Our first experience on the Arabian Peninsula was Doha, capital of Qatar, and I was wide-eyed and excited with all the high-rises and lights and excitement. Second was Dubai, which was like Doha on steroids. Then, after our time in the desert, it was on to Abu Dhabi, the other big city on this stretch of Arabia.
Maybe if we’d come here first I’d have been more impressed but at this point we’ve seen better architecture, shopped in better malls, and swam in better beaches. It was OK, and again we had a beautiful hotel at a good price but the sparkle of the region has certainly worn off.
There’s one big must-do here, the Louvre Abu Dhabi, though since it only opened in November one wonders what we would have done if we’d come here earlier. But yes indeed the Louvre, that museum in Paris you’ve probably heard of, partnered with the UAE to build a new museum to celebrate the cultural achievements of mankind, from pre-history to modern art. Basically, in a couple of hours across 12 galleries ranging from The First Villages and The First Great Powers through Challenging Modernity and A Global Stage, the museum tries to tell the story of human culture.
Human culture from the beginning of time is kind of a big topic and the museum doesn’t really succeed. It seemed to me that it suffered from something of a half-Noah’s-Ark problem: it had one of everything. From antiquity it had one beautiful Egyptian sarcophagus and one nearly perfect Greek vase. One statue of Athena and one bust of Augustus. Once you got up to the kind of paintings you’d expect in an art museum, again, one of everything: a Monet, a Warhol, a Van Gogh, a Da Vinci, a Picasso, a Rothko … one of everything.
On the other hand the good news was you got to see a little bit of everything. Well, not exactly everything; presumably respecting Arabian sensibilities you didn’t see any inappropriate body parts in any of the vases, statues, or paintings. You could almost see the censors standing over the collectors looking at that Greek vase saying “Yeah, we’re not showing that one here.”
One highly redeeming quality of the museum is the architecture. The building was designed by Jean Nouvel, the French architect who designed both the Institute of the Arab World in Paris and the Doha Tower, the bullet-shaped building we loved so much in Doha. (And then in reading about him I learned that he also designed the new, modern Guthrie Theater in my erstwhile home town of Minneapolis, another building I love.) The centerpiece of the complex is a huge dome-like structure that almost floats above the museum. It is made up of eight layers of metal with a total of 7,850 stars cut out in various sizes and angles. As the sun – intense in this part of the world most of the year – passes through the sky the light and shadows are filtered as though through massive palm trees. The museum is definitely worth a visit if for nothing more than to see the building.
It is worth noting that you really have to want to see it to get there. The museum seems to be the first entry in what Abu Dhabi intends to build as a cultural center well north of the main part of the city. The result is that even for inveterate walkers like us – we walk damn near everywhere we can – we had to take a taxi; more than just the distance, because of the bridges that connect the area to the main part of the city there is simply no pedestrian route out there. Otherwise, though, it is an impressive architectural achievement.
Once you’ve seen the Louvre, though, there’s really not much left. We spent a bit of time at the beach, though we’ve seen better. And I enjoyed walks and a morning run or two on the corniche that runs along the coast. One of the memories, oddly, was on the drive from Al Maha to Abu Dhabi, which passed Dubai in the distance. As you drove past you could see the Dubai skyline with lots of tall, impressive buildings. And soaring above all of them, far above all of them, was the Burj Khalifa, really a stunningly beautiful building. Odd that one of my favorite parts of traveling to Abu Dhabi was seeing Dubai off in the distance.
And that’s it for the Emirates. From here we have five days on the beach in Oman before we head off to India.