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

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 – tombs galore

I had decided to spread my visit of Luxor’s west bank – site of countless ancient tombs – over two days. It was a wise decision.  My hotel provided me with a car and driver and I set off.  The entry to the west bank is guarded by two giant statues of Amenhotep III, which were rather worse for wear and now resembled modern art sculptures. 

Ancient art begins to look like modern art…

Behind these statues a large area was being excavated, which my driver said was the site of a huge, now totally ruined, temple – possibly even bigger than Karnak.

We headed first to the ticket office. The west bank can be frustrating to visit – tickets to many sites are only sold at the central office, so you need to plan in advance exactly what you want to visit, if you want to avoid having to come back to buy more.

Tickets in hand, I went first to the temple of Medinat Habu, dedicated to the local god Amun and built by Ramses III around 1150BC. Though it is not one of Luxor’s most famous places, I enjoyed its graceful structure, setting amongst hills, and well-preserved painting and stone relief carvings. A particularly striking set of reliefs showed Ramses III slaughtering Libyan invaders, with many scribes counting the thousands of prisoners. Some of the latter were shown later with their heads cut off – no Geneva convention in those days!

The entrance gate (“pylon”) to Medinat Habu
Ramses III slaughters many Libyans as his scribes count the bodies and prisoners
Inside Medinat Habu

My next stop was Deir al Medina, where many of the painters and sculptors who made the rich peoples’ tombs lived and were buried.  There are hundreds of tombs here, and the hillside sometimes looks like Swiss cheese, but only a few of them were open. The few I managed to visit were all similar – small, with wall paintings of the owner’s body being prepared for the afterlife by mummification. The painting seemed like a recent restoration, rather than the original paint, but there was little explanation available anywhere. The tomb particularly recommended by my guidebook needed an extra ticket….which of course I had forgot to buy at the central ticket office.

A restored tomb of one of the painters who worked on richer people’s tombs

From there I headed on to the Valley of Queens, who were buried in a separate area to the male pharaohs. These tombs were more elaborate than those of the workers but still fairly small and modest compared to what I would later see elsewhere. The most famous tomb is that of Ramses II’s favourite queen Nefertari, which is small but extremely richly decorated. However, to preserve the paintwork, visits of this tomb are limited to a maximum of ten minutes and required a separate and very expensive ticket. I decided to pass, and thought I had made the right decision when I saw a long queue outside. 

The next best tomb to Nefertari’s is that of Amunherkhepshef – actually not a queen, but a prince. I had the place almost to myself.

Tomb of Amunherkhepshef, in the Valley of the Queens

My final stop of the day was to visit the Tombs of the Nobles. These were by far the most impressive tombs of the day. They were built deep in the ground and their walls were covered with scenes of their daily life. My favourite was the tomb of Sennofer, the mayor of Thebes in time of Amenhotep II. Its roof was covered with paintings of vines and grapes – Sennofer was presumably a bon vivant.

Tomb of Sennofer, a man who obviously liked wine – area of the Tombs of the Nobles
Some of the tombs are very deep in the ground, down steep stairs

From Sennofer’s tomb I headed across the dusty site to the more remote tombs of Menna (an estate inspector) and Nahkt (an astronomer). These were locked, and I had to wait for the guardian to come and unlock them for me.

The tomb of Menna

The guardian also showed me the tomb of Amenemore, a high priest in the reigns of Ramses III, IV and V. This was not supposed to be open to tourists. It was not the best-preserved tomb I had seen, but its remoteness and the sense of being invited to see something that is normally off-limits made it one of my favourites.

Tomb of Amenemore

I thanked the guardian with some baksheesh, and he invited me to have some tea with him. His little hut was simple but had a great location on top of a small hill, with a view over to the Nile and Luxor in one direction and to the Temple of Hatshepsut in the other. From a distance, the latter looked like an IT-billionaire’s house in California….

