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Holidays; Egypt 2022-23- My personal account
Following on from my winter holiday to Jordan, way back, pre covid in December 2019, I felt inspired to get away from the winter chills of UK for 2 weeks. As with holidays in prior 6 years I decided to use “Intrepid” and this time for their Egyptian 15-day adventure. With transport hassles and strikes in UK, I paid a higher than hoped for price to get to Egypt from my local Newcastle airport using Air France.
Departure and first day
Flying Wednesday 21st December I was excited to be heading away. I had just concluded a work contract and a new one was in place for early January upon my return. Earlier in 2022, I had enjoyed a 5 week- 4 country tours of Central Asia and the Caucuses and here I was travelling again. Felt chuffed. Getting to my Cairo hotel at about 2.30am local time on Thursday 22nd made my end-to-end journey of 17 hours some of which was due to my wish to get to the airport earlier than required maybe an hour to 2 indulgence and flying time between both legs was about 7 hours in total. A planned transit time of 4 hours in CDG evaporated as Air France “Hop” from Newcastle to Paris failed to do any hopping skipping or jumping and stalled due to a technical fault. An earlier in day flight from Newcastle was still on tarmac when I arrived at airport, and it turned out to be the same plane that was due to get to Paris and come back from me---- aaaaahhh. I tried to get boarding, but no!
Arriving in Cairo airport, late and tired, it was chaos. Pickups by agents were happening from airplane door up to Immigration. Tired and hassled I go through the melee and to my hotel in downtown Cairo. The bed looked inviting at “New star Hotel” and I fell asleep. That was until about 6am when a cacophony of children’s voices at play exploded volcano like from across the road. It seemed that parents were dropping their kids off and yes that early. Only at about 8am were they scooped up and into the classrooms. That was my recollection however on my last day in same hotel, the voices seemed gentler and more normal. Was I just extra sensitive that early morning or had these kids really been that noisy.
Breakfast was served in room, a possible legacy from covid rules days or possible avoidance of what was a rather grim dining room adjacent to kitchen. I had a day at leisure up till the official start of my tour later at 6pm.
Off to the Egyptian museum which took me a while to get to, as pedestrians are not kindly treated in Cairo. Pavements are raised higher than in other cities and then fragmented or broken encouraging one to walk on road and risk the passing cars. Very few traffic lights and intermittent human traffic controllers meant that road crossing is an art as with 4 lanes of snaking snarling juddering and then leaping forward traffic across four lanes times 2 directions. Intimidating at first and also when not practised for some time, it simply requires a gathering of spirits (robust) and a confident walk at pace making sure that the Cairo drivers who drive with one hand on wheel and sometimes none with the ”free hand” being used for their incessant mobile use. Watch their eyes was the mantra as I crossed the first roads. Do not hesitate, ever, or reverse. It gets easier with time and by my last day it was as easy as a zebra crossing in UK.
The Egyptian Museum (city central) and this needs to be distinguished from the more recently open and wonderfully modern Museum of Egyptian Civilisation in the south east of the city, is in itself a wonderful tribute to the to the art of museum displays. An aged and beautiful building brim-full of antiquities with low natural and illuminated light levels, waves of tourists in the most popular zones and dreamy backwater type rooms where antiquities rest peacefully, again, now. It was only after my 2nd visit that it began to click together and then after 3rd trip at end of my holiday that the dens of aged beauties began to make sense to me. Yes, there are the King Tut sarcophagi and some dazzling relics, however it is the sheer volume and chunky size of the multitude of items that is jaw-opening and mind boggling.
Start of Tour and Cairo
I got together with my tour group after 6pm on Thursday. We were 16 in number from USA, Canada, Ireland, UK, Australia including a couple formerly from RSA. We were 12 singletons and 2 couples with what was revealed as an amazing range and depth of travel experience. It is this internationalism, travel experience and an intense curiosity of mind that brings me back to Intrepid as a tour group. We split to smaller groups for a meal that evening.
Friday saw us bused to Giza. It was very very busy that morning. I’ve seen hundreds of pictures of these 3 pyramids and sphinx and in that regard, it was not new. Physically imposing and more impressive as to how constructed we queued for entrance to the largest i.e. the “Great pyramid of Cheops”. A narrow passage got narrower and those tourists coming from the inside looked very hot and clearly perspiring vividly. That part of the ascent was hard going, stooped and with a day bag on my back grating against the low ceiling –(Advice: ditch the bag for a phone camera (bigger cameras not allowed) and a water bottle). That part of my legs just above the knees ached for 2 days afterwards. My yoga was no help for these new found muscles. Emerging into the single chamber inside, there was the photo and selfie opportunity of what is now empty. Stopping a moment or three to reflect on what this all meant and how it was done from deep inside this well known and respected symbol of ancient culture. Back outside the fresh air of winter was a welcome refresh to the lungs as we proceeded onto to the viewing zone to see all 3.
