Accommodations, DESTINATIONS, International, Museums, TRAVEL, Travel Planning

The Big Travel Questions

TRAVEL TALK: HOW LONG CAN WE STAY AND HOW MUCH CAN WE SPEND?

My poor husband!  The minute we get home from a trip, I’m already thinking ahead to the next one.  I’m trying to figure out just how quickly I can get him out of town again, how long he will let us stay and how much money I can get away with spending.  So, learning that I’d just won a five day trip to a Club Med resort from CTC, my favorite travel agency, I really only had one question.  When can we go?

Which Club Med?

Sandra Rubio, my travel agent, had another question for me.  Which Club Med do you want to go to?  While there are Club Meds all over the world, our prize was limited to Club Meds in the North American hemisphere, so that made it a little easier.  Sandra talked through the choices with me and I narrowed it down to two – Sandpiper Bay in Florida and Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic.

Well, really I wanted Punta Cana, because I’d never been to the DR, but my husband was hoping our nieces and nephews might want to come along and for them Florida was more realistic.  That would have been really fun, but when, after a flurry of phone calls and emails we realized it would be just my hubby and me, that not only decided the where, but the when.  If it was going to be a romantic getaway, then it made sense to go for our anniversary.  We had to wait several days for our preferred dates to be approved, but once they were, we were set to go in May.

Let the Research Begin

Once I’ve pegged down a date, a destination and have an idea of the budget, travel planning really begins for me in earnest, but this trip was very, very different.  I am the Museum Girl.  Punta Cana is not exactly a hot bed of museums.  Punta Cana doesn’t even have one museum.  I couldn’t figure out what I was going to do with myself.

I went to the Club Med website.  It had lists and lists of activities, but they were very active activities, like water sports, golfing, archery and tennis.  That’s not exactly my cup of tea – and yes, I know I’m weird.  There were also amazing pictures of beaches and swimming pools.  That’s not exactly my cup of tea, either.  Yes, I know that makes me even weirder, but it began to dawn on me that I’d just signed up for five days of relaxation and I really don’t know how to do that.

And Then There was Airfare

While everything about our five days in Punta Cana were covered, the airfare was up to us.  We really didn’t think that was such a big deal until we tried to book our flight.  The first big surprise was the number of dollar signs.  I mean the Dominican Republic is just right there on the other side of Cuba.  Why did it cost such a fortune to get there?

The next big surprise was the big, huge price gap between Spirit Air and every other airlines in the world.  It was such a substantial amount that we never actually considered one of the other airlines, but we were a little stuck, because we didn’t think we were Spirit Airlines’ target customers.

It took us a little while to wrap our minds around it, but we booked our airfare to Punta Cana on Spirit.  And then the great wait began without a single museum to research.  Friends who were aware of our upcoming trip would ask if we were ready to travel .  I would smile, shrug and say something pleasant like, “Of course,” “Can’t wait,” or “Sure,” but I wasn’t so sure I was ready for five days of uninterrupted relaxation.

Architecture, ART, Attractions, Decorative Arts, DESTINATIONS, Gardens, International, Museums, Road Trips, TRAVEL

More Old Cairo

TRAVEL THERE: WRAPPING UP OUR TOUR

So after Abu Sargus, what else can I tell you?

The Rest of Old Cairo

We visited St. George’s.  It’s nice, but confusing.  There’s all these pictures of St. George and the dragon, but St. George is a Roman soldier martyred because he would not give up his faith.  No dragons in the story, so don’t ask me.  It’s also confusing, because it started out as a Roman Catholic Church, but is now is a convent for Greek Orthodox nuns and old George is a Coptic saint.

We visited the very old Jewish Synagogue which they call the New Synagogue, because the current building was built in the 1890’s and this building is one of three known synagogues on this site.  However, according to tradition, there’s been a synagogue here since ancient times.  I mentioned a few weeks ago that it was built on the site where Pharaoh’s daughter discovered Moses in the bullrushes.

Hanging Church Depiction of Moses in the Bullrushes

They say stuff like that all the time in Egypt.  St. Catherine’s Cathedral out in the Sinai has THE Burning Bush.  One of the murals at the Hanging Church depicts the Moses in the bullrushes story.  There’s also a mural of the documented story of when faith actually moved a mountain.  You really need to get to Egypt.

 

One of the sad things I learned was that while there was a large Jewish community in Cairo for centuries, it has virtually disappeared.  The Synagogue is a tourist attraction, not a place of worship.  Imagine a congregation, whose place of worship was originally associated with the story of Moses and which was perhaps the place Joseph worshiped when he was in Egypt, no longer having any Jews to worship in it.

