Day two in Alexandria was another “you’re on your own” day. This was Christmas day and we would rather have been on our own anyway.
The 4 star we were in had an excellent buffet breakfast. Except that they served No Es Café instead of coffee. We decided to walk the cornice and see where it led us. We found a group of maybe 30 fishermen retrieving a large net.
The cornice in Alexandria is miles long. We knew from our touring the night before that there was a 4 Seasons hotel with a Starbucks waaaay down there somewhere so we walked a couple blocks inland and took the trolley.
Back in time…we knew about the Starbucks because the night before our tour took us to see the royal gardens. As we entered the gardens some officious guys in black leather bomber jackets (always a bad sign) stopped the bus. The head guy made our guide pull out all his IDs, asked questions about how many people were on board, basically got very unfriendly. We got in ok. It was already dark, so the guide was saying things like “look, palm trees” Yeah yeah yeah. But these gardens surround the Royal Palace of King Farouk, the last king of Egypt. His palace is now the Guest house for foreign potentates when they visit Alexandria.
This little excursion became memorable on the way out when the same power trippers in bomber jackets stopped the bus. One actually stood in front of it so we could not move. Our guide got out and an argument ensued. Our guard, the dude packing the semi-automatic was riding shotgun, got into the argument through the window. All the leather jacket dudes surrounded our guide, hence there was no one in front of the bus. Sorry, I did not feel like taking my camera out and asking them to say cheese. The guide jumped back on board and yelled at the driver “DUECE DUECE DUECE” which is Egyptian for “Haul Ass”. He did, and the leather jackets were running behind us yelling to the guards at the gate “STOP THEM”. We did not stop, even for the red light at the intersection outside the gate (no one in Alexandria obeys lights anyway). We were now fugitives from the black leather jacket brigade. Some people watched out the back window as we made our way back to the hotel. When pressed by the tourists what these guys wanted the guide said “entrance fees”. There is no entrance fee, so it was a sanctioned hold-up attempt.
OK Back to our free day.
Starbucks was Starbucks. It does not matter what city in the world you are in. At least they sold real coffee, not NO ES CAFÉ. The only thing we had planned for the day was another visit to the library The library has a planetarium. The two O’clock show was “The Stars of the Pharos”. Sounded good to me. We got there very early, bought our tickets (about $5 apiece) and then we went to the library museum. In the tradition of the original Alexandria Library, the new version is also striving to be a learning and cultural center. They have a modern art museum. Classic art museum, and an antiquities museum. We skipped this last one, hell the whole country is an antiquity museum.
The most interesting of the museums was the museum dedicated to Anwar Sadat. If your recent history is not clicking, Sadat signed the Camp David Accord. Still lost? Didn’t read the papers in the 70’s? The Camp David Accords were signed by Egyptian President Anwar El Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin on September 17, 1978, following twelve days of secret negotiations at Camp David. This could be called the only successful peace negotiation in the Middle East, ever. It was Jimmy Carter’s greatest achievement and has survived to the present. But Sadat did not. One of the displays is the blood stained uniform he was wearing when he was gunned down with an automatic weapon while watching a parade on a holiday. One of the vehicles in the parade had Egyptian soldiers in it. Two jumped out and ran to the dais blasting their guns and Sadat was dead. The museum has an original letter from Carter to Sadat suggesting the meets at Camp David, and many photographs of him with foreign leaders and the Pope. The funniest was Sadat and Nixon. Nixon looks like he has to pee and would rather be anywhere else.
The planetarium show was marvelous. I actually learned a lot. It cemented my resolve to return to Egypt and go to Luxor in the south. There are great temples there, and I feel an urge to see them. We will go in summer 2012, when it is warm and there is no fog.
On the way home we found a Shisha house. Shisha is the local way of saying Hookah, or hubbly-bubbly. We had delicious fruit flavored Shisha.
We returned to the hotel and werte met by Santa.
We had our Christmas dinner there. With my dinner I had a bloody Mary. It was nowhere as good as Joan’s Bloody Mary’s at the Cosmic Crab. If you are ever in Bocas Del Toro, Panama, they are the #1 attraction in the whole town.
