A baker makes kaboos (Arabic style bread) in a clay oven
What would you do if you were in Bahrain only on a short visit? In a previous feature, photographer
took us on a whirlwind, 24-hour tour of the island. This time around, with a little more time on his hands, James plans a more detailed itinerary that takes in the best of what Bahrain has to offer. Join us as James, camera in hand, sets out on his journey of discovery...
Having now made return visits almost every year since my first photo assignment to Bahrain in 1997, I think I can feel justified in saying that the island is becoming more like my second home!
On my previous visit, I wrote a photo essay about what you could do if you had only one day to explore Bahrain. The feature, titled 'Around the Island in 24 Hours', was very well received, and some of the feedback spurred this new question: What if you had a full week to spend in the country?
With the excellent guidance of my host, publisher and specialist tour operator Ali Mushaima, I put together a new itinerary that featured some of the places from '24 Hours' (though in more detail), plus many more attractions that I hope you will find as interesting as I did. Obviously when you have a week, there is far more opportunity for sightseeing, exploring far-flung sights or even trying out the food at different types of restaurants.
SATURDAY: Delving into history - at the museum and in the old quarter of Muharraq. Let's start then with my arrival on Friday night in time for Saturday, the first day of the work week in Bahrain. The Manama souk (traditional open market) is busy again after the weekend lull, with people bustling about the place. This morning I decide to go for a more regular breakfast as opposed to the 4am traditional bacha breakfast of boiled sheep's head and legs, which I did last year!
I pick one of the little sidewalk cafés for delicious local yoghurt, hot kaboos (traditional bread) made on the spot, eggs and hot sweet tea. Very likely you will, like me, find yourself in conversation with a local Bahraini or even one of the many weekend visiting Saudis showing genuine interest in a non-Arab and wanting assurance that you are enjoying your stay in Bahrain.
I always feel visits to museums are likely to entail plenty of walking, so with a big breakfast under my belt, I decide I am now equipped to explore Bahrain's giant National Museum.
The island's main museum is not far from the city centre and should certainly be on everyone's 'must-see' list. The strikingly handsome building, built in 1988, houses exhibits dating back 4,000 years. It even has an ancient burial mound from about 2800 BC which was actually transferred from its original location in the desert and reassembled in fine detail within the museum.
The museum is divided into several sections, each interesting in their own way. There is one on natural history, another on trade and crafts and yet another on Bahrain's customs and traditions. One excellent exhibit is a reconstruction of a traditional souk as it existed in the 1930s.
I was fortunate enough to get special permission to photograph old Dilmun seals, one of the museum's greatly treasured pieces. The Dilmun civilisation (Bahrain was known as Dilmun in the third millennium BC) is the earliest civilisation on record.
Another fascinating item I enjoyed photographing was the model of an ancient pearl diving dhow showing in fine detail how men used to dive to the seabed using only the most primitive equipment - nose clips to prevent water intake, rocks tied to the feet to act as weights, and a bag to collect oyster shells.
The divers would go down to depths of up to 15 metres. Each diver had a rope around his waist, the end of which was held by his mate on deck. After about a minute underwater the diver would tug on the rope to indicate he was ready to be hauled to the surface. A truly unenviable way to make a living made all the more so because the divers were not paid a wage but were advanced money at the beginning of the diving season. If the pearl harvest was not as good as predicted, they were often unable to pay back the loans thereby getting further into debt each year, which resulted in them being bound to a particular boat owner for life.
There are many other interesting exhibits and if you are a history/culture buff, you could easily spend a day or more to take everything in. By going to the museum on your first day you could decide if you want to put time aside later in the week for a further visits.
I wanted to fit more locations in on Day One so at mid-morning I continued on from the museum to Muharraq Island, which is north of the city and well connected to Manama by modern new bridges. I start off at old Marek Street and its stores selling all kind of spices. I cannot capture those pungent aromas on film, but the displays are absolutely photogenic with their range of colours and the way they are displayed in small jars, large containers or carefully shaped into pyramids side by side. They are so multicoloured in presentation.
The street also has many confectionery and sweet shops, and amongst the tempting delicacies is halwa, a traditional local sweet. It is something like a mixture of Turkish delight and jelly although this doesn't really describe it accurately - you must come and try it for yourself. Halwa is delicious eaten warm at the shop although it can as easily be taken away and eaten cool. It does not need to be refrigerated - it stays for a long time as I can vouch for myself having brought several weeks' worth of supplies back to England!
Just a short walk from the Muharraq souk (market) are two famous traditional houses of Bahrain, Beit Shaikh Isa bin Ali and Beit Siyadi. Beautifully restored, they both have wonderful designs with carved doors and plasterwork. Even the ceilings have been carefully restored using reed and wood which is how they were constructed long before the invention of modern ceilings.
Beit Shaikh Isa bin Ali features a lovely wind tower, the pre-electricity equivalent of the air-conditioner. You can actually experience how it works by sitting underneath and feeling its ability to catch even light winds and cool down the room with its unique method of circulating the air.
Time to go back to the city for lunch, and we decide on La Ventana, a small and very atmospheric Bohemian style restaurant very popular with expatriates and locals alike. It is always bustling at lunchtime - not surprising given the excellent salads, soups, rolls and sandwiches it has on its menu. Certainly a good choice for a relaxing break.
My batteries now recharged, I head for old Manama and the souk for more spices, perfumes, textiles and gold. The items on display at stores in the Gold Souk are a real eye opener. There is a massive variety to choose from and some of the window displays are quite amazing with row upon row of necklaces, earrings, bracelets and more. It's great to see it all lit up at night so we decide to come back after dinner that evening and arranged in advance to do some photography later as well.
Dinner that evening is at Krumz, with English and continental fare, after which it is back to the Gold Souk. The two-storey building has a total of 82 jewellery shops plus a cosy little cafeteria. With so many styles of jewellery to choose from, deciding which items to photograph is not easy. I have always been fascinated by the huge gold necklaces favoured by Arab women and which are much larger than those usually seen in the West. They are highly crafted with ornate patterns and embossing and make constantly interesting close up photographs.
Well, that was a good way to use Day 1! I usually find the first day's activities on any new travel venture result in requiring a good night's sleep, what with the rush to leave England, the flight out etc, so now is the time for a first night's well earned rest.
PHOTO TIP: For close-up portraits outdoors having full sunshine may mean that there are heavy shadows under the subjects eyes. Either use fill-in flash lighting (only to lighten the shadows and not kill them), or if possible wait until the sun goes behind a cloud to soften the shadows and of course help the subject not to squint in the bright sun! Best results can be on a bright but overcast day if of course you have a choice.