres and supermarkets, hence no last minute shopping for us. We'd just have to be content with rummaging through the old town en route to the one sight we didn't want to miss, the confluence of the Rhine and the Mosel at the famous Deutsches Eck.

Just about the entire Koblenz gathered around the Deutsches Eck on this Sunday afternoon, basking in the early autumn sun and enjoying the waterfront view of both rivers. This place used to be THE symbol for aspiration of national unity in West Germany, but a quarter century after the fall of the Berlin Wall, it now seems mostly a place for family outings and biergartens.

The surprise entertainment of the day was an informal gathering of local residents in 19th century attire, laces and top hats and all, made even more impressive by the backdrop of the Ehrenbreitstein castle and stately mansions across the Rhine. We had dinner at an unremarkable restaurant serving modern German food (should have gone back to the Alt Coblenz we came across earlier!), but made it up with some excellent gelati down the street.

In 45 minutes we're back at Bacharach by the trusty Mittelrheinbahn, wrapping up a full day of sightseeing along one of Europe's great rivers. We couldn't help comparing these towns on the Rhine with those on the Mosel which we just visited several days ago. The Rhine has become legendary mainly for the sheer number of medieval castles on every defensible hilltop, though in truth I actually prefer the intimacy of the Mosel's quaint small towns and the visual impact of its frighteningly steep vineyards. But most of all, both valleys are among German's best wine regions, and I wouldn't mind revisiting both during harvest season.