Thursday, October 16, 2003

Dubai – of luxury and oases

Sadly, my partner had to leave Dubai so I could focus on the work ahead. But not before we had one final super special experience! 

You see, Burj Al Arab (برج العرب‎), that sail-shaped luxurious hotel I mentioned in my previous post, had this very special restaurant with a huge aquarium and a setting to, in theory, make you feel you're underwater. So, why not? A nice lunch for us both? We figured we could splurge just a wee bit on it and I booked a table at Al Mahara (the restaurant). 

We got there a bit early, so before lunch we went for some views at the hotel's Al Muntaha Bar on the 27th floor for a pre-lunch drink and, especially, for amazing – if a bit too bright and sunny? – views of the emirate by the sea...

After that, we headed down to the Al Mahara. Which is on the second floor of the hotel. But once you get there, you're ushered into a "submarine" that will take you to the "underwater" restaurant. Of course, this is all just theatre, and you're shown images and played sounds as if you were actually traversing the ocean to reach the restaurant. It was cute. Super kitschy, but cute. And then, the restaurant. At this point I'm wondering how I forgot to take a photo? I guess I was just impressed and excited? In the very middle stood a huge aquarium with all sorts of sea creatures. Like, immense. I read it contains some 2.5 million litres of water. It's the definite centrepiece, and the tables around (just two rows of tables, so everybody gets  a view) a mere afterthought for the show in the middle.  

And then, lunch. Impeccable service – then again, we know next to nothing about service at a luxury place. Delicious seafood – also, once again, no experts, but we found it really good. And the most delicious and incredible dessert I've ever had, some sort of pudding/pastry, creamy but light, with every bite containing many layers of wonderful flavours revealing themselves in order... Yeah, I know, what a corny description, lucky I don't make a living from writing dish reviews! Again, I was so into this meal I took no photos, as you can see.

Happy from our "underwater" and delectable experience, we had a walk around, getting some views of the Jumeirah Hotel nearby, and one last view of Burj Al Arab.

And then, my partner had to leave for his flight. But I still had a few hours of daylight, and I had to make the most of it – I took another tour, this one to the valleys and oases near Oman! Being in such an extreme environment, seeing the vegetation and then the crystal clear and refreshing waters of oases was simply amazing! And I even got to had a swim in one of them! So guilty my partner missed this! 

At night, and to prepare my mind for the work ahead, I headed to the creek for a nice, calm view of Dubai by night.

A very short trip, to a very curious corner of our planet. Happy to have had the chance to experience this side of the world.

Wednesday, October 15, 2003

Dubai – the metropolis

Our first day around Dubai was all about the desert. The second day? All about this super wealthy city! Dubai is the most populous city in the Emirates, and it thrives on trade, commerce, even tourism! Plus, there are tons of foreigners working and living here, making up some 80-90% of the total population of the emirate. Crazy!

Since the heat was simply too intense for us to explore on our own, we joined a city tour. Absolutely worth it. Especially because of the AC in the bus! 

One of the highlights was one of the emirates most iconic buildings – Burj al-Arab (برج العرب‎‎). It stands on an artificial island, it's shaped like a sail, and is one of the most luxurious hotels in the world. I read you can get rooms that come with a butler? Ah, but the beach you see there? Not something to enjoy as part of your stay, I'm afraid. We dipped our feet in the water. Like dipping your feet in soup! So warm! Yuck!

We also saw the Jumeirah Mosque (مسجد جميرا), done in a Fatimid style. The tour didn't include a visit inside, though, so we could only admire from outside.

Then we went to Dubai Creek (خور دبي), a saltwater creek dividing the city into Deira and Bur Dubai. I liked the look of the modern buildings on the other side against the steel blue waters...

We also visited the Al Bastakiya District (البستكية‎), a historical district from the end of the 19th century that barely escaped total demolition. The curious thing about this area is that you find traditional buildings that allowed for cooling through the use of clever ventilation systems (which I am unable to explain). Hopefully this could provide for a less energy-intensive model for cooling spaces? We also visited the Dubai Museum (متحف دبي) and Al Fahidi Fort (فناء حصن الفهيدي) but, quite frankly, we felt like a quick peek was more than enough.

The tour ended with a nice boat tour along the canal, leaving us afterwards at the Souk (سوق), where you could see all the gold and jewels you – us – would never be able to buy. But at least we got to see some women with traditional face masks, maybe even made of gold?

