The Big Finale!

**As we write this we are back in Cairo. So you will see our photos again!  YAY!!!!!! **

This will be the last post of our trip. Since it covers 3 days' worth of activities, it is rather long. So find a comfortable place to sit, relax, and enjoy the ride.

Sunday, December, 24, 2017

Sunday was pretty much a travel day. We did not get as far as planned on Saturday night (for reasons unknown to us), and had to tie up somewhere south of Edfu. Right after we heard the first muezzin’s call of the day at 5 am, the boat started up again. Even then, we were late getting into Esna.  The weather so far has been outstanding: clear, sunny and mid 80s each day – 10 degrees above normal. But today was windy, with temps in the low 70s, so it felt much colder. At 9:45 we disembarked, walked along the stone embankment and up some steps to street level. Accompanying our group were two guards armed with machine guns. At the top of the steps were more armed police (or army) men. But the scene looked like many others we have seen in small towns across the globe: tuk tuks racing by, some horse drawn carts, tired looking buildings (with the mandatory Mediterranean shutters), and people busily going about their day. We crossed the street and went through a dark side street where once again there were a dozen or so shops with tourist-oriented merchandise. Then we came upon the Temple of Esna. How?  By looking down into a block-sized pit. That is because the base of the temple was a street level when building began in the 1st century AD, but the current city is now about 35 feet higher!

Temple of Esna looking down from the current street level

This is a Greco-Roman structure that was built by the Egyptians. The Roman Empire was growing at that time, and the Old Egyptian ways were beginning to be usurped. So the temple is an interesting mix of both. It shows Roman Emperors dressed as Pharaohs, in traditional Pharaonic scenes (killing enemies, giving offerings to the gods, etc.). Indeed, in this temple the Emperor Diocletian was depicted as a god.

Inside there are (again) massive stone columns, but here the roof is intact! The columns, walls, and ceiling are all adorned with beautiful carvings. In some areas, ongoing restoration (basically, cleaning off 2,000 years of grime) has revealed the beautiful colors.

And then back to the boat. It is Christmas Eve, and the rest of the day featured on-board activities prior to our departure for Cairo tomorrow.

And one of those activities was…. Ta da!  A cooking demonstration of Egyptian donuts (Zalabia) ! Yes, Wendy has her own donut blog and researches donuts around the world—but the placement of this particular activity was an absolute coincidence.  Apparently, zalabia are a Mideast phenomenom-- the identical pastries are also made and served in Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, etc., and in Morocco (with the accent on the 3rd syllable).  The proper Egyptian pronunciation places the accent on the 2nd syllable.  Speaking of accents, Arabic is spoken throughout the Arabian peninsula and in many areas of the Mideast.  Each country, with Egypt being no exception, has its own dialect.  But, we digress.

The chef, Hamdy, and his abled-bodied assistant, Karim, started off by giving us some history.  Zalabia have been prepared and served as sweet treats (on Fridays to usher in the day of rest) for the past 400 – 500 years.  Next, the chefs handed out recipes.  The batter is simple enough—sugar, milk, yeast, flour salt, corn oil, and corn starch (Hamdy explains corn starch makes them crunchy on the outside). 

Once the ingredients are mixed together, they are left to rise for two hours.  Then, they are spooned by teaspoonfuls into hot oil.

When done, the Zalabia are dipped into cinnamon or powdered sugar or a sugar syrup (honey could substitute) and eaten—immediately.  They were delicious!  Donut holes with a crunch but much lighter.  Hamdy and Karim served each of us 3 of these tasty treats—but some of us consumed many more than that!  They were scrumptious!!!!  Several of us had the opportunity to try our hand at spooning the batter into the hot oil.  Let's just say it was harder than it looked!  What a fun way to spend part of the afternoon on Christmas Eve.

Our wonderful guide Ossama

The last activity before dinner was a lecture on recent Egyptian politics by our dear guide, Ossama.  It was very informative—albeit a marketing strategy to ensure that when we go home we tell all of our family and friends how safe it is to travel in Egypt. Apparently, there was no love lost between the Egyptian people and Barack Obama—primarily because of his highly acclaimed speech to the Muslim world from Cairo and then a number of other perceived slights.  Apparently, in addition, the Egyptian people/government were quite pleased to see Donald Trump elected as our 45th president because this would represent a change in US policy  (thought they are none too pleased with his current actions on Jerusalem).  It was rather challenging to discern where the line resided between truth and alternative truth in Ossama’s talk—but it was enlightening, nonetheless.

