Saturday, August 30, 2008

Cat at Mutrah Souk, Muscat, Oman

I photographed this cat at the souk, in front of a stall selling Indian shawls. You would be that skinny too if you lived off scraps at a market, in 120F heat.

Souk Cat at Mutrah Souk, Oman

More posts on Muscat:

Friday, August 29, 2008

London at Night

There are some spectacular photos of London at night on

Typographical heroes

What traveler has not wished they could fix a sign that says "Taxi's" or "Drive Slow"? [well, this one has anyway].

The Boston Globe reports that "a man from Somerville, Mass., and his friend who went around the country this year removing typographical errors from public signs have been banned from national parks". One of the signs they fixed was 60 years old, proving that bad grammar is not a new thing, but also landing them in trouble with the law.

The moral of the story is: when traveling, resist the temptation to fix signs if that sign is 60 years old and is in a US national park.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

The Jealous Wall

I grew up not far from Ireland's largest folly, the Jealous Wall in the grounds of Belvedere House near Mullingar in County Westmeath. The Jealous Wall is an enormous pretend ruin built by the owner of Belvedere House to block the view of the neighbouring house, where his brother lived.

From :

"The story of the Jealous Wall and the sadness and cruelty that surrounded the lives of the Rochfort family, is well known. The first Earl of Belvedere, Robert Rochfort, married the young and beautiful Mary Molesworth. After she bore several children he locked her up aged 20 in his old family home at Gaulstown, for suspected adultery.

She remained a prisoner for the better part of her life, and was only released on the death of her tyrannical husband. It is said that he erected the Jealous Wall to block out the view of his brother's nearby mansion, Tudenham, because he suspected him of fancying his wife too. It is one of several remarkable follies which may be seen in the parkland at Belvedere."

Here is a photograph of it:

Jealous Wall, Ireland's largest folly

If you're in Westmeath, or passing through on a drive between Dublin and Galway, it's making a detour to tour Belvedere House, shown in the photo below. There is also a good small museum there, with a craft shop, kids petting zoo, and a cafe.

Belvedere House

[ Cross posted to Boston Irish ]

[My photo of the Jealous Wall is featured on the excellent Wikihow guide to stop being jealous ]

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

A watery end

Coming from Ireland, where this sign is quite a common sight, I've never found it particularly funny. But, I've noticed that American visitors to Ireland always find it hilarious. So, for the benefit of American readers of this blog, here is an Irish "Danger - Deep Water - Open Quay" sign photographed at a lock on the Shannon river at the town of Termonbarry between Roscommon and Westmeath.

Shannon lock

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Aix-en-Provence, France

Aix-en-Provence is enviably situated on the South of France, with great weather in the summer, close to the Mediterranean and the mountains, though with cooler weather in the winter (due to the mistral).

There is also, interestingly, a cluster of high-tech companies in the area. Well, it is interesting for me because, as someone in the high-tech business, I naturally think "hey, I could move here!" Many high-tech companies can locate anywhere, but need to be beside a pool of talent. The talent itself can move too, but will gravitate towards a very pleasant place like the South of France. That may partly explain why this high-tech cluster is here.

View Larger Map

In Aix-en-Provence I recommend the Hotel Cezanne. While there, I conducted myself entirely in French, and not once did the staff reply to me in English :-)


The centre of the town features this warm-water natural spring fountain, covered in moss:


Near the fountain, there are many restaurants, some with impressive seafood displays. I ate at this one, but at the time I didn't notice the cook about to jump from an upstairs window:


The hotel de ville, seen on the left below, flies the Provencal, French, and European flags:


Although there are many fine museums and galleries around Aix-en-Provence, I recommend just strolling around its many squares and streets, choosing a good looking restaurant, ordering wine, and just spending the evening enjoying the surroundings.


Monday, August 25, 2008

Muscat Oman - Day 5: Beach and Mountains

Just south of Muscat, there are some beautiful beaches and rugged mountains. Many resorts are sprouting up here, such as the Shangri-La Barr Al Jissah Resort, which would suit families or couples. In fact, an ideal family holiday in the region would combine the natural beauty of Oman with the excitement of Dubai. When in Muscat on holiday, it makes a lot of sense to stay at one of the new resorts south of the city, and then from there make trips into the city to view the Sultan's Palace and Mutrah Souk.

To give a flavour, here is a beach near a dive center south of Muscat, where you can rent or buy scuba, canoeing, or snorkeling equipment:


The beaches are quiet, with clear water and the ever-present backdrop of dusty, rugged hills.

Beach in Oman

If you drive up into the hills, you see the white buildings of Muscat in the distance:


No prizes for guessing where the beach is here....


If you stay north of Muscat (between the airport and Muscat) a good option is the Chedi Spa and Hotel.

