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Destinations · Asia · united arab emirates · Abu Dhabi · Essence ·


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Abu Dhabi: the desert gazelle with contemporary ambition

Abu Dhabi, the capital and second largest city of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), is 119 km or one-and-a-half hour's drive from Dubai, a true oasis of superfluity and opulence. Abu Dhabi feels so different, however -- greener and more authentic, with a more leisurely lifestyle. The Abu Dhabi emirate shares a border with Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Oman and has a 700-km-long sea border, while the city itself is located on a T-shape island protruding into the Persian Gulf. With about 100 million barrels of oil reserves, Abu Dhabi is the richest among the seven UAE emirates.

In 3000 B.C. the territory of the present-day UAE was partly inhabited by nomadic tribes. Abu Dhabi, literally meaning "the father of the gazelle", was formed in 1791 when Bedouins came across a freshwater spring by the Persian Gulf. Being just a small village, it initially depended on fishing, camels, dates and pearls. At the beginning of the 20th century the region was thrown into severe crisis by the booming Japanese cultured pearl industry, which decreased demand for natural pearls. Yet in 1962, when oil was discovered, the situation quickly changed. Priced at USD 147 per barrel, oil exports brought Abu Dhabi around 140 billion dollars a year. 
Sheikh Zayed (1918 - 2004), the first president of the United Arab Emirates, played a key role in Abu Dhabi's development. Thanks to his vision and strategically smart investments in production, infrastructure and agriculture, Abu Dhabi experienced rapid economic growth. The sheik's passion was bringing to Abu Dhabi the very best that the world had achieved so far. While neighbouring Dubai features grand entertainment and shopping centres, Abu Dhabi is world-renowned for its Saadiyat Island project and high aspirations of becoming a global cultural hub. The Saadiyat Island Cultural District is planned to house the Frank Gehry-designed Abu Dhabi Guggenheim Museum, the Zaha Hadid Performing Arts Centre, the Maritime Museum by Tadao Ando and a branch of the Louvre Museum designed by star architect Jean Nouvel. Located just 500 metres from the shore, Saadiyat is a natural, not man-made, island that is also an important turtle nesting ground.

Even though the recent economic crisis also affected Abu Dhabi and the Saadiyat project experienced several unexpected turns of events, including anger regarding working conditions for the workers involved, which caused missed deadlines and almost resulted in an artists' boycott, the vision of the island project has never been questioned. And the ambition of the project has not diminished one bit! The project no longer resembles a mirage in the desert, especially since the French Minister of Culture Aurélie Filippetti recently announced that the Louvre Abu Dhabi -- estimated to have cost USD 653 million to build -- will open on December 2, 2015. The concrete façade of the museum, already referred to as "the Louvre in the sand", will be finished at the beginning of this year.

In 2013, an exhibition titled "Birth of a Museum" and dedicated to the future Louvre's collection was held at the Manarat Al Saadiyat centre, which is currently the cultural heart of the developing island. The exhibition contained 150 works of art, including works by Picasso, Édouard Manet and René Magritte. The French Louvre and Abi Dhabi Louvre have signed a ten-year contract, according to which four large exhibitions will take place at the new museum every year. As the manager of the Louvre Abu Dhabi told Abu Dhabi Time Out, "This is an original project born of two symbols: the Louvre as a symbol of culture, openness and education, and Abu Dhabi as the crossroads between the East and West." Even though the Louvre Abu Dhabi will be able to borrow about 300 pieces of artwork from its Parisian "mother", many of the works for its future exhibitions have been and continue to be specially bought. In any case, once the Saadiyat Island project is finished, it will be the first place in the world to see works by such famous contemporary architects as Jean Nouvel, Frank Gehry, Lord Norman Foster and Zaha Hadid all together in one place. One of Abu Dhabi's most prestigious art galleries, the Salwa Zeidan Gallery, also recently moved to Saadiyat Island, thereby becoming the first private art gallery on the island.

Of course, giant cultural institutions are only one side of the Saadiyat Island Cultural District. The island is envisioned to become a self-sufficient lifestyle territory with not only prominent exhibitions but also beautiful beaches that cater to another sort of hedonistic pleasure. The island's public beach was opened already last March. Saadiyat Island covers 27 square kilometres and may in the future be home to an estimated 145,600 residents as well as educational institutions.

