Cairo & The Pyramids...

Jeremy & Sally Paul
Sun 16 May 2010 03:44

Wednesday 7th April:  Left the boat safely in the hands of local Egyptians under the auspices of the wonderful Ismailia Yacht Club, with fingers crossed it would all be there for Jeremy & Sally's return in 3 days time!!  We got a taxi to the Bus Station, where we were faced with about 50 bus/coaches of differing ages and conditions.  Tickets to Cairo were the cheapest thing ever @ E£15 each = £1.75 –  and yes you guessed it, our bus to Cairo was indeed old and dilapidated – and had the crappiest air conditioning units ever – the one above our heads was so noisy, I was convinced I would end up with tinnitus despite the paper tissues stuffed in my ears, the scarf wound round my head, and the hands pressed against my ears until they were painful.  At one point Sally thought the whole machinery was going to crash through the ceiling and decapitate her!!  It was the most uncomfortable 2 hours of my whole time in Egypt!!  We got to Cairo in about an hour, but then the traffic ground to a halt, and it took another hour to get through the outskirts, past the airport and into the city!  We learned later that Cairo has 25m people out of the 80m odd population of Egypt, and it seemed to us that they ALL have a car!!!  We disembarked under a motorway flyover in central Cairo with no idea where we were, but a kindly girl took pity on us and hailed a taxi which we fell on, and asked to be taken to a hotel where we could get a much needed "drink".  On second thoughts we decided to go to the hotel Sally had booked online, which was in the centre of the "down town" shopping district, hidden down an alley, up on the 5th floor of an office block, accessed by the lift from "Diamonds are for Ever" :

Tiffany Case: [reading Bond's ID card planted on the deceased Franks] My God! You just killed James Bond!
James Bond: Is that who it was? Well just goes to show, no one's indestructible.


The hotel was miraculously quiet with spacious beautifully decorated rooms, and run by helpful French speaking Egyptians.  But they insisted on being paid cash (preferably in Euros – were they kidding???).  We were to learn over the next few days just how many times Egypt has been "occupied", resulting in the multi-cultural/language/religion country that it is.


Having dumped out stuff, we immediately set off to walk to the Cairo Museum.  The first shop we passed was a "pastry" shop – OMG the Egyptians do these so well, and there are so many to choose from – brilliant for a sweet tooth, and we were all starving!!  The hot half hour walk found us across the road from the Museum, where we were nearly caught out, despite the warning in Lonely Planet, by a classic con – man asks if we are going (obviously!) to the museum, "Oh, it is shut this afternoon – school trips only. I am a teacher, I know these things, but I can get you in and take you round – for a fee"!! No thanks! We crossed the road (literally taking our lives in our hands – 3 lanes in either direction, and NO pedestrian crossing or lights in site).  If you find a friendly policeman (there are loads around) – they will take you across, but you still have to stick to them like glue, or its certain death!!!


Cairo Museum has so many amazing things, you could spend a week there and not see everything, so in our short 2 hours (before "museum legs" totally took over) we only "did"; the Mummies, loads of jewellery and of course Tutankhamen – which I have to say, even having seen loads of pictures and TV programmes, was a million times more awesome than I could ever have imagined!!  The mummies on the other had, were totally, totally gruesome!  Unfortunately, Cairo cannot beat the war against the dust, and the whole museum needs updating – so apparently they are building a new one, all hermetically sealed, and air conned, so they can store and show their treasures properly, which is why they are now pitching to get all their stuff back from the European countries that have nabbed them over the generations, (Rosetta Stone being the main focus!).  They have to settle for a replica in the entrance to the Cairo museum.


Walking back to the hotel, the shopping district was just hotting up and the streets were getting packed – but nothing compared to what it would be like at 9 or 10 o'clock at night!!  We grabbed a coffee and retired to the hotel for a snooze before dinner. 


