Latvia: Of Roosters, Rye & Riga Black Balsam

3 beautiful days in Riga. And I absolutely mean it when I say beautiful. It helped that we had perfect weather, great company and a cosy accommodation to make the visit all the more memorable.

If geography is not your forte, Riga is the capital of Latvia which is one of the three Baltic countries in Northern Europe (the other two being Lithuania and Estonia). One advantage of living in Europe is the ease of hopping into another country over a weekend. And so Riga it was, courtesy the husband who had a training to deliver (one less flight ticket to pay for #happydance!). And before he knew it, wife and son had decided to tag along and booked the tickets.

Yes, Riga is another European’ish city with the old town, cobbled streets and a grand church in the centre so if you have been to other cities in the continent, you may think ’what’s the big deal’. Two things to note here – one, the city is not overrun by tourists and yet has its own unique charm and vibrancy along with enough things to do. Two, perspective is important – Latvia was part of erstwhile Soviet Union and is currently part of the Eurozone. Unlike Georgia and Armenia, Riga appears to have taken pains to shed its communist past and embrace inclusion into mainstream Europe — this is evident with the development in the city, and most noticeably in the architecture. I fell in love with the buildings but I shall reserve that to another post.

Rooster

We woke up in a beautiful 7th-floor apartment of a building that had a splendid balcony in the direction of the town centre. One of the most noticeable views is how there are roosters atop church steeples in the old town. According to Christian tradition, roosters ward off evil through their ‘cock-a-doodle-doo‘ and symbolise watchfulness and vigilance and hence were fixed atop. A more factual explanation is that they were used as a wind indicator in earlier times as Riga was an important port city for sailing ships. Either way, roosters were an interesting change from the  typical crosses you see otherwise.

Rye

I wasn’t expecting much from Latvian cuisine being a vegetarian but I did my research beforehand and knew I had to try two of things: ‘Rupjmaizeor Black Rye Bread and Cold Beet Soup. With kids in tow, eating what you want wherever you want is not the easiest of affairs but we finally discovered a popular chain that served local fare and made everyone happy. My child being a rice-fanatic enjoyed his ‘plov‘ (a version of the indian ‘pulao‘ and arabic ‘pilaf‘). And I loved the cold beet soup that mainly had beetroots blended with kefir/buttermilk and peppered with dill.

The dark rye bread is obviously not for everyone and especially so if you have not been much of a bread/wheat eater all your life – which is the case for a lot of us from South India. That said, I totally relished the loaf bought from a supermarket – it is made of whole grain rye and the addition of malt and caraway seeds give it a distinct flavour. Probably a tad dry eaten on its own but I bought a little bottle of spicy tomato ‘chutney’ (called Adjika) at a weekend market — the combination was delicious! I must add here that Adjika is made and sold in Latvia but borrowed from Georgian cuisine; they were all part of the Soviet, remember? And that explains hot-spice in a cuisine that is otherwise void of it.

I should have realised that food gets the better of me and this warrants a separate blogpost but suppose it is too late now. So may I also mention ‘Maizes Zupa‘? Literally translated as ‘bread-soup’ but is actually a dessert essentially with rye bread, dried fruits/preserves and whipped cream. I wouldn’t have ordered it had it not been for the latvian lady at the cashier line in restaurant where we were buying our food. I asked her what it was and she explained in broken English and then cringed when I showed her the chocolate eclair that I was about to buy. Never a bread-pudding lover but I ended up buying and eating it. And yet again, totally dug into it!

P.S: We also had dinner at a South Indian restaurant at Riga. Yes, you read that right – a south indian restaurant with idli, dosa and the works. Now who’d have thought there was one there??! Something I wouldn’t have done even in my wildest dreams in the pre-kid era! But it was an interesting experience and we also learnt that the Tech sector is developing in the Baltics and unsurprisingly, attracting a lot of Indians.

Riga Black Balsam

As with many european and post-soviet countries, beer is the stand-out alcoholic beverage. However, you cannot miss noticing the abundance of Riga Black Balsam branding all over the city. Black Balsam is a traditional Latvian tar-black liqueur with high alcohol content, known to be flavoured with herbs and having medicinal properties. The drink by itself is supposedly bittersweet but there are a few flavoured variants that make it delectable. One such being the Black Currant version that we tried and were sold!

