Al Bastakiya, Dubai: a quiet and charming hideaway
The call to prayer from a nearby mosque is one of the few sounds in the charming and serene Al Bastakiya district on a typical Saturday afternoon.
As you walk around the historic quarter, the pervasive sound of Bur Dubai traffic begins to dissipate, giving way to the sound of chirping birds, rustling trees and the occasional honk from ships plying the waters of nearby Dubai Creek.
Built in 1890, Al Bastakiya is culturally significant for being one of the oldest residential areas in Dubai, and for its impressive architecture. The area has been restored and redeveloped by the Dubai Municipality's historic buildings section over the past decade. It is now popular with tourists and residents for its art galleries, museums, boutique hotels and cafes.
Angelique van Buul, 43, a visitor from the Netherlands, says: "What I like about it here is that it is so quiet and the walls block out the sounds of the city. You get a feel for how people lived in the past and the many shaded areas make it feel cool."
The restoration work has been beautifully executed with structures depicting the way locals lived in the past with large wooden doors, narrow winding lanes and even a water well.
Gillian Thomas, a 42-year-old Briton who lives in Dubai, says: "It is such a contrast to what the rest of Dubai is like, with its many courtyards. I was charmed by the place the first time I came here because it's almost like a hideaway. I bring friends visiting from abroad out here regularly and I personally love the art exhibitions."
Children play in the neighbourhood, relishing their freedom as their parents follow a few steps behind. Some visitors feel the area might actually be too tranquil. Martijn Bos, another Dutch national, says: "It is a peaceful place for kids to run around. I am not sure if they keep it this quiet on purpose. I know they hold events here once in a while but perhaps they could do a bit more with it."
That concept might well extend to signage. It is easy to lose your way in the maze of alleys as you ponder what lies around the next corner - a pitched tent with cushions for visitors or perhaps a view of the creek on the opposite side. While some visitors may not mind getting sidetracked, the wooden signs seem to be too few for others.
Jane Thomas, a 60-year-old British resident of Dubai, says: "This is a typical Dubai place where you have no idea where to go. It is lovely but we need a detailed map of what to look at."
Not all who wander are lost, however. A group of tourists follows their guide through a narrow alley, snapping pictures of the wind towers as they walk past the traditional courtyard homes.
Carola Couwenberg, 44, another visitor from the Netherlands, says: "A lot of the areas in the city are new so it is good to see something authentic. We appreciate a combination of old and new experiences."
Huge shade trees create a pleasant ambiance in courtyards converted into comfortable cafes and restaurants with a distinct character. The area is home to a vibrant arts scene, several handicraft shops and a coins museum. One of the restaurants, the Local House, proudly displays newspaper clippings of its speciality, the Camel Burger.
Dubai residents Philippe and Sandrine Cros like to come to Al Bastakiya with family and friends as a break. Their two-year-old son, Adrien, happily walks alongside his mother as she pushes his pram. In an ever-changing city, it is clear why many residents choose to revisit this quaint corner of old Dubai, where the pace is still slow and new elements have been integrated into structures without diminishing the old.
Mr Cros, who, like his wife, is French, says: "We have family visiting but we regularly come to the art galleries and coffee shops. We find it cosy and we like that there are no cars. It is also artistic and affordable, so you do not need to spend a lot to enjoy an authentic experience."
Updated: December 2, 2010 04:00 AM