Islands of History in a Sea of Modernity: Forts of the UAE

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Travelers to the UAE are drawn to the flamboyance and glamor of Dubai and Abu Dhabi. It is easy to be awestruck by the superlatives of modern wealth but there is much more to be seen in this young, yet historical country. Before this region of the Arabian Peninsula became a modern mecca of wealth and success, local tribes fiercely controlled portions of the desert landscape. Local rulers often built impressive forts that served as symbols of their power and control and provided security for the family and tribe.

Many of the forts built over the past four centuries still survive and have become icons celebrating the cultural heritage of an amazingly resilient culture. At the Al Jahili fort (one of the largest forts in the country) in the oasis town of Al Ain, visitors can wander through the remains of the summer palace of a royal family. In the center of Dubai, the Al Fahidi fort has been transformed into a wonderful museum that traces the history of culture in the region from prehistory to the present. Sprawling over a rocky bluff, the Fujairah Fort guards the Indian Ocean port of Fujairah continues to stand tall after more than 300 years.

When visiting the UAE, take the time to explore beyond the resorts, desert camel rides and shopping malls. This region is home of a fascinating cultural heritage that few visitors take the time to experience. Check out some of the forts and museums to learn how the people of this region were able to endure and thrive in this searing desert climate.

Fujairah Fort

Fujairah Fort

Watchtower at Al Jahili Fort

Watchtower at Al Jahili Fort

Shopping in Dubai

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Dubai is a shopaholics paradise. Check out this link for 5 Great Shopping Experiences in Dubai.

Sharjah – City of Art and Culture

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The Sharjah Museum of Islamic Arts and Culture

The Sharjah Museum of Islamic Arts and Culture

Sharjah's colorful central marketplace

Sharjah’s colorful central marketplace

Immediately adjacent to the northern boundary of Dubai, the Emirate of Sharjah refuses to be overwhelmed by its glamorous neighbor. The half-hour drive from Dubai to Sharjah paints a different portrait of the UAE. A bustling modern city, albeit without the glitzy skyscrapers, surrounds a historical district that preserves the rich cultural and artistic heritage of the region. The museums of Sharjah are a great way for visitors to gain an understanding of the historical and cultural heritage of the UAE.

The Sharjah Art Museum houses a wonderful collection of art from 18th Century lithographs to works by contemporary artists. Many works from the Sheik’s private art collection are on display and the permanent collection is complemented by the works of talented contemporary artists and impressive temporary exhibitions. The lithographs and paintings by European artists who visited the region are world-class.

A short distance from the Art Museum, the Museum of Islamic Arts & Culture provides a unique glimpse into the artifacts and traditions of Islam. Over the centuries, Islamic scholars made important contributions in a variety of scholarly fields, notably science and mathematics. The modern museum brings the history if this often misunderstood culture alive in a way that is easily appreciated.

Few of the expatriates living in Dubai and even fewer of the visitors to Dubai take the short detour to this wonderful Emirate. If they ventured that short distance north, they would be richly rewarded.

Getting Around in Dubai

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Dubai's sleek modern Metro station

Dubai’s sleek modern Metro station

Getting around in Dubai is interesting. The Metro system is inexpensive, clean and reliable but there are only two lines. I use the Metro as much as possible. Often it is best to take the Metro part of the way to your destination and catch a taxi to go he rest of the way. Bus lines traverse the city but route information is scarce so you really have to know where you are going. Taxis are also safe, clean and inexpensive. They are operated by the Transit Authority that operates busses and the Metro. It is easy to flag down a taxi just about anywhere. drivers are well acquainted with the city.

There are some challenges, however. The city is spread out over a very large area and getting from one area to another often takes a while. The main challenge is that no one seems to use street addresses. You navigate by landmarks – tell the taxi the nearest hotel, mall, roundabout or other landmark. If you know the nearest main street, that is also helpful. Recently, trying to find a local pizza restaurant, I looked up the address on their website. No street address, it just said across the street from a certain hotel. So, I looked up the hotel website and it just said located in Downtown Dubai. I was walking and I wandered around the section of Dubai known as Downtown Dubai for about 20 minutes – I finally found it. Next time I will know to use a taxi because I am sure he will be able to take me right to the hotel.

You might ask how they get mail if they don’t use street address. Well, everyone, businesses and private residences alike, uses P.O. boxes

Dubai’s Bastakiya District

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Courtyard with art installationBastakiya Street

Bastakiya Art Gallery

Bastakiya Mosque

Cooling towerPalm frond houseBeginning in the early 1800s, wealthy merchants and pearl traders built their homes near the Dubai Creek in the Bastakiya area. Wealthy inhabitants built houses out of blocks of coral that were covered with plaster. Less wealthy inhabitants used palm fronds as a building material. Narrow streets provided shade for pedestrians. Tall towers catching the wind and large interior courtyards provided an early form of air conditioning.

Over the years, this area had deteriorated so, in an effort to promote an understanding of the Emirati culture, the Dubai government has purchased all the houses in this area and restored them to their original glory. Rather than allow the buildings to sit unused the area is now home to several small museums, eclectic art galleries, restaurants and a variety shops selling handcrafted items.

