Wednesday, 30 June 2010

Rowing boats and terrapins

One of the less advertised gems of Rome is it's beautiful park, in the north of the city just behind the Spanish Steps.

After staring at it from the window from our room for the first few days, seeing the tall, dark trees peeking over the wall which separated it from us, we decided to spend the late afternoon exploring. We located a potentially nice lake on our map, headed off in that direction, and were thrilled to find not only a beautifully peaceful and quiet expanse of water, with a mini temple sitting in the middle, but also a row boat hire dock. An hour messing about on the river? Absolutely!

And it was gorgeous. For just a few euros, we floated alongside the ducks, spreading weeds, drooping willows and friendly terrapins. Yes, that’s right, terrapins. Although I'm not sure how they got there, we saw many, their small heads peeking out of the water and completely unfazed by the three of us trying to steer in the right direction.

The park is vast, and due to time restraints we were only able to see a very small part of it, but if I ever have the chance to return to Rome it will be one of my first stops – it doesn’t have huge ancient beauties, modern religion or bulging plates of pasta (unfortunately…), but it is a quiet, reflective place that we all agreed we’d liked to have seen more of.

With just one final morning left, we started a quick exploration of the part of Rome in which the main train station is situated (not much to see there). After leaving our luggage, we walked back south, past the Circo Massimo to a leafy residential area where our guidebook had suggested we would find another hidden gem.

Climbing slightly up one of Rome’s small hills - Aventine, we reached a priory, whose cool grove boasted a gorgeous view across to the Vatican. Moving further on still (with a lot of confusion – it’s not easy to find – just keep walking!) we finally located a great little sight – a keyhole in a large priory gateway (the headquarters of The Knights of Malta), perfectly positioned so when you peer through, a grove of trees frames St.Peter’s Basilica. with this perfect final snapshot, we headed back to the station, and onto the airport for our flight home.

Elephants, domes and more gelato...

With the return of the clear blue skies the following morning, we decided to spend the day in the central Rome for a combination of the Pantheon, shopping, food and fountain-spotting.

The lovely thing about Rome is how accessible everything is. The metro is a handy help to have around, but we found that most places can be reached easily on foot, and the advantage of finding your way by this means is that you won’t miss all the fantastic Piazzas, fountains and buildings tucked away when getting from A to B.

The Pantheon is a classic Roman temple, although with its position in the centre of the city, surrounding by high buildings, you don’t see it until you are practically falling over it. It is very impressive (although half was covered in scaffolding when we visited), reclaimed as a church (as most things are in Rome!), boasting the largest unreinforced dome ever constructed, light streaming through the hole in its top and hitting the floor of the interior.

Although Trevi fountain is the most famous, the many others dotted around the city are well worth a look, and there’s nothing more pleasant than sitting on the edge of the pools of water with a tub of gelato. We walked around the corner to see another famous statue – a large elephant with an Egyptian obelisk perched on its back, looking rather bemused by its situation.

Central Rome has a wonderful atmosphere – relaxed despite the normal rush of a city, peaceful despite the hordes of tourists like ourselves dashing around to get the perfect picture, and friendly (despite our spending ages pondering the merits of different flavours of ice-cream before finally ordering…). Sitting out in the sunshine, whiling away the time talking, looking out over another piazza, each a little different from the ones before, was an absolute pleasure. I’m naturally a bit of a ‘non-stop traveller’, filling each day with as much as possible, but in Rome, sitting and admiring, I felt I saw just as much.

The shopping part on the other hand was not quite as successful. Gucci, Dior, Prada? Um, just a little out of my price range…

Tuesday, 29 June 2010

Earthy ruins and soaring structures

Day three was a big ol’ Roman extravaganza. We took the metro down to the entrance of the Palantino, after another wonderful tip which allowed us to bypass all queues. The Palantino, Forum and Colosseum all fall under the same joint ticket, so once you’ve bought from one place, you can nip past all the queues in the others. Buying from the much quieter Palatino (with a queue time of less than 5 minutes!) meant that later in the day, when we went to the Colosseum, we walked straight past the huge line…

Anyway, back to the Palantino. It’s a large site, with plenty to see. For the most part we put away the map, and wandered around to get a feel for the area. The ruins range from the very well preserved (or in some cases, partially reconstructed), such as Hadrian’s house with its lovely 3-D effect painted walls, to rambling ruins in the process of being reclaimed by nature. A tiny museum highlights some of the best artefacts excavated.

