Nearly two years after the
revolution, between the referendum and the anniversary, we
experienced Egypt as a safe and pleasant place to travel.
The bakery on a Friday
morning was the closest we got to turmoil and unrest in Egypt For more Egypt photos, click here and here
„And you are still
determined to go to Egypt?,” some of our friends inquired when we
were preparing for our 4-week research trip. “Isn't it dangerous
with all these political tensions?” Even our editor told us that
she would rather see us not going to Egypt. Just on the weekend we
departed for Hurghada, the first round of the referendum about the
new constitution was scheduled to take place. German media even
talked of a “realistic possibility of civil war” in Egypt.
Naturally our friends and relatives were concerned.
Yet (as we had expected)
we did not experience any threatening situation during our whole
stay – mostly in Upper Egypt but also in Middle Egypt, Cairo and
Alexandria. Neither did we see any political demonstrations, except
for a group of students in the Cairo subway who were spraying and
pasting announcements for events on the anniversary of the
revolution. Tahrir Square itself, where many of the demonstrations
have been taking place, was heavily fenced off on all sides. It did
have an eerie feel as the usually busy crossroads was almost empty
when we were there, but pedestrians could still walk over the square.
By the anniversary itself, we had already left Egypt.
On the other hand we met a
lot of Egyptians who where quite eager to discuss political matters
with us. Previously, under the Mubarak regime, we had never talked
about social welfare or elections in public busses. Talking about
political topics is a first step – obviously it is not sufficient
for a working democracy. In the last elections apparently many
Egyptians didn’t really grasp the concept of democracy and
elections. Even of those who went to vote, many did not even have the
most basic information about the parties on the ballot. We heard of
people who mixed up the progressive „Freedom Party“ with the
Islamist „Freedom and Justice Party“, thus ending up as
involuntary supporters of the Muslim Brothers.
„Yes, we always
play this kind of music, but only upstairs,“ the cashier of the
Brazilian Coffee Stores in Alexandria shrugs when we ask about their
new in-shop music style: Islamic chants. Over the next days we notice
more of the monotonous a cappella songs blaring from loudspeakers at
juice vendors, supermarkets, bakeries and fashion stores. On the
other hand quite often the shop next door will be playing Hakim or
Rihanna at a similar volume. There is obviously a polarization taking
place within society, at least in the North, and people tend to take
clearer positions for one side or another. Not necessarily a bad sign
concerning the process of democratisation, we think.
We also found a strong
distinction between Lower and Upper Egypt. In areas like Luxor, Aswan
and the Red Sea Coast, a high percentage of the population work in
tourism. They want a certain degree of stability for the tourists to
come back to Egypt, no matter who provides it. There are also more
conservative and more pious people in Upper Egypt who seem to be
appreciating the increased importance of Islam – but they were not
the revolutionaries who overturned the Mubarak regime.
In our opinion the
demonstrations and protests are quite necessary to make sure that the
Mursi government does not assume ever greater power, that it will
guarantee freedom of speech and press as well as free elections in
the future. Hopefully, voters and candidates will be better prepared
next time – but if people do want to vote for Islamist parties,
that is after all their own choice.
We would appreciate it if
foreign media would make a clearer distinction between terrorists and
Islamists, Taliban and Muslim Brothers. Egypt is not Mali, and
Muslims, for that matter, come in all shades.
In our experience the
situation for tourists was quite safe and is likely to remain safe in
the tourist areas of Upper Egypt. Of course it is always advisable to
check the current situation before any visit.
We get asked
sometimes where we stay when we travel – out of curiosity, surely,
and also to give recommendations. That's why we decided for a
comprehensive hotel report on all our accommodations this time. What
do you think? Should we do more of this?
