If you thought Doha, the capital of Qatar, was all about oil and real estate investments, you have got only half the picture. A visit to Katara cultural village will reveal how the city is pulling all stops to position itself as an international culture and lifestyle destination too. Art exhibitions, musical performances by international headliners, restaurants ready to take you on a global tour, and fun and sports by the beach are some of its key attractions.

Day one into our tour of Doha, the dazzling capital of Qatar on the Arabian Peninsula, and we were already fearing a cricked neck by the end of the tour, pausing often to look up at the rows of ultra-modern skyscrapers that dotted the city, especially the posh West Bay area.

But still we could not stop squinting under the May afternoon sun and admire the huge perforated towers, the perforations punched in an artistic flourish within the baked clay finish. These are pigeon towers, we were told by our guide as we walked into the Katara cultural village.

Long before ‘organic’ was a fad, Arab villages were known to build these pigeon shelters to collect the droppings and use them as manure for crops. Built to introduce Doha as an art and culture destination amidst the evident eagerness to position Qatar as a futuristic nation, the Katara cultural village is like stepping back in time. Even the name harks back to the roots. Records as early as 150 AD referred to this tiny nation on the Arabian Peninsula as ‘Catara’, which later got changed to ‘Katara’ probably in the early 18th century, which finally became Qatar.

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The Pigeon Towers, representing traditional Islamic architecture
The Pigeon Towers, representing traditional Islamic architecture

Adjacent to the 15-meter high Pigeon Towers was the beautiful Katara Masjid. Conceptualised by Turkish mosque designer, Zainab Fadil Oglu, its exterior was covered with turquoise and purple tiles. It is said that the architecture, designs on the interior and exterior, the minaret, the dome, and the prayer niche (mihrab) draw inspiration from several famous mosques found across the Islamic world. Later we saw the Golden Masjid in another part of the village. The Ottoman styled mosque is covered with small golden chips and hence the name.

Low, mostly flat-roofed buildingswith traditionally designed local door and windowsarranged around courtyards with arched gateways, a maze of connecting alleys, make up the core of the village. During day, huge awnings (actually shades used during sailing) are hung over the open courtyards to keep away the harsh sunlight. Narrow water channels run along the alleys to keep the structures cool. Potted plants and palm trees add the necessary touch of green. The buildings house art galleries, exhibition centres, convention halls, theatres, a library, an Opera House, stores and a few offices. Round the year, the cultural village holds a variety art exhibitions, musical extravaganzas, sporting events, and shopping festivals.

One end of the sprawling village opens to the seafront of Doha. Overlooking the sea was the sprawling amphitheatre whose architecture combines the classical Greek theatre with Islamic design. The 3,275 sq. meter landmark regularly hosts concerts by local and global headliners. On our way to the amphitheatre we saw the famous ‘The Force of Nature II’ installation, made of bronze, steel and aluminium, by Italian artist Lorenzo Quinn. Art installations by global artists can be found in many corners of the village. We chanced upon a red telephone booth that served as an unmanned book exchangeyou could leave your book here and take away another that someone else has left behind.

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View from the Katara Beach in Doha
View from the Katara Beach in Doha

The 1.5km long private beach at Katara was bereft of visitors that hot afternoon but will become animated in the evening, our guide said. However, in the distance, we spotted a few enthusiasts busy parasailing. Colourful benches lined the beachfront. During more favourable hours, especially in winter, food kiosks and tents dot the promenade, we were told. At one end of the beach, we saw scores of wooden boats (dhow) lying idle. A children’s play area occupied another corner of the beach. Several restaurants overlooked the beach and the sea, and that’s where we turned to, famished after our sojourn through the village.

Probably, the long walk in the sun had dulled our senses and it took a while to realise that the smiling group of people singing and clapping in unison were actually welcoming us to their restaurant, the Mamig. The restaurant specialised in Armenian and Lebanese food. We chose the scenic terrace over the opulent dining hall. What followed was a gastronomic delight, with a specially curated meal overseen by the restaurant’s charming owner Chef Zarmig.

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The 'Chapati & Karak' Cafe inside Katara is perfect for a beverage on-the-go
The ‘Chapati & Karak’ Cafe inside Katara is perfect for a beverage on-the-go

The food scene in Katara is rather interesting. Among the restaurants, there is Ard Canaan Restaurant that promises a selection of menu from the Holy Land, Sukar Pasha Ottoman Lounge has a Turkish menu, an Indian restaurant named Saffron, Khan Farouk Tarab Café devoted to its Egyptian roots, and the very Italian le Vesuvio. Don’t let the name L’wzaar Seafood Market mislead you; while the décor is all about giving you an ‘aquatic’ feel, the interactive open kitchen and a four-meter-long seafood display is a hint to what is on offer. You may visit U’sha Frshka for juices and La Gelataria Fina for ice-creams. Those with a yen for chocolates must try the artisanal varieties from Chac’Late, an exclusive Qatari brand specialising in European and local flavours.

Our visit was drawing to a close but how could we leave without sampling the Chai Karak? So we wended our way to the ‘Chapati & Karak’ café. Considered to be the power drink of Qatar, the concoction probably reached the Arabian Peninsula through Indian migrants. The tea was very similar to Indian masala tea with a strong aroma of cardamom. It is usually had with ‘chapati’, which looked more like a flaky ‘paratha’. Although there are free electric carts available to move around the huge complex, we decided to walk back to the car park, hoping to burn off some of the imbibed calories.

Getting there: Located in between Doha’s West Bay and the Pearl-Qatar, Katara cultural village is about half an hour’s journey from Doha’s Hamad International Airport, via Al Corniche and Lusail Expressway (with normal traffic). According to local drivers, with all the pre-2022 FIFA World Cup road construction work going on, the GPS may not always be able to help as of now.