The sites all link together, so we walked through to the Forum, a stunning site with lofty columns and intricately carved arches, well preserved enough to give you a true feel of how the city must originally have been.

After a quick stop for a rather over-priced lunch we hit the building which possibly only competes with St. Peter’s as the most well-known in Rome – the Colosseum.

It’s huge, dominating the ancient part of the city, and standing inside and looking up at the rows upon rows of seats is especially impressive. Even though the clouds decided to empty themselves just as we got in (after threatening to break for most of the late morning), the temporarily darkening skies only highlighted the structure even more, and it isn’t hard to imagine its original grandeur.

The underground chambers, once covered but now visible, reinforce the complex planning and execution of spectacles that must have taken place, and short, interesting snippets of information dotted around the interior help bring the place to life. There’s even a video for the visual kind of learner, although as it appeared to be pasted together from snippets of just about every Hollywood Roman-based adventure (and some rather bizarre Photoshop creations), I think it left us more confused than enlightened…

Nevertheless, it is well worth the hype surrounding it, and we were extremely impressed with the price – for all three sites the combined ticket is less than 15 euro, amazingly good value for Europe. And of course, there's the token 'Gladiator' or two hanging around outside...

I was particularly keen to visit the Bocca Della Verita before finishing up for the day, a circular carved head of marble with a large open mouth which was once a manhole cover, now residing in a beautiful church about 10 minutes walk away from the central Roman sites.

The legend goes that if you lie when your hand is in the statue’s mouth, it will close, taking your hand with it… None of us took the chance, satisfying ourselves instead with a few photos before heading back to the metro station via the Circo Massimo – an ancient Roman stadium which, whilst now overgrown and resembling a park, still retains many visible features of its former glory (and is in fact still used as a site for sporting and music events). With help from the earlier rain, it was lush and green and we sat for a while on a nearby bench, overlooking the stadium basin and the majestic Roman sights peering out from behind it.

Monday, 28 June 2010

Checkin' out the Pope's digs

 Up bright and early the next morning, we began our day with a trip to the Vatican museums. Our decision was based on a tip – it was Wednesday, the day the pope addressing his audience, and we were banking on many tourists having tickets for that, leaving the museums a (little) emptier. The risk paid off – instead of the 1-2 hour queues we had been warned to expect, we only waited around 20 minutes before making our way inside.

Firs glances were not quite as I’d expected – walking in you arrive at a very modern entrance hall, with shops around and lots of glass features. It’s only once you’ve ascended a couple of flights of stairs that you finally get glimpses of what everyone comes to see – the stunning gardens, view overlooking the domed peak of St. Peter's, and signs directing us into the chapels beyond. After a few minutes enjoying the sunshine and getting snap-happy with the cameras, we started our tour of the museum. Even with the reduced number of people, it was still packed solid, and the linear progression through the museum results in a slow shuffle at all times.

Despite this, there are some wonderful things to see. The corridor of maps, depicting different areas of Italy, is spectacular, and each room becomes more opulent than the last. Although the route lead directly to the Sistine Chapel, I would recommend spending a little more time in the areas before, for the Chapel itself is packed to the rafters with people, tour group leaders talking loudly to their groups, camera flashes going off in quick succession (despite the large signs) – all of which contributed to leave us feeling rather cold about the experience. It was beautiful, yes, and worth a look, but the loud, frantic atmosphere and the sea of people prevented us from truly appreciating the scale of the monumental art. We only stayed for a few minutes before moving on, agreeing that the earlier rooms had more presence .

After browsing the shop, we headed towards the dome we’d seen peeking over the museum in the morning – St. Peter’s. Here we experienced the longest queue of our trip, but even that wasn’t much at around forty minutes. Clearly Wednesday is the day to visit the Vatican!

St. Peter’s really is something. It’s hard to picture just how vast it is without being inside – just walking the perimeter of the interior takes a good fifteen minutes without stops, and there are areas of interest around every corner.

