The following day we ventured out once more for the last time, this time we headed back along the coastal road, and past the new “Library of Alexandria” and stopped off at the Roman Amphitheatre. Some of it was roped off unfortunately as they’re doing a lot of restoration work to it. Still, we managed to get several photographs that give a rough impression of what the amphitheatre was like. One thing to note there though is that they do not allow video cameras and will check if you have one on you. I had mine on me and had to agree to not use it. They keep an eye on you to, though as we were about the only tourists there it wasn’t difficult.
Afterwards we decided instead of taking a Taxi we would walk to our next destination – Pompey’s Pillar. It turned out the place wasn’t that easy to find and we ended up taking a rickshaw there. The place is still very much an archaeological site and there were people digging there when we turned up. The pillar itself is simply huge, it really is amazing how tall it actually is when you’re standing in front of it.
Although it was originally attributed to Pompey as people believe it once had a statue of him on top of it, it is actually erected in 293AD for Diocletian. Some people believe it is in honour of Domitius Domitianus. Standing in front of the pillar are two sphinx’s made of different materials, one of which has lost it’s head.
Underneath the pillar is the Serapeum which is where rituals to the Egyptian god Serapis were carried out. Usually tourists don’t get to go down there as it too is being excavated and has only has temporary lighting whilst they are working there. We were fortunate enough for the tourism policeman guarding it to let us in and show us around. It wasn’t really anything special, but the power went out whilst we were down there and we had to feel our way back out to the surface; still we decided to tip the guard a few Egyptian pounds for having let us go down.
The next stop was a fair old walk across town to a place where no one is allowed to take cameras so we had to take it in turns to enter the premises. The place I am talking about are the catacombs of Kom el Shoqafa. The place is entered via a long winding staircase which leads down to multiple levels. Some of the rooms have the feeling of being grand and “Norse”-like even though the place is Roman-Egyptian. There are a large number of sculpted walls, pillars and sarcophagi but not all of it can be seen as the lower levels are flooded. It was quite a cool place, it’s only a shame this family tomb could not have pictures taken inside.
Once we had both looked round the catacombs it was a long walk back to the hotel, made longer by the fact we were trying to find our way to where the old lighthouse was as well – but never found it. Eventually we gave up trying to find out how to get it and took a taxi back to the hotel. The remaining days passed quite quickly and before we knew, it was time to go home to England.
Just over the road from the Montezah Sheraton were the Montezah Gardens. So on the first full day in Alexandria we left the hotel behind and headed out into the gardens to explore. It was just after breakfast when we headed out as the sun in Egypt gets very warm, very fast so we wanted to see as much of them as we could before the heat got too bad. One thing that had been commented to us when we were in Cairo was that it was unusual to see tourists at this time of the year – the weather is too warm for most. Great, so we hadn’t made the best of choices of what time of the year to go, but we knew a few days before there had been a bad sandstorm.
The gardens are absolutely massive – you wouldn’t get the impression of just how big they are from a casual walk in as it took us a few hours to understand just how big they were. If it helps to get an idea there are two hotels and the Montezah Palace inside the grounds and from the majority of the gardens you cannot see any of these buildings. The Montazah palace is an amazing building which is made up contrasting red and white stone – it really stands out against the sky. The building is also used by the Egyptian Prime Minister when he is staying in Alexandria; we think he may actually have been using it at the time we were there as it was being well guarded.
By the time we’d seen the President’s “holiday home” it was about midday and the sun was starting to get really warm, and could start to feel the sun burning us. We carried on looking around the place anyway and came across another part that again meets the coast. This part though had what looked like a Greco-Roman building,and a small lighthouse. There were also some signs that watersports were possible around this area. We had wanted to try some scuba diving to see the sunken lighthouse and this may have been a good place to inquire. The problem though was that I was still not feeling well.
Eventually we headed back to the hotel to stay out of the afternoon sun.
Once the tour of the pyramids was over the next few days were quite quiet and were spent pretty much entirely in the hotel until it was time to travel to Alexandria. It wasn’t ideal to spend so much time in the hotel complex, but I hadn’t been feeling well for a few days, and the friend I’d gone with wanted to spend some time relaxing anyway.
