Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Visiting Cairo

I'm back!  I can't get the hang of blogging on my phone, so I'm sorry not to have been posting for a while, or commenting on everyone's blogs.  But Egypt was fascinating, so here is a post to tell you about some of my impressions and experiences in Cairo.

And yes, I did go on a camel  (above) you can see the back of its head in the foreground , as it plodded towards the Pyramids one evening.  It was very easy to ride, I was glad to find. Those big squashy feet seem to absorb bumps and jolts,  and you almost glide along.

And that's my shadow...yee-hah!!!!!!!!  I was being overtaken by a couple of the horses which tourists also like to hire. Although seems to me that if you have taken the trouble to go all the way out to the Pyramids, you might as well do it properly and hire a camel.

I hadn't known what to expect from Egypt.  It turned out that it blew my mind.  Even though I've been lucky enough to go to some amazing places, Cairo seemed special.  It gave me the feeling that I have hardly ever had before, of history going back in a continuous procession over literally thousands of years. It's bustling and chaotic and that is the way life has been for most of human existence, with people thronging the streets, selling whatever they can. Here people are selling flatbreads, funky laundry baskets and coat hangers, raisins, sweets, lamps....  I just snapped that through a gap in a bridge.

Cairo bears the physical and mental scars of many years of corruption, bad planning and dictatorship, but it is also beautiful, and I was constantly assailed by that feeling of life flowing from the distant past to the present in a continuous stream.  Look at the picture below, which shows Islamic minarets, some of which date from the 13th century, rising from today's chaotic traffic, while in the far distance, a pyramid stands where it has stood for the past  four and a half thousand years. 

I wish I'd had the chance to spend more time in Cairo. It's got such an atmosphere and such a personality, and I made up my mind to go back, not least because for me, the city has some personal associations.  My family is not Egyptian or Arab, but my dad was raised in Cairo as a boy, and both he and my mother were there at various times before I was born. We have old family photographs of them in Egypt, and they often talked about it.  So, on Mum's instructions, I made sure to go to the street where she had worked, very near Tahrir Square.

There, I found many of the elegant French inspired buildings that she'd described to me, albeit in a very dilapidated condition. Intriguing, though.

I felt really sorry that I hadn't scheduled more time in the city, and I longed to explore this particular shop, which reminded me of one of those strange old antiquities shops that seem to occur so often in Victorian and Edwardian stories, like E Nesbit's children's book "The Story of The Amulet"  (it's a great story, by the way - read about it  here )

I had a very entertaining lunch in a laid back restaurant in the street, called Felfela, with plants and birds. It's one of those cafes you get in the Middle East where people sit around chatting half the day. I wish I'd got some photos of the food, which was excellent.  I'm told it is one of the few places in Cairo that caters for vegetarians - not wanting to eat meat is a concept that Egyptians seem very surprised by.

I didn't find the atmosphere in Cairo the slightest bit dangerous. Ordinary people, even very poor ones, seemed pleasant and decent.   Of course I would not have approached a political demonstration if I'd seen one (which I didn't) and there is still much to resolve as the anniversary of the revolution approaches on 25 January.  Western residents I spoke to in the city said they felt that it was now as safe as any big city, but to me, the main cause for hope seemed that everyone I spoke to was united in their relief at being free from Mubarrak and in their determination to have a better Egypt, one way or another.

Anyway, although Mum was a bit sorry to find that the area she knew had gone down, she was interested to hear about my more recent impressions, and we were pleased to find that she'd often been to social events at Mena House, where I stayed.  I was really pleased that Discover Egypt, which hosted my trip, managed to get me in here.   This historic hotel began life as a hunting lodge of Khedive Ismail, but quickly became popular with high society as hotel and gathering place.  Mum remembers being very startled by an extremely large belly dancer she once watched there and she also remembered the fantastic view of the Great Pyramid. from what was then the entrance .......

but is now an immensely grand breakfast room


The old part of the hotel has been used as a location for several movies, and you can see why.

I can't resist putting in the picture of my Eggs Benedict. which were recommended by a couple of the other guests. They said they were the best they'd ever had, and I thought so too.  If Eggs Benedict were poetry, these would be Byron.


One thing that was rather sad is that the 2011 newspaper reports of city problems (which were very real at the time)  have now had a catastrophic effect on tourism even to faraway spots like Luxor where nothing at all has happened and life is very small-town.

Things are now improving, and visitors (many of them lured to Egypt by stunning travel bargains) are trickling back, but the dent this is making in the local economy is specially obvious in Cairo.  The big operators can afford to hang on and wait for things to get back to normal, but many other people who depend on tourism, from tour guides to camel-owners, are finding life very hard. 

