A stopover guide to Dubai

I lived in Dubai a few years ago when I was based there for a short work stint. Before moving, I was fantasising about Dubai being a spectacular place, but honestly I did not like it. I felt it lacked a true charm and culture like there would be in other regions around the world. It was essentially a shopping centre in the desert. I was on a very high wage and had the opportunity to continue working there, but I became very bored very quickly. I had a long enough stay in the Emirates. I have asked myself several times ‘would I return there to work in the future?’ and I said I would never ever EVER return to Dubai to work. However, I would only go to Dubai as a stopover on a journey to a further place, despite my little love for the place. So, here is my personal guide for a weekend stopover.

Dubai is a city of skyscrapers. I called it a ‘Manhattan-wannabe’, as it is laid out in similar fashion, but it is not a city you would walk around like New York. Due to the heat, it is best staying inside the comfort of a taxi, or the metro, when travelling around. On a planned stopover, I would recommend travelling to Dubai with an empty suitcase, enjoy a few days relaxing, and purchase designer clothes tax free from the two main malls in the city; Dubai Mall and Mall of the Emirates.

Dubai Skyscrapers at Night Image

Dubai Mall is the biggest shopping-mall centre in the world located in downtown Dubai. This city aims to have the “biggest everything in the world!” Dubai Mall has all the best clothes chains but the shopping centre is almost like a mini-funfair. Outside there is a spectacular water and light show in a large fountain. The water and light is choreographed to music. It is hypnotising to view. After seeing this water show, you should step inside Dubai Mall to where you will see a huge aquarium. This place has many distractions from the shops which may be a good thing as it is easy to burn a hole in your pocket very quickly here. Mall of the Emirates was my favourite place to shop. It almost has the same shops as Dubai Mall but the size of it is not overwhelming as the latter is. Mall of the Emirates is known for its indoor ski-slopes with snow and penguins – YES… snow and penguins in the Arabian desert!

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Dubai is a strange place… My own personal reason for travelling back there would just be only to fill up an empty suitcase while on a journey to a further destination. Mall of the Emirates is located near numerous ‘tourist’ attractions, such as the marina, the Emirate and Jumeirah golf clubs, as well as the Wild Wadi Waterpark. The iconic ‘Palm Jumeirah’ is also in this area. It is best seen from the “seven star” hotel Burj Al-Arab. However, I passed on seeing this as I refuse to enter a hotel which charges customers up to €1,000 for a room for one night. The Burj Al-Arab is an incredibly looking building and it is worth seeing from any of the nearby beaches. However, I honestly think that these places are nothing special.

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The only thing worth visiting in Dubai is the Old Town; also known as the Bastakiya District. It is largely reconstructed but it contains numerous markets and the Jumeirah Mosque which is one of the oldest mosques in Dubai. The Jumeirah Mosque is the only mosque in Dubai which is open to non-Muslims on an organised tour which can be arrange from Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding.

Old Town Food Market

Not very nice…

Image Jumeirah Mosque

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If you are in Dubai on a Friday, the number one thing to ease the pains of being in a cultureless and artificial place is to attend a ‘brunch’. Brunches are popular for expats in Dubai as Friday is the start of the weekend and a time to unwind. You can have an all you can eat buffet and a limitless amount of alcohol for around four hours. A brunch would be good for a true tourist in order to escape and numb the toothache caused by this horrendous place. Brunches take place in hotels usually from 12:00-16:00 and can cost from €40 to €100. The food at the brunches is surprisingly excellent, which is a bonus for the price, as well as something to take a break from the flow of alcohol as the brunches can get quite lively! If you have survived the brunch, there are “night” clubs open to “unwind” even further! For an excellent food and drink experience I would recommend going to Mina A’Salam Hotel.

I would recommend returning to your hotel to take a long siesta to get back your energy in order to go on an off-road trip across the sand dunes outside of the city. This can be organised by the company Desert Safari. These trips in 4x4s take place in the morning and late evenings.

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After the wild journey in the 4x4s you can enjoy a barbeque, henna painting, hookah, camel riding, as well as dressing in traditional Emirati clothing.

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ImageThe next step in my Dubai guide is to GET OUT! I would highly recommend anywhere else in the world than here!

Two Nights in Prague

“Sorry… Where is it that you are going?” asked the curious Czech girl sitting next to me on the airplane.

“Sedlec Ossuary… In Kutna Hora”

“Sorry… What?” she said. Most words in European languages are easy to pronounce but I knew that Czech was like many of the Eastern-European languages with the numerous j’s that are z sounds and z sounds that are… I actually don’t know. “Ok let me write it down for you” I said back to the woman.

