|Muscat: Walking Tour - Mutrah to Old Muscat
18 February 2011
Today is Friday and I know that all fee-paying attractions will be shut so I planned to spend the day following my guidebook's suggested walking tour east from Mutrah to Old Muscat, aka Muscat 'proper'. As yesterday I took a taxi down to the Corniche. The locals would have paid about half an Omani Riyal but I was again resigned to paying double. But I knew the driver was trying it on when he suggested a fare of OMR2. We compromised on the figure I'd first thought of.
Today was already noticeably hotter than yesterday and there was little in the way of a cooling breeze. As I set off along the Corniche from near the fish market I noticed a number of locals looking over the low polished granite wall some of whom were throwing bread into the sea. As I too looked down I could see a huge shoal of sardines languidly weaving along the shoreline, an amorphous mass several metres wide stretching east as far as the eye could see, the dark band broken only by the occasional flash of silver as the sun caught the scales of a lone fish changing lanes.
Yesterday I had walked only as far as Mutrah Fort so once I got beyond that I was in new territory. The Corniche must have cost a fortune to build. Aside from the wall and pavement being composed entirely of polished granite - or is it marble? - the dual carriageway running alongside it is beautifully landscaped with massed plantings of petunias, which Muscat is considerably more successful with than Doha was when I was there last year. And of course there are the ornamental lamp posts which make quite a feature and the sculptures which punctuate the Corniche like so many granite/marble exclamation marks.
It being Friday morning the road is gratifyingly free of traffic. I passed a fountain, more functional than fantastical, at a good point for viewing the harbour. Ahead of me, in the distance was a large white structure on a small flat-topped hill, which I later found to be a giant ornamental incense burner, the strange illuminated shape I had seen from Mutrah yesterday evening.
An Open and Shut Case
The incense burner is in Al-Riyam Park, an oasis of greenery with a funfair and children's playground. You can climb up to it so I thought I would break away from the Corniche and have a stroll in the park. Except it was shut, closed, ferme. A sign at the entrance proclaimed its opening times to be afternoon and evenings except on Fridays and bank holidays when it was open all day. And today is a Friday. So what gives? A steady trickle of locals, some with young children in tow, arrived by private car or taxi with the glint of expectation in their eye. They were not impressed. "Is it shut?" one asked me as though I were an expert in Omani park tourist attractions. They all seem to speak pretty good conversational English here. "But it should be open" opined another. "Is a problem" he added before heading back to his taxi along with disappointed toddler.
Very kindly he returned to advise me that there was "same, same" one kilometre further along the road. As it transpired the place to which he referred, Kalbuh Bay Park was not quite the same but provided a pleasant resting place for lunch. There was also a neat little beach by the park which gave me the opportunity for some not very successful stone skimming.
Health & Safety? Don't Look Now.
But before I reached Kalbuh Bay there was the small matter of a watch tower to visit. And it is a watch tower with a difference. Picking your way across a debris-strewn approach, a short, steep staircase takes you to the entrance to this squat sandstone tower. Inside sat two canon. Well I say 'sat' but one of these remained in place solely because the barrel of the canon was wedged in the iron grille of a window; the floor beneath it had vanished into the sea quite some distance below. When I got back to the bottom of the stairs I noticed some plywood set to one side which could well have originally been across the entrance saying 'Danger Keep Out' or some such.
According to the Lonely Planet web site this tower is restored, behind a restaurant and decorated with colourful fountains at night. Well maybe I have got the wrong place but I see no restaurant - just some foundations by the water - and what might once have been a fountain or two. I am thinking this area could well be reflecting the result of Cyclone Gonu, the strongest tropical cyclone recorded in the Arabian Sea and the worst natural disaster to hit Oman when it made land in 2007.
Muscat Proper and a Scabby Mutt
After the tower and the park I walked on to Muscat Gate which marks the old city boundary and until the 1970s kept undesirables out. It houses a museum (shut of course) and a rather appealing arched walkway across the dual carriageway. As I was taking pictures of the arches, a man with a rather large gun emerged from behind a door. He gave me a friendly greeting - the Omanis really are a welcoming people - but I have to confess guns make me a little nervous.
I didn't hang around but walked on into Old Muscat where there was barely a soul around save for a scabby black dog with a gammy leg which was permanently pulled into her body. Being a sucker for a sob story I shared my remaining two biscuits with her, eliciting a vigorous wagging of the tail.
Sultan's Palace and Two More Forts
I followed the road round, along an avenue of date palms, to the approach to the Sultan's Palace. He doesn't actually live here but it's where he tends to greet foreign dignitaries. It has recently been extended over an area previously occupied by the British Embassy. It's grand and distinctively Arabic but, for my taste, a little kitsch.
I skirted to the left, around the palace gardens, from where the branches of a flowering shrub pushed out into the public domain, the white trumpet-like blooms intoxicatingly fragrant. The path took me to the rear of the palace and to the flanks of Al-Mirani Fort, with Al-Jalili across the bay. Neither is accessible to the hoi polloi, the former being for military purposes and the latter housing a museum open only to visiting dignitaries. Both are Portuguese constructions from the 1580s.
The Russian Connection
I fell into conversation with a Russian couple who had driven to Oman from Dubai where both were working. It was all very last minute and they were only here for a long weekend and wanted some pointers on things to see and do. I was happy to pass on the vast knowledge I had accumulated over the past 36 hours! They kindly gave me a lift back to Mutrah Souq in their very smart VW Tourag, stopping at the watch tower, at my suggestion. It is from there that I took a picture of the cloud gathering as the sun set, pretty much the only cloud of any significance I was to see until I got back to London.
If you want to see Old Muscat in peace, Friday is good. Otherwise you might be fighting for air amongst the tourists.