The Shorex Team explore the wonders of Egypt
Following a 3-year hiatus, Aegean Odyssey has once again sailed to Egypt. Helping ensure all went to plan were Layla, Grace, Robin and William, our enthusiastic and knowledgeable Shore Excursion team, who have each put pen to paper to share their experiences of this fascinating country.
Layla – Exploring Alexandria
“After a rocky few years for Egypt which has prevented many holiday makers from their travel plans, Aegean Odyssey managed to make it into this fascinating ancient land for a three-day exploration of Alexandria and Cairo. Our ship docked at Alexandria, once one of the premier cities of the ancient world and now a bustling community, home to over 5 million residents. Having been to Egypt many times but never to Alexandria, I was especially looking forward to the trip and the chance to discover Mediterranean Egyptian culture as opposed to the more touristic areas on the Red Sea which I had previously visited.
As we walked off the ship for our excursion to visit some of Alexandria’s many highlights, we were faced by the port’s impressive cruise terminal. Before entry 12 security guards stood to attention and made us all feel terribly important. The vast and impressive terminal, a beautiful building of modern construction, greeted us ashore and was a suitable introduction to the grandeur of Egypt. The lively local area is just a stone’s throw from the port where noise and clamour can be found in abundance. There was also a small market within the port walls which allowed those passengers who were a bit overawed by the bustle of Alexandria a chance to buy some souvenirs and practice their bartering skills.
After leaving the terminal our next mission was to tackle Egypt’s roads, notorious for traffic jams and beeping horns. However, as per regulation we travelled in convoy, led by a police escort who parted all traffic for us and followed by a back-up-bus complete with a nurse and doctor, we felt in very safe hands. Not only this but our drivers were spectacular, negotiating traffic and ensuring our excursions kept perfectly to time.
A short drive through Alexandria’s local market places and residences brought us to the city’s Roman Amphitheatre constructed in the 4th Century AD. On the drive locals had waved enthusiastically as our bus drove through the streets and children pointed, clapped and waved. A very friendly welcome to a once troubled city and a greeting that made us feel like superstars.
Our next journey brought us to the Bibliotheca Alexandria, a cultural centre and library opened in 2002 both to commemorate Alexandria’s ancient library and to rekindle and reintroduce this public space and learning centre into modern-day Egypt. The library itself is a spectacular piece of architecture, designed by Snøhetta, a Norwegian architectural office who won UNESCO’s architectural design competition in 1988. Many passengers were surprised to see such equal numbers of both males and females studying in the library and felt it was a great representation of modern Egyptian culture. Our excursion also offered entrance to the Antiquities and Manuscript Museum, and many passengers explored the ‘World of Shadi Abdel Salam’ and ‘Impressions of Alexandria’ collections, giving a great and varied view into various aspects of Egypt.
On our departure from the library I noticed groups of school children, aged between 8-12 trying to take sneaky photos of me, all giggling and hiding their cameras behind one another heads thinking I couldn’t see them. As I walked along the entrance lobby, the group of about 50 children followed me, and I found my guide laughing, she explained that when she was their age she would have also taken photos of foreigners as it was an exciting and rare thing to see visitors, especially those with blonde hair. Eventually the children pushed forward a small eight-year-old girl who quietly asked “photo please…” I of course obliged expecting her to come forward and pose, but instead I had 50 children run at me, phones and cameras flashing. For about 3 minutes, until their teachers restored order, I felt like a celebrity and it gave my whole excursion group something to laugh about. It was quite an experience and again gave testimony to what a friendly people the Egyptians are.
Our final stop of the tour was a visit to a fortress, built on the spot where the Lighthouse of Alexandria, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, once stood. Some stones from the lighthouse were used to build the fortress and a few market stalls presented another opportunity to buy some souvenirs. Unlike other areas of Egypt, these stall holders were not as pushy so a pleasant shopping experience was had by all. Our return to the ship took us along the famous Corniche, offering a few more photo opportunities, rounding off a culturally diverse excursion very nicely and completing our experience of how the famous must live.”
Grace – The Pyramids of Giza
“The trip to Cairo was a personal highlight for me and one of my favourite tours throughout the whole of the Mediterranean Season and it was a great way to finish off my first contract working on board Aegean Odyssey. The drive from Alexandria to Cairo was long but incredibly stimulating, between glimpsing the ever-changing and dynamic landscape of Egypt and hearing the passionate information from our local guide Noha, the time seemed to fly.
