Egyptomaniac's Tour 10th Anniversary Trip Part 1
Posted 21 July 2009 - 07:17 PM
So, here I am, back in the UK: tired out after 19 hours on the go on Sunday, full of a cold (only I could go to Egypt in the middle of summer & catch a cold).
Well, where do I begin?
I travelled to Cairo, via Paris, with Air France & first started to get worried when their online check-in system refused to recognise my booking reference; even though everything had been confirmed months in advance, so I stayed awake all night on the 5th, so as to be able to guarantee getting to the airport at least 2 hours before the flight departed.
Needless to say, Manchester Airport had lost my pre-paid parking booking so I had to sort that out at 4:20 on the Monday morning; before I could even think about getting into the airport.
The Air France check-in agent, couldn't understand why I hadn't done this online & then I had fun & games with the airport security people selecting me for additional screening; due to my glasses having set off the alarms.
After a brief visit to the lounge, for coffee, I headed off for the flight to CDG. This was more than comfortable & a champagne breakfast helped to relieve some of the stress of the day so far.
Having heard some of the horror stories, regarding connections in Paris, I'd booked the early morning flight & allowed 4.5 hours to go from Terminal 2E - 2F, using either the buses or automated train. Needless to say, it took all of 1/2 betweeen my getting off the flight from Manchester & being sat in the 2F Air France Salon; where I promptly started into the "nodding dog routine" of falling asleep & waking up again. At least I didn't have to worry about missing the flight to Cairo (though I was still worried that my luggage wouldn't make the connection - another source of many CDG horror stories).
We were bussed to the aircraft ahead of time, but were slightly delayed by taking off; due to people haviing left it to the last possible minute to turn up at the gate & were soon winging our way, over the centre of a very sunny Paris, to Cairo (some great photos of the city & the Eifel Tower were obtained).
To be honest, all I can remember of this flight is having something hot & tasty to eat, a couple of glasses of wine & champagne, some coffee & falling asleep, before awaking just in time for the descent into Cairo; touching down on schedule; after flying in, at a low enough altitude over the city centre that I was able to pick out & photograph my hotel from the air.
Sorry for the long pre-amble, but it all contributed to me getting worried that things were going to continue to go slightly awry for the rest of the fortnight.
Needless to say, all the concerns that had been building up over the course of the day so far, melted away, once I got into the Arrivals Hall of Terminal 1. Within 25 minutes of getting off the plane, I had been greeted, cleared immigration, picked up my additional, in-bound, duty free allowance & was sat in the mini-bus, enroute to the Ramses Hilton (taking the Midan Opera tunnel for the first time, instead of the normal route).
Posted 21 July 2009 - 07:19 PM
Check-in, at the good old Ramses Hilton, went smoothly (just a slight delay whilst they organised a Nile view room on the 16th floor) & I was soon able to be dancing around the room & balcony, with a big, daft grin on my face, at the realisation that I was back home again.
It had been agreed that I would meet Rania; yes the same guide as last year, in the lobby at 09:00 on the 7th & so I set my mobile phone alarm for 07:00; to allow me time to clean up & have some breakfast before meeting her. Unfortunately, I hadn't reset the clock on my phone to Cairo time & it wasn't until I realised where I was that it dawned on me that I'd actually wwokeen up at 09:00. After some mad running around, I did manage to meet up with Rania, just after 09:30, being very appologetic & feeling a complete prat.
Anyway, we were soon on our way to Saqarra &, as would be the case over the entirety of the next 2 days, Rania decided that, as I've visited Egypt so often, it would make more sense to try to show me something other than the standard sights; though allowing for those things which she knew from last year to be amongst my particular favourites, beginning with the, new, Imhotep Museum.
This is very similar to the Nubian & Luxor Museums, in that it has a small, but excellent collection, which covers a vast expanse of time (Pre-dynastic - Greco-Roman Periods), that is wonderfully displayed & labelled, in air-conditioned comfort, & is well worth a visit, for anyone who takes the time to go to Saqarra.
