Egypt Essentials Part One: Cairo

This time last week was our last day in Egypt, can’t believe it, already feels like months ago. We went on the 9 day Essential Egypt tour with Travel Talk  starting in Cairo, then travelling down to Luxor and Aswan. There is a lot to fit into 9 days and everything is quite far apart, so there is a lot of driving involved. Would really recommend going with a tour, one, because logistically it’s so much easier to go on one bus and know you’re going to see everything and, two, because there is so little information at each site, you really need a tour guide to tell you what’s what so you can get the most out of each visit.

We did a huge amount in only a few days, so i’ve split into three blogs, one on each city – Cairo, Luxor and Aswan – talking about the sights and experiences in each one. Starting with Cairo.

step pyramid sakkara
Step Pyramid

Our first day in Egypt was the big one, the Pyramids. We started with Sakkara which was the necropolis for the ancient capital Memphis, featuring the famous step pyramid, which is the oldest complete stone building complex or something, which ironically is directly opposite a collapsed pyramid. I never thought about before, but of course there were trial runs before they perfected the technique. We were also able to get inside one of the tombs where the walls are covered in hieroglyphics and you can still see some of the paint remnants. (This actually features a lot in the monuments in Egypt but it was the first time i’d seen them so was very exciting.)

A strong start to our trip, to be honest if i’d just seen this I would have been pretty impressed. You must carry lots of water round with you. It was October and early in the morning but the sun is still beating down on you. (Just to note this was the only place we visited that didn’t have any facilities.)

Pyramid of Khafre
Pyramid of Khafre

After this to the main event, the Giza Plateau, featuring the Pyramid of Cheops, the Pyramid of Khafre, the Pyramid of Menkaure and the Sphinx. It’s believed that the Great Pyramid was the resting place for the Pharaoh Khufu and was completed by 2560 BC. I wrongly thought they were in the middle of the desert but they are actually on the edge of Cairo basically in the city. Quite amazing to see something from ancient Egypt you studied in school up close in real life. I also thought they were smooth but only the top of the second one is – it’s like i know nothing about them!

Unfortunately it doesn’t seem like much has been invested in the area around the pyramids and your visit is going to be dominated by aggressive salesman trying to haggle with you. You have to just ignore them as they are relentless – will tie scarfs round your head, try and give you things and demand money.etc. It really spoils the experience as they just will not take no for an answer.

great pyramid
The Great Pyramid

You can pay extra to go inside the great pyramid and at £5 GBP we thought it was definitely worth it, even to just say you’e been inside. You go through a short tunnel, then straight up a steep plank two roughly two flights of stairs. This leads to a small room with a sarcophagus at the end. The air is very close and its extremely hot in there, so if you don’t like small places or have breathing difficulties, this is definitely not for you. The guide them took us up to the a viewing area where you can see all three pyramids together and get some great photos (see top of page) there are also optional camel rides.

Sphinx
The Sphinx

Finally as we were leaving we swung past the Sphinx. There’s a viewing platform where you can get the full impression of the mythical creature representing Pharaoh Khafre and for the instagrammers amongst us, take your photos. I must have seen really old photos of it before as I thought a lot of it was still covered in sand, but apparently it was completely excavated in the 1920s!

This was also our first experience of having to pay for the toilets, please note the attendants expect payment even if they’ve run out of loo roll or if you’ve brought your own. But you don’t need to give them as much as 10 Egyptian pounds but unfortunately thats the smallest note everyone has at the beginning of the trip – try and get same change to keep you going through the week.

In the afternoon we drove down to Luxor, took about 9 and a half hours. We were given a packed lunch of falafel and chip pittas. How is this not a thing in the UK?! It’s amazing. Then basically slept the whole way. We did stop half way at a garage and it could have been a pub in the UK with all the blokes sat around watching the football (world cup qualifiers for Egypt) and people popping in to check the score. Everyone ended up getting caught up in it before we were back on the road, picking up a police escort to take us through the desert and into the city of Luxor. Following Luxor we headed down to Aswan which you can read about in parts two and three of this blog.

View from the bus

We spent our last day back in Cairo and there was a lot to squeeze in. We kicked off by going to the Egyptian Museum. It was very interesting to see the items that had been taken from the temples and tombs we had visited through out the week.  We thought we’d want to spend hours there, but it’s actually so badly organised it’s pretty hard to make head of tail or most of what’s even there! You definitely need a tour guide to take you round and show you what’s what. It just seems to be similar objects grouped together with no labels or descriptions! Which is such a shame as the artefacts are hugely impressive and clearly have a significant history behind them. The mummy rooms are an additional £5 ticket, There are two of them! But there aren’t any sign posts so i think most of our group missed the second one. Just to note if you want to take your camera inside or take photos you need a camera ticket, otherwise they make you check it into a locker.

For lunch we went to a local restaurant serving a buffet style dinner. These are the staple of the tour groups. Its basically somewhere they know that has a decent quality of food, and the whole meal cost the same for everyone (10 Egyptian pounds) making it much easier to get people in and out on a schedule. They usually feature grilled chicken or some sort of BBQ, koftas (which I love), potatoes in tomato sauce, rice and boiled veg. There will also be lots of hummus and flat bread which is delicious. Bits to avoid are the salad, fruit and jellies as you just don’t know what water has been used. A couple of these places also served sweet pastries for pudding. Note that drinks cost extra.

Hanging church Cairo
The Hanging Church

In the afternoon we went up to the Hanging Church, so called because it’s partially built on roman fortress ruins, leaving a gap underneath which you can see in the floor of the church. It’s one of the oldest churches in Egypt having been built in the 3rd century, and it’s still used as a church so bear in mind people will be worshipping in there.

mosque of mohamm

Following this we headed to the Saladin Citadel, a medieval Islamic Citadel where the Mosque of Muhammad Ali is. We didn’t have much time to look round the Citadel and just went straight to the Mosque. The tour guide had advised us there was a dress code today so covered shoulders and legs as well as a headscarf. I’ve never been into a Mosque before and the site was very impressive, huge domed ceiling and a circle of lights in the middle. This one was built in the style of the Blue Mosque in Turkey.

Kahn El Khalili bazaar.
Kahn El Khalili bazaar.

Finally, to the Kahn El Khalili bazaar. It was quite disappointing to be honest. It was good to go there and see what it was like, but all the stalls were the same selling the same tourist tat. Which was all much cheaper with the individual sellers in the other sights. There’s obviously the haggle if you want to buy anything but it get so tiring, we just gave up and went to sit in the coffee shop. Please note they will sweep the menu away from you so you forget how much your drink was and they can massively overcharge you! But it’s all relative and very low amounts compared to the UK, so not worth arguing over.

Afterwards we were taken to a perfumery, to learn about how the oil based perfumes were traditionally made in Egypt and how they’re the best in the world – of course. Interestingly the guy that founded this business used to carry tourists up the pyramids when he was young in the 60s! The little glass perfume bottles are great souvenir gifts, very pretty and only cost a couple of pounds.

Next day was a 3am wake up to get to the airport! Apparently even at that time in the morning the traffic in Cairo can be bad and sometimes to get back to London security can be quite rigorous. We get through pretty quickly but better to be safe than sorry, so leave plenty of time!

Has anyone else been to Egypt, what did you think? Where else do you recommend?

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