Another important miracle recorded in the murals of the Hanging Church is the moving of Mokattum Mountain.  A Muslim Caliph was ready to do away with Christians altogether when a bishop made a deal with him.  If he could get a mountain to move then the Christians were safe.  According to tradition, the bishop had everyone pray and then they had a mass at the foot of Mokattum Mountain at the edge of Cairo.  Lo and behold the mountain jumped up into the air and the Christians were saved.

In recent years a church has been planted in a cavern out there at Mokattum and Bill and I would travel there before the day was over, but for now, I’ll round out my tour.  On the way into the area I saw a shop selling shawls.  I love shawls and capes.  Bill promised we’d stop back by on the way out, probably thinking I would forget all about it – and who knows, I might have – but Zuzu remembered and now I have this beautiful shawl.

The shawl I saw on the way in was not the one I ended up with.  I saw a pretty shawl that I thought would be great for evening wear and the price was minuscule.  When I went back I saw this gorgeous, heavy, reversible number and asked if all the shawls were the same price.  “Yes,” was his answer.  I know value when I see it.  I immediately abandoned the evening style and held on to this one until Bill paid for it.

Come to find out, the shawl I chose is hand woven goats wool.  A tag identified the Egyptian craftsman who made it.  We probably should have paid $100 for it.  I’d be surprised if Bill paid $10.  He’d bargained so mercilessly that he was embarrassed when we walked out of there.  Once again, not understanding Arabic saved me.  I would have told Bill to pay the man his price and quit bargaining.

Next week we’ll move on to Mokattum Mountain, but first, enjoy these beautiful photos.

Architecture, ART, Attractions, DESTINATIONS, International, Museums, Road Trips, TRAVEL

Sightseeing in Cairo

TRAVEL THERE: SAVING THE BEST FOR LAST?

This trip to Egypt was one best thing after another, but our day in Old Cairo was special for many reasons.  Let’s get started!

A Long Wait

During my 1996 visit to Egypt, my niece had plans to take us to the churches in Old Cairo, but those plans were always for bokra  (tomorrow) and bokra never came.  I really didn’t know what I was missing.  I was so focused on getting to the Pyramids and the Cairo Museum the churches weren’t even on my list.

This time things were different.  Old Cairo was on my radar and the research I did told me not to miss it.  It also told me not to let anyone squeeze it into some part of a day, but to keep demanding the outing needed its own day.

First, Bill and Ayman tried to squeeze it into the day of the wedding, but I said no.  Then they suggested I see it on the day we transferred from the Fairmont to the Mena House.  I kept saying no.  Then I was somehow supposed to drive from Alexandria to Cairo, see the churches and get on a plane.  Nope that wasn’t happening either.  I’m only occasionally stubborn, but on those occasions, I’m very stubborn. 

The Cairo Museum

And speaking of stubborn.  Remember Zuzu, our guide to the Pyramids?  Well, he was back for a repeat performance.  And remember how he was determined to take us to Giza before we went to Dashour or Saqqura?  Well, we had the second stanza of that.  We were going to the Cairo Museum before we went to Old Cairo and that was that.

I have been to the Cairo Museum and unlike my first trip to the Pyramids, my visit to the museum trip was very satisfying.  I felt like I had the time on that trip to process everything I saw.  If I lived there, I would go to the museum on a regular basis.  Since I didn’t live there, I wanted to spend my time doing new things.  That didn’t happen.  So here I am out in front of the Cairo Museum with Zuzu listening to whatever it is that he wanted to tell me about the museum.

 

Old Cairo, Finally!

Old Cairo is very, very old.  To impress this fact upon us, Zuzu started with this ancient fortress.  It was known as the Fortress of Babylon in the early AD years and once the Nile flowed through it.  That’s important later on in the story.

The Old City is a warren of churches.  There is St. George’s Church and Covent, The Hanging Church, St. Barbara’s, Abu Sargus Cavern Church and a Synogogue.  It gets a little confusing, because some of the properties have changed hands several times.  Several have been rebuilt several times.  As I researched this part of the trip, I imagined having to walk great distances to see these various sights, but they are actually cheek to jowl – right in the same place.

Next week we’ll go start touring the churches. You won’t want to miss that!

Architecture, ART, Attractions, Decorative Arts, DESTINATIONS, Gardens, International, Libraries, Museums, Road Trips, TRAVEL, Travel Books

A Sampling of Alexandrian Museums

TRAVEL THERE: HISTORY, JEWELRY AND MORE

Our second day in Alex began with the usual buffet breakfast and a quick cab ride to the Alexandria National Museum.  (No adventures this time!)

Ancient Artifacts

If you somehow landed in Alex and hadn’t yet figured out that Egypt is a country with very ancient roots, you should visit this museum.  It’s not as extensive as the famed Cairo Museum, but it is arranged in such a way that you can get a quick overview of Egypt’s history organized by deities.  If you’re just somebody like me that geeks out on history, well then you have even more reasons to spend and hour or so here.