The climb up to the top of the dome is tough, especially when it’s warm outside, but well worth the hike as the view of Rome is unmatched – just try to time it so you’re not up there with a huge school group shouting and rushing around....

Sunday, 27 June 2010

5 days in Rome

One of my favourite trips to take is take a girls holiday with my closest friends. A few days in a new city, filled with sights, good food, great company and lots of laughs, it’s always a relaxing break from work. This year, the vote was for the ancient city of Rome.

Interestingly, when I told people that I was going to Rome, the reactions were completely mixed. Half the people were overwhelmingly positive “you’ll love it!”; “it’s the most amazing city”. The other half was less than complimentary “it’s dirty”, “a bit sleazy”, “overrated”. I don’t think I’ve ever been to place that has split opinions so much…

What was my verdict? Well, let’s start at the beginning…

I think June is an ideal time to head to Rome. The weather is warm but not yet overwhelming, making it ideal for wandering through the sights, enjoying some al fresco Italian food in atmospheric side streets and cocktails in the evenings.

After settling into our hotel (a gorgeous and well-priced 18th century building with only a few rooms but all still boasting original doors and features throughout, overlooking a park), we headed out to find one of the iconic images of the city – Trevi Fountain. It wasn’t difficult to locate – the crowd surrounding it spilt out in all directions, but even packed with people it didn’t disappoint. Bigger than I was expecting, it dominated the plaza, rushing water hitting the impressive statues and landing in the coin-filled pool below. Of course, we threw the obligatory euro to ensure our return to Rome, and stood enjoying the sight for the while.

Moving on, we climbed the Spanish Steps for a nice view across part of the city. Couples sat draped across each level, posing for photos, but although worth the hike for the view at the top, I couldn't find anything too memorable there.

After a wonderful dinner (I think I lived off of pizza, pasta and ice-cream the whole 5 days), we had a couple of over-priced cocktails, and tumbled into bed, ready to hit some of the sights the next day.

Saturday, 26 June 2010

Egypt: Do's and Don'ts!

Well, with the trip to Egypt over, what advice could I offer for anyone planning to visit this amazing country?


- Go inside a pyramid. It doesn't have to be the Great Pyramid (in fact, I'd advise one of the others that may be open as they're far less likely to be crowded), but standing inside definitely helps to appreciate even more these great feats of engineering.

- Get on a camel. Initially dead set against this level of cheesiness, it's actually fun and a great way to see the pyramids. Just think carefully about how long you want to be up there. Good rule of thumb: every hour you bounce along = one extra day's recovery time. You have been warned...

- Take a hot air balloon ride. Cheap and easily organised once in Luxor, this was a true highlight of the trip - I can't recommend it enough!

- Chat to the locals where you can. Many of the people we met were warm and inviting - you might even get an invite to their house which is a real pleasure.

- Eat the local food - Koshary (also commonly known as Kushari) is a gorgeous dish with pasta, lentils, rice and a spicy/vinegary tomato sauce, and tastes amazing, filling with a bit of a kick to it. Try it. Plus you can't go wrong with all the tasty grilled meats, breads and stews available.

- See as many things as possible. Yes, by the end of the trip we were feeling a bit 'templed-out', but there really is so much to see it's worth exploring as much as possible. Take your time at each site though - the little details are often the most incredible.

- Explore modern as well as ancient Egypt. It's tempting to spend most of your time at the ancient sites (especially for a history junkie like me!) but modern Egypt is a vibrant place - the mosques, the markets and the villages are fascinating and welcoming.


- Dress for the temperature. Egypt is hot - very hot, and it's tempting to strip off. But it's also a conservative country, and out of respect for the locals, please dress modestly.

- Get offended/angry at some of the hassle you might experience. The men are not shy about their calls - we found that the best way to deal with it was to ignore it completely - there's no point making a fuss.

- Have lie-ins! Most of the sites were emptier in the mornings, before the coaches arrived, and the heat was also more bearable. Plus, all the great activities start early (balloon rides, Abu Simbel trip etc). Be prepared for a few 2-3am starts!

- Forget comfortable walking shoes. With sand, hills, rough streets and plenty of walking opportunities, don't forget some sturdy and comfortable footwear!

