I’m lucky enough be a well traveled person for my age, I’ve seen many places but Qatar stays one of the most beautiful I’ve seen and let me tell you why.
When I went to Qatar for the first time I had just turned 18. I had only visited European countries. Each one of them with its uniqueness and beauty but with a common thread. I wasn’t really conscious about the fact that the world had to offer me so much more besides Europe. Cultures so different from mine, dresses and habits I’ve never seen and never heard of.. The Middle East.
I was in Doha for a conference, so my time there was tight and I had to work as well, but the glimpses I got left me such a good memory and a willing to go back again.
I remember being in that plane, a 7 hour flight to a country I didn’t know at all. The first Arabian country I ever went to and, completely alone. I won’t hide I was a little scared. The liberal European culture so instilled in me made me have some prejudices, a misperception of what was waiting and how the world worked on this side of the planet. Man, was I wrong.
You see I believe this is the purpose of travel itself: coming first hand to know about places, people, cultures. Challenge your ideas and learn, change your mind: grow. Let the world teach you a lesson and leave you in awe.
From my window seat all I could see was just desert, infinite lands of nothing but red sand. Some flashes of light now and then. As we were approaching Doha I could start seeing some life. There were so many lights on the sea, probably a lot of them coming from oil tankers companies, you couldn’t really see where the land finished and the sea began. I was trembling with excitement.
I finally got up, put a scarf around my neck and got out of the plane in one of the most luxurious airport in the world: Hamad International. I have this way of thinking that an airport is kind of like the card of a place, it already tells you something about it. And that card was already giving me a high expectations. This airport is giant, I suggest you to never be late for a flight here, because to go from one side to the other you may actually need an Uber for how big it is. And it’s one of the most well organized and comfortable airport I’ve seen. And that’s not an overstatement, I definitely don’t take airports ranting lightly as I’m obsessed with them.
Hamad Airport has so much art all around. Indeed the idea behind was to let it be inspired by an oasis in the desert: water games and fountains and art displayed on videos are all around. It’s not the kind of airport you just pass by without even realizing it. So what can I say? It started off already with a good impression.
As soon as I stepped outside my glasses fogged up. That’s how hot it was. I got the same feeling as when you get out of the shower and the air around you is humid and warm. Even though I love hot weather, especially if it’s all year long my first thought was: how do they even manage? And how do they manage with those dresses?
Qatari men dress with the ‘thoub’ and the ‘ghutra’, a sort of a long white shirt that has to be perfectly clean and ironed. Indeed they wear it to honor their culture. Women instead wear long and beautiful ‘abbayah’, usually made from silk, and a veil or a burqa over their head. Everything around me was already so different, for once I felt you could really spot me as the tourist here.
My stay was in an university so I didn’t have high expectations, I was wrong once again. The ‘Hamad Bin Khalifa University’ was more like a 5 stars hotel: luxurious. But soon I would have learned that everything in Qatar is actually luxurious. Big decorated doors, fountains and massive chandeliers. And my ‘dorm’ was a dream as well. I think you can say a lot of a country from how they treat their students and how serious they take universities.
They recently built a whole ‘Education City Centre’ that consists of a great green area of 14 square kilometers, used for sports, facilities and lots of buildings created with the idea of easing an interaction between universities, students and citizens in general. Maybe an uncommon place to visit but definitely stop by if in Qatar!
On the first day I had time off I visited Katara which is the ‘cultural village’. Just the idea behind this place already amazed me: a spot for multicultural exchanges dedicated to culture, art, music. The name is the one the state of Qatar used to have during ancient times, indeed the aim is to create a place “where the grace of the past meets the splendor of the future.” And so it is: theaters, music halls, shops, beautiful buildings and art exhibitions and festivals are here.
Here, I had a typical dinner, and oh my god the food.
When I travel I’m always worried to eat new food because you never know how your stomach is gonna react and you never want to risk anything when you’re on the move. But it looked so delicious that I had to give it a try. And once you try this food, I’m sorry to tell you but there’s no going back so think carefully before doing it: it is so tasty, so delicious that everything you ever ate before just taste bland now. And this is coming from an Italian person. The colors, the smells and even the way they eat is so different. I loved every second of it.
Try one of the typical plates called Machboos: rice cooked with different spices and meats. Or Thareed which is vegetables cooked with lamb or chicken and at the bottom, the bread that soaked in all of the above, damn it was good. A thing locals are obsessed with is Karak tea, prepared boiling together black tea, milk, sugar and a spice called cardamom. Personally not a fan, but it seems to give you great energy.
One night I decided to go for a stroll in Souq Waqif. This is the market place, but not just a simple one, it is the oldest. You walk in between gusts of narghile sweet perfume, bags of spices, colorful clothes hanged outside. It’s one of the main tourist attractions but locals hang here as well, and it’s the perfect way to interact with the Qatari culture.
Vendors sit outside showing their goods on carpets. Some of them work in front on you on their beautiful jewelry or offer you to let you pet a falcon. They are all very nice and welcoming, I never met one person in Qatar who was rude to me in any way. I think they are generous and multicultural people who definitely know how to host visitors from all over the world. Indeed everyone spoke English at least a little bit. And the words I learned right away were ‘sukran’ which translates to ‘thank you’ and ‘inshallah’ which means ‘if God wills it’.
One of the must see is also the Museum of Islamic art. This museum is gorgeous. Not just because of the art inside but because it’s a gem also from the outside. The architecture in Qatar mixes together audacious buildings yet with a minimalist style, enough to blend in with the desert constructions. The colors are pale, reminding you of the sand and they are perfectly complementary with the blue horizon.
It is located on a little island made with sole purpose of hosting this museum, crowned by a green area around. Arches meet the water in the artificial ponds that give you the oasis feeling. I guess it’s just comforting to see water when it is always so hot.
As I said before, luxurious is a common adjective in Qatar, but if you want to see this adjective come to life then head to ‘The Pearl’. It is an icon in the country, an island with gardens, beaches, restaurants and boutiques. Here a Maserati is your average car and yachts are all around. I suggest you especially the Qanat Quartier with its bridges and canals giving you a Venice feeling.
And last but not least take a walk to the Doha corniche. It is a long walk with a great view of the skyline. When I look at Doha skyline it makes me giggle a bit to think of all the attention 30 St Mary Axe gets in London. I mean for sure, it is a beautiful building, but here every building has this level of beauty, detail, effort. There is not a a single one that can go unnoticed. I recommend taking a walk at night when all the buildings are lit up with different colors and dhows sail the sea making it a perfect picture that I think it’s very representative of Qatar.
It seems that everything here is perfectly cured in the details. A mix of western and eastern influences. New but yet conscious of their roots. Bold and traditional at the same time. That is what I love. It may be a little state in Persian gulf, but Qatar it’s the gem of it.
(Cover and Museum Photos by Flavius Torcea on Unsplash)