Toledo, a “bucket list” city

Today was my last full day in Spain, and I decided to use it to visit Toledo, a small town about 80km south of Madrid with a very long history. Just as Cuenca gets very few visitors, Toledo gets a lot, and my train there was packed. Toledo was a small settlement back in Roman times, but achieved prominence when it became the capital of the kingdom of the Visigoths, one of the barbarian tribes occupying Spain during and after the fall of the Roman Empire. Later Toledo was briefly the capital of Imperial Spain under the Emperor Charles V, before his successor moved it to Madrid. The city was famous for its tolerance, as a place where Christians, Muslims and Jews lived together in relative peace.

On arrival at the station, I took a bus to one of the gates marking the entry to the old town.

One of the gates leading into the old city

The street then led steeply uphill – it is said that Toledo is built on three hills. The lanes were narrow and windy, but also shady, since long rolls of cloth were suspended above to protect from the sun. I enjoyed wandering around, before deciding to take a trip on the tourist train. This is not something I would normally consider, but it was the only way to get to a famous viewpoint of Toledo, which had been painted by countless artists.

THE view of Toledo, painted by El Greco and many others

The train dropped me back in the centre, and I continued my exploration, first visiting the castle, where interestingly a new building had been constructed entirely around the ruins of the old fort (sorry, forgot to take a photo!). Then I check out one of the very many museums in Toledo, housed in the Hospital de Santa Cruz, a place founded in the 15th to provide help to poor and orphaned children.

The peaceful cloister of the Museum de Santa Cruz

It had an interesting collection of art, some by the local painter El Greco, and displays covering the history of Toledo and renaissance Spain. Next I headed all the way across the town to visit the beautiful Monasterio de San Juan de los Reyes, which dates from the 15th Century. It had a peaceful cloister and much beautiful, intricate stone carving.

The outside of the Monasterio de San Juan de los Reyes (the building on the right)
Intricate carving inside the monastery

Nearby was the Puente de san Martin, which offers another of the definitive views over Toledo.

Another of the definitive views of Toledo

Next I hauled myself back up the steep hill, on the way to the cathedral, popping in to a museum dedicated to Visigoth culture on the way. There, the explanation was all in Spanish, and the items on display were the usual pots and pans from less advanced ancient civilisations – maybe exciting to an archaeologist, but not to me. But at least the museum was housed in an interesting former church and was cool after the long climb up the hill in the sun.

A museum of Visigoth culture

I then had the luxury of walking downhill to the cathedral, one of Toledo’s “must see” attractions. It was built in the 13th Century in the High Gothic style on the site of an older church used by the Visigoths – possibly since the 7th century. Although it is one of the most famous cathedrals in Spain, I found it rather dark. Being closely surrounded by other buildings, it was also hard to appreciate its size and architecture fully from the outside.

Inside Toledo Cathedral

I returned to the train station in the late afternoon, tired after continuously climbing up and down Toledo’s three hills. I had visited almost all of the main sights – expect the El Greco museum (renaissance painting is not my thing). This is no small achievement for someone with little legs, so I rewarded myself with a beer and snoozed on the way back to Madrid.

For my last night in Spain, I treated myself to dinner on the rooftop of one of the grand buildings on the Gran Via. I had to enjoy the warmth of the sun whilst I still could!

Street top view of the Gran Via, Madrid
Fish! (Turbot?)

Well, that’s it for the moment. Back to cold and rainy London. My next trip will be to Eastern Europe in September, stay tuned!

On to Madrid (and another lost Swiss Army knife)

The next day, I got up early to have one last look at the spectacular view from Cuenca’s bridge, in the morning light this time.

