The Labia Celebrates Its 70th Anniversary with Roodeberg Wine and the First International Screening of Rocketman

Most modern movie cinema experiences are tailored to blow you away with their deafening surround sound, base levels that vibrate your bone marrow, and visuals that sear both your retina and the thrill centres of your brain. This is washed down with copious amounts of overpriced soda and popcorn in a chrome and fake velvet environment managed by nameless staff. It’s impressive and it’s impersonal, and, most of the time, it takes walking out of the cinema (or at best a night’s sleep) for the experience’s to fade from your memory.

The Labia Cinema is the antithesis of this.

This independent film theatre salutes and pays homage to a bygone era when going to the movies was a thing of beauty, grandeur, and culture. The movies screened here are carefully selected to permeate one’s skin, moving one to tears, to smile, to think, and certainly to want to come back for more. After 70 years of delighting audiences with quality alternative cinema, the city’s original and last surviving independent movie theatre is throwing on its glad rags to celebrate a very happy birthday anniversary.

Labia-70th-Anniversary

From Italian ballroom to independent film theatre

Tucked into its corner on Orange Street, the Labia has long been the venue to which movie buffs and lovers of cinema have come to satiate their hunger for art house movies, documentaries, foreign films, historical cinema, and even big-ticket blockbusters. But the Labia didn’t start out life as a movie theatre. In 1949, Princess Ida Labia (nee Robinson), officially opened the doors of what was then the ballroom venue of the Italian Embassy, located right next door.

In 1989, soon-to-be owner and manager Ludi Krause took a leap of faith by giving up a career in law, purchasing the Labia, and transforming it into an independent film cinema.

“It was an inspired move and one that has brought much joy to Capetonians and visitors alike,” said actress Roberta Fox during her emotive welcome speech at the 70th anniversary celebrations.

Birthday Celebrations

Labia Cinema Cape Town
Jon Meinking, Ondela Mlandu, The Labia owners Ludi Kraus and Biata Walsh, and Roodeberg Brand Manager Carli Jordaan

Guests to the exuberant 70th anniversary celebrations were welcomed with the kind of red-carpet entrance one would expect from a movie premiere, which it really was, but we didn’t know that at the time – more on that later. The entrance led up to a covered terrace crammed wall-to-wall and elbow-to-elbow with guests. Drowning in the crowd was a table groaning with canapés and another with wine, and not just any wine but a true stalwart of the South African wine industry: the KWV Roodeberg, which also turns 70 this year (no coincidence).

KWV-Roodeberg-Wine

KWV Roodeberg: An ageless recipe that has stood the test of time; inspired by the undeniable pairing between the master’s original blend and modern evolution; serving only the fullest flavour for today’s ever-evolved taste palates; time after time.

Making our way to the KWV table required snorkelling through a soupy bend of perfume, body heat, and gay laughter but we eventually got our hands on a delicious glass of Roodeberg and even managed to scoff a few pastries before seeking refuge from the crowds in the cinema’s lobby, where eTV was filming an interview with Ludi Krause and the beloved, characterful staff of the Labia.

At 19:30, we were ushered into the cinema for a surprise screening of “Rocketman”, an intoxicatingly fun yet confronting film about Elton John’s rise to fame, fall from grace, and returning triumph. This, just three days after it was launched at the Cannes Film Festival in France! It took us by complete surprise and felt even more like a treat knowing that we were watching the film several days before it was scheduled to open in the UK and USA.

A little about the Labia Cinema

The Labia Cinema

The Labia has four screens, the largest accommodating 176 people and the smallest and most intimate, only 51. Accompanying the cinema experience is a snack stand for popcorn, slush puppies, and sodas, a cosy coffee bar selling home-made sweets and treats, and an outside terrace serviced by a fully licensed bar. Wonderful: good wine and good movies were made for each other (and you can take your wine into the cinema with you!)

“The Labia is an oasis of culture. Its movies lift your spirits and make you think that much harder about who you are; they can make you profoundly sad or deliriously happy but mostly, the Labia is the gift that keeps on giving.”

Inside, the décor and interior design have remained pretty much untouched and its art deco, wood-panelled lobby and ticket booth give it a tangible feel of history, nostalgia, and charm. Of course, the projection technology has had to keep up with the times and it was with the fundraising and networking support of its patrons that all four screens at the Labia were able to go digital.

Labia-70th-Anniversary

The Labia family and future

Over the years, many performers and directors have experienced career milestone “firsts” at the Labia. And while this independent film cinema has served as a launch pad for many an artist, it also functions like a home. And like any home, it has a family, at the heart of which is the staff, most of who have worked here for decades. It was lovely to see them as honoured and celebrated by the festivities as the Grand Dame of Cinema herself.