Down in the basement is the Pharaonic section when Egyptians worshiped a pantheon of gods led by Ra, the sun god, and Isis, goddess of marriage, fertility, motherhood, magic, medicine and probably a few other things.  The main floor is devoted to the Greek and Roman eras of Egypt, when the Egyptian gods mixed and mingled with other religious traditions.  Many of the artifacts have, in fact, been fished out of the sea right there in Alexandria.  Our favorite floor was the top floor.  There Christianity faced off against Islam in a sort of duel by artifacts.  

Like many things in Egypt, if you visit this museum you’ll be on a constant seesaw.  One moment you are wowed out of your socks by an item you can’t even believe still exists.  Then you won’t be able to see into the next case at all, because the light has burned out.  It’s exhilarating, frustrating and totally unique.  Gorgeous white marble edifices with spectacular polished black granite floors and dust collecting in the corners.  It made me want to shake someone!

At this museum you can take all the pictures you want outside, but you are supposed to pay to take pictures inside.  Bill didn’t think he wanted to part with the coin, but once he got inside he couldn’t help taking a few pictures of the beautiful Christian artifacts.  They didn’t say anything right away, but when he left, they hit him up for the photography fee.  Since we had to pay to take them, I’ll share them with you.

The Royal Jewelry Museum

This trip to Egypt was so marvelous from so many standpoints I would be hard-pressed to pick out my favorite thing.  However, I can easily tell you the Royal Jewelry Museum is a strong contender for the position.  In fact, it is on my short list of favorite museums ever!

We took a taxi from the history museum to this gem of a palace. (Forgive me the pun, I couldn’t resist.)  It was immediately apparent this was something completely different from the previous museum.  Both buildings were magnificent, but the history museum was past its prime and showing its age.  It didn’t look like anyone loved it anymore.  The edifice holding the jewelry museum is pristine.  It’s well-loved and it shows.

The jewelry museum is in a lovely part of the city, obviously still home to the well-to-do.  An impressive rod iron fence guards the one-time palace.  The security procedure into the grounds is more than cursory, but it was very polite.  This is the museum-less-visited, competing with the well-known Bibliotheca and the official history museum, but I would like to see that change.  This is a rare and wonderful experience and if you go to Alexandria you should not miss it!  They were glad to have such obvious American tourists entering their facility.  So glad in fact they gifted me with a beautiful souvenir guidebook.

If this museum did not hold a single piece of jewelry, I would still say it is one of the best attractions I had ever visited.  The palace is just awesome – and I use the word in the traditional sense, not in the way it’s used to describe a hamburger.  I walked from room to room wishing I could live there or at least I would have had the opportunity to visit when Fatma Heidar herself called it home.  She was a several-times-great granddaughter of Mohammed Ali Pasha the Great.  I think she and I could have been great friends.

But there was jewelry, magnificent jewelry, in attractive cases spread throughout the elegant rooms.  The house looked as if they had only removed the furniture the day before.  It was easy to imagine dignitaries in gorgeous caftans and morning suits wandering around.  Among the treasures in the cases were items which once belonged to King Farouk I and his wife, the lovely Queen Farida.  Here’s a shot of my very favorite piece stolen from the gifted souvenir guidebook.  We saw it, but couldn’t get a good shot.

After a morning and early afternoon of touring, we were hungry.  Come back next week and find out what we did about it.

ART, Attractions, Decorative Arts, DESTINATIONS, International, Libraries, Museums, Road Trips, TRAVEL

The Museums of the Library of Alexandria

TRAVEL THERE: MORE EXHIBITS THAN YOU CAN SHAKE A STICK AT

When we finally found the museums at the Library of Alexandria, we were stunned by everything there was to see.  Come along with us.

Arabian Artists

Confession:  I know little to nothing about Arab Art.  I like what I see, but I can’t name any favorite artist or tell you the life story of any of them.  In sixteen and a half years of formal schooling in the US and a degree in Humanities, that’s a pretty sad situation.  The Dallas Museum of Art’s Keir Collection is beginning to open a few doors for me on this subject, but I really do understand the blind spot in my knowledge.

This means that I had no idea of what I was looking at down in the guts of Alexandria’s famous library, but I can tell you it was beautiful.  In gallery after gallery I found plenty to enjoy.

There were sculptures and works on paper.  There were paintings, from the very modern to the very old, with a great representation of what is known as folk art, but some of it didn’t look very folksy to me.  It looked spectacular.

There was a whole gallery devoted to astronomy and scientific instruments, but they were so pretty you couldn’t believe they’d been designed for practical use.  I stood before their cases in awe of the men and perhaps women who had crafted the gorgeous items.

