Sitting in a black Bedouin tent in the middle of the Arabian desert, I nibble on hot, freshly made flatbread soaked in lamb fat.
‘This was the staple food of the Bedouins, along with dates,’ says our host, handsome in flowing white robes.
“On special occasions they slaughtered a goat. Desert hospitality requires that if a stranger comes to your camp, you must feed and water him for three days.”
Touches of dyspeptic camel waft in; outside I see a peregrine falcon flying gracefully to its owner’s arm.
This is Gharameel, in AlUla County, Saudi Arabia, and who could picture Andy Warhol in this timeless landscape, his work displayed in a futuristic gallery in the desert?
Exciting: Teresa Levonian Cole explores Saudi Arabia’s AlUla County, stopping at the historic site of Hegra (above) along the way – a place “popular with hot air balloon enthusiasts,” she reveals
In the desert landscape of AlUla, Teresa sees riders “gallop past in a cloud of dust” (archive photo)
But as part of a drive for Westernization, just such a surprise lies ahead.
This secretive country has opened up to tourism, with easy online visas and the removal of the requirement for women (both local and foreign) to wear the cover-up black abaya.
Such measures, along with driver’s licenses and better job opportunities for women, are part of ‘Saudi Vision 2030’, a 30-year reform plan aimed at diversifying the economy and presenting a softer, more secular country.
AlUla, 12,500 square miles of desert in the northwest of the country, is the first in a number of planned tourist areas. Within seconds of my plane taking off from Riyadh, the modern city dissolves into a sea of sand.
This wilderness has a rich history spanning 7,000 years, much of which was first excavated by international archaeologists. Located at the crossroads of ancient spice and incense routes and later a staging post on the pilgrimage route between Damascus and Medina, AlUla benefited from diverse cultural influences.
Hegra is an important stop on the historic Hejaz Railway, built by the Ottomans and bombed by TE Lawrence in World War I.
It has now been restored as an open-air museum and is popular with hot air balloon enthusiasts. Under the guidance of Ahmed, a young local rawi (storyteller), I wander around in about 100 house-sized tombs, carved out of the mountains.
“Within seconds of my plane taking off from Riyadh (pictured), the modern city dissolves into a sea of sand,” writes Teresa
Hegra is an important stop on the historic Hejaz Railway (pictured), built by the Ottomans and bombed by TE Lawrence in World War I
Over the course of the week, I’ll trek, scramble, and whirl by helicopter (a treat worth the extra riyals) to marvel at sacred mountains covered in pre-Islamic scriptures, petroglyphs that record religious sacrifices, and an ancient Dadanite city that is currently is excavated.
Yet the abundance of archaeological treasures is only part of AlUla’s attractions. Desert culture, as evidenced by a 2.8 km heritage trail from Dadan to the ancient city of AlUla, exerts its own appeal.
Along this sandy oasis path, between mudbrick walls and boxwood gates, four horsemen on caparisoned horses appear from nowhere and gallop past in a cloud of dust. An abundance of fruits and vegetables are harvested from these oases and we reach an orchard tended by a chatty former police chief, who has returned to his roots.
Here, in the scorching heat, freshly picked mint tea, poured from a copper kettle, is the perfect restorative for our final push to lunch: a feast served in the shadow of AlUla’s 2,600-year-old castle.
Abandoned since 1982, the warren of mud houses of the old town are still carefully restored, around a street lined with restaurants and shops selling local produce.
Teresa wanders around some 100 house-sized tombs carved out of the mountains at AlUla (above)
Pictured is the abandoned old town of AlUla, complete with a ‘jumble of mud houses’
While there are critics of Saudi Arabia, my hosts could not be more kind, gracious or welcoming.
And while traditional culture remains key to AlUla, the future beckons with spectacular new buildings rising like mirages in the sand. Chief among them, and Warhol’s temporary home, is the Maraya Art Center – encased in glass that reflects and disappears into the surrounding desert.
But I’m happy to sit under a diamond-studded night sky in Gharameel, eat roasted goat, inhale the essence of camel and listen to an astronomer explain how the Bedouin navigated the stars.
The experience is magical. In the words of the great 14th-century traveler Ibn Battuta, “It leaves you speechless and then turns you into a storyteller.”
Windows On The Wild offers five nights B&B at Shaden in AlUla from £3,310 pp, including return flights, accommodation and transfers. windowsonthewild.com/alula.