The Labia’s art deco charm, sense of nostalgia, and intelligent, compelling films comprise the formula that has kept loyal patrons coming back year-after-year. But what of its future?

“Our audience is becoming younger as millennials are looking for more ‘cool’ retro places to hang out than the glitzy spaces of the mainstream cinemas,” explains Ludi Krause. Excellent to hear.

To conclude, I couldn’t think of a better, more beautifully phrased ode to the Labia than Roberta Fox’s words: “The Labia is an oasis of culture. Its movies lift your spirits and make you think that much harder about who you are; they can make you profoundly sad or deliriously happy but mostly, the Labia is the gift that keeps on giving.”

The Labia Cinema

The Labia Movie Theatre is situated at 68 Orange Street. Online bookings can be made through Webtickets. For more information visit http://www.thelabia.co.za or call +27 (0) 21 424 5927 for more information.

This blog was originally written for Southern Vines Magazine, the largest lifestyle and leisure magazine in the Western Cape of South Africa: https://www.southernvines.co.za/2019/06/06/the-labia-celebrates-its-70th-anniversary-with-roodeberg-wine-and-the-first-international-screening-of-rocketman/

Why I Love Franschhoek in Winter

Winter schminter! Franschhoek in winter is all about red wine, great deals, and multi-course “the diet starts on Monday” meals

Do you know why I love Franschhoek in winter?

The historic town – one of the Cape’s most famous wine and food destinations – tends to be quite seasonal and so, with the northward migration of the warm weather, visitors to this neck of the woods dry up, leaving its streets, restaurants, and wineries much quieter. No queuing for tables, no jostling for the server’s attention, and no accidental photo bombing while meandering from shop to shop (seriously, some tourists take pictures of everything.)

Mullinieux & Leeu, Franschhoek, Cape Winelands, South Africa

Franschhoek becomes sleepy in the winter and it’s a most darling atmosphere. It feels like it’s all yours – yours to explore at your leisure and your little secret slice of heaven. Besides, there isn’t a forecast that could keep a wine lover such as myself away from a quality wine tasting, and so on a blustery day with skies pendulous with heavy clouds, my ‘plus one’ and I drove to Franschhoek to spend the day and night sampling what this town has to offer in winter.

Our first stop: La Motte Wine Estate.

La Motte art experience

La Motte, Franschhoek, Cape Winelands, South Africa

Twice per month in May, June, and July, (usually on a Tuesday at 10:00), the picturesque La Motte stages a dynamic art experience for guests. Hosted by museum curator Elzette de Beer at the estate’s Pierneef Art Gallery, the experience consists of a gallery tour, followed by a demonstration by a local artist or art student, which affords visitors a privileged window in on the creative process; something that is oftentimes not quite as glamorous or as romantic as we expect!

Currently, Pierneef is running the “Ink on Paper” exhibit, which showcases the artistic processes, various techniques, and conventions behind printmaking. Our demonstrator was the lovely Margarite Neethling, a Fine Arts student at the University of Stellenbosch, who showed us the lengthy and painstaking process behind this popular art form.

Our takeaways from the hour-long experience was, firstly, the incredible skill required to create a decent print (and there I was thinking printmaking was nothing more than sophisticated photocopying!) Secondly, I was struck by just how blurred the lines are between art and science, when quality craftsmanship demands an impeccable standard of precision, patience, and repetition.

Click here for more information on La Motte’s upcoming art experiences (R80 per person) scheduled for the 21st and 28th May, the 4th and 11th July, and 2nd and 9th July 2019.

Winter warmer special à La Motte

La Motte winter, Franschhoek, Cape Winelands, South Africa

Our art experience concluded with a glass of La Motte Collection Syrah 2016 for me and the Pierneef Collection Sauvignon Blanc 2018 for my partner-in-crime, and a rich, creamy bowl of smoked potato soup, which we enjoyed in front of the fireplace in the estate’s gorgeous flagship restaurant, Pierneef à La Motte. This winter warmer special of soup and a glass of wine goes for only R150 and includes a pan of the estate’s devilishly moreish sweet baked bread.

Where: R45, Franschhoek, next door to Leopard’s Leap Family Vineyards
Contact: +27 (0) 876 8000
Web: www.la-motte.com

La Motte, tasting, Franschhoek, Cape Winelands, South Africa
Cheeky wine tasting at La Motte’s cellar.

Tuesday burger special at Bovine Restaurant

Following our delicious winter warmer special and cheeky wine tasting in La Motte’s prepossessing cellar and tasting centre, we made our way to Bovine Restaurant for a meal that was guaranteed to help us cope with the day’s wine indulgence: good old burger and fries!

