A Travellerspoint blog

33: Europe meets Africa

semi-overcast 18 °C
View An Appetite for Arabia on weary_feet's travel map.

DSC02645.jpgDSC02649.jpgDSC02672.jpgDSC02686.jpgDSC02695.jpgDSC02669.jpgDSC02670.jpg

Koreena, Sheila and myself were all picked up early by one of Sam’s friends called Ahmed for our day trip out to Alexandria. The trip out to Alexandria took us a couple of hours and we got pretty lucky because we didn’t run into heavy traffic on our way! Alexandria is on the northern coast of Egypt on the Med and was founded by Alexander the Great as his capital of the East.

The drive out to Alexandria was very uneventful and quite quick. The landscape on this side of Cairo is quite diff to the west of Cairo.. Much greener (lots of agricultural land) and more populated.. I guess this is the Nile delta so it kind of stands to reason that this area is quite a bit greener! Alexandria itself is not what I was expecting… I had in my mind a Med/ European style town, and I guess it sort of is….. but the poor cousin of a European city! Everywhere we went there were visible signs that Alexandria was once a beautiful city that has ‘gone to ruin’…. lots more slum style areas, roads overflowing with rubbish, narrow but dirty cobblestoned streets. Everywhere you look you can see signs of poverty.. quite different to the other cities in Egypt. For some reason I was expecting Alexandria to be the wealthy, beautiful city… and maybe it is… maybe we only saw the older sections of the city which is in desperate need of some TLC! I guess I had in my head it was going to be another colonial, Singapore style city.. you know lots of old colonial buildings down on the waterfront, beautiful parks etc…. Unfortunately, I was pretty much wrong!

Our first stop on our trip thru Alexandria’s history was to see the Roman Ruins. These ruins date back to when Alexander the Great decided to build his capital here for his Eastern provinces. The ruins are currently under excavation so much of the park is off limits to tourists. The main draw card for the ruins is an old amphitheatre. The archaeologists believe that this amphitheatre was actually once a lecture hall for a roman university! Pretty cool to sit in an amphitheatre and to think that students would have sat in exactly the same place thousands of years ago!!!! There are still clear signs of a Roman Bathhouse (surprise, surprise!!)… funnily enough, I’ve seen that many bath houses on this trip that I can actually tell when I’m looking at a ruin whether or not it is a bath house.. the old Romans were fairly predictable in their architecture of a city!! (the tell-tale sign is that Roman Bath houses seem to be made out of red mud bricks.. as opposed to limestone, marble or sandstone or whatever other stone is native to that city!!) Sadly, the three of us were the only real tourists in the whole complex! Now considering this is one of the main tourist draw cards for Alexandria I was feeling pretty sorry for the locals who really need the income from tourism!! (On a side line note, it is nice though to be the only ones checking out an ancient site… I do feel sorry for the locals but it’s nice not to have dodge crowds or ABFGs!!)

Next stop was to see Pompey’s Pillar. The pillar is inappropriately named as it is this enormous column that was erected in Alexandria by Diocletion as a memorial for someone (unlikely to have been for Pompeii). The pillar is surrounded by more ruins and strangely enough by two sphinxes…. The sphinxes seem strangely out of character when compared to the large Roman column.. I guess it is an ‘East meets West’ style of thing! The pillar sits amongst the foundations and ruins of a cluster of buildings. Probably most exciting of the whole excavation is this labyrinth of tunnels built under the site that were once used by officials of the temple. I started to explore the tunnels when I realised that our next stop was to see catacombs and not wanting to get lost thought I’d better go back whilst I could still see the exit!

Our final stop before lunch was to see the Catacombs of Alexandria. To get to the catacombs we had to drive through more of the city…. Today must be market day cause we drove thru one of the main market squares.. holy smokes it needs some cleaning! Overflowing drains, rubbish everywhere and this old tram (apparently it only costs 25 Egyptian cents.. probably the cheapest transport here in Egypt!) trying to make its way on tracks overloaded with rubbish and dirt… All in all, I can imagine that in its heyday Alexandria would have been beautiful, but today it is an eye opener (and that’s saying something here in Egypt!)

