The train journey from Giza to Luxor is a real treat, if a little long. We left on a Thursday before a long weekend so it was rather busy, even in first class (AU$15) so a little chaotic at times but never too difficult.
There is an expensive overnight train to Luxor and Aswan that tourists are encouraged to use, to the extent that getting tickets for the day train is made rather difficult for us. There are ways around it (see details on Seat61.com) and J, through dogged determination on the internet, secured ours. Not only is the train cheaper, you get to experience a bit more of local life (only 4 other tourists on it) and you see you Nile Valley in daylight. Also, as tourists are not the norm, everybody went out of their way to ensure that we were well looked after, making it a pleasant experience.
It doesn’t take long for the very grubby, overcrowded and generally shit streets of Cairo and Giza to give way to beautiful green fields, small villages and lovely views. Our spirits began to lift as soon as we left the station and we began to feel normal again once we left the city. Egypt can be rather beautiful.
After 10hrs, we pulled into the slightly mad Luxor station and fought our way out with our bags to be met by Ahmed, the driver organised by our Airbnb and quickly saw that outside the station, Luxor was a reasonably ordered and calm place.
Our Airbnb was on the West Bank, which is the other side to the main city and big hotels, where most of the ancient Egyptian sites are. We had a good sized top floor apartment in a block of 6 down a quiet Nile side street, owned by a lovely man called Mohamed. There was a balcony overlooking the river and the city/Luxor temple opposite, and a lovely roof terrace shared by all 6 apartments (we think at most only one other was occupied). On the terrace was also a small kitchen, the domain of the wonderful Hassan, the chef (who we had pre-booked to make us ‘first night’ dinner). For $10US each, we enjoyed a banquet of the best food we had enjoyed in Egypt by a considerable margin, in a quantity that we could barely dent.
It felt a million miles away from Giza and we loved it.
We spent the next three days with the driver, Ahmed, and Mohamed’s guide, Hamdy, exploring the west and east banks.
Now we all know the Pyramids are special, and they really, really are, and we all have expectations of them. Luxor is perhaps less well known and certainly we had few expectations. We were blown away. Over the three days we visited The Valley of the Kings, The Valley of the Queens, Habu Temple, the Hatshepsut Temple, workers Medina, Colossi of Memnon, Luxor Temple, Howard Carter’s House and Karnak Temple. We rapidly ran out of ways to describe our awe. It is completely beyond my grasp of the English language to describe properly the size, scale and craftsmanship of these places.
There are obelisks weighing 345 tons that are made from single solid pieces of granite, a stone only found in Egypt a couple of hundred km away. There are colours as bright and clear as if they had been painted today, that were put on stone some 4,500 years ago. The height of the columns and walls, the depth of the tombs and the intricacy of the hieroglyphics would test our skills today. We felt like we were on the film set of a fantasy film, but it is all very, very real.
The experience was made even better by Ahmed and Hamdy. Ahmed didn’t drive like he felt he would be equally comfortable in this life or the next and was calm and professional. Hamdy was a very knowledgeable, interesting, patient and charming man, who was happy to explain over and over and over again, the complex relationship between kings, God’s the afterlife etc until we began to grasp it…… or at least a little bit of it.
Everything was a highlight, but if you do find yourself in Luxor we recommend a few things. Firstly and most importantly, plan enough time. 2 full days at least. Some do it in one, but that experience seems to be just running around taking photographs, getting very little time to really appreciate the place. Secondly, get a good guide. A full day tour with guide and driver cost us US$75, plus entry fees. Small beer if you’ve got this far and it increases your appreciation of the place 100 fold. Thirdly, spend the extra money to see the tombs of Seyt (Seti) I and Nefertiti. These are expensive but they are incredibly colourful and well preserved. If you can do just 1, do Seyt I. The upside of the expense is that you can find yourself alone down there (besides the irritating guard who may need to be asked not to follow you around an inch away). It is an incredible experience to be deep underground, surrounded by beautiful ancient paintings, in complete silence. Finally, visit Karnak. Simply amazing.
Almost as wonderful as the ancient sites is that our paths crossed with that of Bridge and Mohamed who were a few days ahead of us on their Egypt adventure/honeymoon. They were on their way north after visiting Aswan and came over the river to have one of Hassan’s fantastic meals, drink gin and chat all things Egypt. Another lovely night, with lovely people in a lovely place.
Since being in Egypt, my running had taken a nose dive due to heat, fumes and a general feeling that I would most certainly die if I ran along any of the roads near Giza. In Luxor, on the day our tour didn’t start at 7.30 am, I managed to get out and about. I had a lovely run along dirt tracks, between fields, through very basic villages and along the Nile as the area woke up. There were donkeys pulling carts, people in fields, bananas being harvested and the odd pack of nasty dogs…… I had to be rescued one as a very aggressive leader of the pack was getting very very close to me and I was searching for a rock. A local appeared, told me not to be worried and chased them away. I also came across another obstacle in the shape of a stretch of 100m of track flooded with black, unwelcoming water. As I tried to work out how to get around it an old man with a donkey and cart appeared. After a brief chat and the exchange of LE£5 (about 40 Aussie cents… I have learned to carry money with me cause you never know what may happen), I got a lift with him on his donkey cart. Perhaps the strangest this I have ever done on a run.
The other important thing about Luxor is that it restored our desire to engage with Egypt, a desire all but extinguished by Giza. We met lots of lovely people, never really felt that people were trying to take advantage of us, ate well, drank cold beer in nice places at reasonable prices and felt completely safe and welcome.
If you only have time to visit one place in Egypt, we recommend Luxor!