It’s edgy. Rough. Exciting. And it’ll make for a hell of a vacation. Make a leap down the Arabian Peninsula and visit Sanaa, Yemen for a weekend. Bet you it’ll change your perspective.
The flight into the country is worth the price. A gentle Saudi coastline gives way to the jagged mountains of west Yemen. The plane glides into the plateau the country’s capital sits on, and before long you’re facing a dizzying crowd of taxi drivers jockeying for your business.
If you want to stay at a mid-level hotel, head to the Mercure (Al-Zubery Street, 967-1-212-544). It’s comfortable, affordable, right in the middle of the city, but by no means luxurious.
If you want to stay at the best, try the Movenpick (Berlin Street, 967-1-546-666) on a hill overlooking the city. With a pool, a gym, great rooms, and an opulent reception, it’s the spot for anyone with money to spare.
Once you drop your bags in the morning, catch a taxi to Bab El-Yemen, the impressive gate to Sanaa’s old city. Stroll through the gate and prepare to get lost. This is a bazaar at its finest. Streets lined with fabric vendors weave through lanes of food stalls and rows of antique stores.
Make sure you take in the architecture. It’s stunning and unique. Spend the afternoon poking in stores, trying various foods that local vendors will be sure to offer you bites of, and look for lost treasures in the antique stores.
But most importantly, find yourself a jambiya, traditional daggers that most Yemeni men wear around their waists. In the capital itself, it’s likely the jambiyas will be the only signs of a militarized country you’ll encounter. A campaign over recent years to rid the Sanaa streets of guns has proven largely successful.
The old city is dotted with jambiya shops, so look around. Ask about the different designs. Shape of the blade, intricacy of the belt, and color of the sheathe all speak to which part of Yemen the jambiya is from. Make your purchase, and put a tag on it reminding you not to take it carry-on for your return flight.
Next, ask some locals to help you find the qat market on the edge of the old city. Qat is the local narcotic, common in places like Yemen, Somalia, and Djibouti. If you go to the market in the mid to late afternoon, you’ll find the place teeming with vendors, guarding small bags of green leaves.
If you’re into this sort of thing, or can justify it based on the need to experience Yemeni culture, buy a bag and sit back with some locals, chewing and chatting the afternoon away.
If that’s not your scene, spend the late afternoon taking in some of new Sanaa to see how most urban Yemenis live.
Grab a quick kebab in the old market for dinner. You’ll be serenaded with sights, smells, and music sure to leave you reeling.
Get going early the next morning. It’s going to be a long day. It’s time to venture outside the capital, so order up a driver from your concierge.
Daily News Egypt isn’t in the business of putting its loyal readers in any more danger than is necessary (don’t hold your breath for 48 hours in Kandahar), so we won’t recommend Yemen’s most scenic spot, the Hadramout.
Instead, go west. Make a couple of hours drive through some of the most rugged terrain you’ll ever encounter. Paved roads labor up mountains and through passes. Steppe farming lines the hillsides. Fortresses dot hilltops, reminding you of Yemen’s tribal history.
Drive until you get to the town of Kawkaban, perched high on a hilltop. It’s an ancient city, and a stroll through it will put you back centuries. Visit the ancient water cisterns, take in some of the stunning architecture, and marvel at the views.
Afterwards, drive back down the mountain to the town of Shibam (not to be confused with the famous Shibam in east Yemen). Stop by Hameda’s for lunch. Sit on the floor in one of the reception rooms. Don’t order. Let the staff bring you anything they want. Eggs, breads, vegetables, meats. Yemeni food is unlike any other on earth, so savor it.
On your way back to Sanaa, stop by Wadi Dahr, a classic Yemeni house built in the 18th century. What’s remarkable about this country manor turned museum is that it’s perched on a towering pillar of rock. Visit the rooms of the museum, taking in some of the relics and old photos.
When you get back to Sanaa, have your driver drop you at any one of the three Al-Shaibani restaurants on Hadda road. It’s local and informal, but it is the quintessential Yemeni dining experience.
You’ll get some of the same dishes you had at lunch. But add salta to the list, a simmering spicy meat stew, and ask for their signature charred fish.
When you’re finished be sure to ask to visit the kitchen for an extraordinary glimpse at the fire and cauldrons that keep the restaurant running.
Head back to the hotel, get a good night’s sleep, and get ready to fly back in the morning to the comfort of Cairo.