Arabian Nights

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I have never really been able to explain why I feel so completely at home in Dubai.

Part of the United Arab Emirates (the bit without the oil wealth) Dubai has grown up in the middle of an expanse of desert which runs down to meet the sea.

The temperatures are searing, local women, when they are seen at all, are completely covered in black with only their big dark khol-lined eyes showing, while men wear snowy white Arab dress and shopping consumes everyone. It is not a place I would ever have expected to love, yet I am drawn back time and time again. I have my favourite restaurants, dishes, souks, buildings and things to do. And each time I go there I add to that list by trying something new. That’s the thing about Dubai – there’s always something new. During the financial crisis everyone said Dubai was done. Yet it has risen from the ashes to be bolder and brasher than ever.

And while I love its ‘look at me’ attitude, it is the old traditions I enjoy the most. Sipping juices on a deck wreathed in aromatic shisha smoke; walking around the old buildings that seem to have been shaped from the desert sand; haggling in the souk; watching the abras and boats follow the path of The Creek and on to the sea.

Before the oil money flooded into the Emirates, Dubai was a fishing village. It isn’t until you find yourself wandering around the spice souk that childhood stories spring to life. As you wander you are instantly taken back to a world with warm night air perfumed with jasmine and wisps of frankincense, sandalwood, cinnamon.  You gaze longingly at the precious boxes of plump moist dates and rows of pastries stuffed with pistachios and drenched in honey. You remember stories of Arabian knights on fine horses, curved silver daggers on their belts inlaid with precious jewels; stories of magic carpets and seafarers; camps among the dunes – camels tethered nearby and hear the cry of a falcon soaring high about the desert sands.

This is old Arabia. Sometimes you have to look hard to find it, but its still there calling to you when you least expect it.

The first thing I did when I arrived in Dubai, exhausted from that painful flight was turn to the modern day equivalent of an oasis – the swimming pool at the Al Manzil. There I floated in chilled water and gazed up at a brilliant blue sky while the date palms rustled overhead. In the nearby wind towers, designed to draw cool breezes down into the home – doves cooed. Every stress and worry I had ever had melted away.

But I am getting ahead of myself. The first thing I did on landing in Dubai was have breakfast. Now normally this wouldn’t warrant a mention – however, the fact that the breakfast buffet featured my favourite Middle Eastern foods saw me starting my day with hommus and baba ganush with warm flat bread for scooping it up. I had arrived in style. They also offered an astonishing range of freshly squeezed juices. I knocked back green apple and mint juice and grapefruit and kiwi juice. Then for something different I mixed the two for a tart and tangy tipple.

Among the eggs, cereal, breads and cheese I had a good look at the veal bacon. Being a Muslim country there is no pork, so someone came up with the idea of substituting very thinly sliced veal, taking ‘I can’t believe it’s not bacon’ to a whole new level.

Because I had a long wait for my room I was given temporary membership to the health club next door so I could go and change into my swimmers and freshen up after the long flight. When I walked outside I slammed into a wall of heat. It was 8am and already 40 degrees.

Once at the pool I found a sun lounge in deep shade, flattened it, turned my towel into a pillow and as a cool breeze played off the water I allowed the doves to sing me to sleep. I woke up a couple of hours later, slid into the cool water and was refreshed.

Now normally in Dubai the swimming pools feel like stepping into a warm bath but at the Al Manzil, they do in fact chill the water so it is cool. Dripping wet I dropped back onto my shady bed and let the breeze play over my wet clothes. I fell asleep once more.

By the time I opened my eyes it was lunch time so I ordered falafels with a tahini dipping sauce and a wonderful concoction called a pomegranate mist. A perfect balance of orange and pomegranate juice spiced with cinnamon. Bliss.

Juice is such a treat in hot Middle Eastern countries. I always drink more than my share. There is nothing like them. So much flavour, with accents of cinnamon, mint and rosewater.

Late afternoon I wandered over to the Souk Al Bahar. It is my second favourite Souk (or bazaar).  My favourite is the Madinat Souk overlooking the seven star Burj al Arab.

I crossed the bridge to the Dubai Mall, which has more than 1200 shops, for an early dinner. My Middle Eastern fix under my belt I settled on grilled lobster tail with lemon butter and a huge baked potato. This was served with a salad and the lightest fluffiest cheese biscuits I have ever eaten. I had a frozen virgin margarita, which was so delicious I had to wonder. Did someone slip a little tequila in there?  But at 16 dirham or $4 dollars it seems unlikely.

I stopped to watch the dancing fountains – they always move me. This time they danced to Andrea Bocelli’s The Prayer. It was breathtaking – the water soaring with his voice. What we saw was his voice made visible.

As I walked through the mall I couldn’t stop looking at the incredible window displays – every gift-wrapped box of dates and pastries a work of art. It was so tiring I stopped for another juice –  a mint lemonade with a splash of lime juice – very tangy and incredibly refreshing. Then I walked home through the balmy night.

This time my new thing was paying a visit to the Ibn Batuta Mall which has halls representing the great traveller’s expeditions across the world. Each is decorated in the style of its country. The idea is to allow people to shop in India, Andalucia, Egypt, China, and Tunisia. It was quite fun and the shopping was great. I bought shoes – cute little blue and green ballet flats.

Up again at 1.30am to go to the airport. As I stumbled raggedly into the terminal Frank Sinatra was crooning ‘Come Fly with Me’.

A great seven hour flight – I slept for five, and then I was touching down in Paris.

Let the good life begin.

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