On then to the Mastaba of Ti; which used to be very popular, but has been off the beaten track, since the Serapeum closed to tourists (incredibly, I actually got a phone call from work when just about to go underground, into the burial chamber). This was, again, something I'd never visited before & was unusual, in that it featured a colonnaded courtyard, as well as some marvellous reliefs & a great statue, within the serdab.
Moving back to Djoser's complex, we were able to have a great time, picking out the unusual features that show just how unfamilliar the Ancient Egyptians were with the concept of building in stone before heading off to the Mit Rahina (Memphis) Open Air Museum. Sure, there's not been anything new to see here for years, but there are still some nice photo opportunities with all the statues & stelae on display; & the site is much nicer since they planted gardens amongst the exihibits.
Having told Rania that I'd promised to bring back some Egyptian cotton bedding, as a present, she found me a store selling cotton goods, but at LE1 500, for a sheet, duvet cover & four pillow cases I didn't bother getting them there; you can buy the same for £60 at the local ASDA, so over £150 was a crazy price).
Lunch, near Giza, was very good, with a nice salad & mixed grill, washed down with fresh lemon juice followed up by Turkish coffee (one of my health rules is sticking to water, coffee & juice as drinks during the heat of the day, but I am a terminal caffiene addict), before a quick visit to the Giza Pyramid field (no camel ride this year, as I was beginning to feel a bit tired, due to having had very little sleep in the London, over the 2 weeks prior to departure).
We dropped Rania off near home, so she could go & check the damage from a taxi's propane fuel tank having blown-up outside her flat earlier in the day (no windows broken but the fig trees in her garden were badly burned) & heading back to the hotel for an early night.
Wednesday, we met up at 09:00; after my having rectified my alarm gaffe of the day before, & headed off to the Egyptian Antiquities Museum, Islamic & Coptic Cairo.
Now, this was a day when Rania excelled herself.
In the Museum, rather than going through the standard guided tour, we just wandered around, some of the less visited rooms, picking out objects that were amongst our favourites to show each other, for an hour, before I spent an hour, on my own, looking at the Tut-ankh-Amun & jewellry galleries, before finally meeting up with Rania in the Museum cafe.
Moving on to Islamic Cairo, we passed on the Citadel & Mohammed Ali Pasha Mosque, visiting Ahmed ibn Tulun (yes, I did climb the minaret), & the Gayer Anderson Museum, both of which I'd never visited before. The Mosque was beautiful, but most marvellous was seeing the interiors of the two old houses that make up the museum: courtyards, reception rooms, the harem area, all were just wonderful to behold.
After lunch, we moved on to Mari Girgis & the Coptic monuments; where we ran into the guide for our Egyptomaniac tour of ten years ago. The area has changed so much since I last visited it; cleaner, better roads & actually more to see of the churches, synagogue & Roman fort, then it was back to the hotel for the night & preparing to head off to Aswan, in the morning.
Posted 21 July 2009 - 07:23 PM
Thursday's early morning start, meant that I had a reasonable chance to look around the new Terminal 3 Domestic Departures Hall, which is absolutely marvellous; lovely architecture, spacious, clean & much better organised than had been the case with the old domestic airport.
After a pleasant flight up to Aswan; as always on Egyptair; nice shots of the dessert & Lake Nasser from the air, I was soon met & on my way to join Royal Viking (big moment of the trip, for me, that had been much anticipated after viewing the photos on the new website).
Well, what can one say? Checking in was handled with efficiency & courtesy; the welcome glass of lemon juice being most gratefully received; & a tradition that has been less common over recent visits, & the key-card for a middle deck cabin was soon in my hand.
I'm sorry to have to tell you this, but I do have one complaint to make. Nothing on either Viking's, or Discover Egypt's, websites can prepare you for just how beautiful & luxurious Royal Viking is. From the minute you first walk into reception there is an air of comfortable opulance about every aspect of the public areas that is only enhanced by the standard of the cabins (spacious, with dark wood floors & furniture, comfortable beds, bath/shower combinations, a sitting area, LCD TV & a small balcony).
