EGYPT IS full of surprises and one of the first comes with realising that the pyramids of Giza are only 20 kilometres from central Cairo. There they were, standing in front of me – looking exactly like you expect them to look – and after the obligatory gazing and photographing it only took another half an hour (it was early on a Sunday morning and traffic was light) to return to my hotel and enjoy breakfast in the Gold Lounge on the 15th floor of Fairmont Nile City.
Fairmont Nile City in Cairo
Fairmont Nile City has a grand and glitzy presence by the River Nile and its amenities (including a spa) are more enticing than the monotone greyness of the city around it. A rooftop pool beckons, ten floors above the Gold Lounge, and the Willow Stream Spa delivers equally blessed relief after returning from visits to Cairo’s world-class museums.
My body and mind were nicely primed for one of the house cocktails at the hotel’s Saigon restaurant, recommended for its intimate, darkly lit interior and a beguiling menu that is less Vietnamese and more a mix of Japanese and Thai favourites.
In the ancient land of the pharaohs, there is something a little surreal about enjoying sushi, papaya salad and tom yum soup in a dining room with contemplative views of the Nile. A bonus came with a very decent Egyptian Chardonnay selected from the wine list. In a Cairo museum I had seen images of wine making in tomb paintings and it was heartening to know that the tradition was alive and well after the passage of five millennia.
Rooms with a view at Fairmont Nile City
My traveller’s tip is to leave densely-packed Cairo without too much delay and head into the Nile Valley. The small city of Luxor, nearly 600km south of the capital, occupies both banks of the river and its west side, where buildings cannot exceed four levels, is placidly fronted by palm trees and tranquil water.
I was staying on the east side, home to the magnificent temple complex of Karnak and its monumental architecture –titanic columns, immense courts, obelisks – that collectively is more impressive than the pyramids. From the east bank, a bridge accesses the stunning Valley of the Kings and a temple built by Hatshepsut, Egypt’s only female pharaoh, that stands majestically in an amphitheatre of hills.
The splendid opulence of Steigenberger Nile Palace’s lobby in Luxor
The Steigenberger Nile Palace is a luxurious abode for a two- day stay in Luxor. All shiny marble from the outside, the lobby gives way to an open-air, fountain-centered quadrangle under intense blue skies. Two restaurants, a Lebanese and an Italian, occupy shaded corners of the open space but with the benefit of air-conditioned interiors.
There is also a Thai restaurant which is loveliest at night when you are seated on its balcony under a giant palm tree overhead, its fronds gently swaying in the evening breeze. You look across the Nile to the lit-up Temple of Hatshepsut and the ridge behind which pharaohs like Tutankhamen rested in peace until tomb robbers and archaeologists found them out.
Views across to the west bank from Steigenberger Nile Palace in Luxor
From Luxor it is less than 200 km to Egypt’s southernmost city, Aswan, a romantic destination for its serene riverside setting where lateen-sailed feluccas glide with grace across the water. A felucca cruise from Luxor is the most quixotic way to reach Aswan if your schedule can fit into a journey of two days and one night but I travelled by road and watched the scenery gradually change.
At first there were tableaus of farmers and their donkeys amidst lush landscapes of fields irrigated by canals from the Nile but these slowly gave way to the desert that encroaches closer and closer to the road. Aswan, when you arrive, feels like an oasis and the sensation is hard to shake off. Vistas of amber sand and granite outcrops dominate the scenery.
Aswan, close to the First Cataract (there are six between here and Khartoum, 1000km further south), is known as ‘the gateway to Africa’ and it retains a sense of mystery which makes you feel like an explorer. Herodotus, an ancient Greek, came here in the fifth century BC to inquire about the source of the Nile but today one of the attractions is the giant dam that controls the river’s flooding.
On Elephantine Island at the Movenpick Resort in Aswan
The Movenpick Resort, the best hotel in Aswan, occupies one end of the island of Elephantine in the middle of the Nile. A small boat shuttles you freely to and fro whenever needed and this adds to the sense of seclusion – you are, literally, in the middle of one of the world’s greatest waterways.
The hotel’s exterior is unprepossessing but once inside it is easy to relax and slip into a state of contentment: waking up to views of the river’s far bank is sublime; the restaurants’ mezze are varied and delicious; and the hotel’s Nubian décor is calming and colourful. A small organic garden and a bird-watching hide are pleasing touches and excursions to see the famous Aswan dam and the temples of Philae can be easily arranged.
Sailing to Aswan on a felucca from Luxor
A window seat on the flight back to the capital confirms the geographical oddity that is Egypt. Most of the country is arid desert, devoid of settlements and uninviting in the extreme but the Nile is the source of fertile land which is home to over 100 million people. A trip down the Nile Valley, from Cairo to Aswan, brings home the strangeness and surprises of an ancient land which is inseparable from its river. It is a land whose people are steeped in traditions of hospitality and a politeness of the heart that is not easily forgotten.
by Sean Sheehan