Standing in the Louvre Abu Dhabi, I looked down and got a shock. Placed in the glittering white floor of the first exhibition hall set in silver were the names of places throughout the world in all different forms of writing. The shock for me was to see that the obscure fjord Hardanger in Norway where my ancestors lived for literally a thousand years, was placed directly next to the characters for Beijing where I lived and studied for a year. Okay, it was weird, but it brought home to me, like a lightning bolt the very mission statement of this incredible museum.
Abu Dhabi is an island city set just below the strategic Straits of Hormuz, has been for two millennium at the crossroads of the world. The Louvre Abu Dhabi, far from being a slavish reproduction of its Paris sister, is actually a fascinating paean to the intertwined nature of our world society. This museum’s spectacular architecture is just the outside wrapping of what is delivered to you as a tour de force journey from Neolithic times to modern, shining a beacon on how our cultures have continually influenced, changed and interacted with each other. One feels as if one is walking through a brilliantly told story of world history through art. And it is is a story that begins with a floor that made it feel deeply personal to me.
And that’s just the beginning of what makes Abu Dhabi a fascinating place to visit. First off, let’s get one thing clear: many of us in the West are a bit confused about Dubai vis a vis Abu Dhabi. They are NOT the same place, although they are each one of the seven members of the United Arab Emerites (U.A.E.) and Dubai, though the richest emirate (and that’s really saying something), is not the capital of this federation, Abu Dhabi is. Abu Dhabi is NOT “the one with the palm tree island and the world’s largest indoor skiing hall, though it does have its share of monumental environmental debacles and fabulously garish building projects! It’s Emir, an absolute monarch, as are all the leaders of the UAE, is traditionally the leader of this hugely rich federation.
Now that we’ve gotten the facts down we can focus on what makes this an amazing place to visit. Well, first off, any visitor will realize where our gas money has gone for the last sixty years and it’s not in a small part to these tiny countries! Abu Dhabi is a city of glitz and glamour, elegant avenues and sleek skyscrapers. Visiting this city is a bit like going to that fabulous French restaurant and really throwing caution to the wind, ordering everything from foie gras to the Gran Mariner soufflé….did I forget the cheese course?
Start with the Louvre. As I’ve already waxed eloquently on this subject, I’ll just say if you see nothing else in this place see this museum; enough said. Afterwords, jump into a cab. They are plentiful, cheap and blissfully air conditioned. The driver, who will most likely be a guest worker from India or Pakistan, will be a introduction to the dynamics of this opulent society. Natives here certainly don’t drive cabs or for that matter do any menial work, foreigners do. A drive along the Corniche is in itself is a “site to visit” in this town. As one glides along this elegant boulevard which is lined with parks and flowers it is hard the square it with photos of the area a few decades ago, which show a desolate hardscrabble town set in a bleak dessert. The beaches along the boulevard are immaculate and segregated into families, male and female and general. I guess it’s “take your pick”!
A visit to the Emerates Palace, a spectacularly over the top hotel along the Corniche, is another must here. Just driving up to the Arabia meets Baroque meets Hollywood meets Las Vegas porte cochere is a kick. Here you will find a cavalcade of young local guys dashing about and alighting from there Lambos, Bentley’s and assorted other cars that cost more that most Americans homes. And yes, they they are wearing Abaya and yes there is something about Arab guys that’s pretty romantic. A walk inside introces one to more gilt and marble than a Roman Emperor ever dreamed of. After passing through what seems like acres and acres of grand halls, that would make Cecil B. Demill a happy camper, we finally emerged at the back gardens where we found the lovely Mezlai restaurant. This place is an oasis of old fashioned Arab style comfort and Emirati cuisine. A great selection of meze and delicious fruit drinks (yes there is no alcohol served here) was followed by perfectly prepared sautéed local fish. For desert though, we returned to the grand cafe of the hotel where one can have one of the”must do” Abu Dhabi things, which is of course a gold encrusted cappuccino for $25.00 dollars: with all this gold about why not drink it too!
After treating oneself to one Emirati destination, cross the street to another, The Etihad Towers and take the elevator to the 74th floor observation deck 300. From here one has the most magnificent view of the entire metropolis. Spread out below you is a amazing city created with the wealth a petroleum the engenuity of the few and the backs of guest workers! If one feels up to it descend to the street and take another cab to the dazzling Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque. It is an amazing place of glittering white marble that was built to rival all the other glittering grand mosques in the region. For one, it can be a good place to contemplate the role of religion and money in the region.
Of course there is much more to see and do in Abu Dhabi, the AD History Museum and Aquarium, Qasr Al Hosn Fort a World Heritage Site and the Mangrove National Park to name but a few. But, the above sites gives one a tremendous, heady insight into an important world that most of us hardly know. So even if you only have a day in this amazing city, as we did, you can have quite the experience and help yourself to big helping of new insights into this influential and fascinating part of the world.