Egypt may very well sit on the continent of Africa, but its identity is part African and part Middle Eastern, and the people, from the smiling Nubians of Aswan to the blue-eyed beauties of Alexandria, are as diverse as the land. The country stretches from the Western Desert to the Red Sea, and from the Mediterranean Sea to the border of Sudan, and is filled with world-famous sites; friendly and kind people; good cheap food; a relaxed yet charged atmosphere; and sunrises and sunsets colorful enough to rival the spices sold at the souks.
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Low-carb dieters are likely to slacken their resolve on a trip to Egypt. Fresh bread, baked at community ovens, makes it around town (often balanced on the heads of young boys) to homes, restaurants, cafes, and hotels. Hearty pita bread and slightly sweet rolls -- paired with cheese, honey, or preserves -- are likely to be offered for breakfast at your hotel. Those with a sweet tooth will be spoiled for choice. Baklava and basbousa fill trays in the local markets and store fronts, including Twinky, near the train station in Luxor, and El Abd, 35 Sharia Talaat Harb, in Cairo, where you can pick up fresh cakes, chocolates, nut brittle, ice cream, and a variety of baked goods.
The question of whether the Giza Pyramids and the Sphinx live up to the hype is up to interpretation, but to go to Egypt without even a glimpse of these iconic structures would be a sin. The pyramids are located on the west side of the Nile, which in ancient times was associated with the afterlife. But the drive to the pyramids illustrates that this is no longer so, as you make your way past streets of towering apartment buildings, horse-pulled carts, shops advertising souvenirs, and giant tour buses. New rules aim to prohibit touts selling trinkets, camel rides, and more, which means you can take in the site with little hassle. After your stop at the Sphinx, bypass the Pizza Hut and Kentucky Fried Chicken across the street, and head a few paces to Hekaia to sample the local dish kosherie, a tasty and cheap mix of spaghetti, macaroni, tomato sauce, fried onions, chick peas, and lentils topped with garlic and oil.
Egypt can be overwhelming to maneuver, from the language barrier and concept of Egyptian time, so it helps to have some structure and on-the-ground guidance during your trip. Intrepid Travel (tel. 800/970-7299; www.intrepidtravel.com) offers a number of trips to Egypt, ranging from the 8-day Egypt Adventure to the 15-day Discover Egypt, run by a local tour leader and guides. The company's focus on local experiences mean you get the real deal, from the 25 cent falafels and heaping plates of kosherie to the house visits with local families in Aswan and Luxor and the overnight felucca ride on the Nile. These experiences truly make the trip, and are worth trading in your five-star comforts for basic, but clean and modern, accommodations; local transportation (the first-class seater trains, however, are not recommended); friendly negotiations with shopkeepers; tasty and cheap eats; and guidance from knowledgeable locals.
Cairo is a hectic swirl of unruly traffic (a local admitted that until recently, he thought the white lines painted on the street were for decoration); masses of people; never-ending aromas and sounds; and constant stimulation and interaction. This, however, is what gives Cairo its energy, epitomized at the Khan al Khalili souk. Here you can get everything from Egyptian cotton and sheesha pipes to jewelry and Arabic music. The shopping experience in Egypt is unlike any other -- you'll make friends, get some good deals, and come away with more than just a souvenir, but a story, too -- but be sure to bargain hard. Stop at Fishawy's, the market's most famous coffee shop, for a drink and a smoke, or if you're looking for something to fill you up, sit down at a plastic table outside of Egyptian Pancakes, where you can fill up on local pizzas and fatir, thin but doughy "pancakes" stuffed with everything from cheese and meat to coconut and nuts (drizzled with honey and powdered sugar). To escape the madness, visit Al Azhar Mosque (pictured), the first mosque in Egypt, built from 970 to 972 AD, or catch the Sufi dance performance at Wikalat al Ghuriya.
View From Above
The Grand Hyatt Cairo's (www.cairo.grand.hyatt.com) Revolving Restaurant offers an all-encompassing view of the city from the 41st floor. As it turns, your gastronomic tour is paired with one of Cairo, taking you from scallops served with a crisp potato pancake and the Nile River to chicken with basil and asparagus and the Giza Pyramids. Note that the menu carries a lot for meat and fish eaters, but is limited when it comes to vegetarian options. The entire "trip" takes 75 minutes, and is a good way to get an overall view of the city before setting off to see specific sites. If you don't have time (or the wallet) for dinner, grab a drink at the restaurant's lounge, on the 40th floor, which offers a similar, yet not rotating, view. Photo courtesy of Grand Hyatt Cairo
Business, Meet Pleasure
One of Cairo's newest residents, Fairmont Towers, Heliopolis (www.fairmont.com/towersheliopolis) takes inspiration from the area's past as a place where locals, more than 7,000 years ago, celebrated the sun, and is modeled after the eye of Horus, said to represent the sun and the sun god, Ra. Fittingly, natural light pours into the glass-fronted hotel, showering over the central atrium and water fountain, and circles, perhaps representing the sun, take shape in carpeting and mirrors in rooms. Rooms face either the atrium or the pool and garden, and come in two styles, modern or classic. The former are a cool white, accented by pops of purple, while the latter are swathed in rich brown and red, with a peppering of gold and butterscotch. The property, while aimed at business travelers, is ideal for anyone looking to escape the madness of Cairo but be close enough to the action (airport 5 min., downtown Cairo 30 min., Giza pyramids 1 hr.).The garden-like atmosphere flows in the streams of water around the lobby and in-house dining options, including Aqua e Luce, serving contemporary Italian food (fresh pastas, pizzas, and sandwiches, plus meat entrees) with a touch of French influence. Look for the full-wall wine display, open kitchen, and camel-milk ice cream. Photo courtesy of Fairmont Towers, Heliopolis
To enjoy Egypt one must succumb to its natural flow, much like the journey of a felucca as it glides along the Nile, floating east and west as the wind pulls its sail taut. There are far more luxurious and comfortable ways to sail the Nile, but if you can look beyond the river-side toilet stops (there are no bathrooms on feluccas), there's an opportunity to experience the famous river as the locals do. The open-air wooden sailboats are prepped for overnight journeys with coverage to protect you from the sun and a thick mattress and pillows, creating a boat-size diwan where you'll eat, sleep, and everything in between. Your Nubian crew prepares your meals (vegetarian and delicious) with simple ingredients, and at night, after the felucca moors, you might be treated to (and pulled ino) an impromptu music and dance session with the locals.
Simbel of Ancient Egypt
Abu Simbel is what you picture when you think of ancient Egypt -- giant statues of Ramses II, stories told in hieroglyphs, and seemingly endless rooms that conjure images of The Mummy (though there are no mummies here). The temples' current location is not its original; it was moved in the early 60s to prevent flooding from Nile as a result of the High Dam. The site is an easy day trip from Aswan, though if you're taking a bus or private van, you'll need to rise early and arrive in time for the convoy to leave at about 4am. Abu Simbel, however, is worth the trip (and, daresay, more impressive than the pyramids), as is the chance to catch the sunrise over the desert sand.