So as you can see, I mostly ate, drank and saw a lot of pretty buildings. And spent considerable time in a couple of the city’s beautiful parks. That kind of sums up some of the things you can do in Riga over 3 days with kids. And I emphasise ‘with kids’ because travel takes a whole new meaning when they are around!

Related Posts:

And I’m back!

Celebrating Georgian cuisine

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It all began in Haarlem

“Dreams do come true but for that, you must believe they will” – A wise old woman

It all came rushing back to me when I first stepped foot into the chilly winter air of Amsterdam in Dec 2018. Yes, it was happening and I was going to actually live in the Netherlands for the next few years!

To make sense of this, I had first visited the country in the spring of 2013, whilst on an English-teaching contract in France.

Haarlem6

View of Haarlem architecture and River Spaarne

Also read: Notes from Netherlands

Being an Easter weekend then and with throngs of tourists in Amsterdam, I decided to get away from the city and headed to the train station buying day pass with the intent of visiting Delft, Leiden and Den Haag (The Hague). This, on the recommendation of my ‘Couchsurfing’ host.

Most of the day was spent admiring the beauty of Delft and Leiden. With little time to visit The Hague (that is, rainy weather and an early next morning departure), I decided to give it a miss and head back to Amsterdam. Greed eventually got the better of me and on a whim, I got off at Haarlem deciding to do a quick jog of the town (hey, I used to run half marathons back then!).

I don’t remember much of Haarlem as I whizzed through from the train station to the town ‘centrum’ and back – and almost got lost too; mobile google maps/4G were not on my radar then. Yes, it was yet another lovely Dutch town but what is vivid in my memory as I got into the train was that 2 measly days had done no justice to this gorgeous country. I swore then that I’d return to visit Haarlem (in a less hurried fashion) as well as few other Dutch towns sometime in future.

Destiny, indeed!

So that was part reason why I wanted to live in Haarlem initially, alongside proximity to Amsterdam. We eventually settled in Zaandam but I have visited Haarlem more number of times than imagined!

As with most European cities, walking is the best way to see the city. The ideal place to start is from the train station, which incidentally is one of the oldest in the Netherlands, and then wander your way into the ‘Grote Markt’ or the market/city centre. Unmissable here is the gothic styled Saint Bavo Church which is known to preserve the ‘Muller-organ’ that has been played by Mozart and other musical greats. Haarlem is known for its medieval architecture and while I have not done it yet, a canal cruise along River Spaarne that runs through Haarlem would be another excellent way to see the city and its monumental buildings including the iconic windmill, Molen de Adrian.

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Travel notes:

  • Haarlem is a 15-minute train ride from Amsterdam.
  • Don’t miss walking around the Grote Markt and the main cathedral – De Grote St Bavokerk (and of course, the musical organ if you choose to go in)
  • Plenty of museums if you are into it….and well preserved buildings if you are more interested in the exteriors
  • If you like beer, sample it at Jopenkerk (trust the Dutch to convert a church into a brewery!); it was closed as of May when we visited but appears to be open again.

Read also: The story so far

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Zaandam

Zaandam. The place we now call home.

Let me introduce you to this unassuming and pretty town, 15 minutes away by train from its more popular neighbour and capital of the Netherlands, Amsterdam.

So some trivia to start with – Zaandam gets its name from the River ‘Zaan’ and ‘Dam’ which has the same English meaning that is, a barricade or so that prevents water from flowing on to land (more on the awesomeness of Dutch marine engineering in another post). And hence derives ‘Amsterdam’ through which flows the river Amstel.

We had not heard of Zaandam until we arrived in this country. Our initial plan was to stay in Hoofddorp or Haarlem and as a last option Amsterdam which we figured would be a more expensive option than the former two. Our timing of arrival (December and the holiday season) ensured that either we had apartments that exceeded the budget or just very few places being rented out. Till a colleague of the husband (yes, that man from Yin and Yang prominence) suggested that we consider Zaandam and recommended a property agent who’d help us.

