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“In Saudi Arabia, What impressed Me the Most was People’s Kindness”

Opinion - Marc Nouss
Un artisan au festival de Janadriyah © Marc Nouss

Un artisan au festival de Janadriyah © Marc Nouss

Marc Nouss is a French photographer specialized in travel. It is undoubtedly this quality that makes his Instagram register almost 100,000 subscribers. And it is undoubtedly the latter that earned hiù an invitation to the Winter at Tantora festival in Saudi Arabia. As the kingdom prepares to open its doors to tourism, Marc testifies to this first tourist experience lived alongside us, the KAWA team being also invited to the festivities.

When I was contacted and offered to spend 5 days in Saudi Arabia, my feelings were quite divided. On the one hand, I was annoyed to promote a historically closed and rather conservative destination, and on the other hand, excited to go to a country that very few people have had the opportunity to visit, and which has recently opened up to tourism.

After having discussed it with my entourage, I opted for the second solution, in particular by the desire to form an opinion of this country by myself, to see beyond the clichés, to also support this desire to open up to other countries, and finally because I had already heard about the Al-Ula desert, where the Madâ’In Saleh site is located, seen some photos, and I really wanted to discover this through my own eyes !

A café in the middle of the desert © Marc Nouss
A café in the middle of the desert © Marc Nouss

Moreover, the culture and discovery program has finally convinced me, we are far from the political or religious side, and that suits me perfectly.

Janadriyah or “The Universal Exposition”

So here I am on my way to Riyadh, with two different festivals on the agenda for two days.

At the MiSK Foundation Pavilion in Janadriyah © Marc Nouss
At the MiSK Foundation Pavilion in Janadriyah © Marc Nouss

The first day is the Janadriyah Festival, a kind of World Expo made in Saudi Arabia. First of all, I discover the MiSK Foundation, Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s non-profit organization, which serves to highlight the country’s cultural heritage and its young creative talents on all sides. For my part, I spent a lot of time admiring the photos exhibited and taken by young artists.

The ardah, traditional Saudi dance © Marc Nouss
The ardah, traditional Saudi dance © Marc Nouss

MiSK’s representatives took care of us all day long, to take us to every corner of the festival. This is an opportunity to discover much more about the country, its traditions, its architecture, its cuisine, its dances, with some variations according to the different regions. It was an instructive day, rich in encounters and culinary discoveries as well!

Winter Day Out, the “Christmas market” with a Saudi twist

The second day will focus on another, smaller festival. It is Riyadh’s Winter Day Out, which could be compared to a large Christmas market in our country, with many chalets, food stands, cafés, but also a children’s area and a show stage! And it is the latter that is of great importance, because we are attending a Frank Sinatra concert! OK, not the real one, but his physical and vocal doppleganger, as well as a very nice orchestra.

The stands of the Winter Day Out of Riyadh © Marc Nouss
The stands of the Winter Day Out of Riyadh © Marc Nouss

Its importance comes from the fact that until a few months ago, this type of gathering, a concert, was prohibited. Which is therefore a great and beautiful novelty, and I was delighted to see couples, families, single people, or friends come to share a moment of relaxation all together.

Frank in Person & The Skyline Orchestra in concert at the Winter Day Out in Riyadh © Marc Nouss
Frank in Person & The Skyline Orchestra in concert at the Winter Day Out in Riyadh © Marc Nouss

What impressed me the most during these two days (but also during the whole trip), was the kindness of the Saudi individuals I met! Everyone is really very friendly and smiling, and it really touched me.

Madâ’In Saleh and its tombs

Day 3, day trip with departure for the Al-Ula desert, at a 1h30 flight from Riyadh.

The Elephant Rock © Marc Nouss
The Elephant Rock © Marc Nouss

We’re going for the Winter at Tantora festival. We had barely time to settle down at Shaden Resort, a rather incredible tent complex in the middle of the canyons in the desert, and here we go to discover the Elephant Rock (I think you’ll understand the name by looking at the pictures) for a very pretty sunset, then for the famous Tantora house, a small monument serving as a sundial to determine the winter solstice.

The next day was D-Day for me! We visited the desert of Al-Ula and Madâ’In Saleh! I first heard about this Nabatean vestige (-100 BC) about a year ago. And then during my previous trip to Jordan, and Petra in particular, I became a little more interested in the Nabataeans then.

The tombs of Madâ'in Saleh © Marc Nouss
The tombs of Madâ’in Saleh © Marc Nouss

So I was really looking forward to it! And I can tell you that I really wasn’t disappointed! A desert as far as the eye can see, where Al-Ula station is located in the middle of nowhere. And all these tombs, built in the rock, are incredible, and there are 140 of them! There are sometimes dozens of them on the same rock, on the ground, at a height!

And then came the wonder, the one called Al-Fareed (the Only One in English), which puts you down with its beauty and immensity. I think that in a few years’ time, this facade will be as well known as Al-Khazneh (the Treasury) of Petra in Jordan.

Al-Fareed Rock © Marc Nouss
Al-Fareed Rock © Marc Nouss

Really incredible by its size and its particularity to be built in this huge rock away from everything!

Concert, buggies and helicopter tour

To recover from my emotions, nothing beats a concert in the evening, in the middle of the desert. In a kind of cube coming out of nowhere, covered with mirrors, really very original to see.

Maraya, the impressive mirror building in the Al-Ula desert © Marc Nouss
Maraya, the impressive mirror building in the Al-Ula desert © Marc Nouss

The concert was performed by Omar Khairat, an Egyptian composer and pianist, a musical legend of the Arab world. I was thinking that after such a day, the next one would be a little less exciting.

Omar Khayrat's concert in Al-Ula © Marc Nouss
Omar Khayrat’s concert in Al-Ula © Marc Nouss

And then finally not at all! This last day was by far the coolest! Buggy in the desert all morning, one of the coolest things I’ve ever done in my life! Feeling a little bit like Mad Max is kinda stylish! And then the discovery of landscapes was amazing! And then, an hour and a half helicopter ride over all of Al-Ula! The best! With a flyover of Madâ’In Saleh, Al-Fareed for unique photos taken from the sky!

Aerial view of Madâ'in Saleh © Marc Nouss
Aerial view of Madâ’in Saleh © Marc Nouss

A beautiful discovery

After that, all I had to do was reach the airport, to return to Paris, with stars in my eyes (and sand in my sneakers!)

A short break after a buggy raid in the desert © Marc Nouss
A short break after a buggy raid in the desert © Marc Nouss

Apart from all these sublime landscapes, what I’ll really remember from this trip is, as mentioned above, people’s kindness and smiles. It’s really incredible! But also to have gone beyond the usual clichés that we can hear about this country, from the media and especially from people who have never set foot in it!

It was a very beautiful discovery and I hope to have the opportunity to return one day to discover even more!