Manama: Sights, Souqs & Sandstorms

Our trip to Bahrain was kind of an afterthought. We had tickets to Yemen but the news recently hasn't been good so we decided to change our destination. We looked at how much time we had and decided we could either go to Qatar or Bahrain. Because we've already been to Qatar it seemed a no brainer. The sights in Bahrain are spread across the country and a lot of comments we read said things were difficult to find, even with a GPS, so we decided to spend the first days exploring the sights in Manama ourselves and book a tour for the last day, which we'll talk about in our next post.
The view from the pool deck on arrival and 16 hours later

The view from the pool deck on arrival and 16 hours later

We arrived on a gloriously clear day. We dropped our bags in our hotel room and caught the lift to the 10th floor pool area just in time to catch a cracking sunset. Sadly, this would be our last sunset in Bahrain. The next morning we got up bright and early to get ready to head to Al-Fateh Mosque. We knew we had to borrow abayas and headscarves there so we didn't worry much about what we wore. We arrived in an exorbitantly priced taxi (this was to become a theme in Bahrain) and went in to reception. We were promptly decked out in our abayas and headscarves and ready to go. You have to take a tour in this mosque and though I was a bit sceptical (would there be pressure to convert or would we be rushed through?) it actually ended up being very enjoyable. Although our guide, Ibraham, looked a bit afraid to be leading two non-believing ladies around the mosque (we overheard him say he would only do it this once because they didn't have enough guides), he was actually very polite and informative and gave us ample time to take photos. We learnt a lot about why mosques are decorated and designed the way they are and although there were some brochures available at reception, no one pushed us to take any. Overall, it was a rewarding experience that helped me understand every mosque.
Al Fateh mosque

Al Fateh mosque

We had decided to walk between the mosque and our next destination, the Bahrain National Museum. We read somewhere that it was a 'nice' walk and being winter and all, we thought 'why not?' Following our Google map, we set off through dusty backstreets, parking lots, and large patches of dirt to reach the museum. Sometimes, feet on solid ground, the map showed us walking through water, an indication of just how much land Bahrain has reclaimed from the sea. We then reached a highway with a narrow sidewalk beside it. We tried to hurry as cars whizzed past, flying down the highway, all the time realising it was getting harder to breathe and visibility was decreasing. A sandstorm had blown in! And all this time we were walking, not a single taxi passed us. We finally made it to the museum, which is in an awesome location on the water with views of the city skyline when there isn't a dust storm. Of course, we couldn't even see that there was a city, but we enjoyed lunch at the cafe and a nice stroll around the museum. It gives a good foundation for understanding the culture of Bahrain and a lot of the sights in the country- nice thing to do first up.
Bab al Bahrain (the Gate to Bahrain)

Bab al Bahrain (the Gate to Bahrain)

By the time we finished at the museum, the weather was well and truly dust. We called it a day and decided we would wait to visit the Bab Al Bahrain souq the next day, hoping for a clearer day. We woke up to a slightly better day, but the weather was still dust. We headed to Bab Al Bahrain (the gateway to Bahrain) and the souq behind it. The first part of the souq is modern and indoors with some nice restaurants and shops. One particularly popular restaurant served up a traditional Bahraini breakfast for two (more like four by our standards) that we just had to try before exploring further. Stepping outside of that modern building, you'd be forgiven for thinking you've stepped out into the Indian subcontinent. Sari and sweet shops line the streets (along with heaps of shops selling fake Rolexes) and the sound of Hindi, Urdu and Nepali is all around. This is obviously the area of choice for the roughly 30% of the expat population hailing from India, Pakistan and Nepal. Overall, this area is definitely the perfect place to spend a half day, and if you want to stay in the centre of the action this is the place to be. There is a range of accommodation from dubious dives to the ritzy Intercontinental.
Naseef restaurant - fabulous breakfasts in the souq

Naseef restaurant - fabulous breakfasts in the souq

A traditional Bahraini breakfast

A traditional Bahraini breakfast