“Hmmm… I don’t know it.” I was surprised because this church should be well-known in the Czech Republic because it is relatively well known outside of the country as it has been thoroughly documented in travel-writing and in television documentaries. I decided to explain what Sedlec Ossuary was. I told her that the place is nick-named ‘The Church of Bones’. She looked at me startled. I wasn’t winning… It is a church and about a thousand years ago the King of Czech Republic sent people to Jerusalem to get soil from the holy land and bring it to the area of Kutna Hora where the church was built. She looked at me confused. “Damn it” I said to myself. In this church numerous people were so keen on getting buried in the cemetery that it became too full and that they had to dig out the bodies and they decorated the interior of the church with hundreds of bones. She looked at me with much perplexity and puzzlement in her face and came another “What? Where?!” I gave up and returned to my humorous book, called Ryanland by the Irish journalist Philip Nolan, that is about travelling around with the budget airline Ryanair. I felt that this is an apt book as I was travelling on the semi-budget airline Aer Lingus.

Our time in the Czech Republic was limited to a Friday from 15:00 to a Sunday at 12:00. Kutna Hora is located an hour outside of Prague, or Praha in the local language – h’s must be g sounds, and I was hoping that this local lady would be of some help to let me know how to get to this place and not waste much time trying to figure it out. Ah well, it will be an adventure trying to get on the right train or bus to Kutna Hora. I just hoped that we don’t end up on the direct train to Bratislava or Krakow. It was part of the trip to find our way to this mysterious place that a local person never heard of and even if it doesn’t exist, as the lady was certain of, I was sure we would have a good time. I said to myself on the plane that I will just have to remember the j, z and h sounds for g’s when I ask the ticket-office person later.

Our time became more limited when we arrived to our hotel, which was located around the corner from the Old Square. We found out that the hotel was currently being renovated and we were sent to a hotel twenty minutes away from the Old Square. This was frustrating as the different hotel was not located near the main sights. The receptionist at the new hotel was a wicked witch with a blunt tongue and rhetoric that would cut through you. We were given out to over the hotel change, that had nothing to do with us, and the room key was slammed down on the reception desk. It is clear that we were not welcome however we decided to stay there as it would have taken longer to find a closer place. We prayed that we wouldn’t meet the witch later in the evening. After about an hour, when the minor drama was solved, we decided to do the best thing two Irish people can do – find a pub!

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Czech Republic is renowned for their beer and our decision to find a pub would be fitting to get relaxed again. On almost every side street in Prague there is a bar, which source or brew beers that aren’t found outside of the city. We decided to do a pub crawl around the city to some of the well-known pubs and to some pubs located on side-streets. Our first pub was one of the most famous pubs in Prague called U Zlatého Tygra, meaning ‘The Golden Tiger’, located on Husova Street. It is a traditional pub that has narrow beer halls within former cellars. It is not for people who suffer from claustrophobia! Bill Clinton visited this pub during a trip to the Czech Republic. ‘The Golden Tiger’ sits hundreds of people and serves only Pilsner. One of my favourite pubs was a microbrewery called U Valsu, located on Betlemska Street. It is a relatively new microbrewery that is within an old gothic underground cellar where you can drink opposite fermentation vessels. They brew several beers. My favourite was a dark beer called Pražský Most Tmavé. It is a gorgeous beer that is full of flavours. You get a sharp crisp hop taste that is followed with a hint of smoky roasted barely. For a dark beer it tasted quite fruity. With every mouthful there were unique flavours. They also brew an excellent light pale ale called Pražský Most Světlé that is 12%.

Novomestsky Pivovar is a superb microbrewery, on Vodickova street, that produces a dark beer called Novoměstský Kvasnicový Ležák Tmavý (I have no idea how I ordered this one from the spelling!) as well as a light beer. Both have won several distinctions in both national and international awards.  They also brew a light beer that can be served in two-litre glasses!  Another excellent brewery is Stravhov Monastic Brewery located near Prague Castle that has a long history of brewing since the 13th century. They have numerous different beer styles to pick from that are all brewed on location. A fun pub to visit in Prague is the “ice-bar” located near the Charles Bridge. It is within the biggest night-club of Prague called Karlovy Lázně, meaning Charles Spa. You get to experience a pub at minus 7 degrees Celsius and drink from glasses made from ice!

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After our evening of drinking the beer delights of Prague, we successfully made it to Kutna Hora to visit the mysterious Church of Bones that the single-serving friend on the plane did not know of. The easiest way to get there is on the Prague-Brno train. The church was an eerie place. All the stories you hear of the church is exactly as it is – disturbing. There are literally hundreds of bones inside the church and some of them are used to make chandler-esque ornaments. It was true desecration but it is something I wanted to experience and witness one time in my life as this place is somewhat unique and considered very special.

When we arrived back to Prague our main thing to visit was the Astronomical Clock that is a dominating ancient clock-tower on the old square. We did not find the interior of the clock-tower that impressive and we were quite bored, however when we reached the summit of the clock it was worth it because the views of the old city are spectacular!

After the Astronomical Clock we went on an organised tour of the undergrounds of Prague, which were formerly the ‘ground level’ of the city before the city rose. These ancient underground pathways date back over a thousand years ago. Included on the tour was a guided walk through cellars and catacombs dating back to the 12th century. If you haven’t been to the catacombs in Rome – you will thoroughly enjoy this tour. However, if you have been to Rome, I would pass on this tour – there are plenty of undiscovered pubs and breweries to visit!

