A cruise on the Nile – Luxor to Aswan

Aswan – Felucca sail on the Nile

After reading many blogs and itineraries for Egypt it was clear that our trip would not be complete without a cruise on the Nile.  The most recommended re-seller of these types of cruises is viator.com  – the 5 day/4 night one from Luxor to Aswan.  In reality it is 4 days/4 nights.  Naively I thought of a small felluca boat taking us from Luxor to Aswan – was I ever wrong!  

Cairo Train Station

To get to Luxor we took the overnight sleeper train 86 (as technically non Egyptians are not allowed on the cheaper daily trains).  Again we were grateful for the information on www.seat61.com

Overnight  sleeper train

The train arrived on time and the lovely steward for our train car greeted us and escorted us to our tiny but efficient cabin.  The cabin had 2 births for sleeping – the top one was lowered and affixed with some tools after dinner was served.  As a vegan, I was seriously surprised by my dinner – I had envisioned inedible food, yet it was quite tasty.  (The only option was vegetarian and thankfully the steamed vegetables and rice did not contain any butter).  Rob had chicken which he quite enjoyed as well.  We slept on and off until the steward woke us up around 5:30 am as we were nearing Luxor.  

Top Deck of Mirage I

After some confusion finding the Viator pick up person, we were on our way to our boat (2 minute drive from the train station).  Our ship – the Mirage I (which was much larger than I had envisioned) was lined up along the Nile with many other boats – we had to walk through another ship to get to ours.  

The boat was quite dated, but it was clean.  The staff were very welcoming and the food, which was served for an hour at very strange hours 3 times a day, was fresh and truly fantastic.  Our cabin was a nice size and  had a huge window (which at times was blocked by other boats).  We didn’t fuss about any of the inadequacies of the ship as we were on it for the efficient transport to sights on the Nile – the itinerary was packed every day including the first one.

Karnak Temple

At lunch we met our guide Sam and discovered that we would be eating and touring with 3 other people from the ship.  At first we were quite disheartened as group travel with strangers is not something that we ever choose.  Boy were we wrong – Marcello, Jessi and Joy were the reason that this part of the trip was such a success – we immediately became friends and looked forward to the outings together.

Karnak Temple Hieroglyphics

Our first stop was Karnak Temple which dates back to 2055 BC and is one of the most impressive temples we had visited in Egypt.  It is the largest religious building ever made, covering about 200 acres, and was a place of pilgrimage for nearly 2,000 years.  The sheer size of the columns, the magnificence of the giant hieroglyphic writing – some still with color and the Sphinx’s make this place awe inspiring.   

Luxor Temple

As the sun was starting to set we were driven to the Luxor Temple situated just east of the Nile river and our ship.  The temple has been used as a place of worship since 1392 BC right up to the present day.  During the Christian era, the temple’s hypostyle hall was converted into a Christian church, and the remains of another Coptic church can be seen to the west. Then for thousands of years, the temple was buried beneath the streets and houses of Luxor.  Eventually the mosque of Sufi Shaykh Yusuf Abu al-Hajjaj was built over it. This mosque was carefully preserved when the temple was uncovered and forms an integral part of the site today – there was a wedding there on the day that we visited.  Sunset is a great time to see this temple – the Sound and Light Show is featured here during most evenings.

Valley of the Kings – Entrance

The following day we woke early for breakfast and were driven for an hour and a half to the Valley of the Kings.  When we finally got there and felt the sweltering heat we understood why we had to get up that early!  

During Egypt’s New Kingdom (1539-1075 B.C.), the valley became a royal burial ground for pharaohs such as Tutankhamun, Seti I, and Ramses II, as well as queens, high priests, and other elites of the 18th, 19th, and 20th dynasties.  64 tombs have been found to date and many archaeologists believe that there may be others.  Visitors are only allowed into a few of the tombs with Tutankhamun’s being the only one that contains his mummified remains.  I don’t know if the extra fee to visit it was truly worth it – but I guess we would have felt that we missed something if we had not done it.

Tutankhamun’s Sarcophagus

We took a small boat across the Nile and returned to the ship within a few minutes (glad we didn’t have to make the 1.5 hour trek back by car).  We sailed south up the Nile (the Nile flows south to north).  

