This is a long overdue report from last December. I had a hard drive crash and when I finally recovered the diary from the trip, I forgot to post it up.
And as I’m currently planning my next trip I figured I’d better let you all know how the last one went before asking a bunch more questions !
Many thanks to all the TripAdvisor bods who helped me out before my visit last year, particularly Suzie M who patiently answered all my PMs in terrific detail.
SUNDAY - CAIRO
We were supposed to be arriving in Cairo from Heathrow on the Monday, but British Airways cancelled our flight and we had to choose between losing a day of our holiday or gaining one. We obviously chose the latter !
Arrived in Cairo close to midnight and caught a cab to the President hotel in Zamalek, where we'd stayed on a couple of previous visits. The good thing about this hotel is that it has a busy pub in the basement which is open until the small hours, so despite arriving at one in the morning we could still grab a quick nightcap. And it's fairly cheap. The bad thing about this hotel is that the quality of the rooms is a bit of a lottery. This time we'd managed to get one with a water dripping through the ceiling. By the time we’d changed rooms it was close to three in the morning, so not much sleep was had before the alarm went off at six.
MONDAY - ALEXANDRIA
We hadn’t planned on visiting Alexandria, but with an extra day to spare it seemed like a good idea. After a quick breakfast we hailed a cab for the trip to Ramses station. I’d booked and printed off tickets online before arriving which saves a bit of time and hassle at the station - you can do this up to two weeks in advance at enr.gov.eg.
We arrived at Misr station in Alex at 1040 and strolled across the street to visit the Roman Odeum. Next stop was a Vodafone shop to buy an Egyptian SIM for the phone and a data SIM for our pad device, which I set up over an espresso at the Brazilian Coffee Store.
(Incidentally, if you ask for a standard local Vodafone SIM card for the phone, you can call 5055 to activate The World in your Hands option, which makes international calls 1.99LE per minute with a 1.5LE call setup charge, rather than the 3.5LE per minute on a Holiday SIM. You can also call 880 to activate the Vodafone 14pt option, making calls to Egyptian landlines or mobiles only 14pt per minute. This is all thanks to the really helpful sales assistant in the Vodafone store !)
We then hailed a cab for the National Museum. It was the first day of elections in Alexandria and there was almost a carnival atmosphere in the air. Children had been employed to throw election leaflets into passing cars and we ended up showered with them !
The museum is well worth a visit. It’s a nicely laid out, modern museum which puts the Egyptian Museum in Cairo to shame - and, in fact, even makes the British Museum look a tad amateurish.
Next stop was a visit to the Greco-Roman catacombs. This was the highlight of the day. You descend a huge stone stairway into a network of corridors and rooms with hundreds of burial niches carved out of the rock. The decoration was interesting, being a mixture of ancient Egyptian with Roman and Greek influences. It was also quite eerie, especially as we had the place to ourselves for the entire visit.
The traffic in Alex was quite bad, but we figured we still had time for a quick visit to the Library. Online sources claimed that it was open until 1900, but we arrived shortly after 1600 and unfortunately it was already closed.
We had a stroll along the impressive corniche before deciding to head back to the station to attempt to get on an earlier train back to Cairo. On the train, the conductor stared hard at the ticket for a while then muttered something in Arabic which got a laugh out of a fellow passenger. “These dozy tourists are on the wrong train” or similar, I imagine !
A cab from the station took us to Abou Tarek for a plate of koshari, which was as tasty as usual. It’s a bit more expensive than most but well worth a visit if you’re in Cairo.
TUESDAY - CAIRO to LUXOR
Up at 0600 again and following a more leisurely breakfast we hailed a cab to the Egyptian Museum. The driver turned out to be a scam artist.
The Tahrir Square protests were in full flow at the time. He pulled up at the north-western corner of the museum, pointed at the road leading to the square which had been blocked by the protesters with several cars and claimed that the museum was closed, hoping that we’d hire him for the day to go somewhere else. We paid him, he reluctantly drove off and we nervously approached the blockade and asked one of the protesters if the museum was indeed open. He confirmed that it was, but wouldn’t let us through the blockade without showing him our passports.