All members of the crew & management were friendly & helpful, without exception & the food was both varied & delicious.
Having arrived on Royal Viking on Thursday morning, I was able to explore, & take photos, before the other passengers returned from their morning's visits to the Aswan sights but decided against the optional visit to the Nubian village (I had done this many years ago & found the sense of intruding into someone else's life to be very uncomfortable) & so just spent the rest of the day sat in the shaded part of the sun deck, before taking a vast number of photos of the setting sun (one cannot visit Aswan without stopping to admire the glorious sunsets); with those of a, floodlit, Qubet al Hawa following dinner.
Friday morning I joined the, small, group from "Alexander the Great", for their tour of the Unfinished Obelisk (the new visitor centre still isn't finished, but the whole site has been vastly improved since I first visited it 21 years ago), High Dam (the views over Lake Nasser & the First Cataract are breathtaking, even if you are one of those people who can't appreciate the sheer scale of the technical achievement that the structure itself represents) &, of course, Philae (I've never failed to be spellbound by the sight of the temple emerging from behind the half submerged granite outcrops in the lake & it is amazing to think that the lovely green island we see now had only just been planted with trees, when I first visited the temple), before making my way back to Royal Viking (I really didn't need to visit a papyrus institute or perfumery).
The felucca sail, in the late afternoon was as wonderful as ever; with the time spent having, yet another Turkish coffee, on Botanical Island, adding to the pleasure. Sadly, the breeze wasn't blowing quite strong enough on either of the two days spent in Aswan, to allow the feluccas to sail around Elephantine Island & tack back north to the boat, but only a confirmed whinger would see this as being something to complain about.
As we spent Saturday sailing up to Luxor; we didn't stop at Kom Ombo or Edfu, as these feature in the up river part of the, normal 7 night cruise, I was able to indulge myself by visiting Hanna for a massage, as I'd been woken up with a pain in my lower back every night,even before I left fot Egypt; due to the horrible beds in the London hotels I'd been staying in. All I can say is that she did such a wonderful job that, not only did I sleep like a log, for the first time in over 2 weeks, but I made a point of leaving her an LE100 tip upon leaving the ship, the next morning, even though the massage was only LE60 for the hour (I later paid $40 US for another massage, at the Old Winter Palace that was nowhere near as good).
Arriving in Luxor shortly afterwards; where I was initially disorientated by the fact that, with the New Winter Pallace having been demollished, I was actually able to see the old hotel from the sun deck, we were able to indulge in the pleasures of visiting Luxor Temple just in time for them to turn the floodlights on. This is definitely the best time to visit, as the, much more delicate, 18th Dynasty reliefs become so much more visible when lit from below, whilst the pylon & the columns of Amun-hetep III's collonade & peristyle court assume a grandeur, with the play of light & shadow, that is too marvellous to describe.
Sunday morning was time for the visit to Karnak &, again, we were fortunate in arriving when the light was still perfect for viewing the reliefs at their best. The clearing of the old car park; so as to give a clear view across the Nile to Deir el Bahari, & the new visitor centre is a real boon, enabling one to obtain a much better idea of what the temple would have looked like in antiquity; & making the guides' lives much easier, & I can't for the life of me understand how some have been complaining, on the that it has made the walk to the entrance to the temple proper slightly longer.
After tagging along with the tour group until we reached the Sacred Lake (I did appologise to Aladin, the guide for the fact that, as I knew the sites so well, I wouldn't actually be partaking too much of his lectures, as I didn't want him to think I was being rude), I wandered around the Seventh Pylon, obelisks of Hat-shep-sut & Thot-moses I & the Botanical Garden of Thoth-moses III, before I had to pay my usual visit to the Open Air Museum. This is one of the best parts of the Karnak site & is well worth the separate LE25 entry fee, with so many wonderful buildings having been reconstructed; something new to see every time I visit, & a chance to get really close & study the fine details of the blocks that are awaiting reconstruction. I always say that it's a real shame that so few of those who visit the Temple even know it exists.