In the evening we passed through the Esna Lock

Esna Lock

In the morning we woke up in Edfu to visit it’s temple.  Rob stayed on the boat as the city is filled with horse drawn carriages and he is deathly allergic to hay and therefore most horses.

Edfu Temple – Sanctuary of Horus

Edfu was a settlement and cemetery site from around 3000 BC onward. It was the ‘home’ and cult center of the falcon god Horus of Behdet (the ancient name for Edfu), although the Temple of Horus as it exists today is Ptolemaic.  The Ptolemaic temple, built between 237 and 57 BC, is one of the best-preserved ancient monuments in Egypt. Preserved by desert sand, which filled the place after the pagan cult was banned, the temple is dedicated to Horus, the avenging son of Isis and Osiris. 

Kom Ombo Temple

The Kom Ombo Temple was our next stop.  Set dramatically on the bank of the Nile, the soaring, chunky columns of the Great Temple of Kom Ombo are a magnificent sight as you arrive from the river.  Dedicated to the gods Sobek and Haroeris, the temple’s finely carved reliefs give a sense of this area’s prominence as a capital over the surrounding region during the Ptolemaic era. 

Tombs of Aswan

Our final destination by ship was Aswan.  We arrived as the sun was setting and were rewarded with the beautiful sight of the illuminated Tombs of Aswan.

Philae Temple

Philae is an island located on the reservoir of the Aswan low dam.  We arrived to it by boat and were amazed by it’s beauty – hard to beat a temple on an island!

The Philae Temple was built to honor the goddess Isis and was the last temple built in the classical Egyptian style.  Construction began around 690 BC, and it was one of the last outposts where the goddess was worshiped. The cult of Isis continued here until at least AD 550.  In its prime, it was considered to be one of the most sacred of all temples, by both the Egyptians and the Nubians.  This was essentially because they believed that Osiris (husband of Isis) had in fact been buried on the island where the temple stood. Nobody other than priests were permitted to dwell there, and legend has it that no birds flew overhead, and that even fish and other aquatic animals never approached the shores of the island.

Aswan at night

After a visit to the High Dam of Aswan and a felucca sail down the river our cruise was over. 

In retrospect if it wasn’t for our group of new friends I would not recommend a cruise on the Nile.  All of the sights could have been easily managed from the train with stays in much better and cheaper accommodations.  The environmental impact of these 200 ships travelling up and down the Nile is causing the government to take some positive steps towards better regulations…but still I feel very guilty.  The train would have been a better choice.  

10 days in Cairo and Alexandria

The Great Pyramid of Giza

Flying over Cairo was a vision of sand – mazes of uniform brown buildings creating domino like displays wherever you looked.  Driving into Cairo was an assault on our senses – the smell of diesel and burning plastic, the loud sound of never ending horns, the heat through the haze of pollution…45 minutes later we were in the serenity of our hotel at the Holiday Inn Express Maadi.  The neighborhood of Maadi was and by some accounts is still considered to be a hip neighborhood of Cairo.  Probably due to it’s proximity to the Nile and to some decent restaurants nearby.  Sadly, it mostly looks like a war zone; dilapidated buildings, garbage on the streets, dire poverty and the continuous assault of the senses.  Every outing from the hotel was purpose full and as short as possible.

To be fair we came to Cairo without a fully hatched plan – hence the long stay.  We were here to work and to plan the next couple of months in the Middle East/Northern Africa.  

View of the Nile from the Holiday Inn Express Maadi

Another cosmopolitan neighborhood that was recommended by many websites is the Zamalek neighborhood located on Gezira island just west of downtown.  The Cairo Tower is there and just south is the beautiful Opera House.  The island is home to many embassies,  cafe’s and trendy shops.  However, this area much like the others is run down and dirty.

Street dogs taking refuge on cars in Zamalek

Given that there are almost 10 million people in Cairo traffic can be horrendous.  Thankfully the metro system up and down both sides of the Nile is very civilized, cheap and reliable.  Although Uber is available in Cairo and for a tourist is quite inexpensive,  it is best taken to/from the airport or to destinations that do not have access to the metro (which is so much more efficient due to the traffic).

The pyramids of Giza had been on both of our bucket lists for decades – for Rob since he was a small child.  A quick 45 minute Uber ride and we were in front of these mythical 4,500 year old structures.  They truly are breathtaking to look at up close. 