Pro: We got a
good price (31 Euro on booking.com) for a large, tastefully furnished and very clean two-room
apartment. Apart from the bedroom there was a living room with sofa
and a dining table and large French windows – sufficient sockets in
all rooms. Good shower, and a small room advertised as "fully
equipped kitchenette" which consisted of a fridge, a water
kettle and two sets of plates, cups and cutlery. Good buffet
breakfast. The hotel is within walking distance from the airport.
Contra: What the kitchenette wasn't equipped
with was such basics as a sponge or a dishcloth. The small, unheated
pool that didn't get much sun in winter was of no use to us (but at
this time of the year it didn't matter either that it doesn't have
beach access). The TV-Satellite combination was complicated and
needed someone to set it up (who didn't show up).
hostel is centrally located near Talat Harb, yet far enough away from Midan
Tahrir, where demonstrations might take place, especially on Fridays. The room,
as well as the communal showers, were very clean. Staff was very friendly. Oh,
and El Abd, our favourite bakery in Cairo, has a shop right opposite!
Not so good:
Our room was very small. There were no hooks, no table and no chair. Breakfast
was included, but also quite poor and at least on Friday started not until 8:30
(inconvenient if you want to go sightseeing).
The Travelers' House Hostel is not a bad option in central Cairo, but we would
go back to the Luna Hostel next
House Hostel, 43 Sherif
Street (near 26th July St), 4F,
Tel. 02-23964362, firstname.lastname@example.org (Double around 140 LE)
of the winter's worst rainstorms was going down on Alexandria, we spent a day
in search of the city's past.
Coffee break in the Café Sofianopoulis
(for more recent Egypt photos, click here and here)
you know the Café Pastroudis?" - The elderly man with glasses smiles helpfully: "Err, yes – it's in this direction! Just walk straight and then turn
right the second street." It's the third time someone sends us along this very same road, but we
have been shown into all possible other directions as well. Instead, we only found a small coffee roasters as
well as the venerable Café Venus. The Venus still has
shopping windows full of light-pink cake boxes, but they don't employ a pastry
chef any more. Two single elderly men are sipping Turkish coffee in the
otherwise empty high-ceilinged rooms of a formerly plush cafe.
Pastroudis is shifting, or it is a fantasy altogether. Nearly everyone in
Alexandria seems convinced to know it, but they all don't remember exactly
where it is.
We had been
planning to write something about old-fashioned Greek cafés in Alexandria. So
far, only the well-known Cafe
Delices has materialised,
close to the Corniche and the big hotels. It is popular with students and
tourists, elderly couples and the progressive middle-class. Nice interior and
great cakes – but not very Greek. Further on, the Brazilian Coffee Stores Café
– also a time-honoured establishment from the 1920s – has recently taken to
playing Islamic chants at high volume.
last round around the block, someone finally explains that the Pastroudis has
shut down, and a new upmarket
restaurant chain, Abu El Sid, has moved into the building. Indeed we have passed Abu Sid several
times. Exhausted we go back through the rain to the Café Delices for a slice of
high-calorie Chocolate Cake.
day in Alexandria is almost over. It had been raining the whole day, the
streets have turned into rivers, we are wet and cold and we spent the better
part of the day on researching a topic that didn't work out. Finally we decide
to have a quick look at some colonial buildings we have marked on a map before
it gets dark. And then, quite unexpectedly, we find a good story for the
guidebook and another atmospheric Greek coffee-shop: Sofianopoulos!
evening we have dinner at the Athineos Restaurant on the Corniche, another
remnant of the large Greek minority that lived here until after World War II.