True to Emirati hospitality, if a door is open in this area, it is an invitation for guests to enter. You can wander through the lanes and check out the buildings by yourself but, to get a good understanding of the history and culture, I joined a tour offered by the Sheik Mohammed Center for Cultural Understanding. The tour was excellent and the guides were great.
This little bit of traditional culture nestled in the center of a modern sprawling metropolis is a great counterpoint to the glitz and glamor of the huge shopping malls.

Dubai Creek

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DhowsDhows, traditional trading boats, load goods to be delivered throughout the Middle East and western Africa.

Burj Khalifa

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Burj Khalifa

Burj Khalifa

The Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building towers above the Dubai skyline.

Dubai: City of Contrasts

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I arrived in Dubai a week ago not really knowing what to expect. I knew the glamorous reputation. The tallest building in the world, the biggest shopping center, and artificial islands shaped like palm trees might indicate over-the-top extravagance. What I have found, however, is a city successfully leaping into the twenty first century while remaining grounded in a strong cultural heritage.

Visitors to the city who take in the malls and resorts often miss the rich cultural experience that exists in Dubai’s neighborhoods. The Bastakiya area proudly displays its traditional houses made with coral or with palm wood and the bustling Deira neighborhood is home to thousands of expatriate workers from the Indian subcontinent. The Dubai creek harbor area is teeming with abras, traditional water taxis, and dhows, wooden cargo ships loading wares to deliver throughout the region.

In Dubai, it does not seem that the modern world is clashing with the traditional society as it is in many areas of the world. Here there is a harmonious merging of the two.

Civita di Bagnoregio: The perfect complement to a Rome visit

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Perched precariously on a small plateau an hour’s drive north of Rome, Civita offers a peaceful counter point to the frenzy of a visit to Rome. Traffic-free Civita can only be reached by a pedestrian bridge from the town of Bagnoregio. Once a thriving medieval town, Civita has been reduced by time and erosion to a mere remnant of its past. With a peaceful town square, a small church, a couple restaurants and great views in all directions, it is the perfect place for a leisurely afternoon with a glass of wine and a plate of freshly made bruschetta. A tiny museum displays a vintage olive press but the main sight in Civita is the town itself.

Lying between Rome and Florence, this area is often overlooked by visitors to central Italy but there are plenty of reasons to spend a few nights here. Hotel Romantica Pucci in Bagnoregio makes a great base for exploring the region. Orvieto, with its cliff-side setting and a magnificent cathedral that features an ornate façade and amazing frescos by Lucca Signorelli, is only a 30-minute drive to the north. It is said that Michelangelo went to Orvieto to study the frescos before painting the Sistine ceiling. Hilltop towns such as Montefiascone, Sorano and Pitigliano,, are all worth a visit. Each offers a thriving small town in a spectacular setting. Visitors interested in history will appreciate the area to the southwest of Bagnoregio. The Etruscan civilization flourished in the area as the Roman civilization was growing to the south. Eventually the Romans conquered the Etruscans but artifacts of the Etruscans remain, particularly in the tombs such as those found at Tarquinia

Southeast of Bagnoregio is the small town of Bomarzo. The town itself is rather plain but it is the gateway to the Parco dei Mostri (Park of the Monsters) This estate features a series of massive sixteenth century sculptures, some carved out of the natural bedrock, situated in a park-like setting. The sculptures are impressive and the park is a great spot for a picnic.

A car is necessary to get the best out a visit to the area. Bagnoregio is an easy drive from the Rome airport. Another option is to take one of the frequent regional trains from Rome to Orvieto and rent a car there. Either way, a few days spent in the area around Bagnoregio make an excellent beginning or end to a Roman holiday.

Korcula, Croatia: A glimpse into medieval Europe

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Korcula is set on a small peninsula jutting into the Adriatic Sea from the island also named Korcula. Old Town, the historic town center, offers a peek into the small towns of medieval Europe. The best way to experience Korcula is to spend at least two nights in Old Town.

Many local residents rent private rooms or small apartments that offer an inexpensive stay. The rooms and apartments often come with typical hotel amenities. Information about Korcula, including recommendations on accommodations and activities can be found at In 2011, many rooms with double beds and private bathrooms were available for about 60 U.S. dollars.

According to local history, Marco Polo wandered the town of Korcula as a 13th century youth and little has changed since then. Many of the streets and much of the architecture would be familiar to Marco if he were in Korcula today. Step into one of the smallest cathedrals in Europe or climb the remnants of the town wall for a view over the town. Visit the town museum to get a feel for Korcula’s history.

Tour groups from local cruise ships occasionally crowd the streets during the day so take advantage of the quiet evenings for a leisurely stroll along the Adriatic seawall and a relaxed dinner in a local restaurant. Seafood is often featured but grilled meats are common. The cevapcici, a mixture of ground meats cooked on skewers and served with a spicy pepper relish, is a tasty local dish. Many Croatians speak English so the language barrier is relatively easy to overcome.

Korcula may be out of the way but it is easy to reach. Discount airlines such as EasyJet regularly serve Croatia from major European cities. Local bus and ferry companies offer regular service directly to Korcula from Split and Dubrovnik. To take a break from the crowds of big city Europe, consider a few nights for the small town experience that Korcula offers.