More posts on Muscat:

Friday, August 22, 2008

Muscat Oman - Day 4: The Sultan's Palace

The Sultan's Palace in is located in Old Muscat, which you reach if you follow the Corniche at Mutrah south, and continue south to a semicircular natural harbour.

In this harbour, you can see old graffiti left by British sailors over 100 years ago. Guarding the harbour, you can see two forts: Al Jalali on the left and Al Mirani on the right. This panoramic video shows the harbour, the front of the Sultan's palace, and the two forts.

The fort on the left, Al Jalai, is floodlit at night:

Fort near the Sultan's Palace, Muscat

The Al Mirani fort is also flootlit, and is beside an intricately designed mosque:

Sultan's Palace, Muscat

Here is the front of the Sultan's Palace itself. Really, the palace is not one building but a complex of buildings, and they are mostly used for ceremonial and hospitality purposes, rather than as an actual residence.

Sultan's Palace, Muscat

From the harbour you can walk around to the other part of the palace, the part which faces the mountains not the sea. At this side, there is a courtyard, and you can see that the back of the main building has a similar facade to the front.

Sultan's Palace, Muscat

Here is a panoramic video taken in the courtyard, showing the surrounding buildings and the mountain backdrop:

Within the palace complex, this mosque has a tower reminiscent of an Anglican church steeple (the Sultan was educated in England, so maybe that is the connection, since that tower would not look too out of place in an English town).

In the grounds of the Sultan's Palace, Muscat

Dotted in the mountains you can see the old forts:

Sultan's Palace, Muscat

I wonder what is behind this door...

Sultan's Palace, Muscat

As you can probably tell from the photographs, the Sultan's Palace is very quiet and peaceful. It is not like walking around Buckingham Palace or the White House. You feel like you might be the only person there (and, indeed you might, since the Sultan does not actually live there, and spends a lot of time traveling around Oman such as on his "meet the people" trips).

If you plan to get a taxi back to your hotel (or to a restaurant, or to the Mutrah Souk) then be aware that there are no busy roads near the palace, so you have to walk up past the Al Mirani fort to a road to flag down a taxi. And, bring water because there are no shops in the area to buy refreshments. This caught me out when I visited, and I ended up walking, thirsty, in the heat looking for a taxi for a good 15 minutes.

Close to the Sultan's Palace, and worth a quick look, is the Omani-French Museum containing models of ships, traditional weapons (the ubiquitous Omani dagger), and clothes.

More posts on Muscat:

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Muscat Oman - Day 3: A walk along Mutrah Corniche

This post follows on from yesterday's post about the Mutrah Souk, which is on the Mutrah Corniche. But in this post, I'll describe a walk along the Corniche and along by the winding seaside road which leads to the Sultan's Palace.

The Mutrah Corniche starts near the old Muscat Gates. Until 1970, when the current Sultan became ruler of Oman, these gates were closed at sunset. Unless you carried a lantern to light your face, you were not allowed in. However, the current Sultan modernized Oman and there is now a road which bypasses the gates. Touchingly, though, the gates are still locked at sundown. In other ways, the Sultan kept Oman traditional, such as forbidding tall buildings, and requiring that buildings are the traditional white colour.

Start from near the Muscat Gates and walk along the Corniche. When you walk along the Corniche, heading towards the Souk entrance, you see this ornate mosque on your right:

Muscat, Oman

Looking to the left, to the harbour, you'll see dhow boats like this one:

Dhow boat, Muscat, Oman

These dhows are largely unchanged since the days of the Omani Empire, covering part of East Africa. These dhows sail to East Africa, India, and Pakistan trading goods.

Follow the curve of the corniche , past the Mutrah Souk, and past some sculptures. In the photo below, you can see some people swimming from a gold-domed pagoda:

Mutrah Corniche, Muscat, Oman

Looking into the water, I saw many small fish. Given that many boats use the harbour, I'd recommend swimming down at the beaches south of Muscat instead (which will be the subject of a future blog entry).

Muscat, Oman

Now look up to the right. You'll see this old Portuguese fort. If you walk around the harbour as far as the Sultan's palace (a long walk! you might prefer to take a taxi) you'll see more forts like this.

Old fort, Muscat, Oman

Turning the corner, you can see the statue of a frankincense burner ahead:

Muscat, Oman

At this point, you might feel worn out in the Omani heat. Once you see these fountains you might be tempted to run under them! But, there is a stall selling soft drinks close by, so you don't have to resort to that.