- Get ill. We were really lucky on our trip, with neither of us falling prey to the upset stomachs that so many travellers experience. Anti-bacterial gels, drinking bottled water and not putting fingers in mouths after handling money will all help keep the bugs at bay.

An unexpected trip

We arrived back in Cairo with one day left before our flight home. As this was my second time in Cairo, I was happy that I'd seen all I wanted to, and F couldn't find anything else he was desperate to take a look at, so at the last minute we decided to take a quick detour and head over to Alexandria for the day.

We'd already met a couple on our first day in Egypt who had visited from Cairo for a day trip, so very early on our last morning we headed down the train station to buy a couple of tickets. This was trickier than we had anticipated - at first they wouldn't sell us 2nd class seats, then we discovered that the platform wasn't listed so we ran around trying to find the right place...finally we were on the train and spent a very pleasant couple of hours heading away from the dust and heavy air of Cairo and into the breeze and cooler temperatures.

Alexandria is a lovely city. Oddly, and perhaps because of its location, it doesn't feel as though it belongs in Egypt, being so different from the other large cities. It has a distinctly Mediterranean style, and walking along the sea front, looking out on crystal clear blue waters and watching boats glide past was a relaxing way to end our travels. The museum of Alexandria is a joy - with well-labelled exhibits and items from throughout the city's history. Obviously the greatest difference is the prominence of the Grecian and Roman eras, and the sites dotted around are worth a visit, all situated within walking distance of the train station, but without too much at them left to actually see (Pompey's Pillar is nice, but quite a walk from the centre). The park is particularly lovely to stroll through, with hidden mini waterfalls, ponds and cool places to sit tucked inside gorgeous sprawling foliage.

My one criticism of our trip to the city was that I experienced much more hassle there than any other place we'd visited. Walking down side streets to reach some of the sites, we realised that we were the only tourists in the area. It seemed that unlike other towns, most people were on tours, going around on coaches, not alone and on foot. This was a real contrast to other places, where whilst the tours were numerous, there were also lots of individuals as well. Whether a regular lack of tourists wandering around had anything to do with the increase in hassle I couldn't say, but it was far worse. Even very modestly dressed as I always ensure I am in Arabic countries, some of the comments were pretty over the top, and more explicit than the usual 'pretty lady' that every female tourist experiences. Maybe we just came at the wrong time...

To be honest, although a bit irritating, this was only a small dip in an otherwise great day. Modern, relaxing and a contrast to the rest of Egypt, Alexandria it is a great place to spend some time, and was a lovely way to finish the trip.

Thursday, 24 June 2010

Another 3am start??

One of the major reasons to head down to Aswan (apart from the beautiful Nile and glimpses of Nubian culture) is that it serves as a convenient jumping off point for Abu Simbel. Unable to spend more than one day there, we opted somewhat reluctantly for the early morning convoy, the only way of getting down unless you can stay overnight or manage to get a seat on the overcrowded and often booked out local bus.

Our reluctance to join the convoy? Not the 3am start actually (although that isn't exactly fun!). No, it's more the seeming pointlessness of the whole thing. After waiting over an hour at the bus meet point, we headed off, only to find that almost immediately the convoy breaks apart, and our bus continued pretty much on its own...

We arrived at Abu Simbel shortly after sunrise, and headed straight for the temples. Occasionally I have found that visiting famous sites can result in an anti-climax, but these did not fail to deliver. The scale is incredible, the interiors well-preserved and beautiful. Unfortunately, there are so many people that it is hard to get a true sense of the place, but it doesn't detract from the overall effect. Lake Nasser itself is equally awesome, with the vast still waters stretching out.

After checking out the area, we hopped back on the convoy and drove to Philae temple, our next main stop (we also saw the dam, but unless you are very very keen on such constructions, it wasn't especially thrilling...). Without the reputation of other archaeological sites along the Nile, Philae is quiet, situated on a small island but definitely not to be missed - a beautiful temple, incredibly well preserved and atmospheric.

After that it was back to Aswan, and a final stunning Nile sunset, a wander through town (and a great market) the following day before hitting a final museum (the Nubian museum - another gem!) then heading back to Cairo.