With mock Dorian columns and seafood other than grilled fish, it does have
something Greek about it (not to forget the name!), but we give up on the Greek
heritage article anyway - anyone harbouring nostalgia for the Greek heritage in
Alexandria should certainly go sooner rather than later to find whatever is
left of it.
liked: The two towers of the Marriott Hotel rise to both sides of the
historical Gezira Palace. This was built in 1869 to accommodate the illustrious
foreign guests invited for the opening of the Suez Canal, like empress Eugenie
of France and Emperor Franz Josef I of Austria. Today the renovated old palace
houses the lobby, several restaurants and the Omar Khayyam Casino. Very
The rooms in the new towers are quite big, and ours in the 10th
floor had a fantastic view on the Nile. Of course they provide all the services
and standards you would expect from a 5 Star hotel. Location is also quite
good, you are in leafy and chic Zamalek, but still close enough to all the
sights in Downtown.
didn't like: The hotel has more than 1000 rooms and suites and a lot of the
guests are business travellers. Compared to other Luxury hotels we felt that
the service, e.g. at Check-in, was quite rushed and standardized. The TV channel
list provided did not match the actual channels available on the TV.
Decent hotel with very good standards and great location, but not as
atmospheric as staying in an old palace could be.
Booking: www.marriott.com, Doubles from 170 Euro. Our
stay was sponsored by Marriott.
pleasant room with bathroom and balcony in a Coptic hotel: Clean,
tiled, regular hotel furnitures such as TV, fridge, mirror, hooks and
tables – some of this apparently from the original early 20th
century set. There were several sockets albeit in inconvenient
beds were somewhat uncomfortable, and one morning, the hot water
didn't last long. At 180 LE not the cheapest of a number of similar
hotels along the Corniche.
Ramsis Hotel is very close to the library, and otherwise quite
typical for the budget hotels in central Alexandria.
What we liked:
There was no carpet on the floor, in
a rather large room with a balcony onto the main street.
Unexpectedly, all of the fitted lights in the room were working (the
one above the bathroom mirror was not fitted in the first place, the
cables instead being used to hang the mirror).
bathroom was tiled in a way that the water actually drained off. And, there were a
total of 5 electric sockets, albeit in awkward locations (two of them
right opposite the shower, for instance). The manager spoke some
Not so pleasant:
There was an acute shortage of hooks
and hangers. The breakfast service was rather slow and in a cold and
unkempt room, but we got a really good Turkish coffee instead of
Nescafe when we asked for it.
Given the lack of hotels in Fayoum, the Palace Hotel is not a
bad choice, and very central.
The felucca ride to Banana Island is a popular
trip from Luxor. But where is that island?
Feluccas at "Banana
Island" (for more recent Egypt photos, click here and here)
Banana Island?“ the touts at the Luxor Corniche shout every time they spot a
tourist (even in quite a far distance). “No thank you, no Banana Island for us
today” we usually decline politely.
„There is no
reason to go there. It's very touristy. You walk through some banana trees, and
then you sit down in chairs like in my garden and eat some bananas, that's
all“, Mustafa from the Villa Nile House had confirmed our suspicions. But as it
happens, we have to check out the Banana Island trip this time for the guide
book research. To save time, we decide to take a motorboat instead of a felucca.
Once we are on the Nile, there are a
number of feluccas sailing in our direction, towards Banana Island. It is
obviously a popular excursion. As the water level of the Nile is low at this
time of the year, we go past a lot of plastic rubbish lying on the shores; large
hotel blocks loom on the other side of the river. We stop just a few kilometers
upstream on the West Bank, where a number of feluccas are already parked.
Balady, our captain, escorts us to show us the “island”. “But it's just the
West Bank, why is it called an island?,” we ask: “There is no other Nile arm
beyond.” “Oh yes, it's surrounded by water on all sides”, Balady insists. Well,
maybe it should be called "Banana Continent" then, instead of Banana Island.
But of course, there is a small irrigation channel somewhere beyond the Banana
least the Banana part of the promise is perfectly true. There's a proper banana
plantation you can wander about leisurely, with a traditional round dovecote in
the centre and a tiny pond next to it. In
the corner of this, a lonely crocodile is hunched: shedding
crocodile tears about his confined living conditions?
get out onto the terrace of the attached café, where several groups of Western
tourists are drinking tea and an extended Egyptian family has just ordered 18
Pepsi light. With our 5 LE entrance fee, we get one kilo of complimentary bananas
for the way home.
inquiry, it turns out that there are currently three different "banana
islands" in the Luxor area, none of them on an actual island. Presumably,
it is nicer in spring and summer when the water level is higher, but for
felucca rides we would recommend Aswan instead, or even Cairo.