Given the heat in Oman, you set out on this walk in the evening when it is relatively comfortable to walk around. In this case, you'll see the fort and monuments floodlit. Here is a panorama video of the Mutrah Corniche, beginning with the Portuguese fort, moving past the souk and the mosque, and then finally stopping pointing where the old Muscat Gates are:

More posts on Muscat:

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Muscat Oman - Day 2: Mutrah Souk

The Souk at Mutrah (Arabic pronunciation closer to "Matrah", and sometimes spelt "Muttrah") is one of the best places to visit in Oman. It is located on the Corniche (curved waterside road). The souk consists of many small stalls selling all kinds of goods (jewelery, clothes, spices). I'm always pleased to see that the souk is frequented by far more locals than tourists, as it sells basic staples as well as the tourist staples of frankinsense and dishdashas. Many local families seem to go there for a nice walk and browse after dark when the temperatures are not so hot. The afternoon is usually too hot for doing much, which is why the souk closes from 1pm to 4pm.

The ornate entrance to the Souk is shown below. If you're walking down the corniche, you can't miss it. Also, all taxi drivers know exactly where it is.

Entrance to Mutrah Souk, Oman

The souk itself consists of a warren of covered indoor streets, with stalls at either side, as you can see in the next two photographs.

Mutrah Souk, Muscat, Oman


There are stalls on the outside of the souk buildings, and in the background you can see one of the many old Portuguese forts in the area, and on the left a mosque:



Haggling in the souk is expected, and you can expect to take at least 30% off the offered price but still have the feeling that you may have overpaid. Still, it's a great experience and definitely one of the highpoint of any trip to Oman.

If you want to see more of Mutrah Souk, and Oman in general, then I highly recommend Ahmed Al-Shukaili's photographs.

Other posts about Muscat:

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Muscat Oman - Day 1: Orientation, First Impressions, Hotels,

This is the first in a series of posts about the Sultanate of Oman. I have visited Oman many times over the past few years, and seen it move from tourism obscurity to hip destination. When I first visited Oman, I would have scoffed at the idea of holidaying there. But, now it has got to the point where I confidently recommended Oman as a family holiday destination to a fellow Irish person stranded in Atlanta last year.

First Impressions

For most people who are not geography experts, the first impression of Oman comes from a map. When you find it, shaped like a rotated California and sitting there beside Saudi Arabia and across the Strait of Hormuz from Iran, you think "oh that's where it is". But, you may also think "is it safe there?" [The good news is that it is indeed safe, read on...].

View Larger Map

Before I traveled to Oman, I knew Muscat primarily from seeing it on departures boards at Heathrow, where the name itself conjured up an image of an impossibly exotic destination. The truth is not far off.

When you land at Muscat's Seeb airport, you leave the plane on a walkway and walk to a bus. Most flights arrive in the evening, when it is dark. If you arrive in the summer, during that short walk from the plane to the bus you may think "If it's this hot after dark, how hot must it get during the day?". And you would be right. It gets very hot in the summer. But, other seasons are more comfortable, and in fact the southern part of Oman gets much rain in the winter months and, during that monsoon season, can look more like England's Somerset than the Middle East.

Most visitors first must buy an visa (approx $20) using foreign currency or a credit card. You then queue up customs/immigration, get your passport stamped, and collect your bags.

When I first visited Oman, there was no system of set prices for taxi trips from the airport to hotels. I knew one German friend who was ripped off, but as he pointed out, he did not notice because the cost of the trip was what he would have paid in Europe. The real cost should have been much less. Now, there is a system of fixed costs for hotels, so you can't be ripped off.

As you drive south from the airport to Muscat, you pass a very impressive mosque, your first introduction to the often beautiful Omani mosque architecture.


Where to stay

Then you arrive at your hotel. I can only speak for hotels I've stayed at, so here are my recommendations:

The Sheraton Muscat is in Ruwi which is primarily a business area. It has a famous all-you-can-eat seafood feast every Wednesday, a small gift shop (postcards, Omani perfume) and a small bar (bars in Oman really only exist in hotels). I watched key games of the 2006 World Cup at this hotel, sitting in big armchairs along with many locals, watching the games on a big screen which the staff setup in a large conference room. Good times.


When you enter the Sheraton Muscat, you are immediately struck by the smell of frankincense, which is the ubiquitous smell in Oman. It is burnt in the hotel lobby.

The Radisson SAS is located in Al Khuwair .Al Khuwair has some shops, including a good perfume shop, within walking distance of the hotel. However, if you walk then you have to negotiate a road which has no visible means of crossing.

Radisson SAS hotel in Muscat, Oman

This hotel has a great pool which I've shown below [the Sheraton also has a pool, but I prefered the one at the Radisson]. The photo is a microcosm of Oman, with the pool, then the mosque, then the low-slung white buildings, then the dusty bare hills.

Radisson SAS hotel in Muscat, Oman

Both the Sheraton and the Radisson SAS are in city locations. In many countries, this means hustle and bustle. But, most of Muscat is very quiet. The following photo captures a typical scene, with the sand, many sedate white buildings, not many people walking, and a preponderance of roundabouts. For most people, this is boring. So, a good option is to stay south of Muscat at the beaches.


