Each year, I return to Egypt for so many reasons – family, kunafa, fresh, chunky mango juice and a hit of history.
This year, I teamed up with Ahmed Aziz, an Egyptologist with tour company Abercrombie & Kent, who I’ve been working with for years in Egypt. Ahmed’s been a guide through Egypt’s sites for 16 years, and together, we delved into the newly opened Bent Pyramid in Dahshour, about an hour from Cairo.
He shared some excellent advice for visitors to the Memphis necropolis, which includes the Pyramids of Giza, Saqqara and the lesser-known, little visited Dahshour, including the best places to stay, when to visit and keeping a stash of small notes to tip the haras (the temple guardians, who are drawn from the neighbouring villages).
Recently, I completed an epic trek from Cusco, near Macchu Pichu in Peru, to Cairo, Egypt.
Let me tell you, it took some serious, late-night internet hunting! I could have travelled via Sao Paulo, (Brazil) then across to Casablanca (Morocco) and on to Egypt, or from Sao Paulo via a 12-hour layover in Addas Ababa (Ethiopia) and on to Cairo. In the end, the best connections were flying from Lima (Peru) up to Madrid (with three hours cooling my heels in a secondary airport in Ecuador) with LATAM and from Madrid on to Cairo with Egyptair.
This is my review of the Egyptair flight – I’ve flown many times domestically and internationally with the national carrier – on the Madrid-Cairo route, a direct flight of 4 hours 40 minutes.
I’m going to paste my favourite para here, about the food on board:
Chicken or the beef? The beef arrives cubed in a sauce with spiral pasta, and is surprisingly comforting. It’s accompanied by a dried, tired salad, crackers, chocolate cake, a wholemeal dinner role, butter and a triangle of La vache qui rit (The Laughing Cow, incidentally, is the nickname of Egypt’s deposed military dictator, Hosny Mubarak). Because you needed to know that last fact : )
Over the past decade, I’ve watched Cairo Airport change and grow – definitely for the better – from the raucous taxi chorus and decaying bathrooms of the old Terminal 1 to the snappy design of its newest expansion, Terminal 3.
If you’re coming through the Egyptian capital any time soon, here’s my take on Terminal 2, which sees the major Middle Eastern carriers, Etihad and Emirates, passing on through.
What to remember: security is paramount, and there are plenty of screening points. What to forget: Facebook, as wifi is but a beautiful dream.
Far better to grab a seat and watch the parade of fashions, from central African men in patterned jellibiyas (traditional robes) and matching kufis (caps) to women from the Gulf states in well-cut abayas and heels. You can identify the rare Antipodean by their khaki zip-off pants. If you want to hang with the locals, they’re in the smoking rooms.
I’ve been poking around the back alleys and the big-ticket drawcards of Cairo for a decade now (How did that happen? One minute I was setting up this blog on a tiny little Juliet balcony in a pensione in downtown Cairo, the next minute, it’s 10 years later!)
In that time, Cairo’s fortunes have flowed, ebbed, and are now flowing again, after revolutions, currency flotations, elections and a whole vortex of world events that have shaped the old traditions and new fashions in this maniacal city of 20 million (give or take a few million).
It still blows me away, every time I visit. There’s the City of the Dead, which may be home to as many as a million undocumented (living) souls, the rock-carved cathedrals of Mokattam, the wild nights of horseriding around the Pyramids beneath a full moon, and the Nile. There’s always the Nile.
It scratches only the surface, but here are 10 of my tips on visiting the City that Sleeps In Shifts, published in this weekend’s Traveller section in the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age newspapers.
Lined with palaces, mosques, merchant’s mansions and markets, Cairo’s Al-Muizz is a contender for the Middle East’s most beautiful street.
It’s the ancient thoroughfare of medieval Cairo, the lifeblood of a dozen centuries: every time I return to Cairo, I find myself walking the length of Al-Muizz li-Din-Allah. Like most before me, I’m lured by the street’s imposing palaces and caravanserais, its dusty mosques and vivid markets.
I’ve walked this street countless times over a decade, and each time, I make a new discovery. A forgotten tomb. A synagogue. Cool, dark water cisterns that plunge deep underground or a merchants’ mansion, instructive in the ways of generations of traders, aristocrats, craftsmen and families who filled the streets of Islamic Cairo when it was established by the Shi’ite Fatamid regime in 969AD.
In case you haven’t twigged, Egypt is back on the tourism trail after seven years languishing in the doldrums after its revolution in 2011, which overthrew dictator Hosni Mubarak, who’d run the country as his personal fiefdom for 30 years. They’ve now got another army brass running the country – plus ça change, plus c’est la même.
|Cairo’s Citadel, which overlooks the city. Photo: Belle Jackson|
But finally, with stability and growth taking place around the country (think, highways remade, new airports open, Nile cruise boats dusted off), it’s fabulous to see the return of one of Egypt’s major industries.