What we liked: Given our obsession with
sockets and light, it was a plus that 4 out of 6 light bulbs were
working and there was a sufficient number of sockets for our
electronic equipment. As we stayed three nights we also appreciated
the small table with chair and the several hooks and hangers in the
closet. The shower was hot and had a good water pressure. Staff was
very friendly and caring. For a hotel in this price range, the
furniture was quite tasteful.
Not so good: We had a room
out on the street, which was quite noisy at times, but calmed down
around 11 pm. Once there was a longer power cut in the morning (not
the hotel's fault). They do not offer breakfast, but there are a lot
of options in town.
Hotel/ Funduk Sharta, Gumhurriya St / Damran St,
). The hotel is on the main road near the Corniche in the same block
as the Akhenaton Hotel (which most people will know). We paid 90 LE
for the Double en suite.
Plus: The Villa
Nile House on the West Bank is our favourite hotel in Luxor. Situated
near the ferry pier, it is quiet, has very tasteful rooms with TV and
hot water and several terraces and seating arrangements in the
garden. There is also a small pool to cool down in summer (too small
for swimming). They serve a very good sumptous breakfast and on
request do great dinners as well. Mustafa, the manager, is incredibly
friendly and helpful.
things: The Nouba Nile Hotel is close to the
railway station. Although the room was quite small, four out of five lamps were
working. And there were another 3 cables sticking out of the wall – a great
potential for light! The room had even more electric sockets than we needed and
was reasonably clean (fresh sheets and towels). The elevator plays Islamic
music whenever it moves, which is entertaining in a certain way (elevator did
not work half of our stay anyway).
our stay unpleasant:
Unfortunately the staff at the reception were very slow and unfriendly. The
room had a terrible smell and there was no chair or table. Breakfast was ok,
but there were only 3 small sachets of Nescafe for the whole hotel.
Conclusion: For 180 LE, the Nouba Nile Hotel is
on the lower end of only a few midrange options in Aswan – all of which are overpriced, but it is
still cleaner and more comfortable than the cheapies for around 130 LE. Ask to
see a few rooms before you decide on one.
liked (almost everything): History! History! History! The Old Cataract Hotel in
Aswan is one of the most famous hotels in Egypt. Agatha Christie wrote her novel Death on the
Nile right next door! The writing desk Winston Churchill used during his
stay today stands in the Winston Churchill Suite, from where Francois Mitterrand
loved to watch the sunset.
Today the Old Cataract Hotel belongs to the Sofitel
Group and has reopened in 2012 after several years of renovation. Old and new
have been ingeniously merged – you find yourself envying the
turn-of-the-century guests although you do know that they didn't really enjoy
the same comfort as you do today (flatscreen TV, espresso machine, towel warmer
As a guest (and only as a guest) you can relax on that famous
terrace overlooking the Nile, and go for a swim in the morning in the large
pool that not only has bathtub temperature but also a fantastic view.
Several times we are greeted as “Bonjour Monsieur”. There was a Bose Sound
System in the room, but to fit an i-pod one has to bring a connection cable.
Conclusion: A luxury hotel really worth its
name and the price. If you are planning to splash out for one night, do it at
the Old Cataract. Also watch out for special deals!
Booking: Sofitel Legend Old Cataract –
Abtal El Tahrir Street, Aswan. Tel: 097-2316000. www.sofitel-legend.com. Our one-night stay
was sponsored by Sofitel.
Minya by night (for more recent Egypt photos, click here and here)
Next to the
Horus Resort, an ugly concrete fountain greets nearly non-existent visitors.