Perhaps my favorite section was the many examples of every day items which transcended the idea of crafts, like the lovely caftans and pottery in the picture above.  I moved from case to case wondering about the craftsmen who had envisioned these lovely pieces and envying those who had worn them, poured water from them or carried them from place to place.

There are several different galleries with a variety of Arabic names I wouldn’t even try to spell or pronounce, but I didn’t worry about the divisions.  You can’t make up for lifetime of neglected information in a few hours.  I promised myself I’d learn more about these talented artists and artisians, but on that day, I just resolved to enjoy what I was seeing.

The Sadat Museum

My ultimate destination in the Library was the Sadat museum.  This is the area with a personal touch to my favorite Egyptian, my husband.  Bill’s Uncle Raouf had been a translator for Nassar, president while Bill was growing up, but Sadat had been actively involved in Nassar’s  administration.  All of the personal items included in the exhibits of the Sadat Museum were familiar to Bill.

Bill was already hungry when we got to the Library.  He’d endured the hour of wandering around lost among the stacks.  Then he patiently stood by while I gawked at all the beautiful items in the art galleries.  The exhibits in the Sadat Museum were so interesting to him, that hunger stood still.

He lingered at each case, pointing out items similar to those in his own home.  He read headlines to me. He’d say, “We had a radio just like that.”  The suits Sadat wore were the same style Bill’s dad and uncles wore.  The newspapers documenting important events in Sadat’s life were the same newspapers Bill’s family shared around the breakfast table.  He looked for familiar faces in the photos.

I’d had a hard time finding the museums of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, but when we finally walked among these treasures, it was well worth the effort.  It would have been worth the effort if there had been no Sadat Museum, but because there was, I had a special peek into my husband’s history.  It’s something he doesn’t talk about very often, and I loved every moment of it.

If Bill was hungry when we got to the museum, imagine how hungry he was after all the time we spent there.  I collected my belongings from the area where they’d been collected and checked.  Now it was time to eat.  Join us next week as my hungry husband looks for the fish market.  In the meantime enjoy these few photos from the museums.  Unfortunately, no photos were allowed in the Sadat Museum, but there are other lovely things to see.

ART, Attractions, DESTINATIONS, International, Libraries, Museums, Road Trips, TRAVEL

Don’t Bother Asking the Librarian

The Library of Alexandria

TRAVEL THERE: LOST AT THE BIBLIOTHECA ALEXANDRINA

So Rom the Rogue Hantoor Driver dropped us off at the Library of Alexandria.  We knew we were there, because the unique curved roof is unmistakable.  What we didn’t know was how to get inside.

A Little Signage Please

We thought we were standing in front of the Library.  Huge plate glass windows allowed us to look in, but nothing told us we needed to go around to the other side.  We did eventually find our way to the front, but that was even more confusing.

The world was lined up at a building over to the side of the Library, but nothing suggested the crowd was headed into the library itself.  Remember, I may not read or understand Arabic, but Bill does and we stood there at the curb reading every sign we could see and watching the people to figure out what they were doing.

Through trial and error (and an exasperated guard) we found out we had to join the crowd and check pretty much everything on our persons, except the clothes on our back at the place with the crowd.  Then we got the secret sauce to entering the library.  Once inside there are all kinds of signs directing you to the various stacks of books over many floors, but nothing seemed to direct us to the free museums we were there to enjoy.  Now they have great signage to the museum that has a pricey entry fee, but I wanted the free stuff.  

We even asked people for directions and they’d point vaguely in a direction which wouldn’t help at all or they’d give us very detailed directions to something that wasn’t what I wanted to see.  We were literally about to give up and walk out when I decided to see if there was any wi-fi.  Rest assured there was no signage to suggest they did, I just thought it made sense for them to have it.

VOILA!  There was wi-fi, but the first thing it told me was the exhibit I had been asking about for the last hour was closed for restoration.  It also sent me down a staircase I’d been down several times before and directed me to what seemed like a dead end.  We’d been there at least four other times.  We decided to give the dead end a try and suddenly we were in free exhibit heaven.

How to Get There

So, if you ever go to Alexandria, here’s what you do.  First, find the front of the building.  It will be on the opposite side from the part facing the beach.  Go get in the huge line at the building next to the Library.  At the counter,  hand them everything not actually connected to you and pay them whatever they want.  Move quickly during this process so you can follow the person who was in line in front of you or you won’t find the entrance.

Once in the foyer, look for a stairwell on the right side.  Go down to the next floor.  Right in front of you will be the museum you can pay to go into, but turn to your left instead.  Go to the end of the hall and turn to the right, even though it looks like you are entering a warren of offices.  If you walk down the hall past the offices, you will suddenly find yourself in a treasure trove of exhibits.  