Cuenca’s famous view – in morning light this time

Then I set off to the station to continue my route to Madrid. My second Spanish train trip was not as smooth as the first. The modern-looking but empty station of Cuenca had a security check for baggage and the bored and zealous staff there detected my Swiss army knife in my bag. I had no idea this was not allowed on the train. They got very excited (this must have been the highlight of their day) and told me I had to leave it somewhere inside the station. I took this as a hint that if I concealed it discretely somewhere (just not in the bag which went through the scanner) they would turn a blind eye, so I ducked out of sight, hid the knife in my pocket and returned to the platform….to see one of the guards waiting for me, armed with a hand-held metal detector. I didn’t want the indignity of having my fur checked so took out my knife and left it on a table where he could see it, but the guard still checked me anyway, even making me take my hat off. He then recorded my ticket number – maybe as proof that they had been working, maybe to report me. It was the third Swiss army knife I had lost on my travels. At the ticket check, I had another surprise. The man there said that the free baggage allowance was only for a small bag (the size of carry-on luggage in a plane), and I would have to pay 30 euros to the staff on the train to transport my suitcase. My favourable impression of Spanish trains was beginning to wane, but once onboard, I stowed my case quickly in the luggage wrack and nobody asked me to pay extra for it. The train sped through the flat Spanish countryside, reaching Madrid in an hour.

I already knew the city from previous visits, so decided to spend a relaxed afternoon visiting some familiar places, and a few new ones. My flat was right in the centre, and I walked down the wide avenues to the Royal Palace….

The Royal Palace, Madrid

….and then back across town to the Parque del Retiro, where Madrilenos go to cool off in hot weather (although it was only May, it was already quite hot). I spent a happy couple of hours there, enjoying a drink in the shade, visiting the crystal palace and the rose garden.

Parque del Retiro – the Boating Lake
The Crystal Palace
The Rose Garden

From the park I headed to the Reina Sofia Art Institute, which houses work by famous 20th century Spanish artists like Picasso, Miro and Dali. It was a very large building and I found the layout confusing – the works by the best-known artists were spread out amongst dozens of different rooms, forcing you to visit the whole museum if you wanted to sure not to miss the more famous paintings. Maybe this was intentional, but I had already spent the whole afternoon walking and soon my little legs were tired. Still, it is hard to not like a museum that is the home for Picasso’s magnificent Guernica painting, which I saved to last to enjoy (smaller crowds near the museum’s closing time!). Sadly, no pictures allowed so here is a link to the famous picture…..

After the museum I just about had the energy to walk home, popping in to the Casino de Madrid for a well-earned aperitif. The casino is now a private members’ club, and my membership of my London club gave me access. It was a beautiful building, with many impressive rooms and a stunning staircase.

Inside the Casino de Madrid
The Magnificent Staircase
A well-earned aperitif!

After my aperitif, I had dinner back in my flat, accompanied by a bottle of red wine given to me by the exceptionally friendly owner. It came from his own vineyard near Cuenca, and I had great pleasure in telling him how much I had liked the place.

Cuenca, an unexpected highlight

The next stop of my short Spanish trip was Cuenca, a small town located halfway between Valencia and Madrid.  I went by train, which covered the 200km distance in an hour, reaching speeds of nearly 300km/h in places.

Why fly when a train can go this fast?

I arrived at a very smart, new train station which bore a strong resemblance to an airline terminal – except that there were almost no people. Cuenca did not seem to be a very popular destination.

My space-age train arrives in Cuenca

The station was a long way out of town, so I took a taxi which first went through an unremarkable modern part of the city, before climbing a steep hill to the old town, where my flat was. I settled in and then set off to explore. At first site, the old town was small, with the typical winding streets and old buildings you can find in many places in Spain.

Cuenca’s old city

I soon found the main square, where the cathedral was located. This huge building was originally constructed in the 12th century but underwent many modifications and additions since that time. It was a big surprise, rivalling many of the more famous churches I have seen around Europe. The interior was pleasant and light, with many small chapels leading away from the central aisle.

Inside the cathedral
The ceiling of one of the many chapels
A view from the triforium

After the cathedral I headed down a steep slope for a view of Cuenca’s best-known attraction – its “hanging houses”, perched precariously on the edge of a sheer cliff.  One of these houses is home to a museum of abstract art.

Cuenca’s hanging houses
The Museum of Abstract Art lives up to its name

Further down the slope, a long wooden bridge ran across the deep ravine at the city’s edge, connecting it to another hill and the city’s “parador” hotel. The bridge and the hotel offered spectacular views back to Cuenca.

The amazing view from the bridge over the ravine

I returned to the old town, and this time headed up a steep hill, past a convent to the ruins of a castle. This was first built by the moors, who recognised Cuenca’s strategic location and founded the city in the 8th century. The town changed hands regularly between moors and Christians in the centuries that followed. The area gave yet more amazing views back to the city.