Cairo often gets but a cursory glance while everyone rushes to the Pyramids then down to Luxor, but spend the turn of the day in El Muizz for what I think is one of the world’s most beautiful streets.
Thanks to Vacations & Travel for again going ahead of the trend and publishing my feature on this beloved street.
My first (and last) English Christmas was a shock to many senses: there was snow (albeit very light, very dirty), there were Brussels sprouts (surely only the English consider them a celebratory food) and there was television.
As our Australian marketing machines constantly tell us, our Christmases are all about the beach, cricket and low-level sunburn. So to be huddled in front of the telly watching soap omnibuses seemed a curious way to spend the festive season.
It’s not quite television, and the weather here in Melbourne has been exemplary this year: not too hot, not too cold, but I’ve come over all Northern hemisphere and am catching up on a small mountain of unread fiction, with a travel bent, of course.
Here’s a little list of recent releases from Australian authors that have made a welcome appearance on the bedside table.
The most recent of the list is by prolific South Australian author Fiona McIntosh, who I have long admired for her adult fantasy series (think Lord of the Rings fantasy, not the other type, smutsters). She has turned out a fast-paced romance set in WWI Cairo, Gallipoli and post-war London. Nightingale ticks all the boxes, with handsome men, golden women and love found and lost in traumatic times. Does the girl get her man? It’s over to you… (Penguin Books, $29.99)
Action seekers know Matthew Reilly is the man to turn to when you want to be left breathless from reading (to give you a suggestion of his pace, the Sydney writer drives DeLorean DMC-12 – the car from Back to the Future). His latest book, The Great Zoo of China is, as the title indicates, set in China and has an absolute cracker of a premise, which I just can’t tell you about. His heroine, CJ Cameron, is a tad too tough, tenacious and intelligent for wimpy me to relate to, but I could not put this book down. That was a week of lost sleep (Pan Macmillan, $39.99)
And finally (not in the picture, as it’s already been nabbed by my mum), Stateless is the second in the Heritage trilogy about the evolution of the State of Israel. Written by Alan Gold and Mike Jones, it caused a ruckus in our house with the highly controversial throw-away line that the Egyptian army is known to be cowardly. Eeep! Otherwise, Stateless races along with plenty of secret plots and dastardly tyrants from Roman-occupied Jerusalem to post-WWII Russia. The first in the trilogy is called Bloodline, I’ll be seeking it out. (Simon & Schuster Australia, $29.99)
The next on the list is Tony Park‘s The Hunter (‘A missing woman, a serial killer at large… man is the most dangerous predator of all’). I’m not that into murder as entertainment, but this book moves from South Africa to Zimbabwe and the Masai Mara game reserve in Kenya, which I love. And in the appendices, Park also shares travel tips from his extensive experience of travelling in Africa (Pan Macmillan, $29.99)
I hope you’re all enjoying a great summer read, or if you’re further north and not nose-in-book, the plotlines in the soaps have improved.
See you all in 2015!
|Kakh al-Eid. Photo: Belle Jackson|
Eid Mubarak (Happy Feast), every one.
This may be my first posting during the annual celebration of Eid al-Adha that doesn’t feature a photograph of a bloody carcass. Instead, I offer you a far more genteel photo of Kahk al–Eid, a sweet shortbread that’s traditionally eaten during the Small Feast, Eid al-Fitr, which follows the fasting month of Ramadan.
Eid al-Adha is the Great Feast, which celebrates the occasion when God asked the prophet Abraham to sacrifice his son. Abraham agreed, but at the last minute, God replaced his son with a sacrificial lamb. So today, if you can afford it, you sacrifice a four-legged animal and offer a third of the meat to the poor (of which there are many in the Middle East at the moment, it’s sad to note).
Back home, here in Australia, the Lebanese bakery where I bought these kahk al-Eid told me they call the tasty pastry ma3moul. Either way, its crumbly sweetness is perfect with a glass of dust tea (no sugar). This shortbread pastry is filled with walnuts and scented with orange blossom water and dusted with icing sugar. There’s also a pistachio and rosewater version which sounds great but leaves wanting, and yet a third with dates, which is sprinkled with sesame seeds.
And instead of watching butchers across Egypt sacrifice animals, and seeing the blood-red handprints
that people use as a talisman against the evil eye, we carved an enormous leg of Australian lamb (a really, REALLY big lamb), ate salads scented with cinnamon and cumin, and the homesick amongst the Egyptian diaspora in my house talked of home, and how it has changed couple of years.
The traditional greeting during the feast is ‘Eid Mubarak,’ where ‘mubarak’ means ‘happy’ – not to be confused with the deposed military dictator Hosni Mubarak. Now, as you well know, there’s a new military dictator, Fattah al-Sisi. The question on the streets in Cairo is: should we now be saying Eid Sisi?