The pictures above are all of the library proper, which you enter through many doors all along the back of the foyer.  I do recommend you take some time wandering around.  We happened upon several interesting exhibits that way, which weren’t even listed in the cornucopia of materials I’d been studying for weeks before the trip.  It’s also the only way to seem the amazing architecture of the place.  But if you want to see the free museums, follow the instructions above.

I’m all out of words today, but come back next week and I’ll share some of the marvelous things we found down in the guts of the library.

ART, Attractions, Decorative Arts, DESTINATIONS, DFW Metroplex, Museums, Restaurants & Bars, Road Trips, TRAVEL

A Museum Sort of Afternoon

TRAVEL HERE: BRIGHTENING AN OTHERWISE DREARY SUNDAY

So I was just about done with my local art museum.  Lately, every time we showed up for an exhibition, we’d look at each other and ask, “Really?”  I had already tossed the most recent renewal of membership letter into the trash, but a still small voice asked, “Do you know what special exhibitions are coming?”  I didn’t, but I assumed they’d be more of the same stuff which had been disenchanting us for a couple of years.  I was wrong.  Berte Morisot is coming!  Berthe’s exhibition won’t be here at least a year, but I couldn’t abandon the museum when they were organizing a fairly incredible exhibition.  Besides, some of the smaller productions on exhibit right now seemed of interest.  So, I renewed my membership and decided to go to the museum as soon as we could.

 All the Eternal Love I Have for the Pumpkins…or Not

Arriving at the Dallas Museum of Art on a recent dreary Sunday, I dropped by the information desk to confirm the location of the exhibits I wanted to see.  We only had two hours before closing  – plenty of time to view my wish list, but not if we wandered aimlessly.  What I did not plan on viewing was an installation created in 2016 titled All the Eternal Love I Have for the Pumpkins.  I mean that’s the same vintage as the cheap wine in the grocery store.  Galleries are where you go to see the latest in art.  I think museums should focus on more proven vintages that have been laid down for awhile.  Obviously, there are plenty with another opinion.  All the general public tickets had been sold for the day and only my membership would get us a timed appointment for that particular afternoon.

Taking the bait I bellied up to the membership desk to claim my free, timed viewing ticket.  We had half an hour until our slot so we strolled up the concourse.  We’d seen Truth: 24 Fames Per Second and didn’t need a repeat showing.  We’d also been to the latest installation in the Keir Collection several times since April.  We stuck our head in the gift shop and dropped by the small Focus Gallery exhibiting Hopi Visions.  Interesting, but not among our favorite genres, so after a few minutes we were back on the concourse.

My husband likes to touch things, so he detoured into the Center for Creative Connections.  Tagged C3, this is the area where kids of all ages can make art rather than just look at it.  We looked over the shoulder of a few budding artists, handled a few touchable objects and then returned to the concourse.  We were still a few minutes away from our designated ticket time, so we checked out the Barrel Vault.  This area is ground zero for Contemporary and Modern Art, so we don’t usually spend much time here – you know my vintage issues.  However, one of the side galleries had just what I was looking for, Edward Steichen:  In Exultation of Flowers.

Photograph from DMA.com

In Exultation of Flowers

Love a good story?  Back in the Twentieth Century an artist started painting a mural commissioned by some wealthy New Yorkers.  These members of Art’s Inner Circle knew all the best people and had their artist friend paint these friends of theirs lolly-gagging among flowers.  What’s not to love?  One wants to imagine them and their friends draped across art deco furnishing sipping cocktails and discussing the pros and cons of the completed murals – especially the one featuring Isadora Duncan in the nude.  But that’s not what happened.  By the time the murals were complete, the art patrons were in a bit of a financial bind and had to sell the apartment the murals had been painted for.  The murals were never installed and it’s been over 100 years since they were displayed together.

Enter the DMA, famous among art people today for their restoration and conservation abilities.  The DMA was commissioned to work their magic on Mr. Steichen’s murals and as part of the deal, the DMA would display the finished project.  Museum Girl loved this exhibit.  In truth, the gallery was a little small for the seven monumental murals, but they were delightful to behold, so all was forgiven.

The Psychedelic Portion of our Afternoon

My watch said it was time to view the pumpkins, so we headed to a nearby gallery.  Joining the line outside the large white box containing the installation, we listened to the instructions announced by a docent.  We’d have to put our stuff into the cubbies provided.  We’d be allowed inside the installation for 45 seconds, during which time we could take pictures, but we could not trade places with one another once the door was closed, because there was a falling hazard.  Hubby was whispering derisive comments into my ear, predicting how much we were going to hate this.