Tuesday, 22 June 2010

Messing about on the river

One of the images I always had of myself when I imagined visiting the towns along the Nile was sailing along in a felucca. So upon arriving in Aswan, we had barely dropped our bags before heading to the waterfront.

The choices seemed endless - when walking along the river at any time of the day and night, we were accosted by felucca captains at every step. We wandered around for a while, negotiating prices, before settling with our captain, who offered a good rate (after a lot of haggling) for a 3 hour trip. Looking around until we found someone we liked really worked out well; the captain was happy to let F steer the boat, and was vocal about the changes he had experienced in Aswan and across Egypt over recent years, leading to an interesting conversation.

The following day we headed across on the local ferry to Elephantine Island, the site of some interesting ruins and a Nubian village. A wonderfully old-fashioned museum completes this gem of an island, which is only offended (in my opinion) by the architecturally insensitive Movenpick hotel, its huge tower blocking the sweeping sand dunes behind.

After wandering around the island, with the sun blaring down, we stopped off at a Nubian tea house, and chatting to the owner for a while, he invited us back that evening for dinner. It was gorgeous - traditional food in a beautiful location, watching the sun set and talking to our new friend about Nubian culture whilst wolfing down a feast which would probably feed a small army for a month. Stuffed, we waddled back down to the ferry and across to our hostel.

Speaking of the hostel - we really struck gold with ours. Keylany was a fantastic place to stay, good value with helpful staff, with a big added bonus - a small rooftop swimming pool! Yes, it was small, and often busy with all the other residents hiding from the heat, but with a lovely view across to a beautiful mosque and the chance to have a dip in the late afternoon to cool off, by the end of our stay it had become the most amazing pool in the world in my eyes.

Wheels on fire...

With one final trip to Luxor museum (one of the most accessible and well-designed museums I've ever been in - fewer exhibits, but well displayed, cool and uncrowded), it was off to our final destination - Aswan.

We decided to hop on a train for the two hour journey down to Aswan, and after finally getting hold of some 2nd class tickets, we settled down at the station and prepared ourselves for the inevitable long delay. But lo and behold, just ten minutes later the train rolled in, with second class carriages that were air-con, clean and more spacious than many trains in the UK. We jumped on, not quite believing our luck, and settled in, stopping occasionally at a station, but otherwise enjoying the ride.

At one such stop, I began to realise that we had been sitting there for quite a while. A few minutes turned into thirty, then forty-five, and we began to get a little concerned. Suddenly, a conductor (at least we guessed he was a conductor), came strolling down the aisle, saying 'no need to worry, just one of the carriages has a fire, be over soon'. An Egyptian man opposite me sighed, pulled his hat further over his face and went back to sleep, suggesting this was not an uncommon occurrence!

We sat, thinking about how we were going to get to Aswan if told to leave the train, when around 10 minutes later, our carriage jolted back into life and we were on our way once more. It seems that fires are just a minor service interruption, nothing to disturb the day too much...

And so, just one hour late, we arrived in Aswan, the site of a stunningly beautiful part of the Nile.

Monday, 21 June 2010

3am starts and incredible views

As the sun began to dip lower in the sky we left Karnak and moved onto Luxor temple, much smaller than the huge complex of the afternoon, but still a lovely place to watch the sun set and get a major shock - walking towards the temple we spotted a couple of familiar faces, and found that by complete coincidence, we'd ended up in the same place, at the same time, as a couple we met whilst travelling through East Africa last year!

After a shocked greeting, we spent the evening together, which was a wonderful catch-up, but unfortunately didn't help much towards our 2.30am wake-up call the following morning...

If I were to recommend one extravagant activity whilst travelling through Egypt, it would be our adventure that morning. After piling into a small, cramped minibus, then offloading for a short trip on a ferry, we were greeted with this sight...

After watching the sun set inside Luxor temple the evening before, the following morning we were able to watch it rise from the basket of a balloon. The ride was incredible, taking us over the Valley of the Queens, swooping low as we approached the Ramesseum and revealing the temple of Hatshepsut nestled deep within the pink-tinted valley. Much cheaper than a balloon ride back home would be, it lasted almost an hour and felt surprisingly longer, as the calm, peaceful morning lit up before our eyes.

