Dubai, dawdling about the vertical city

I knew Dubai was a cluster of buildings little matching each other either for style or design, but looking at pictures is nowhere similar to staring at those steely beasts for real. Coming from the elegant Abu Dhabi, along Sheikh Zayed Rd, the impact of so many huge buildings close to each other is one of bewilderment.

My friend compared it to a face that went through too much facial surgery, and I can hardly disagree. It gives the impression of a reckless building rush, but it does have its own charm.

During my quick stroll around Dubai, I got to see the Jumeirah Souk Madinat (souk is the Arabic version of bazaar), a huge classy bazaar in a very Arabian style. The plan is to reproduce an easygoing market atmosphere, but once inside Jumeirah Souk you'll inevitably find yourself dwadling about luxurious shops and costly handmade products.

A walk in Jumeirah bazaar is very pleasant: I admit I have a soft spot for the Arabian style, so being immersed in such atmosphere was a real treat for me.

Within the Jumeirah complex there is also the worldwide famous hotel Burj Al Arab. I had heard plenty about it, seen hundreds of pictures of it, from every angle and lighting, however, as soon as we got closer, it did strike a chord. It sits on a tiny island of Dubai's coast and is built with a lovely taste of simple elegance. Impressive.

After leaving Jumeirah, we headed to the biggest shopping centre in the Middle East: the Dubai Mall. Seven floors of stores, nine floors of car parking, the Mall houses every majour fashion brand in the world and offers entertainment, a wide range of dining places, events and attractions, among which the most targeted is a huge aquarium (and its connected underwater zoo) hosting any kind of fish, with the possibility for divers to dive themselves and feed the fish directly. I admit, I'm not a fan of zoos or aquariums, as I can't bear the sight of animals kept in captivity.

I have only spent one day in Dubai, so I by no means have the knowledge to judge or even write extensively about the city altogether. However, I had the impression that the government, led by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, acts to meet the population's needs. This may seem obvious, but as used as I am to seeing Italian, and European, leaders approving laws for their sole personal interests and neglecting what the electorate had voted for, the Emirates' way to operate is totally new to me.

Dubai, as a purely financial and commercial capital, has inevitably suffered from the world's recession, from lower housing prices to a higher level of unemployment, but Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum can say without any doubt that he strongly managed to put his Emirate on the world map.

No-Vatican Day in London: for a secular Europe

I'm on the road again, and I'm spending ten days in London before taking off to Abu Dhabi. A part from sorting out some administrative stuff, I'm definitely enjoying the city like the perfect tourist. Ok, maybe not exactly as a proper tourist, as I'm sorting out the boring working and administration papers, but I still have time for sightseeing I couldn't manage to see and write about when I was a "Londoner".

Life in London is hectic, fast-paced and stressing, and it hardly allows to enjoy the city as much as it deserves.
On the 11th I was invited to the launch party of Grantourismo project, involving travel writers Lara Dunston and Terence Carter, a project that is causing a burst of jealousy within the travel blogging scene. Lara and Terry are undertaking a gran tour that will bring them all over the world, with a much slower pace they are used to, and with the possibility to engage in a more authentic way of travelling.

As soon as I arrived at London Victoria, every shop seemed to be aimed at reminding me that we were approaching the Valentine's romance: red all over the place, fluffy teddy bears, sweet cards and shiny little hearts are the main decorations of stores displays this time of the year. And since commerce is London's soul, there is no way you can avoid the atmosphere.

However, to some extent, I did manage to avoid much of the romantic mood, and for Valentine's Day I've joined the protesters marching against the Vatican.

The UK has a flourishing atheist tradition, with one of its most illustrious representatives being Oxford's University Professor Richard Dawkins, who authored the best seller “The God Delusion”.

At this rally, unlike my expectations, he didn't show up. Among the speakers there were Bob Churchill, from the British Humanist Association, Derek Lennard, for the Gay and Lesbian Humanist Association, Peter Tatchell, from OutRage! movement.

Why were they demonstrating?

This year, Pope Benedict XVI is coming to the UK, his first visit since 1982, and the demo was aimed at letting him know he's not welcome. As the organisers pointed out, there is no other religious head who is entitled to an official State visit, so why is the Pope?

Why are the British Humanist Association, the Gay and Lesbian Humanist Association, the One Law for All movement, the Make the Pope Pay Coalition, the European Humanist Federation, the National Secular Society, the OutRage! movement and the Central London Humanist Group not keen on welcoming the Pope in the UK?

Among slogans (the funniest one being “Dear Pope, keep your bigotry in the Vatican”), posters, speeches and leaflets, I managed to find some of the answers I was looking for:

- The Vatican City only looks like a tiny State mainly inhabited by priests, but in reality it's very powerful and extremely rich. It retains undue influence and power within institutions in many countries and it carries out “moral crusades” that adversely affect the lives of millions of people across Europe and the whole world in matters such as abortion, birth control and homosexuality, limiting people's civil rights and liberties.

- The Catholic Church is a very profitable business, owning hotels, restaurants, shops, private schools and without paying any tax. Moreover, the Vatican receives public money in many countries: in Italy every year the 8‰ of citizens' taxes is destined to the Vatican (it's very little advertised, but, at least in Italy, people can choose to devote this amount to other associations, such as the one involved in protecting consumers' rights).

- The Vatican has diplomatic relations with almost every country in the world, in many they benefit from the support of Catholic politicians or parties, fourteen of the twenty-seven countries of the European Union are bound to the Vatican by treaties and, last but no least, the Vatican is officially an “observer State” of the United Nations, meaning that it can engage in UN debates, influencing its decisions.