Located on Franschhoek’s main road, Bovine is the place to go when you’ve got a hankering for honest food that won’t set you back R300 a meal (we know that’s the money you’d like to be spending on wine). Now, with their Tuesday burger special on the go – R100 for any burger on their menu, except the “Fat Cow”, and a side – you can refuel and continue on your merry way without having to consult your family’s finance minister.

We shared two: the 100% springbok “Bonnievale Bok” burger with cheddar, tomatoes, pickles, and red onion and a side of sweet potato chips; and the 100% Oudtshoorn ostrich burger with onion jam, and Stellies blue cheese and a side of wood-roasted carrots and chimichurri.

By the way: unlike most other Franschhoek restaurants, Bovine is open on Mondays.
Where: 42 Huguenot Road, Franschhoek
Contact: +27 (0) 21 205 3053
Website: www.bovinerestaurant.co.za

Bovine, Franschhoek, Cape Winelands, South Africa
Credit: Jess McArthur (and the best “plus one” ever) of http://www.FoodTravelWine.co.za

La Galiniere Guest Cottages

Even the most intrepid of wine drinkers need to put their feet up at the end of a long day’s indulgence, and our abode for the evening was La Galiniere Guest Cottages, which you’ll find sandwiched between Mullineux & Leeu Family Wines and Big Dog Café. Naturally, we couldn’t turn down the opportunity to pop in at Mullineux & Leeu for a quick tasting and to admire the views of the truly resplendent Franschhoek Valley from this more altitudinous vantage point. Make sure you call ahead (+27 (0) 21 492 2224) – the tasting room is by appointment only.

Mullinieux & Leeu wine tasting, Franschhoek, Cape Winelands, South Africa

Thereafter, we finally settled into our accommodations, barely escaping with our faces unlicked by an enormous and friendly (albeit rambunctious) resident puppy. Kicking off our tired shoes, we lit a fire, cracked open a bottle of Mullineux’s Kloof Street Chenin Blanc, and enjoyed a bit of downtime before dinner.

The three-star La Galiniere Guest Cottages are a convenient and rather pretty base from which to explore the Franschhoek Wine Valley and they come in at an exceptional price point for their location, facilities, and standard of comfort. Our cottage had two bedrooms, both with beds the sizes of cruise ships, one bathroom with a shower, a well-equipped open-plan kitchen, and spacious lounge and dining room with fireplace. There was also free Wi-Fi, a pool, and TV. All of that for only R1,400 a night (R700 per person sharing). They even left us a complimentary bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon 2017, which they make from grapes grown on vineyards fronting the property.

La Galliniere Cottages, Franschhoek, Cape Winelands, South Africa

Note: Book in advance – La Galiniere only has two guest cottages (sleeping four each for a maximum of R2,500 per night) and, given their convenient proximity to Franschhoek and excellent price, they can sell out quickly!

Where: Franschhoek Main Road (R45), next door to Terbedore Coffee Roasters.
Contact: +27 (0) 72 612 3806
Web: www.lagaliniere.co.za

La-Galiniere-Guest-cottages

Le Petit Manoir

For dinner, we sat down to an unbeatable four-course winter special at Le Petit Manoir, a lavish, elegant, and trendy restaurant on Franschhoek’s main road. For the winter special, guests can choose three courses from a slightly reduced à la carte menu, with a cheese course and bottle of Protea Wine from Anthonij Rupert thrown in for only R350. Not bad! Having come from La Motte and Mullineux & Leeu wines (and being the wine snobs that we are) we decided to change things up with a Viognier, settling the price difference with the bill.

For dinner, we had mushroom and truffle risotto to start, pork belly with cabbage compote, pickled apples, apple gel, gem squash purée, and pork jus for mains, and rose and rhubarb panna cotta with smoked plum gel and sous vide rhubarb for dessert. The cheese course consisted of blue cheese mousse on a crispy cracker with fig mostarda (an Italian candied fruit and mustard-flavoured syrup) and pickled beets.

Whichever way you cut it, R350 for a four-course dining experience and bottle of wine from Franschhoek is a smashing good deal! And we absolutely loved Le Petite Manoir’s ultra-modern glassware, pork belly, brass cutlery, and excellent service.

