A trip to the Yemeni capital of Sana'a isn't for the timid. Many Western governments warn their nationals of a threat of terrorism; women are expected to wear loose clothes covering their legs, arms and head; streets are chaotic; and there are few starred hotels and restaurants.
But when you stand on the bridge at the corner of Az-Zubayri and As-Sailah Streets and drink in the walled city's gold-tinged beauty, some hardship may seem worthwhile. Sana'a, one of the world's oldest conurbations, lies in the embrace of the Jabal Nugum and Aiban mountain ranges at 2,200 m above sea level the altitude ensures a gentle climate and neither natural forces or invaders have leveled its 103 mosques, 14 hammams and 6,000 houses built before the 11th century. [an error occurred while processing this directive] Its six- to eight-story tower houses of lime-washed mud brick could lay claim to being the world's first high-rises.
At the city's heart is the Suq al-Milh, or salt market. It's a good spot for buying oasis dates or acacia honey, or watching locals bargain over khat, a narcotic leaf. If haggling in other markets has left you jaded, this one's a refreshing change of pace no one hassles you to buy here. Locals are mostly indifferent to your presence; a few are curious.
Hang out at a coffee shop by the Bab Al-Yaman, the city's main gate to the south, and watch men from the tribal areas wearing curved daggers and sarongs stroll past while animated Somalians in red, orange, yellow and green robes barter with customers on Ta'Izz Road, south of the gate. If you really want to be in the thick of all this life, skip the Sheraton and bed down in a hotel tower house, or fonduk. They offer basic facilities, but have incredible atmosphere and great roof-terrace views. Check out Arabia Felix, tel: (967-1) 287 330; www.al-bab.com/arabiafelix or the Golden Dar, tel: (967-1) 273 055. It's hard to sleep in with all those dawn calls to prayer at Sana'a's many mosques, but a stay in the old city is worth some lost shut-eye.