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The Empty Quarter

Rub' Al Khali


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It looks to be another nice day out there. No chance of rain.

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Today we are leaving civilisation behind and travelling out to the fabled Empty Quarter, or Rub' Al Khali, the largest contiguous sand desert in the world and one of the driest regions; virtually uninhabited, and largely unexplored. I have high expectations for today as we set off with a different guide, also called Issa, heading north.

Once we have climbed over the mountains surrounding Salalah, the road is straight and flat, with very little interest either side. This road carries on for 650kms to Nizwa, through vast expanses of nothing.

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At the edge of the desert Issa lowers the tyre pressure to cope with the soft sand. The vehicle has been specially modified with roll over bars fitted for safety. I am hoping for some exhilarating 'dune bashing' today.

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Camel Farm

Our first stop of the day is a camel farm to see the rare, and much sought-after black camels who are only found here, Saudi Arabia and in Yemen. Another first for us.

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The baby is only two or three days old

The place is swarming with flies.

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Rub Al Khali

We are now entering the Empty Quarter and soon the gravel road turns to sand and we start to see some dunes.

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I am surprised at how many small shrubs grow in the sand dunes. So far it doesn't have a particularly 'empty' feel to it.

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Despite a number of strategically placed rubbish bins along the side of the track, trash gets caught on vegetation as it blows around in the wind.

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The scenery is dominated by long, linear dunes running parallel to the prevailing winds. Between these are crescent-shaped barchan dunes, and large, firm salt flats called sabkahs, which is what we are driving on.

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The dunes are getting slightly higher now as we drive deeper into the wilderness.

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Issa takes a couple of attempts to drive up a steep-sided sand dune and then swings around and follows the ridge before heading directly back down again. After a couple more swirls on the dunes, he stops the car so that we can get out and stretch our legs. Walking in the soft sand is hard going though.

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We are only just touching on the very edge of this enormous desert, the world's largest erg (sand sea) at 583,000 km². That's about the size of France. To me it is totally incomprehensible to imagine an area the size of France covered in sand.

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Just like Wahiba Sands, Rub' Al Khali is popular with young lads and families on the weekend, coming out here to have a BBQ and maybe try their hand at some serious desert driving. You can see several failed attempts at driving up this sand dune.

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As we make our way back to civilisation, I am left with a feeling of “Is that it?” The dunes are all very nice, but I don't feel any of the mystery and romance that I expected. It all feels like it is just a 'tourist day trip into the desert', which of course, is exactly what it is.

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The ever-present tyre tracks don't help, and neither do the several other tourist vehicles we meet.

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Wubar Archeaological Site

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At the edge of the desert, near Wadi Thumrait and a small settlement of the same name, is the UNESCO Heritage Site of Wubar (AKA Shisr), believed to be the remains of the Lost City of Ubar, often referred to as the Atlantis of the Desert.

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Wubar was the 'door to the desert' in the heyday of the frankincense trade, a prosperous and wealthy caravan oasis; until the desert once more swallowed it up and it remained hidden for centuries.

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A 180° Audio Vision display in the newly built visitor centre shows the fascinating and moralistic story of how man's greed once again ruined the environment by overuse of water.

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The site, however, is way older than that, and evidence found here suggests it dates back to 5000 BC.

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Thumrait Palace Restaurant

We stop for lunch near the site, and enjoy some chicken nuggets, chicken fried rice, vegetables in a sauce, bread and salad along with some delicious fresh mint juice. It makes a nice change not to have the typical Indian fare for once.

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Wadi Dokah

On the way back to Salalah, we swing by Wadi Dokah to see the frankincense plantations. This national park is a stony semi-desert valley and a perfect habitat for the 1,257 frankincense trees found here.

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Issa shows us the proper tool for shaving the tree to get the sap flowing, although we don't actually use it, of course.

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As we make our way over the Dhofar Mountains and on to Salalah, I can but notice that Issa has a most unusual driving position, with his left leg tucked under his body.

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Pool / Beach time

We dump our stuff in the room and head for the beach. As we make our way through the reception, a young man appears from one side, making a beeline for me with his arms outstretched. “Baby, hello, I love you, you are beautiful...” Reaching out towards me he gently caresses my camera. We get chatting and it turns out he is the in-house photographer and does indeed have camera-envy.

We leave the photographer behind and spend the rest of the afternoon / evening walking along the beach, around the pool and in the little café.

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The hotel has a beautiful private beach that stretches around the bay in a crescent shape, with plenty of activities laid on if you are into that sort of thing. We're not.

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At the risk of sounding ungrateful, I have to admit that this five-star luxury and fabulous mini-suite is all well and good; but give me a small, rustic hotel or lodge any day. This place is much too big for my liking, there are too many people, and I hate buffets with a passion. I prefer a small privately-owned place, where maybe the owner is the chef and you eat what they have that day. Something more personal where you get to know the staff and there are just a handful of guests. I don't need luxury, I want authenticity. In a large fancy hotel like this you could be anywhere in the world.

