Tour 1: Yemen mountains
and Tihama

The 12-day round trip begins north of Sana'a with sightseeing and walking tours in the Yemeni mountains. We drive to the Red Sea, south through the Tihama (the arid coastal plain), up to Taiz in the hills and down to Aden (the furthest point from the start), and drive back north through Ibb, Al-Janad and Jiblah to Sana'a.

This route takes in extremely varying regions and landscapes, from steep highland areas through the Tihama into the "green Yemen" and down to the Arabian Sea. The mountain roads north-west of Sana'a are impressive, with mediaeval villages built into the cliffs, footpaths at all altitudes, and many cultural and architectural gems. Some walks offer direct contact with the native people.

In the highlands, at heights of 2,000 to 2,600 metres, the climate is pleasant, and familiar to us. In the Yemeni high season, between October and April, daytime temperatures are around 25°C, with 5-10°C at night. After six days in the mountains we descend to the Tihama – not only in climate the "Africa of Yemen" – to visit Al-Hudaydah, after Sana'a the second largest town in Yemen, with a population of over 600,000. Travelling south, we come to the dilapidated little town of Beit-al-Faqih, with its palace and mosques, and Zabid, the former university town with magnificent buildings. After a short break for a swim in the Red Sea, we continue via Taiz (pop. 600,000) to Aden (pop. 550,000) and on a single day's journey with short stops, to the historic towns of Ibb, Al-Janad and Jiblah and back to Sana'a.

1. Day | Arrival in Sana'a

The old part of the town, with its decorated and whitewashed multi-storey houses, is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The souq offers a vast variety of wares – old silver jewellery and fine fabrics, incense and myrrh, spices, henna, kajal and oriental perfumes, raisins and dates.

Near Bab-al-Jemen, the gate to the souq, is the Mansur building??, in which exhibitions are held of works by contemporary Yemeni artists. The multi-storey house, with its sophisticated cooling and ventilation systems, can be viewed right up to the top floor, from where there is a splendid view over the souq to the many mosques and caravanserais. On some of the roofs are goats, which provide milk for the inhabitants. Overnight stay in a hotel in the old quarter.

2. Day | Sana’a and Beit Baus

Visit to the recently re-opened National Museum in Sana'a, with finds from all over Yemen, dating from pre-Islamic and Islamic times. Short drive south-east to Beit Baus, a mediaeval village, sadly, like many ancient mountain villages, largely deserted. Standing on a cliff of green rock, you have a marvellous view over the plateau around Sana'a. At your own risk, you can explore empty houses with fine vaults, alabaster windows and staircases. Overnight stay in the Sana'a hotel.

3. Day | Sana’a – Kuhlan – Hajjah

Good roads lead north through the volcanic zones and qat fields, watched over from many towers. The qat farmers here are wealthy, and live in splendid palaces, for qat brings many times more revenue than all the other agricultural products. Qat (the leaves from the Catha edulis shrub), is distributed immediately after the morning harvest, according to a precise system, to the farthest reaches of the country, for sale in the qat-souqs. After the midday meal people chew qat, keeping it in one cheek until evening, and the juice (which lowers blood sugar) is absorbed gradually by sipping water. One measure of good-quality qat often costs half a daily wage.

50 km further on and after the first mountain pass at 2,600 metres altitude, we arrive at the town of Amran, which is almost completely surrounded by a defence wall with three well-preserved gates. Here we turn westwards. The next pass is at 2,800 metres, and the road winds high up through steep terraced and cultivated slopes, to the mountain village of Kuhlan, formerly a refuge of the imam (until the 1962 revolution, North Yemen was ruled for centuries by a reactionary imamate) with several very old water reservoirs.

Half an hour's walk takes us to the upper town of Kuhlan, on the rear side of the mountain, and steps lead down to the lower town with its souq. From Kuhlan, we walk downhill, then drive for half an hour over the winding road to Hajjah, where we spend the night.

4. Day | Hajjah – Thula – Kaukaban

Good roads take us through several mediaeval villages nesting on the ridges and summits, and we visit three Himyarite 7th/8th-century towns – Shibam/Kaukaban und Thula. Kaukaban lies on a rocky ridge high above Shibam, and offers a wide view over the fertile land. Thula, which flourished in the 15th century, is a fortified town high in the mountains, built against a rock formation (remains of a Himyarite fort).

Rocks jut out from the alleys in the old town and between the 25 mosques, two of which are amongst the oldest in the whole country. On our way through the steep alleyways to the artisans' souq in the main square, we pass well-preserved town gates, a recently restored water reservoir and impressive stone façades. Many of the houses were originally Jewish, and bear the Star of David as well as round windows above the doors, giving the houses individual "faces". We continue on our way to Kaukaban, where we spend the night in a former palace, now a funduq (lodging-house).

5. Day | Kaukaban – Al-Tawilah – Mahwit

We begin the day by descending a steep but walkable path to Shibam, which has one of the oldest mosques and a town gate with fragments of Sabaean sculpture.

