Even though we had enjoyed a comfortable business class flight with Nile Air, our morale dropped a bit when we saw the brownness and chaos of Cairo appear below us. We had taken the easy way out for the last leg of our Egypt adventure, and booked ourselves into the 5 Star Kempinski on the banks of the Nile in the hope of not having to do unadulterated Cairo.
Our behaviour over the next few days indicated that we may have had Egypt fatigue. We did get out every day, for 2 guided morning tours and one self guided wander, but found ourselves spending more time in the hotel than normal, sitting by the pool, reading in our room, and twice having a room service dinner.
The two morning trips were interesting. The first took us back to the Cairo museum, this time with a guide and a desire to focus on the top floor. Having a guide made things much more interesting as there are no descriptions anywhere. The highlight is seeing Tutankhamen’s treasures; beautifully preserved works of such skill, few today could replicate it. His inner sarcophagus is solid gold and weighs 110kg, and his death mask, also solid gold, is 35kg. And they buried them. This really is a must see.
Seeing the mummies is also fascinating too. Perhaps a little morbid, but seeing the well preserved bodies of those who ensured we have the amazing buildings left in Egypt provides a solid connection. Also, seeing Ramses II’s little,, empty body is a great reminder that no matter how important we think we are or what influence we have, we all die as individuals whose wealth counts for nothing.
After this, we went to the Hanging Church in old Cairo, a church dating back to the third century, high above other buildings in the area as it was built on the ruins of a Roman watch tower. Close by is another church that has as its claim to fame a crypt that was once a cave that Mary and Jesus hid in when Herod was doing his baby killing thing. It seemed that the holy duo had a really good donkey as most towns in Egypt have a crypt that used to be a cave that they hid in. They got about a bit. Both are worth a visit as they are quiet and there’s not too much God involved.
The following day was mostly about Mosques and we visited Mohamed Ali mosque, the most famous in Cairo and of a similar design to the Grand Mosque in Istanbul, and the Sultan Hassan mosque just below it. Both are hugely impressive buildings and the latter is rather breathtaking. Built in the sixth century, it’s proportions are extraordinarily, rivalling any European cathedral of the time. We were lucky enough to come across a guard willing to open up the Sultans tomb, a huge cavernous room behind the main pulpit. Whilst in there, the same guard began to sing/chant in the style they do in mosques and it was utterly amazing. It made the hair stand up on the back of my neck. It made us both feel real emotion. Really special.
It was good to see a bit of old Cairo as it made us appreciate the city a little bit, and if we had our time again we would spend more time exploring that area.
We left Egypt on a cheap business class flight with Royal Jordania, via a lounge with no booze. Our flight was on a Friday morning, the only time when Cairo are reasonably empty and comparatively safe and it almost felt like a liveable city.
Our feelings about Egypt are mixed and we realised how mixed when we had lunch with a Brit who asked ‘How was Egypt?’. We covered the tough stuff, then after a while we realised that we had both been talking constantly and enthusiastically for about 15 minutes about the history, the achievements, the beauty of the Nile, the wonderful boat, the lovely Mango Guesthouse, the incredible feat of engineering that moved Abel Simbel, how well we were looked after in our AirBnB in Luxor, the Alexandria Bibliotheca etc, etc.
Egypt is an assault on the senses in every way, and if you are after an interesting adventure, that must be a good thing.
We were brought back to earth with a bit of a thump. The tour company that arranged the boat (Djed Tours) are a weak link, and their claim to transfer guests to any hotel in Aswan translates to being dropped off by the side of the road, in the baking heat at the top of steep steps near the public river ferry.
We were staying at The Mango Guesthouse on Elephantine Island ($25 per night), situated in the middle of the Nile in Aswan. The Island is a Nubian village with no motorised transport and a maze of narrow dirt lanes which are the preserve of donkeys, sheep and cats. Not great for wheelie backpacks. We arrived a little tetchy and our mood wasn’t helped when we realised that Djed Travels claim that they had been in touch with the guest house to tell them when to expect us was utter bollocks and everyone appeared to be asleep.