Returning to Royal Viking, but skipping the visit to the perfumery, I had time for one last shower, before checking-out; another very smooth & professionally handled service & awaiting the arrival of Ahmed, who was to take me to the Winter Pallace. Thus I was able to witness a scene that really emphasised my thoughts on this wonderful cruise boat. As usual, there were several boats, all berthed side by side, with Royal Viking being the third of four. An American couple, passing through, enroute to the outer boat of the four, when they stopped, looked around. observed how beautiful everything was & enquired if she was a new boat. Upon this being confirmed, they requested a brochure, with a stated view of looking to book a, future, return visit to Egypt with a cruise on Royal Viking in mind.
Posted 21 July 2009 - 07:27 PM
Check-in at the Winter Palace was as smooth an experience as one would expect from one of Sofitel's historic, luxury, properties. with the air of peace & relaxation that permeates the lobby, washing over one. I was warmly greeted, as a returning guest, by the Guest Relations Manageress, & escorted to my, lovely, first floor, garden view room.
The room itself was wonderful, with lovely soft beds, a huge & well fitted out wardrobe, desk & separate, alabaster lined & floored, toilet & bath/shower rooms, with a balcony that, whilst small, was big enough for a table & two chairs, accessed by the shuttered windows.
Although some would complain at not having a Nile view, the fact that the immaculately maintained gardens are so beautiful to behold, more than compensates for not being able to awake to views of the West Bank & your own private place to catch the sunset, of an evening.
The tour of the West Bank sites, with Aladin, on Monday started with a visit to Deir el Bahari, where yet again the light was much better for viewing the very delicate reliefs & as always the Poles had carried out yet more restoration, over the course of the winter (again, the visitor centre serves to greatly enhance one's understanding of the site).
Next it was on to the King's Valley & my annual visit to KV.34, Thoth-moses III, which used to be off the itinerary for most tourists; as it is a long way up the stairs before starting the long, steep walk down to the burial chamber, which is lacking in the polychrome decoration that Hollywood leads them to see as being typical, but has become one of the most hot, humid & crowded tombs in the valley. I'm sure the SCA will be looking at closing it, so as to give it a chance to recover, in the near future.
Then it was on to KV.57, Hor-em-heb, which I hadn't visited in 21 years, & has only just re-opened, but is of such interest for the way in which it allows us to see every stage of the decoration process, from the initial grid to the finished, painted, relief, that the long walk down to the burial chamber was a real delight; the fact that it was also almst empty & quite cool inside only enhanced this pleasure.
Finally, I made a return to KV.43, Thoth-moses IV. Quite literally nobody even realises this tomb is open &, even if they did, it is so far from the centre of the valley, that I was able to have it all to myself. Sure, there are only two decorated rooms; & a couple of historically important grafitti, but the charm of the paintings is wonderful & the tomb is such a marvellously cool & quiet place to escape from what can be a very crowded valley, that you are able to take the time to linger & contemplate the high quality of work carried out by the ancient craftsmen.
Then it was on to Sheikh abd el Qurna to visit two tombs.
It was strange to see the hill devoid of the familiar houses, but also wonderful to realise how many, now visible, tomb entrances were hidden by the village.
As is usual, there were no other visitors; even though these are the tombs in which one actually sees so many of the renowned scenes of "daily life", & I was able to linger over the exquisite reliefs in TT.55, the tomb of Ramose, & the famous paintings of his funeral procession, with its bearers of grave goods & professional mourners. I've visited this tomb at every opportunity since 1988 & I never fail to find myself captivated by the delicacy & detail of the decoration & could spend hours pouring over every square inch of the walls. Another bonus of being the only visitors was that I was able to start wandering from scene to scene, picking out individual hieroglyphs for appreciation & identifying the names & titles of the attendees of the funerary banquet.
Even the entry & courtyard of this tomb is much changed since I last visited, in 2000, with a double staircase & ramp replacing the rather rough & ready stairs into an ill defined pit, of old, & the overall form of the, complete, Theban tomb, clearly visible; & thus being of much interest to me (but I am a bit odd, like that, after all).