Back to the catacombs…. The catacombs were built and used by the Roman’s as the final resting place for their dead. The catacombs descend at least 8 levels below ground (although many of them are now filled with water so we could only visit the upper most levels) and the highlight of the trip is to see the principle tomb. This tomb is completely carved from the rock wall with a mixture of Egyptian and Roman iconography.. It’s quite strange to see a man carved wearing Egyptian dress but yet looks Roman? Similarly, the carvings and frescos inside the tomb are a mixture of Roman and Egyptian… ie frescos of Isis but without the neat clean symmetry that I saw in the Valley of the Kings… It’s as if the owner of the tomb wanted to ensure all of the Gods were pleased so dedicated his tomb to everyone! Sadly, I wasn’t able to take photos of the beautifully carved tomb (I guess it is someone’s final resting place but….) so finger’s crossed my memory is better than I think it is!!

Lunch was out on the Med at the Fish Market. Before we drove into the Fish Mkt we stopped out at the citadel of Alexandria which is the spot where the original Lighthouse of Alexandria was built (one of the seven ancient wonder’s of the world). The lighthouse was destroyed in the 14th Century AD during an earthquake and was not rebuilt. Today’s citadel is built on the ruins of the lighthouse! Lunch was a tasty affair of fried fish, chips and salad, and every type of Mezze dip you could imagine to go with bread… As per usual here in Egypt, way too much food! An amusing thing was happening whilst we were eating lunch… our restaurant overlooked the bay of Alexandria and right below us were about five tourists who were all trying to swim around (I think maybe trying to get their diving ticket or something..) pretty funny cause none of them could really swim!!!! We spent our whole time eating lunch giggling at their very poor back, breast and free style strokes!!!! (They ended up doing more dog paddle than anything else!)

Our final stop in Alexandria, before heading back to Cairo, was to see the Bibliotecha Alexandria; the great library of Alexandria! As we all know it was destroyed during the war between the Roman’s and Cleopatra and the great library was burnt to the ground. Today the Egyptian govt (along with plenty of donations from around the world) has rebuilt the library (albeit a modern version) very near to the original site of the original library. The govt plan is to one day return Alexandria’s library to the pre-eminent library in the whole world. The building itself is stunning.. it is shaped in the form of a discus and is carved in every known alphabet of the world. Inside is no less impressive! The library has the ability to hold at least 8 million books along with an impressive on line component.. All in all, it will no doubt rival the great libraries in the world at some point in the near future! Without a doubt, it is the most beautiful and modern building I have actually seen here in Egypt.. a great example of money well spent!

After a very long day we returned to the car and hassled our guide Ahmed all the way back to Cairo where he was lovely enough to drop Koreena and myself off at our new hotel, the Fairmont! Unbelievably, I’ve been upgraded to the executive floor (and poor old Koreena hasn’t!!) which means free food, drink and a really awesome room all for only 150 dollars a night!!!!!! Yippeee!!!! So after settling in, I brought Koreena up to the awesome-ness that is the Exec floor and we both enjoyed a nice free dinner with drinks (we also managed to sweet talk the staff into upgrading Koreena.. albeit without the upgrade to the room!) I’m thinking tomorrow is going to be a great day of relaxing poolside and doing not much! (The riots in Cairo have continued today—and actually occurred in Alexandria, although we didn’t see anything—so it could be a quiet day tomorrow)

Posted by weary_feet 23:12 Archived in Egypt Comments (0)

32: Only in Egypt...

sunny 18 °C
View An Appetite for Arabia on weary_feet's travel map.

