Sunday 4 December 2016

Egypt: Niamh Horan feels the fear and visits anyway

Bucket list, baby

Published 08/06/2015 | 02:30

Pyramids in Egypt's Giza valley
Pyramids in Egypt's Giza valley
Hight point: Niamh Horan at the Pyramids outside Cairo. The beauty of the great structures has to be seen to be believed
Sharm El Sheikh
Inscrutable: The Sphinx, Egypt's earliest royal statue, is one of the most iconic sights in the world

Before her trip to Egypt, Niamh Horan fretted about safety, hassle and political turmoil. She needn't have worried.

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We all have a bucket list right?

Even if we haven’t written it down, even if they are just thoughts swimming at the back of our heads. Every time we daydream — there are the things we all want to do before we die.

I had one place I really wanted to see. In fact I’m sure it’s on the ‘to do’ list for many people when they talk about places they long to visit.

There is something about the majesty and wonder of the pyramids that always drew me in. So when the chance came, first I thought yes. And then came the fear.

Egypt has been in turmoil since the revolution at Tahrir Square in 2011 — not good if you want calm and relaxing vacations and difficult  for a country which wants to attract lucrative tourism. But the good news is it has eased, massively, and travel companies will tell you that the tourist resorts are a long way from trouble — including where I stayed for the bulk of the trip — Sharm El Sheikh.

Now, I’m the definition of overtly cautious when it comes to personal safety.

I’ll never hail a Hackney cab, I won’t answer the door when I’m home alone and my flatmates can attest to getting phone calls in the middle of the night if the slightest bump sounds when they are away. So if there were ever a perfect guinea pig to test whether somewhere is not only safe enough to travel, but — most importantly — affords you the ability to relax while there, it’s muggins here.

Niamh Horan Egypt.jpg
Niamh at the pyramids

God love the poor PR man whom I hounded with a million queries before I set off. But in my defence the blog sites didn’t help. I had read horror stories about women being hassled by locals due to their blonde hair so I had dressed like a mummy on arrival. And it wasn’t to get into the spirit of the museum either.

But I needn’t have bothered as the most hassle I experienced, and any woman I spoke to while there for that matter, was the odd cat call of ‘Shakira’ or ‘Beyoncé’ by local people trying to sell tourists merchandise. I think Naomi Campbell even got a look in on the day I overdid the tan!

In fact — it’s ironic — but I felt even safer there than I do walking late at night at home. The police presence was visible at every turn. Lined up outside the museum, in the airports, they even parked for hours by the local tribe we visited one night while out star-gazing. Tourists are prized because the industry means so much to the country, so trust me when I say they are taking no chances.

So now the safety concerns are out of the way, let me tell you what Egypt has to offer: everything.

Glorious sunshine (into the thirties) with the coolness of a sea breeze in Sharm El Sheikh, a Red Sea that is full of the most beautiful tropical fish I’ve ever seen and the chance to see some of the world’s greatest historical treasures and artefacts up close.

We flew from London to Sharm El Sheikh which took about five and a half hours,  and our hotel, Sharm Plaza, was a good base to travel from each day — it also saves on the pocket.

Trust me, when you visit Egypt, you don’t want to be lazing by the pool — there is far too much to do — and I’d strongly advise you to plan lots of activities with the help of Red Sea holidays who are friendly, safe and efficient hosts.  We narrowed it down to three day trips to cover all bases. First, a VIP cruise, where you spend all day out on the water on a yacht with a group of other fun-loving holiday makers.

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Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt

The music is pumping, the sun is shining and you get served up a delicious smoked BBQ in between diving into the ocean below. We were told before we took the plunge that it would be like swimming in a “home heated aquarium” and cynical old me brushed it off as PR guff. But it has to be experienced to be believed. The water was just above 30 degrees celsius, and so crystal clear that you can see right down to the sandy white ocean floor. The luminous coral gardens and schools of fish would take your breath away.

