Archive for the ‘Egypt’ Category

tomb decoration at Saqqara

I have a dilemma. As dilemmas go, it’s not huge, but it’s my excuse for being a slacker on the blog front these last two weeks. I want to tell you about my week in Egypt over Easter, but every time I think about Egypt, I feel kind of sick. Maybe I’m allergic to Egypt now. I feel bad saying that, but I swear it’s true. Suffice it to say, I’ve definitely had nicer vacations.

My travel philosophy is to arrange things yourself — the flights, hotels, train tickets, restaurants, sight seeing — the whole shebang. Yeah, it’s a lot of time and hassle even with a superb guidebook or two or three, but I think you learn a lot about a country when you figure this stuff out on your own. Traveling independently doesn’t mean you have to travel low-budget (i.e., feel free to book expensive hotels or restaurants), but it makes it more likely that you’ll have serendipitous interactions with locals and learn new ways to get things done.

That said, based on my week in Cairo, Luxor and Aswan, if I were to return to Egypt, I’d take back everything I just wrote in the above paragraph and go on a packaged tour. Really. I’d get shuttled around like a sheep and I’d love it. I’d even accept all those breakfasts, lunches and dinners of bland, carb-heavy “international” buffets (or whatever it is those tours serve you). Because overall, I didn’t think the Egyptian restaurants and street stalls we tried were so super fantastic, and the frustration and exhaustion we felt every day outweighed the usual benefits of traveling independently.

For the record, because I’m feeling defensive, I’ve traveled in China, India and Thailand and had a marvelous time in all three countries, so I don’t think my dislike of Egypt stems from being unused to travel in the developing world.

So, without further ado — CAIRO, the things Jon and I learned:

  • Always count your change. Even at gleaming places at the airport. Our first taste of Egypt was when the guy at the Cairo Airport Hudson News ‘accidentally’ gave us 84 LE change instead of 94 LE.
  • Take taxis. With minimal negotiating, it costs just 10-15 LE (£1.17-1.75) to get from Point A to Point B anywhere in Cairo. The trick, though, is that once you get in the taxi, the driver usually has no idea where he just agreed to take you. When this happens, just tell him to stop and pull over. There will always be another taxi honking and pulling over to ask where you want to go.  Rinse and repeat until you arrive at your destination.
  • No matter what your guidebook says, forget about taxi meters. The one time we had a guy use the meter, he’d clearly messed with it because the fare zoomed up to 10 LE after just 2 minutes in the taxi.
  • Don’t negotiate a second time. In our experience, 75% of the time, after agreeing a price, a vendor or taxi driver would ask for more, as if we hadn’t already agreed on a price. We didn’t get angry and we smiled a lot, but we never backed down. That said, you can see how this gets exhausting when you do it 20 times a day.
  • Keep lots of small bills so you don’t end up with sellers claiming they can’t give you any change (which will happen 100% of the time if you don’t give them exact change for whatever you just negotiated). Small bills are also important for baksheesh, which really is paid everywhere from bathrooms in even nice restaurants to the temples you’ve already paid admission to get into.

felucca ride on the Nile just after sundown

  • Rent a felucca at the dock across the street from the Cairo Four Seasons hotel. For 60 LE (£7), we took an hour-long cruise on the Nile at sunset. It was just us and the two felucca sailors. Peace and quiet, the ultimate luxury in Cairo.
  • Hire any regular taxi to do a full day of sightseeing to see the Pyramids. For 150 LE (£17), our taxi driver agreed to take us all over the place from 8 am to 3:30 pm, so we were able to reach relatively-distant spots like the tombs and pyramids at Saqqara and Dahshur, in addition to Giza. Our driver spoke no English and had no idea how to get to Saqqara (he ended up asking about five different people for directions), but we were so grateful he didn’t take us to his cousin’s carpet/alabaster/perfume factory that we were glad to add a 50 LE tip at the end of our day together.
  • While we’re on the topic of the Giza Pyramids – don’t pay the extra 100LE per person to go inside the Great Pyramid. Not only do the guards hassle you about having a camera (time for more baksheesh), but also there’s nothing to see inside. Just a cramped, dark box. If you’re really eager to see the inside of a pyramid, try the Red Pyramid in Dahshur, which is free with a little baksheesh to the random dude squatting in the entrance. Be warned that in all pyramids, the climb is pretty stuffy and strenuous