That turned out to be the only bad thing about staying there and we found a real oasis, complete with two lovely dogs, a very peaceful garden, cold beer, great breakfasts and perfect hosts. Puk was a Danish lady who had fallen in love with a local, Ehab, when visiting on holiday, moved to Egypt and built the guest house. For the first time in three weeks we felt like no one had an angle. Everyone wanted to make sure we were relaxed, had everything we wanted and were enjoying ourselves. It was so relaxing, we ditched any plans we had to explore, and sat in the garden, drinking said cold beer and chatted with a lovely young Aussie called Nicky.
Meeting Nicky really brought home to us how challenging Egypt could be. She was in her early 20s, of Persian decent and looked rather local. Wether it was because of this, or despite this, she had been subjected to a constant stream of sexist behaviour during her stay, including being assaulted twice, in the form of groping, once by a cab driver and once by a chef in a 5 star hotel. By the time we met her, she was a little shell shocked and had to really collect herself to venture out. She also admitted to breaking down in tears in the middle of Cairo when she discovered that once again she had been lied to by a local scam artist.
She jumped at the chance of joining us for a day of tours, in the hope of a day off from the constant bollocks. She got a bit of a day off (I dealt with money discussions and tipping) but even with our presence the guide engaged in low level harassment, repeatedly telling her she was beautiful, asking about her relationship status and suggesting he was attractive. Really uncomfortable. I had a chat with him about his behaviour and asked for a new guide for the following day, but I am not sure he got it.
During the three days we were there, we ‘did’ our last temples, visited the Nubian museum and the old dam and high dam, both of which are impressive engineering feats. The Nubian museum is worth a visit. It is modern, well laid out and has good explanations of the interesting artefacts.
The first temple we visited was the Philae Temple, on a small island in the river. It used to be on a different island, until the high dam changed the water level and submerged it along with 70 other temples. Unesco, with the support of about a dozen countries, set about moving them. Moving huge buildings, that had been around for thousands of years.
The biggest of the temples moved by unesco was the last temple we visited, Abel Simbel. It is about 260km south of Aswan, on the banks of of Lake Nasser and, due to a combination of remoteness and dodgy security, means that until recently a tourists only way to get there was by joining a convoy of buses, escorted by armed police, leaving at 4.30 am. Old habits die hard and even though things have improved, most still leave at this ungodly hour.
J and I umed and arred about making the trek: three hours each way through the desert to see another temple. How good could it be??!!
We decided to make the trip, but buck the trend and leave Later, hoping to miss the crush, so we passed through the checkpoints before the desert road at about 11.30. The drive down is interesting enough, transiting through the crapy desert that looks like a build site that I know well and friggin hate, then through some more interesting stuff with strange rock formations, before hitting the shore of Lake Nasser.
Was it worth it? Yup. The temple is incredible. There are two temples, both cut into the mountain, one was Ramses II and the other for his beloved wife, Neferteri His is absolutely massive. It has 4 statues outside, each 20m tall, then is cut into the mountain so precisely that the sun hits the statue at the back twice a year, once on his birthday and once on his festival day.
Ramses II was pretty much the Trump of his day. He made up legends to make himself look good. He wanted to be thought of as a God before he died, so built his temple far away from powerful priests that would resist such an enterprise. But he built some incredible buildings.
Our plan worked and we got to enjoy the place completely on our own…… less our guide, who wasn’t allowed in the actual temples. It was magical, wandering around these beautiful places with not even a guard to watch over us/bother us.
