Hang on Sloopy!

Another month passes…and travel restrictions remain in place worldwide due to the COVIDS-19 “pandemic”.  And now more states in the USA are backtracking on “re-opening”, with more politics factored in than ever.  Meanwhile, deaths continue to dwindle, if one trusts the reported numbers.  Seems whenever there is a positive downturn, suddenly the numbers rise…just enough to raise the public concern level.

If you are sensing I am getting a feeling of being played, you’re right.  I am a firm believer in taking adult responsibility for my safety and well-being, as well as that for my family.  I don’t wear a mask.  You are welcome to wear one.  I don’t “self-quarantine”.  Your choice.  I find much of what we are asked to do these days to border on silly – like one door for entry, another for exit…even if they are next to one another, separated only by a line of turned over shopping carts or tape.  No one can explain the positive purpose.

Airline Safety COVID-19

I flew from Houston a few weeks ago.  Houston has a masks-at-all-times emergency order.  Okay, I put on a mask…I will respect the law.  I flew Southwest, and they require a mask – unlike some, they actually furnished one.  Fine.  Middle seats kept empty…all that.  I have no issue.  And I have to take their word on the “deep cleaning” that every plane undergoes between flights.  It’s their business, and still the best domestic airline, IMHO.

Milwaukee Brewers bullpen catcher Marcus Hanel throws batting practice with a mask during a practice session Monday, July 6, 2020, at Miller Park in Milwaukee.

I flew to Wisconsin, a state declared wide-open by the state’s Supreme Court.  For the first weeks there about half wore masks in stores and in public areas.  I even saw one fellow riding a motorcycle – no helmet, but wearing a mask!  Now, with the reset of concern, several retail/grocery stores are requiring masks.  I see this morning that the National Democratic political convention will only have 350 attendees in Milwaukee later in August.  Zounds!  The good news: The Brewers will start play Friday in an empty stadium, the team kept “in the bubble” at all times.  And no high fives.  (You can buy a photo cutout the team will place for one game on an upper deck seat for $50.)

And, months after it began, we are still in the grasp of COVIDS.  Domestic tourism almost as dead as international travel.  It’s a sadness without apparent end in sight.

You Just Keep Me Hanging On…

Had enough of the COVIDS crisis?  I think we all have regardless of the latest rounds of government shutdown and start-up edicts.  If you are a confirmed traveler, this has just wreaked havoc, and I’m sure you’re as antsy as I am to go somewhere…anywhere.

In the meantime my attention has been occupied by trying to sell my home in Maryland.  It went on the market just when the COVIDS-Mania was hitting.  Our state jumped on the shutdown game early.   In between we moved from Maryland to Sugar Land, Texas.

As mentioned earlier, we had two consecutive cruises scheduled back-to-back in September.  First we were sailing trans-Pacific from Vancouver, British Columbia, to Yokohama, Japan.  That was to be followed by a two week cruise around Japan with a stop in South Korea.  Those went by the boards when the cruise line cancelled.  We were given the option of refund or 125% of the cruise value to use on a future cruise, or we could slide the cruise to 2021 at the same cost.  We slid it up, and the prices posted for the ’21 cruises assure us we did the best thing.  But, now we wait another year…

Plans to visit Egypt and Jordan in November are unsettled as neither country allows foreigners entry at this time.  Restrictions may change after July 1, we are told.  To compound matters, our plan was also to travel from Amman, Jordan, to Haifa, Israel, to join a tour there of Israel.  According to the U.S. Department of State, foreigners are not yet allowed to enter Israel.  The options are not as simple as it involves tour agencies and tour operators who are trying very hard ti dissuade cancellations by playing a bit of hardball with deposits.  And don’t get me started with airlines, some more cooperative than others.

So, we wait.  Domestic travel seems the only real alternative…except for those pesky closings and other rules that change from state to state – to wear a mask or not, for example.  I prefer not to wear one.

And so, the “crisis” continues, and the heroism of the public does the same.

 

 


When is it going to end?

That’s the zillion dollar question.

Luckily, we have not had any trips cancelled as a result of this COVID-19 pandemic.  Outside of some family trips we had nothing planned for the summer “high season” months.  part of that was because we have changed our base of operations…our residence…from Maryland to near Houston, Texas.

Our next trip is a September trans-Pacific crossing to Japan, Vancouver B.C. to Tokyo, followed by a circumnavigation of the island nation.  I’m looking forward to the experience, having never been there.  I am especially wanting to experience a bath at an Onsen.  Janet wants to see Mt. Fuji…don’t we all.

A Japanese Sento/Onsan Bathhouse

It seems people are very leery of cruising these days.  I understand the concern; I don’t share it necessarily.  Our experience over many cruises is that the crew tries very hard to keep things sanitary.  I cannot say I have ever been stricken by the usual stomach bug norovirus.  My worst experience was a long cruise aboard the Queen Mary 2 where I caught a nasty cough that persisted, and was seemingly without relief.  Dinner was a nightly disaster.  By the time we reached our destination it seemed most folks had goten it to some degree or another.  And it was just then that we discovered the powers of a British cough medicine called “Veno’s”…it was the only stuff that worked!