As I pulled myself up on to the deck of the boat and tore off my mask all I could say was ‘wow, wow, wow, wow.’

Another day trip included a night out with a local Bedouin tribe, climbing a mountain to watch the sunset and finishing off with a BBQ, smoking shisha and star-gazing with a trained astronomer. Earlier in the evening we got a chance to help make some of the traditional bread and I stepped up to the oven to roll the dough. All was going well until I went to put it on a hot griddle but — in my enthusiasm- accidentally flung it into the fire.

 My local host turned towards my tour guide and muttered something in his local Arabic, which I was told afterwards was his way of saying how many camels I would be worth in return for the pleasure of taking me as his wife. (Half a chicken supposedly!)

The mountain climb is well worth it and not an ounce as hard as it sounds. Once there you can sit back and watch an unforgettable sunset over the dusty red desert, while marvelling at the beautiful colours illuminating the sky.

The best of all trips however has to be the day trip to Cairo to see the Pyramids. (It’s a sin to travel to Egypt without visiting these but the amount of tourists who don’t is surprising — it’s also a testament I guess to how much more the country has to offer.)

The flight from Sharm El Sheikh to Cairo is about two hours and the chaos of the city is a welcome change to the laid back air of the tourist resorts.

Our guide kindly suggested taking us through the back streets of the city to see how locals really live and the charm of the people going about their lives in between selling fruit and delivering bread is an experience in itself.

We also got in a trip to a local parchment factory and the fascinating Egyptian museum, but for me the high point had to be the magical Pyramids.

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The pyramids at Giza

I expected them to be like most major tourists attractions I have ever visited — black with tourists and turned into a money making racket but I was in for a pleasant surprise. And this is why I say the time to visit Egypt is now. Because there is only a trickle of tourists starting to come back again, the spot is as uncrowded and as peaceful as you are going to get so you’ll have the space to stand back and take in these treasures pretty much all to yourself.

And that is exactly what I did.

We took a horse and carriage ride out to the far side of the pyramids and in peace and quiet, got time to enjoy the beauty uninterrupted. I sat on the sand and watched the light and shade ripple off the limestone and their beauty is even greater than I had imagined. As with the underwater sights, these really do have to be seen to be believed. And the ability to do so with little or no one around is a privilege that you should take up while you still have the chance.

The Sphinx, Eygpt’s earliest royal statue is also near by. One of the most iconic statues in the world, it is the ancient power — a fitting tribute to it’s surrounds.

Getting there

Prices in June with Red Sea Holidays (redseaholidays.ie) start from €491 per adult sharing, with guaranteed child prices all season regardless of duration of stay. Prices include late checkout, 20kg luggage allowance, and transfers between the airport and your hotel.

Sharm Plaza Hotel starts at €715 per adult sharing for 7 nights. Cairo by air offer flights, lunch, museum and pyramids for €220.

Three to try

King Tut

On Feb. 16, 1923, the burial chamber of King Tutankhamun’s tomb was unsealed in Egypt. The New York Times called it “perhaps, the most extraordinary day in the whole history of Egypt”. With treasures worth €15m, an ancient curse and stories of murder and incest, a trip to see The Mask of Tutankhamun won’t leave you disappointed.

Royal Mummies

The Royal Mummies room in the Egyptian Museum is an additional cost but for only €10 it is yet another once-in-a-lifetime experience. Here you can see the eerily embalmed bodies of Egypt’s ancient royals up close — even the wisps of their hair have been perfectly preserved. I can’t imagine, in all their glory, this is where they thought they would end up. It will give you goosebumps!

Star-gazing

A tour to see real Bedouin life will also give you the chance to lay back under the clearest starry night you’ve ever seen and take in the spectacular view of the milky way far away from the bright city lights. We got a chance to see Jupiter and Venus in all their shining glory through a high-powered telescope and it was mind-blowing.

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