Separated from Saudi Arabia by a massive bridge and a cultural chasm you will find the island of Bahrain.
It is a pleasant sunny, thoroughly modern place, pronounced with a strong CH sound like a Connemara Irish speaker, the first part of the Gulf to get a direct air route from Ireland.
Gulf Air commenced flying in December, feeding forty routes out of Bahrain to locations such as Thailand, South Africa and Australia. But the island itself is now an eight hour flight away, and has some spectacular shopping to offer the invading Irish.
Bahrain is synonymous with gold, and the gold souk is a first stop for travellers. It is seductively unpretentious. Three stories of jewellery shops line an air conditioned mall offering chains and bracelets, offering engravings in English, Arabic or any language you want.
Prices vary from shop to shop, you are invited to haggle, generally 20pc below the asking price. So he starts at 100, you offer 70 and it all ends happily on 80. That’s the theory anyway.
Best practice your haggle at the market a few streets away. Here you find mounds of spice and fake watches, clothes and souvenirs. Haggling can be harder here, and the art of buying starts before you approach the stall. Dress like a beggar. Never look interested in anything. And when you aren’t getting anywhere ask the stall next door.
That’s how the locals do it.
Bahrain used to be more famous for its fishing than its gold, and you can see ancient dhows tied up in the harbour while skyscrapers tower behind them. Around the shipyard they still build the old traditional pearl diving boats, and a ship-builder will share some “shisha” and afternoon sweet tea and tell you how it is done.
The city is busy and safe. There are showcase museums, such as Beit Al Quran Private collection of Islamic art and books, and Bahrain museum where they have visual mock ups tracing the history of the port from British colony to banking capital.
The museum in Manama contains local artifacts dating from antiquity, such as ivory figurines, pottery, copper articles, and gold rings, many of which reflect various cultural influences from outside Bahrain.
There is a spectacular Portuguese fort, a camel farm and Al Jasra handicraft centre which represents Bahraini handicrafts such as pottery, and Riffa Golf Club for a round. There is also a small but flourishing avant-garde art community.
But this is the middle east, where even the airports have prayer rooms, and religion drives the rhythm of the day.
Bahrain has one of the most spectacular show mosques in the Eastern world. At Al Fateh Mosque, built in the 1980s with the finest imported marbles and carpets, you can ask about the precarious balance between Sunni and Shia that threatens to destabilise the island, the islanders’ response to the demonisation of Islam, and listen to the opening passages of the Koran being chanted in a style uncannily similar to sean nos. Sean O’Riada would feel at home here.
Western women must tog out in black dresses and nun-style head-dresses to enter the mosque. It is as close to the Islamic world as you will be allowed in these parts.
Bahrain has watched Dubai boom as a holiday destination and wants to get in on the act. Its Grand Prix is to start the 2006 Formula One season to join traditional pastimes such as horse and camel racing, falconry and gazelle and hare hunting. It also has Arabic cuisine and lots of shopping to offer.
When the lights go down JJ’s Irish bar is as good a place to start the tour of the city as any. Being close to alcohol-free Saudi, there are lots of night clubs and bars on offer. This could even be a party venue for anyone wiling to take a Friday morning flight out and a Saturday night flight back, enjoying the comforts of Gulf Air.
Over the coming months tourists will come and go through the airport on the new Dublin route. They might consider stopping for a day to see for themselves.
- Gulf Air flies three times weekly from Dublin to Bahrain direct.
- Gulf Air this year became the first airline to introduce in-flight “sky nannies”. The nannies are a feature of every flight on the airline’s long-distance routes and are, says Gulf, “dedicated to delivering specialist care for children up to the age of 12”.
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