Our trip to Prague was brief. It was too brief because we fell in love with the city over a short weekend. It is a city that is loved for its simple beauty. Even if you don’t visit anything in Prague it does not matter because Prague is ‘a walking city’ and it is thoroughly enjoyable talking strolls down the medieval streets, along the Charles Bridge or even just enjoying an afternoon coffee on the Old Square watching the world go by. Prague – We loved you!

A Weekend Trip to Zadar

The Church of Saint Mary

The Church of Saint Mary

You’ve got to love Ryanair for cheap flights to the most random destinations around Europe. I regularly like to look through their latest deals (which are never ending!) to see if there is anywhere I would like to go. A couple of years ago I saw a return flight from Dublin to Zadar for €40, which included all the hidden charges that Ryanair like to snag European travellers on. To be honest, with my four years of study in Geography, I did not have any idea where Zadar was! I looked it up and found it was a small town on the central coast of Croatia. A quick visit to a Mediterranean country during an awful winter in Ireland was hard to resist. I booked the flights to Zadar for two nights on impulse and a few days later I was on board Ireland’s no-frills airline.

I have a love-hate relationship with Ryanair but when I fly with them I like to indulge by staying at a decent hotel. I feel it is not much to ask after being treated like shite on board Michael O’Leary’s Ruinair enterprise for over two hours, being subjected to constant sales pitches by the cabin crew, and having to listen to the celebratory trumpet tune for ‘another on time Ryanair flight’. After the ‘pleasant’ flight, I was soon checked in to Hotel Bastion. This is a grand four star hotel located on the small peninsula of Zadar, which is the central area for tourists. Rooms can be found from €100 up to €400. The hotel has a spa and a beautiful balcony-terraced restaurant and bar. The hotel is so nice that you almost wouldn’t want to leave! I struggled against the treats on offer and I was soon out walking in the town of Zadar.

The ‘Salute to the Sun’

There is not much to see and do in Zadar, a common trait to many of Ryanair’s destinations, however the ambiance on the streets and the beating of the sun instantly wins you over. The streets on the peninsula town of Zadar are laid out as a grid iron. It is enjoyable taking a stroll down the straight streets of old simple buildings with terracotta roof tiles. Walking two minutes in any direction you will reach the coast. An unmissable architectural and engineering masterpiece, found on the western side of the peninsula, is the sea-organ and the ‘salute to the sun’. The sea-organ is along the harbour boardwalk and plays a deep trumpet-like sound as the waves push air into different sized musical tubes under the promenade. The ‘salute to the sun’ is a large circular light platform that illuminations in response to the different sounds of the sea organ. It is soothing to listen to the musical sounds with your feet in the water while watching the boats sail by in the distance.

The Sea Organ

A site worth visiting is the 9th century St. Donatus’ Church located in the centre of the peninsula. It is an impressive pre-Romanesque church. Outside the church are notable Roman ruins with crumbling marble pillars dotted along the pathways. For a small place, there are numerous other churches to see, such as St. Anastasia’s Cathedral and St. Mary’s church.

St. Donatus’ Church

There are two beaches outside of Zadar at coastal areas called Bibinji and Diklo where you can enjoy the sand and take part in water-sports. You can rent speed boats and jet-skis at Diklo to take along the coastal areas of the Adriatic Sea. Tourists can also take organised boat tours that start from Zadar Harbour.

There are numerous places to eat and drink in Zadar. My top two places would be Lotus Café Bar and The Garden. I particularly liked Lotus Café Bar as it seemed to always be full of backpackers and played classic rock music and modern classics. It was a perfect place for me to enjoy an ice-cold pint.

When I was in Lotus Café Bar, I met a group of students from University of Sheffield. I decided to talk with one of them because I was intrigued by seeing many people wearing t-shirts with ‘Bummit’ written across the chest. I couldn’t help but ask the person ‘What is Bummit?’ I am delighted I asked because it made the night very entertaining from all the chats I had with different students. Bummit is an annual charity event by University of Sheffield students who hitch-hike from England to a chosen city or town in Europe. The students are required to reach the destination on a miniscule budget within a week. The different stories people told me were incredible. I asked how they managed to make it across long distances by hitch-hiking. I was told the number one tip – hang around big service-stations and talk with drivers, as these places cater for people taking a long journey. I may build up my courage to do something like the ‘bummits’ someday as they reached a place hundreds of miles away for less money than my Ryanair ticket!

Zadar is a town you would only stay a couple of days in to unwind. When I arrived, I wished I had done more research, because another day in the town would have been good to visit Plitvice National Park, which is relatively close-by. It looks absolutely stunning. I will just have to wait for the next Ryanair deal to come along!

One of those moments

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We all had one of those moments when you wished you had a camera! I met this old Peruvian man a few kilometres outside Aguas Calientes. I can not speak Spanish. The old man could not speak English. However, we somehow communicated and laughed together for about twenty minutes. It was a truly extraordinary moment. I wish I had it on video. The man was delighted when this photo was taken. He showed so much excitement when he saw himself on the screen of my camera! It was one of those moments, reminding me to appreciate all the finer things in life we take for granted.