IMG_0342.jpg

Another lazy start this morning as our whole plan for today was to drive from the Gulf of Aqaba all the way back to Cairo in our bus (a good 6 and a bit hour drive). My day went something like this- listen to the ipod, look out the window, snooze, chat, look out the window some more, chat etc.

I managed to stay awake to actually see the crossing of the Suez this time around… very much an anticlimax because we just drove through a tunnel! We saw a few of those cars that everyone puts up on facebook/ you tube… you know the kind where the luggage on the roof is higher than the actual body of the car!! This all gave us a pretty good laugh! The landscape changed as we left the Sinai desert.. the huge sandstone/ granite cliffs with desert gave way to more scrubby farms and the occasional date palm the closer we got to Cairo.

It took us a good hour and a bit to actually drive through Cairo to our hotel and on arrival we heard about some violent protests that had broken out in Tahrir Square (main square in Cairo near the Egyptian Museum).. this put a bit of a damper on our last day together as a group but we still went out for a nice dinner down on the Nile.. Most of the group is leaving us tomorrow to return to their homes or to another holiday but a couple of us are hanging around so we are all heading to Alexandria tomorrow..

Posted by weary_feet 23:29 Archived in Egypt Comments (0)

31: Snorkeling and Shivering

sunny 22 °C
View An Appetite for Arabia on weary_feet's travel map.

DSC02640.jpgDSC02642.jpg

I actually woke myself up this morning just after the sun rose and got some nice shots of the sun rising above the Red Sea. Rather than return back to bed I decided to lay about in my hammock and read my book in the sun shine! Breakfast was some tasty pancakes with juice and then I kicked back into lay about mode!

The sun is shining today at our beach camp but there is a coldish breeze (similar to yesterday) I was bound and determined though to get myself out and into the water today and check out the world famous Red Sea coral! In order to psyche myself up for the breeze and coolish water I got myself into my swimmers and found myself a spot out of the sun to warm myself up.. Eventually I got a bit too warm and decided to find a snorkel and check out the coral! The coral shelf was a good hundred meters off shore so by the time I’d swum out to it I was starting to feel quite chilly.. I probably snorkelled around for a good half an hour before I had to come back into shore. The water is very clear.. plenty of coral formations and some pretty nice looking fish (and heaps of sea anenomes—I was pretty reluctant to put my feet down on to the ground!) After snorkelling earlier this year in Hawaii I was a little disappointed with the coral but I guess like anything seeing some coral is better than none!

After getting quite chilly I decided to swim my way back into shore and return to my spot in the sunshine to warm back up! Lunch was another tasty affair (beef curry) and after lunch we all fell into a bit of dozy afternoon.. sleeping, blogging, emailing etc. By the time 3pm had rolled around it was really quite cold and we were all sitting in the mess with our jumpers, jeans and blankets wrapped around us!

I had an early night owing to a raging headache and went straight to bed after a really pretty sweet, relaxing day in the sunshine on the Red Sea… Gosh life is tough at the moment!!

Posted by weary_feet 23:19 Archived in Egypt Comments (0)

30: Sphinx Castles

sunny 22 °C
View An Appetite for Arabia on weary_feet's travel map.

DSC02614.jpgDSC02615.jpgDSC02631.jpg

We got going at a much more leisurely time this morning (as compared to our 4am start yesterday) with us driving through the remainder of the Sinai desert to our beach camp on the Gulf of Aqaba near Nuweiba. The drive over to the beach camp was really spectacular.. lots of huge sandstone/ granite cliffs (pretty much devoid of plant life), blue sky, occasional clouds… Really, really pretty colour contrasts! The interesting thing about the drive is the fact that we had to enter some of the disputed lands of Sinai that are currently managed by the UN (not the Egyptian forces).. Apparently at the end of the Israeli conflict (late 60s) it was agreed that the land would secede to Egypt but that a buffer zone (managed by the UN) would be put in place to keep the two forces apart! Therefore, western tax payers have been paying for over 40 yrs to keep troops posted in this part of the world!!! A bit disappointing I must say!