The Sphinx was small and quaint in comparison with the 3 pyramids and then it was time to consider the entire zone and what it once would have looked like and all in the single purpose of a burial zone for three rulers and their wives. Often overlooked and certainly by me has been the smaller pyramids in tribute to the lesser-known people of old. The shrinking size of the 3 is time related and whilst said in one theory to reflect the mindset of son not wanting to outdo the father, the other reality is that economic changes over time impacted the available resources for these awesome symbols of power and mindset. Number 2 is only marginally smaller than number 1, despite the pictures.
An optional tour back to the Egyptian museum in the afternoon provided more structure to my earlier experiences. That was my 2nd visit.
Train to Aswan and time there
That Friday evening, we gathered for our train after 8 to Aswan. We filled a carriage of “2-berths”. I had opted for a single package and had the berth to myself. It was comfortable to sit back and eat what was a surprisingly tasty meal, sip some pre-purchased wine, go to bed to catch up on sleep and then give up sleeping in order to join a very social group in an adjoining berth till about midnight. My south African wine had been sourced in a Cairo bottle shop. All part of getting to know my fellow travellers.
Sleep was not so great due to the noise of the train. Dawn encouraged an open curtain, as I looked westward across canals and towards the Nile. Agriculture was most basic and this was confirmed in later journeys. A donkey, perhaps, some water pumps and farmers and helping families working in fields by hand.
My thinking is that not much had changed and no wonder the country is such a big importer of grain from the Ukraine until that conflict emerged in 2022.
Arriving in Aswan after 10 or approx. a 14-hour journey, there may well be faster ways to achieve the same, but I doubt they could not have been more enjoyable as an experience.
Our hotel in Aswan town centre adjoining the Bazaar / market and close to the train station was “Cleopatra”. A check in, refresh and off by bus with a falafel sandwich en route to the Philae temple, accessible now by motorboat. The first stage of the Aswan dam in 1902 had taken waters lapping to this ancient temple. A major expansion in the 1960’s necessitated the moving of this entire temple to its current location.
From Wikipedia re Philae temple
Philae is mentioned by numerous ancient writers, including Strabo, Diodorus Siculus,Ptolemy, Seneca, Pliny the Elder. It was, as the plural name indicates, the appellation of two small islands situated just above the First Cataract near Aswan (Egyptian Swenet "Trade;" Ancient Greek: Συήνη
Despite being the smaller island, Philae proper was, from the numerous and picturesque ruins formerly there, the more interesting of the two. Prior to the inundation, it was not more than 380 metres (1,250 ft) long and about 120 metres (390 ft) broad. It is composed of syenite: its sides are steep and, on their summits, a lofty wall was built encompassing the island.
Since Philae was said to be one of the burying-places of Osiris, it was held in high reverence both by the Egyptians to the north and the Nubians (often referred to as "Ethiopians" in Greek) to the south. It was deemed profane for any but priests to dwell there and was accordingly sequestered and denominated "the Unapproachable". It was reported too that neither birds flew over it nor fish approached its shores. These indeed were the traditions of a remote period; since in the time of the Ptolemaic Kingdom, Philae was so much resorted to, partly by pilgrims to the tomb of Osiris, partly by persons on secular errands, that the priests petitioned Ptolemy VIII Physcon (170-117 BC) to prohibit public functionaries at least from coming there and living at their expense.
In the nineteenth century, William John Bankes took the Philae obelisk on which this petition was engraved to England. When its Egyptian hieroglyphs were compared with those of the Rosetta Stone, it threw great light upon the Egyptian consonantal alphabet.
The islands of Philae were not, however, merely sacerdotal abodes; they were the centres of commerce also between Meroë and Memphis. For the rapids of the cataracts were at most seasons impracticable, and the commodities exchanged between Egypt and Nubia were reciprocally landed and re-embarked at Syene and Philae.
The neighbouring granite quarries also attracted a numerous population of miners and stonemasons; and, for the convenience of this traffic, a gallery or road was formed in the rocks along the east bank of the Nile, portions of which are still extant.”