If you do it this way, which I recommend, note that you need to be through the southern police checkpoint by 4pm, to start the drive back north, mostly avoiding nighttime driving. I am not sure why this is, but it is good advice coz even in the desert, Egyptian driving is mental. In most countries, night means headlights, but not Egypt. They use The Force. Forget terrorism, be frightened of driving. Imagine, 140kph through the desert, seeing a dark shape in the distance and not knowing if it’s a car, truck or donkey, if it’s coming towards you or going the same way as you. It’s not that they don’t have headlights, they just don’t like using them (though to be honest, some don’t and few have a full set of lights). Trucks do a very odd thing. They have more lights on them that Blackpool tower but they stay in stealth mode until you are about 200m away, flick the switch and light them selves up….. all still without using their headlights. Proper mental. We had to have a chat with our driver about the whole speed vs illumination trade off. He put on his sidelights and slowed to 120kph. We were very glad to get back to Aswan.
Aswan is a nice, laid back town, with only polite hassling on the whole, and roads you can cross with a high expectation of surviving. It has some great, very cheap local restaurants (3 falafel sandwiches for just over one Aussie Dollar) and one or two very smart international ones.
To celebrate 3 months on the road, we decided to go for dinner at the Old Cataract Hotel, an old palace converted into a hotel on the banks of the river. It is now run by Sofitel and is beautifully done. We enjoyed cocktails as the sunset and a good dinner in the less posh restaurant (I had brought my jacket along so that we could eat in the posh one if we chose) and felt a little less like travellers for a couple of hours. Top tip. The sunset on the terrace is nice but comes at a price (min spend of about $20 per person, which is the cost of one cocktail). The alternative is to get a couple of beers, go on to the west side of Elephantine Island via the maze of dirt roads. Opposite the Aga Khans mausoleum is a outcrop of rocks where you can sit and watch a better sunset, all on your own as the feluccas sail by. I also have to say we felt far more relaxed in the laid back Mango Guesthouse than we did in the rather over attentive and overbearing Old Cataract.
We flew out of Aswan, back to Cairo on Nile Air. Hamada, the lovely helper at the guesthouse, drove us to the airport and I couldn’t have smiled any harder as we drove us, crammed into his rather battered ……… singing Bob Marly classics…… until we realised that J had forgotten her kindle, which lead to phone calls to arrange to get it delivered off the island to the mainland ferry stop, followed by a rather nervous 20 minute trek through the morning traffic, huge relief as J got her paws back on the beloved kindle and then a replay of Bob Marly as we did ‘Trip to the airport: take two’.
There are three ways of getting up or down the Nile: one involves having no loo (a Felucca), one involves being with lots and lots of other people (a cruise boat) and the last involves selling a kidney to afford it (a dahbayia). So, with one kidney down, I found myself on a dahbayia sailing up the Nile.
When we were choosing our boat, we learned that due to a relatively quiet tourist scene, many do not commit to a trip until they have what they deem to be enough people. Others will charge you a premium up front if it’s quiet, and reduce it as the boat fills up. Both approaches suck.
We found a boat, the Zekrayat, which will go no matter how many people are on board. So, one kidney down, we actually sailed up the Nile on a lovely boat with 8 crew and a guide, just for the 2 of us. Incredible and we felt very, very spoiled.
A dahbayia is a sailing boat that, pre-steam boats, were the only way to travel up and down the Nike for those tourists bold enough to try it. They are 2 story: cabins, saloon etc on the lower deck and the second level ( the roof of the cabins) with large open areas, with shade blinds, hammocks, sun-loungers and various places to sit. We could sit in a different place for each of the 4 nights we were on board and still have plenty of options. These type of boats started catering for tourists from the mid 1800s and they are often still decorated like they were then.
Mostly, they sail too as they have no engine. Instead, an accompanying tug attaches a long rope when the wind is too light or the distance to be made too long, and pulls you along. When you have wind or time, it keeps its distance to ensure peace and quiet.