He was wrong and he was the first to admit it.  The charming time keeper engaged Bill in conversation as we waited our turn and she made all the difference.  Bill stepped in, oooh and aaaahed for 45 seconds and then we erupted into the rest of the museum.  Later he admitted it was his favorite item of the day.  I still prefer the murals, but the installation is worth at least 45 seconds of your life.

Other Things

On Level Two we found Paris at the Turn of the Century.  Featuring a few tidbits from the Posters of Paris exhibition of a few years ago, these small beauties are displayed in a tiny darkened gallery and did not evoke the joie de vivre of the full blown exhibit.  On Level Three was Art and Trade Along the Silk Road.  I’d forgotten that we’d seen it before.  It’s lovely, but we weren’t covering new ground.  From there we went on to the Reves Collection which continues to be one of our favorite things at the DMA, no matter how many times we see it.

From the DMA we wandered to East Dallas to try out Smokey Rose.  Great ribs, great atmosphere and we can’t wait until the weather is better to try out the patio, but the brisket and mac-and-cheese were less than amazing.

Architecture, ART, Museums, TRAVEL

Step Up to Saqqara

TRAVEL THERE: VISITING THE STEP PYRAMID

The Egyptians didn’t wake up one morning and have the perfect formula for pyramid building.  They had hundreds of years of practice before the elegant examples at Giza were built.  (There’s a nick in the Ancient Alien theory!)  At Dashour we saw pyramids of various shapes and sizes.  Their most successful attempts led them to give step pyramids a try and the best example of these Step Pyramids is up the road a bit from Dashour and down the road a bit from Giza at Saqqara. 

Getting There

When we departed Dashour, our military friends didn’t seem quite so intimidating.  They barely glanced at us as we passed by.  Izzat got back on the main road, the one with the dirty canals in the middle, and headed back north.  Zuzu continued to regale us with the history lesson and before long we were at another military installation.  This one was not quite as intimidating, but to a certain extent a little more scary.  The soldiers at Saqqara were a little less serious, but also a lot more careless.  They all carried guns and seemed to be having several different conversations, and in each the guns were being casually waved about as if they were extensions of the gesticulating soldiers’ arms.  I couldn’t help but wonder what would happen if someone’s finger slipped a bit.

If you don’t count the threat of wayward bullets, the site seems more tourist-friendly.  In Dashour everything was a street and a parking lot because it was just wide open spaces for as far as you could see.  At Saqqara, there were actual gravel-covered parking lots and roads that looked regularly traveled. 

The Museum

Another tourist- friendly feature was a small museum.  There’s actually a lovely promenade from the parking lot to the museum that looks as if it could accommodate a gift shop, a concession stand and perhaps even a small cafe, but everything was closed down tight and no signs indicated that any of it had ever been anything.  I wondered if there had been more there once or whether they were presently developing it, but Zuzu did not provide that kind of information.  He looked at me as if I’d suddenly begun to speak a language he didn’t understand and shrugged his shoulders.

We grabbed a few pictures and headed inside.  This had to be a recent development, because the interior looked like something you might see in other countries.  It was clean and neat.  The items were advantageously displayed in glass cases and lo and behold, there were placards there to identify the pieces and give a little history.  Pictures were not allowed or I would be glad to show you the lovely facility.  The museum was not large, but I liked it very much.

Wandering the Ruins

Saqqara is a significant archaeological site.  They have found a number of ruins dating to a variety of periods.  Some have been restored.  Some look as if they were once available for viewing, but have been closed up. Some areas are currently under renovation.  Even though the ruins come from different eras they are all very close together.  You can see everything without having to walk very far.

I’d say of the three Pyramid sites, Saqqara was my favorite – not more important than Giza, but more enjoyable.  Each is worth a visit.  If you can convince your guide to do them in chronological order, then kudos to you.  I think that would be an interesting progression, but that guide would not be Zuzu.  He’s going to do Giza first, no matter what.

A Little Entertainment

As if to prove they’d gotten the tourist thing figured out a Saqqara, they actually had a cultural performance!  A toupe of dancers, both male and female, performed energetic renditions of folk dances, brandishing swords, swaying their hips and stomping their feet.  The colors were a little too Hollywood to be traditional, but I appreciated the effort.

The drive back to the Mena house was daunting.  It was five o’clock traffic Egyptian style.  I was appreciating Izzat more and more.  Back at the hotel we did a little exploration, wandering around at will.  We’d been on the official tour and they encouraged us to wander the hotel – so we did.  We also had another fantastic meal, this time at the Khan-il-Khalili restaurant which specialized in Egyptian cuisine.  Back at the room I packed up.  In the morning Izzat would be there fairly early to take us to the airport for the next phase of our adventure.