Note: Le Petit Manoir will be closed for their annual winter break from 3rd June to 3rd July 2019.
Where: 54 Huguenot Road, Franschhoek
Contact: +27 (0) 21 876 2110
Website: www.lepetitmanoir.co.za

Le petit manoir franschhoek

Big Dog Café

Proceeding an entire day of wine appreciation (there’s a euphemism if I ever saw one), a good, healthy breakfast and strong cup of quality coffee were exactly what we needed to refuel, rejuvenate, and carry on our explorations of Franschhoek in winter. The Big Dog Café, conveniently located right next door to La Galiniere Guest Cottages, was our port of call and we kicked off the day with their delicious, house-roasted coffee, a tahini and cardamom granola bowl with milkweed’s Greek yoghurt, fermented berry compote, and fresh fruit, and a trio of breakfast toast slices, all of which were delicious but my favourite being the avocado, sumac, savoury granola, and mustard cress toast.

Where: 191 Main Road, Franschhoek
Contact: +27 (0) 21 876 2731
Web: www.bigdogcafe.co.za

Terbedore coffee Big Dog Cafe, Franschhoek
Meet Jack – the Great Dane (puppy) of Big Dog Cafe.

Boschendal farm tour and wine tasting

Our final activity for our whirlwind 24-hour Franschhoek romance was a farm tour of the Boschendal Estate, whose history dates back a whopping 334 years. To most of us, Boschendal is first and foremost a wine farm. In fact, their vast agricultural operations constitute the majority of their acreage and efforts with pears being their biggest export. The farm also sustainably produces all the poultry, beef, pork, fruits, vegetables, and herbs used in its deli and flagship restaurant, The Werf. And they are actively involved in researching the most forward-thinking and holistic agricultural methods for a sustainable and inter-connected farm.

Enrich, our warm and knowledgeable guide, lead us through the main homestead grounds, where the manor house, restaurant, and deli are located and then on through the vineyards, past the citrus orchards, and to Boschendal’s magnificent vegetable, fruit, and herb garden, paying their pigs, Angus calves, and Indian runner ducks a visits en route. Our hour-long tour culminated in a wine tasting under an enormous oak tree. Lookout out over the clipped lawns, Cape Dutch homesteads, and occasional squirrel-chasing-squirrel, it was hard not to feel grateful for the accessibility and affordability of the treats we have right on our doorsteps as Capetonians.

Where: R310 Pniel Road Groot Drakenstein
Contact: +27 (0) 21 870 4200
Web: www.boschendal.com

Boschendal Estate, Franschhoek, South Africa

Winter Schwinter

So many people avoid the Cape winelands during the wintertime, and it boggles the mind why. Here, the weather doesn’t rain on one’s parade. Sure, it’s a treat sitting beneath the canopy of a gnarled old oak tree, but is the atmospheric interior of a traditional Cape Dutch manor house really a poor trade? If anything, the lower prices, sumptuous deals, and less congested roads make this gorgeous French-inspired town an ideal winter destination. And with cloud cover adding drama to an already dramatic landscape, there’s simply no reason to wait for the fair weather to visit Franschhoek.

Franschhoek, Cape Winelands, South Africa

This article was originally written by Thea Beckman for Southern Vines Magazine, the largest leisure and lifestyle magazine in the Western Cape of South Africa: http://www.southernvines.co.za/2019/05/24/why-we-love-franschhoek-in-winter/

The Arniston Spa Hotel: Home, Sweet Temporary Home on the South Cape Coast

The Cape countryside is a patchwork quilt of rolling fields dotted with cows, sheep, blue cranes, and the occasional ostrich. Amongst the cultivation remain untouched stands of the Cape’s indigenous flora or taller tree imports from Australia. Winding through this tranquil, timeless scenery en route to Arniston, I mused that John Constable himself couldn’t paint a more bucolic landscape. And it’s in landscapes such as these, framed by the stoic, craggy mountains of the Cape peninsula and escarpment that the Cape Country Routes’ constellation of properties is located.

The Cape Country Routes is a loose coalition of hotels and activity-based experiences sprinkled across the southwestern Cape (in concentration) but that extends as far up the east coast as Port Elizabeth, and as far north as Hanover, the halfway stop between Cape Town and Johannesburg. Our destination, however, was the Arniston Spa Hotel, a large luxury four-star hotel right on the beachfront in the quaint 120-year-old fishing village of Arniston, and whose bright façade gazes into the East over the Atlantic Ocean.

Arniston Spa Hotel

The Arniston Spa Hotel

We arrived fairly early in the day and as the Arniston Spa Hotel and its spectacular coastal surrounds came into view, we all pressed our faces eagerly against the car windows. Eyes aglitter, we could scarcely believe that this would be our address for the next 24 hours. The Arniston Spa Hotel offers pretty much everything one would need/want to enjoy a long, leisurely stay on the southern coast.