Another great view…
….and yet another

I walked back down the hill, intending to go sit at a café for the rest of the afternoon, but instead I met a group of Spanish walkers who recommended a walking route that led away from the city through some interesting rock formations. I took their advice and was rewarded with more beautiful views. The path ran below a mountain ridge for a few kilometres, before descending to a river, which I followed to get back to Cuenca.

Starting off on the walking trail
Looking back towards Cuenca
An unusual place for a small cemetery
The way back – Cuenca comes into view

On arriving, I made the steep climb back to the main square and finally sat down for a well-earned and much needed drink, enjoying the views of the main square and cathedral – this time, empty of people. Cuenca seems to be visited mostly by day-trippers from Madrid (and not many of them), and is very quiet at night when they have gone.

The cathedral in the evening sun, and an empty Plaza Mayor

I enjoyed a dinner of yet more ham and cheese in my flat, sitting on a sofa with a great view of Cuenca’s steep valley.  The little-known city had greatly exceeded my expectations – with its beautiful views, magnificent cathedral and many walking routes.

Valencia, a city of many parts

The next morning, I set off to visit the ceramics museum. Mostly, I was interested in exploring the interior of the wonderful old palace it was housed in, but the museum itself was also interesting, with a sprawling collection ranging from Roman pottery to works by Picasso.

The ornate exterior of the ceramics museum
Inside the museum

I then made my way southeast, towards the port and the sea. The city changed character as old winding lanes gave way to wide avenues with tall, elegant buildings.

Wide streets and elegant buildings

A highlight was the Mercado de Colon – a former market, which is now home to many small restaurants and cafes. Its art nouveau style reminded me of Gaudi in Barcelona, although it was the work of a different, local, architect.

The Mercado de Colon

Next, I found Valencia’s Turia Park, an 8km-long stretch of gardens and sports grounds, laid out along now dry bed of the Turia river and winding around the city’s north and east sections. The park led to Valencia’s final set of attractions – a series of spectacular modern buildings, housing the city’s concert hall, a science museum, and a cinema.

Valencia’s ultra-modern venue for concerts
The Science Museum and pool for kayaking or paddleboarding

It was some of the most successful modern architecture I had ever seen. The walk ended in a garden, which offered some shade against the hot afternoon sun.

A beautiful garden in another ultra-modern setting

A short distance away, I could see the huge cranes of Valencia’s harbour, a reminder that the city remains an active container and ferry port.

My final day in Valencia was devoted to my first Spanish wedding. It started early, at 1pm, with the marriage service in a pretty church in the old city. Emerging outside, the newly-weds were greeted by the traditional showers of confetti, plus (a Spanish custom) a salvo of military-grade firecrackers – which were so powerful that the road had to be cordoned off to protect passers-by. From the church we took a bus to an estate (“hacienda”) outside the city for a drinks reception and a large, late lunch. This was followed by sketches presented by the newly-weds’ friends and animated dancing. At 11pm, huge plates of paella were prepared and served, whislt the dancing continued. The buses finally returned to the city at 1am. It was one big, 12-hour celebration of life – the Spanish certainly now how to party!

Valencia, Spain – Here comes the Sun!

Brrrrrr. It has been a long, cold, wet………spring in London. I was beginning to wonder why I bothered to emerge from hibernation to endure such miserable weather. It was definitely time to feel the warmth of the sun again, so I seized on the chance to attend a marriage in Valencia, Spain. This is Spain’s third largest city, but is much less visited than more popular Spanish destinations. It is located on the country’s Mediterranean coast, about 350km southeast of Madrid. I arrived and found my flat – right in the centre, opposite the huge central market building.

View of the market at night from my flat

The next morning I visited the market to get some ham and cheese for later….

Inside the market on the next morning

…… and then set off to discover the city. Today, I explored the “old city” with its winding lanes and shady squares. Valencia’s golden age was in the 14th and 15th centuries, when it was a centre for trade with other Mediterranean cities. One of my first stops was a building dating from this period – the UNESCO-listed Lonja. It has two wings – a trading hall, where contracts were settled, and a maritime tribunal, for settling disputes.