Our last stop was TT.56, Userhet. Even though this is a small tomb, the paintings are of a high quality, with many interesting & unusual details that amply repay the visitor &, as we were alone with the ghaffir, Aladin & I were able to spend time actually reading the accompanying inscriptions. Again, I would recommend a visit to anyone who has the opportunity to book more than the normal West Bank tour.
After that, most of the time was spent sunbathing by the Winter Palace pool or taking photos of the hotel; which led to a rather pleasant surprise on my last night there, trying to get a suntan. Don't ask. Between 6 & 7 hours a day for four days, working at it; I even went so far as to go out & buy some lower protection factor lotion, with tan accelerator, & still ended up returning to the UK with every part of me except my arms, head & neck just as white as the day & arrived in Cairo. To think my ex-wife banned me from sunbathing as I burned too easily! Still, if nothing else, it seemed to help with the cold I picked up somewhere along the way; yes, only I can go to Egypt in the middle of summer, experience temperatures of 52 Celsius, at 9:30 am & still catch a cold every time.
I only ate breakfast at the hotel, going down the King's Head Pub, for local food & films in the evenings, but did indulge in lunch & a couple of drinks a day in the Royal Bar; beautiful, relaxing & with the impeccable service one would expect at this hotel, so I can't really comment on the food (another nice touch was the complementary bottle of mineral water provided when they turned down the bed every evening, that many of the other five star hotels don't seem to do).
Late on on Thursday afternoon, I made my annual return visit to Luxor Museum, perhaps the most beautiful in the world. Even though it is small, they still manage to fit in at least two new pieces, of outstanding merit, every year, without diminishing the overall quality of either the exhibits or the manner in which they are displayed. Anyway, what was meant to be a short visit, actually took close on two hours as I lingered over, almost, every piece. As an example, I must have spent over 20 minutes just admiring the exquisite wooden statuette of Tjay; which was impossible to find & horrendously displayed in Cairo, but is so beautifully lit, in a glass case that stands out from an artificial niche in the gallery wall, that you can admire every detail of both the carving & the play of light & shadow, from both close in & at a distance, whilst continually picking out a new aspect to wonder at. As I said to Aladin, on the Monday, it is wonderful to see that the guides employed by Viking do recommend that everyone does spend the LE80 admission & go & visit it, during the pre-departure meeting, even though it isn't an organised excursion. It's really so annoying that many British companies' reps actively discourage their tourists from seeing anything that isn't part of an organised tour, on the grounds that it is dangerous. I don't know how many, if any of the tour group actually took up the advice, but they I do know they had already been encouraged to visit the Aswan souk & given sound advice as to what to look out for & what to avoid & that many had actually done so; which is, again, great to see.
After dining that night I returned to the hotel early, so as to pack for the flight to Cairo the next day, but popped into the bar for a last drink. Now, the head barman had noticed me taking photos around the hotel & upon my explaining that it was impossible to explain the beauty of the Winter Palace with words alone, he had told the General Manager, who provided two CDs of photos (Old Hotel & Pavilion wing) for him to give to me to take home with me. I thought this was a really nice & completely unexpected gesture for an establishment that must have thousands of guests through its doors in the course of a year to make.
Posted 21 July 2009 - 07:31 PM
Anyway, Ahmed arrived early the next morning & I was off to the airport for the return to Cairo. Luxor Airport is so much improved that it is almost beyond recognition & the Egyptair Express flight was comfortable & arrived in Cairo; having flown over Dashur, Saqarra & Giza, during the descent, 5 minutes early (I actually had the aisle seat & spent most of the fllight chatting with a customs officer who was returning to work at Cairo's Terminal 1, but he pointed out & ensured I leaned over him to see out the window every time we passed a pyramid field, despite my having already mentioned the number of times I'd visited Egypt).