I figured that a quick stroll around the camp in the square would be an idea - historic moment and all that - but when we reached the southern edge a rather nasty fight involving chairs as weapons broke out ten feet from us so we beat a hasty retreat back to the museum.
This was our fourth visit to the museum in a year and despite visiting for over four hours this time around, we’ve probably still only seen around half of the exhibits. A major frustration is how poorly labelled the exhibits are. If you’re not hiring a guide, a copy of The Illustrated Guide to the Egyptian Museum in Cairo (aka Treasures of Ancient Egypt: From the Egyptian Museum in Cairo) makes an excellent alternative.
Next it was off to the airport for the flight to Luxor, where we landed at 1735. A cab took us to the public ferry crossing and we stopped off at the Nile Valley on the West Bank for a cold beer before strolling up the road to the El Fayrouz hotel.
This place was a disappointment. A tired room with a broken mirror in the shabby bathroom, a foul smell emanating from the drains and, as we were near the kitchen, we were awoken at half past three in the morning by the kitchen staff. It was overpriced.
The gardens at the rear are pleasant enough, but our evening meal was a bit poor (stone cold kebabs, stale and overcooked pastries) and the ambience was spoiled by a large table of loud and obnoxious British ex-pats.
WEDNESDAY - LUXOR
Picked up from the hotel at six for a trip to the Valley of the Queens.
Meh. I’m not sure why these tombs feature on many standard tours of the West Bank. The decorations, while nice enough, pale beside many of the Nobles’ tombs.
Next, it was off to Deir el-Medina, where we visited the three open tombs and had a look around the Hathor temple before checking out the Great Pit to the north. A huge hole in the ground - they were apparently attempting to dig a well but failed to reach the water table. The amount of effort they must have put in is quite staggering !
The final trip of the day was to Seti I’s temple. It’s been badly damaged (the major flood in 1994 didn’t help), but the beautifully carved reliefs that remain make it well worth seeing.
In the early afternoon we checked into our cruise boat for the week - the MS Champollion II.
This boat had received quite a bit of criticism on TripAdvisor before we arrived so were expecting the worst. As it turned out, there were only 32 passengers onboard (the capacity was over 100) and at the end of the week the boat was mothballed. As far as I’m aware it’s still out of action, so there’s little point in going into great detail. But we were pleasantly surprised. It was tired around the edges but the cabins were clean and comfortable and the food was edible.
To be honest, I never thought I’d end up on a Nile cruise, but the main attraction was the very low price and as the boat only actually moved for two days and an evening, I figured we could just use it as a floating hotel. The vast majority of the other passengers were Egypt first-timers and were none too happy that the boat was moored up most of the time, but it suited us just fine ! Thanks to a misprice on the ‘net, we had a week’s all-inclusive stay with several excursions included for less than £25pppn. As a can of Saqqara lager onboard was over 40LE, it’s possible that we’d have had a water’n’booze bill higher than this alone !
THURSDAY - LUXOR to ASWAN
Spent the day under shade on the deck watching the Nile go by. Arriving at Kom Ombo by boat is much more spectacular than arriving by car and the temple looked terrific in the evening sun.
FRIDAY - ASWAN
Luckily, the boat had moored only a few yards from the local ferry across the Nile, so after breakfast we went to see the Old and Middle Kingdom Tombs of the Nobles on the opposite bank. These are well worth a visit. Much bigger than the tombs at Thebes and retaining quite a bit of colourful decoration.
On returning to the East Bank, we hailed a cab to take us to the Nubian museum. A pleasant museum in nicely landscaped grounds.
When we returned to the boat we found the Sudan (and old paddle steamer) had moored up next to us. We went onboard and a couple of the crew were happy to show us around - the machine room was particularly impressive.