On returning to Talisman Hotel, we met the resident tour guide company – run by a smooth operator called Hamdi, who organised us a car & driver and guide for the next two days.  It made life soooooooo much easier.  He also recommended us a restaurant for that evening, and his driver took us there!  It had a great atmosphere and while waiting for our table we had beers and the customary dips (humus etc) at the bar, where we met an English girl on holiday alone for a week in Egypt (rather her than me!).  She had over ordered by miles, so she joined our table, with her food, and we helped her out in no uncertain terms.  The tomato and aubergine salad had so much garlic that it nearly burned your tongue – delicious!!  Sally and I needed a sweet finish so ordered something called Omm Ali (traditionally, bread with mild & honey), which was a milky pudding with nuts and raisins topped with a sort of (soggy) filo pastry – absolutely delicious and a firm favourite for the next two days!!!


Thursday 8th April:  After a lovely French breakfast, our guide collected us at 10.30am and we set off south west (in air conditioned mini-bus) to Memphis to see the statue of Ramses II and the Sphinx of Memphis circa 1200bc – pretty amazing. Our guide Sheema had excellent English (strangely with an American twang due to all the American TV they watch over here!)  Driving out of Cairo was pretty depressing – miles of recent development – high rise flats, half built of brick in concrete frames, all occupied, but not finished, apparently due to not having to pay tax on unfinished new builds!  Consequently it appears everyone lives in slums, but we know that is not the case.  Despite the fact it never rains in Egypt, and consequently the dirt and dust are indestructible, it is quite a green country, due to irrigation from the Nile, and their fresh fruit and vegetable and undeniably delicious.


We then headed back up north to Giza and the great Pyramids.  Taken out of context, these are truly remarkable, and amazing structures to witness, and even more exciting, to go inside!!  However, their surroundings leave a huge amount to be desired, almost surrounded by the city of Giza, which in turn is almost indecipherable from Cairo itself. Not to mention the skanky looking tourist camels and horses (and their droppings) everywhere you walk.  The trip inside the Great Pyramid (yet another E£100 = £11.75) was the highlight of the trip, but too scary and lengthy to describe here – suffice to say, we felt very Indiana Jones like!!!  They limit numbers to 150 per morning or afternoon, and no guides or "parties" allowed, so we were lucky to get in.


We were then taken for a bit of a ride (literally and figuratively speaking) to see how Papyrus is made, which was fascinating, but we were incredibly lucky to escape from the "shop" without spending upwards of £25 on something we really didn't want.


We were starving by now (about 4pm), so Sheema took us to what we think is the equivalent of Café Uno – but happily the food we ordered turned out to be just the ticket, and a common drink to order (remember no alcohol) is Mango juice, which is often quite thick, but totally delicious and thirst quenching.


We had pre-booked our "Son et Lumiere" tickets back at the pyramids, for an early showing at 6.30pm so we could get back to Cairo for a decent dinner, so Sheema left us there (with the driver!) and we settled down in the amphitheatre of approx 500, with about 20 others!!  There were two slight disadvantages to this early time slot, a) it was not quite dark enough to enjoy the full effect of the lighting up of the pyramids and b) although we had earphones with the English commentary, the loudspeakers were blaring it out in Japanese – imagine the dramatic intonations of Lawrence Olivier telling the stories of the Pharoahs to a background of lit up pyramids, and dramatic music, only with Atsuko Katsouru's version filtering through as well!!  Apart from almost freezing to death (although it was a beautiful cool 30 degrees during the day, it got very cold at night as soon as the sun went down), it was an extremely entertaining hour and we are all glad we saw it.


We asked the driver to take us to the Mena House Oberoi, just down the road, for a drink, but ended up staying for a truly scrummy non-Egyptian meal – (beef burgers + frits and prawns & avocados, but followed by the ubiquitous Omm Ali!).  A bit pricey, but what the hell, it was our last night together, and we celebrated the end of a lovely holiday, (for me at any rate!)  On returning to the hotel, we had to pack ready for an early start on Friday.