After landing, we continued our day with a trip through the Valley of the Kings and Queens, a ground level look at Hatshepsut's monumental temple and the Colossi of Memnon. The whole area, almost completely exposed to the sun, becomes unbearably hot for most of the day, and I think that this is the one place of all the major Egyptian sites where a booked tour isn't the worst idea - if only for the air-conditioned bus that could give some temporary relief from the stifling temperatures outside.

Picking which tombs to enter (you can only go into three in each area) is difficult - we saw examples of early tombs and then later ones to see the differences between the style of decoration, but whichever are chosen, it is definitely worth heading inside to see the elaborate artwork and consider the humid, thick conditions the artists would have worked in.

After the extremely early start, by the end of the afternoon we were completely exhausted, and ready for a day or two at a slightly more relaxed pace!

Karnak, aka the most incredible temple I've ever seen

After a short stop in Cairo it was onto Luxor, where we could afford to kick back a little and take things slower. At least, that was the initial plan...

First stop was Karnak temple, which is without a doubt the most incredible temple I've ever been to. Enormous, vast and full of details, I could have spent days wandering around. Unfortunately, a combination of the ever-increasing heat and a long list of other sites meant we only had a day, but it is worth every minute that can be spent on it.

Arriving at the site entrance, we spied a large number of coaches parked up on day trips, and hedged our bets that if they were doing Luxor in a day, they probably wouldn't be staying at one place for too long. Sure enough, after a quick stop at a nearby cafe for a cold drink, we saw the tour groups flood out in en masse and the coaches disappear in a cloud of dust. Heading into the site, we were pleasantly surprised to find it had emptied out almost completely, with only a couple of private tours and a few other individuals wandering around.

Karnak has an atmosphere which is unrivalled - the scale of the columns, the statues looming over and the vast walls of hieroglyphs all combine to make you feel extremely insignificant compared to this amazing complex. Heading to the very end of the site, we found an armed guard looking for a few pounds to climb up a small mound. Convinced we were being taken for ride, we reluctantly paid one pound to see what all the fuss he was making was for, and were thrilled when we got to the top, looking back across the area with a great view stretching out in front of us.

Unfortunately the heat is difficult to avoid - with little shade and the sunlight reflecting everywhere we eventually gave up, but had already made the decision to come back later for the sound and light show - yes it was going to be cheesy (and was, tenfold!) but the chance to wander through the area again, at night, was well worth the dodgy speaker system and almost being trampled by the (hundreds? Felt like thousands...) of people.

Sunday, 20 June 2010

Cairo, camels and cursing...

I'm a big fan of Cairo. The city buzzes with life: from the garish shop fronts with their fluorescent lights, to the heaving markets; the regular calls to prayer from huge Mosques, to calm havens in museum grounds. I've heard a lot of mixed reactions from people who have visited, but this was my second time in the Egyptian capital and one of the things that strikes me about the city is how safe I've found it. Wandering along late at night, completely lost as our hostel was anonymously situated on one of the identical-looking main roads, squinting down at our map and pulling out a guide book ('tourist' plastered on our foreheads, but hey, it was late at night and we were very tired...), and no problems. Just a friendly local offering their knowledge and then wandering off. Although you can't beat the beauty of a town on the Nile, or the breeze on the coast, when it comes to being left alone to get on with things, Cairo wins for me every time.

We had just a few days in Cairo this time around, and as it was F's first time, went tick, tick, ticking off of the main sights. First stop - the Egyptian museum.

All the guide books profess that the museum cannot be done in a day. They are absolutely right. It was my second time visiting, and I still don’t think I’ve seen half of it. It’s not merely the size of the place that is the cause of this. It’s big, for sure, but it’s also crowded, with piles upon piles of artifacts everywhere. Each piece is fascinating and beautiful, but completely crammed in, thousands of them, often on top of each other and rarely behind cases. Which, if I’m honest, is actually the kind of museum I enjoy the most. However, the sheer number of objects means that the whole effect can be quite overwhelming. After a few hours, I was finding that exhibits were beginning to swim before my eyes into one mass and it was time for a change.