Our first stop of the day was the Pyramids of Giza. For many of the passengers, including myself, it was our first visit and it is not an exaggeration to say that they left an everlasting impression. Some passengers and I even braved entering Kephron the second largest pyramid and explored the mysteries within. The entrance way was quite steep and most of us had to bend over double in order to make our way to the central chamber. Thankfully there are handrails which made the journey significantly more comfortable. We spent about 10 minutes inside the central chamber but the walls were bare so our imagination was needed to picture how it would have looked thousands of years ago.
Whilst inside the pyramid other passengers and staff were exploring the exterior. William and many of the passengers went for a camel ride around the base of the Great Pyramid. Others went to the Solar Boat Museum which contained parts of a cedar-wood barge that had been found in five pits near the Great Pyramid of Khufu. Ancient Egyptians used to bury a “solar barge” near the tomb of their pharaoh because they believed that their ruler needed transportation in the afterlife. The barge was restored and assembled out of 1200 pieces of wood and it is displayed in a glass museum near the Great Pyramid in Giza. For many of our passengers seeing the solar barge was the highlight of their trip.
After exiting Kephron and taking a multitude of photos from the outside, we set off to take in the panoramic view of all three pyramids. Some buses managed to get a group photo at this stop which was a great souvenir from the day. Passengers from my group ventured out even further and went for a brief camel ride in the Sahara with the three pyramids as their backdrop. I myself, after immense encouraging from my group, even hopped on one for the photo opportunity. To sum up a great morning’s tour we culminated our visit at the Sphinx where once again passengers could take in the might and expertise of ancient Egyptian architecture.
After a breathtaking morning of sightseeing we were all in need of a much deserved lunch at Le Meridien Hotel. We were escorted through the central lobby and up the sweeping staircase to our room. Lunch was served exclusively to passengers from Voyages to Antiquity in the central dining room of the hotel. It was a buffet style affair and the flat bread and humus went down especially well. Once we were all fed and watered a short drive through central Cairo, passing landmarks such as the Cairo Opera House, brought us to the Four Seasons Hotel which was to be our base for the next few days. Located on the Nile it was an exceptional hotel that was incredibly welcoming and efficient in assisting all passengers.”
Robin – Felucca Sail
“After a quick change around at the wonderfully opulent Four Seasons Nile Plaza Hotel we were back out for the evening’s entertainment, the Felucca Sail and dinner on board a Nile cruise boat. Once we were all together we were escorted across the busy road outside the hotel to the banks of the Nile. It was quite an experience crossing the street with the horns of Cairo’s traffic blaring and the animated gesturing of our escorts, the shorex team and local drivers alike. This combined with the general noise and heat of Cairo in the evening was quite exciting and everyone was in a good mood.
At the pier everybody boarded the Feluccas, the small traditional boats that are so characteristic of classic Nile travel. Getting onto the boats was smooth enough, with about 13 or 14 people per boat, and the seats were very comfy. As we drifted off into the centre of the Nile I was struck by the stark beauty of the place. Cairo has certainly changed a lot since the days of the Antiquarian travellers of the 19th century. Gone are the ancient mud brick buildings depicted in the drawings and photographs of that period, replaced in the past fifty years by high rise concrete structures, flashing lights, motorways and the constant noise of car horns and traffic. Yet the allure and exotic fascination with the Middle East still remained for me. There was something fundamentally different about being out on the Nile, as opposed to being in a European city. The sights and sounds were just so different, and the surrounding high-rise buildings and music from the passing cruise boats the locals use for parties just added to the fascination.
We were lucky to be out on the river at that time of day, it was still warm but the sun was setting and it was delightfully peaceful. I spent the time taking photos and waving at the passengers as our feluccas criss-crossed the river according to the gusts of wind. Our skipper was dressed in the traditional costume and kept an eagle eye on the river ahead, working hard running from stern to bow to adjust the sail accordingly while we relaxed and enjoyed the passing scenery. One moment of amusement occurred where one of the feluccas failed to lower its sail and we watched with bated breath as it got progressively closer and closer to a low-lying bridge. As it happened it only scraped the top with no lasting damage but it was a close call.