 

Architecture, ART, Attractions, DESTINATIONS, International, Museums, Road Trips, TRAVEL

A Plethora of Pyramids

Saqqara’s Step Pyramid

TRAVEL THERE: DON’T LET GIZA BE YOUR ONLY PYRAMID EXPERIENCE

If you go to Egypt, you’ve got to see the Pyramids, but don’t stay in some Cairo hotel and take a day trip to the Giza Plateau.  Get out of the city and stay at the Mena House.  Someday, hopefully, they’ll finish the new museum that is supposed to replace the antiquated Cairo Museum and doing it this way will make even more sense.  But even if they never finish the museum (a distinct possibility given the tomorrow/bokrah mentality) you don’t want to be just another tourist.  There’s more to the Pyramids than you see at Giza.

Dusk at the Pyramids

A Tourist Trap to Avoid

Before I go into what you should see, let me steer you away from the Light and Sound Show.  I had been warned, but back in 1996, the Luxor Temple Sound and Light Show was one of the highlights of my trip.  The stunning display was interesting and entertaining.  Chances are that in 1996 the Pyramid Sound & Light Show was pretty amazing, too, but it’s not anymore.

There’s a huge outdoor theater which would seat hundreds of people, suggesting the show was once a really popular attraction, but I’d be surprised if there were 50 people at the performance we attended.  What’s more, the parking lot and entry were right next to a spot used as a toilet by the local camel population.  You need to be careful where you step and the smell will bowl you over.

I had threatened to enjoy the performance from my balcony at the Mena House, but wasn’t sure if I could see it from there.  It really doesn’t matter whether I could see it or not.  The balcony would have been a better choice.

The obligatory Sphinx and Pyramid picture

You Will Go to Giza First – and You WILL Like It or ELSE

Egyptians don’t see their country the way we do.  I had great difficulty convincing my nephew that I really did want him to schedule our guide to visit Dashour and Saquara.  Having already seen Giza, I really didn’t want to waste my time there, but skipping it altogether was not to be allowed.  What’s more my excellent guide, Zuzu insisted we had to start the day there.

My nephew and his friend had toured with Zuzu the day before and warned us that he was a little, shall we say, stubborn.  With Steven and John, the main problem was that he was going to give them all the information they paid for whether they wanted it or not.  I didn’t see that being a problem for me.  I challenge any guide to tell me more than I wanted to know about what I’m seeing.  However, Zuzu was a little stubborn in other ways, too.

When we got in the car to begin our day, I explained how I had already been to Giza before and I preferred to start at Dashour.  Zuzu said we would get to Dashour, but we’d start at Giza.  I tried several approaches to convince him I was the customer and he should do it my way, but whatever tack I used, he wasn’t going for it.  I didn’t want to be that Ugly American, so content in the knowledge we would get to all three pyramid locations, I decided to sit back and enjoy the tour.

Solar Boat Shoes

The Solar Boat Museum

It wasn’t that I didn’t want to go to the Giza Plateau at all, because my previous unorthodox tour had not included the Solar Boat Museum and I wanted to see it.  I just didn’t want to waste time stomping around the Pyramids and the Sphinx, if it meant I’d miss out on Dashour and Saqqara.

Well, we did stomp around the Pyramids and the Sphinx.  And guess what, they looked just like they did last time we were there.  Granted Zuzu provided more background information than I got from Ahab’s guides, but after a lifetime of watching shows about Egyptian archaeology, Zuzu didn’t have much to add that I hadn’t already learned from Zahi Hawass and Giorgio A. Tsoukalos .

The Solar Boat Museum is fascinating, but they make you wear these awful shoe covers and pictures are not allowed.  The boat was buried in the sand somewhere around 2500 BC.  It had been disassembled before burial and the pieces were intact when it was found in 1954.  It was painstakingly reconstructed over a number of years and then in 1985, the Egyptians built the museum to show off the treasure.  Don’t miss it if you visit the Pyramids.

My Giza duties fulfilled, Zuzu let Izzat take us to Dashour.  Come back next week and enjoy that part of our day.  In the meantime, here’s a video of our visit to the Pyramids.

 

Accommodations, Architecture, Attractions, DESTINATIONS, Gardens, International, Libraries, Museums, Restaurants & Bars, Road Trips, TRAVEL

And She’s Back

In the Fairmont Heliopolis

TRAVEL THERE: AN EXTRAORDINARY EGYPTIAN ADVENTURE

I just got back from Egypt and I want you to visit this amazing country.  You’re not going to believe some of the exciting adventures I had while I was there.  I hope that as you read my blog in the coming months, you’ll start planning your own trip in your head.  As much as I want you to go, I have always been totally honest with you – sharing the good and the bad.  So it is only fair that I start this series by warning you that Egypt is not an easy country to visit.  You have to overlook a lot to see what is valuable, but there is great value.  In the coming weeks I will rave about spectacular hotels and jaw-dropping sites, but I have to start here, with the not-so-pleasant reality of Egypt today.