Thankfully for us, there were few tourists when we arrived and we were able to walk about for a number of hours and enjoy our time in front of the Sphinx and each of the pyramids.  But first we had to avoid the onslaught of attacks from multitudes of camel, donkey and horse vendors who all tried to get us to take a ride.  Due to my love of animals  and Rob’s allergies we tried to stay as far away from these poor creatures as we could.  The level of abuse that we saw was absolutely heartbreaking.  I understand that the Egyptians need to survive – somehow.  I just will never understand the need for cruelty and the abuse.

Hoping to escape the chaos of Cairo for a few days,  we decided to hop a train to Alexandria.  The rail system in Egypt is quite good.  There is a great write up about all Egyptian rail travel on Mark Smith’s website which has saved us a lot of time and agony.

View from our balcony in Radisson Blu in Alexandria West

The scenery up to the Mediterranean city of  Alexander the Great showed the daily struggles of farming communities along the Nile – at times it was quite green and lush and at others displayed the half completed buildings that were nevertheless occupied.  We arrived at the iconic train station 1.5 hours late – which is typical.  Stepping out onto the street the chaos ensued.  We grabbed a cab to the Radisson Blu hotel in Alexandria West.  Our cabbie offered us a cigarette  – when we emphatically said no thank you he lit up and continued smoking for the duration of the ride.  Our cab passed oil field after oil field of destroyed muddy and tarred Mediterranean.  My heart was sinking for this land which must have been stunning at some point in time….We hid in the serenity of the hotel for both days and were just too beat up by the pollution and chaos of the city to venture back.  We grabbed a car back to Cairo without truly seeing any of Alexandria.

Sunset on the Nile

Although my report of our time in northern Egypt has been quite bleak, I must say that on the most part the Egyptian people are some of the most welcoming and resilient that we have every had the pleasure of meeting.  Despite their poverty and daily struggles they are proud of their country and want to see it thrive again… and Southern Egypt gets so much better!

Crete

Our last 10 days in Greece were spent on the northern part of it’s largest island – Crete.  With thousands of years of culture and history, there are many pockets to experience and enjoy.  There is a big contrast between such a large island and the smaller less developed ones that we visited earlier.  My heart is with the less developed and less touristy islands as they are cleaner and much quieter.   Continue reading “Crete”

Paros and Antiparos 2018

Paros quickly become one of my favorite islands of the Cyclades. Located in the heart of the Aegean Sea, Paros has many traditional villages showing off the unique Cycladic architecture with cobblestone streets, whitewashed sugar houses and blue-domed churches. The beaches are famous for their exotic turquoise  crystal clear water and the warm golden sand.  It is very easy to get around the island on an ATV and they are readily available at the port for about $25/day.   Given that we only have a small roller and a backpack to house all of our possessions, it makes traveling on an ATV very easy and allows us to see areas that a regular vehicle would have trouble accessing. Continue reading “Paros and Antiparos 2018”

Milos, Greece

 

As we approached Milos on the fast boat from Athens (about a third of the time of a regular boat) we were immediately transfixed by the turquoise transparent water of it’s large bay surrounded by the crescent shaped land of the island.    The white homes with blue colored windows and doors perched on the beach bathed by the hot sun and breeze off the sea made us immediately fall in love with this beautiful (and often overlooked) island. Continue reading “Milos, Greece”

Matera 2018

We arrived in Matera quite late – due to the robbery in Taranto we were quite exhausted and demoralized.  The robbers even took our toothbrushes, so we scrambled before the stores closed to try to find the basics.  Our amazing host Roberta at our Airbnb in Matera was seriously amazing.  Not only did she wait to greet us at 10 pm at night, but she also made some very sound recommendations for stores that ultimately replaced our computers, bags, telephone plugs, underwear and the like. Continue reading “Matera 2018”

Apulia 2018

 

Leaving the Amalfi Coast was hard enough, but driving through the outskirts of Foggia we felt like we were in a different land.  It is customary to see scantily clad ladies (mostly very good looking young ladies) sitting on a chair underneath a bridge.  Not the welcome mat that we were hoping for as we arrived in Apulia.  We decided to miss Foggia and continue east to the beautiful coast of Apulia. Continue reading “Apulia 2018”