The cruise lasted an hour and then we then transferred to a larger cruise boat for dinner; all went smoothly with two groups seated upstairs and two downstairs. Dinner was buffet style, followed by traditional Egyptian cakes, of which I took full advantage. The evening’s entertainment was a Tanoura spinning dancer who came into the room with much pomp and was well received as he spun round and round removing successive layers to the music. He even went round the room to different tables, waving his dress above people’s heads, which everybody enjoyed. A brief pause was then followed by a local band and singer who came out to be the backing accompaniment for the belly dancer. This beautiful lady swayed and jiggled to the music, much to the entertainment of the guests, several of whom, including myself, she dragged up onto the dance floor to join in with her, much to the mirth of everybody else.
The boat itself was quite attractive, decorated inside like an ancient Egyptian temple, all gold and blues and reds and people seemed to really quite enjoy themselves. Once the boat has docked again we transferred to the buses, where a short drive across the Nile through the beautiful night-time scenery of central Cairo and Gezira Island brought us back to the welcome embrace of the Four Seasons.”
William – Treasures of Ancient Egypt in the Cairo Museum
“On the second day of our overland tour of Cairo, Grace and I woke up early to test out the Four Seasons Hotel outdoor swimming facilities. Thankfully the water was still warm in all three pools and we worked up our breakfast appetite as the morning mist cleared from Cairo’s skies. Breakfast for Voyages to Antiquity guests was served exclusively in two of the hotel’s restaurants; the Bella and the Zitouni restaurants. Fresh muffins and pastries accompanied cooked-to-order eggs, a plethora of cooked breakfast dishes, fruits, yoghurts, meats and cheeses making this the perfect start to a day exploring the treasures of Ancient Egypt.
Following this, guests gathered around the floral displays in the hotel lobby before we boarded the coaches. The destination for today was the Cairo Museum in Tahir Square, which houses the very best of Ancient Egypt’s treasure. The short drive to Tahir Square was accompanied by our guide, Hany, explaining the story of Tutankhamun’s tomb, as well as a bit of name-dropping, as the group was enamoured with Hany’s tale of guiding US President Barack Obama around the pyramids on his recent visit to Egypt.
By 9.30am we were inside the palatial Cairo Museum for our two hour guided visit. Having dreamt of visiting the museum since I was a child I was amongst the most excited of the group and the museum certainly did not disappoint. Its many exhibitions are awe-inspiring to behold as you see colourful sarcophagi, golden jewellery and mysterious mummies side-by-side with colossal statues detailing over three thousand years of ancient history from 3000BC to 200AD. Our guide Hany had the group fascinated with his interactive telling of Ancient Egypt’s numerous dramas and mummification techniques, my help was enlisted as Hany had me running across an exhibition to provide a scale for the largest statues in the museum to the rest of the group.
One of the highlights of the museum was the optional exhibition showing the unwrapped mummies, including Pharoah Seti II and Tutankhamun’s mother. This eerie showcase allows you to see the incredible preservation techniques the ancient Egyptians perfected – but you would not want to be left alone with them! Towards the end of our tour we reached the supreme exhibition which houses the findings from Tutankhamun’s tomb. Seeing the golden burial mask, solid gold sarcophagus as well as the fascinating belongings buried in the tomb, ready for his afterlife, were incredible to behold and an experience that I will not forget. Having spent the morning seeing treasures ranging from mummified baboons to countless golden royal regalia the group was ready for our next hotel visit for lunch.
Upon leaving the museum we had a scenic drive alongside the Nile until we reached the historic Mena Hotel. Sitting alongside the Great Pyramid, the Mena Hotel is a prestigious venue with inspiring views of the last surviving member of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. The hotel is famed for its decadent Arab decor and for being where important figures of the last century, including Winston Churchill, chose to stay during their own visit to the pyramids. Our exclusive banquet suite encircled an open buffet of fresh meats, cheeses and salads and a hot selection of veal, beef, pastas and dauphinoise potatoes. The wide selection of desserts, including a variety of baklavas and sweet cakes proved very popular with the group, especially Robin who went up three times!
Following this feast guests had some free-time to explore the hotel’s beautiful rooms and stock up on a souvenir or two from the hotel’s shopping mall before boarding the coaches for our drive back to the ship in Alexandria. From start to finish we had a truly memorable experience seeing the treasures of Ancient Egypt and the pyramids in style from comfortable coaches, five-star hotels and romantic feluccas. This has been a highlight of my time with Voyages to Antiquity, and proved to be a fantastic introduction to the best tourist activities available in Egypt.”