Mary Ann challenged my writing skills. She said that if I could describe this Christmas dinner experience at all, she would finally give me credit for my talents. Well let me try. The restaurant was all decorated for Christmas . Sleigh bells, Christmas tree bulbs. Lights. They had a Flamenco Guitar player plucking along. They had a fog machine, and even a bubble machine. Everyone had their own Santa hat to wear.
They had a set menu, here it is. OOPS sorry, I cannot figure out how to make my scanner work. The instructions are in 18 languages, and I am not going to figure it out just now. Let me just tell you about it.
It is printed on fake papyrus paper. It starts off with the words HRISTMAS SET MENU. Maybe they did not have spell checkers back when they used papyrus. It describes a 5 course meal, each an adventure in gastronomical spelling.
Smoked salmon in Pineapple boat, duet of white and yellow lump eggs, cocktail sauce
Zucchini and Eggplant Pontage Scented Saffron
Roasted Turkey medallions farced, with chestnut sauce served with seasonal vegetables and potato chateau
Chocolate passion mouse laced with cinnamon and berry sauce
Trio of cheese platter with grapes, and salty crackers served like coffee or tea and Christmas cookies.
OK OK maybe I should have put that up on Facebook. I apologize. But we had a great time sitting there listening to Flamenco music with bubbles floating over the artificial smoke and wondering what lump eggs were, laughing at the creative use of language.
Our Trip Home
Just before dinner we ran into someone from our group. She asked what flight we were on going home. We told her the 3 a.m. flight “No your not” she said. That flight had been cancelled due to fog, and we would be leaving at 10 a.m. Cool with us, we got to sleep longer. Then after dinner she found us again and said the 10 a.m. flight was postponed until 12:30. I was not really worried, but Air Arabia has but two flights a day out of Alexandria to Sharjah, the 3 and the 10. If both were cancelled, what would getting on a flight at 12:30 be like?
The last official act of our tour was “Transfer to Alexandria Airport”. At least it was not in THIS bus.
When we got to the airport, for some reason the gendarmes would not allow the bus to pull up to the terminal. Our guide told the driver to hop the curb. We got half way to the terminal before we were stopped cold. We had to get out about 200 yards from the entrance and carry our bags ourselves. 2500 years of learning how to deal with tourists does not seem to apply to anyone flying. Inside the airport was pure madhouse zany craziness. Our group hung together like lost children, which in effect we were. There was one little sign that said Air Arabia. It did not look like the ticket desk, but it was. Everyone else was pushing and shoving and cutting in line. One of our group took it upon himself to be our hero. He collected all of our passports and pushed and shoved his own way to the counter. He made it clear that we were all members of an Air Arabia sponsored tour, and we all had to get back to work in Sharjah, and he would not accept any nonsense. He managed it! We all had boarding passes and checked baggage.
The flight home, being daylight, was beautiful. The Red Sea, Mt. Sinai were all clear. We got into beautiful Sharjah Airport and home 15 minutes later.
Impressions of Egypt.
I shall return. Only because I did not see Luxor or the Valley of the Kings. I feel like I must. One person I met in our group asked me “If Cairo did not have the Pyramids, would anyone come here?” he asked me that right outside the Egyptian museum. I could not quite agree with him that the pyramids were all there were of interest and I’ll repeat the words of Alexander the Great, Marc Anthony, Napoleon, and Jerry Garcia once again, “oh maaan”. They make the traffic and the overall dingy grey of the city well worth the visit. If you get the chance to go, just do it. I will take this opportunity to thank my wife for the experience, a bucket list item crossed off.
Thanks for reading. Tell a friend, and PLEASE leave a comment.
Our second day in the land of the Pharaohs was a “free day.” In tourism parlance that means “you are on your own buddy.” The guide gave the group the option to sign up for a “city tour”. Most of the group sounded interested. He told us we would visit the Citadel of Cairo, a Coptic Church, a Synagogue and the Mosque of Mohamed Ali. Mary Ann poked me in the side when I asked if we could see the Church of Rocky Balboa also. I do not think the guide got it. The people who did not drift away from the group at that point, definitely moved away from me when I asked if we could include a trip to Garbage City in the tour. So Mary Ann and I were the only two who signed up. The rest were on their own for the day.
Our first stop was the “religious area” of Cairo. This is where the church of Saints Sergius and Bacchus. This church is traditionally believed to have been built on the spot where the Holy Family, Joseph, Mary and the infant Jesus Christ, rested at the end of their journey into Egypt when they escaped King Herod who did not like the fact that people were calling baby Jesus the King of the Jews.