Ibn Tulun Mosque in Cairo

Al-Azhar mosque in Cairo

  • Visit some of the mosques in Arabic Cairo.  I thought Ibn Tulun mosque and Al-Azhar mosque were highlights and well worth a visit (though we did get dropped off at random mosques by taxi drivers who would claim we had arrived at Ibn Tulun mosque – maybe we were pronouncing the name wrong, but it took three different taxi rides for us to finally arrive at the right mosque). Although Ibn Tulun is quite empty and Al-Azhar quite busy, both served as quiet refuges where we could sit and relax undisturbed.
  • And lastly re:  Islamic Cairo, I didn’t really enjoy the much-hyped Khan El Khalili market. Give me the Istanbul or Marrakech souks any day over all the aggressively-peddled tat we saw in Khan El Khalili. I wasn’t tempted at all to buy anything.

the "deluxe" sleeper train from Cairo to Luxor

TRAINS, the things we learned:

  • We’d heard from several friends and read in several guidebooks that trains were *the* way to travel from Cairo to Luxor and Aswan and back.  But while the overnight trains weren’t horrendously dirty, they were chilly, very dated and not exactly clean. And don’t get me started on the food. If I could turn back time, I’d look more seriously into flights, especially from Aswan back to Cairo (which was a 14-hour train ride). Train tickets were flat-priced at $60 each way, whether you were stopping in Luxor or going straight through to Aswan. And you had to pay in USD.
  • Don’t bother trying to reserve your overnight train tickets in advance. The on-line schedules are inaccurate; the office with which you communicate is awful at responding to your questions (as indicated on Seat61); and last but not least, once we arrived in Cairo and tried to pick up our tickets at Ramses Station, we learned that through some cock-up by the reservations office, we’d have to return the next day for one half of the tickets we’d reserved. The ticket window wouldn’t let us just cancel that reservation and order new ones on the spot, which made me feel like we were penalized for having tried to book in advance. INSTEAD, get your hotel (stay at the nicest hotel you can afford, no joke) to handle the tickets for you. You’ll pay a small extra fee (50 LE baksheesh to the courier and concierge), but it’ll be worth it.
  • Try the best you can to avoid uniformed “officials” like the police and train agents. When we were waiting on the platform for the train from Aswan to Cairo, a policeman insisted on taking our ticket and refused to give it back until we’d given him baksheesh. It was pretty awesome. We watched him do it to every foreign-looking person on the platform.  And then at 3:30 the next morning (it’s an overnight train), the train porter in our car woke us all up and practically shoved us off the train, claiming we had arrived at Cairo Ramses station. You can see what’s coming, right? It wasn’t Cairo at all. It was Giza, a solid 30 minutes away from Ramses station. We had to bum rush him to get back on, at which point he shrugged, changed out of his uniform anyway and called it a day.  Seriously, the guy just kicked out all the passengers so he could end his shift early.  Nice.

In summary, if you want to come home happy and relaxed, don’t travel independently to Egypt. See the sights, which are generally amazing, but see them with a package tour or some other insulating agent.  This advice goes against everything I believe in, but I guess it’s true that you should never say never.

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mint tea at Al Fishawi cafe in Cairo

Usually when I choose a holiday destination, I’m thinking about the food first and the sights second. But for Egypt, I reversed these priorities, and only after we’d booked our flights did I start looking into what Egyptian cuisine had to offer.

When Jon and I first arrived in Cairo, we were bright-eyed-and-bushy-tailed and excited to eat all that Egypt had to offer. So we started out strong, eating at both divey and high-end Egyptian places during our first four days in Cairo. But I must confess that as we made our way south to Luxor and Aswan, I increasingly craved light, fresh vegetables that were “safe” to eat, as well as dishes that did not involve deep fried fava beans or grilled lamb. We are so lucky to have the variety of cuisines we do in London.

koshari (before adding the tomato sauce)

On our first day in Cairo, walking towards the sprawling souk of Khan el-Khalili, we tried out koshari, which I’d read much about in our three guidebooks (Lonely Planet, Rough Guide, and DK Eyewitness). If said books are to be believed, it’s the quintessential comfort food in Egypt, comprised of pasta, chickpeas, lentils, a tomato sauce and fried onions. Having googled it, I learned that debating where to find the best koshari was the Cairene equivalent of New Yorkers arguing over the best slice in town.