In front of the Oasis hotel is the “desert road” that leads to Alexandria; it’s not a route we could take though as it’s pretty impractical to travel there by road. It’s quite a long journey in very dry heat by road, so instead we headed in the opposite direction back to the airport. Internal flights from Cairo International aren’t that bad, though it was a little confusing as there were so few people on our flight and we weren’t too sure where we were going in the airport to get to the gate. Eventually we made it to the plane and after a short journey we landed at an airport in Alexandria which at that time was the smallest I’d ever seen – it wasn’t very different in size to a small bungalow.
The trip from the airport to the second hotel of the trip wasn’t as easy as it was from Cairo to the Oasis hotel – we had to find a taxi to take us. Eventually we found a building around the airport that actually had people in it and with some effort of communicating what it was we were after managed to get a taxi booked. After a good half an hour we made it to the Montezah Sheraton – the hotel we’d call home for the rest of the holiday. It was very different to the Oasis hotel. I wouldn’t say it was bad as it was still quite a nice hotel by any standard, but it wasn’t as nice. It was probably due to it being a tall building close to the road (and the sea) that made it seem so different.
From the balcony of our room we could not only see the Mediterranean Sea, but also a lot of the nearby buildings. As with Cairo there were the good parts of the city and the bad. Walking down the street to the nearby Internet cafe gave a good impression of how poor the people there are – and their ‘net access is amazingly cheap at what worked out to be about 10 pence an hour. Considering it cost 100 times that for half an hour at the airport in London that is quite some difference.
The next day it was time to see what most people go to Egypt to see, the pyramids of Giza. We had decided that we wanted to go on camels around the pyramids so our driver took us to a place in Giza not far from the entrance to the Giza plateau.
Riding a camel is quite different to riding a horse – as it gets up it rises onto it’s knees which makes you slope forwards a long way. This is why it’s a good idea to lean backwards as the camel gets up so you don’t fall off head first. I’m sure anyone who forgets to lean back will soon regret it from the damage to their head and the embarrassment of falling off. Fortunately neither of us did.
The ride from the camel place to the pyramids is a slow one, but it gives time to take in the surroundings. The roads and buildings that lead to the pyramids are in pretty bad condition, another indication of how much of Egypt is poor.
It took about 10 to 20 minutes to reach the entrance to the Giza plateau, and once there our guide led us to the best places to photograph them from. Before getting close to the pyramids we went out wide where we could see all three side by side, a totally amazing sight – just as amazing as seeing them for the first time a couple of days previous.
Once we had done taking photographs were taken down the side of Khafre, the second largest pyramid, which is where we left the guide for a brief time whilst we went off to get tickets to go inside. Once again we had to leave bags and cameras outside, though this time it was understandable. Whilst the rock isn’t going to be damaged by taking pictures of it there is the issue that it would hold up the flow of “traffic” heading in and out of the pyramid, and there wouldn’t be the space to carry it down the passageways either.
The passage into the pyramid is very cramped and almost impossible for people to pass each other – which you have to anyway as there is a steady stream of people going in as others are going out. Eventually you get to a burial chamber which is quite a large room and is poorly lit. It wasn’t somewhere you’d want to stay too long though as the air is quite warm and stale from the number of people in there without any real flow of air.
Back outside the pyramid we stood around and took our time taking photographs. Once done we went back to the guide – who then took us to where the worker’s tombs are located; an area totally fenced off with barbed wire. Despite this he moved the fence down out the way and led us in where we were able to look around an area that was totally unsafe as it wasn’t somewhere tourists usually get to see.
This should have rung a few warning bells in our heads as making us traipse over barbed wire isn’t something you usually do on a tourist-type holiday, but there we were doing it. As dangerous as it may have been I do think we were pretty lucky to have had the chance to see inside the worker’s tombs. Though once on the other side of the barbed wire they wanted us to pay them again before they’d lead us back out of the tombs. It cost us around 100 LE extra for the guide to show use round the worker’s tombs – but since that works out as about £10 it wasn’t too bad for the two of us. It did make up for not being able to photograph inside the pyramids as well.