Indeed, last week, in the middle of the high season, I had the Pyramids almost to myself.  Great for me as a tourist, but sad, too.


  1. Thanks for this - the photos are wonderful.

    And you make a v valid point about countries that are recovering from disorder needing tourists - they've enough problems without the money from tourists going into freefall.

  2. What a gorgeous post! I have always wanted to visit Egypt and suspect I would have a similar emotional reaction to you. My family is also not Egyptian but my mum was born in Alexandria in Egypt! My family are Sephardi Jews who had landed up in Egypt after 400 years of moving from Spain to Greece and Turkey and then to Egypt.

  3. Oh my... it sounds lovely, and the photos are lovely too!

    Totally agree with you, if you go all the way to Egypt, then riding a camel is must! :)

  4. Lovely photos and equally lovely story of Egypt. :)

  5. Interesting post, Jenny, and lovely pictures. I think many of us are fascinated with Egypt after the history we've heard all our lives. This is as close as I will likely ever be, so thank you so much!

    Blogging from the phone is tedious, in my opinion. If one is going to do a 2-3 sentence post, it might be doable, but it would be more trouble than it's worth, I think. Besides, this was worth waiting for!

  6. Hello Jenny:
    What a wonderfully atmospheric post you treat us to here. The photography is amazing and gives a real sense of this most exotic of cities. We have always thought that we should like to see Egypt and your post has tempted us greatly.

    It is very sad to read of the collapse of tourism but to have the experience of seeing the pyramids in their glorious solitude would surely have been a most memorable event. Yes, return you must and, go we should!!

  7. Stunning... I've always wanted to visit Cairo and many other places in Egypt... love the grand breakfast room... reminds me of a scene from the first Indiana Jones movie :-)

  8. A beautiful country for your story, I'm glad your back and you enjoyed it, I read so. A greeting.

  9. I can't help thinking about Agatha Christie's books, like "death on the Nil": same mood, old fashioned places, charming restaurants..Egypt is such an inspiring country!

  10. This is one of my favorite vicarious trips through you so far! I've always been captivated by Egyptian mythology, and wrote hieroglyphic notes to like-minded friends in childhood. But your photographs even transport me right into an Agatha Christie mystery! How lovely for you to have a family connection to Cairo, which I'm guessing wasn't far off from the period of Agatha Christie for your grandparents. Wonderful experiences and photos on the camel, etc. Even the Byronic eggs add to the atmosphere! My brother and his family took a holiday to Egypt a few years back and it is definitely still on my list of places to experience.

  11. Egypt is fascinating! I took my family there last year as did what my parents did for me, booking holidays that linked to my studies... and the huge reward was to see the look on my daughter's face when she saw the 1st pyramid between the buildings as we were driving! And I met a friend from Hong-Kong inside one of the pyramid!Fas-ci-na-ting place, absolutely!

  12. My Mum always wanted to go to see Egypt. I've never had any inclination so to do. Perhaps until now that I've read this. I wonder why. Perhaps reading something like this by someone you 'know' and trust and who knows about travel is different from the memories of friends who have been on a Nile Cruise or to the Pyramids or reading an article in a travel magazine. I might succumb!

    By the way the most sumptuous eggs benedict I have ever had or seen were (and hopefully still are) served at Sunday Breakfast at the Café Antipasti in Byers Road, Glasgow. My problem is that they are too sumptuous and I'm done for the day when I have them.

  13. Beautiful photographs! They are so ethereal and mysterious -- exactly the way I imagine Egypt to be. Thank you for sharing -- hopefully one day I will get there myself. And those Eggs Benedict look to die for!

  14. I kept wondering why I wasn't getting updates for you and just now realized that I wasn't following you. I swore I was!!! I am now!

  15. There is nothing more ancient than the earth we are standing on. But when civilization takes hold and starts building fantastic creations like the pyramids that span centuries, it is awe-inspiring. Through your photos I sense a vibrant ancient culture where lines between past and present merge. It was interesting to get a look at this transitioning land from your perspective.

  16. Wonderful! Thank you for the pictures, descriptions and information. I am going to send the link to your post to my sister; she's been to Cairo a few times in the 1980s and 1990s and was, I think, just as impressed as you were.
    And didn't I tell you that riding a camel is most comfortable? :-)

  17. Oh this was so interesting! That room is amazing and I can see why it has been used in the movies. Gorgeous! Your posts are always so fascinating! Glad you're back. :)

  18. fascinating images. It is good to see a place a it is, not as it is presented for tourists.

  19. Lovely to see those old French influenced buildings. I want the old phonograph! A good taste of Egypt, the crowds, the old buildings and the pyramids, plus a bit of social comment. Very good.