Apartment Buildings

Then and Now

This was my second trip to Egypt.  The first was in 1996 when terrorism was an occasional, rather than a daily, thing and the only terror incident associated with Egypt was an attack on a busload of tourists in 1990.  The world has changed a lot since then.  Days before I was scheduled to leave for this trip, bombs went off in two different Coptic Churches.  It didn’t stop us from going, but it did give us pause.  It shouldn’t stop you from going either, but you need to know what you’re getting into.

The imminent threat of violence was the most obvious difference between this trip and the one we enjoyed twenty years ago.  Security was a pervasive presence, everywhere we went – whether we were visiting a museum, an airport or a church.  Every time we entered our hotel we had to put all our belongings through a scanner and ourselves through a metal detector.  I was glad for the security, but saddened by the need for it.

It was the same thing pretty much everywhere we went and you just got tired of it.  Take a romantic walk on the beach and come back to the hotel for a thorough search.  By the time you prove you have a right to be there and you don’t have any WMD’s, the romance has dissipated.  This adds to the stress of travel and distracts from your ability to really relax.

One evening we accompanied a niece and her husband to a hotel where they stayed on their honeymoon.  They wanted to take a walk down memory lane.  Our taxi went through one inspection at the gate to the property and we were put through a thorough search at the front door.  Then as we headed out to the pool to look around, we were stopped because we were not actually guests at the hotel.  We had to go to the front desk, explain ourselves, show them our room keys to a sister property in town and give them a passport to hold before we were allowed into the pool area.  By the time we actually made it down there, we had more thoughts about the intrusion of security than we did Maggie and Shady’s honeymoon.

Forget Lowe’s or Home Depot, Shop for Home Improvements Streetside

Related Changes

The threat of terrorism has devastated the country.  Tourism has been at the center of Egypt’s economy for a very long time, but  they have nothing to take its place and little with which to woo the tourists who actually show up.  Yes, they have some of the most splendid sights in the world, like The Pyramids, Luxor Temple, The Valley of the Kings and such, but the hassle associated with visiting them is challenging.

I thought Egypt was the dirtiest place I had ever visited the last time I went.  Well, now it is beyond dirty.  It’s down right filthy and much of it has been abandoned.  Whole blocks of Cairo and Alexandria’s city centers are just empty graffiti-covered buildings, surrounded by piles of trash.  Everywhere we went, unfinished new construction showed signs of being abandoned years ago, when their hope of an Arab Spring turned into a nightmare.  Don’t plan on wearing the same clothes over and over.  A day of touring will render you and everything you are wearing disgusting.  You either need to pack more or plan on a budget for laundry.

An Egyptian Family on a Motorcycle

And Then There’s the People

Egyptians, as a whole, are wonderful.  They are happy people who want to get to know you and they love pleasing you.  They want you to love their country the way they do, but right now they are a little embarrassed – as if you caught them between working in the yard and getting a shower.  They’ll point you towards the freshly planted flowers, hoping you won’t notice how dirty and sweaty they are.

However, they are also frustrated and tired.  At almost every hotel we observed someone having a meltdown in the lobby and it was usually an Egyptian guest.  Life is hard.  The economy is impossible.  Traffic is horrendous.  Everything is harder to do than it should be and after a ten minute walk your white shirt just isn’t white anymore.  Still, given the chance, most of them will bend over backwards to accommodate you and try to create a smile.

At the same time, we noticed there is also a trend that distances the female population from visitors.  There was a greater number of women completely covered from head to toe.  During our last visit, most women dressed very conservatively and the majority covered their heads, often with a bright colorful scarf.  Many would be sharply dressed, while sporting a more conservative hijab.  There were some who wore the more old-fashioned gallabeya  and hijab, but only a rare woman was covered and veiled in black.

This time gallabeyas and hijabs were the norm.  Young women wore leggings or jeans with a tunic, but the hijabs were everywhere and they were not brightly colored scarves, but solid blocks of neutral colors.  However, women covered from head to toe in black were no longer rare and I noticed most of them also wore black gloves.  They were moving shadows with just a sliver of their eyes showing – distant, aloof, unapproachable.

In the Cairo Museum we saw a young couple taking a selfie.  The woman was completely covered in black.  We wondered at the incongruity of hiding yourself and then taking a selfie.  The young man’s outfit was standard casual fare, but she was covered in plain black without even a bit of embroidery.  A lot of mixed messages there.

So I will tell you the story of our trip.  I’ll remind you of the difficulties from time to time, but I’ll leave it to you to remember that everything was dirty, inconvenient and noisy, whether I mention it or not.  Come back next week and we’ll hit the road.