There is ample accommodation with four exclusive room options to choose from, all of which are kitted-out with luxury furnishings, satellite TVs, minibars, coffee and tea-making facilities, and complimentary Wi-Fi. There is also a full-service restaurant (more on that later), bar, Ginkgo Spa, and picturesque pool in a central courtyard so that even the rooms that don’t face the ocean afford guests desirable views.

Arniston Spa Hotel, South Cape Coast of Africa

With her aspect towards the east, I hoped for a sea-facing room, imaging just how beautiful it would be to watch the sun rise over the Atlantic. But before we could settle in, we had somewhere urgent to be and so we deposited our luggage and made a 180-degree turnaround. The tide was rising.

Arniston AKA Waenhuiskrans

Arniston, South Cape Coast of Africa
Typically HORRENDOUS view

Surveying this tranquil, cheery little fishing village today, it’s hard to imagine that Arniston was named after one of the worst naval disasters in South African history but indeed it was. In 1815, the British East Indiaman Arniston was bound for England. Aboard her were 378 passengers, many of whom were wounded soldiers. Tragically, a furious Cape storm – and perhaps a bit of a boo-boo on the part of the captain who miscalculated her longitude – smashed her onto the shore and only six lived to tell the tale.

If that story is a little macabre for you, there’s always Arniston’s other official name of Waenhuiskrans, which literally translates to “wagon house cliff” or “wagon shelter cliff”. This name is derived from an immense nearby tidal cave that was said to be big enough to accommodate an entire ox wagon team, the popular mode of transport several hundred years ago. And this was exactly where we needed to be before the rising tide rendered the sea cave inaccessible to us.

Coastal walk to Waenhuiskrans Cave

Arniston, South Cape Coast of Africa

After a brisk walk alongside craggy ocean cliffs, past odoriferous colonies of cormorants, pristine coastal scrub, and dune systems that beckoned to our inner children, we finally arrived at the village’s namesake attraction. Waenhuiskrans cave was large, cool, and dank with its recent tidal bathing and was surrounded by rock pools riddled with brightly coloured sea life like anemones, sea urchins, and skittish fish. We took our photos, delighted in the sea spray and the reflections of the cave off its subterranean pools, and then, a whole morning’s walking under our belt, headed back to the Arniston Spa Hotel to check in, relieve our feet of their sodden shoes and socks, and finally appraise the views from our rooms.

Arniston, South Cape Coast of Africa
Our guide explains the history of the area, as well as some tidbits on local flora, fauna, and geology.
Arniston, South Cape Coast of Africa
These coastal succulents contain powerful anti-inflammatory properties, making them useful for treating sunburn, among other maladies.

Home, sweet temporary home

We were all lucky and secured sea-facing views. The suites were filled with natural light and spectacular views of the ocean and embracing coastline. I did a quick appraisal, which culminated in some seriously smug satisfaction, and then headed down to the restaurant, where I enjoyed a lunch of chicken and prawn Thai curry with a glass of Arniston Bay Sauvignon Blanc / Sémillon. That afternoon was taken at leisure with the exception of an hour-long massage at the Gingko Spa, from which I emerged pickled with pleasure. Mystified by how my fellow media people manage to use their afternoons productively for work, I sprawled out on my king-sized bed and snoozed.

We concluded a perfectly hedonistic day with a slap-up dinner of fresh wild oysters harvested from the bay at Arniston and washed down with a glass of the delicate and elegantly perfumed Theuniskraal Riesling 2017, followed by a melt-off-the-bone lamb shank, which I savoured with a glass (or two) of the exceptional Strandveld (Rhône style) Syrah 2016. Unable to choose, we ordered three desserts to share: the baked cheesecake with sour cherry compote, iced nougat parfait with toasted almonds and maraschino cherries, and good old-fashioned pavlova with green peppercorn mascarpone cream and fresh fruit. Judging from the alacrity with which those desserts disappeared down our gullets, it’s safe to say that we all enjoyed them immensely.

Arniston Spa Hotel lamb shank and red wine
Now THAT is what I call a quintessential South African feast!

That night, I was lulled to sleep by a belly full of home-style cooking, the region’s beautiful cool climate wines, and the gentle sigh of the waves on the coast.

Kassiesbaai and breakfast

As tempting as it was to remain swathed in sheets, I extricated myself from bed to go on a fresh, early morning walk through Kassiesbaai heritage fishing village, which sprawls right next door to the Arniston Spa Hotel. This is how Arniston began really: as a fishing community and it’s wonderful to see that the rustic, lime-washed, and thatched homes with their colourful doors and window frames remain standing, unspoiled, and inhabited by friendly fisher folk. We meandered through the 120-year-old village, enjoying the company of free-ranging dogs and the views of the sun making its escape from the eastern horizon.