The Lonja from the outside
The ornate ceiling inside the hall of the maritime tribunal…
….and the ceiling of the trading hall

I spent a pleasant morning wandering around, occasionally popping into some of the many ancient churches or stopping for a drink in one of the countless cafes. Sitting outside in the sun was a blissfully experience after the past few months in London’s rain. It was a pleasantly warm 25C; May is a good time to visit, before the summer heat becomes oppressive.

The old town hall
Typical street scene in Valencia
One the many squares in the old city, viewed from my café

The old city used to be surrounded by a wall, but all that remains of it now are two gates, of which the 14th century Torres de Serranos is the more impressive.  There, I thought I had met a fellow bear, only to discover that in reality it was a human dressed in a costume. For a reason I cannot understand, some other humans would occasionally give him money. I felt sorry for him; it must have been very hot inside his outfit and not worth the small change he was collecting from passers-by.

The Torres de Serranos
Not the fellow bear I had thought he was….

Next, I found the city’s cathedral, which has a famous relic – supposedly the cup Christ drank from at the last supper.

The chapel housing Christ’s cup from the Last Supper (in the middle)

On my way back to my flat, I bumped into what was possibility the prettiest building I had seen so far – the Palace of the Marqués de Dos Aguas. It was originally a gothic building but was converted to its current Baroque appearance in the 18th century. It now houses a ceramics museum, which I decided to visit first thing next day.

One of the most elegant palaces of the old city

Back in my flat, I enjoyed bread, cheese, ham and some good Spanish red wine………with my window wide open to enjoy the evening air. Not something I could do back home in London in May!

Farewell to Egypt and The World’s Oldest Monument

For my last day in Egypt I had arranged to visit the “other” pyramids at Dashur and Saqqara, close to, but further away than, the better-known Giza pyramids. I didn’t want to book a guided tour and instead went with an Uber taxi driver I had met two days earlier. He was almost unique in that his car had rear seat belts, he spoke some English and (especially rare) he drove carefully.

I had a clever plan for the day – I needed to check out of my houseboat, so planned to take my luggage with me in the taxi and then go straight from the pyramids to the airport. This would save time and solve the problem of where to keep my bags. My clever plan began to seem a bit shaky when my taxi driver texted me that he could not find the houseboat. It took several explanatory messages, and finally sending him my location on Whatsapp, to bring him to the right place.

After this hiccup, we made it to Dashur without incident. The whole plain south of Cairo, from Giza to Dashur, is dotted with ancient pyramids in various degrees of preservation – this area was close to the capital of ancient Old Kingdom of Egypt, Memphis. First I visited the Red Pyramid, Egypt’s first successful attempt to build a large smooth-sided pyramid. It was built from 2575 to 2551 BC and is the third largest pyramid in Egypt (after Khufu and Khafre in Giza). 

The Red Pyramid with the Bent Pyramid in the background

A long and steep passage led down into the heart of the structure and the pharaohs burial chamber – not a place for the claustrophobic!

The steep descent into the Red Pyramid

It was an elegant structure, but I think I preferred the nearby “Bent Pyramid”. This was constructed slightly earlier. Initially, it was constructed with a steep angled slope, but when it was half finished, it became clear that it was not stable. The builders changed plans and began to build with a more stable, shallower slope – giving the pyramid its unusual shape.

The quirky Bent Pyramid

From  Dashur we headed back towards Cairo to visit Saqqara, the place where pyramid building started. It is home to the step pyramid of Zoser, whose building was started in 2650 BCE. The construction was a radical step-up in complexity from the simple graves of earlier pharaohs – tombs dug into the ground, topped by a small mud-bricked structure. It was reputedly designed by the brilliant architect Imhoptep and is the world’s oldest ever large stone monument. Imhoptep is a shadowy figure. He was little mentioned in texts around the time of his life, but his popularity grew in the 3000 years following his death, until he became one of very few non-pharaohs to be deified. In contemporary culture, he survives as the main antagonist in the “Mummy” films. If indeed he did design this pyramid, he succeeded brilliantly, and his work survives today, over 4,500 years later.