Our final dinner on the ship, and it was a doozy! Christmas Eve is a big deal here, so they went all out for us. As we entered the dining room, we saw a sweet table covered with dozens of Egyptian desserts (including zalabia).

It also featured huge squashes carved into beautiful shapes…..

…..and bread baked into the shapes of a turtle, a crocodile, and snakes!

When we were seated we noticed that each place setting had eleven pieces of silverware! Apparently this was to be some meal! They handed out menus, although that was just to show us what was in store, as it was a full multi-course fixed dinner. And this meal was truly blog worthy.

First up was veal carpaccio with parmesan shavings in aioli sauce.

 It was divine.

Next up was cream of pumpkin soup with roasted pistachio pieces.

Perhaps not very photogenic, but the best pumpkin soup ever. One member of our party even asked for seconds!

Then, grilled lobster tail! Cut away from the shell into chunks and mixed with a sauce. Accompanied by a small mound of rice and a few delicately carved veggies.

The palate cleanser course… cinnamon sorbet with a touch of sparkling wine. Again, this won’t win “photo of the year”, but the taste was sublime.

Then, the main course! Filet au Poivre…beef tenderloin with peppercorns in a brandy sauce. It was served with William’s potatoes (potatoes pureeed, formed, and then quick-fried), and a sampling of veggies (our first Brussel sprout of the trip!).

The previous courses had all been reasonably sized considering the whole gamut of courses, but this one was on the large size. Most people took a few delicious bites of the tender meat and discretely put down their forks.  

Next, the FIRST dessert! Rectangles of nougat in a sweet sauce.

Unique and tasty!

Followed by bananas flambe ( tasted better than it looks).

And for anyone who still had an ounce of intestinal space left, and the strength to get up, there was the dessert bar.

One of the chefs with a special Bouche de Noel

All in all, one of the best dinners we have ever had anywhere. The entire meal was certainly fit for a Pharaoh or his queen of large appetite.

Monday, December, 26, 2017

Monday was also mostly a travel day. Up early for our flight back to Cairo. With the drive to Luxor airport, the 1.5 hour wait for the flight, the 1 hour flight, and the drive through the once-again bizarre Cairo traffic, we finally got back to the hotel at 3 pm. We had a delicious lunch of Egyptian foods from the sumptuous buffet, and then rested for an hour or so before our excursion to the "Sphinx and Pyramids Light Show".

At 5:00 it was back into the car-to-car snarl for the several mile ride to Heliopolis, the upscale Cairo suburb and site of the 3 largest Pyramids and the Sphinx.

This is the only remaining of the 7 Wonders of the Ancient World, and must be one of the most heavily visited tourist sites there is. As such, you would think the government would make the approach to it something grand or at least modern. We got off the highway and turned onto a dirty, rocky, rutted road. Took this for about a mile going past a true slice of Egyptian life. Many small shops brightly lit, and throngs of people on foot, on donkey-pulled carts, tuk tuks and cars darting everywhere (some even going the wrong way down the street!), and even the "Pyramid Poultry Company". And lots of garbage. It reminded us a lot of frenetic sites and sounds of during our adventure in Varanasi. Finally the road became more suitably paved shortly before we arrived at the entrance gate.

We got there about 6:05, at dusk, for the 7:00 show. There are 3,000 seats (like plastic patio chairs) including 200 reserved for dignitaries and other VIPS. We assumed it would be jam packed, but by the time it started there were only a few hundred people there. It was in the 50s and windy, but we were dressed appropriately. However, a vendor was renting heavy wool blankets for 10 LE (50 cents!) so we got one (good move!). And it was just on the honor system to return it after the show!

It was very cool to see the Pyramids and Sphinx rising from the desert, but not as much as it would be the next day in the daylight. The Sphinx, about 200 feet away, was most visible as it reflected some of the light from the seating area. The Pyramids were just shadowy outlines in the dark.

There were several optional sound and light shows on our tour, and our guide politely suggested that we save our money and skip them, which we did. This one, though, was included. We had hoped that it would be impressive and awe-inspiring, but after the first 5 minutes, we were ready to leave. It was very lame and sounded like a 1950s Hollywood production. A definite must miss and not even one good photo to paste.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

(Writing from the Munich Airport)

Our last day! The grand finale of the Pyramids and Sphinx up close!!!!!!!!!!!!
As our guide said, when anyone thinks of Egypt they picture the Sphinx, the Pyramids, and people in front riding camels. So today would be our chance to make that picture real.