Kassiesbaai fishing village, Arniston
The colourful fishing village of Kassiesbaai, Arniston

Kassiesbaai fishing village, Arniston

Our final indulgence for the trip was a full-out assault on the most epic continental style breakfast buffet you could ever imagine. Quite literally, no breakfast item was left unrepresented, from fruit salad, yoghurts, cereals, and muesli to croissants, scones, flapjacks, cheeses, charcuterie, and smoked salmon. There was even a hot station where you could order your heart’s desire for an on-the-spot breakfast of eggs, bacon, sausage, mushrooms, tomato, and any and every combination and iteration thereof. I ate like food was going out of fashion and it was good.

Brimstone canary, South Africa birds and birding
A little brimstone canary welcomes the day

Your next getaway

What began as a colourful fishing community has since soared in reputation and popularity for its incredible natural beauty, whale watching opportunities (June to November), and human heritage and history. Chief amongst the draw cards to this rather remote neck of the Cape is the Arniston Spa Hotel, which offers travellers a quintessential Cape country experience and a luxurious and comfortable base from which to explore the region’s charming, breath-taking surrounds. And if you are yet to visit Arniston, you now know where your next weekend getaway should be.

Sunrise Arniston Hotel, South Cape Coast
Sunrise as seen from the Arniston Hotel

The Arniston Spa Hotel is located at 1 Main Rd, Arniston, an approximate 210 km drive from Cape Town. For bookings and enquiries, please email info@arnistonhotel.com or call +27 (0) 28 445 9000

 www.arnistonhotel.com www.capecountryroutes.com

This article was originally written for Southern Vines Magazine, the largest lifestyle and leisure publication in the Western Cape of South Africa: https://www.southernvines.co.za/2019/05/24/the-arniston-spa-hotel-and-cape-country-routes/

Travel Memoirs of the Wanderlust-struck, Part 6

The Middle East

There is something wholly beguiling about the Middle East. The region is an ancient centre of civilization steeped both in spirituality and spectacular wonders, the vast age of which have imparted to their facades a sense of timelessness that is extraordinarily humbling. The rock-cut palace of Petra in Jordan, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the old Christian quarter of Jerusalem (where Jesus is said to have been crucified and buried), the eerily lit Jeita Grotto in Lebanon, and the Masjid al Haram in Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest mosque…the Middle East is home to innumerable archaeological and architectural marvels.

Then, of course, there are the vast desiccated landscapes rippling with sand dunes and being ripped apart by yawning canyons, where the silence is so absolute that it’s deafening. Dusty museums display artefacts dating back thousands of years, when the sweeping stories told by the ancient record were almost too grand, too opulent, and too savage to be believed.

The Middle East is a place to feel humbled by age, beauty, desolation, affluence, vastness, and the deep devotion of a people to their God and their religion. In other words, it is the Holy Grail of travel kicks and, one way or another, every traveller should make his or her pilgrimage here.

Maligned by War

Unfortunately, the very phrase ‘Middle East’ evokes strongly averse feelings from the rest of the world and particularly the West. Perhaps rightly so. Bloody, merciless wars have waged in this region for decades now, if not longer, and news of bombings, terrorism, and appalling atrocities continue to dominate the headlines streaming out of global news centres. It is a war fuelled by greed, creed, and the utter conviction from every quarter that the violence is a noble and righteous cause, when in fact it is little more than humankind at its dastardly worst.

Middle East war Howitzer gun

But, not all of the Middle East is a battlefield. In fact, much of this ancient region is peaceful and offers travellers an incredible off the beaten track experience. One such haven is to be found in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and a collection of small islands and countries bordering on the Persian Gulf and tucked into the crook of Saudi Arabia’s landmass.

Dubai (International Airport)

It is in places like the UAE that intrepid explorers such as myself are provided with a somewhat sanitized, yet spicy taste of the Middle East without the terribly pervasive dangers one can experience further north in Iraq and Afghanistan, and south in Yemen. Dubai, the capital of the UAE and a hugely successful business centre, is perhaps the best-known city in the area. It is home to the Burj Khalifa – the world’s tallest building – as well as many other architectural oddities, such as a man-made island resort shaped like a palm tree, which is best appreciated from the air as you take off from Dubai International Airport.

Dubai_Palm_Islands_from_the_air

I can’t recount how many times I have traipsed through this airport en route to some other international destination. It surely has to be one of the most sophisticated in the world but, other than its souvenirs of smirking plastic camels, burka-clad figurines, and oases trapped in snow globes (how does that work?), it doesn’t offer one much of a cultural experience. Although, curled up on an airport lounger at some ungodly hour, eyes crusty from arid airplane air, I have felt compelled to smile by the haunting warble of the Imam Muslim prayer leaders calling people to prayer. It’s what tells you that – in spite of the yawning marble, glass, and chrome structure that envelops you – you’re in the Middle East, baby.