The Step Pyramid of Zoser
Inside the Step Pyramid

Although smaller than the pyramids at Giza, I found Saqqara more impressive, since it marked such a dramatic change from anything humanity had attempted before. The site was also much more pleasant to visit – only a handful of people hassled me for a camel ride. Climbing the embankment that surrounded the pyramid I was treated to a magical moment. In the distance I could see the pyramids of Abu Sir, and beyond them the great pyramids of Giza. Other than them, the land was a totally empty expanse of sand, which the wind blew up into small clouds. Suddenly the call for prayers started and wind carried the sound from the hundreds of distant mosques in Giza and Cairo to me, as I stood beside one of humanity’s greatest achievements.

The view from Saqqara to the pyramids of Abu Sir, with the giant pyramids of Giza in the distance.

From the main attraction of Zoser’s pyramid, I explored further  and found the Serapeum, a temple dedicated to the god Serapis, who was associated with the sacred bull Apis. The main site visible today is an underground complex, built by Ramses II, containing dozens of huge black granite sarcophagi – the tombs of sacred “Apis” bulls.

Finally I sought out the tomb of Ti, the overseer of the Abu Sir pyramids and sun temples under several kings in the 5th dynasty. His tomb probably dates from around 2450BC, and had astonishingly fine artwork, chronicling daily life in this period.

The tomb of Ti was the very last thing I visited on my tour around Egypt. From there, my driver took me straight to the airport in time for the long flight home (my clever plan had worked!). It was a fitting end to a trip that saw me visit some of ancient civilisation’s greatest achievements – as well as enjoy the river Nile, the Red Sea, and the frenetic metropolis of Cairo.

Farwell, Egypt. Detail from the Tomb of Seti I, my personal highlight of the trip

I will leave the very last word to Ti. The heart of his tomb contains a “serdab”, or small room containing his statue, with two small holes for him to look out at the world. Ti has been staring out from his resting place for nearly 4,500 years – who knows how much longer he will keep his vigil?

Ti stares out for eternity

The overpowering maze of Islamic Cairo

The next day I set off to explore “Islamic Cairo”, and area of maze-like twisting streets and dozens of ancient monuments – mostly mosques and madrassas (Islamic schools).

Entering “Islamic” Cairo

I started my walk on the main street, Al Muizz Li Din Allah, which is lined with pretty minarets. Occasionally I ducked into side streets to find them teaming with local life – tiny cafes and restaurants, bakeries, grocers.

A typical scene in one of the side streets

There are hundreds of historic buildings in the area, so I had to be selective as to which ones to visit. First I chose the Madrassa and Mausoleum of Qalaun, dating from 1279.

Inside the Madrassa of Qalaun

I continued south, through the gold and silver market. I had chosen a Friday to visit (the first day of the Arab weekend), so this shopping area was slightly less busy than usual- which was just as well, since I still found the area very busy.

Gold- and Silver-smiths Market

To recharge my batteries, I found a rooftop café with a great view of the minarets of the area.

Space to breathe!

Partially refreshed, I continued further south to Bab Zuweila, one of the ancient gates of the city and dating from the 11th century.

Bab Zuweila from the bottom…

I climbed all the up to the top of one of the minarets, for a spectacular view of the chaotic sprawl below. It was prayer time in the mosques and the different imams’ sermons were relayed to worshipers in the street by deafening loud speakers. The jumble of sound added to the visual sense of disorder and chaos.

…and from the top

I continued south, next through another market.

More markets….

The streets became increasingly narrow and anarchic. I was continually dodging other pedestrians, cyclists and small vans. As before, there were many interesting historic buildings to admire, but the effort of moving forward, combined with the continual noise and the strange smells made my progress increasingly stressful. I was relieved when my narrow road arrived at a big open area, where I got a view of the Citadel, a walled city within Cairo. In front of the citadel was the huge Mosque of Sultan Hassan, built from 1356 to 1563. After my claustrophobic and slow passage through the old town, it was a relief to sit in the huge, quiet courtyard located in the centre of the mosque.

Cairo’s citadel
A moment of peace inside the Sultan Hassan mosque

I could have continued my walk on into the Citadel, and have visited yet more mosques, but I was tired. I headed back to my houseboat to recharge my batteries after an exhausting day. My guidebook advised to visit Islamic Cairo in several small chunks – they were right, but I did not have enough time to allow this.

In the evening, I had a pleasant problem. I was due to leave the next day, but had changed too much money into Egyptian pounds. It was hard to change money back into dollars, so I needed to spend what I left. For my last night I found the most expensive restaurant serving Egyptian food – and booked a table. The food was very good, but the live entertainment – which I had not been expecting – was even better.  First there were two very good Egyptian singers, a man followed by a woman. Then there was a traditional Egyptian band with dancers.