The mountain road leading south of the Wadi Surdud through the Haraz mountains passes through fertile terraces at an altitude of over 2,000 metres. We arrive in the small town of Al-Tawilah (2,600 m), built on and against a strange brown rock mass and crowned by a fort dating back to Ottoman times. The town is built of the brown stone, and has a small arcaded souq. In the cliff are traces of caves, indicating early settlement. From here it is only a short drive to Mahwit, where prehistoric mummies were discovered in nearby caves. Similarly to that of Al-Tawilah, the old town is built against a cliff – ideal for a stroll through steep lanes, staircases and arcades. Overnight stay in Mahwit.

6. Day | Mahwit - Wadi Surdud – Manakha

We drive from Mahwit towards the Wadi Surdud and walk for an hour through the fertile valley, passing wells, small villages, fruit and grain plantations, donkeys and many, many children. The Wadi Surdud is one of the longest valleys in Yemen, leading from the Manakha region to the Red Sea, with pink-blossoming paw-paw trees on its slopes. After a picnic, we drive on to the town of Manakha, which lies in a cultivated terraced landscape at an altitude of 2,250 m in a particularly impressive region of the Haraz mountains.

A short walk takes us through plantations of apricot and qat over stone steps to Kahel, with its typical blue decorations around doors and windows. An alternative walk of one hour leads from Manakha to the fortified village of Hajjarah, accessible only by a single gate and spectacularly framed by the mountains. Below Hajjarah lies Al-Hotaib, a place of pilgrimage for the Ishmaelite Bohra sect, which has its largest following in India. many pilgrims gather here on the 16th day of the first month of the Islamic year.Return to Manakha on foot or by car for overnight stay.

7. Day| Manakah - Al-Hudaydah

We drive westwards along the Wadi Surdud, out of the mountains into the hot coastal plain, where not only the climate but also the style of building (round huts) is reminiscent of North Africa. The Tihama, the coastal regions on the Arabian Sea and the Red Sea, are fairly hot all year round. We continue south along the coast to Al-Hudaydah, the largest Yemeni town on the Red Sea. As in many other towns, recent years have seen a building boom.

8. Day | Al-Hudaydah - Beit Al-Faqih – Zabid - Al-Chocha

In the morning, we visit the famous fish market of Al-Hudaydah, where freshly-caught crustaceans and all kinds of Red Sea fish, including many varieties of shark, are on sale. The harbour is filled with colourful fishing-boats. Later we drive on southwards to the town of Beit-al-Faqih, where the old quarter  with its many mosques and a large palace is gradually falling apart and being smothered in refuse. Beit-al-Faqih is famous for its weekly market with products from the Tihama, including the typical woven loft beds. We drive for a swim and overnight stay to the holiday village of Al-Chocha, on the Red Sea.

9. Day | Al-Chocha – Taiz

Three-hour drive to Taiz, the third largest town, at the foot of the 3,000-metre Jabel Saber mountain. The town has several mosques dating from the 13th and 14th centuries. We visit the Al-Ashrafiah mosque, which stands on ancient, recently discovered foundations and has a sophisticated ablution fountain for ritual washing. Visit to the souq in Taiz, where we spend the night.

10. Day | Taiz – Aden

We look around the curious museum in Taiz, which has an incredible collection taken from a wealthy colonial house of the 1930s. Excursion to half-way up Jabel Saber, with a view over the town, then a three-hour drive to Aden. We complete the day with a drive round the ancient quarters of Krater, Mualla and Al-Tawilah, on an extinct volcano off the coast, and make a brief stop at Steamers Point, where the passengers from the big steamships used to check in during the British colonial period. Overnight stay in Aden.

11. Tag | Aden – Al-Janad – Jiblah – Ibb – Sana’a

Morning departure for the "green Yemen", a varied hilly landscape richly fertile during the travel months, past Taiz to the north, with three stops before Sana'a. A stroll through the narrow, winding lanes of the old town of Ibb, with its typical façades. Visit to the courtyard mosque at Al-Janad, whose minaret towers above the building and the landscape.

Like the great mosque in Sana'a, it is one of the oldest; both were modelled on the Kaaba mosque in Mecca. In Jiblah we walk through the almost completely preserved old town to the building complex (burial mosque, palace, courtyard) of Queen Arwa bint Ahmed, who reigned in the 11th century. We arrive in Sana'a in the evening. Overnight stay in a hotel in the old quarter.

12. Day | Sana’a and Wadi Dhar, departure

On the final day, we make a short excursion to the Wadi Dhahr, 16 km north of Sana'a, with the most popular photo motif in Yemen: the fantastic rock palace of Dar Al-Hajar, built for the Imam Yahya, and of special interest for its cooling and ventilation system.

Return to Sana'a for a last walk through the old quarter. In the oldest souq in Arabia, you can buy presents typical of the region – frankincense and myrrh, a wonderful selection of spices and beauty products, all kinds of raisins, old silver and coral jewellery, or a djambia (traditional curved knife).

Transfer from hotel to the airport.