Egypt was the first stop on our Christmas vacation that included Lebanon, Jordan and a brief transit through Israel. The best connection from Basel to Cairo was on Aegean via Athens where we arrived around 5pm. As we already had an e-visa, we breezed through immigration and were met by our hotel driver from the Hilton Heliopolis. The transfer from the airport to the hotel took about 20 minutes and was fairly painless.
The Hilton Heliopolis is a huge property boasting some 18 restaurants! We found this rather handy as you spend most of the time within the hotel complex and so a variety of eating options is important. Having visited Egypt before, I have stayed both downtown and at the Heliopolis area. As I don’t think strolling around the downtown area is particularly relaxing, I prefer to stay close to the airport at the Heliopolis.
Checkin took an inordinate amount of time - despite being a Hilton Diamond member. But other than that, arrival was fairly straightforward. We met our friends Phil snd Anthony who had arrived earlier that day from Sydney via Dubai.
We opted the first night for Eyptian Night, an Arabian themed restaurant outside near the pool area. We were a bit concerned initially as there were only a handful of people there, but it turned out that we didn’t need to. The food was excellent, plentiful and freshly prepared. We spent the night catching up with the gossip from back home and planning the next couple of days in Cairo.
The following morning we hired a wee man with a minivan to take us to the Pyramids of Giza, the Sphinx, and the Stepped Pyramids of Djoser. We arranged this through the driver who had brought us to the hotel the previous night. Cutting out the hotel as the middle man saved us a few dollars. The first stop were the Pyramids of Giza. There is a trick here. If you have a private tour guide with a car/van, they can bring the car/van into the pyramid complex which takes a lot of the walking out of the equation. Those who arrive on a mass tour bus will need to walk between the three pyramids. An upshot of this is that the third and smallest pyramid gets only a fraction of the traffic that the first and largest gets due to it’s proximity to the entry gate. So if it's a busy day and you want to avoid the crowds, get a private tour and head straight to the third pyramid.
The pyramids are simply breathtaking. At about 4,000 years old they are amongst the oldest structures around the coast of the Mediterranean - the Tarxian Temples of Malta are believed to be the oldest, dating back some 5,600 years to 3,600BC. There are 3 pyramids in the Giza complex and to keep it simple, I'll describe them as being built in turn by the Grandfather (Pharaoh Khufu), the Father (Pharaoh Khafre) and the Son (Pharaoh Menkaure). It is a truly amazing thing to stand before these iconic structures and boggle at how such huge blocks could be moved into place without any mechanised assistance that we take for granted these days.
The highlight of this visit was being able to head down into the actual burial chamber within the Great Pyramid - deep into the bowels of the massive structure to where Pharaoh Khafre was laid to rest 4,000 years ago. This is really something you must do in your life - like visiting the Taj Mahal. The Giza complex is across Cairo from the airport and the Hilton Heliopolis so you need to allow about an hour of travel time to get there. You also need to be prepared to be bombarded mercilessly by touts selling rides on the mangiest camels, malnourished horses and offering "genuine" miniatures of the pyramids at greatly inflated prices.
Next stop was the Sphinx. A mythical beast with the body of a lion and head of a man, the Sphinx sits directly facing from West to East as though it is guarding the Pyramids. It is very difficult to get a 1:1 photo with the Sphinx due to the sheer numbers of tourists flocking around. You also need to run the gauntlet into and out of the Sphinx complex through a maze of stalls selling more "genuine" Egyptian artefacts.
The last stop on this half-day tour was the Stepped Pyramids of Djoser which are about a hour from the pyramids of Giza. These pre-date their more famous brethren and are akin to a beta version of the Giza structures. These were built for Pharaoh Djoser as the name might suggest, and are constructed with large stepped levels rather than the consistent gradient of the Giza pyramids. There are a lot less tourists visiting these lesser known pyramids which makes it a more pleasant experience and one I would well recommend.
After that we headed back to the Hilton for some time by the pool and some relaxation. The December temperatures are not ideal for sunbathing and swimming I'll be honest. That night we opted for dinner in the Lebanese restaurant in the Hilton Heliopolis. The food there was fantastic! Everything we tried was brilliant. I highly recommend this one!
The following morning we took an uber to the Egyptian Museum downtown. This is quite an experience. The museum clearly doesn’t have enough funding as it feels more like a warehouse of artefacts rather than a museum. The benefit is that you can get right up close and personal with Tutankhamen’s burial mask and the mummy of Queen Hatchepsut. Some time in 2020 the museum is due to relocate to a new facility near to the Pyramids of Giza. I would strongly suggest you make a trip now before the relocation if you want to have a very intimate experience with these ancient and precious artefacts.
We lunched at the Nile Ritz Carlton which is right next to the museum. After lunch we hopped an uber back to the hotel for a spot of swimming and sunbathing by the pool. The air quality in Cairo is very poor - reminds me of Jakarta in the early 00’s - so try not to spend too much time breathing it in. That night we sampled the Indian restaurant, again in the Hilton, which was also great. We do love a good curry!
The following morning we headed off to the airport and hopped our flight down to Luxor for hot air balloons, Queen Hatchepsut and The Nile.
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