A premium Egyptian adventure!
By Exodus’ Lesley Powell, Product Executive
Egypt, on paper, has everything I want out of a holiday - vibrant cities, an interesting culture, an incredibly impressive history... and of course, good weather! It did not disappoint.
Travelling on the all-encompassing 'Egyptian Discoverer' trip with Exodus, I travelled from Lower to Upper Egypt, taking in the chaotic capital, Cairo, the incredibly well preserved temples and tombs of Ancient Thebes and the relaxed Nubian city of Aswan. The trip ended with a stay by the clear waters of the Red Sea, famed for its numerous species of brightly coloured fish and coral.
This trip is one of Exodus' new 'Premium Adventure' trips, staying in comfortable hotels with good facilities - all hotels have good pool access - and led throughout by a fully qualified Egyptologist. Being on a trip led by an Egyptologist meant that I got an incredible insight in to the county's history - he really did bring the past back to life!
The trip started in Cairo early on a Sunday evening and I was immediately immersed in hectic city life. The busy streets, beeping horns, amplified prayer calls, lively chorus of street vendors and animated conversations between local Egyptians all came together revealing Cairo's vibrant and chaotic character. With an estimated population of 16 million (and growing daily), the capital’s infrastructure struggles to cope but somehow it remains a truly enthralling city as thousands of years of Pharonic, Islamic and Coptic history merge with the lives of modern day Egyptians. During our full two days in Cairo, we spent time at the grand mosque of Mohammed Ali, standing proud at the centre of the Cairo’s Citadel and in the bustling alleyways of Khan El Khalili bazaar, learning to bargain with the eagle-eyed local shopkeepers. The highlight has to have been the time at the Egyptian museum, home to the famous relics from King Tutankhamun’s tomb (including the world-renowned gold plated mask) and the full day spent exploring the evolution of the Pyramids. Instead of confining ourselves to just one Pyramid site, we took in three from the earliest know pyramid site of Saqqara to the last remaining Wonder of the Ancient World, the Giza Pyramids. Our Egyptologist told stories of high society, wealth and powerful rulers dating back nearly 5000 years. It defies the imagination that structures from the Old Kingdom still stands, let alone so close to the modern day city of Cairo. Seeing the classic site of the Great Pyramid of Cheops towering over me, nearly 140 metres in height, really was an awe-inspiring moment.
Travelling south to upper Egypt, we took the Egyptian overnight sleeper train to Aswan. After two nights at the Pyramids Park hotel with its large pool and well-kept grounds, the sleeper train gave a hint of adventure. The Egyptian rail network is not at the same standard of the Swiss Rail network but we had our own two-person cabins with washbasin and although the journey was bumpy, the site of rural Egyptian life passing us by was great to see. I rose early with the sun and am glad I did. As the sun rose, so did the local population - people were busy in the rice fields and with their donkey and cart, fisherman were setting out on the Nile on their traditional fishing boats and sleepy villages were coming to life. Once in Aswan, we really felt a world away from the hectic life of Cairo. The Basma hotel, our home for the next 2 nights, was set on a hill overlooking the clear waters of the Nile with its lush green banks contrasting with the stark desert just a meters behind.
Aswan has a lot to offer, the High Dam, a true feat in engineering, the beautiful Philae Temple, relaxing felucca sailboat rides and the busy corniche and bazaar that comes to life as night falls. However, I have to say that the highlight for me was undoubtedly the excursion to Abu Simbel. One hour by flight from Aswan we reached the banks of Lake Nasser and the magnificent temples of Ramses II and Queen Nefertari. Not only were they a sight to behold, grand and somewhat overwhelming in size, the idea that the temples were originally constructed 61m below where they are now seemed incomprehensible. It is however true, following the building of the dam and consequential flooding, UNESCO successfully (but painstakingly) moved every stone to its new site today. It was a remarkable sight indeed.
Heading north to Luxor, we boarded our 5-star cruise boat. The journey is incredibly popular, with over 300 cruise boats now in operation and I was glad our cruise boat had comfortable rooms, good facilities and friendly staff. Luxor and Aswan are only 125 miles apart but each boat has the same set itinerary with three nights aboard, visiting the temples at Edfu and Kom Ombo en route. Having 3 nights aboard meant we could all relax, watching life pass by from the top deck, cooling off in the small pool and relaxing on deck with its bar, or in the air-conditioned lounge. My favourite time aboard was however sunset – the red glowing sky, as the sun set over the Nile at night was beautiful.
In Luxor it was time to step back in time once again. Often cited as a true open-air museum, Luxor is home to an unparalleled number of well-preserved monuments, Karnak and Luxor temples and the impressive tombs at the Valley of the Kings, Queens and Nobles. This is where the knowledge and passion of our guide, Khaled, really came to life as grand columns; pylons, statues, temples and tombs were everywhere to be seen. Walking through the beautifully lit Luxor temple at night provided some great photo opportunities and standing in Karnak’s hypostyle hall with its towering columns was every bit as special as the guidebook implied. The brightly coloured tombs on the West Bank were equally impressive – escaping the heat of the daily sun and entering three of the tombs I was blown away by the bright blues, reds and yellows still visible on the walls together with the mind-boggling hieroglyphics and images illustrating the journey to the afterlife.
Leaving Ancient Egypt behind us, our last stop was the Red Sea. We stayed in Hurghada however Exodus now stay in El Gouna, 30 minutes north. I visited El Gouna whilst I was there and, unlike Hurghada which has grown substantially in the last few years and is now a brash and busy resort, it is a smaller more relaxed resort – a pleasant place to unwind and relax after the visits of the previous 11 days.
I have to say that I did not expect to see as much as I did in the 13-day trip but never once did I feel ‘templed-out’. Staying in good hotels meant we could relax after a day’s sightseeing and enjoy just being on holiday. The time at the end by the Red Sea was also a nice addition and a few stayed on to relax a little more. Having an experienced Egyptologist guide was also invaluable - without Khaled I think we would have all struggled to get to grips with the complex history and beliefs of the Ancient Egyptians but he made it accessible, interesting and fun – just what we all wanted.