Regardless, the drive was very beautiful but uneventful and we arrived at our beach camp just before lunch! It was an interesting drive into the beach camp.. the last 15mins or so we were driving alongside the Gulf and discovered all of these empty (and largely derelict) beach camps lining the road. Another symbol of the lack of tourists to this part of the world! After arriving at our camp we discovered that of the 35 or so huts only half of them were being used…. We were fortunate to be sharing the camp with another intrepid group so at least it wasn’t just us!!!

Upon arrival we checked out our accom and then decided to build some sandcastles on the beach… Our sand castle plan actually ended up being a Sphinx building plan. Chief architect was designated as Sam our tour leader (he’s seen the Sphinx a hell of a lot more times than we have!), our builders were Lee, Tom and yours truly with our pharoh being Jess! Eventually we had almost the whole group in checking out what we were doing and I’m happy to report that our Sphinx had the right shape and proportions… although, the head (which I was sculpting) looked nothing like the real Sphinx!! I guess you can’t win everyone (although we certainly tried!!)

Our eventual effort saw us bury our pharoh up to her head in front of the Sphinx’s head and between its front paws. We then all posed for our photos with our masterpiece before retiring back to the mess for some lunch! (Mushroom pizza for me) We were much more sedate after lunch with most of us reading or resting before we challenged the other Intrepid group to a rousing game of volleyball… All in all we had a pretty knock out team with us winning convincingly at 2 games to 1! Again yours truly discovered some volleyball talents that she didn’t realise she possessed… somehow my serves not only went in but seemed to score! I didn’t add much else to the team though (at one point I cowered down with my hands covering my head just waiting for a high ball to come and whack me on the head!!!—not quite the right technique for volleyball.. )

As the sun set over the mountains behind us we all adjourned for a candlelit dinner out on the sand. (The candle holders were interesting… old PET bottles that have been cut in half with sand placed in the bottom and a candle sticking out of the sand!!.. we also got candles on our plate of food which was a candle stuck into a cucumber that was all wrapped up with a ring of red onion… impressive!) My fried shrimp and chips were a huge improvement on lunch so all in all a great ending to a great day! We all turned in not long after dinner with another whole day to be spent at the beach camp relaxing!

Posted by weary_feet 04:15 Archived in Egypt Comments (0)

29: 3,000 steps of Redemption

sunny 13 °C
View An Appetite for Arabia on weary_feet's travel map.

IMG_0326.jpgDSC02575.jpgIMG_0339.jpgDSC02596.jpg

Another super early start as we were driving from Cairo over to the East to Mt Sinai! We left the hotel at 4am with a plan to get to St Katherine’s Monastery (at the base of Mt Sinai) by mid morning. The drive out to Sinai was very uneventful until we got passed the Suez Canal. (There is a tunnel under the canal that we drove through). This part of Egypt is very heavily armed by both Egyptian forces as well as the UN. This is probably the most important shipping lane in the world and there is always a risk of terrorism in the canal so we constantly had to pass armed check points (heavily armed cars as well as full fledged tanks!!)

The landscape in this part of Egypt is just breathtaking.. yellowy grey rocky soil, occasional grey/ green shrubs, large granite and sandstone mountains… Really, really beautiful.. I think I said it the other day, but I absolutely love the Arabian Deserts! We finally arrived in the town of St Katherine about 11am. St Katherine is one of the earliest Christian communities in the world and is dominated by a Greek Orthodox Monastery that has been in use since the early 3rd century! The monastery is built at the base of Mt Sinai and more importantly is the place where Moses spoke to God via the Burning Bush! In fact, we saw the descendent of the Burning Bush… amusingly, at the base of the bush is a fire extinguisher!!!! (I think the monks are concerned that either the bush is going to self-combust again or that one of the crazed tourists is going to set fire to the bush just to see whether they too can talk to God!). I was disappointed to hear that the monks don’t allow people to steal a cutting from the bush. However, the legend of the bush says that it won’t grow anywhere but in this monastery??? (It’s a bit hard to test if you can’t have a cutting but…..) There is also one of Moses’ wells as well as a Greek Orthodox Church on the site of the Monastery, and believe it or not, the monastery is still in working use! Pilgrims from all over the world (from many faiths) visit the Monastery for instruction as well as for pilgrimage!