This took way longer than our 2 weeks-estimate and by then I was disillusioned with the house hunt. I had very low expectations as I walked out of Zaandam train station for a couple of house viewings. And may I admit, the first view of the town totally took me by surprise!

Zaandam has a unique canal house archictecture where the external facade is painted in all sorts of green hues, with bits of orange and white and topped with the triangular gabled roof.  My first sight was of Inntel Hotels that looks like a pileup of gingerbread Zaandam-styled green and blue houses one over the other. Quite a sight for architecture lovers and one that briefly stunned me as I walked into town. From there on, I was totally charmed by this place and some of the unique sights I stumbled upon.

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So we saw two houses, liked both, finalised one, moved in, discovered it was old and creaking and much too big for us (in short, a terrible decision), moved out and into the second house and finally settled ourselves. Phew.

All’s well that ends well and we love our home now! It is a simple and small place sufficient for the three of us but the setting is as pretty and Dutch as can be. A red bricked three-storied building with a canal running in front, a quiet yet busy street (and by that I mean there’s a school next door so hurray, noise level achieved — I am Indian like that) and surrounded by locals (though it wont take too long for the rest of our country brethren to populate this town).

Home 1

View from our house in winter…

Home 3

…and in summer!

From a travellers’ perspective, Zaandam is a great day trip or even a smart and inexpensive base to stay if you want to visit Amsterdam and neighbouring towns. Part of the larger Zaanstad municipality, it is home to Zaanse Schaans, a large open air farm and museum best known for its collection of well-preserved historic windmills.

If you are an art, and more specifically, impressionist lover, there is also Monet’s Atelier – a small house in the town centre that is curated with replicas of the artist’s paintings and includes as a short but interesting presentation of his brief time in Zaandam a century ago. Free entry!

Monet ZaandamMonet art Zaandam

So that’s a wrap up for now, but there’s more coming on cycling, the Dutch language and the hormonal weather. Watch this space!

Related post: Notes from Netherlands

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…and I am back!

It has been a year since I wrote my last blog post on Ireland. I was hoping to elaborate on that beautiful country and share some photos but never got around to doing that.

While there was no dearth of travel in the interim, there has also been a whirlwind of activity on the personal front that put blogging on the backseat. Numerous occasions when I put timelines and promised to publish a post, brief one if I could, but lack of focus just put me off.  Time to rectify now, better late than never as the saying goes!

So here’s what happened since my travel to Ireland in May 2018:

  • We travelled to Romania in August 2018 – a gorgeous country relatively untouched by tourists
  • I quit my job a couple of months later, in October
  • We said goodbye to the UAE and moved to the Netherlands in December
  • Set up home in the pretty li’l town of Zaandam in January this year
  • We had our first travel within Europe since moving here; to Turin, Italy for 5 days last month (July 2018)
  • Most importantly, I have spent the last 8 months as a full time mom for the first time in 3.5 years! And surviving it a lot better than I imagined 😉

More on all of the above soon…..so here we go again!

Leaving you with the last pic taken in Dubai before departure.

Dubai Travel

 

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The luck of the Irish’s

Ireland.

It wasn’t on my immediate travel radar but it happened, thanks to a work trip. And if I were asked to sum up the country in one word, it would be this: GREEN.

Green and how!

First off, I live in a region where sand dunes are your definition of nature and erm, beauty. So you may want to discount me if I go a little overboard over ‘green’. But Ireland (Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland) is so green that it could put Photoshop and its myriad hues of the colour to shame. To quote the wise words of a colleague, the Irish landscape was green on ‘auto-enhance’.

Enough with green. Over to the weather.

No one travels to Ireland for a suntan! As a traveller, chances are that you could encounter rain no matter which month you travel. However, in the week that I spent between Belfast and Dublin, there was one evening …yes, just one evening of rain. Rather, a heavy drizzle. Of course, it helped that we went in May and experienced pleasant weather and long summer days. I still can’t get over the sun setting at 9.30pm!

Now on to Irish, the people.

It does take time to understand Irish accents – it took me a couple of years at work and a few Bushmills to get there but when I finally did, I concluded that the Irish are a crazy and funny lot, having met colleagues at work, servers at pubs or just bystanders that you ask for directions while strolling arond. Little did I know then that they are quite famed for their sense of humour.