A symbol of tradition and modernity

Saadiyat Island is not Abu Dhabi's only ambitious project. The impressive Sheikh Zayed Mosque -- the third largest in the world -- has also become a symbol of sorts and a manifestation of the scale of the emirate's development. Arriving in the city, it is impossible to miss the dazzling white building against the background of blue sky, casting reflections of its magnificent dome onto the serene surface of an artificial lake. The mosque is a man-made marvel endowed with a divine, almost incredible beauty. The project was initiated by the late Sheikh Zayed and construction began in 1998, but it first opened its doors only in December 2007, with the sheikh's sons continuing with the project after his death in 2004. The mosque is located on a small hillock and covers a stunning 22,000 square metres. Built of white marble, it features four 107-metre-high minarets and 82 different sized domes. The 1048 columns outside and 96 inside are all encrusted with gemstones and semi-precious stones (lapis lazuli, red agate, amethyst, abalone shell, mother of pearl), every detail and floral motif being of the finest handwork. A floral design covers the whole marble floor of the mosque as well as the columns and is -- unlike traditional Islamic art -- inspired by real flowers. It is said that the sheikh's passion was green gardens and that he wished to also see them here. The mosque's main prayer room features seven crystal chandeliers measuring 10x10 metres and weighing nine tonnes and the largest hand-woven Persian carpet in the world. Measuring 6000 square metres, the carpet was made by 1300 Iranian women and its estimated value is over USD 8.5 million. The carpet weighs 35 tonnes and contains 2,268,000, 000 hand-tied knots. Due to the immense size of the finished carpet, it was not possible to transport it to Abu Dhabi. So, although the carpet was begun in the weavers' native city of Mashhad, Iran, it was finished on site in the mosque. Estimated building costs for the mosque reach 2.167 billion dirham, and the building has achieved three entries into the Guinness Book of World Records for the largest carpet, the largest crystal chandelier and the largest dome of its kind. The mosque is open to non-Muslim visitors, and thousands of people visit it every week, but women are required to cover their heads upon entering. No bare legs and arms are allowed, either. Surrounded by stately columns, the mosque's white marble courtyard is almost blinding in its glimmering whiteness. The mosque is lighted in the evenings, with the lighting scheme changing according to the phases of the moon: dark blue when the moon is waning and white when the moon is full.

Hotel extravagances

Continuing with the world records, Abu Dhabi is also the home of one of the most extravagant hotel projects of all time: Emirates Palace Hotel. Opened in 2005, it seems like a sand-colour castle rising up from the desert. Especially at night, with a huge fountain splashing at its threshold, the hotel resembles a scene from Arabian fairytales. In terms of costs (USD 3 billion), Emirates Palace Hotel is one of the most expensive hotel projects ever. It boasts 1002 Swarovski crystal chandeliers, the largest weighting 2.5 tonnes, 114 domes covered in glistening glass-tile mosaics, gold and marble imported from 13 countries. The staff of over 2000 people speaks 50 languages. 12,000 people have been involved in the construction of the hotel, and the distance between the two farthest wings measures one kilometre, easily turning a morning walk from your room to breakfast into a moderate amount of daily physical activity. Emirates Palace Hotel features 1.3 kilometres of white sandy beach, 8000 trees growing on its huge territory and a 42-metre-wide atrium. It is topped by the world's largest hotel dome, finished in silver and gold glass mosaic tiles, while 775 plasma TVs have been installed in the guest rooms. A few years ago the hotel became famous for having one of the world's most expensive Christmas trees, valued at approximately USD 11 million. Among the decorations were 181 diamonds, pearls, emeralds, sapphires, etc.

Owned by the state (meaning the sheikh's family), Emirates Palace Hotel is operated by the Kempinski hotel chain. But, despite its seeming extravagances, the mirage-like castle surrounds its guests with an amazing feel of authenticity. Emirates Palace Hotel is not a traditional hotel in the usual sense of the word. Currently, it functions as an important venue of Abu Dhabi cultural and social life, hosting festivals, concerts and art exhibitions starring world-famous guest artists. Abu Dhabi's first art fair took place here and turned the hotel's property into a sculpture garden. Emirates Palace Hotel has also contributed significantly to popularising the emerging Saadiyat Island Cultural District and Abu Dhabi's Formula One track. One of the greatest values and unique features of the hotel is possibly that, while staying here and enjoying the view of the sea from your apartment terrace, your own personal butler and luxury befitting a sheikh, you also feel literally at a crossroads of cultures. And that's a pleasant aftertaste that does not fade away, unlike at the other "five-star mirages" that are popping up in Abu Dhabi and neighbouring Dubai like mushrooms after a rain.