It is wonderful, sitting on deck, watching the world pass by, with donkeys, water buffalo, mango trees, banana plantations and rural life. We got fed tasty and healthy food three times a day, were looked after really well and, on one night, ate dinner on the bank of the Nile, on a small island, sitting on rugs and cushions, surrounded by candles. All beautifully done. Even when the entire crew joined us and sang to us, with the guide getting us up and dancing didn’t feel as excruciatingly embarrassing as it ought. The fact that we had brought with us 6 bottles of wine, a litre of gin and could get beer onboard may have helped in relaxing us.
We stopped a couple of times a day to visit something. We visited the temples at Esna and Edfu, (both have the scale wow factor), a quarry where limestone was cut to make the amazing structures we had seen, beautifully decorated nobles tombs (a Km walk away from the river, on the edge of the desert and reached by passing through the walls of the pre Old Kingdom capital of Egypt called El Kab). These walls, built more than 6000 years ago from mud bricks, were, in their day, 11m tall and 10m wide. Guards, four abreast, on horseback used to ride along the top of them. Amazing.
All of this was brought to life by our wonderfully energetic and interesting guide, Aladin, a proud Nubian who was keen to get across the spirit of ancient Egypt to us, rather than just the facts and dates. His stories kept us interested and made us laugh a lot.
One of his finer moments was when he took us on a visit to a camel market north of Aswan. We jumped in a ‘local bus’ that he had hired just or us; a Ute/pick-up truck with two benches and a cover, and headed off to a very much working town in anticipation of a great cultural experience. It might have been just that if it had been a day when it was open…….. When it is not open, it is a large, empty smelly area covered in rubbish and, around the butchers areas, camel bones and discoloured soil where the blood had soaked in. A vegetarians delight. Keen to make up for this, Aladin asked locals, knocked on doors and tipped people to find us camels to say hello to. We saw baby camels, grown up camels and the odd donkey before telling him to relax and return us to the boat.
I have mentioned before that in the tourist areas, we got a bit of pressure from sellers of tourist tat. Outside Giza, this was reasonably easy to shrug off with a ‘La shukran’ and they backed away. In most places down the Nile, there is very little hassle as there are very few shops remaining open due to the huge downturn in visitors since the Arab Spring and ‘The Revolution’. Whilst not getting bothered is nice, we could see that it was at a tremendous cost to the people whose livelihoods depended on such trade and on the families they had to support. I hope tourist numbers pick up again soon……… especially now that we have been and gone .
Interestingly, Thomas Cook was the pioneer of Egyptian tourism, opening hotels, building boats and encouraging the opening of the ancient sites as tourist attractions back in the mid 1800s. Even more interestingly, on some trips they supplied travellers with small hammers and chisels so that they could chip their names into the ancient sites for prosperity. A 4,500 year old masterpiece of a civilisation can always be improved by an amateur chiseling ‘T Glistening-Bellend Esq, 1886’ over the face of Ramses II…. Having said that, I actually liked seeing the story of early tourism done in such a crude way, even at the expense of some irreplaceable artwork. It provided a very visual link to our recent history.
The story of vandalism is almost as interesting as the story of the kingdoms themselves. The first vandalism started pretty much as soon as some of the temples were built, as a new king decided to follow a different one of the Gods, or decided he didn’t like his predecessor and therefore got his followers to deface old temples, removing images now out of vogue. A bit like ISIS in Iraq and Syria but without the huge amounts of explosives.
The Romans and Greeks also did a bit of knocking down and rebuilding, before the Christians came and tried to re-appropriate some buildings as churches as they hid from Roman persecution. After that, when no one cared about the structures anymore and they started to get buried in the sand, people moved into them and used them as houses. Cooking fires covered the art in soot and the superstitious chipped off the faces and features off many of the figures to prevent them from being reborn in what was now their homes. Then came the French soldiers who used some of the statues and artworks for target practice (though the French hierarchy did more than anyone to preserve the sites and learn the history of them), then came the Brits whose desire for fame and wealth led to large scale plundering until Egypt was strong enough to resist it. Underlying this was a constant stream of tomb robbers that have been around as long as the tombs themselves.