SATURDAY - ASWAN
As the boat was scheduled to leave at lunchtime, we had to be up early to fit in a trip to Kalabsha. After a Lake Nasser cruise boat party left, we had the entire island to ourselves for a couple of hours, which was very pleasant. Kalabsha isn’t quite as stunning as Philae but it’s definitely worth going to if you’ve already visited the latter.
Upon returning to the boat we found that there had been some trouble on the corniche, across the road from where the boat had docked. Four of the passengers had gone to change some money. A local youth had attempted to grab some money from a woman’s purse. One of the other passengers had grabbed the youth and held him against the wall, demanding the return of the money. He got some money back but only later realised that not all of it had been returned. A crowd gathered at this point and the same man who’d had the youth against the wall later realised that he’d had his own pocket picked in the confusion. One of the youths even produced, albeit briefly, a knife.
The departure of the boat was delayed for several hours as those involved went to the police office to report the incident.
SUNDAY - ON THE NILE
Spent most of the day on the deck sipping cold beer and reading up on Dendara and Abydos, which we were planning to visit the following day.
MONDAY - LUXOR
Our driver arrived at 0545 with bad news. A huge crowd had occupied the square outside Abydos since Saturday, protesting price hikes and the scarcity of goods and fuel. With Abydos out of bounds, a swift change of plan was necessary and we decided to make a trip to the Valley of the Kings. Luckily, three tombs were open that we hadn’t visited before - Ramses II, Ramses IV and Siptah. As we were there so early, we had two of the tombs entirely to ourselves for half an hour each.
We then decided to walk over the hill to Deir el-Bahri. I’ve since been advised by the TripAdvisor experts that this isn’t allowed, but not knowing this at the time we simply strolled past an uninterested security guard and started the climb.
We got a little lost en route, but bumped into a Finnish archaeological team near the summit who pointed the correct path out to us.
It was a nice hike and the views from the cliffs high above Hatshepsut’s temple were spectacular in the mid-morning sun.
Arriving at the Deir el-Bahri ticket office, we purchased tickets for the Assasif Nobles’ tombs. The tomb of Pabasa with its outstanding reliefs was a highlight.
It was now past mid-day and having left the suncream back at the boat we decided not to let our pasty Scottish skin suffer any longer !
TUESDAY - LUXOR
With both our driver and the tour guide on the boat claiming that Abydos would be closed until at least the end of the week, it was back to the West Bank to see another seven of the Tombs of the Nobles (Ramose, Rekhmire, Userhet, Sennefer, Menna, Nakht and Khaemhet). The standouts were the tomb of Ramose with its absolutely exquisite relief carvings, the vibrant and vivid colours in the tomb of Sennefer and the unusual tomb of Rekhmire, with its steeply sloping ceiling and mostly well-preserved scenes of temple life. The downturn in tourist traffic meant that we had all the tombs to ourselves. (Nice for us, not so good for the locals).
Our cruise package included several excursions, but as we’d visited them all before we skipped most of them. Luxor Temple was included though, and we figured we’d use the free ticket to make another trip to the temple at sunset. A good decision, as the temple does look particularly magical in the evening light.
On returning to the boat we had excellent news from another internet forum - Abydos was open again ! We immediately called our driver to arrange the permits to take us there on Thursday morning.
As it was the last evening on the boat we probably took more advantage of the all-inclusive than was strictly necessary - although not as much advantage as one of the other couples. I had to carry the woman back to her cabin as her partner was too drunk to help her out !
WEDNESDAY - LUXOR
After breakfast and saying our goodbyes to all the friends we’d made on the boat, we caught a cab to Luxor museum. This is my favourite museum in Egypt. It has the cream of the Theban relics and they are all immaculately displayed.
At lunchtime we checked into our hotel for the final couple of nights in Luxor, the Sofitel Karnak. The rooms here are in need of refurbishment but they’re clean enough and the grounds of the hotel are quite lovely. After walking around for a while, we strolled down the road to Karnak village for a beer at the Genesis pub.
We thought we’d check out the Mandarin Lebanese restaurant in the new complex outside Karnak temple, but when we got there the vast place was deserted which we took as a sign that the kitchen might not be turning out its best grub so we decided to get a cab to Sofra restaurant instead.