The view back to Luxor
The view inland to the Temple of Hatshepsut

I headed back to the hotel to relax and went out to dinner in local restaurant in the village. After days of eating only fish (freshly caught from the Nile) or vegetables I took the risk of eating meat, and was rewarded with an excellent chicken tagine.


Today I crossed the river again to visit the sites on the Luxor’s east bank.  I reached the centre of Luxor, which was much nicer than the part I had visited the day before, with a pretty waterfront opposite the Temple of Luxor.

The view across the Nile from Luxor’s corniche
Luxor Temple from the outside

My first visit was to the Luxor museum – a small but high quality collection of the items found in the area. I particularly liked this statue of the god Sobak with pharaoh Amenhotep III.  There were also two mummified bodies on display; I wondered if the owners would have appreciated being dug up to be inspected by tourists.

The god Sobak, Pharaoh Amenhotep III and me
Mummy of Pharaoh Ahmose

From the museum I walked up along the Nile to Karnak, a place of superlatives. This complex of temples became Egypt’s most important religious site when the kingdom’s capital was moved to Thebes (now called Luxor) and royalty started to be buried in the Valley of Kings on the city’s west bank. Starting around 1950 BC, for nearly 2000 years  successive pharaohs sought to leave their mark for posterity by adding to the previous structures. The most impressive and largest buildings were constructed during the reigns of Seti I and Rameses II, around 1290 BC.  The final complex consisted of a huge central temple to Amun, the local god, and several smaller temples devoted to other gods, and covers a vast area. The central Temple of Amun alone is bigger than St Paul’s Cathedral and St Peter’s Basilica combined.

The entrance to Karnak

Just past the entrance archway – or “pylon” – an incredible sight opened up of the 134 huge decorated columns that make up the Great Hypostyle Hall, part of the central Temple to Amun. Entering this area felt like going into a thick forest, with huge stone pillars instead of trees. I wandered around, straining my neck to look up at the fragments of the ceiling, some of which still carried the original painting from ancient times. I stayed for thirty minutes, soaking  in the sheer vastness of the temple, and feeling smaller and smaller.

The Great Hypostyle Hall
A forest of huge decorated columns
I felt smaller and smaller…

After this amazing sight, I explored the central area further. Then I wandered further south to find a “no entry” sign apparently blocking further progress. A guard gestured to me to come through, and led me to a small Temple of Horus. We were completely alone, and it felt a world away from the crowds in the centre of the complex or the bustling city of Luxor. This temple also gave a good view back over the main complex.

Looking back at the central temples of Karnak

I continued exploring these remote outer parts of the complex. Many areas had “no entry” signs, but friendly guards would usher me through in the expectation of receiving “baksheesh” when I had seen everything. In these little-visited places, I wondered if the guards hadn’t put up the “no entry” signs themselves as a way to augment their salaries. I finally ended up at the remote Temple of Mut (the mother goddess) on the very edge of the site.

Mut and me

Beyond it lay a marsh – a reminder that in ancient times, the temple complex was often flooded by the Nile. After three hours of walking and admiring the vast monuments of the Temple of Amun and the quieter smaller temples in the outskirts, I felt that the marsh made a logical end to my visit of one of antiquity’s most impressive monuments.

The complex of Karnak finally ends

I found the southern gate to the complex where a long, straight ancient road led back to Luxor Temple – the recently-excavated Avenue of the Sphinxes, so called because for the entire 3km of its length the path was flanked by statues of sphinxes, rams or cows on either side. I thought about the countless Egyptian priests that must have used this path for hundreds of years – it was a wonderfully atmospheric way to say goodbye to Karnak.

The Avenue of the Sphinxes
Luxor Temple comes into view

The temple of Luxor was something of a disappointment in comparison to Karnak. It was less impressive than other temples I had seen in Egypt, and was much more crowded than Karnak had been.

The entry to Luxor Temple

The best time to see this temple is at night, when it is illuminated, but I was tired after so much walking and did not want to wait. Instead I strolled down the Corniche along the Nile, admiring the view as the sun set.

