Abu Dhabi, the Mosque - Ay, it's grand is that!!

Published: June 17th 2020
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Firstly, I apologise to those who tried the link to previous Dubai trip found in the last blog. They didn’t work. Hopefully, the links are now fixed so please feel free to revisit our previous trips to Dubai. I guarantee something different each time. From a surreal Halloween party that we unknowingly gate crashed in 2011 to wondering what would happen if I drop a penny off the top of the Burj Khalifa in 2014!!

Back to the story...Just as the first person to catch Covid-19 in the UK and not bring it in to the country was diagnosed, a man who lived in Surrey, we were checking out of our hotel oblivious to this fact. Although today was embarkation day, the ship, the MSC Lirica, would not set sail until 10pm. For this reason, the check in time on our paper work stated 18:50. As we had to check out of our hotel by noon, we decided to wait in the lobby until 1pm before trying our luck and taking a cab to the port in the hope that the check in desks were open. The ship had been in port since yesterday so we had no reason to doubt this. From experience, you never stick to the times indicated on the boarding tickets. We have only been caught out by this tactic once, in Cuba when we arrived at the cruise terminal at 1pm and the ship hadn’t even arrived!! It wasn’t due in until 3pm!! As I stated in a previous post, taxis in Dubai are cheap and plentiful. The journey took almost 30 minutes and only cost 21 dirhams (£4.20) There was no surcharge as the journey started in the city.

On arriving at the cruise terminal, there were only a few taxis and ‘early birds’ milling around. After passing our luggage to a porter we entered the departure hall. We’d never seen a cruise terminal so empty on embarkation day. A quick glace over to the check in desks, and I could see they were fully manned. I knew this was going to be a good cruise (famous last words!!) when Roisin showed her Voyagers Club membership card to one of the meeters and greeters: ‘Oh! A Black card. This way madam’, The black card (Known as Diamond level on MSC – but the card is still black!!), as with most cruise companies’ loyalty schemes, is the highest level. The rest of the staff were equally as polite and cheerful.

Although there was a steady stream of guests arriving all day, the ship didn’t seem to be getting very full. MSC are a very cosmopolitan cruise line. Due to the large number of Italians, Spanish, Germans, French and English-speaking nations who regularly sail with the company, all announcements are given in five and sometimes even six languages. On the first announcement reminding passengers of muster, I noticed Italian was not voiced. Doubly strange as MSC is an Italian Company. We learned later that the Indian Immigration were refusing to allow anyone carrying an Italian passport or who had passed through Italy within 48 hours of boarding the ship, entry into their country. For this reason, all Italians (and the Chinese guests as well!!) had cancelled their cruise or were not allowed to travel. Anna-Karine, the English/German hostess told us later that the ship has a capacity of 1,940 but due to the lack of Italian’s there would only be 1,400 guests for this voyage. This is going to be like a Chinese Banquet without the Monosodium Glutamate. You know it’s better for your health without it but doesn’t stop you enjoying every mouthful!!

On walking through the ship to refamiliarize ourselves with the layout, it wasn’t long before the sound of a strong Wigan accent filled the air and moments later, we were waving to Beryl and Brian Cooke who were sat talking to Anna-Karine. Although this meeting was by chance, Beryl and Brian’s presence was premeditated!! We first met them in 2009 on our first ever cruise. They squeezed passed us at the Conservatory in St Petersburg where we were watching a performance of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. With Roisin having lived in Wigan and both of us having worked there for some time, we found we had a lot in common. We forgot to exchange contact details on that occasion but several years later, cruising the Black Sea, I was in the buffet at 2am on a particulary stormy night fetching tea for Roisin when again, that strong characteristic Wigan drawl made me instinctively turn my head only to see Beryl and Brian standing behind me, cups in hand, waiting to use the water urn. We have become firm friends ever since. Several months ago, having been invited for lunch and a catch up at the Cookes, we happened to mention this cruise and a few days later received a phone call from an excited Beryl. Brian had always wanted to visit India so they booked themselves on to the cruise. We didn’t travel with them due to differing arrangements. Although we had been allocated different dining tables, we spoke to the Maitre’d for whom it was no trouble at all to move us to a table for four. Probably only due to the fact that the ship was over 500 passengers light…every cloud…!!!

