Walk the dunes aboard a bugui, run into the Bedouins of the desert and their camels, contemplate the stars from a tent, jump down a zip line at 120 kilometers per hour, climb through narrow canyons ... All that and much more awaits you in AlUla, a province of Medina, located 1,100 kilometers from Riyadh, in northwestern Saudi Arabia.
If you are looking for a secluded and almost virgin place, this is your ideal destination to visit in the winter months. Saudi Arabia opened up to tourism in 2019, so it still has very few visitors and a lot of territory to explore.
If you are afraid of strict Islamic law, the country is mired in a broad process of modernization and reform - called Vision 2030 - promoted by Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Many harsh rules have been relaxed, although you won't find a trace of alcohol no matter how much you look for it.
Women no longer need to wear the hijab, niqab or abaya – the robe with which they cover themselves – and, in fact, many tourist guides and women who work in shops and hotel receptions wear their faces uncovered.
In small villages, women still wear the niqab, which only exposes beautiful eyes, which are often heavily made up.
Westerners traveling to the country do not have to wear the abaya, although it is recommended to dress discreetly without showing the shoulders or anything above the knee. It is also convenient to wear a handkerchief to place above the head if the occasion requires it.
An oasis with orchards
AlUla is situated in a lush valley with an oasis, towering sandstone rocks and spectacular archaeological remains, dating back to the forgotten kingdoms of Dadan and Lihyan. For many centuries, this area was a place of passage on the incense route and a crossroads at which many of the ancient civilizations were found.
Undoubtedly, the jewel in the crown is Hegra, a city where there are more than a hundred monumental tombs carved into the rock. It was built by the Nabataeans, the pre-Islamic Arab people who also built Petra in neighboring Jordan.
Hegra is less luxurious than Petra, but the big difference is that here you can tour the thousand-year-old tombs without the hordes of tourists who transit in the Jordanian enclave. If you visit it during the day, it completely surprises the traveler; Touring these mausoleums at night surrounded by candles in the light of the stars is a unique experience.
The city of Hegra, with more than 100 tombs.
The Nabataeans were a merchant and nomadic people who moved in caravans in which they transported incense, myrrh and other spices and who lived their moment of greatest economic boom between the fourth century BC and the I AD.
Today, Hegra can pass through the funerary ruins, but archaeologists have just discovered an entire city under the ground, which is in the excavation phase.
The general director of AlUla Heritage, the Spaniard José Ignacio Gallego, explains the magnitude of the archaeological finds that are being found in this region: "For two years we have dedicated ourselves to combing the area. We have carried out surveys of the territory with archaeologists, satellite images, helicopters, testimonies of elders... If we had 50 archaeological sites, after this research we have discovered that there are 50,000."
The work of this Segovian is to ensure that the historical heritage becomes a vehicle for the development of the local territory. "The goal is to change the entire Saudi economy and, in parallel, transform society into a twenty-first century country. Prince Bin Salman wants to stop depending exclusively on oil and that tourism reaches 13% of GDP, "says Gallego.
With a significant budget, the best teams in the world are working in Saudi Arabia. A group of Italian geologists has been in charge of drawing up the conservation plan for the Hegra tombs and the Administration has hired the French company A.S.O to promote the sport.
This company is one of the main organizers of sporting events, such as the Tour de France and the Vuelta Ciclista a España. Currently, it organizes the Dakar Rally that runs through the Arab country and also the Saudi Tour, a cycling race held at the end of January and February.
The Saudi Tour cycling race was held in February.
"We take care of bringing the greatest cyclists in the world and promoting this sport in the country. For cyclists it serves as a preparatory race for the start of the season. Saudi Arabia has a very bad image abroad, but it is changing a lot and very quickly. I meet many women who occupy positions of responsibility," says Jean Marc Marino, director of the Saudi Tour race.
A good example of these projects is that a Royal Commission has been created in AlUla that supervises all activities, in order to create a tourist destination with quality and authenticity. The village of AlUla – dating from the twelfth century – was an ancient settlement on the pilgrimage route from Damascus to Mecca and was abandoned for more than 40 years.
Its inhabitants moved to other areas because of the intense heat and stopped maintaining their adobe houses, whose roofs collapsed.
Apart from getting lost in its labyrinth of 900 adobe houses, one of the most curious things to visit is the imposing oasis full of palm trees and tea stalls in the middle of the valley.
View of the town of Alula.
AlUla also has a vibrant cultural life and from February 16 to 28 the Festival of Arts is celebrated. This year the event includes an exhibition of Andy Warhol until May 16, a sample of the opening that is taking place in the country.
The pop artist's exhibition is held in Maraya, a spectacular building covered with 9,740 mirror panels designed to blend in with the surroundings. On February 24, the singer Alicia Keys performed in this space, in a country where until recently concerts were prohibited.
Another activity that the tourist can not miss in this area is to spend the night watching the stars and dine in a tent, as the ancient Bedouins did. Because the sky and the stars are seen and lived differently in the desert.
HOW TO GET THERE. Saudi Airlines has direct flights to AlUla from Paris once a week. The other option is to stop in Riyadh.
WHERE TO SLEEP. Nestled in the middle of the desert, Banyan Tree is a hotel made up of luxury villas that blend in with the Ashar Valley,
Caravan by Habitas is a set of caravans inspired by the lifestyle of the Bedouins.
WHERE TO EAT. Okto is a Greek restaurant located in the viewpoint of Harrat with great views. Suhaild Old Town serves ancient Arabic dishes with a modern twist.
LEARN MORE. About the experiences in Alula seen the web: https://www.experiencealula.com/
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