I survived.  Janet never caught it.  It did not ruin our trip, which was otherwise wonderful.

https://www.epicentrochile.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/IMG_0017.1.jpg
Queen Mary 2 at Valparaiso, Chile

We each need to take care of ourselves.  It’s that simple.  Self-quarantine, of that’s your choice.  Carry on as normal, if that’s yours.  And let’s keep things in perspective.  When things seem most onerous, turn off the news for a day or two.  Gain some balance.  A few deep breaths and a bit of relaxation are in order.  Of course, we go back to whatever you think is best for yourself.

So, standby for news as we seem to be on the backside of this pandemic.  And then we confront the murder wasps!  Be brave.

 

Portugal Beyond Lisbon

After Lisbon we rented a van and toured Portugal. Driving was fairly easy…and would have been easier in a smaller vehicle. The streets in many towns are more conducive to donkey carts than modern vehicles. More than once we made turns with less than inches to spare.

Look at those shrimp…delicious! At Bom Petisco.

Our initial drive out of Lisbon was south along the Atlantic coast. We stopped at the Bom Petisco seafood restaurant on the beach at Sines. (The place was recommended by John, our guide at Sintra, and he again steered us right. ) It was lunchtime, and the place was hopping. the menu was seafood, all reasonably priced, as was wine and beer. Janet and I enjoyed the boiled shrimp. The shrimp were closer to prawn sized, and easy to peel. Don’t expect a dollop of cocktail sauce as a side – you won’t find one. Seafood is best served naked, or so it would seem. The food was uniformly excellent, and the bill small by comparison to USA prices. One last tip: The fried shrimp are not those breaded and deep-fried morsels…they are literally fried shrimp. They proved hard to peel, although tasty once out of their shells.

Our first overnight stop was at the Balaia Golf Village at Albufeira. It was a beautiful resort off the Autoestrada. When we checked-in for only ine night the young lady told us we would regret the short stay. She was right. Our condo was beautiful, roomy and well-kept. The entire campus was nicely groomed, as one might expect. We paid $95 for our group through Booking.com.

Outside the gate was a full-sized supermarket. As we had a kitchen we loaded up on meal fixings. But the real fun was in the wine section. John, our favorite guide, gave us sage advice when he said, “Never spend more than three euros on a bottle of Portuguese wine. The expensive wine is no better, and you’re wasting your money.” Through the trip it became a contest to find the cheapest wine…some under one euro! Not once did we suffer an undrinkable wine; not even a “bad one”. Now, the wines were usually vinho verde, a spritely white with a touch of fizz. Buy it!

Flocks of sheep populate the countryside throughout Portugal.

We left Albufeira and the southern coast heading north toward Evora, driving through a land of hills and fruit groves reminiscent of California years ago. It was beautiful country, especially on a warm, sunny day. We largely had the road to ourselves…when there was a road. Occasionally the highways become single lane tracks between two stone walls. The good news was we never encountered opposing traffic. Sheep were commonly seen grazing in these walled fields.

The Temple of Diana, Evora. It’s a great place to relax and watch the world pass.

Evora is a well-preserved medieval town that features high walls, a 13th-century cathedral,and a Roman temple – all designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. There we spent an overnight at the Peacock House, a pleasant guesthouse a few steps up from the Church of San Francisco. The proprietor was very nice, and the house equipped with a full kitchen and a nice rooftop patio. Our room overlooked the church’s front. Parking was in the Church square, free overnight, but the metered time begins early! The area boasts several restaurants just up the hill toward the town square. The town is a delight to explore. Don’t miss the Chapel of Bones, the Roman Temple of Diana, the Cathedral and, especially, the view from the walls.

“We the bones wait for yours”. The Chapel of Bones.

Franciscan monks lined the walls and ceiling of the Chapel of Bones with the bones and skulls of more than 5,000 people exhumed from ancient graveyards of Evora. The archway at the entrance reads “We the bones wait for yours”. My mother-in-law was freaked out at the sight!

Below the back of the Church of San Francisco we found the Restaurante Snack Bar IPDJ (Portuguese Institute for Youth Sports). For 6.50 euros we enjoyed a substantial lunch that included entree, beverage (wine, beer or soft drink), dessert and coffee. You can’t beat that, and the food was excellent, as was the service. And you will find yourself eating with the locals. Isn’t that high on your list?

The fortress at Marvão as evening falls.

Our overnight stop was in the fortress Marvão, at the Dom Denis hotel. We arrived after another beautiful drive though fruit orchards, vineyards and cork groves as evening was falling. The drive up to Marvão was one thing; driving within the fortress walls was another challenge. One stretch of perhaps 200 meters was driven with only inches to spare on either side of the vehicle. The last thing I was looking to do was “scratch” the exterior of the rental van! Pull in the sideview mirrors and go slow. Mirrors gave drivers a chance to see one another – with one having to back out of the narrow channel.

The Dom Denis was a jewel. It was 100 meters from the fortress keep, flush against the wall. There was nearby parking with pelnty of maneuver room for departure. We were greeted with a friendly reception, our rooms in waiting. We quickly went to the terraces to view the sunset – fabulous. it is said, “From Marvao you can see the whole earth; come and see with us!” I agree!