Abu Dhabi, our first port of call, is only 70 nautical miles from Dubai so was only a few hours sailing overnight. We arrived at 7am but had arranged to meet Beryl and Brian at 10am. They had never been to this, the capital of the United Arab Emirates before. Roisin and I advised them that Abu Dhabi is much more spread out than Dubai and if obscenely fast roller coasters or F1 isn’t your thing, there is only one ‘must see’ in this city, and that is the Grand Mosque. Abu Dhabi are building a second cruise terminal so there must be big things planned for this port. As it is still a working port, it is not possible to walk on the dock estate but a free shuttle bus was provided to take us to the port gate. We had already decided to share a taxi as we knew they would be plentiful and within seconds of entering the port building, Beryl was in deep conversation with one of the first taxi drivers to accost us. He was offering 4- or 5-hours tours of the city. In this heat, 4 hours may be overkill so we explained that we only wanted to visit the Grand Mosque and perhaps the Heritage Village, one of the few place Roisin and I hadn’t yet visited. He offered us a three-hour taxi tour for 360 dirhams. That seemed plenty of time for what we wanted to see. We eventually agreed on a price of 300 (£15 each)

The journey took 20 minutes. The driver drove around the mosque and then entered the grounds. I was wondering when he was going to stop and let us out. He then seemed to drive away from the Mosque.

‘Does he know we want to actually get out and visit the Mosque?’ I whispered to Brian.

‘Perhaps when we said we want to see the mosque he has taken this literally. Afterall, we have just seen it!!’

No sooner had Brian uttered those words, we started to descend down a spiral ramp that eventually led to an underground car park. The driver stopped adjacent to an entrance and said in reasonable English, ‘Follow the people.’

‘What time do you want us back’, I asked

‘uhh, Take as long as you need’, came the reply.

This has all changed since we were last at the Mosque in 2011. Then you could drop off at the main entrance and walk across the inner courtyard to the main prayer room. This, as we learned later, is now off limits.

The path first took us through a coin museum. This was all very bizarre!! We then had to queue up to print a free ticket, show, then use the free ticket to pass through a turnstile before lining up for strict security scans. This was all taking time and was eating in to our precious three hours. Having cleared security, Beryl and Roisin were ushered away only to return looking like extras from a Star Wars Movie in their maroon coloured abayas, compulsory for all women to wear before entering the mosque!! The whole process had taken over half and hour. What a palaver. Up several escalators before we finally emerged on to the grounds of the mosque.

Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque is one of the largest mosques in the world. The main prayer room can hold 40,000 worshippers at once. To put that in to perspective, that is about the capacity of Stamford Bridge (home to Chelsea FC) all on the one floor. Mind you, if that ever happened, there wouldn’t be much room left for a kick about!! Not to be outdone by Dubai, the main prayer hall is home to the largest and most stunning chandelier in the world as well as the largest hand knotted carpet. There are a total of 82 domes atop the Grand Mosque of which the dome above the prayer hall, at a whopping 32m diameter is also the largest mosque dome in the world. The inner courtyard, with its floral design, is a massive 17,000m² and is considered to be the largest example of marble mosaic in the world.

Having already seen these wonders, Roisin and I stayed in the outer grounds whilst Beryl and Brian followed the rest of the crowd to investigate more of what this magnificent structure had to offer. We wandered past the spectacular pool that reflects many of the stunning gold leaved, jewel studded, white marbled columns that surround the perimeter of the inner courtyard. Looking for that wide angled shot, I wandered a little further down some steps toward a small fountain. The security guard soon shouted that I could not venture that way. This experience had suddenly become much more restrictive than how we remember.

By the time we got back to the taxi we had taken 2 hours and it was still a 20 min drive to the Heritage Village. The main thoroughfare to and from the Grand Mosque is a wide eight lane highway called Al Khalaeej al Arab Street. There was very little to see as we sped toward the Heritage Village except for a few large homes of some of Abu Dhabi’s more affluent residents.

Passing the impressive Emirates Palace, we turned onto the approach to the small Al Marina island. The Heritage Village lies on the Corniche breakwater. Supposedly, the recreation of a traditional Emirati oasis village where craftsmen demonstrate some of the ancient traditions of weaving, pottery and glass blowing. The literature advertising the Heritage Village encourages the visitor to enter a timecapsule that brings to life a souk, a mosque and an encampment from pre-modernized Abu Dhabi. Well, there wasn’t much demonstrating going on!! There were plenty of artifacts and exhibits and a few souvenir shops but no villagers. I felt like starting my own demonstration but didn’t have time to make the placards as we had to get back to the taxi.

On reflection I felt the day was a little rushed, primarily due to the time wasted at the Grand Mosque but as I’ve said once already in the blog (and will probably say it again before the end of the trip) hindsight is a wonderful thing!! That said, our taxi jaunt beats the €60 each the Big Bus Company wanted for their hop on/hop off experience. The buses looked overcrowded meaning once you’ve ‘hopped on’, you wouldn’t want to ‘hop off again’ for fear of not being able to hop back on!!

Additional photos below
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17th June 2020

Wheres the pic of Chris modeling the Abayas
17th June 2020

Chris in an abaya
Ha! Ha! Jim. Unfortunately The photo of me in an abaya didn't turn out which is a pity as I think the colour matched my eyes... Bloodshot!!!!!!

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