Due to large scale emigration from Ireland centuries ago, Irish festivals like St. Patricks Day and Halloween are celebrated in many countries. As is with every country and community, they are also very proud of their “Irish” heritage and take all effort to promote it. If you are in Ireland, do not miss visiting one of the souvenir shops (Carroll’s seem to be the most popular) – from shamrocks and leprechauns to Guinness and Celtic souvenirs, there’s something in there for everyone.

And finally food and drink.

As a vegetarian, I cannot speak much of Irish food which is predominantly meat based, however I had no trouble finding decent vegetarian options (and even vegan, in some places) at the hotels I stayed in and pubs visited. The ‘drink bit’ of course warrants another post. It would be unfair to the Irish any other way.

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Slovakia, snow, shoes and more

Yin and Yang are back with their travels. With Young, in tow. They celebrated Young’s second birthday in Jan 2018 (ah, time flies) and and a month later flew to Eastern Europe, thriftlessly paying for a third-seat ticket. On the plus side, toddler was kicking the seat in front rather than his parents’ faces and legs. Oh oops.

But more on toddler tantrums later. Lets focus on how a toddler wrote the narrative on where to travel.

We looked up Google maps and contemplated every place from Muscat to Mexico. True story.  Muscat was too near, Mexico was too far (23 hours flight with child = disaster). And in between were places that were too cold, too hot, too expensive, too unsafe.…you get the drift.

After a few weeks that resulted in extra grey hairs (all mine, of course) and in almost zeroing in a on a weekend ‘staycation’ at the nearby Ras-al-khaimah hotel, we applied for a Slovakian visa. The Austrian embassy (in the absence of a Slovakian one in the UAE) stuck its nose up and kept us on the edge before stamping us a green signal to travel.

The average day temperature in Slovakia was predicted at 1 deg C. Grey-haired Yang was excited for herself yet fearful for her child and drove Yin crazy about the need to stock up baggage solely with baby woollens. Better sense finally prevailed and vacation day arrived.

And so Slovakia, we went. In fact, Slovakia, Austria and the Czech Republic.

We flew into Bratislava, Slovakia’s capital and spent 3 nights exploring the old town, sampling local brews and importantly, enjoying our cheap and cheerful Slovakian-decored apartment.

We then took a train into Vienna and spent another 3 nights there. The capital city snowed us over, quite literally, and with a night to spare before heading back to Bratislava (for our return flight), on a whim, we took a 90-min bus ride to the student town of Brno in the Czech Republic.

The highlights of our 8-day vacation was:

  • Snow

Lots and lots of it, being that time of the year. And coming from the desert, we absolutely loved it! More importantly, the boy was fascinated by the whiteness and much to our relief returned unscathed, despite an evening out in heavy snowfall.

  • Walking

As a lot of travellers will vouch, most European cities are best experienced through walking. Both of us love walking and that just made everything easier. It also helped in losing considerable calories being gained steadily through beer consumption.

  • Picking up shoes

Whilst we walked, our boy was latched on to a stroller. The shoes being a wee too big for his feet, he used every opportunity to fling them both on to the cobbled streets. More calories were lost before we decided to release his feet and double-sock him. Don’t you call me paranoid; we were in sub zero centigrades, mind you.

  • Using two online disrupters

That is, Airbnb and Uber.

We used Airbnb for booking our stay in all three cities and stayed in apartments owned by locals. Great decision and while I’m conscious that it may not work for all cities across the world, give mainstream hotels a miss and try this when holidaying in Europe.

Uber was really cheap in Bratislava and we used it to our advantage for longer distances and where we didn’t have to worry about taking strollers up and down an underground tube.

  • Beer

The obvious highlight. Cheaper than water in supermarkets!

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Dilijan

Where time stopped still.

My closest comparison to this sleepy town is the Dalhousie trip I made five years ago.

The August weather of Yerevan was getting a little too hot to be out and about so we weighed our options and decided to drive up to the cooler climes of Dilijan, a little town about an hour from the capital.

En route, we stopped at Lake Sevan. The dad took charge of entertaining the boy by the waters and I made a short trek up to Church Sevanastek.