We went back into the town of St Katherine and went to our hotel for some lunch and a rest, as this afternoon we are going to climb the 3000 steps of Redemption to the top of Mt Sinai to see God! The 3000 steps is the route that supposedly Moses took to the summit of Mt Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments from God for the Jews. The hike up the hill definitely goes down for me as the toughest hike I’ve ever done! The 3000 steps are almost straight up the mountain from the Monastery at the base to the summit (2.5km above sea level). The hike took us just over two hours to complete and I’ve got to say that it is not for the faint hearted (or in fact anyone with less than an average level of fitness)… Holy smokes, I discovered that I am not fit!!!!! Here I was thinking that I can now walk all day without feeling anything and then I tackled the hill!!

The steps are not as they are described… there are no steps! It is actually a track that is boulder strewn that you need to climb in order to reach the summit! There are three ways you can reach the summit of Mt Sinai… 1 Ride a camel up three quarters of the track (easiest method), 2 Walk up the track that the camels use to get to the summit (moderately hard), 3 Climb the stairs (ridiculously hard)… Most of us on the tour made a pact that we would attempt the stairs… All of us took the mountain at our own pace and I’m happy to say that we all made the summit (although I’ve got to say that my legs were shaking something chronic by the time I made the top!!)

The last part of the trek (750 or so steps) was the toughest part of the walk and I actually thought that we wouldn’t make the summit in time to see the sun set.. The last bit is a case of climb 5 steps, have a breather, climb another 5, have another breather… Holy dooley it is hard work! I can tell you that I reckon I nearly had a religious experience just for the fact that I was so exhausted.. and COLD… Again, at the summit it must have been not much above zero… COLD and TIRED not a great combination!!

Although I was exhausted and cold I have to say that I’m super glad I climbed the mountain and I was pretty excited at the pickies I managed to snap up on the top with the sun setting! You really do feel like you’re on top of the world when you are on Sinai (even though there are plenty of mountains in the world higher).. There is a tiny monastery built on the summit of the mountain and the sun setting on the church.. breathtaking..

We returned down the mountain with the sun completely set, so the descent was interesting to say the least… One of the guys on the tour took pity on me and lent me his torch (thx Tom) which I was forever grateful for because I’m not sure I would have made it down the hill without the torch! Half way down the hill I fell behind the main group and discovered I was walking totally by myself… The stars in the sky on Sinai were so bright… there was even a constellation above one of the mountains that almost looked like a cross (was this my sign from God???) After walking by myself for at least 15mins I started to feel quite apprehensive… the path isn’t really that easy to see by the light of a small torch and each rock looks the same as the last rock so…. I finally ran into four torches (what I thought was my group) only to discover it was a group of English tourists who were just as equally lost as myself!! Talk about the blind leading the blind!!! Anyway it was nice to have some company again so I tagged along with the guys from Manchester for a while before I finally discovered my group waiting quietly at a cross roads for me!! Thank goodness someone waited for me!!

The rest of the trip was fairly uneventful because I stayed with Tom (my torch saviour) and Koreena and walked the rest of the way with company!!! Much nicer to have company than to continually think that you had missed the turn off!!

We all gratefully sank onto the bus at the bottom of the hill and we were quickly transferred back to our hotel. Dinner was a small but tasty affair but you know we are tired when we all declined desert in favour of a very early night into bed!!

Posted by weary_feet 03:59 Archived in Egypt Comments (0)

(Entries 6 - 10 of 38) « Page 1 [2] 3 4 5 6 7 8 »