Now, after that, we still visited some malls (rather boring) and bookshops (even more boring, given the restrictions on what can be sold here). But we were definitely in the mood for a drink with a view at Bar 47, in The Emirates Towers (أبراج الإمارات‎). Oh, and yes, of course you can drink alcohol here! What you can't do is enter a bar or a club dressed in traditional Emirati garb. Well, in theory, an Emirati shouldn't be going to bars in the first place but, once you change into western clothes, how could anybody know you're a local? Hence it's more a question of attire than anything.

Anyhow, we went up to the bar, enjoyed some fancy cocktails in a fancy setting with fancy views of the surrounding city... And on the way down, we had the scare of our life! Because at some point the lift crosses one of the floors in such a way that gives the total optical illusion that you're about to crash into a floor! Pretty cool, once we recovered!

Not too bad for our second day. And indeed, what a curious place... I'd find the film and reading selection rather frustrating were we staying here long-term. Then again, I'm sure locals do find ways to have tons of fun... Anyhow, we still had next day for some more exploring...

Tuesday, October 14, 2003

Dubai – the desert

The good thing about my work is that I not only get to live in other countries, but that I also get to discover fantastic places in the vicinity, both for pleasure and work! And so it happened that, unlike our trips to Syria and Turkey, which were for pleasure, I got to visit the United Arab Emirates – well, specifically, the Emirate of Dubai – for work! And, of course, I was not going to leave my partner behind, right? I mean, miss this opportunity? 

Welcome to the Emirate of Dubai

Anyhow, the experience started right on arrival. This was probably the most visibly international airport I had ever seen! And remember we had a stop-over in Amsterdam when we moved to Beirut! But as we approached customs in Dubai, the flights board was full of countless cities in Africa, the Middle East, all of Asia... it was absolutely mind-boggling. And then the people! All sorts of national dresses, headgear, ethnicities... Really, what an experience!

The other thing that was sort of crazy was when we arrived at our hotel. From airport to hotel we didn't experience any weather, as we were inside enclosed spaces with AC. But once we arrived to the hotel and got off the car? I felt this gust of warm air, as if I were standing next to some exhaust vent of sorts. Nothing. It was just your normal, middle of the night, warm October "breeze". Yikes! 

Desert tour!

Fortunately, I had asked for a couple days off so I could spend some time with my partner exploring Dubai. And what did we do before anything else? We went on a desert tour! Woohoo! This was amazing! Had never done anything like this ever! We went dune bashing! It's like being on a roller coaster, but so much better! The thrill! The driving full speed up and down the dunes! Awesome! Loved it. Totally.

Then, at the end of the day, a gorgeous sunset in the desert. Stunning. In fact, my partner decided to do some Taichi on a dune at this time. No better place and time than this, right?

This was followed by a rather kitschy night party. But hey, at least it was fun kitsch, with belly dancers – did your eyes just roll over all the way to your nape? – and a buffet and black henna tattoos and a night ride on a camel and... best of all? "sandboarding?" "dune surfing?" Well, whatever, hopping on something akin to a snowboard and sliding down the dunes! You had to get it right, or you'd get stuck midway (after all, this was sand, not snow, not water). But still, who would've thought, right?

Very curious place, this emirate called Dubai. Completely different from anything else we had seen in the Middle East. And we still had a couple of days to explore some more...

Sunday, August 31, 2003

Istanbul – Part VI

Now, I could have easily fit this, the morning of our very last day in Istanbul, in my last post. But you know what? This city is really special. And it took me a wait of four years to finally visit it. So I wanted to have a post just for that early morning, after our very simply breakfast of cheese and honey and olives and tomatoes, looking at the Blue Mosque and the Bosphorus as day broke, grateful to have finally visited and to have experienced this with my partner.

Teşekkürler ve güle güle, İstanbul*.

*Thank you and good-bye, Istanbul.

Saturday, August 30, 2003

Istanbul – Part V

Our next to last day was a little less intense than the rest, as it was time to have a more relaxed look at the city, and maybe go back to some favourite places before saying good-bye.

Hippodrome of Constantinople (Sultanahmet Meydanı)   

Like many Roman and Greek cities, Byzantium had a place for horse racing and socializing, a hippodrome. It remained a sporting and mingling area when the city became Constantinople. Different emperors, in a bid to outdo their predecessors and make the space an even more impressive one, would bring art from all four corners of the empire to embellish it. One of these was the Obelisk of Theodosius (Dikilitaş in Turkish), which was originally the ancient Egyptian obelisk of Pharaoh Tutmoses III.