Sunset on the Nile

It was very pleasant, and even the continual approaches by taxi drivers, people selling things and caleche owners did not spoil my mood. Some of this hassle was done with a good dose of humour. Some examples:

“Why you walk like an Egyptian?” (taxi and caleche drivers)

“Welcome to Alaska” (salesmen trying to get your attention)

“I will hassle you tomorrow” (taxi driver who had stopped working for the day, said with a big smile)

To round off the day, I popped into Winter Palace, the grandest and most historic hotel in Luxor. It was here that Howard Carter announced the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun in 1922. It had a wonderful colonial style including a comfortable bar where I had a drink and a snack to celebrate the day’s sightseeing.

A well-deserved drink at the Winter Palace

At the beginning of the day, I was worried about having “ancient ruin fatigue”. But the huge, sprawling Temple of Karnak was a sight that even the most jaded traveller would find awesome.

Aswan to Luxor – yet more temples

The next day, I left Aswan for my next destination, Luxor. On my way I visited two more temples. The first, Kom Ombo, is dedicated to both the crocodile-headed god Sobek and to Horus. Its courts and sanctuaries are all duplicated for its two gods. It was built around 100BC by Ptolemaic pharaohs. Although damaged by earthquakes and by builders seeking materials for other projects, the temple has a great site on a bend in the Nile, and I found its ruins very beautiful.  

Kom Ombo Temple

Near the temple was a museum with mummified crocodiles – sacred crocodiles used to live in a pool on the site.

Mummified Crocodiles!

The second temple on my route to Luxor was Edfu, which was built from 237 to 57BC and is dedicated to the falcon-headed god Horus. Like the Great Temple of Ramses, it was forgotten and covered by sand until it was excavated by a French archaeologist in the mid-19th century. It’s long period of burial means that it is very well preserved, and unlike most other ruins, still has an almost intact roof. As a result, the interior of the temple was dark and atmospheric, quite unlike all of the other places I visited in Egypt, which were open to the skies.

Edfu Temple
The atmospheric inside of Edfu Temple

Edfu was a very impressive temple, but I felt I was reaching saturation point for seeing ancient ruins. This was a little worrying, since I was due to spend four days in my next destination, Luxor – home to some of the world’s most famous archaeological sites.

As we approached Luxor my driver scratched his head and looked hard at his sat-nav. We were heading for the west bank of the Nile, not the busy east bank where most of the hotels are. We entered a village-like area with narrow dirt tracks and simple buildings. We had to turn around once, as the route indicated went down a street too narrow for our car, but finally found my hotel – a huge place looking like an Arabian palace, totally unlike the modest houses all around.

My unusual hotel in Luxor

The hotel had been constructed by an Egyptian architect and his English wife. Neither had ever managed a hotel before, never mind built one, and the place had some quirks resulting from their inexperience. However its plus points easily outweighed these disadvantages. It occupied a huge plot, and behind the main building was a long strip of land with a pool and gardens, reaching right up to the River Nile. On both sides were fields with horses and buffalo.

The view across the Nile from the hotel’s garden – in the middle on the opposite bank, you can just see Luxor Temple

I was a bit worried about our remote location, but the hotel owner came to greet me and told me that they operated a free ferry across the Nile to get the city. After enjoying my room for a while, I decided to use this facility to cross the river to check out the centre of Luxor. It was now dark, and on the way to the pier, I got to enjoy another aspect of the hotel’s design. 

My hotel at night

The ferry dropped me off in a particularly drab part of Luxor to the south of the centre, and as I explored on foot, I was continually hassled by taxi drivers and the owners of horse-drawn carriages. I got a bite to eat in a pasta restaurant and headed back to the comfort of my hotel. My lodgings were really nice, but I had not liked my first impression of Luxor, and wondered whether I really wanted to see even more ancient ruins…….no matter how impressive they might be.

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