That Saturday evening, I made an error of judgement. My group were as it was Christmas eve, dining late due to lack of tables and I decided to catch up on sleep. I took myself to nearby town centre and the “safe” option of an early evening pizza. The place was busy, mainly with takeouts and I felt reassured. Two hours later my bowels rebelled, and I was tasting Imodium. I was gutted and literally to have to cancel the Christmas day trip to Abu Simbel and my diet that day were bananas and plain biscuits. That got me sorted but it stalled my adventures for street foods.
Boxing day saw some opportunities for morning shopping the local market which was by far the least touristy and most realistic of Egyptian markets as to their use by local folk.
Then we headed off to our felucca, being the traditional sailing boat on the Nile, with a shallow draught and broad beam for transport. The low roof covering provided shelter to the area below and required great stooping on its mattressed floor. The roof could support sitting and even standing but without railing. With a steady northerly wind, we criss crossed (tacking being the sailing term) and made slow progress. We were planned for a stopover in a traditional Nubian home and were transported by pick up from the felucca back to what was close to Aswan but on west bank of the river.
A walled homestay with several vaulted bedrooms (5-6 per room) and a small kitchen and ablution area. We climbed a nearby hill to observe the setting sun and the returning camels from their touristy travails. The eldest child (aged about 6) of the family entertained us with his antics as we were served a wonderful and tasty meal where potatoes and aubergines featured prominently amongst a buffet complemented by some authentic cheesy (good quality!) pastries.
Another tasty breakfast in the morning and we were off to re-join our felucca for a day and night.
We covered a greater distance and moored by the west shore at sunset for the 2nd of 3 meals aboard the felucca. The river was busy with big tour boats, smaller vessels like ours (a few) and what I would call “Houseboats” with decorative non working sails and powered by a tug pulling or pushing. They all seemed less realistic than our transport. Of particular note was the adjusting of mast and sails as we traversed under the solitary bridge. The boat was steady and safe on the waters. For night-time, our sleeping platform was wrapped in mesh and a plastic sheet. The blankets were genuinely warm although the rented sleeping bags were said to be less effective by those that rented them.
After sunrise and breakfast, we disembarked by a gangplank to a small group of patient dogs as pictured in the album for this section of the tour. An awaiting bus took us to Luxor. (Approx time was 4-5 hrs)
Checking in to the Emilio hotel in town centre we headed off the very tourist busy Karnak temple built over 200 years. It was best to stop and look up at the painted pillars and cross beams and not dwells upon the swelling waves of tourists.
We dined at a rooftop restaurant looking over the Nile and towards the lit mountain access to the valley of Kings. Dining option included camel pot stew, tasty, marinated meat more beef inclined at a typical $8 per portion. It was a great setting for this amazing city.
At 5am we headed off to a river crossing for our sunrise balloon trip over the valley of kings. It was the most organised and controlled event in Egypt that I experienced delivered with military like precision (I’m imagining military precision here).
The only strange part was our descent onto a small patch of parkway adjoining a police roadblock and well removed from where the other balloons were landing. I’m surmising that this was all planned as we avoided the throngs of passengers from other balloons disembarking into their multiple white minibuses—they were all white. We were back in hotel for breakfast for about 8 (all my times are approx. as I don’t wear a watch and im also on holiday)
Valley of the Kings
Our entrance ticket gave access to three tombs and an additional optional ticket gave access to two more specified tombs.
The tombs are rotated as to accessibility with not all being open all the time. Then some are restricted to a higher price ticket.
Our tour leader Mo recommended three of the tombs from what was on the menu at the time
Ramses “9” and “1”
The two optionals which were special priced were that of King Tut and Ramses 6th
Then we travelled on to the temple of Queen Hatshepsut who was quite a character, getting herslef declared as a "king" and finally the valley of the queens where the tombs were smaller and more subdued except for the special access Queen Nefertari.
This was all in all a most staggering day of activity. Winter heat was less than summer heat, but the desert dryness of the setting, the ascending and descending were physically demanding, and the sheer freshness of many of the paintings were visually overwhelming. You just get used to taking in that on the walls and realise that the ceilings are also painted. The most wonderful to me were that from Nefertari who died in 1255 BCE. If they had been painted last week, they would have looked just as good.