- The Vatican's backward, discriminating and unfair positions towards women and gay people undermine what should be considered the basic human rights.

In Italy, the influence of the Catholic Church is in striking contrast with the natural evolution of social issues, technologies and conquests in the human rights' field. Women's right to abortion, for example, is constantly questioned due to the interference of the Catholic clergy within the Italian Parliament; also, the Vatican's dogmas against birth control measures have negative effects in the fight against HIV, especially in developing countries where the disease has reached tragic figures.

The organisers are also demanding that the government ends the many privileges that the Catholic Church has managed to acquire. I haven't thoroughly researched what the situation is in Britain on this particular matter, but in Italy such privileges are seriously undermining a civil and democratic living.

As the Italian education system is going through a majour crisis, among thousands of precarious workers waiting to be hired, religion teachers (whose subject is not compulsory) got a pay rise. Moreover, while all precarious are fired in June (at the end of the academic year, in order to save on their salaries), and hired again in September (the beginning of the academic year), religion teachers are fired in August (during summer holidays) and hired again in September, without missing any monthly salary. On that note, while all teachers of public schools depend on the Italian government, religion teachers depend on the local bishop, who decides who the State will have to hire (and pay!).

Needless to say, these undue privileges and discriminations are causing a general unrest and people's disaffection towards the Catholic Church.

After the march, cold and hungry, we headed to a French patisserie serving organic food and drinks in Weighhouse Street.

As it usually happens in London, our group was quite diverse, which is one of the things I was missing in Italy. After a warm drink that helped us face the cold I'm not accustomed to anymore, we were ready for dinner: Thai Vegeterian in Old Compton Street, Soho, a real treat.

Malahide, Irish-style beaches and castles

Big cities aside, Ireland can offer great pieces of natural beauty. Somehow, it reminds me of Sardinia: wild nature, most landscapes are completely unspoilt, not everything is "planned", at least not the way it is in the UK.

I admit, I haven't travelled extensively in Ireland, but I did enjoy good walks along Dublin's nearest coasts, such as Howth, Dun Laoghaire or Malahide.

The latter is not just a seaside resort (also because saying "seaside resort" in Ireland is a bit extreme), but a proper little town, residential and nicely kept. Like many of Irish exclusive spots, also in Malahide there is a castle, and like many of Irish sites, when I went, it was closed.

Nevermind, I enjoyed soaking up the surroundings of green, sand, sea and ducks. I went by bus, but you can go by DART, cycle or hire a car at Dublin car rental, so that you'll have the possibility to move quickly from an area to another one. I've walked all day to manage to see all attractions and it was a big walk, indeed!

When I went, it was summer, but I wouldn't have ever been able to sunbathe. In fact, there was very little sun and some rain threat. However, the beaches were full of families, kids, dogs running, playing, shouting.

Ireland, like the UK, has a peculiarity: if it doesn't rain, streets, parks, beaches get instantly packed with people busy in all kinds of outdoor activities. And this happened when I went to Malahide: with a slightly different perception of "summer", Irish people were enjoying a break from the rain that had come down heavy throughout the winter.

The atmosphere in the town is vibrant: concerts are often organised, there is a state-of-the-art golf course and water sports are among the most adored outdoor activities.

It might not be the hottest holiday destination, but by all means a sound alternative to Dublin life, little traffic and a more chilled out pace.

Glendalough, a walk through mystery

One of the best places to visit around Dublin is Glendalough, no doubt. I suggest anybody who goes to Ireland to devote half a day to this mysterious spot. You can either go by coach (it takes an hour) or hire a car at Dublin car rental.

Glendalough (Gleann Dá Loch, “Valley of the Two Lakes”) is a suggestive monastic site set within beautiful natural surroundings. The settlement was founded by St. Kevin, a monk who died around 618 AC.

It consists of seven churches, set, in fact, in a valley with two lakes. The visitor is welcomed by an old cemetery spread-out around the main church. Walking deeper inside the valley, it's a tangle of small bridges crossing the river that leads toward the lakes, making the whole scenario a quaint yesteryear village.

The atmosphere is one of austerity, and it couldn't be otherwise, since St. Kevin was a hermit monk, or at least this is how it started. As a boy, he studied in a Catholic circle and decided to start his life as a hermit in Glendalough. After a while, he returned there with a group of followers, and I believe that was the time when the site was built.

Apparently, St. Kevin lived a life of hardships and privations, barely eating and sleeping on stones, no matter what season, and in Ireland does get cold, maybe in the past more than today. However, it seems like he wanted to apply the principles he read in the Bible, of the Christ living in poverty, precepts that maybe the Pope should freshen up between a Mass and a dinner.

In its heyday, Glendalough was a very lively centre: in here, in fact, were not only monastic cells but also workshops, guesthouses, farms and an infirmary. Now, it looks like a fascinating ghost town.

When I think of Catholic rules applied in Ireland, I can't avoid recalling the movie "Magdalene's Sisters" because it frightened me and, what's even worse, I was told that those types of monasteries were closed less than twenty years ago.

After several attacks, the site was constantly rebuilt, and now we can see it in pretty good conditions. I've always been attracted by Celtic traditions, and although this is a pretty Catholic spot, it nevertheless reflects the culture it was built in.

I remember with real pleasure my walk through these ancient ruines, and I would suggest it to anybody planning a trip to Dublin. 
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