Essam was there to meet me in the marvellous Terminal 3 Domestic Arrivals Hall & we were soon on our way back to the Ramses Hilton. We had a great chat about the Royal Viking, how the tour had gone & all the careful, & much appreciated, planning that had gone into organising everything.
This time, I was upgraded to a mini-suite, with a city/oblique Nile view, on the 24th floor. As always, this was comfortable, with every necesary amenity (I did pass on the offer of having a trip to Alexandria organised as I hadn't done any souvenir shopping in Luxor, due to worries about exceeding my airline weight allowance), but I soon made my way across to the shopping annexe.
Here, in a bit of a miracle, I was able to acquire the bedding I'd been unwilling to purchase on the first day, from a shop in the Ramses Hilton Shopping Annexe (Floor 5, near the top of the up escalator). It is actually very high quality; lovely & soft, Egyptian, cotton & was a real bargain at LE395 (about £41 - £42) for a double sheet, duvet cover & four pillow cases.
The rest of the time was spent taking photos of the city, from my balcony, even though they seem to have stopped illuminating the Citadel at night, watching daft films on TV, reading one of the three books I'd purchased, or dining in the Sherlock Holmes Pub (in the hotel); where one of the barmen actually remembered me from having visited right the way back in 2000 (he even remembered the cat that kept finding its way back into the bar after they'd put it outside 3 times & shut the doors - it walked in the front door, through the lobby the last time).
Posted 21 July 2009 - 07:45 PM
Ah well, 5 am Sunday morning rolled around all too quickly & I was off to the airport for the return flight to Paris & on to Manchester.
I'd been unable to check-in online, again, but the only problem with this was the family of two adults, one child & an infant, who had 16 cases to check-in before me, followed by the woman who hadn't filled in the exit form or who had a problem with her passport & was arguing with the immigration officer. I still managed to pick up some karkarde teabags, in duty free & pop into the Air France lounge; which is actually the best of one of theirs I've ever seen, for a couple of cups of coffee, before the flight boarded.
We were a bit delayed taking off, due to having to divert around the preparations for, what appeared to be, Hosni Mubarak jetting off somewhere later in the day, but arrived, after a great breakfast, wonderful views of Alexandria, Mount Etna & Geneva, from the air, & a couple of good films, in a rather overcast Paris; where we didn't have to use a bus to get to Terminal 2E, slightly earlier than scheduled.
My onward flight wasn't for another 4.5 hours & it only took half an hour to get through security; thanks to the Access No 1 lane that Espace Affaires provides, despite them being somewhat perplexed by the x-rays of the alabaster vases I'd bought. Thankfully, I was able to spend this time in the salon; not as nice as that in Cairo, eating sandwiches & cheese with biscuits washed down with a couple of glasses of champagne, some good coffee & a few fruit juices.
The final call for boarding of the Manchester flight went out early; due to them having parked the Regional Embraer 190 on just about the furthest stand from the terminal they could find & we ended up leaving without a few passengers who were still held up in the security queues linked to an African flight, & so were delayed taking off but made it into a rather wet, cold & miserable Manchester bang on the scheduled time (the cabin crew were great, managing to serve, a welcoming glass of champagne, sandwich, salad & fruit snack, second drinks round & coffee in less than 1hr 20 minutes & still be always smiling & friendly).
After slight delays waiting for my luggage; so much for priority tags, & having to dig out & quote the parking booking reference again, I was back in the realities of day-to-day life again by 17:45 & dreading the prospect of work the next day.
Sorry if this has gotten to be a bit long & rambling, butI wanted to give as full a report, for all those who couldn't make it back on this the 10th anniversary of the original trip, whilst also allowing those who are contemplating their own trip to gain get some idea of what to look forward to, with luck, on their own trip.
Now, I've got a few free months before I can think about planning next year's return
Posted 23 July 2009 - 07:24 AM
Now, I've got a few free months before I can think about planning next year's return
Hard to believe it has been 10 years since that original trip. What a great experience and achievement that was. I hope I don't have to wait another 10 years to get back again. Thanks for sharing -- truly, there is no place like home.