In the end, rather than making our way to some much-touted location (Abou Tarek comes up a lot on-line), we just stopped by one of many koshari shops, settling on one that looked busy.

For 2 LE (24p!), we got an enormous plastic takeaway container filled with koshari. On price alone I can see why the dish is so popular. I enjoyed it, but I can’t say I got too excited about eating over-cooked noodles with a protein-heavy topping. I did, however, greatly enjoy the fried onions, which did its fried onion thing and added an appealing sweet crunch.

hole-in-the-wall tamiyya place on Sayyida Zeinab square (our fave in Cairo)

On more than one occasion, looking for a late-afternoon snack/quick lunch, we sought out tamiyya, the Egyptian falafel. Tamiyya uses fava beans instead of chick peas, so they look a bit greenish and the texture didn’t seem quite as fluffy as chickpea-based falafels, but overall it’s hard to find fault with tamiyya if it’s fresh. Like koshari, tamiyya is everywhere in Cairo, so just look around for tamiyya coming straight out of the fryer.

freshly-fried tamiyya

The tamiyya place we liked best was right on Sayyida Zeinab square, about 90 degrees clockwise from the Sayyida Zeinab mosque. I have no idea what this place was called, but the friendly fellow standing outside frying up the tamiyya in his white rubber wellies is a good way to spot this joint. He happily gave us a tamiyya for free to taste (and let me tell you – getting something for free in Cairo is a rare thing), and Jon and I loved how these tamiyya were cumin-dusted. Folded into a flatbread with some potato (so it’s more filling?) and costing about 3 LE (36 p) a sandwich, these were brilliant.

supposedly a tamiyya sandwich

While we’re on the subject of tamiyya — after going to see the many pyramids in and around Cairo from 8 am to 4 pm one day, we stopped by an Egyptian fast-food place (as in, it’s located inside the run-down Arkadia shopping mall) for a snack. On the menu was something called “tomaya,” which we assumed was the falafel we had come to love. What arrived at our table was essentially mayonnaise on a hotdog bun. We’re not sure what happened, but if our server is to be believed, tomaya is mayonnaise and so a tomaya sandwich is a mayonnaise sandwich. But why offer a mayo sandwich on the menu? We were still charged in full for this bit of grossness, but luckily 10 LE (£1) isn’t too harsh a penalty. But really – annoying.

chicken molokhiya (48 LE) at Abu al-Sid restaurant in Zemalek

To try some more elaborate (not streetfood) Egyptian food, we ate at a few “nicer” places that were recommended in our guidebooks and on-line (largely the same restaurants, really). Abu al-Sid, located on the leafy island of Zemalek, is described by guidebooks as the “best” upscale place to try Egyptian food. Our server there told us the molokhiya and the stuffed pigeon were his two favorites on the menu, and I tried them both.

I’ve concluded that molokhiya, a soup/sauce of boiled mallow leaves, is an acquired taste. I found it slimy and too salty, and I was skeptical that the menu described it as “Egypt’s National Dish.”

Stuffed pigeon with rice (55 LE/£6) wasn’t bad, but the pigeon was all skin and no meat, so really it was rice stuffed in a poultry skin — flavorsome and moist, but not very complex or memorable.

bessara, fuul (13 LE/£1.50 each) and kobeba (28 LE/£3.30) at Abu al-Sid restaurant

Bessara is fava bean and coriander dip. Abu al-Sid’s version tasted kind of sour and seemed to have developed a film on the top, which was unappetizing. Fuul is a thick soup-like dish comprised mostly of boiled fava beans, and normally eaten at breakfast, according to our guidebook. Abu al-Sid’s version tasted like a creamy black bean soup that had gone sour. We weren’t big fans, and the kobeba (fried cracked wheat and lamb) weren’t bad, but I’m not dying to eat them again.

And since I’m on the topic of Abu al-Sid: the service was bad. We placed our orders and then waited over half an hour for the starters to arrive. And presumably they weren’t making the bessara (fava bean dip) or fuul (fava bean stew) from scratch back there. Still, I wouldn’t be surprised if Abu al-Sid really is a shining example of Egyptian dining in Cairo.

allegedly a quarter kilo of kebab and kofte at El Dahan restaurant - sub par

While in Cairo, we also ate a lot of kebabs, but of course not all kebabs are created equal. I’ll contrast the much-written about Al Dahan, just off the Midan al-Hussein in the middle of tourist Cairo with the hidden-away El Refay near Sayyida Zeinab mosque.