Aside from that, all I can say about Dubai is that it is hotter than Lucifer’s taint. One day, I shall have to spend more than just 12 hours in that country.

Two Weeks in Bahrain

Bahrain fort Bahrain Middle East
Qal’at al-Bahrain, also known as the Bahrain Fort or Portuguese Fort, is an archaeological site in Bahrain. Since 1954, archaeological excavations carried out here have unearthed antiquities dating to between 2300 BC and the 18th Century, belonging to the Kassites, Greeks, Portuguese, and Persians. The fort was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2005.
Tree of Life, Bahrain Middle East
The Tree of Life (Shajarat-al-Hayat) is a 9.75 meters (32 feet) high Prosopis cineraria tree that is over 400 years old. It is located on a hill in a barren area of the Arabian Desert and is the only remotely large tree growing in the area, which has made it a significant tourist attraction. In fact, the Tree of Life is visited by approximately 65,000 people every year.
Souk market places Bahrain Middle East
A really bad photo I took really quickly of a souk (marketplace) we visited. After the unwanted attention we had received from several Bahraini men, many of my photos I took on our trip turned out like this because I was too rushed and too anxious to take decent pictures.

Shortly after I submitted my Master Degree thesis (or, rather, threw it at my supervisor yelling “tag, you’re it!” before running away from campus and the country) I spent two weeks in Bahrain, en route to Thailand, where I would be spending the following two years of my life. I had always dreamed of travelling and now that my studies were finally done, it was time to get the hell out of Dodge. I, or rather we, spent two weeks in the sovereign state of Bahrain because my then girlfriend’s father lived and worked there, and the opportunity to experience a country I would never have otherwise thought to visit presented itself.

Bahrain, officially the Kingdom of Bahrain, is another one of those havens where one can appreciate Middle Eastern culture without having to trade in one’s limbs for a debilitating case of PTSD: a lose-lose situation if I ever heard of one (pretty much sums up the U.S. war in Iraq, doesn’t it?) Coming from most places in the world, this island country in the Persian Gulf slaps you in the face as a totally alien place. Disembarking your plane, you don’t feel like you’ve stepped into another country; you feel like you’ve stepped onto another planet. And to support this point, Bahrain was used as the film location for Tattoine in the Star Warsmovies, the desert planet where Luke Skywalker was raised as a child.

Desert scenery Bahrain Middle East
Photograph of Tattoine’s / Bahrain’s dusty-ass, rock-strewn desert surface.

The country comprises a small archipelago sandwiched between the Qatar peninsula and the north-eastern coast of Saudi Arabia, which it is connected by the 25-kilometre long King Fahd Causeway. What immediately strikes you as you touch down here, even in the wee hours of the morning as we did, is the intense, suffocating heat and humidity. Then, when the sun rises, you’re confronted by an atmosphere and landscape so white and hazy with desert sand and dust that seeing colour comes as a physical relief to your retina.

Bedouine Camps, Bahrain Middle East
A really crappy, mostly unadulterated photograph of a Bedouine camp. Notice the eerily white atmosphere.

But while there are parts of Bahrain that are just vast expanses of white, crumbly rock and soil, there are, conversely, parts that have been nurtured into lush gardens, palm forests, and flowerbeds. It’s illogical and it’s beautiful.

Money, Money, Money

The Arab Sheiks, oil barons, business moguls, and royal family have the money to turn infertile desert into man-made oases of intense biological activity. These people are rich. They are richer than Bill Gates and Oprah Winfrey but we never really hear about it here in the West. This stratospheric affluence was evident in the sheer number of ambitious building projects there were scattered across the island: building projects that had been abandoned, not because their investor ran out of capital but because they got bored, leaving behind dinosaur skeletons of would-be super malls and palaces.

Walking Bahrain Middle East
On our daytime walkabout: to our right is Princess Sabeeka Park, a recreational space that was inaugurated in February 2010 (literally the same time we were there) by Her Royal Highness Princess Sabeekabint Ibrahim Al Khalifa, wife of His Majesty King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa and Chairwoman of the Supreme Council for Women in Bahrain. That’s quite a title.

The homes of wealthy Bahrainis are almost senselessly palatial, the business district is dominated by spectacularly scaled and designed skyscrapers, everyone drives big expensive cars, and the kind of gifts that are exchanged between affluent members of society can be measured in acres (it’s the square footage that counts, right?) Even shopping malls are ostentatious brick-and-mortar odes to an incomprehensible level of affluence, with their polished solid marble flooring and gilded bathroom faucets. But of all the displays of wealth that leave one slack-jawed in Bahrain, by far the most outrageous were the beggars. Outside of a grocery store, right around the corner from where we were staying, a man pulled up next to us in an Audi – not the latest model but infinitely nicer than any car I have ever owned.