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It is not really a complaint though, just a personal preference. I understand that there are no such hotels in this region, the middle market is sadly lacking accommodation. The rest of this trip has been fault-less, and I yet again Undiscovered Destinations have done us proud. Thank you for organising this trip (and several more in the past and in the future).

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Posted by Grete Howard 01:13 Archived in Oman Tagged desert beach hotel sunrise sand pool unesco luxury camels dunes national_park sand_dunes erg unesco_heritage_site frankincense salalah camel_farm empty_quarter rub_al_khali wadi_dawkah thumrait deser archaeological_park anicent_city wubar ubar shisr al-fanar five_star Comments (2)

Sucevita - Moldovita - Marginea - Sucevita

Monasteries, painted eggs and black pottery

sunny 33 °C
View The Undiscovered East (of Europe) - Moldova, Transdniestr & Romania 2016 on Grete Howard's travel map.

Despite all the snoozing I did in the car yesterday, I slept really well last night. The room was nice and cool, the bed comfortable, and we had two single quilts rather than one double. Luxury! I have never understood people wanting to share one large duvet rather than having their own – there is always one person who hogs the covers (me – I like wrapping myself up in them), exposing the other person to the cold air; and often there is a gap in the middle. In Chișinău the duvet was exactly the same size as the bed, so that when we put two generously proportioned bodies under it, we had to bundle up in the middle in order for the quilt to cover us. Much as I love a good cuddle, I sleep way better when not snuggling up.

Anyway, I digress. In daylight this morning we can fully appreciate the architecture and surroundings of the delightful family-run Casa Felicia, a collection of traditional old cottages that have been brought together here in the village of Sucevita.

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Our room is in the right hand side of this cottage, and Andrei is staying in the other half. We have a private bathroom behind the room off a shared corridor (there are two bathrooms there, one for each of the rooms); and all around the outside of the cottage is a lovely balcony with seating.

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We take breakfast in the ‘sun room’ in the main building.

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Painted Monasteries of Bucovina

The main reason I wanted to include this part of Romania in our itinerary is the painted churches in this area, all of which have been dedicated UNESCO Heritage sites. These Medieval churches are richly decorated on external and internal walls, with scenes from the Bible to spread the word of Christianity to those unable to read or write at that time. The churches served a dual purpose - in addition to religious services they were heavily fortified with strong defensive surrounds and sheltered large armies of soldiers preparing to defend the country against Turkish invaders.

Moldovita Monastery

Dating from 1532, the paintings that adorn this Gothic-style church were completed over a five-year period, using the fresco style of adding paint to still-wet plaster.

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One of the main frescoes on the exterior walls, is the Siege of Constantinople, depicting the divine intervention of Virgin Mary during the attack by the Persian Army in 626 AD.

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It is very sad to see graffiti on such ancient and important pieces of art, even if it is from a couple of centuries ago.

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The Last Judgement covers the entire surface of the west wall around the tall arches of the entrance, featuring a river of fire with the sea giving up its dead to judgement.

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Like the exterior walls, every inch of the interior is covered with frescoes illustrating scenes from the Old Testament and the Bible.

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While photography is technically not allowed inside the church, it is explained to me that this came in to force because so many people were unable, or unwilling, to switch the flash off on their cameras, with the intense light damaging the valuable paintings. The ban is not strictly enforced and I take a couple of pictures – without flash of course.

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Egg Painting Workshop

Decorating eggs for Easter has long been a tradition in Romania that has now turned into a year-round cottage industry. We visit Gliceria Hrețiuc’s home and workshop to see it all in action.

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There are many legends and beliefs surrounded these painted eggs; here are a few of them:

  • If the Easter egg is still in one piece the following Easter without cracking, the family will be protected for the whole year.
  • Cracking eggs with friends and family at the church on Easter Sunday will ensure that you will all meet on the other side.
  • It is thought that badly decorated eggs were created so that the hens wouldn’t recognise them
  • Red eggs are traditional at Easter, symbolising the Passion of Christ - when Mary went to see her crucified son, she was carrying a basked of eggs unto which some of Jesus’ blood was spilt, colouring them red.
  • The shell of an egg is symbolic with the stone covering the grave of Jesus. Friends will crack each other’s eggs with the words “Christ is risen", to which the other will reply “Indeed he has”.

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Gliceria mostly uses ducks’ eggs because of their strong shells; and the first thing she does it is drill a hole in the bottom and pump out the centre. I guess they live on omelettes in this house!

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Duck eggs with ostrich eggs behind

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There are two ways in which she decorates her eggs; the first one is the lost wax batik-style method. Everyone around here keeps bees, so there is no shortage of beeswax.

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The wax is melted and the reservoir in a hollow stylus is filled with liquid wax and applied to the egg to cover the areas that are to remain eggshell white.

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Any mistakes can be rectified fairly easily using a razor blade.