This pink granite beauty was originally located at nowhere else than the Temple of Karnak, in Luxor, making it some 3500 years old. Stunning, right?  

more Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia...

But, like I said, we also felt like re-visiting some favourites. You know, just finding a nice calm place, sitting down, admiring the imposing Blue Mosque (Sultanahmet Camii), Hagia Sophia (Ayasofya)... Beautiful, elegant, infused with history... You can sit and look and ponder for hours!

Remember we saw Dolmabahçe Palace (Dolmabahçe Sarayı) on our boat tour? We sort of started going to it, but we were just not quite in the mood for another palace, so we stopped at the gate, appreciated it...  

And went back to our hotel for a break and for some sunset views from the rooftop. Our hotel was most definitely not fancy at all. On the contrary, it was rather basic. But the views from the rooftop? Wonderful!

Ortakoy (Ortaköy)  

Refreshed after that break and those fantastic views, we decided to visit one last place on our list – the neighbourhood of Ortaköy. Like many places, this started as a separate village before being engulfed by the city of Istanbul. 

I really regret not having more time to spend here. This used to be an incredibly cosmpolitan area, with Greeks, Armenians, Jews... The first muslim Turks settled here in the 16th century by order of Suleyman the Magnificent. And the gorgeous Ortaköy Mosque was built only in the 18th century, and remodeled in the 19th. 

This was the perfect place to see the sun set for the last time in this most amazing of cities, with golden light bathing the Ortaköy Mosque (Ortaköy Camii), the Bosphorus, and the Ataturk Bridge (Atatürk Köprüsü)...

Friday, August 29, 2003

Istanbul – Part IV

Nearing the end of this story – our fourth day! If there is one place that can make you feel no time is long enough to understand, explore, see and do in this city, it's Istiklal Avenue (İstiklâl Caddesi, Grande Rue de Péra). 

Istiklal Avenue (İstiklâl Caddesi, Grande Rue de Péra)

It's not that long, just about 1.4km. But it's packed with architecture, shops, restaurants, endless people-watching opportunities... Going up and down this street was one of our biggest pleasures, and I feel I could have spent a whole week just exploring and enjoying this part of the city in detail... 

We didn't hop on one, but historic trams ply the street. Such a delight to look at! 

Then there are passages with shops and restaurants, which kind of remind me of some in Mexico City, like the Flower Passage (Çiçek Pasajı, Cité de Péra)...

It is a bit crowded, I have to admit. But it's still a very nice experience and a place that leaves you knowing that there's still way more to explore.

After being in such a cosmpolitan and busy place, it was time for some quiet at...

Church of the Holy Saviour in Chora (Kariye Kilisesi)  

This is a medieval Byzantine Greek Orthodox which, of course, was turned into a mosque during the Ottoman era, and then into a museum in this century. This makes the building about one thousand years old.

Also, when it was turned into a mosque, all the iconography was covered in plaster, which I believe must have served to preserve it. It may be a small church/mosque/museum, but it packs so many beautiful medieval mosaics!

Palace of the Porphyrogenitus (Tekfur Sarayı)  

Since we were more or less in the area, we visited this place, the Palace of the Porphyrogenitus (Tekfur Sarayı), a Byzantine palace from the 13th century, and the bets preserved Byzantine palace in the city. Once Constaninople fell, this place was used for just about everything, including holding animals, a brothel, producing pottery and tiles, serving as a poorhouse for Jews... Which is why it's basically the exterior what survived.

Tunnel square (Tünel)

We had to go back to Istiklal Avenue, if only for a late afternoon stroll. And also to visit the world's second oldest subway station! The Tünel! Calling it a subway is a little bit of a stretch, as it works more like a kind of funicular with two stops. But still. It connects the neighbourhoods of Karaköy and Beyoğlu, was inaugurated in 1875, and of course we had a ride in it!

And that ride landed us near the Galata Bridge (Galata Köprüsü) again, for some more views of the Bosphorus and the Golden Horn...

Whirling Dervish show

I know. I definitely know that these are just shows. That the real thing happens in religious settings. But we were not going to simply walk into one of those, right? So we had to do with a night show of whirling dervishes in the centre of the city.

I had never seen any live. Such mastery! Sure, the setting did subtract a bit from the majesty of the ritual, but we still enjoyed it greatly! Plus, we ran into two friends from Beirut as well! A small world...

I promise, just one more longish post, and then a tiny one, and we're done with Byzantium/Constantinople/Istanbul!