It’s remarkable that anything survives, and the fact much of it got buried over time is a significant contributor to this. Tutankhamen is famous, not because he did anything great in his short, 9 year reign as King, rather because his tomb was found intact with all the amazing treasures they found. More of that when I cover the Cairo Museum.
Back on the boat, watching the sunrise and set over the lush green farmland of the valley and the contrasting yellow of the desert, seeing the donkeys in the fields, watching the fishermen doing their stuff is really magical to a degree that more than once it brought a lump to my throat. It was a really, really special four days.
Leaving the boat in Aswan, and going back to fending for ourselves was a little daunting.
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!
The Pyramids are absolutely, 100% amazing. We’ve all seen them on pictures and TV and know a reasonable amount about them, but rather like Uluru, you don’t really get it until you get up close enough to touch them.
The ancient Egyptians started building these things about 4,500 years ago. That’s nearly 2,000 years before the Romans began to get their act together. The empire lasted, off and on, for about 3,500 years- that’s 1500 years more than our history since we started our calendar. The Great Pyramid was the tallest buildings on earth until Lincoln Cathedral was built some 3,900 years later (thanks for that one Mike). To put it in context, these were build during the Neolithic period of human history, when our European ancestors were using basic tools to build basic shelters. At the same time, ancient Egyptians were carving anatomically correct statues - 4,000 years before Leonardo Da Vinci lead the modern European understanding of how to draw and recreate the human form in art. They were writing things, painting things, building sophisticated boats, forming armies when the rest of us were at the infancy of organised communities. Stonehenge, our small circle of rocks on Salisbury Plain, was completed around 3100 BC.
Even after 3 days there, and a visit to the huge and terribly curated Cairo Museum, there is still something surreal about them, something I just can’t quite get my mind around. Really incredible. Aliens……….. it has to be aliens………
We stayed in Giza for 4 nights, at a small hotel called The Best Pyramid View Hotel. 4 nights is 3 too long. The area around the Pyramids is truly horrible. Dirty, smelly and everyone is trying to rip you off. Overcharging I get, but we are talking 5 x normal prices. The restaurants cater for tourists, so are bland, dirty, expensive and may give you food poisoning and around our hotel, the streets were full of horse and camel poo and pee. The hotel had an amazing view over the pyramids, had aircon and a really helpful member of staff called Nana. That’s pretty much it. We found too late that the reviews had been somewhat manipulated. Top Tip. If lots of the reviewers have only done 1 review, something is up!
I get that we are in a poor country, and I get we earn many more times that of the local people, but the people hanging around the historical sites lying to you, trying to get you into dodgy shops and ripping you off at every opportunity are not the ones in real need. Even the security people are at it. The one in the tomb of the Great Pyramid, whose job it is to ensure people obey the ‘no photos’ rule, will take your photo in the tomb for a few dollars. The sentry guarding the perimeter of the Saqqara site will leave his weapon and guard post to take a picture of you with a camel for a few dollars.
Our guide briefed us before we went to the Pyramids. ‘You are polite people. Don’t be. If you engage in anyway, they think you are starting to negotiate, so ignore them. If you give your camera/phone to someone who offers to take your photo, they will charge you ridiculous amounts to get you camera back. Don’t buy anything as it’s all made in China, is shit and is worth less than $1.’ All great advice.
Giza and the bits of Cairo we have seen are really rather ugly too. Street upon street of unfinished red brick and concrete towers, connected by rubbish strewn dirt roads. On one trip out of town in an Uber, we came a nearly deserted stretch of raised highway, with rubble on the road, and seemingly derelict buildings either side and I was reminded of Basra in March/April 2003 and experienced the ‘heebie-jeebies’ like never before. A physical reaction (and I was in Iraq for the easy bit). I also remember thinking, back in Basra in 2003, as I saw the state the city was in, ‘did we do this, or was it always like this?’. I got a bit of my answer here.