The route upward was dotted with pomegranate trees. Pomegranate trees galore!! (If you didnt already know, seeing fruits on trees make me go berserk). These fruits are symbolic to Armenians and every souvenir shop I’d come across had something and everything on pomegranates!

Church Sevanastek is archaical and beautiful but what makes it stunning is it’s position atop the hill. It is situated amidst a lake and over time, has risen over. The view from the church was incredible, to say the least, despite the hot sun that hovered over me. I can’t imagine how much more pleasing it would be in cooler weather.

I made it to base in 27 minutes. Yes, I timed it- and time management is essential when a toddler is part of the travel picture. We eventually reached Dilijan late afternoon and checked into, what we realised much later, the popular Tufenkian Heritage Hotel.

Now I don’t mean to advertise a hotel but our Tufenkian stay in Yerevan was so pleasant that we looked up online and saw that their presence in Dilijan so made an impromptu booking the day before heading there. What we didn’t realise is Tufenkian Dilijan is a heritage hotel – that is, the historical site was bought over by business magnate James Tufenkian and restored into a hospitality area. We were put on the ground floor and over our first evening, window-watched tons of passing tourists stopping to take pics of our building.

With a restless 18 month in tow, Dilijan may just be the place to relax with a pint of Dilijan (side note: cheap and cheerful)! However, if you are looking for a lot more activity, I’d suggest staying put at Yerevan. The town had nothing much to offer but we spent a couple of hours driving up to Park Dilijan – a nice place to chill, perhaps even do some adventure sports if you are around earlier in the day. I took a walk to the town square one late evening to search for the nearest grocery store but hurried back as it was fairly deserted despite being a weekend (I would add though that seems like a pretty safe place).

On Day 2 of Dilijan, we asked to move to the first floor of the hotel which had a balcony and a better view. Sitting out, we were witness to an ‘Armenian pop video’ shoot taking place in front of our hotel! With at least 25 retakes of the song, it still rings in my head.

The town also me an opportunity to savour two lovely Armenian dishes – Borani, a pumpkin-chickpea soup and Gata, a warm pastry served with a scoop of yougurt. Delicioussss, to say the least.

As I look back, Dilijan was a great place to relax and bond as a family.

 

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Armenia: Half agenda, double the fun

Indians with UAE residence visa now get ‘visa on arrival’ in Armenia. Best ever travel news of 2017!

republic yerevan

Its July 2017 with an upcoming August-end Eid break and in typical fashion, we have planned travel with no clue on where to go, what to do. And then comes this piece of news that we validated several times over – twice from the Armenian Embassy in Abu Dhabi, from Tripadvisor forums and Google only to be reassured that it was indeed true!

With my love for Georgia still not lost, I was looking forward to see how Armenia would be different, considering how much both countries have in common geographically and culturally. To be honest, my expectations weren’t that high but I was pleasantly surprised.

orthodox church yerevan

A landlocked country, Armenia has an identity of its own but with strong influence of its neighbours. For a start, almost all signs are in Armenian and Russian and while 98% of the population are Armenians, most of them speak Russian as a second language. The architecture, particularly the churches with conical domes are very similar to those in Georgia, reflecting Orthodox Christianity. The food, like Georgian cuisine, is an eclectic mix of Soviet, Middle eastern and Western influence and needless to say, this demands a separate post!

wine miming yerevanThe weather is extreme with hot summers and icy-cold winters. End- August was still hot in the capital,Yerevan (37 deg C!) but I was told that it was much hotter earlier that month. Thanks to this and with toddler in tow, we couldn’t walk around much but with whatever we did, it was obvious that half of Yerevan was basking out on the streets and I must add here that Armenians (the women in particular!) rank very high in appearance! *whistle*

beer yerevan dilijan armenia travelOur trip was over 4 nights; we had booked two nights in Yerevan and like in the past, left the rest to be decided impromptu. As Yerevan reminded us of the Dubai summer, we eventually headed to Dilijan on Day 3, a so-called spa town an hour away. A sleepy place, Dilijan was pretty in parts, but if only the weather had been more considerate, I’d have loved to spend all 4 days in the capital.