Traditional Egyptian music and dancing

Finally there was a belly dancer. This form of dance was invented in Cairo, and is still popular here. The performer didn’t seem to dance much with her belly, instead she shook various other parts of her body vigorously. It was a complete contrast to the heavily covered women I had seen in Islamic Cairo.

The performance attracted a crowd of mostly local people, who seemed to be enjoying themselves enormously. It was interesting to see how much fun people could have without needing to drink alcohol. I stayed until nearly midnight (the manager proudly told me that they were open until 1.30am) and slept soundly back in my houseboat.

Cairo – the city that never sleeps

From El Gouna I started the long way home by taking the 7-hr bus ride back to Cairo. When I arrived, I lost the data connection on my mobile and had a frustrating time trying and failing to order an Uber whilst surrounded by persistent taxi drivers. I didn’t want to take a taxi off the street since my accommodation was located in a very unusual, hard to explain, place – but one that was listed on Uber.  After restarting my phone a few times, I finally managed to get a connection and soon arrived at……..a houseboat on the River Nile, which was to be my base for the next few days.

My home in Cairo

Equipped with a new sim card that I had bought the previous evening, the next day I set off to explore Cairo. Mostly I used Uber to get around, which removed all the hassle of negotiating a price and explaining where I wanted to go – most taxi drivers didn’t speak English. Uber’s “Comfort” category even offered the possibility (but not guarantee) of a seat belt in the rear seats. My first destination was Cairo Tower, an attraction popular with locals which offered views over the city – including, once the morning haze had cleared, the pyramids at Giza.

The view from Cairo Tower
Another view, with the Giza pyramids in the distance

From there I visited the Manial Palace, built between 1899 and 1929 by Prince Mohammed Ali Tewfik, a member of the Egyptian royal family in the period when Egypt was an monarchy under British “protectorate”.  His palace comprised several different buildings in large, pretty gardens – the prince was a keen collector of rare plants.

The Gardens of the Manial Palace

Most interested was the Residential Palace in which the prince lived, which was richly decorated in a variety of styles – Ottaman, Moorish, Persian and even European.   

The entrance to the Residential Palace at Manial
A reception room

Also interesting was the Throne Palace, which was built to impress.

The Throne Palace at Manial

Manial Palace was spectacular but for some strange reason, the gardens and many of the most interesting rooms were roped off, meaning you could only look at them from a distance.

It was approaching noon, and one of the guardians insisted I share his lunch with him – falafel and eggplant in a piece of bread. Such small acts of kindness are common in Egypt; the previous night someone had spent twenty minutes helping me buy a new sim card. Unfortunately, many offers of help later turn into a request for baksheesh or pressure to buy something, but I was getting better at guessing which proposals were genuine and could be accepted without later being hassled.

Next, I headed off to visit the nearby Monastirli Palace to find that it had been long since closed. However, there was a curious attraction nearby – a nilometer for measuring the depth of the Nile. There were many such instruments along the Nile in Egypt (see my Aswan post); this was built in 861 AD.

The Nilometer

From there I headed back to my houseboat to enjoy some of the afternoon sun. Having such a relaxing place to retire to for a break was a real pleasure. Cairo is a bit like an Arab New York – sprawling, full of interesting places to visit, but also busy, dirty and crowded. Visiting takes a lot out of you.

Recharging my batteries on my houseboat in the early afternoon

Having recharged my batteries, I made a second visit to the chaotic collections of the Egyptian museum, one of the highlights of my first two days in Egypt.

More treasures of the Egyptian Museum
Yet more priceless relics….but no explanation or labelling anywhere

It was late afternoon, and my guidebook recommended a walk around the Garden City, an area of pretty but crumbling mansions from Egypt’s colonial period.  Sure enough, it was a very pleasant part of the city, and I took lots of photos.

A mansion in the Garden City
Old wooden building in the Garden City

I discovered that walking in Cairo requires bravery. There are few pedestrian crossings or underpasses, and to cross the street you need to stride forward confidently into the dense traffic, holding out your arm to the oncoming traffic (pleading? praying?). Since I am small and easily overlooked, I didn’t dare try this on my own, but waited until someone local ventured forth. I would then cross with them, making sure that they were between me and the onrushing cars.