It is a 4th century Coptic Church. It really is quite beautiful inside. It is where all the Coptic Popes have been consecrated for 1600 years. I do not know much about the Coptics other than they are their own branch of Christianity, so much so that they celebrate Christmas in January. If you want to know more, there is this amazing tool called Google.
I can bore you with a few facts about the Church however. It is called “the hanging church” because it is built over the top of two Roman structures. The church is suspended between them, hence hanging. The ceiling of the church is built to resemble the structural hull of the Ark, from the inside, and upside down. The artwork inside is beautiful. The pulpit is built on pillars that are supposed to represent the five something or anothers, I was not paying attention to the guide, I was taking pictures. In the back area is a baptismal fount where Coptics have been baptized for well over a thousand years. It is the size of a small hot tub.
Now the real claim to fame of this church is a small underground crypt in back of the alter. This is the room where Jesus, Joseph and Mary hid out for a while after escaping Jerusalem because Herod was after them. They did not allow photos back there, don’t ask me why. The room is quite small, maybe 10 x12. It looks pretty much like it did when the original excavation was done. This was the first time I have ever physically been where Jesus was. I had to think about that for a while. At least I did not get a nosebleed, but it was a touching moment.
I stole this photo from Google.
Now we walked about a hundred yards and we were at The Ben Ezra Synagogue. I had no idea what I was in for. I have to admit I have never been in a synagogue before, certainly not one that dates back to the first century. It was originally a Coptic Church, but after the Muslims took over Cairo they imposed a tax on the church, and they had to sell it. So they sold it to the Jews. The Jews wanted it because tradition claims that this is the exact site where a daughter of a Pharaoh discovered baby Moses in a papyrus basket after his mother had sent him adrift on the Nile. There is a beautiful monument to mark the spot. Again, no photos allowed. Being a tourist without a camera is a very naked feeling. Again, foto courtesy of Google.
Getting bored yet? Maybe I’ll include more pictures for ya, so keep reading, The best is yet to come.
The next thing on the planned city tour agenda was the Mosque of Mohamed Ali. It is shaped like a pair of boxing gloves, no not really. Neither is there a church of Rocky Balboa.
Ali was a strange ruler. He was influenced heavily by the Ottomans, as his mosque shows, and also by the Malmuks. He built his mosque in the mid 1800’s inside the citadel of Cairo The citadel was built about 1180 to defend against the crusaders. It sits on top of the highest hill in Cairo and has commanding views. The Citadel served various regimes as the Royal abode, right up until WWII when Montgomery used it as his Egyptian HQ, and stationed many troops there. I’ll just give you some pictures here, you do not even need to read the captions. But do not go away, you must see garbage city!
So now, the guide thinks we have lunch and he is done. Uh Uh. I want to see Garbage City. He had no idea it even existed and he has lived in Cairo for years. I saw it a NetGeo TV show called The Road Less Travelled and I insisted he take us there. He called his office and found out where it was. It turned out that it was really close to the Citadel.
The story here is that there are 3 large families in Cairo that go around the city and collect all the garbage. They deliver the garbage to this neighborhood. The people here make a living by separating out the recyclables and selling them.The guide and his driver both became tourists for this part of the trip. They were taking their own photos. I asked the guide for a discount because now he had a new destination for his customers. The look on his face said “only the tourists a weird as you.”
In this day of plastic bottles, plastic is their biggest market. Follow the bouncing photos below to get an idea of what is is like to live and work in Garbage City, Cairo.
When the guide spoke to his office I guess they told him to take us to another Coptic church that sits on the mountain above garbage city. This was an amazing church. It is carved into the rocks which was the quarry for the stones that they used to build the pyramids. It is called the Church of San Simeon the Tanner. It has the entire life story of Christ carved into the mountain sides and the pews of this church seat 10,000 people. They all have to ride buses from the city through Garbage City to get there so they must be truly faithful. Thursday is the day of miracles. These regularly scheduled miracles are healings, the cripples walk and the cynics believe. Obviously I did not attend on a Thursday.