There is only as much as you can do with a toddler who is just learning to talk (which translate into screams at every opportune moment) and walk (which means, he doesn’t want to be strapped and if left loose, decides to go on his own trip). And so we had to don the role of responsible parents and manage his mood, food and sleep patterns which meant considerable time was spent within the the confines of hotel room. Of course, we foresaw this and wisely stocked up on every brand of Armenian beer thus enjoying our in-room sampling sessions!

Related post

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Sri Lanka 2016

So this is what babies do to you! I was told, forget travel now that Young is here and they were right. Well, almost.

I have had, what I term ‘travel starvation’ in the last year. Our only two breaks were back home to India, both family/occasion related. Being full-time working parents, we have been very lucky to have family support for the baby and now a nanny, however with visa restrictions and other commitments the year has passed within the confines of the emirate.

And so, for the time being, lets e-explore the beautiful country of Sri Lanka that we travelled to exactly a year ago. Oh! How I remember this evening that day in chilly hilly Kandy, sipping on a Lions’ while the boy had just latched on to the bottle! At 6 months, he was the best baby a parent could have travelled with. Maybe we waxed a little too eloquently about it and today, it is a different story altogether.

As with most countries that we have travelled to, typically for a week, we touched 3 cities. Ideally, I’d have liked going to a few places off the grid but with baby in tow, we stuck to more popular ones.

  • Bentota
  • Kandy
  • Colombo

Bentota was the typical beach-holiday goer’s place, sun-soaked, lazy and where life slows down a little. The beaches of Bentota, were no doubt, beautiful, and the weather, although a bit warm for my liking was rainy and a welcome change from the desert heat. I particularly loved our day trip to Galle, the UNESCO world heritage city south of the country with imposing Dutch architecture, quirky cafes and ambience that a day trip can do no justice to.

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Kandy was a last minuter to the schedule – as first-time traveling parents, we were a little paranoid about how he’d endure the road trip uphill- downhill but took a chance and had no regrets. Kandy reminded me of the colourful and busy ‘hill-stations’ of Southern India. We visited the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic  which hosts the ‘tooth’ of Buddha. Alongside this was the International Buddhist Museum, a wonderful display illustrating Buddhism from across the world.

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Colombo was a typical asian capital city – noisy and busy yet vibrant in its own way. We just spent a day there and splurged on the Galle Face Hotel, a historic colonial hotel facing Indian Ocean. And shopped a wee bit on some great quality but super cheap clothes!

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And food! Rice-heavy and plenty use of coconut, it was very similar to back home (i.e. Tamil/Kerala cuisine). Try the string-hoppers with curry – they are worth every bit of your rupee!

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Buddha is of course, omnipresent.

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In all, Sri Lanka offers a bit of everything and a country that can be easily explored over a reasonable length of time on an inexpensive budget.

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Dubai Water Canal

I must confess that, had I not lived in Dubai, it would never make it in my list of top must-visit places. Simply because it is a man-made city created from a desert and personally, I’d have no desire to travel somewhere to see a bunch of well-made concrete structures.  Having said that, I appreciate and am highly grateful as a resident of Dubai for all the comforts it continues to provide on a professional and personal front. And over the last couple of years, I am in awe of all that the government has done and continues to do in trying to make the city one of the most desired tourist destinations in the world.

On that note, I spent an evening strolling by the recently constructed water canal. The Dubai Water Canal was inaugurated in Oct 2016, three years after it was first announced. The changes made to Sheikh Zayed Road, the arterial road that connects the emirates, is commendable considering all that has been done in a short span of time and within the stipulated deadline.

The water canal is a 12-kilometre waterway that connects Dubai Creek with the Arabian Gulf and will eventually feature a jogging track, restaurants and cafes along the promenade and marine stations with regular ferry of passengers. As always, Dubai wants to make a noise about it –  I even noticed that they have Bose speakers installed along the walkway!! This project will also feature ‘smart’ electric poles and other tech-elements to fulfill requirements of Dubai’s aim to become the Smartest City in the world!

Here’s a first glimpse of the water canal and the bridges, view of Downtown Dubai and of course, Burj Khalifa.

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