Tombs, pyramids and treasures. Stalwart ‘Bucket List’ favourites. Recent troubles aside, Egypt’s allure still holds strong. To avoid the worst of the crowds, queues and heat, now is an excellent time to go – and go in style A four and a half hour flight from LHR , if you’ve not been before, Cairo’s all you’ve probably heard of and more – enormous, sprawling, hot, noisy 24-7, dusty, chaotic, car choked – and I’d like to say charming, but…
It is however vibrant, colourful, and the people incredibly hospitable. They’re rightly concerned how the riots have proved a huge deterrent to visitors. The country relies on tourism as its top foreign currency earner, and provider of employment for many.
With numbers still yet to significantly rise following the uprising, they’re keen to reassure the world it’s now safe to come and witness the incredible pharaonic antiquities, year-round sunshine, coral-fringed beaches and top-notch hotels.
Driving past Tahir Square, protesters have been replaced by children playing and the odd souvenir stall, yet just a couple of days after our return, the notorious square became a riotous hotbed once more, and a quick check on visitor warnings at the time of going to print reveals some are in place still – although not for Cairo itself or the key tourist areas.
On the upside, now is your chance to not have to queue to get close to the Sphinx, pyramids and most popular tombs and sites. If this doesn’t seem much of an incentive – bear in mind, in summer, the temperatures are well over 100, and even now, 90 plus, the corridors in the ancient buildings and tombs little wider than your shoulders and the hallowed Cairo Museum of Egyptian Antiquities are typically a positively balmy 80 plus degrees.
King Tut and his Treasures
The museum is a must. Built in 1902, it’s the richest store of ancient Egyptian art and treasures from the pharonic to the Graeco-Roman period with over 100,000 exhibits. It’s best to either arrive early or later in the day – and with an expert guide of your own, which, along with all your flight, accommodation and itinerary wishes, luxury travel specialist Abercrombie & Kent can easily arrange.
Our excellent Egyptologist guide, Akram Allam, “Aki”, who’s shown the likes of Mick Jagger, Roger Moore, John Travolta and Richard Gere around, deftly directed us to the most famous and intriguing exhibits, still quaintly housed in simple wood and glass cases built over 60 years ago. King Tutankhamen’s funery items, including the gold bejeweled mask and sarcophagus are simply awe-inspiring, the craftsmanship exquisite. Seeing some of the greatest pharoes slumber in the Royal Mummy Room is truly incredible.
After a museum visit, it’s worth heading to the Abu El Said restaurant, THE place in the city to dine, frequented by Cairo’s elite, who enjoy its opulent splendour and traditional, hearty cuisine.
The restaurant is not far from the Khan El Khalili bazaar, one of the most magnificent oriental markets to be found anywhere, with shops dating back to the 14th Century. If it’s handmade rugs and carpets you’re after though, head on to Harrania Bazaar, and fine cotton Kerdasah.
To do the museum even partial justice, you could easily spend two whole days there, (some enthusiasts a week) hence it is worth booking two or three nights in Cairo – giving you time to also enjoy fully catered moonlit felucca trips along the Nile, dine in some of the excellent authentic restaurants, buy spices, fabrics, fragrant oils and ‘hubbly bubbly’ accoutrements from the bazaars, and enjoy the excellent facilities in hotels such as our favourite, the Four Season’s Cairo at Nile Plaza .
Both of Cairo’s Four Season hotels are located right on the banks of the Nile, with wonderful views across the sprawling metropolis, lush green oasis of the Cairo Zoo, and on, haze permitting, to the Pyramids beyond. These Four Season properties are five star luxe, superbly appointed, operated by staff to whom nothing is too much trouble.
If staying in central Cairo doesn’t appeal however, the famous luxurious Oberoi Hotel, located just minutes from the pyramids is well worth considering. It has probably hosted more A-List guests over the years than the Oscars – from movie stars and royalty, to Indiana Jones sorts and famous writers, including Agatha Christie. Eclectically oriental in design, with one of Egypt’s finest restaurants, you can gaze out across the gardens to the pyramids, sip a cold beer or the traditional tipple of Karuda – a refreshing hibiscus tea and dine on platters of Moorish flat breads, local savouries and dips, before moving on to a delectable tagine. The Oberoi is a firm favourite of well-heeled American guests – hopefully that won’t deter.
Leaving early in the morning to beat the heat, crowds and most persistent of the hawkers, the pyramids are about a 40 minute drive from the centre, and much closer than you might think from downtown Cairo.
It’s only when you take the road that travels behind these most famous of all ancient manmade wonders that you appreciate their sheer scale, and are able to see them sitting within the expected desert setting backdrop. They’re worth visiting at night too, as several evening showings of ‘Music & Light’ run in the evenings, where through projection, lights, lasers and a positively 1940’s Olivier- esq voice-over, you’re told the story of their creation. It’s rather Disneyfied, but worth it just to see the majesty of the pyramids and enigmatic Sphinx, lit up against a black night sky.
Following Cairo, some jet down to Luxor to join one of the luxury Nile cruises that stops off at all the key sites of splendor.
Alternatively, others leave this for another trip entirely, flying straight from LHR to Luxor, and head for 5-star plus Red Sea resorts for some sun, snorkelling and scuba.