  20. What a great post, Jenny! Lovely photographs..

    I'm curious. Do they "name" their camels the same way we do our horses here in the states? Silly question, perhaps. :)

    Hey, thanks a bunch for stopping by the Society recently. 'Twas a pleasure having you. I'm following you now, cuz this is probably the closest to globe-trotting I'll ever get! Great blog.


  21. Wonderful words and pictures - I am pleased you had such a pleasant time. It is good to hear positive things about the region.

    Best wishes Isabel

  22. Jenny, how very interesting. Cairo is a place I know nothing about. Your photo's definitely give you a flavour of the place.It was interesting too what you say about the sense of history you felt...I like that!

    Many thanks for visiting and leaving such lovely comments. You may well be right about the table being the same one! Have a great week. Sounds like your new year has started with a bang! Love Linda x

  23. Hello I have popped back again to say I enjoyed scrolling down your previous posts and am now following you.Congratulations on the Lewis Carroll book,I shall look out for it. I would like to make a suggestion, if you don't mind, that you change your blog background from black. I don't think it shows photos up very well. I hope you don't think me cheeky! Love Linda x

  24. cordially greet lovely blog:))

  25. Ooh, I wouldn't want to visit a country that's so unsympathetic to vegetarians. But it looks like a fascinating place apart from that. What a shame the French buildings have been so neglected. That breakfast room is amazing - I think I'd want a really sumptuous and luxurious breakfast to reflect the luxurious surroundings!

  26. Thankyou for this journey through the streets of Cairo. I have had that feeling of being in a place where one's history stretches back thousands of years up to this moment, now, when in England (Folks on both sides are English), so I have a sense of your meaning. I loved the French quarter, and reference to Edith nesbit's 'The Story of the Amulet'. It, and her others in that series, was one of my childhood favourites and captured the fascination with the orient that was so much part of the early twentieth century period.

    ( I have moved to wordpress btw)

  27. Jenny Woolf,
    In Egypt time seems to flow so differently; it goes slowly or remains frozen. How exotic the desert seen through the head of he camel. I feel as if I could hear people chanting Koran from the minarets early morning. The shadow cast on the sands fires imagination!!
    I hope to visit this place and enjoy those sceneries someday.
    Your trip is a great time travel.
    Best wishes

  28. Lovely photographs and interesting insights! I'd definitely be lured into that curio shoppe and probably wouldn't be able to leave without purchasing some sort of tsotchke to take home with me.


  29. What an exotic adventure! Well, so it seems to me. Thanks for this great trip that will surely bring me thrilling dreams of foreign escapades...or, at the very least, camels...tonight as I'm just about to head off to bed. What a wonderful illustrated bedtime story this was!

  30. Can't imagine the Pyramids being so deserted...
    This was a beautifully written post on Egypt. As a former travel agent, anyone that I was able to convince to go to Egypt always enjoyed it very much.
    Oh, and I finished your book and I thought it was excellent!

  31. Welcome back, Jenny! I think I know how you were thrilled with various unique adventures from this post where you packed so many thoughts and photos. The charms of Egypt would be condensed in your words ”.... that feeling of life flowing from the distant past to te present in a continuous stream” and the fourth image is wonderfully symbolical. Since last year, your life is filled with fascinating travels, which I’m envious of. I’d like to sit in that laid-back café and chat with people over lunch or stay in that hotel in person. The situation of Egypt might look unstable, but when people get together to build up better Egypt, they’ll sure make it.


  32. Hello again Jenny, I am so relieved that you weren't offended.
    My blog layout is just one of the off the shelf ones. (I can't remember the name of it, but it is the one with the birds on). I am not very good with technology myself! I have recently changed to Bloggers new format and also to the chrome browser, and it seems to have speeded things up and made it a bit easier.

    Many thanks for visiting the party, it was a bit of fun!
    Love Linda x

  33. I was there in 1988 - such a magical place! I love all your photos, and how special that you have a family connection. Fantastic post!

  34. Interesting post about Cairo - I haven't been there though I did spend a week some years ago on a cruise along the Nile from Luxor to Aswan - That was a fabulous experience - for me at least, I was one of only six people on the boat who wasn't ill! I love watching 'Death On The Nile' now because I recognize all the places they visit:)

  35. I'm sorry that i have to post "anonymously" but Blogger won't let me log in today! Interesting post. Yes the situation is far better than it was. I think there could be incidents today in cities and in coming week of the anniversary. But a feeling that its a better future. Suzanne L.