Our escapes included a trip to Giza station to secure train tickets to Luxor, a trip to Cairo to see the museum, dinner at the Marriott, overlooking the pyramids, and a morning at the stepped pyramids at Saqqara. During most of these trips, when we dealt with normal locals, we have been well looked after, from the staff at small cafes who talk you through how things work, to the Uber drivers who try to keep you alive and don’t want a tip, to the security at the station who make sure you get to the right place. All lovely.
On the trip to Saqqara, we decided to try a different approach to the hiring expensive guide option we had used until then, and to take an Uber to the site entrance, then go for a wander. Our first mistake happened when Jodie selected ‘Saqqara’ as our destination. Saqqara is a place and an area……Uber selected the area and dropped the destination pin in the middle of it……..which essentially meant a random bit of desert. We worked this out when we found ourselves being starred at as we passed down narrow dirt streets on the very edge of town, a place where neither tourists or phone signal could be found……. Our nice Uber driver agreed to retrace our route until we got coverage, could work out where to go, and then amend our destination.
Our second mistake was to underestimate the scale and the heat of the site. Fortunately we worked this out before the Uber driver left and for a fee that represented the fact he knew he was in a monopoly position, we secured his services for three hours. Hurrah.
The final mistake was not having a guide. Guides provide 2 services. Firstly they show you around and explain stuff in places with no signs or info. There is a real chance that everything just becomes piles of stones. Secondly they provide a bit of a shield from the unscrupulous ‘guides’ and hawkers at the sites. And these guys can be a huge pain in the butt! It is well worth getting a guide.
At then end of these adventures, we were both very happy to get on the train and head through the green fields, south to Luxor.
Whilst J and I normally advocate getting amongst the local community, taking your time and getting off the beaten track, in Giza we wouldn’t. Get yourself in a tourist bubble (private car and guide type), see the pyramids and the bits around them, perhaps spend a night to see them at night, have a second day in Saqqara with a guide and go to the museum with a guide…… then get the fuck out of there!! It really is a proper shithole.
I was expecting Cairo Airport to be mental, but it wasn’t. Customs was quick, baggage arrived promptly and in one piece and the terminal was pretty much empty. It’s amazing how much order a varied security situation can bring to a potential target! We soon found out that the utter and complete mentalness exists but is kept away from the airport.
We flew from Tunis to Cairo on Egyptair, finding business class tickets for slightly less than the cost of economy (always worth a look) and enjoyed a comfortable experience, though one lacking any booze. The cabins are a bit dated so it’s a bit like flying in the 80s without the smoking section.
We decided to pre book transport from the airport, to avoid the scrum and potential to get ripped-off that can ruin arrival in a new country (Alex City Tours, US$55 from airport to Alexandria, 270km away), and were met by the exceptionally calm Mohamed.
Then we hit the highway. J and I have been on roads in Vietnam, India, Sao Paulo and numerous other places considered to be ‘a little bit crazy’ but Cairo takes the prize by a long shot. Lanes are irrelevant and vehicles will go between other vehicles as long as they have one or two millimetres to spare, and I mean that literally. I also say vehicles in the broadest sense as every kind of transportation is on the road: cars, trucks, combivans (the local form of public transport), motorbikes, tuk-tuks driven by men aged 10 and up, donkey carts and camels. Whilst you don’t get animals on the ‘motorways’, you do get people. On 8 lane highways, that fits at least 10 lanes of traffic, there are mothers with their kids walking along the fast lane, people crossing, people waiting for buses, people atop overladen trucks, and people just milling around. Seatbelts, crash helmets, brake lights, headlights at night, crossing areas and rules are luxuries that few bother with. I really don’t know how any motorcycle rider is alive or how any car isn’t a collection of dents. We felt a sense of accomplishment every time we got out of a car in one piece and we witnessed every type of insane behaviour imaginable. Challenge me! I was glad that Mohamed stayed exceptionally calm and seemed to remain above the lunacy.