And he stopped to beg for money…money to put petrol in his car, fetch his kids from school, and feed them. Something that, we were told by our host, isn’t uncommon.

Manama, Bahrain, Middle East
Manama, the capital and largest city of Bahrain. Photo credit: Jayson De Leon.

In Bahrain, the evidence of ancient custom, deep religious fervour and history is juxtaposed by the country’s thriving economic activity. This, in turn, is juxtaposed by desperate poverty. Blue steel-and-glass monstrosities rear up out of the flat white landscape, almost defying physics with their size. These monolithic entities give way to Bedouin camps and clustered, terribly impoverished housing where Indians, Thais, Filipinos, and other hopeful foreigners live. Oil and gas pipes ubiquitous to the island run for miles and miles through its white wasteland. Some of these pipes end in vents that sporadically erupt in a monstrous burp of gas and flame, which has, according to our host, roasted many a poor and unsuspecting soul.

Bahrain by Foot. Bad Idea.

The Middle East 1

For two weeks, we explored this tiny island nation mostly by car because, in spite of its size, daytime temperatures of 35 to 40 degrees Celsius made walking a very real health hazard. More than any risk of heat exhaustion, however, were the younger Bahraini men and the constant unwanted attention they slathered in copious amounts over us.

Eager to experience Bahrain on my skin and in all its intoxicating fragrances and fascinating scenery, we struck out on foot on one of the first few days of our trip. Within the first ten minutes, a man pulled his car up next to us and, leering out of the open window, gabbled something in Arabic. We tried to explain that we didn’t understand. He proceeded to stare at us, no, drink us in with his liquid dark eyes and with a revolting lecherous smirk on his face. Minutes later, another complete stranger pulled his car over, once again, to stare at us. It’s like we were tall glasses of ice water on legs and these men in their expensive cars were fresh from dying of thirst in the desert. We were fully clothed (long shorts and T-shirts that covered our shoulders, as was recommended to us) but I couldn’t have felt more blue-arsed naked. I was shocked to my core by their complete lack of what the West regards as rudimentary etiquette.

This is the incredibly confronting reality that visitors to most places in the Middle East have to come to terms with. This is a man’s world and women are second-class citizens for the most part. Seriously battling the temptation to pick up a dog turd and throw it in the next leery asshole’s open car window, we ducked into an air-conditioned mall for an hour or two before catching a taxi home.

The men of Bahrain were redeemed a day or two later when, attempting to catch a taxi home from sightseeing, a kind man stopped his car and offered us a lift. Thinking he was a taxi, we climbed in and were astounded (and somewhat shaken) to discover when he refused to take our money that he had gone completely out of his way to deliver us safely to our doorstep. He was friendly and chatty and simply welcomed the opportunity to speak to a couple of foreigners. I’m sure he was also concerned for our safety.

It must be said that most of the older Bahraini men we met during our two-week stay were polite and generous. It was the younger generations who appeared to need a serious clout about the ears.

Bahrain Middle East
Our verdant abode during our stay in Bahrain; quite the juxtaposition to the desert landscapes outside!

What I Remember Most

Adventures in Bahrain, Middle East
A visit to the Arabian Sea! Naturally, I had to give the water a fondle.

In Bahrain, the morning dawns and the day closes with the haunting warbles of the Imam Muslim prayer leaders. Accompanying this gentle soundtrack are the spectacular sunsets and sunrises, which is what I think I remember most about Bahrain. With the atmosphere being so thick with white dust, the early morning light gets refracted into a billion shades of pink and blue pastels, and all of this gorgeous light caresses the Bahraini landscape’s white desolation and visionary architecture.

We spent two weeks exploring the ancient archaeological ruins of the Bahrain Fort, enduring the incredible heat, marvelling at the strange and exotic imported fruits in the grocery store, and trying new foods, the names of which I have long forgotten. We went to bars where we couldn’t afford to drink (thanks to the steep exchange rate), to the desert where I felt as though the emptiness and silence would swallow me whole, and to the beach, where the salty waters of the Arabian Sea lapped at our feet. We wandered the souks, the malls, and the streets of this very strange country, the first international adventure I’d had since travelling to Singapore as a child.

I enjoyed Bahrain intensely and the scene I carry – and will always carry – as my mental postcard for this magical place is of a gently pink dawn over the bridge to Manama.

Sunrise Bahrain Middle East