Cities new and old

Dubai Stopover

Dubai or not Dubai - that was the question! Normally we head for the wide open spaces for our relaxation, not man-made tourist meccas such as Dubai. Still there was a fascination to see why 15 million tourists flock to Dubai each year and so the fair Nello and I found ourselves having a two-day stopover here on our way to trekking in Europe.

Contrary to our expectations of Arabian weather, we arrived to gray skies and the odd bit of drizzle, but still 30°C plus temperatures. In two days our exploration was but brief, seen largely through the perspective of a tour bus loop which dropped you off and picked you up at the various tourist highlights. Dubai is indeed an amazing place, the historic Dubai set around a creek with its mix of old and new and then the mega-modern Dubai unchained, heading off to the southwest along a 12-lane freeway to a series of spawning grounds for ultramodern skyscrapers; the style a blend of neo-traditional concrete and modernist glass and steel. If nothing else, it is a tribute to creativity in concrete.

The Burj Khalifa
- at 828m the world's tallest building

Typical Dubai cityscape
- the place is a massive construction site

One of many precincts of themed skyscrapers

The 18th century Al Fahidi Fort

Dubai Creek - a blend of the old and the new

Sunset over Dubai Creek

Everywhere, cranes hovered over building sites and sand was being reshaped for roads or monorail tracks or new shopping malls. Our trip ended at the Palm Dubai development, where the land has been extended into the sea in the shape of a many fronded palm, each frond densely packed with 5-star hotels and luxury condos; so vast that it is visible from outer space. This is graffiti on a landscape scale! Yet it is only the beginning of a series of even more massive reshaping of the coastline into artificial and unnatural forms that are destined to be packed with concrete and glass-steel structures; development here is out of control. To us, Dubai was like a bubble about to burst, smooth and shiny, reflecting the colours of the rainbow, but held together by a thin economic film.

Ultramodern glass and steel ....

... or creativity in concrete ...

... if you love architecture on a megascale ...

.... come to Dubai!

Still, we enjoyed our lunch in the shadow of the Burj Dubai, the latest "tallest building in the world", wandering through shopping malls so large that they had internal public transport and souks so winding that you need a GPS to navigate your way around, boggling our minds at the rampant materialism of this city. Want snow in the desert - build a giant indoor ski run, need dolphins for your giant aquarium - ship them in from the Pacific, want green surrounds in the desert - pump 1 billion litres of water a day on the sand. Dubai is not about harmonious development, it is purely about the domination of the environment - the "humanisation" of our planet, as some pro-growth people like to euphemise. Dubai makes me afraid, as it may be a glimpse of our future.

The two faces of Dubai
- which do you prefer?

The next day we headed out into the desert to see something a bit more natural. However, if you are just passing by and cannot afford the helicopter trip from your 7-star hotel, you are obliged to go on a desert-dinner combo trip for a bedouin barbecue, with camel riding, falcon holding, belly dancing entertainment. Spoon-fed tourism cannot be avoided here.

The trip involved travelling in a convoy of dune-bashing 4x4 vehicles and, while the child within enjoyed the adrenalin rush of sliding sideways down the face of dune or the sudden change of view from sky to sand as the car crested a dune and nosed down the other side, the environmentalist without couldn't help wondering what I was doing here. Still, we made a brief stop, where we could disappear behind the back of a dune and quietly take in the vastness of the desert beyond. For 15 minutes, we got a feeling for the emptiness of the world beyond Dubai - a brief, but worthwhile encounter. In the end, this was really what we came to see.

Wind-rippled dunes of th Arabian Desert

The desert is an empty place

The beauty of sand

Three tips

- Best value in town - visit Dubai Museum at the Al Fahidi Fort. It provides an excellent interpretive display of Dubai as it used to be and only costs 3 dirhams.
- Best way to end a day - cruise the creek on an old wooden dhow, lounging on the low cushioned seats, as you pass by the bustle of life on this busy waterway.
- Best place to avoid - the gold souk, unless you really want to buy a Rolex watch from one of the hustling, hassling hawkers - it is really just a string of ordinary jewellery stores. The wonderful aromas of the spice souk are the way to go.

Return to Rome

Leaving Dubai, we flew into Rome and the next day set out on the metro looking for a very specific destination, no not the Coliseum or the Vatican, but Viale Tito Livio, Monte Mario - no. 55 to be precise. For the fair Nello, this was a return "home" to where she lived as a child while her father was on a posting to Italy .... over 50 years ago. This was our first pilgrimage of the trip and it was still there, jogging distant childhood memories, including the pizzeria at the bottom of the street. We stopped in for lunch.

Classic skyline of Rome

Pilgrimage over, we wandered back down the hill to the Vatican to join the throngs of tourists doing touristy things. We checked out the long circular queue in St Peter's Square waiting to visit the Vatican, climbed to the top of Castel Sant'Angelo for the classic view of the Tiber and the rooftops of Rome, followed a procession with Madonna into Piazza Navona, watched the Romans emerge for their evening strolls over a beer in Campo de Fiori, did the classic evening walk past the Pantheon and Trevi Fountain (with its bathtub ring of tourists 6-deep around the edge) and on to the Spanish Steps for a night view of the Roman skyline. It was a good day.

Back in Viale Tito Livio after only 50 years

Procession with Madonna

Trevi Fountain (almost without a tourist)

a hidden gem of first millenial art

Monument to Victor Emmanuel II
- a more recent folly

Castel Sant'Angelo

Ponte Sant'Angelo crossing the Tiber

The next day we switched from medieval Rome to ancient Rome, and took the second metro line to the Coliseum to watch the long circular queue waiting to visit the interior and another procession heading down Via del Fori Imperiali. It was a Sunday and the Romans were out in force, outnumbering tourists on foot and bicycle, laughing and chattering with gelati-dripping children in tow. It was fascinating to watch the masses pass by, enjoying the buskers while trying to avoid the street vendors.

The 1st century AD Coliseum - tourist magnet without equal

Constantine's Arch (built in 315 AD)

The Forum - for a thousand years the heart of Rome

Archway in the Forum

We took in the sights of Constantine's Arch, the Forum and the Campus Maximus, wondering what the ancient Romans would make of their city and its citizens now, before visiting a local market to sample the cheeses, olive oils and fresh strawberries of the region and finally take in the monumental monument to Victor Emmanuel II (aka the wedding cake). Finally, the urge for a siesta became too strong and we handed in our tourist badges to catch the metro and head back to the hotel. It was time to head north and start some walking.