By: Paula Wallis
For some, the chaos of Cairo; the nonsensical traffic rules, the half hazard attempts at city planning, the striking contradictions between ancient and modern, the bustling spice markets amid honking horns, shouting locals, camels and donkeys jockeying for position on the roads amongst the much abused vehicles, is intoxicating. I am not one of those people. I am more of the get in, look at the Giza Pyramids, and get out ilk.
That’s just me however. It doesn’t mean that Cairo doesn’t have a lot to offer for the experience hungry traveler. Quite the opposite, in fact.
When we arrived in Cairo, it was merely a stop along the way to our ultimate destination, a week long cruise of The Nile, which we were looking forward to with great anticipation.
I was traveling with my husband, my brother, and my sister-in-law. The four of us could only stare out the windows of our mini-bus, dumbfounded, as we made our way from the airport to our hotel. Occasionally we were rewarded with the sight of a camel loping casually alongside of us, or a donkey, plodding along with a cart stacked high with local produce. Which brings me to my first point: do not drive in Cairo. Ever. Even if you’re one of those extreme travelers that absolutely must experience everything as the locals do, this is not a good idea. If you’re booked through a tour company, as we were, a driver will probably be provided for you for the duration of your stay. If not, your hotel will most likely be happy to arrange one for you.
Driving through Cairo, one can’t help but be reminded of the grueling chariot race scene from Ben Hur. Occasionally you’d spot a pristine BMW or other luxury model amid the mayhem. It made me wonder why someone would even bother spending that kind of money on a vehicle that was most likely going to be sporting five to ten new dents and scratches by the end of the day.
I suppose if you spent enough time in Cairo, you would start to see some sort of rhyme or reason to their rules of the road, but apparently we weren’t there long enough.
After a harrowing journey across the sprawling, polluted, overcrowded city of Cairo, our hotel was, quite literally, a welcome oasis in the desert. Le Meridien Pyramids is located minutes from the Giza Pyramids. Upon entering this five star accommodation, you can almost forget the journey it took to get you there. Soaring ceilings, cool marble floors, and friendly, helpful staff greet you upon your arrival.
Boasting five restaurants varying from local fare to, oddly enough, Tex Mex, you’re sure to find one to suit your tastes. If you happen to be lucky enough to arrive during the month of Ramadan, you’ll be treated to a poolside Ramadan buffet beginning nightly at dusk.
Equipped with a swim up bar, the pool is a welcome relief from the desert heat, with stunning views of the Giza Pyramids to complete the sense of surreality. Imagine watching the sun dip down behind the only remaining Ancient Wonder of The World every night.
Once you’ve had a night to get acclimatized to the heat and the pollution, and woken up to a panoramic view of the pyramids from your room, it’s time to plan what to explore while in Cairo.
No need to state the obvious, I suppose, but I will anyhow. The Giza Pyramids. They are everything you’ve imagined them to be after seeing them time after time on television and in the movies. Hire a guide to explain the fascinating history and local knowledge, or pick up a book that does the same and explore at your own pace. Don’t just go stand and gawk at them, or you won’t get the whole feel of what it was like in ancient Egypt and understand the monumental task of constructing the pyramids. While here you can check off “ride a camel in front of the pyramids” off your life’s To Do List. Just be cautious. If you came with a guide, let them do the negotiating for you, or you may end up coughing up a large amount of money for a very short camel ride.
Head over to The Sphinx for some fantastic photo opportunities. Having a guide here is helpful here as well. My husband, a construction buff, was extremely interested to learn the ancient methods of construction as explained by our guide. The only thing that feels a little off about The Giza Pyramids and The Sphinx is their proximity to the city suburbs of Giza. Almost right in the middle of it, actually. At the Sphinx, you can actually see a Pizza Hut across the street as you face away from it to have your photo taken.
Spend at least half a day at the Egyptian Museum. More, if you fancy yourself somewhat of an Egyptologist. It hasn’t had much in the way of updating since the museum’s foundation a century ago, but a dedicated sightseer can still find all the ancient relics and antiquities they desire. Getting out of the sun for a brief respite is worth the price of admission. Once inside, you can spend hours wandering through the exhibits and getting a feel of life in the time of Egyptian Pharaohs.
If you’re an avid souvenir collector, stop at one of the many papyrus factories or perfume factories. For a fairly reasonable rate, the perfume factory can mimic the scent of your favorite perfume or cologne and bottle it up in a gorgeous hand-blown glass bottle to take home with you. Keep in mind, their only purpose is to sell to you whatever they can, at as high a price as they can, so perhaps ask the concierge at your hotel to recommend one that doesn’t charge exorbitant rates.
Another great place to meander around for hours, souvenir shopping and people watching is The Khan al-Khalili, a sprawling market where you’ll find everything from kitschy souvenirs to Egyptian cotton clothing, exotic spices and beautifully hand-made backgammon boards. The merchants here are not too in your face, yet they’re still up for a good haggle.
Once you’ve shopped ‘til you dropped and out-pyramided yourself, it’s time for a pleasant felucca ride on the Nile. Feluccas are the ancient broad sail-boats that can be seen all along the Nile. Rent them by the hour, price includes a captain, and bring along some cold Egyptian Stella to make the ride even more enjoyable. Just one hour on the river, and you’re ready to pack up and move to Cairo – never mind the exhaustion of being a tourist in Egypt’s Greatest City.
These are but a very few of the multitude of activities available to any visitors here, one would have to spend a great deal of time here or make many return visits to see all that Cairo has to offer, and as I write this, I feel a strange desire to return to “The Mother of The World.”