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...

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