Bahrain beckons

Bahrain’s charm lies as much in its winding alleys and busy souqs as in its modern skyscrapers and malls. Prachi Joshi gives you the lowdown on how to make the most of your stay here

Al Fateh Grand Mosque. PHOTOS BY AUTHOR

The archipelago of Bahrain sits pretty in the Arabian Gulf. Its history dates back 5,000 years to the ancient Dilmun era. But the Kingdom of Bahrain also has its feet firmly in the future — with a booming economy and a more liberal culture than its Middle Eastern neighbours, the country is fast becoming an attractive destination. Add to this a burgeoning art and food scene and the annual Formula 1 Grand Prix, it is Bahrain’s time to shine like the pearl it’s best known for. 

Bab Al Bahrain
Bab Al Bahrain

 

Culture trail

Bahrain has a rich cultural history, which is wonderfully showcased in the Bahrain National Museum. The building itself is a sprawling post-modern complex surrounded by contemporary art sculptures and installations. Inside, you’re transported straight into the Dilmun era, circa 3000 BC, where you can see the ancient artefacts, coins, jewellery, and seals, stone burial mounds, grave goods etc. The exhibition also takes you through the short-lived Greek influence on Bahrain, and eventually to the Islamic period that prevails till today. The museum also houses a reproduction souq and depictions of Bahraini life in the years gone by. To get some glimpses of old Bahrain, head to Muharraq, the erstwhile capital of the kingdom. Here, many houses still stand in the traditional style of architecture with a large central courtyard surrounded by living quarters, guest rooms, and servants’ quarters; the Shaikh Isa Bin Ali House is particularly well restored. Other houses worth exploring are along the so-called ‘pearl trail’ – houses of former pearl merchants that have been restored into design and exhibition spaces; the House of Art, part of the Shaikh Ebrahim bin Mohammed Al Khalifa Centre is quite interesting, especially the photography exhibit that presents striking black-and-white photos of old houses in various stages of disrepair.

Another major attraction that you shouldn’t miss is Qal’at al-Bahrain or Bahrain Fort, the fortified Portuguese fort that stands over layers of Bahrain’s history. Archaeological excavations have revealed a Dilmun-era city, parts of which are visible on the periphery of the fort. The current fort dates to the 16th century and was built by the Portuguese who controlled the islands for trade purposes. The entire complex is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Finally, don’t miss the Al Fateh Grand Mosque, the largest place of worship in Bahrain and one of the largest mosques in the world with a capacity of more than 7,000 worshippers at a time. Especially noteworthy is the grand, Austrian-made chandelier in the main hall, the Italian marble floors, and the carved doors made of Indian teakwood.

A pottery shop.
A pottery shop.

 

Art & craft

Bahrain has a long legacy of arts and crafts ranging from ceramics and basket weaving to dhow making and metalwork. Visit the Al Jasra Handicrafts Centre to watch artisans at work and even buy handcrafted items. The centre was established in 1990 to preserve and promote traditional arts and crafts. Another place worth visiting is A’ali village, which has been known for its pottery since Dilmun times when pots were routinely buried along with the dead. From a thriving craft, pottery has dwindled down to just 4-5 workshops in the village now. Drop in at Alshugel Pottery to watch the potters in action creating pots of various sizes and shapes, lamps, decorative seals, and even some Halloween pumpkins. Buy your souvenirs next door at Delmon Pottery where you can get your hands dirty by learning how to work the wheel and create your own clay masterpiece.

For contemporary art, take a walk around Block 338 in the Adliya neighbourhood, where you can spot colourful street art. This bohemian quarter is also home to a few private art galleries like Ella Art Gallery and Albareh Art Gallery. Another place to soak in the art is La Fontaine Centre of Contemporary Art in Manama. This sprawling private-house-turned-art-gallery showcases several international artists in a rotating calendar of events. It also houses a spa and a chic café-restaurant that is quite the place to be seen in Bahrain.

Bahrain Fort.
Bahrain Fort.

 

Adventure calling

The Bahrain International Circuit is amongst the newest Formula 1 racetracks in the world and a popular Grand Prix event. The high-adrenaline race is accompanied by lots of peripheral events like concerts, parties, and fireworks. The 2019 race will be held from March 28-31. If your visit doesn’t coincide with the race, you can still be part of the adventure by signing up for the Land Rover Experience (bahraingp.com/-landroverexperience-.html). This 3.5 km off-road track is packed with twists and turns, obstacles, and watercourses – you can either drive yourself or strap in as a passenger as you negotiate 32 obstacles on a track next to the Grand Prix circuit. Other adventure activities include Gravity Indoor Skydiving (gravitybah.com), scuba, snorkelling, and diving tours, and horseback riding tours. Another water sport is pearl diving in the warm waters of the Arabian Gulf where you can collect up to 60 oysters and try your luck at finding a pearl (pearldiving.bh).

Food fiesta

Bahrain has a range of international cuisines and restaurant chains to feast at. But it’s the local Bahraini food that really shines. Immigrant influences from Persia to India have shaped the food here, so you will find dishes that remind you of home. Like the samboosa, a cousin of our samosa but with fillings that range from vegetables to meat to plain cheese (Bahrainis love their cheese). Then there’s machboos, fish or chicken served over fragrant rice cooked in meat broth. The pièce de resistance is qouzi, slow-cooked lamb served over saffron-flecked rice, a celebratory dish that’s common during weddings and other feasts. Try these at local specialty restaurants like Naseef at Bab Al Bahrain or Seef Mall or at Hala Café at Amwaj Islands.

Breakfast is also an elaborate affair. Tucked away in an alley at Manama Souq is Haji’s Café that has been around since 1950. Servers scurry around with huge trays laden with all kinds of delicacies — balaleet (mildly sweetened vermicelli with a fried egg on top, strange but it works somehow), hamsat nikhi (fried chickpeas), foule (mashed beans), luba (a kidney bean preparation reminiscent of rajma), kebab roll (similar to our dabeli), zinjibari (fried pastry pockets stuffed with cheese), and more. To accompany, there’s khubz, an unleavened flatbread that the café churns out by the hundreds from its tandoor. And of course, no meal is complete without the qahwa, saffron and cardamom flavoured Arabic coffee that is served from a copper dalla (a delicate, elaborately decorated coffeepot) into small cups barely larger than a thimble. Apart from Haji’s, Saffron by Jena in Muharraq is also a great place for breakfast; the café is set inside a 200-year-old restored traditional Bahraini house.

Market watch

Like all the Emirates, Bahrain has some great shopping options whether you’re looking for luxury brands or high street. These include Seef Mall, City Centre, Moda Mall, and the recently opened Dragon City Mall (a sprawling complex choc-a-bloc with Chinese-made goods). For a more local shopping experience, head to Bab Al Bahrain, a historical building in Manama where you can buy local products like carpets, lamps, perfumes, incense, handicrafts, and souvenirs. Through Bab Al Bahrain, you can make your way into the busy alleys of Manama Souq where you will find all manners of knickknacks, spices, and sweets — try the halwa (a sticky dessert made with corn-starch, sugar, and nuts) and rangeena (date and nuts dessert).

Liked the story?

  • 0

    Happy
  • 0

    Amused
  • 0

    Sad
  • 0

    Frustrated
  • 0

    Angry

Comments:

Bahrain beckons

0 comments

Write the first review for this !