I survived my walk, and after another couple of hours chilling in my houseboat, headed out for dinner in the upmarket area of Zamalek. Cairo was an exciting city, but the continual bustle and noise makes it a tiring place. Back in my comfortable houseboat, I settled down to sleep, using a pair of earplugs to keep out the sounds of traffic (all night), partygoers in passing cruise boats (until 2am) the mosque’s call to prayers (5am), and the shouting of rowing coaches to early morning rowers on the Nile (from 7am). Cairo is a 24-hour city.

Time Out – Chilling on the Red Sea

Today I left Luxor to head to the Red Sea. On the way, I made a brief stop to see the Temple of Hathor (goddess of love) at Dendara. It is relatively recent by Egyptian standards, with its main structures being built under the Ptolemeic pharaohs just before Roman rule. The art work on the columns and ceiling was amongst the most beautiful I had seen in Egypt.

Richly decorated columns and ceiling
A dark, atmospheric main hall

It is one of the best preserved ancient temples, and still has its roof – which you can walk up on to.

Amazing detail on the ceiling
Me on the roof

An hour after Dendara, the road reached the coast and then headed north. To my left, was desolate, empty desert. To my right, all along the sea, there was mile after mile of ugly concrete sprawl around the main city called Hurghada. Many buildings had been abandoned unfinished – perhaps the Egyptians like ruins so much that they skip the “completed” stage of a building project and go straight to “ruined”. But when I reached my destination of El Gouna, things completely changed – the town was surrounded by lush green vegetation, which contrasted with the barren sand all around. There was a security check to enter town, and the buildings suddenly became modern and well-maintained.

After ten days of intensive visiting of ancient ruins, I had booked a couple of days here to unwind by the sea. On my first day, I wandered around the town. It was built around a lagoon, with many gated communities and some impressive private houses – again, with their own security. It felt more like the US than Egypt.

An impressive private house on its own island
The sea behind me, mountains in the far distance

When I reached the beach, I found that El Gouna was popular with kite-surfers. The wind was strong, and good kite-surfers had fun making extravagant jumps, whilst beginners struggled to stay upright. The location was beautiful, with the mountains of the Sinai peninsula in the background across the sea. I have always wanted to try kite-surfing, but with a wind like this a little fluffy bear like me would have been blown all the way to Sinai.

My own sport is diving, and I did a couple of dives the next day, the highlight of which was seeing a worryingly large (remember I am small!) camouflaged octopus. After diving there was not a lot to do except laze by the pool – the weather was just warm enough for this, with the late February sun.

My hotel
Chilling by the pool

It was nice to recharge for a couple of days after seeing so many ruins. My next stop was Cairo, which would require all of my energy…

Luxor’s West Bank Day 2 and the Valley of the Kings

I started today with a visit to the Temple of Hatshepsut, the impressive building I had seen from a distance the day before. Viewed from afar, it is indeed an amazing sight, sitting at the base of sheer cliff in its own valley.

Temple of Hatshepsut – best enjoyed at a distance

Closer up though, the temple was less interesting than many others I had visited before. To make things worse, it was hugely popular with tour groups. Hatshepsut was a rare female pharaoh, whose reign was marked by prosperity and many building projects. She was initially supposed to be only a temporary regent for the infant Thutmose III, but refused to hand over power to him and reigned until her death. As an act of revenge Thutmose III had her name removed from every Egyptian monument when he finally became pharaoh.

Close up view of the temple and surrounding cliffs

After a quick exploration of the temple itself I set off on a detour to see some nearby tombs. They were only moderately interesting, but the walk provided a spectacular view of the site.

Next I visited the house of  Howard Carter, the British archaeologist famous for his discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922.

Howard Carter’s modest house

Back then, searching for ancient artifacts was done by various foreign teams, of which Carter’s was one. The many other expeditions have been long forgotten, but Carter was lucky, being the discoverer of a very rare tomb not be completely emptied by grave robbers. The simple house – with its archaeological instruments, letters from Carter’s sponsor the Earl of Carnarvon and some paintings by Carter – was an interesting change to visiting ancient monuments.

