Let me be honest with you, the Emirates would not be a destination I would choose for a holiday – far away from it. That said, I believe one should never waste a chance to visit a new place, so, when the time came for me and a friend Dani to pick an Etihad flight home from Jakarta via Abu Dhabi, we didn’t hesitate to make it a long stopover – 9h – in order to allow us a quick visit to the city.
The flight landed in the Emirates capital at the very convenient hour of 7am, which gave us the whole day to explore the city. The biggest of the Arab Emirates is ruled by the Al Nahyan family, descendants of the Bani Yas tribe, who arrived at Abu Dhabi during the 13thC in search of drinking water – a highly valued commodity in a desert land, I guess. The basis of its economy, on those days, was the trade of Arabian Gulf pearls but on the 1930s, with the decline of that market, they turned their attention to the slushy black goo known as oil that happens to move the World… And today they enjoy one of the highest PIB per capita in the world.
And it is this wealth that sets the pulse of the city. Located in an island linked to the mainland and the nearby islands by several bridges, it was designed by Sheikh Zayed and the Japanese architect Katsuhiko Takahashi in 1967 with a starting population of 40.000 souls. The tall skyscrapers are its hallmark: the Etihad Towers, the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority Tower, the National Bank of Abu Dhabi headquarters and the Etisalat headquarters are a few of them. And there are plans to add many more to the ones already in existence or under construction.
The great enemy of the city is its climate. We found ourselves at 45 degrees Celsius with an unbearable humidity – enough to kill my friend’s compact camera for good- during our stopover. Of course, it was August 15. Stepping out of a bus or a building took a lot of willpower. So we had to design our visit avoiding parks and outdoors and long walks – that meant skipping the Mangrove National Park, almost in the middle of the city, which is a shame.
Luckily for us, many of the bus stops are closed and air conditioned. We had bought a Halifat card at the airport that gave us the freedom to move around. https://dot.gov.abudhabi/en/info/bus_transportation.
These were the highlights of our stopover:
The Sheikh Zayed Mosque
The must-see attraction if you ever stop by Abu Dhabi, the one thing that makes that stop worth any time – even under sauna conditions-, is the Grand Mosque. It was built between 1996 and 2007 by the late Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the first president of the UAE, who envisioned a structure representing Islamic values. Designed by architect Yousef Abdelky, the mosque stands, white and shiny thanks to its Greek and Italian marble, in the middle of a 12 HA garden (where Zayed is buried), surrounded by ponds designed to reflect the moonlight. It can hold 40,000 devotees (7000 inside and the rest on the vast central courtyard).
The first thing we notice as we approach is the huge number of domes – more than 80 of them – and the 4 minarets. It is open to visitors, who must access it via separate entrances for men and women. Women must cover themselves with an abaya, the traditional hooded tunic of the United Arab Emirates. Once inside the premises, there is a golf cart service to take visitors to the door. It is not far, really, but with that unbearable heat it is nice they spare you the walk- especially with the abaya on. The same carts will pick you up at the entrance of the gardens and take you to the bus stop if you ask. They are extremely nice to visitors.
The central courtyard is covered by the world’s largest marble mosaic, surrounded by an arcade of 96 marble and mother of pearl columns with golden capitols. The inside is decorated with quotations from the Quran written in three types of Arabic calligraphy, seven impressive gold plated chandeliers and a 6000m2 carpet, hand woven by 1300 Iranian craftsmen that covers the whole central prayer hall. It is truly a remarkable and beautiful building. And, on the plus side, there is air conditioning inside, which is most welcome.
And of course, I now have my photo with the abaya, which had my friends react with either “valar morgulis”, “may the force be with you” or some Assassin’s Creed quote.
The Etihad Towers
The word “Etihad” in Arab means Unity. The towers are a cluster of five skyscrapers, designed in 2011 by the Australian architects DBI, in different heights and making up a harmonious set synthesizing several Emirate symbols, like sails, swords, and falconry. It is quite a sight, towering up.
They rise above a huge lobby hosting a luxury mall, with an Aston Martin dealer and a Cartier shop, among others, setting the tone. One of the towers is occupied by a recently rebranded hotel (it was the Jumeirah back then), with a bar on the 74th floor, the Observation Deck at 300, which offers a 360 degrees view over the city. They charge 95 dirhams for the entrance, but that includes a 55 dirhams voucher – which gets us a juice and half a cheesecake portion. These are the Emirates, not exactly notorious as a cheap destination. The problem is that the windows are kind of dirty, and taking into account we are buying the panoramic view for that price, I think they should have taken better care of them. If you add the heat haze, the experience is a bit disappointing. Otherwise, the view must be breathtaking – we are 300 m high above the city. We can see from there how Abu Dhabi is laid out, the quarters on the islands and peninsulas.
The Corniche is the seafront promenade of Abu Dhabi, with a skyline of skyscrapers, parks and the beach. An almost deserted beach by the time we get there, no wonder. We make the superhuman effort of walking 10 minutes outdoors from a Mall at the food of the World Trade Center to step onto the sand. Just enough to dip our hand in the water, which feels, as we suspected, like soup, before moving on to take the bus toward Yas Island.
The skyline is better appreciated, actually, from the peninsula of Al Kasir or Al Lulu Island, which is just in front. Or at least it would be, without the haze. I imagine there are clear days with a good visibility.
Here we find the theme parks of the city, like Ferrari World, Waterworld o the Warner park (which is actually an indoors park for obvious reasons). We have a different destination though. The Yas Marina F1 Circuit. The reason: Every Tuesday and Sunday from 6pm the track is open for cyclers, runners and walkers, for free. Bikes are also provided at no cost. You just need to register on the Circuit website to get the barcode that gives you access via mobile phone. It is really a massive event, with a festive atmosphere, where you find all sorts of people, from fully equipped bikers to families, to the occasional tourist on flight transfer, like us. My friend takes a bike, but the heat is too much for me and we have two flights to catch after this, so I just walk a bit. There is music and huge water dispensers to freshen up and to refill bottles – crucial as even when the sun is down, the minimum temperature there in summer is 30 degrees Celsius. And humidity is unforgiving. But it’s fun and I get to step on an F1 track. https://www.yasmarinacircuit.com/en/products/whats-on-track/trainyas/
After the bike ride we walk to the main road to take a taxi to the airport. The driver tells us he does not accept credit cards. We only have like 30 dirhams left from our day in the city but luckily our ride ends up costing 28.
Etihad Airways didn’t have a direct flight to Barcelona yet at the time, so we flew to Rome first, but this time we didn’t leave the airport.
Note: Etihad actually opened the BCN-AUH route just a few months later and funny enough I attended the inaugural ceremony at the Airport and also the first anniversary party one year later, where I received, as a gift, a model of a Dreamliner, like the one that took me and Dani to Rome after this day. I gave it to him, and it is still decorating his living room.