The mummy room was a treat – beautifully laid out and respectfully treated, with signs for quiet in the room, the only disappointment was one extremely loud visitor who despite the numerous warnings, decided it was necessary to shout to his friends continuously whilst walking round. There’s always one…

After stopping for a quick snack, it was onto the Islamic part of Cairo. Besides the main 'must-see' sights, I think the Islamic area is well worth a visit - filled with glorious mosques (take your pick - they are all equally stunning, although we headed to Al-Azhar which gives amazing rooftop views of the whole city), markets that form tunnels down side roads, and food stalls that tantalise the senses. It's easy to wander around the bustling area using the tall spires and domes as guides, and a relaxing way to end the afternoon.

Of course, you can't go to Egypt and not see the Pyramids. And that's what the next day was all about. I'd heard and read various advice about the main pyramids - which were worth seeing, which could be missed etc, but I think they vary so much in design and atmosphere, it's worth visiting as many as time allows. We hired a driver for the day (a very cheap option which allows you the freedom to spend as much or as little time in each place as you want, and reveals some great stories - our driver loved recounting tales of tourists he'd ferried around in the past...)

I'd already been the pyramids when in Egypt before, and knew how busy (and hot) the Great Pyramid could get, so for our 'inside view' we opted for Dahshur - arriving early in the morning meant the whole area was empty and we could wander around in relative solitude. Memphis was our next stop, and although it's true that there's not a huge amount to see, it's a quick detour to visit a famous sight.

Saqqara was one of my favourite sights in Egypt. Despite being crowded, the area is large and there is so much to explore around the pyramid (which seems like just one aspect of the site rather than dominating it) that it doesn't feel it. Looking over the desert, the step pyramid looming behind you, is calm and almost peaceful. Eventually though, the sun became too hot (a reoccurring theme throughout the trip...) and it was on to the final stop of the day, Giza.

This picture-postcard area is a funny place. The area around the Sphinx is heaving with people. Heaving. And yet, wandering around the pyramids themselves, it's really not that busy, so please don't be put off by the swarms of people on approach. It's as if most get as far as the sphinx, snap a couple of shots and then leave again. Last time I was there, I resisted the temptation to get anywhere near a camel (it all felt a bit too cheesy to me!). This time though, F expressed a definite interest and so before I knew it, we were signed up for a two-hour stint around the Giza complex.

And hence the final part of the title. It's not too painful at the time, just a little uncomfortable (especially when wearing a skirt...). It's the three days afterwards that remind you of your stupidity. And remind you hard.

Having said that, approaching the site on the back of a camel does lead to gorgeous views (and some comedy moments with the frequent mounting and dismounting), and the perfect opportunity for those must-have 'leaping over a pyramid' pictures which our guide was a true expert at taking.

But if you feel the temptation to spend the afternoon trying to be Lawrence of Arabia, be warned, you will be feeling that camel ride for the rest of the trip...

On reading, reading, reading, and never quite getting around to writing...

I am an avid blog reader. Avid. My google reader has a long, long list of blogs that I struggle to keep up with. Of these, over half are travel blogs. They have inspired me to use my travelling time more wisely, encouraged me to visit places I hadn't previously considered, and even made me jealous with their year-long (or longer!) non-stop travel adventures.
I probably spend more time per week planning/dreaming/browsing travel than anything else. Having read so much over the past few years, giving a bit back by writing about my own experiences seems a good way to go. Actually doing it is a lot harder...

But I'm determined to go it a go. I consider myself (un)fortunate in equal measures. Unlike many of the blogs I read, and adore, I'm not in a position to take a whole year or longer out of work to travel continuously. This is partly financial, and partly because I'd find it very difficult to start back where I left off on my return.

However, I am blessed with a lot of time each year to travel - I get great holidays, many weeks each year, with which to head off. Of course, finanically this carries its own difficulties - flights cost a lot more when flying in and out of places, often long-haul, multiple times a year, rather than heading from one place to the next nearest country. It's perhaps not ideal forever, but for the moment, with the help of advice, and good flight search engines (!), it's working out okay.

The aim of this blog is to show that even without the RTW trip, it's still possible to see the world on a pretty small budget...

So, with a renewed commitment to write, where are we off to first? Well, let's backtrack a couple of months and visit Egypt, then we'll head off to Rome, and then...

Well, let's see!