Sun, sea and the jewels of the Nile
EVERYONE who travels to Egypt will experience at some stage a moment that lives forever in the memory.
It can happen anywhere, but it usually takes place at night, maybe on the warm desert sands or maybe on the banks of the fast flowing Nile. It might take place under a crescent moon with a million stars picked out against the inky blackness, or you might be paddling in the tropical water of the Red Sea, a short stroll from your luxurious hotel suite -- but the moment is basically the same for everyone.
It's the sense of being absolutely in the right place, pinpointed at the junction of the ancient and the modern world -- and it will take your breath away.
Egypt's got the lot. For romantics, there's the doomed grandeur of Cleopatra's Nile set against the dusty reality of bustling street markets. For pragmatic can-do types, there's the engineering triumph of the Great Pyramid butting up to the Aswan Dam. And for the common or garden tourist, it's got the luxury of sun-kissed Red Sea resorts lapping up against some of the best scuba-diving and snorkelling that any intrepid traveller could wish for.
So where to start? With so much on offer, the best option for most people is a guided tour -- the sort that the Travel Department has excelled in for many years now. It takes in all the best Egypt has to offer, organising visas and sorting out a manageable itinerary. In the past, when we've holidayed independently, we've wasted so much time sitting in hotel foyers, deciding 'where next?' and 'how to get there?' When time is tight, local knowledge pays off.
First up on any tourist's to-do list in Cairo is the Egyptian Museum on Tahrir Square, just a stone's throw from the heart of the Arab Spring. It's a treasure trove of wonders from ancient times, where Tutankhamun's golden funerary mask is the best known artefact from pharonic times. But it's a building you can wander through for hours, letting your imagination run riot. And sometimes it's the memories of the smaller treasures which stay with you, like the shabtis -- the Barbie-sized clay models of servants herding cows or milling grain, placed in the tombs of great kings and queens, to serve them in the afterlife.
Faced with the vastness of the museum, we realised how essential our knowledgeable guide was (he stayed with us throughout the tour). While there's no shortage of people at every roadside attraction in Egypt professing themselves a guide, should you hire a fresh one at every stop, you'd spend a small fortune -- and hear a cobbled-together wiki- history of factoids.
Cultural obsequies paid, we left the museum to spend the afternoon avoiding the temptations of buying glow-in-the-dark pyramids in the Khan el Khalili market. It's a massive souk, where different neighbourhoods all have their own out-of-time specialisation. Our senses were nearly overwhelmed by traders selling boxes engraved with mother of pearl, next to rows of papyrus-beaters, goldsmiths, calligraphers. We also looked into the tent-makers' quarter -- apparently it's big among the Bedouin tribes, but airlines have limits to carry-on luggage, so we passed.
After a brief education in Cairo's chaotic driving habits (accompanied by the 'Egyptian music' of thousands of blaring car horns), we got to the train station in time to claim our sleeper cabins on the overnight train from Cairo down the Nile valley to Aswan. At that point, we were maybe 300 miles from the Sudan, so having a fridge full of chilled water on the coach that met us at the station was not so much a luxury as a necessity.
Aswan marked our introduction to the Nile. Yes, we'd seen it in Cairo, but it was only down south that the magnificence of the river makes itself apparent. Small islands of granite rise out of the mother of all rivers and graceful feluccas sail by -- the triangular sail evoking memories of a million middle-east movies, rose-red sunsets and mysterious temples to the gods and goddesses.
We boarded our cruise ship after an expedition to the temple of Isis, and it was like stepping through time -- as if we'd walked from a confined world of the ancients into a luxurious palace of colonial times.
It was three stories high, with a pool on the top deck for sun worshippers, and only a few Germans marshalling the sun loungers. The cabins were hugely generous with fantastic views over the river -- and the food it served was top class. Portion control be damned; when the food is this good, I get stuck in.
For three days we cruised down the Nile, stopping occasionally for excursions inland to temples and towns, and in that time we had become experts in Egyptology -- everyone could tell their Anubis from their elbow. Even so, when we moored at Luxor and saw the great temple of Karnak, we were (to use the vernacular) gobsmacked. The sheer scale and ingenuity of the ancients -- erecting a forest of 50m tall columns, flanked by imperious obelisks long since carted off to London, Rome, Istanbul and Paris -- was staggering. And more awaited.
On to the bus, and off to the Valley of the Kings, where 63 tombs carved out of the limestone of the mountainsides held the remains of rulers of Egypt for thousands of years until tomb-raiders penetrated their dark sanctums. The brightly painted walls still shine, as if the painters had just nipped out for a quick hookah round the back of King Tut's tomb.
After all this culture, the beach called loud and clear. So off to the Red Sea, where we were booked in at the Hilton Hurghada Resort. Before leaving the boat, we had checked the rate card and were delighted to see that by going through the Travel Department we'd saved hundreds of euro over going independently. And it was the same story at the Hilton. Over a 50 per cent discount by going with the group.
The Red Sea is everything you imagine -- warm waters and (as I discovered when I strapped on scuba gear for my introductory dive) crystal-clear visibility. Diving with oxygen, you realise that fish are not all herd animals, and can even have personality. Under the water, everything is awesome -- and underlying it all is the knowledge that you're breathing underwater. Even a pebble has significance -- because you're breathing underwater! I climbed out of the water with a grin on my face. Hooked.
Last stop of our 10-day tour of Egypt would bring us full circle back to Cairo, so to make time we took a budget flight and gained a day to wander through the Coptic areas and gaze at the 1,500-year-old icons of Egypt's Christian saints. Then up the 40-year-old Cairo Tower to watch the sun go down while drinking coffee in the revolving restaurant, 200m above the busy streets. Twenty kilometres away we could see the Great Pyramid, where the desert meets the city.
Next morning we visited the great wonder of the ancient world -- the 4,500 year-old pyramid complex at Giza. We even climbed into the centre of Cheop's vast construction, via the 'robbers passageway' -- carved out 1,200 years ago, when stone from the pyramid was used to build the Islamic city of old Cairo. It's a steep incline in a confined space -- perhaps people were smaller then, or perhaps they had harder heads.
Negotiating our way through hordes of touts selling the same King Tut tat we'd seen in Aswan, we turned a corner and ran into the Sphinx. The shock of recognition you experience when you encounter such an iconic monument is always the same, always different.
The Sphinx smiled at us. What else could we do?
We smiled back.
Flight departures from March to June 2013 from Dublin, Cork and Shannon to Cairo with British Airways (via London Heathrow). Spend nine nights in Egypt to include three nights in Cairo, a night on overnight train, three nights on-board the 5-star Nile Cruise and two nights in Hurghada. Highlights include tours of the Pyramids of Giza, Temple of Philae, the High Dam, Elephantine Island, the riverside temple at Kom Ombo, the Temple of Horus, the Valley of the Kings, The Temple of the Queen Hatshepsut, the Colossus of Memnon, the Temple of Karnak, Egyptian Museum and the Khan El Khalili Market. Cost: €1,249 incl. tax.
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