A former teacher and charity worker from the North East of England, I love people and places and like to try out new experiences wherever possible. Capturing that 'perfect pic' is all part of the pleasure. Access issues are a particular interest.
Published February 5th 2014
A Cultural Whirlwind Along the Nile and Across the Desert
So far our cruise had been within European waters, but the next stage of the journey would take us on to North Africa and a whole new set of border controls and officialdom - not least because in January 2011, just a few months earlier, the so called Arab Spring had taken place, primarily in the cities of Alexandria and Cairo, which were to be the key destinations on the next stage of our travels.
Map showing Egypt and Israel - worldatlas.com
The political system was still fragile after the overthrow of President Mubarak and the normal influx of tourists had slowed to a trickle under British Foreign Office advice not to visit the country during the turmoil.
Protests in Cairo's Tahrir Square during the Arab Spring
The cruise had been booked before this event and we didn't know if all or part of the trip would be affected. We checked the FO website regularly for updates and as the date of our trip neared, the advice on travel to Egypt had been relaxed. Nevertheless, the Egyptian authorities examined all our passports before we arrived in Alexandria.
As it happens, we were the first cruise ship to arrive in Alexandria since that event and the people of Alexandria could not have been happier to see us. It was quite surreal as we sat on our excursion coach surrounded by armed guards in a convoy with people waving to us and cars tooting their horns as we drove by.
Tourism is a huge industry there and we were back to spend our dosh.
Unlike the European ports of call, where you could just wander ashore of your own volition and explore the area independently, we were told this would not be possible in Egypt or Israel and that you were not allowed to leave the dock area unless on an organized excursion.
For our shore excursion in Alexandria we chose to visit El Alamein, the scene of a huge World War Two battle in 1942 between the Allies and the Axis forces under German commander Field Marshall Irwin Rommel and his British counterpart Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery.
The open air tank museum and the Commonwealth War Graves cemetery stood as a testament to the vicious battle that had ensued there almost seventy years earlier. You can't fail to be moved when you witness the graves of so many young people from all over the Commonwealth, lined up row upon row in some foreign field. We signed the Book of Remembrance before we left not knowing if anything we wrote could be an adequate in expression of our emotions.
Throughout our visit our party was accompanied by armed guards, and as we travelled back to our cruise ship we saw evidence of recent bomb blasts on the buildings of Alexandria while the locals just seemed to be going about there daily business. There was something quite surreal about seeing this happening on the news then experiencing what might be the next stage of an exciting period in history.
Despite this atmosphere of caution however, life seemed to be returning to normal for some locals at least.
Back on board, my hubby ordered a coldie and sent photo messages to his workmates with the tag Ice Cold in Alex, the title of one of our favourite WW2 films starring John Mills and Antony Quayle which, surprisingly enough is set in the North African desert during the conflict.
A 5am start was the order of the day the next morning as we'd sailed overnight from Alexandria to Port Said, the port for Cairo; except that the Egyptian capital was three hours drive away and we needed to get there before the day got too hot and the traffic ground to a stand still.
As with all the trips, the boarding of the coaches as we left the ship was superbly organised, however, because of recent events, the vast majority of passengers who were going ashore had chosen a full day trip consisting of a Nile Cruise in the morning and a visit the Pyramids in the cooler part of the afternoon rather than going to see the treasures of the Egyptian Museum in Tahrir Square. Tutankhamen would have to wait.
On arrival in Cairo, the day started with a visit to the Muhammed Ali Mosque set in the grounds of a citadel that dated back to the times of the Crusades and Richard the Lionheart. There was a mountain of steps to climb but the views over Cairo from the top were well worth it.
The stunning mosque is an exact replica of the Blue Mosque in Istanbul and was commissioned by the Egyptian leader Muhammed Ali in the nineteenth century. It is said that he paid the architect so handsomely that he never needed to work again.