Whenever we walk the streets of Minya, people wave at us, crying „Welcome to
Minya“ and "How are you". For many years, the pleasant university
town of Minya has been a difficult and rare destination for independent travellers,
and very few groups went there. Security measures were high since the violent
clashes between government security forces and Islamists during the 1990s, and
usually a police escort was required when moving around.
We find a
room in a small Coptic hotel (Beach Hotel / Funduk Sharta) near the Corniche,
where a policeman is always sitting in the lobby. Every time we pass him, he
inquires about our sightseeing plans and means of transport, and makes
telephone calls to inform all the other security staff at the checkpoints and sightseeing
spots about our coming; but otherwise he leaves us alone.
first day we visit the fantastic rock tombs at Beni Hassan about 20 km south of
Minya. Most of the 39 tombs belonged to governors of the Middle kingdom, and
four are open to visitors. The walls are covered with scenes from everyday
life, like wine-making, dancing and hunting. Not so long after the (3rd
millennium BC) civil war, wrestling and martial arts training for policemen
also feature extensively.
day we go by taxi to Al Ashmunein, Tuna El Gebel, and finally to the capital of
Pharaoh Akhenaton and Nefertiti, Tell el Amarna. In El Ashmunein (ancient Hermopolis), a vast
overgrown site with some stone pillars, capitals and relics of houses lying
around, one can feel like the 19th century explorers stumbling
through pharaonic monuments. In Tuna El Gebel – a burial site in the desert –
groups of youngsters a partying in the sand dunes, taking advantage of their day
off on Fridays.
Tell El-Amarna proves somewhat time-consuming: Although a bridge near Mallawi
has recently been opened, for some reason our driver insists on the ferry. When
we arrive it is already around 3 pm, and the staff, not used to having visitors
at all, make it clear that they want to leave work by 4:30 pm. Escorted by yet
another armed police guard we are rushed through the Northern tombs to the tomb
of Akhenaton, then – as we insist – over to the Southern tombs, and on the way
out we are allowed just a quick look at the Small Aton Temple in the old town
The roads are very bad and every few kilometres
there are bumps in the surface to slow down traffic, presumably a relic from
the 1990s security measures. After the 10 hour taxi ride (with sightseeing
breaks) we feel really sick.
Minya the next day, we would prefer the train. The policeman in the lobby sends
for a young security guy to escort us to the station and make sure we leave the
region (and the responsibility of Minya police!). At 10 am, the 9:30 train has
not passed yet, but it may well take another one or two hours to arrive. The
security guy suggests a bus. "This one is good," he urges us onto the
next microbus and confirms that we buy a ticket and leave town. The bus, it
turns out, is extremely slow, taking in every traffic-slowing bump, every
village and every fish-vendor going to market.
transport may be available to Beni Hassan, but you would definitely need a taxi
to see the other sites. We paid 30 LE per hour without bargaining. The driver
was not very familiar with the area (let alone the tourist sites), but found his
way around by asking several people.
Good things: The
room had almost an abundance of electric sockets and lamps – even
with two bulbs missing there was enough light. The whole hotel is
very colourful, and the sprinkles of pink on the bathroom fixtures
make a cheerful atmosphere. Just outside there's a pleasant and
popular shisha garden restaurant. We also liked that the New Abu
Simbel is situated in a non-touristy green neighbourhood just south
of the station. For 130 LE including breakfast it was a good value
for money, especially in Aswan, where most of the cheapies tend to be
There were no towels, no toilet paper and only limited bed linens.