To finish off the tour of the pyramids we then went on to see the Sphinx – the largest of it’s kind (there are smaller ones, such as those on display in the Egyptian Museum of Antiquities). Since the Sphinx is suffering from weather damage and was at the time being worked on to try and repair some of the damage it was impossible to get that close to it, but there was a small stone building that led up to a suitable “viewing platform”. The whole area kept making me think of the movie, Star Gate because of the film’s ties to Egypt and the pyramids and the way the building looked.
Once we’d done there we then rode the camels back to where we’d hired them from, though they tried to charge us again despite having paid beforehand. This shows how important it is to ask for a receipt or to find a more reputable company for travelling with. Once this had been settled the limo then took us back to the hotel.
The following morning the breakfast was the same with no option to have a variety of different foods. Later in the day we again headed into the centre of Cairo, this time with specific purpose – to see the Egyptian Antiquities Museum. The hotel’s bus again took us past the pyramids along the long road to get into the city. We found our way to the museum relatively quickly as it turned out it was not far from the Hilton we’d eaten at the day before.
The road leading to the museum is barricaded on either side with armed tourism police patrolling the perimeter. It seemed odd to see a tourist attraction guarded in such a way, but what followed seemed even stranger. Anyone who was white was allowed to pass straight through and carry on to the entrance to the museum, whereas anyone who looked like they might be Arabic were stopped and questioned before being allowed down that road. After this you can pay at the entrance to the grounds, but you have to leave any bags you have there.
As they let you take photographs on the grounds but not inside the museum I took a few pictures around outside first and eventually once we’d seen everything there was outside we dropped our bags off and headed into the museum. Even outside there had been a fair bit to see though it was also a shame as some of the reliefs and statues were open to the elements and to people touching them which meant they were a little worse for ware. To enter the museum there was yet another layer of security – metal detectors to ensure you weren’t going to be carrying anything questionable into the museum in your pockets.
Inside the museum you could tell that it had not been well looked after, but the exhibits were amazing. Pieces were on display from many different dynasties that demonstrated aspects of the culture such as their religion and their way of life. You could gaze up at massive pillars of stone carved with Egyptian hieroglyphs.
There were also some signs that the museum was undergoing some refurbishment as a new section had been freshly painted but was currently empty. The best piece in the museum though was the airtight room dedicated to the boy Pharaoh, Tutankhamen – one of the most famous rulers of Ancient Egypt. The burial mask was unlike anything I’d seen previously, and for that alone the museum was worth visiting but there was o many other artefacts that made the whole visit enjoyable and worthwhile.
On the way out we stopped by what passed for the giftshop and bought an ice cream. It wasn’t the best of ice creams as even though it was a Walls one it was a bit crushed. Whilst we sat down outside in ever present heat we watched as one Egyptian took empty water bottles and filled them from a tap before taking them back to a stall outside.
Wandering about Cairo once more we were on an island in the middle of the Nile called Zamalik, a name that reminded me of the marketplace in Babylon 5; a place in Cairo where some of the more up-market areas are. Whilst wandering around this area, gradually being roasted alive, we came across the Cairo Opera House, and eventually a hotel where we were to meet up with a friend’s cousin who just happened to be in the country at the time on business. After a couple of drinks in the hotel the three of us headed across the road and onto a boat for a dinner cruise down the nile.
Throughout the meal there was entertainment in the form of belly dancing, a man spinning around on the spot, and Egyptian singing. By the time the entertainment was done and we’d returned to the jetty we’d left from it was pitch black. We weren’t sure how safe it would be hanging around for the hotel’s bus so instead we headed into the nearest hotel and booked a limo to take us back to The Oasis.
The following morning we went to get breakfast – not exactly the best meal of the day considering the only food that looked particularly nice was the cooked food such as sausages; not that they tasted like normal sausages. As it was our first morning in Egypt we decided it would be an idea to try out the swimming pool we’d noticed the night before and get a bit of swimming and sun bathing in – this easily took up most the morning and by 12 noon we’d decided to try something else. Personally I found that a welcoming idea as I’m not one who likes to sit around doing nothing – I like to be out seeing the sights and experiencing the culture of the place. The entire point of Egypt is to see the sights, and as it happened the Oasis hotel ran a free shuttle bus to the centre of Cairo at certain points during the day so we decided it was a good idea to take it to do a little exploring.