Aura of the Light Scattered Interior of the Mosque's Dome
At the entrance to the mosque we removed our shoes and padded our way around on the soft carpet as the guide explained what we were seeing. The shiny silver dome as viewed from the exterior became a firmament of what seemed like thousands of lights lit up like the night sky.
Outside in the sunshine we ambled around the fortress set high above Cairo and admired the view once more before heading back down the myriad uneven medieval steps to meet our tour bus in the coach park. We decided we would head off before the rest of the group to give ourselves extra time to get there at the allotted time and meet the guide at the coach before the next leg of our tour.
There's something about river cruising, and being on board a boat going along the longest river in the world is bound to give you a buzz. We enjoyed lunch and entertainment on board as the huge glass sides of the boat afforded views of the Nile. It was another surreal experience and I almost lost myself in the moment until, with an almighty whoosh, a whirling Dervisher appeared in front of me.
Then everyone seemed to gravitate towards the top deck of the riverboat and there wasn't room to swing a cat out there. The outside areas were quite small, so everyone crammed onto what space there was but the chances of getting a good view of anything were pretty limited. Still, the cool breeze along the River Nile was very welcome on what was becoming a stiflingly hot day.
Even with a limited view, the majesty of seeing Cairo as you sail down the Nile is an experience not to be forgotten.
Two down and one more part of the day to go, or so we thought. Of course you have to get the tourists to spend their dollars, Egyptian pounds or whatever currency they want to give you, so the next scheduled stop was the Papyrus Museum. Essentially, it told the story of how papyrus was made and how trade grew up around its manufacture as the material was used to communicate in the first written languages. But, as ever, time was short and the gift shop beckoned so we, like virtually everyone else, did our souvenir shopping.
As the heat of the afternoon sun and the golden light seemed ready to melt beyond the horizon, we finally arrived at Giza, on the outskirts of Cairo, to witness for ourselves one of the few remaining ancient wonders of the world, the Pyramids.
Soaring out of the desert sand, the huge burial mounds of the Pharoahs could be seen from our tour bus as we entered the surrounding area. Anticipation had turned into excitement and then awe as I surveyed the incredible sight before me. Despite the crowds of the tourists coming and going and milling around, everyone seemed to take the time to enjoy their moment, and we were no exception to the rule.
We saw an Egyptian baby wrapped up like a papoose on the back of a camel, then climbed a sandy hill to get a better view. Like a scene from Lawrence of Arabia, carriages pulled by sleek Arabian horses were racing around carrying visitors across the open spaces surrounding the Pyramids, while others tried there hand at mounting a camel, each activity providing an alternative perspective on the mighty structures that were the tombs of ancient kings.
These were the tombs of the Old Kingdom Pharoahs dating back over 5000 years. Over many centuries, these tombs had been decimated and looted of their treasures, so much so that very few had any remains of the fabulous wealth that accompanied the Pharoahs to the afterlife, unlike Howard Carter's excavation of the New Kingdom tombs (dated around 2500 years later) in the Valley of the Kings near Luxor where he discovered the tomb of the boy king, Tutankhamen, in 1922.
If you wanted to, it was possible to go inside one of the burial chambers, but this involved a steep climb up the side of one of the huge structures, so we gave that one a miss. A chance to stand up close to them and even reach out a hand to touch them was enough for me.
Time for a final photo shoot near the Sphinx then we were on our way. The ubiquitous armed guards accompanied our coach and we settled down after a long day, ready for the three hour journey back to Port Said.
On arrival back at port, it was like a party had been going on all day. Local traders had set up shop and colourful stalls selling all kinds of must-have souvenirs had sprung up in our absence. Music and the scent of freshly cooked local delicacies filled the air and the babble of haggling tourists and Arabian traders gave credence to the notion that we were the first cruise ship since the revolution. The atmosphere was intoxicating, but the early morning start and the tiring day was enough for most people to head back onboard for an early night, ready for the next adventure.