These winter holidays I decided to welcome the New Year cuddled up in warm weather, so I booked a ticket with my parents for Abu Dhabi to enjoy the UAE’s mild temperatures.
The Arab Emirates, especially Dubai, have been widely criticized for having sacrificed most of their traditions and original culture to modernity, globalization and economy. To some extent, these accusations have a point. Both Abu Dhabi and Dubai can easily fit the definition of jungle of skyscrapers. Nice ones, glitzy ones, but a proper ode to state-of-the-art architecture that much replaces the natural environment.
With the benefits of a mild weather, neither too hot nor cold, I loved walking along the beautiful Corniche of the main Emirate, photographing its beaches, skyline and cityscape. Some eight kilometers of coastal roads cut along sandy beaches and turquoise waters, Abu Dhabi corniche has something to offer to everybody: beaches for who is looking for a natural winter tan, cafés, restaurants and parks with benches laid out for families planning a day out, statues and intriguing cityscapes for photographers in pursuit of unusual shots.
Starting our walk from Marina Mall shopping center, we covered most of the coast peeping at the modern buildings and the extra-luxurious hotel of Emirates Palace, stopping for an orange juice at a Lebanese café and feeling a little envious of who enjoys this seemingly carefree lifestyle all year long. Obviously, not everybody belongs to this opulent way of living. The fishermen living on their boats moored at the city’s port, carrying their load of merchandise and adventurous tales are far from the Porsche-clothed parkings of hotels and malls, but to me they represent what remains of the former stretch of desert inhabited by nomadic tribes and unconsciously blessed with bottomless oil wells.
In Abu Dhabi and Dubai you will probably stare at the most diverse samples of social mores, an awkward mix of styles and attitudes, and one of the easiest ways to spot this diversity is to look at how people are dressed. Abaya-clad women will easily walk near women wearing shorts. Now, I’m not sure how comfortable both types feel, but this is what I’ve witnessed only last week.
Despite being a desert land and with a little rainfall, Abu Dhabi is rich in indigenous flora and fauna. The fast urban development has certainly sacrificed local environment, and this is probably why the government is working hard to make vegetation thrive and the city look like a lovely combination of themed statues, national symbols, green oasis and leisure areas. As the desert evokes, the most widespread native plants of the region are the date palms that, after clearing the sand and building the roads, are being slowly planted again all over the city.
To get under the skin of a place it’s necessary to know its past, and the best way for first-time visitors to do this is a stop at the city’s Heritage Village, located near Marina Mall. Who’s not sure how to get there can take one of the cheap taxis that will bring you right at the entrance. Last week I had to walk for nearly half an hour all along the Corniche on a road closed to traffic due to the imminent Volvo Boat Race that’s probably taking place right now. I wasn’t sorry, really, the view was great, and hopefully the pictures I took will do justice to what I saw.
Run by the Emirates Heritage Club, part of the Village is a loyal reproduction of a traditional oasis community, with its bait al-sha’ar (tents made with goat’s hair), al-areesh (sea house built with palm tree fronds), al-towee (typical water well), al-yazra’a (the old irrigation system) and al-aflaj (the water channels), all around a campfire with the coffee pot included. All these traditional traits are common not just to the two most popular Emirates of Abu Dhabi and Dubai, but also to the other five, Ajman, Fujairah, Umm al-Quwain, Sharjah and Ras al-Khaimah.
After getting a hint of what lifestyle was back then, which is not even very long time ago since the country as we know it has celebrated last year its 40th anniversary, visitors can explore the local handicraft by visiting the many workshops, where skilled craftsmen give demonstrations of their art and sell their finished products. This gives the chance to see carpentry, pottery, carpet weaving, blown glass, leather and buy the souvenirs directly from their artisans.
An essential aspect of the Emirates’ roots and soul is Islam, that more than just a religion, holds the principles according to which the life is organized, from how to dress to what to eat and what to drink. Countless big and small domes peep out in the skyline all over the city, beautifully lit up at night. For whoever visits Abu Dhabi, an absolute must-see is Sheik Zayed Mosque, a feast of immaculate white Carrara marble, colored Murano glass and the world’s largest Persian carpet, built and named after the beloved father of the country, Sheik Zayed, former ruler of Al Ain, and founder and first President of the UAE, who is buried there just beside the main building. The mosque was thought and designed keeping in mind what Zayed loved the most, green, oases, flowers, but unfortunately he never saw it completed as he died little before, in 2004, aged 86.
One of the best aspects of traveling, that together with sightseeing helps understanding the culture and the traditions of a place, is food, and in the Emirates I satisfied my appetite for Arab dishes. Ever-present on our table was the Lebanese fattoush salad, a delicious mix of veggies flavored with fresh mint and parsley and enriched with pieces of crunchy Arab-style bread. I had great Egyptian food at Abu Shakra, a lovely mezzeh at Fanr restaurant in Manarat Al Saadiyat, comprising in a fine selection of appetizers such as hommous (chickpeas-based paste), moutabal (eggplant paste), stuffed vine leaves, baba ganoush salad, small meatballs and pita bread, and a delicious fish-based treat at Hard Walls, on the second floor of Marina Mall. Every meal washed with my beloved freshly squeezed orange juice.
This was a quick round-up of my lovely stay in the UAE that was spent half in Abu Dhabi half in Dubai, for which I will be posting photos with all due comments soon.
Due to the many comments praising the beauty of Sheik Zayed Mosque, I add to the post the link to my Flickr set where I uploaded all the photos I took of this mosque when I went last year for the first time. To see the photos click here, I hope you enjoy.