We were crossing the corniche outside the restaurant and waiting with a few locals for a gap in the traffic when out of nowhere a gang of youths on motorcycles appeared from around the corner at speed. I’d heard warnings that this was becoming a dangerous feature of Luxor and had thought that I’d be ready if I heard them coming but there was no way to avoid what happened next. I was closest to the gang and one of them was going so fast that he had to swerve to avoid hitting me. Unfortunately, my girlfriend, who was standing right behind me, got hit full force in the process. The young biker was knocked off his bike by the collision but in an instant, he had got back on his bike and roared off down the road.
Luckily she only had bad scraping and bleeding to her hands and knees but this could have been an awful lot worse.
We caught a cab back to the hotel where she cleaned the wounds and I obtained some dressings from reception to bandage the sores.
We thought about just eating in the hotel instead of venturing out again, but decided not to let these idiots destroy our holiday and caught a cab to Sofra. The meal was okay (personally I think the place is over-rated) but lets face it, nobody comes to Egypt for the cuisine. To be fair, it’s a nice-looking restaurant. And their freshly squeezed fruit juices are superb.
THURSDAY - ABYDOS
Yay ! Abydos is open ! Result !
We were picked up at 0600, but a combination of a road closure and our driver getting slightly lost en route meant we didn’t get to Abydos until past ten o’clock.
This was without question the highlight of the entire trip. If you only ever visit two sites in Egypt, see the pyramids and Seti’s temple at Abydos. Colossal statues aside, Abu Simbel has nothing on this place. The carved reliefs are probably the pinnacle of Egyptian art. Although there is some colour left on a few of the reliefs, paradoxically the ones stripped of paint are the most impressive. They appear to create almost a 3D effect, whereas the paint make the reliefs look flatter.
We could have stared at these wonderful reliefs for hours. And in fact we did, especially as we had the temple to ourselves apart for one intrepid Kiwi backpacker. After four hours, we called our driver to let him know that we’d given up on visiting Dendara and went off for a visit to the mostly ruined temple of Ramses II a couple of hundred yards away. What remains of this has some terrific battle-of-Kadesh scenes on the outer walls.
Getting caught up in a convoy of police transporting prisoners from Qena to Luxor for trial meant that the drive back to Luxor took almost as long as the drive up and we didn’t get back until after seven in the evening.
I would put up with the eight-hour journey again in a heartbeat though.
We dined at Gerda’s Garden in Karnak village on our return. The atmosphere was a bit stiff and formal but the food was perfectly fine, especially the seafood pizza.
FRIDAY - CAIRO
An early morning flight and we were picked up at the airport at 0930 to head straight to Saqqara. Since our previous visit back in March, seven New Kingdom tombs had opened to the public.
If only someone had told the guardians this. They tried to insist that only three were open. After some persistence, this magically became four. However, as we’d been forced to pay for the entrance to the site plus the separate tickets for the “New Tombs” and the “New Kingdom Tombs” for a total of 120LE each, we were determined to get our money’s worth and insisted on walking around the entire site for an hour and a half, much to the increasing annoyance of the guardian following us around who was probably used to tourists being in and out in fifteen minutes or so. Eventually he disappeared, but I sought him out when we’d finished and he was happy with the baksheesh I handed over.
Having never been to the small open-air museum at Memphis before, we stopped off en route back to Cairo. The huge statue of Ramses is worth seeing, but most of the rest of the exhibits are in a fairly rough state.
We were back at the President hotel again for 1700. Dinner was a takeaway koshari from Alex Top a few hundred yards from the hotel. Recommended if you’re on the island - it’s not as good as Abou Tarek, but it’s less than half the price !
Yet another early start to get to the airport at 0700 for our flight back to Heathrow and our holiday was at an end.
Missing out on Dendara, however, gave us an excellent excuse to visit Egypt again !
Thanks for reading.Edited: 04 September 2012, 17:20