Inside Carter’s house

In the garden was a recreation of Tutenkhamun’s tomb with some interesting information. Tutenkhamun died young, and probably unexpectedly, so his burial was rushed and his tomb was small. His famous death mask may even have been modified from an already available mask intended for someone else – a woman, since it has holes for earrings which only women wore. His cause of death is not known, but DNA analysis suggests it might have been malaria. Thieves attempted to rob the tomb at least twice, after which the main passage leading into it was deliberately blocked off with dirt to discourage further attempts. This made the tomb hard to find and its location was forgotten until Carter stumbled on it, thousands of years later.

A replica of Tutenkhamun’s tomb

Having seen a replica, I set off to see one of the highlights of any visit to Egypt – the tombs of the Valley of the Kings. My driver told me that the day before it has been packed with visitors, so I crossed my fingers. I had aimed to start my visit at 1pm – the usual lunch hour for tour groups. As we rounded the final bend into the valley, the visitors’ car park was only partly full – I was lucky. At the Valley of the Kings, you buy a ticket to enter the site, and this gives the right to visit any three tombs – excluding the tombs of Ramses VI/VII, Seti I and Tutenkhamun which require special additional tickets.

The Valley of the Kings

As you visit each tomb, the guardian punches a hole in your ticket, and after three holes, your ticket is no longer valid. I had some more luck, since at the first two tombs I mistakenly gave the guardian my ticket for Carter’s house, which looks identical. The first two guardians didn’t notice the mistake, so I got two extra visits. The kings’ tombs were much bigger and more richly decorated than the tombs of the nobles or the queens. Most had a very long shaft leading deep into the ground, ending with a series of rooms where once would have been the pharaoh’s sarcophagus.

The walls were decorated with scenes from sacred texts, like the Book of the Dead, pictures of the pharaoh’s soul reaching the afterlife and of the gods welcoming the pharaoh. Work started on a tomb during the intended occupant’s lifetime, but stopped as soon as he died. This had two curious results. Firstly, many tombs had unfinished portions, cut out from the rock but not yet decorated, and secondly the pharaohs that reigned the longest had the biggest tombs. For this reason Tutenkhamun had one of the smallest and most unremarkable tombs of all.

Siptah’s unfinished tomb

First, I visited various tombs included with the general entry ticket. I chose at random; some were almost empty of tourists, whilst others were very busy.

I had the Tomb of Ramses VII to myself
The (too) popular tomb of Merenptah

As I headed further into the valley, the number of visitors to each tomb dropped, as people used up their free visits.

I wanted to save the best to last, so after using my “free” visits, I went back to visit the special tombs for which I had bought additional tickets. First was the dual tomb of Ramses V and VI, which had a spectacular painted ceiling.

The spectacular ceiling of the tomb of Ramses V/VI
The reconstructed sarcophagus of Ramses VI

Finally came the highlight of all of Luxor – the tomb of Seti I, whose special ticket is very expensive. Seti I was one of Egypt’s greatest and longest rulers, so his tomb was huge and richly decorated. After a long walk down, several remarkably decorated rooms opened up, their walls painted with scenes of Seti’s journey to the afterlife and of him being greeted by different gods.

The long way down to Seti I’s tomb
Beautifully painted columns
More remarkable painting – 3,400 years old
Inside Seti I’s tomb

The place where Seti’s sarcophagus would have been was empty – it was taken off to the British Museum long ago.

Where Seti I’s sarcophagus would have been

I stayed nearly half an hour in Seti’s tomb, soaking in the atmosphere. Apart from the tomb’s guardian, I had the place to myself – other visitors being put off by the high price of entry. It was a fitting end to one of the greatest tourist destinations of the world, the Valley of the Kings.

The god Amun-Ra greets Seti I in the afterlife

Back at the hotel, I suddenly wondered where the tomb of Ramses II was. He was the longest reigning pharaoh, and also an egomaniac who liked building huge monuments to himself. I did some research and found out that his tomb was indeed the biggest of all. However, he chose a poor site for it, and it was frequently flooded. Its decorations have long since been destroyed by the water and its contents plundered by thieves. As I enjoyed another fish tagine with beer and a view of the Nile, I reflected on the impermanence of the existence of even the greatest humans (or bears).

Blog at

Up ↑