(Oh you’re a bloodthirsty lot, aren’t you? Yes, those links will take you to postings from previous years. Please don’t click there if you’re a squeamish type. And if you do click there, and then get upset, don’t go complaining to me. I told you so.)
|Sri Lanka masks|
Happy New Year!
By now, most of you in the northern hemisphere should be scrounging around for the asprin or box sets of Dr Who – or, judging from Facebook, run a marathon or some other such oxygen-sucking activity. Here in the southern hemisphere, there are thoughts of work tomorrow. Ugh. Let’s not go there.
It’s raining here, the Christmas pudding is back on the boil and it’s time for tea and reflection. The tea is Russian Earl Grey, from Harrods, which seems a good way to kick off a year in the world…
…I’m not going to win points for originality, but I fell in love with London again: the cheesy, the touristy, the lot, from Harrods to London Bridge.
The city’s on a high, with energy levels up there with the London Eye. The Tate Britain has
just opened after a £45-million renovation, the Shard glimmers over
Southbank, the grungy quarters have reinvented themselves as edgy design
destinations, cashing in on their bad old days, when the High Street
might be known as the Murder Mile… it was all fabulous (except the serious cold snap, but hey, that’s London in November).
For sheer sell-your-pants-off stories, Sri Lanka left all other destinations in the shade. It didn’t hurt that the Lonely Planet named it one of 2014’s must-visit countries.The food, the fabulously quirky fantastic shopping, the leopard spotting and the warmth and security of the country all stitch together for a great holiday destination, without overwhelming the sub-continental novice.
This was also the year I learned to make gnocchi, rekindling a post-Aitkin love of pasta.
The destination: the King Valley, in northern Victoria, just a shade
under our modest little Alps. The teachers: the Pizzini and the Simone
families. Forget milk and honey, this is the land of pork and prosecco.
The year 2013 also finally brought a return to Egypt, this time
to bring the Small Girl to her other spiritual (and ethnic) home. I saw
how a population can survive when all the news reports we see tell us
they are being gassed in the streets and chased by tanks. They just keep
going on: going to work, to school, to the market. And they just keep
hoping the generals and the politicians – the big men – treat them
better than pawns on a chessboard.
|Fashion parade in Thimphu, Bhutan|
I know Egypt will recover, hopefully
soon after the next presidential elections. But in the meantime, Tahrir
Square, the scene of the revolutions, is lush and green, well maintained
and clean. I have never seen it look better. So there is some good come
out of this whole, messy Arab Spring.
The most unexpected experience was attending Bhutan‘s first indigenous fashion parade, beneath the stars in the mountain kingdom. Visiting two tiny countries at either end of India – Sri Lanka and Bhutan – was an eye-opener as to the powerhouse of the sub-continent, and how these tiny nations fight to maintain their identities in the face of ‘a billion shouting Indians’ (their words, not mine).
This year and next mark a flurry of solar activity, resulting in the best showings of the Northern Lights, the Aurora Borealis.
|Deck 9, Midnatsol,|
About the same time as I was teetering on a rolling deck of the Hurtigruten, somewhere in northern Norway,
trying to take a photo that wasn’t just a series of squiggles, the
Southern Lights, the Aurora Australis, were reportedly putting on a
great show in Tasmania, about an hour’s flight from home. With another winter of high solar activity ahead, maybe that’s next year’s goal?
Here’s wishing you peace and happiness for 2014 (with the Year of the Horse promising prosperity, to complete the trifecta).
|Photo: Belinda Jackson|
a pyramid by the fingertips.
handful of guards nearly fell over to see someone, and the touts couldn’t believe their luck at not one, but two carloads of visitors, even if they were all Egyptian (including one suspiciously blonde one in the middle).
to know not even the locals can resist the Giza Pyramid mafia.
|A camel driver. Photo: Belinda Jackson|
the obligatory Arafat scarf, there was a Euro-couple celebrating the
end of a Cape Town to Cairo adventure, and a small tour group of Russians
snavelling basement-bargain travel. That’s all.
overworked and underfed horses were fleet of foot and ready to run. My little
grey mare, Sousou, is surely the fastest pony in Giza.
ride on a full moon, flat out down the plateau at full gallop, breathing in the
cool desert night air. In broad daylight, it’s a whole different ballgame. You
see the stones the size of basketballs that your horse is dodging. You see the
concrete wall that the horses aim for at full tilt, before swerving left to
pass through the exit gate. You see the snarling curs that lick around the
ponies’ hooves, snapping at ankles as you pass.
wrenches itself into a new form. But the lesson from Afghanistan and China is
that you can never take even heroic art and architecture for granted.
|At the feet of the gods, Abu Simbel, Egypt. Photo: Belinda Jackson.|
Horakhty and Ptah and also to Ramses, who rather fancied himself as a deity.