  36. Dear Jenny,
    was so astounded and delighted by your photos that I determined to go to Egypt this spring. You are a wonderful advertisement for Cairo.My husband was there in 2000 and, of course, my father passed through in the war.
    I have read lots of books and will need to read more before we go.
    We used to live in Marrakesh where we have a house so we speak a little (very Moroccan) Arabic. We were there last spring when there were some demonstrations. (thehouseinmarrakesh.blogspot.com)
    We have been told by a friend who lives in Luxor that street crime is up. And R. says when we want to go is when the handover to civilian government is meant to take place.......
    Gosh, sorry to ramble on.

  37. What a wonderful post you made about Cairo, now I need to go there some day.

  38. Your post made me want to go to Egypt and stay in that place with its breakfast room pyramid view.

    That's quite an achievement for a blog post, as all my holidays for the last 15 years have been spent in N Wales.

  39. Thank you very much for all the comments, so interesting and thought provoking.

    I have read every word of every one, and I am really, really pleased when people say that what I have written has piqued their interest, and very grateful for the positive remarks.

    The trip has certainly piqued MYM interest. Believe me, I never thought I'd find myself trotting off to the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology- I've lived within 20 minutes bike ride of it for decades and never even looked into the door! http://www.ucl.ac.uk/museums/petrie

    But I'm going as soon as my present bout of commitments is over (about mid Feb, God willing) and have also checked out their lecture series.

    I'll reply individually to specific questions posted above, though it might be more manageable to do it by email. It's nice to have all the answers on the blog, but my computer keeps freezing as I scroll up and down
    :( time for a new one.

    I'll do my best.

  40. Your photos are gorgeous, especially the ones of the hotel, wow I'd love to stay there. And that eggs Benedict looks yummy, I can see how they're reported as the best.
    Thanks for your comment over at mine, lol re 3 Mary's!!

  41. Hi Jenny,
    Wow and you are quite the delightful discovery! Thanks for the comment on my shy and humble blog, which, in turn, brought me here to check you out.
    A superb article with fascinating info and beautiful photos that capture the ambience of your adventure in Egypt. Indeed, it reminds me of that famous Egyptian Chef who had his own cooking show, 'Ramses' Kitchen Nightmares'....
    In kindness, Gary

  42. Wow, amazing shots! I was so entranced with the market shot!

  43. I'm so glad I've discovered this blog! This post, especially, brought many memories flooding back. I was in Mena House as part of a TV crew just after the Luxor shooting in 1997. Déjà vu: we had the entire hotel and the pyramids to ourselves. It's such a pity that Egypt is now struggling with yet another tourism slump.

    Also interesting what you say about its safety, perceived and real. I accept that it's been turbulent in recent months, but apart from Tokyo, Cairo is the safest city where I've ever stayed/worked.

    Anyway. So when do we get to read your next post? :)

  44. Thank you for the awesome report! Egypt is definitely on my bucket list. I am glad to hear the political situation did not hinder any part of your trip. Riding a camel to the pyramids must have been a dream come true!

  45. Your photographs are stunning! The photo that shows the minarettes rising from the smog and the traffic in the foreground looked like the CairoI remember - from staying a couple of days with an English girl friend.
    (ps - thanks for dropping by the wendy house :-))

  46. This is a fascinating post for me. I've always been intrigued by this country and its people. Love the photos and I think you're very brave to travel there. It's good to go for it, though. What a great adventure!

    You don't need to respond to this due to your computer troubles. I just wanted you to know how much I enjoyed this.

  47. A fabulous post with wonderful pictures. I've always wanted to go to Cairo.

  48. I'm late reading but that's one of the joys of blogging. I don't have to catch the train to see the photo's. I sure like traveling this way with you.


  49. this is simply incredible. I have wanted to travel to cairo and see the great pyramids. you'd words and photos are certainly inspiring a trip :)

  50. I went to Egypt a few years ago, with my mum ,when I was living in the Middle East. I loved it-and honestly think it was one of my favourite holidays ever. Girls on tour at the markets in Cairo-the overnight train to Luxor and then ofcourse all the tombs at the Valley of the Kings etc. I went before digital cameras etc-so might need to go back one day!

    Or maybe I might just move there!

    thanks for visitng my blog Africa, My Africa

  51. oooooh amazing pics!!! i want to go there is a mystic place full of history and tradiotions!!! love it!!
    visit my blog on http://laviecestchic.blogspot.com
    xoxo Marika

  52. That hotel looks wonderful, I'd love to go to Cairo one day. I'm going to stay in a windmill in Portugal in July - have you been to Portugal?

  53. Hi Nursemyra, I've been to Portugal, but never stayed in a windmill - I'd LOVE to do that!

  54. you can.....


  55. It most of been really fun going on a Cameo ride. I always wanted to try that.


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