Another early start as we first went just outside Cairo to the remains of the ancient city of Memphis, the first capital of a unified Egypt (Upper -- south , and Lower -- north ). There we saw what remained of a temple: a sphinx (warm up for the big one!), some miscellaneous columns, statues, and sarcophagi.

Sphinx c. 1,550 - 1,069 BC, which
may well be a representation of Queen Hatshepsut

Yet another statue of Ramses II

There was also what was left of a 70' colossal statue of Ramses II. When it was found, it was dragged to this site, and parts of it broke off! (Should have hired some old-timey Egyptians for the move!). Once here, they erected a building around it for protection. There was not much room and the sun was shining in, so this was the best picture we could get. We are standing next to it, so you can realize the scale of this statue.

Back in the bus for a short ride to Sakara, another "suburb" of Cairo, which is known the world over for their carpets (and the namesake of the beer Wayne has been drinking all week). Here we saw a step pyramid (and a few others) which was literally the grand-daddy of the Great Pyramid. As we pulled in we got amazing views: on the left were date palms, flowers, and civilization; on the right: the beginning of the Sahara dessert, and an endless view of rocks and sand dunes.

The Pyramid of Djoser (or Djeser and Zoser), or step pyramid is an archeological remain in the Saqqara necropolis. It was built during the 27th century BC for the burial of Pharaoh Djoser by his vizier, Imhotep. It is thus not only the oldest pyramid still standing, it is also the oldest stone building in the world. was cold in the desert in the morning

We next walked to the tomb of Titi. Our guide gave us the chance to walk into it, and Wendy was one of the few in the group who did. There was a steep narrow low-ceilinged walkway that led to a small room with hieroglyphics and the sarcophagus (no pix allowed).

There were a few more pyramids in the area, as well as the remains of a temple (deja vu all over again).

Bus time again, for a ride to one of Sakara's carpet schools. Rug making by hand is a big industry here, and they start training the children at an early age. But they are also very strict about making sure the children get a good education. So they call the factories "carpet schools" as they serve a dual purpose. We saw the obligatory rug and knot making demo, then "surprise" into the main store for a chance to buy! We have been there too many times (and did not need another carpet) so we went outside to enjoy the sunshine while the rest of the group shopped. Donkeys pulling carts loaded with grass or sugar cane, people of all ages on rickety bicycles, and a flock of sheep being led down the street by an old man and a woman.

So while some people enjoyed their time inside (including a few purchases), we think we made the best use of the time. This was really our only chance to experience Egyptian life on the whole tour.

By this time it was about 12:30, so we went for lunch at a famous fancy-shmancy hotel, The Mena House. One of its great attractions was the superb view of the Pyramids from the restaurant. Though our group was the only people there, the service was extremely slow, so when our food finally arrived we had to eat really fast to stay on schedule.

Because our next stop was:  da-da-da-daaaa: The Pyramids.

The largest is the Great Pyramid of Cheops. It is as tall as a 45 story building and was the tallest man-made structure on earth for centuries. Each side is 755 feet wide, and consists of 2.3 million blocks! Though we have all seen pictures, you can not really appreciate the size until you are there in person.

We had packed our Cubs W flag, but left it in the room. Oh well.

The second Pyramid, that of Cheops' son Khafre, is only a few hundred yards away, but it is easier to get to it by the bus. This pyramid is 3 feet shorter than the first, out of respect for his father. The third one, that of the grandson Menkaure, is smaller and farther still; we did not go to it.

What we did instead is take another camel ride in the Sahara Desert!!!!!! (See our Morocco post to relive that experience.)

Once again it was a fun, albeit uncomfortable, 20 minutes. The whole point is to get to a vantage point where you can take that iconic picture with the 3 pyramids in the background (and a ham of a camel).

Fun factoid: "Pyramid" is not an Egyptian word, nor what they call them. It actually comes from the Greeks. Turns out they made a small cone-shaped cake called a "pyramid". So when they first came to this land, they noted the similarity to these monuments and used that moniker. And it has stuck with us every since. Also, as mentioned in an earlier post, "Egypt" also come from a Greek word. But the Egyptians themselves call their country "Misr".