Friday 9th April:  We arranged to leave our bags at the hotel, and Sheema arrived at 8.30am with a busy schedule, starting at the Imhotep Museum and pyramids at Saqqara.  This is where the pyramids started, on a much smaller scale to Giza, but nonetheless impressive.  They are doing a lot of restoration work, and the pyramid was half covered in scaffolding, which in Egypt is totally made out of wood – looks lethal or what!  We don't think Egypt has a ministry of Health & Safety! Very pretty azure bowls caught mine and Sally's eyes and we haggled for our best bargains of the holiday!!  We didn't have time to do the museum as we were off to Coptic Cairo to see lots of churches (of various religions).  Jews, Christians and Muslims all seem to rub along together in Egypt, but apparently the Greek Orthodox got the bum's rush the odd century ago, and are persona non grata now, although we walked around their cemetery containing tombs, vaults and mausoleums of every size and description.    Other churches had been built on top of the ruins of the Roman towers and one could look down 20'-30' to where ground level was at the time of the Romans!!  These areas and many crypts of churches had been flooded annually until the Aswan dam was opened by Nasser in 1970, which revolutionised the provision of water and irrigation all along the Nile.  One Christian church we visited proclaimed that the Holy Family had hidden in the crypt on their flight through Egypt escaping Herod's wrath.


By now we were gasping for a coffee and/or something to eat, so back to the mini-bus and off to the mosque at the Citadel of Salah Al-Din, which was enormous if nothing else. We had a light lunch snack at the only place available, but it was almost empty, as the mosque only really had school parties attending that day.  Again, simple humus and mango juice cannot be beat.  We duly took off our shoes and entered this one huge area – like a totally empty St Paul's cathedral, except for a vast array of rather tatty carpets covering the floor.  There is no separate room for the women here, but they are always put at the back, so that the sight of a woman in front of a man, does not distract him from his prayers!!


We now headed for our last stop, the markets at Khan el-Khalili, once known as the Turkish bazaar during the Ottoman period, but now usually just called the 'Khan'. An absolute warren of little streets with thousands of shops all selling similar tourist tat, leather goods, brass trinkets, carpets, scarves, endless t-shirts, Egyptian cotton sheets, plus the gold & silver district (the Hatton Garden of Khan el-Khalili).  Every tiny shop has 2 or 3 men trying to ply their wares and once they suss you are English, its "Come and have a butchers, come and have a shufty or lubbly jubbly" – do they watch nothing but Eastenders and our Jamie Oliver??  We rested our feet with more coffee and hyacinth tea, fending off street sellers every two minutes!  We could have spent all day there (well Sally and I could have), but without Sheema would certainly have got lost!


After another exhausting but interesting day, we got back to the hotel at about 5pm, to settle our bills and sort out our next move.  We took advantage of their hospitality and sat in the lounge drinking the last of our Rosé and eating crisps (wisely, Sally had brought provisions from the boat).  Hamdi arrived and after a chat about how successful our two days had been, thanks to Sheema and the excellent drivers, he put his car and driver at our disposal – for free!!  We dropped Sally & Jeremy at the main bus depot, armed with the correct information to get the right bus, and I prayed their journey back to Ismailia was more comfortable this time, and then the driver took me off to the Novotel at Cairo Airport.  Not much to report about this, as Novotels are Novotels the world over, but the Egyptians are on the whole very friendly and helpful people, which makes a stay all the more pleasant and easy. 


Saturday 10th April:  The hotel transfer bus arrived absolutely as promised, and apart from battling through the endless security (before even getting to baggage drop off) and form filling at Cairo Airport, I had time to spend virtually my last E£ on gin and brandy – leaving £E8 (£1) for a bottle of water, but typical airports, the price was 10 times the normal E£2, which was just as well, because going through the final security x-ray checks at the Gate, ALL bottles of drink (regardless of whether bought airside or not) were removed from people – unbelievable!!! 


Thanks Sally and Jeremy for a brilliant trip………………… I hope their Mediterranean guests feel the urge to join the blog, and fill us in, but perhaps not at the same length as this, for which I apologise, to those who have read thus far!!! Penny x