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The eggs, complete with a pattern painted on in wax, are dipped in a colour. Once the colour is dry, subsequent layers of wax, followed by more dipping, can be applied; until she has completed the design.

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Gliceria then holds the egg over a naked flame to melt the wax (which can be re-used) to reveal the pattern underneath.

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The result is a smooth and glossy egg.

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The second method uses oil colours mixed with wax and painted directly on to the egg. This gives a very different result, with the pattern protruding from the shell creating a raised 3D effect.

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Sometimes she uses a mixture of both methods to create the effect she wants.

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She has even been known to carefully cut out parts of the shell to create an even more fragile and exquisite design.

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Gliceria shows us some quails’ eggs she has painted – such delicate and painstaking work!

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With so many beautiful eggs in Gliceria's workshop it is hard to know which to choose. I want to get some for myself as well as a gift for a good friend.

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We choose these three for ourselves

As we are leaving Gliceria’s place, we hear the sound of a steam train whistle; and sure enough, just up the road a small tourist train approaches.

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I am baffled at how any train can run on tracks so uneven!

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Many aspects of Romanian life has changed beyond all recognition since we last visited the country some twelve years ago, but the rural scenes remain the same. Agriculture dominates the landscape in this part of the country, and horse carts remain popular for transport.

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Lunch

We stop for lunch at a small road-side guest house popular with German tour groups (around 50 of them arrive as we are eating)
The food is very nice, and the outlook pretty – what more could you want?

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Bread Basket

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Ciulama de pui - chicken in smetana (soured cream) sauce with mămăligă (polenta)

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Mititei la Grătar - minced meat sausages with mustard

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Tocinei Moldovineşti - potato pancakes with smetana (soured cream) and sirene (brined cheese)

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View from our table

On the way to our next monastery, we stop to refill our water bottles at a natural spring.

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Sucevita Monastery

High walls and heavily buttressed defensive towers surround the monastic complex of Sucevita, giving it the appearance of a fortress.

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The complex was a princely residence as well as a fortified monastery.

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Sucevita is said to be the largest monastery ever to be covered in frescoes.

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One of the most noteworthy and impressive murals is that depicting the Bible story of Jacob’s Ladder; showing red-winged angels leading the righteous on their climb to heaven.

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Dating from around 1600, the paintings have retained an impressive amount of colour and detail, and is the best preserved of all the painted churches in this area.

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In 2010 the monastery was inscribed on the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites.

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Marginea Black Pottery

The pottery produced in this small village is unique in that it is the only place in the world where the black colour is obtained without any additions to the clay.

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The Magopăţ family has produced the pots in the same way since the 16th century – hand turned and fired in a coal furnace.

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Around sixty families practised the art in Marginea up until the communist era, when it became illegal to own a pottery wheel. Many families chose to give up the trade and only a couple continued to practise the art surreptitiously.

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Today it is a thriving business, with tourists from all over the world visiting. We buy a small mask to add to our ever-growing collection.

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While Andrei goes off to try and find a traditional embroidered blouse for a friend, we sit in the shade with a jug of home made lemonade each.

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Very tart, the lemonade is served with sugar sachets to sweeten to taste. This is exactly ‘what the doctor ordered’ on a hot day.

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Chill Time

We go back to Casa Felicia for some free time.

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When we find they don’t sell beer, Andrei goes off in the car to get us a can each. Good man.

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As we sit on the balcony surrounding our cottage and sip our cold beverage, the owner arrives with his horse and a cart-load of firewood.

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I had no idea it was even possible to reverse a horse and cart. Until today, that is.

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Having offloaded the wood, the horse is once more put out to graze and the cart stored again for next time.

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Dinner

Simple but delicious home cooking is the order of the day here at Casa Felicia.

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Noodle soup

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Pork meatballs

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Vegetables and noodles

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Plum slice

Lots of home made red wine and some horincă, a double distilled moonshine.

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While David finds the pure alcohol rather too strong, I love it and have a little too much. Andrei and I get into a deep and heated but extremely interesting discussion, about anything and everything, from childhood memories through European history to cooking, culture, religion and politics.

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Having ‘put the world to rights’, we retire to bed after yet another fascinating day in Romania. Thank you Undiscovered Destinations for arranging this trip.

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Posted by Grete Howard 02:31 Archived in Romania Tagged beer travel church train sleep monastery unesco europe photography frescoes soup haystack pottery eggs noodles kiln quilt legends eastern_europe bucovina meatballs discussions duvet smetana casa_felicia sucevita unesco_heritage_site painted_monasteries egg_painting easter_eggs gliceria_hretjiuc red_eggs christ_is_risen steam_train spring_water horse_drawn_cart ciulama_de_pui mititei_la_grătar tocinei tocinei_moldovinesti peninsuea_valcan marginea black_pottery marginea_black_pottery moonshine horinca how_to_reverse_a_horse Comments (0)

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