Finally, we drove back to the same parking lot as the night before to get our "up close and personal" with the Sphinx. The greatest monumental sculpture in the ancient world, the Sphinx is carved out of a single ridge of stone 240 feet long and 66 feet high.

You have to go through a series of small passageways to get to the closest viewing area, which itself is pretty small. And it was crawling with tourists! So you had to kind of elbow your way up to the wall to get situated for the best photo ops.

And thus ended our tour of this ancient land.


As this is our last post on our Egypt journey, we have some wrap-up thoughts.  First, as we mentioned in an earlier edition, we never expected this to be an eating extravaganza trip as we knew the lion’s share of our journey would be on the Nile. The food on the cruise was delicious, but—disappointingly—there was only one meal where Egyptian dishes were featured.  Otherwise, we had to hunt and peck among buffet offerings--—both on the cruise and in Cairo.  That said, we discovered that many of the best dishes we’ve had around the Mediterranean are featured in Egyptian cuisine.  These include, but are not limited to:  shwarma, pita (though Egyptian bread is closer to naan than traditional pita and very delicious), wonderful assortments of pastries/cookies, many varieties of eggplant, moussaka (they had a vegetarian version on the cruise that was delectable) delicious mezzes including hummus, babba ganoush, and individual salads with carrots, beans, white beans, cauliflower, corn, rice, feta, and many more.  Three dishes that are specifically Egyptian, and that we particularly enjoyed, were the afore-mentioned zalabia, foul (pronounced fool—this is a refried beans type of dish served at breakfast with various condiments—very delicious!) and koshari (a fantastic rice dish with lentils and chick peas that is served with fried onions and hot sauce).  Apparently, koshari is very trendy as a NY Times published an article about affordable Cairo on 12/24 (click to read) in which a restaurant dedicated to the dish was described.  Wendy also tasted pigeon—very Egyptian  Let’s just say it definitely tasted like chicken! Something else that seemed distinctly Egyptian were the juices with which we were greeted after every shore excursion.  These included:  guava, mint lemonade, honeydew, date, strawberry, apple, pineapple, coconut, banana, and more.  Finally, when Wendy asked the chef to compare Egyptian cuisine  to Palestinian cuisine, he said they were similar.

Here’s another similarity to other countries in the Mideast that we noticed.  There is nothing in the world (at least the world we’ve experienced) like Arab hospitality.  Whether it is the hospitality we experienced in Istanbul, Marrakesh, Bethlehem, Petra, or floating down the Nile—the desire to ensure that guests are well taken care of in this part of the world is incomparable. This is not to say that we have not been treated well outside the Mideast/Northern Africa.  It’s just that the love and over-the-top desire to please is different here. And we loved every second.

Moving to another topic you may have wondered about.  Many among our family and  friends expressed concern that we would not be safe in Egypt.  Let’s just say that we were well protected.  On our last day, our dear guide Osama informed us that after the attacks on Cairo tourist sites in 1997 (that’s not a typo), the US required police escorts and extra security for US tourists traveling in Egypt—particularly at the very popular sites.  So, every day, we had a plain clothes policeman (with concealed carry) with us on the bus.  In Cairo, we had a police escort van (with 3-4 policemen carrying rifles).   This was reassuring and creepy at the same time.  We could not tell if the terrorist threat is real or imagined / non-existent. But, then—aside from our tour group—Egypt seems to be a highly-militarized society-with frequent checkpoints—particularly leading up to tourist areas.

So, how did this end up playing out for our experience in Egypt?  We loved the trip.  Seeing the antiquities was extraordinarily unbelievable. The cruise was a wonderful experience.  The weather was perfect.  Our group was great.  Our guide, Osama, was extraordinary.  But, perhaps because of the focus on keeping us  safe—or the desire of the Egyptian tourist board to do whatever it takes to bring back tourism—we saw a somewhat sanitized version of Egypt.  We did not go out on our own.  We didn't dine outside the hotel or cruise ship unless we were with the group (and then we went to other exclusive American style hotels).  We only shopped in scrubbed down tourist-proof showrooms.  Could we have requested a one-on-one escort through the souk?  Sure, but our days were long as it was and intense—so we didn’t.  So, I wish our trip had been more authentic and grittier with more “off the grid” experiences.  But, I understand why it wasn’t.  It was still extraordinary and one we won’t easily forget.

Thanks for following along and see you this summer.  Destination to be confirmed!
Love, w&w...............
ps: A final photo of the ticket stubs from all the museums, tombs, and temples we visited!

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