South of Muscat, at the beaches, there is the Al-Bustan Palace Hotel. This is probably too expensive for a family holiday, but is very nice.


The Shangri-La Aj Jissah resort is great for the beach (and swimming pools too, see below). It is also, in my option, a great option for families with children. The dive school is close by, and you can view turtles on nearby beaches, and drive inland for desert safaris (or "dune bashing").


The first thing to do when you get to your hotel

Order a cool refreshing mint lemon drink. These always seem to taste better in Oman than anywhere else.


What (not) to wear

If you're wondering what to wear in Oman, read this blog post on "What to wear in muscat, Oman. for all'ya'all tourists".

More posts on Oman:

Monday, August 18, 2008

Obama merchandise spotted in Harvard Square, Cambridge:

Last week I was browsing through Obama gear in Denver, in the run-up to the Democratic National Convention. But in the US the stuff is everywhere. Obamamania has officially jumped the shark from politics to pop culture. Much of it is knowing and ironic, such as this Barack Obama "Action Figure we can believe in":

But some is more earnest. Here is a children's book about Barack Obama:

Sample page:

In Ireland, the nation is swooning over another report about Barack Obama's Irish roots (Dublin now, as well as Offaly).

Streetside vendors across the US also sell many knock-off Obama shirts. The Boston Globe covered Obama-themed merchandise in its Sunday edition:

The Obama cargo cult is vast, stretching from quirky online precincts, where action figures in his senatorial likeness and replicas of his Number 23 high-school basketball jersey are readily available, to the outskirts of high style. Paparazzi last year caught actress Halle Berry in a $46 "Obama for Change" shirt, and these days fashion-forward Tokyo teenagers promenade past an Obama shirt hanging prominently in a shop window in the trendy Harajuku neighborhood.

But nowhere has the presumptive Democratic nominee's unusual persistence in consumer culture been felt as strongly as in the informal urban economy, where his candidacy is delivering an unexpected summertime jolt.

In downtown business districts and uptown commercial corridors, wares with Obama's words and image - and even items with no real connection to his campaign, but bearing his name nonetheless - are taking space on vendors' tables that once were reserved for sports and hip-hop icons.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

If you're in Cambridge MA, male, and short of things to do...

I guess Cambridge MA = Harvard + MIT, and therefore a good place to pick up high-achieving sperm. But, there is something unsettling about those sperm swimming towards that dollar sign...

[ Crossposted to Boston Irish ]

Friday, August 15, 2008

You know you're in the American South when....

You see biscuits and gravy for breakfast.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Gearing up for Obama in Denver

In a store today in Denver, a shop assistant lifted some boxes and asked her colleague "is this more Democrat garbage?".

When I was in Boston at the time of the last Democratic National Congress, I don't remember there being this level of merchandising. Denver is clearly the place to get your Democrat collectibles/garbage, depending on your perspective.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Shiny new buildings by leading architects

What do Salford (Manchester, UK), Cambridge (Massachusetts), Dubai, Bahrain, and Denver have in common? The answer is "Shiny new buildings by leading architects".

Denver has the Denver Art Museum, a joint venture by Studio Daniel Libeskind and Brit Probst of Davis Partnership Architects. It is intended to kick-start a cultural quarter, although when I visited I found the museum felt cut off from its surroundings, forcing me to cross wide roads to walk to it. It didn't feel like it was in a quarter like, say, the Reina SofĂ­a in Madrid. But it certainly is impressive:


And from the side:


The New York Times remarked that the building "looks oddly familiar". With so many similar new buildings being thrown up around the world, "it’s as if you’ve seen the same building again and again. ". That is somewhat elitist, given that most people do not travel the world photographing shiny new oddly-shaped buildings. But, that said, I am one of the people who does travel the world photographing shiny new oddly-shaped buildings, so here are some "oddly familiar" buildings I have photographed:

This is the Imperial War Museum North, in Salford (Manchester) UK. This was Daniel Libeskind's first building in Britain.


The Imperial War Museum North resembles, to me at least, a World War One tank. Nearby there is The Lowry, designed by Michael Wilford and Buro Happold.


The Lowry houses many of the "stick people" paintings by LS Lowry. I feel that the impact of The Lowry is lessened by the fact that there is a "Lowry Outlet Center" right beside it!


In Cambridge Massachusetts there is the Stata Center, designed by Frank Gehry and recently in the news because of leaks.


In Dubai, there is the Burj al Arab, shaped like a sail. I feel that this building really works, there is nothing gimmicky about it.

Burj al Arab, Dubai

Also in the Middle East, the Bahrain World Trade Center complex includes integrated windmills. Now this is a little bit gimmicky, but it certainly saves money and fossil fuel energy.


The complex consists of two buildings, but viewed from a distance, they look like one. Clever stuff.


If anyone wants to share pictures or links of other interestingly shaped modern buildings, use the comments form below...