The bus generally takes around 30 minutes to an hour to get into the city, and the route is filled with many different sights as it passes mosques, slums, and of course the pyramids. It was that morning we saw the pyramids in passing for the first time – totally amazing to see how close to them we were actually staying and how close to the city they actually are. An absolutely breath taking sight seeing them for the first time.
I’ve been interested in Egypt for a long time, and seeing pyramids in films such as Stargate made me all the more eager to see them. But going inside the pyramids wouldn’t be a task for this day.
Looking around Cairo on the first day we didn’t really visit any of the sights, but from the moment we got off the bus we were being shown to shops in Cairo – specifically a shop selling papyrus. We were shown how papyrus was made and then asked if we’d like to buy any. Since it was a good place to get souvenirs we didn’t really mind, and probably spent a little more than we should have there.
Once we were done, what we thought was a guide took us to a shop that sold essence and left us there. This is when we figured out that the guy greeting us off the bus was not actually with the hotel, but was from the papyrus shop, or at least was friends with the owner there and at the essence shop.
We were sat down in the shop with the shop owner telling us about the products, products we were not interested in – we kindly refused and left. For the next hour or two we continuously led by people who wanted to show us their business, but each time we kindly said no and tried to make our way to find somewhere that sold water as the weather in Cairo is a little dry to say the least.
Not really knowing the language or where we were we didn’t really want to offend anyone, but eventually we got the hang of saying “La shukran” (which means “no thank you”) and to continue walking without acknowledging them.
The pavements are actually quite high, and it it’s quite understandable, as I said earlier – the driving and traffic in Egypt is a little different from home. When you want to cross the road – even if it’s a four lane road (that might have five or more cars side by side) you have to take your chances and walk out into the road and hope for the best as you weave in and out of cars. In our search for a place that sold water we noticed that there was the Cairo Hilton not far from where we were. Attached to this was a small “shopping mall” (used in the loosest sense of the word) which had a souvenir shop and a few food places – most of which were closed.
There didn’t seem to be much activity in the cafe there so we went inside the souvenir shop to ask for directions to a place where we’d be able to buy some water. The guy who ran the souvenir shop was your typical Egyptian – kind, polite, and eager to sell. He sent his assistant out to find us some water and in the meantime gave us some red coloured herbal drink to try. It tasted foul, but we didn’t want to seem impolite and we were thirsty, so drunk it anyway. Whilst sipping on the drink we took a look around and bought several more souvenirs. After about an hour there was no sign of the water so we thanked the shop owner and headed back out into Cairo.
We went into the Hilton to try their restaurant – it was actually quite nice food and was priced around the same as what you’d expect in the UK. For example, a meal consisting of chicken and chips cost us around 75.50 LE, which is around £7.60 in British money. We later learnt that this was a pretty good way of judging how good the food was – the closer to what you’d expect to pay in England the better the quality of food.
Once we’d finished our food we headed back to the hotel using the Oasis’s bus. Along the way we hadn’t seen any signs of where the sights in Cairo were located so knew that we’d have to figure it out from the map where we’d been.
It was night when we landed in Egypt, and it was hard to judge what the place was like just from the airport at night, but it didn’t take long to find the guy from Expedia waiting for us, and to his credit he did get us through customs quite quickly. On the way to the car it was obvious what Cairo might be like from the number of people begging at the airport. Once out of the airport and onto the roads it really was something totally different; the traffic laws don’t seem to be the same as here in England – on just that night alone we saw taxi cabs blowing their horns at police vehicles, you wouldn’t see that here! Though as we’d find out the following morning, that was the least of what their roads were like.
After about half an hour we’d finally made it to the Oasis hotel, in the middle of nowhere on the “desert road”. It was a nice looking place, complete with armed tourism police – definately something to either make you feel safe, or wonder why they’re needed. Anyway, one of the hotels bell hop’s led us to our “room” which was welcome – it’d been a tiring journey and was in dire need of some rest. The room was amazingly hot, but fortunately the air conditioning did a good job of cooling the room off, though it was very noisy making it hard to sleep well.