San Simeon was the leader of the Coptics I would guess about 1300. He and the Jewish leader of Cairo did not see eye to eye. He was claiming hat the Coptics were a false religion and should be banished from Egypt, The Muslim leader was asked to settle the dispute. He was at a loss. So he referred to the Bible and reminded the San Simeon that Moses parted the Red Sea. Then he found the passage about men of faith being able to move mountains. He told him that if he could move that there mountain yonder, it would prove to him that his Coptic Church should continue in Egypt. San Simeon asked for time to pray, and could they all return on Thursday. To make a long story short (too late you say?) he made the mountain float in the air. If you don’t believe me, just look at the picture.
All Roman Catholic churches, and I guess Coptic churches have a relic in them, usually in the cornerstone. A relic could me a miniscule piece of bone from the saint for which the church is named. This Church of San Simeon of course has his relics, but it also has relics from John the Baptist. See the photos!
Our last stop was a store that sells clothing made from 100% pure Egyptian cotton. I of course bought a great shirt, but Mary Ann found the cotton sheets. They had 600, 800 and 1000 count levels of quality. She made me fell a 600 count sheet. It was wonderful. I asked her what our sheets were at home and she said “ZERO and they are not 100% Egyptian cotton either” This turned out to be the most expensive thing we bought in Egypt, and as soon as we put them to use, I’ll let you know what pure Egyptian cotton feels like.
Well. That’s it for Cairo. I was actually enthralled by the history and how the tourism people have made it all accessible. If you were a hardcore Egyptologist and did not mind getting your hands dirty, you could spend days in the Museum of Egypt, blowing the dust off of antiquities. If crowds do not bother you a person could spend all day staring at the Sphinx. Yes it is that cool. And if you are not prone to nosebleeds, you could spend the better part of a week circumnavigating the Great Pyramids of Giza.
The people of Cairo are very friendly and damned glad to have you there. They have been hosting and/or fleecing tourists since 330 B.C. People who do anything that long are bound to be good at it. Walking through the Cairo Bazaar you will hear the best hawker lines anywhere. “Come in and make your eyes happy” and “How can I take some of your money today?” were my favorites.
Day three will be our transfer to Alexandria and a tough day of touring, including the burial sites of the first tourists, as well as the Library of Alexandria, which is so old I think they invented libraries.
Stay tuned, thanks for reading, tell a friend and please make a comment.
In short we plan our next trip. I could not ask for a better lifestyle. I have an incredible wife. She is fearless on the road, except maybe crossing a busy street full of tuk tuks
That’s cool, we are never in such a hurry that safety should sacrificed.
Mary Ann is our travel agent. She will spend hours in the evening searching for hotels, flights, and things to do. She corresponds with tour agencies back and forth, back and forth until she is happy with the agenda and the cost. Sometimes out of the blue she will change the entire country we are going to visit. My input is slightly limited. For instance when we decided on Nepal, all I insisted on was seeing Everest.
Our next trip, over the Christmas holidays, is to Cairo. I have been thumbing through guidebooks, some as old as the pyramids themselves. We have the latest Lonely Planet, but after my experience with it in Thailand, I do not really trust it anymore. Lonely Planet used to have competition. Moon travel guides were excellent, but I Think they went the way of the dodo bird.
We rely on trip Advisor maybe too much. Go to any hotel on TA and you will find people who say it sucks and people singing its praises, same hotel the same month. Same thing with tour vendors “Oh he was wonderful” to “the worst ever”. I go to Tripatini, com. This site collects travel blogs, mine included, and tend to be more in depth and honest.
This time after comparing air fares hotels and tour prices, Mary Ann looked at a package deal from Air Arabia. It was cheaper AND we get picked up at the airport. Mary loves to find the “little guy” holding her name on a card. Our flight gets into Alexandria at 3:00 a.m. and apparently the taxi touts are horrible. I look forward to what the sign will say. Her name is Nash. We have been beckoned with cards that say Ash, Mash, Dash, hardly ever Nash.
Whatever source we use for Cairo, the word is Cuidado. The touts are crooks, the guides are crooks, and even the crooks can’t be trusted. These guys are pros. The pyramids are the longest running tourist trap in the world. “hey you Roman Soldier. You want to shoot off the nose of the sphinx?” “Psst French soldier, pretend the sphinx is Naploean and shoot off his nose. Three shots for a drachma.”
At least it will not be hot.