Al Dahan: No one should be forced to eat these kebabs. Recommended by both our DK and Rough Guides as one of the best kebab places in Cairo, Al Dahan’s primary strength apparently seems to be that they grill the meat only after you order it, so it’s “fresh.” But the kebab meat was tough and at least 1/4 of the the pieces were gristle or fat, and there was little seasoning or spicing. It may have been cheap (28 LE/£3.30) for a quarter kilo, but it wasn’t good value.

El Refay was the exact opposite of Al Dahan, though listed in our Rough Guide. It’s down an alley that’s across the street from Sayyida Zeinab mosque. There’s no menu (not in English, anyway), and you just tell your server how many kilos you want, specifying if you want plain kofte or “wrapped” kofte, too. Turns out the wrapped kofte is wrapped in fat before going on the grill. So in case the kofte meat wasn’t fatty and moist enough, you’re doubly sure of a good outcome with the “wrap.” Our tab for a half kilo of kofte, bottomless bowls of tahini, and two bottles of water totaled 75 LE (£8.80). El Rifay is on Sayyida Zeinab square (midan Sayyida Zeinab), across the street from the Sayyida Zeinab mosque. To know which alley to walk down, look for the sign that says “Mongy Destrict.”

a half kilo of kofte at El Refay restaurant

the kofte ingredients at El Refay: sometimes it's better not to know

fresh salads that are 'safe' to eat at Oberoi-operated Naguib Mahfouz Restaurant

At the end of our fourth day in Cairo, we were dying for uncooked, water-filled vegetables. So we abandoned the idea of seeking out cheap “local” places and ended up at an Oberoi-operated restaurant listed in every Cairo guidebook: the Naguib Mahfouz restaurant/Khan El Khalili Cafe. As the name suggests, the restaurant is inside the Khan El-Khalili souk, so you really run the gauntlet of touts to reach the restaurant. Inside, it’s an oasis of calm, but everyone in there was a tourist. The grilled meats were less than stellar, but we loved being able to eat fresh vegetables (the assumption being that at these prices and given the Oberoi’s luxurious reputation, the veg were “safe” to eat). Our total for three salads and a mixed grill came to the relatively-princely sum of 202 LE (£24).

After loading up on tomatoes and cucumbers at Naguib Mahfouz, we left Cairo and headed south to Luxor and Aswan. More on those dining options in my next post.

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Greetings from Cairo, Egypt

The Sphinx at Giza

I had every intention of putting up a post before Jon and I left for Cairo, but because Virgin Media continues to fail me at home, it looks like there’s going to be a week-long gap before I can put up anything with photos.

In the meantime, Jon and I are on Day 2 in Egypt, and Cairo is so far meeting expectations. It’s huge, fascinating, dusty and already somewhat exhausting. (When the guy at the sleek, modern airport convenience store short changes you by a couple large bills, you know it’s time to stay on guard).

Despite having to haggle for every little thing (except our super-blinged-out oasis, the newly-built Fairmont), we’re taking in the sights and trying a lot of street food (at our risk, if guidebooks are to be believed, because it’s impossible to get the stuff “without salad”).

Koshari (macaroni, lentils, tomato sauce and fried onion – seriously), taamayya (fava bean cooked falafel style) and fuul (fava beans, mashed up hummus style) have been plentiful and cheap (about 3 Egyptian Pounds or 36p(!) for a typical taamayya sandwich). The contrast between the hotel we’re staying and the cost of pretty much everything else is crazy. The gap will diminish as we make our way south and stay in more modest digs – I think.

Tomorrow it’s off to the Giza, Saqqara and Dahshur pyramids if the taxi driver we struck a deal with today shows up as agreed, and then on Tuesday, we’re on the overnight sleeper train to Luxor, and then to Aswan.

I haven’t had much luck finding places to eat in Luxor and Aswan that are outside of guidebooks (we’re carrying three – Lonely Planet, Rough Guide, and a DK – interestingly, all three list the same restaurants), so if you’ve got a rec, pleeease leave a comment below.

Happy Easter, and ma a’ salama!

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