We arrived at our Airbnb, down a dirty backstreet a couple blocks back from Alexandria’s Corniche, just before 9pm, where we were met by our host and shown around what turned out to be a very comfortable apartment that was most definitely decorated by a man. A man with very odd tastes and with a taste for those rather odd figurines you find in clearance shops (couples waltzing, jazz musicians, sailors etc). Additionally, what it lacked in windows it make up from in lights, all on separate switches, leading to an going-to-bed routine that seemed to last an hour or so.
The area we were in wasn’t exactly the hub for international hotels; it was full of small pressing shops, food places, coffee shops and dirt streets that saw few tourists. A bit intimidating to start with but we very quickly relaxed.
We had a tour on day one, visiting the Roman Amphitheatre, the catacombs and the modern Library. For Egypt, these sites are all rather modern, dating back to approximately 600 BC, or about 2002 in the case of the library, though that was carrying the flag for the original, ancient library of Alexandria.
Both old sites were worth a visit: interesting, plenty to see and of significance, if a little unloved and lacking in information (we were glad we had a guide). There is plenty of security at these places and we came across the Egyptian ‘noise arch’ for the first time. These are security arches that you have to go through. They tend to beep and flash red lights as you pass, but this leads to no action whatsoever. Their only function seems to be to produce noise and we have encountered similar ones at every site around Egypt.
The library is a truly world class building and reminded us of the opera house. Other than state of the art studying facilities, there are exhibition rooms and we loved the collection of maps, paintings then photographs that mapped the growth of the city from about 1500. In the early 19th century, it seemed that Alexander was like an organised and pristine European city. Then we (the Brits) came, bombarded it a couple of times, then occupied it. It seemed to go downhill from there.
Independently, we visited the handsome Citadel and the rather ordinary Stanley Bay Bridge (it’s just a bridge……) explored the town and found interesting places to drink. The Cecil Hotel is a colonial lump in the centre of town that both Monty and Churchill stayed in during WWII. It completely lacks atmosphere but has beer. The Spitfire Bar is down a backstreet and is covered in dusty pictures, flags, business cards, clutter and more dust, all bathed in red light. It sells cheaper beer and has a little more atmosphere, so whilst in most cities in the world it would be best avoided, as it’s in Alexandria it is worth a visit.
We found a couple of good places to eat and our favourite was a small, busy shop at the end of our dirt road that sold kebab sandwiches and falafels. Every word in the place was in Arabic but we were looked after by one of the staff who spoke good English and enjoyed fresh, tasty and healthy (it didn’t lead us to spend the night on the loo) food, for less than AU$1.
Not many tourists visit Alexandria as the Ancient Egyptians didn’t leave a huge impression there, the big sides are Greek and Roman but if you have the time, it is worth a couple of days.
We left Alexandria for Cairo, again with Alex city tours, via El Alamein and Wādī Al Natrun.
The first is famous for the battle in WWII where an Allied force (Brits, Australians, Kiwis, South Africans, French and Indians) inflicted the first defeat on Rommel. It is worth a visit from Alex if you are into that kind of thing, has a reasonable museum containing halls for all the major parties involved (to get the benefit from a visit, a battlefield tour is probably best as it is a great story of terrain, logistics and coordination), and a beautifully maintained Commonwealth War Cemetery. The latter is a poignant reminder of what happens when our leaders take us into war: young men and women kill each other in far off places. It is also an oasis of order and calm in a rather chaotic environment, I would have liked to visit the German memorial too, but time was against us.
Wādī Al Natrun is home to a number of Coptic Christian monasteries, complete with a significant amount of security. Some of the buildings date back to 400AD and the monks who showed us about are lovely. The buildings are a little bit scruffy but the monks say they want to invest in helping the community, not living in spic and span buildings. I like that approach. Again, worth a visit but only if you are passing.
Then it was on to Giza and the Pyramids.