The carpet was appallingly dirty and the whole room smelled of paint
or solvent. The breakfast consisted of two cardboard-like rolls with
some cheese and jam. We were not allowed into the dining room for
breakfast, because there was a group of pilgrims having breakfast -
and they got Egyptian foul (as far as we could see through the
The best of the cheap hotels in Aswan, but without a Nile view and
Booking: Aswan, Abtal el Tahrir
St., Tel: 097-2306096
Good things: The hotel is very conveniently
located between the railway station and the Nile, between Luxor
temple and the restaurant area. Due to its very competitive prices,
there were enough guests even to hold a small roof party with a very
tasty BBQ. The rooms as well as the bathrooms are always very clean
(you can walk the common staircase in socks). The owners, Mia and
Mohammed try to make their guests feel at home. In the morning, a
tasty breakfast buffet with omelette or pancakes, toast, jam,
cheese, cereals, yoghurt, fruit, coffee and tea is available for only
Inconvenient: The electric sockets are placed
overhead so that we had to hold up our electric kettle for making
Very good budget choice in the centre of Luxor. We paid 90 LE for the
double with shared bathroom (towels included). There are also dorms
for 25 EP and slightly more expensive en suites. We will definitely
“That's not Egypt! It
feels very artificial and European!” people had told us about El
Gouna. We went there to find out for ourselves:
surround the small marina; the outdoor tables of several cafés and
restaurants attract some strolling tourists. Several of the
picturesque houses are hotels, others are fashionable shops. Only a
short walk away there is another marina. A small orange-painted art
workshop is advertising pottery and art courses, and next to yet
another lagoon some Nubian inspired houses surround a garden and
pool. What a pleasant little village – for once in Egypt, there are
no ugly electricity lines, air-con boxes and concrete building sins.
All the houses seem to belong here, they are all well-designed and
The whole village is built
from scratch in the desert for people who love sunshine, lagoons,
marinas and cafés. And all the houses are built or supervised by the
same company, Orascom Development. All the hotels belong to Orascom
and more than half of them are managed by them. The real estate
company bought the plot from the Egyptian government and started
building in the 1990s.
Ghada, the guest relations
manager, leads us around town. “The company stipulates exactly what
kind of buildings are permitted,” she explains. You even need a
special permit to put up a satellite dish. All the houses have free
cable TV anyway, so there's not much demand for satellite dishes. And
it has to be fixed somewhere at the back of the house.”
While El Gouna is
completely purpose-built, it is not only a tourist village. El Gouna
has a sizeable resident community of people working here, not only in
the tourist business. Ghada points to a building in the distance:
„And that is the church.“ Probably she means the mosque, Natascha
figures, since many Egyptians use both words interchangeably when
they talk to foreigners. It turns out, however, that it is indeed the
church: A majority of the Egyptian staff in El Gouna are Copts (but
there is also a smaller mosque in a different town quarter). We pass
a campus of the Technical University of Berlin, next to one of the
American University Cairo and the “Palace of Knowledge”, an
online-library with access to the Alexandria library.
“Have you seen the water
treatment plant with the reverse osmosis tanks?”, the hotel manager
asks us. Ghada seems relieved someone else asked, because she can
never remember the technical term “reverse osmosis”. We can,
because we have just visited the water treatment system in Soma Bay,
a very similar but quieter resort. And no, we don't need to see
another group of water tanks, however developed the desalination
system. Yet we do wonder about the huge golf course next to the
Steigenberger Hotel. Isn't it a waste of precious fresh water to have
such expanses of green in the middle of the desert? But Ghada insists
that the reused water from the 17 hotels and the 15,000 resident
population is sufficient for all irrigation needs. Thus, El Gouna has
a double water circuit – one for the freshly desalinated water, and
a second one for irrigation.
Our conclusion about El
Gouna: It certainly has this Disney-like feel about it, but then
again, many people pay a lot of money for a few days in Disneyland.
El Gouna is perhaps a better choice. It is environmentally friendly,
the staff is treated and paid at certain standards, the town has good
restaurants and nice hotels (and a good climate). And for the
experience of a (somewhat more) Egyptian town visitors can take the
minibus to Hurghada's El Dahar quarter for 10 EGP.