In any case, Abu Dhabi does not lack grand hotels. For example, the Viceroy, whose bright wave-like "skin" is made of 5096 polished diamond-shaped steel panels and whose windows face the Formula One track. Or the Park Hyatt Saadiyat in the Cultural District, which is located right next to the island's 18-hole golf course and beach. The Hyatt Capital Gate in central Abu Dhabi is also impressive -- a sort of Abu Dhabi Tower of Pisa, or glass skyscraper that inclines 18 degrees westward.

Ferrari and 4x4s in the desert

Unlike Dubai, where no one seems to walk on foot any more, Abu Dhabi boasts a 9-kilometre-long beachside bikeway and promenade that is much favoured by local families going out for weekend picnics. This gives the metropolis a very human feel, despite its tendency towards ambition. Also, do not miss an opportunity to visit the local fish market with its authentic, still unpolished flavour. The market counters are brimming with all sorts of sea creatures, and you can choose shrimp or fish and have it grilled on the spot. Al-Ittihad Square and its symbolic sculptures is also worth a visit. Six gigantic figures -- including a phial for rose-water, a coffee pot, a cannon and a watch tower -- set amidst the urban jungle of skyscrapers glisten in the bright sunshine. On Fridays numerous believers flow to the nearby mosque, leaving the neighbouring streets almost empty. Only a muezzin's penetrating voice echoes there, giving a surreal feeling.

The way in which tradition lives side by side with an unconcealed desire to demonstrate the profound changes that have taken place in the country seems quite organic in Abu Dhabi. It's like a desert mirage that has turned into reality. The world's first Ferrari amusement park was opened in Abu Dhabi in 2010. The park covers an impressive 86,000 square metres and offers 20 Ferrari-inspired attractions, including several nerve-tickling amusement rides. The park is located on Yas Island, and its main feature is a gigantic roof construction inspired by the classic Ferrari silhouette, which is decorated with -- of course! -- the biggest Ferrari logo ever made. The perimeter of the roof measures over two kilometres and is supported by a steel construction weighing 12,370 tonnes. One of the most exciting rides is the Formula Rossa rollercoaster, the fastest in the world. It can reach 100 km/h in five seconds with a maximum speed of 240 km/h. The park also has a reproduction of the famous Maranello factory, where visitors learn all about the creation of Ferrari while the more adrenaline-seeking among them can even try out racecar simulators that are used to train Ferrari racing teams.

But one of the most wonderful features of Abu Dhabi is the opportunity to escape the 21st century when it's all become too much and head for the silence of the desert. As the British traveller and author of Arabian Sands wrote in 1959: "It was very still with the silence which we have driven from our world." The Rub' al Khali, or Empty Quarter, begins on the outskirts of Abu Dhabi, spreads for 650,000 square kilometres and is the largest sand desert in the world. There are not many places in the world with sand dunes as magnificently tall as they are in the Liwa Desert, where some of the dunes reach a height of 25 metres. The sand is soft and warm -- the kind you just want to sink into and let flow through your fingers. And there's nothing else as far as the eye can see, just majestic orange sand dunes and blue sky. No trees, no bushes, only endless open space that erases all footprints as if they were just the insignificant dust of a temporary life. When the sun sets, the landscape turns reddish-yellow and the stars sparkle like mad.

One of the main attractions of the UAE and Abu Dhabi are desert safaris. The adrenaline that accompanies a slide down a sand dune in a jeep ought to be experienced at least once in a lifetime. One suggestion, however: if you wish to enjoy this experience by yourself, reserve a private tour ahead of time. Otherwise you may well find yourself in a group of a hundred tourists corralled into a sand enclosure who are then afterwards sent all together to a touristy Bedouin camp. The true freedom and mystery of the desert begins once you are away from the crowd, the white-clad 4x4 driver has turned off the key in the ignition and has sat down next to his four-wheeled "camel", and you simply listen and merge with the silence that seems to suddenly have become so close and real that you can even reach out and touch it....


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