Onwards to Hurghada
A drive of about 5 hours, initially through the greenness of the Nile reach, but always with primitive farming, poor roads and dishevelled buildings followed by desert barren and then a shallow range of mountains flanking a narrow belt of land adjacent to the red sea. Hurghada looked like a seaside resort that had been locked up, for out of season. Windy.
It’s been yonks since I snorkelled and we enjoyed a day of it from our own motor boat. Shallow sea, coral and clear waters helped to see an array of the most beautiful of coloured fish.
New year’s eve saw a group of us at a local club. A vibrant high quality dance cabaret from 10-11, followed by a DJ till midnight saw even me dancing whilst enjoying free cocktails- all part of the ticket price of $40. After the countdown the DJ continued, flanked now by 2 female dancers in suspenders and fishnets missing only a dance pole. The contrast could not have been greater in this very conservative country both in attitude and dress sense. Our table was provided with 2 bottles of vodka and red bull gratis, as the free cocktails were only to midnight. hard life. Some of the outfits of the celebrating women were incredibly posh. The group very mixed as to backgrounds and origins. It was a weird and wonderful evening and a great way to see in the new year.
To Alexandria via Cairo and later on, back to Cairo
An early morning 6-hour drive took us back to Cairo for a single night before proceeding on the Alexandria on a new day. That Cairo afternoon saw us in the Khan-el-Khalil bazaar, another frightful tourist bazaar with some interesting nooks and crannies for a tea or other refreshment, or hide and seek with the touts. Some serious sellers of merchandise. I was disappointed by the quality of the offerings, the lack of authenticity, the sameness of stuff.
The next day we headed to the war museum at and for the battle of el-Alamein as well as the adjoining cemetery for some of the Allied dead. I was sceptical about this activity initially and came away happy to have visited having reminded me of the contribution of commonwealth countries which we as travellers, apart for the USA people had come from, for this tour. To me it refreshed the ties that bind us as participants in this tour as regards a battle as often portrayed simplistically as British Montgomery v German Rommel. There were a whole lot more countries represented in this battle that Richard Overy in his “Blood and Ruins” refers as one of the 3 key battle of the time which marked the changing fortunes of the Allies v the Axis forces. The other two being Stalingrad and Guadalcanal.
Then eastwards into Alexandria which is stretched out over a narrow belt of land to the south of which is an expanse of former water now being mined for salt.
The catacombs form 1st and 2nd century and pre-Christian were fascinating.
The citadel was impressive and also like so many others.
The new university library a refreshing reminder to the famous ancient library that was here after alexander of Macedonia had been here in 330 BCE approx.
Getting quality fish here was more a problem that I expected. I remember my RSA days in the 1980’s where Joeys (Johannesburg as it was then / Egoli now) had a better range of fresh fish than Cape Town despite its distance from the sea. Of course, there was more money in Joeys and hence my reasoning that the fish went there. I sense the same with Alex and Cairo. Fellow tour members reported some excellent seafood in Cairo, but at a price. Our official sea food lunch was calamari and a succulent flat fish for $16 and whilst the setting by the sea was beautiful, it was full of tourists. It was none too exciting. Later that day I took myself off in search of seafood. I found a rather run-down restaurant and dined on a 6 grilled prawns for $8 with mild peri-peri flavour and washed down with a King Sakhara at 10% alcohol. My other Sakharas (my preferred Egyptian beer) came in at 4% or 4.5% ABV. The place was called Catheta I recall and was popular for takeouts by Egyptians. No other tourists sighted here. Upstairs was smoke filled lounge avoided.
Final time in Cairo
On my last day (Thursday 5th) and as our tour had finished, I asked Mo for help in arranging a driver for the day to take in
Mummy museum (Egyptian Civilisation). The downstairs tomb like section is a fascinating must see of sarcophagi and various of the more famous Mummies. Upstairs at ground level is an excellent display from all of history. I think it could have been a bigger more expansive display and perhaps aimed at a time pressured tourist bus market. I’d recommend both museums and except for the Mummies here, I preferred the older more chaotic museum.
Coptic museum and associated churches were taken in and well worth my time. It was calmer in this zone away from the frenetic activity of this city.
Citadel which was in good and clean condition.
The evening of Thursday 5th, I headed to airport and my homeward journey. Cairo airport took 2 hours to clear security check in and immigration alone.
I’m surprised it took me so long (in my lifetime to date) to get to Egypt, but I enjoyed a truly wonderful holiday, with excellent itinerary, engaged and energetic tour leader, Mo and a fab group of worldly travellers.