The next morning, after an excellent breakfast, we walked over to the fortress, which was open for free in the off-season. One can see how it was such a strategic point, fortified by Dom Denis in 1299 to keep an eye on the Spanish.

The Jardim do Paço Episcopal, a park that was once the private winter garden of the bishop.

Guarda was our next stop as we progressed northward to the Douro Valley. Along the way we stopped at Castelo Branco, where we visited the Jardim do Paço Episcopal, a park that was once the private winter garden of the bishop.

The garden was a multi-tiered construct, with several water features – some with surprises for visitors! There are many, many statues that follow themes within their sections, and beautiful blue tile features. The Garden is well worth the stop and time, a sight fit for a bishop.

a carving in the granite along the road to Torre.

Driving further we sidetracked to Portugal’s highest point, the Torre in the Serra da Estrela mountains, rising to 1,993 metres (6,637 feet). The drive up through the switchbacks was slow but beautiful. Along the way we passed carvings in the stone made when the road was constructed. As we climbed there was increasing snow – and finally a working ski run at the summit. The 360 degree views are worth the trip.

A back street in old Guarda.

The draw at Guarda was the Cathedral and square. Like most towns, it was also walled centuries ago. Arriving in Guarda we followed our GPS to the square, looking for our hotel, the Guesthouse de Sé. The problem became one of not having an accurate location for the Guesthouse, and the road narrowing and becoming one way, preventing an easy turnaround.

I was able to pull up to ask a policeman directions. He smiled and pointed across the square, and allowed me to park. Like a dummy, I walked across and down an alleyway, following the GPS. As I walked the “location” changed. A bit exasperated I asked a woman, who took me by the arm to a fellow fixing his car in the street, saying he could help. Wiping his hands, he turned out to be the Guesthouse proprietor.

The Guesthouse de Sé was hiding in plain sight…sporting a large painted sign announcing its presence as “Casa de Sé”. We were taken to our rooms, all very rustic and very inexpensive. A restaurant around the corner was recommended.

We had dinner at the Solar da Beira, a nice neighborhood place. Being the off-season, we were not expected. Apparently neither was anyone else – most of the lights were turned off and except for the menu outside, the place sure looked closed. The owner invited us in and the lights were turned on. As he took our drink orders, the cook was summoned! Once again, the fixed menu gave the best value – including entree and dessert. The five of us enjoyed excellent food, and the owner was incredibly attentive as we stumbled through English and limited French with good humor.

Ordering our fresh breakfast pastries and lunch bread.

We had breakfast at the Cidade Doce 2 pastry shop across from the Misericordia church. Great pastries and coffee at a place frequented by locals.

Then a tour through the gothic Cathedral with a classic cross-shaped floor plan. I found it fairly cold and austere. With that, we climbed the steep spiral stairs to the roof for the view on another clear, sunny day. Treat yourself…

A picnic along the road. This is as much a pull-off as one finds, and traffic was very light.

We drove off toward the Douro with plans to stop in Lamego, reputed to be one of the most beautiful cities in Northern Portugal. Again the drive was through beautiful country, with rolling hills and terraced vineyards. Along the road we found a pull-off for lunch and enjoyed our bread and coldcuts.

The Douro…

As we drove further, like an explosion, the Douro came into view through a clearing. Spectacular! The vineyards down the steep hills to the blue river flowing below. Here and there a quinta where the port wine base was being collected and fermented.

Did i mention this was rustic…and COLD!

Our overnight was at the Quinta do Porto, a century-old rural family home that had been converted to a guesthouse. It was a bit difficult to find, but worse was the proprietor wasn’t there at the appointed time. She finally showed up from town, where she said she expected to meet us. She opened the house and noted how cold it was – she normally didn’t open until April and this was FEBRUARY! She pulled out a number of oil-filled radiators and plugged them in.

We brought rotisserie chickens, a universal bargain entree, from a supermarket in Lamego for dinner. We cooked up some side dishes in the freezing kitchen…and then the electricity went off. We were in the dark, not knowing where the fuse box was. A few text messages later and we had things back going. We also learned we needed to dial back those radiators.

The next morning we picked a goodly number of fresh fruits from the trees – oranges, kiwi and lemons. All proved delicious at breakfast and lunch.

Lisbon, Portugal

It appears that Lisbon has become the hot destination this year.  Not that it was “undiscovered”, just that other places had greater pull for various reasons.

We traveled to Portugal in February for a two week fly-drive sort of visit.  Our initial arrangements were made through Gate 1 Travel, our preferred travel provider.  In more than a dozen trips taken with this company we have never had less than a great experience.  I am not a paid endorser – just a very satisfied customer who has very happily used them for escorted and independent tours and travel.

One big reason we like Gate 1 is that extending trips is easy and often financially painless.  In this case, our tour was a six day independent trip to Lisbon.  (Experienced travelers know that is NOT six nights in travel agent parlance , but only four.)  The price was only $599 taking advantage of a “flash sale”.  We extended our stay by delaying our return air departure for $40 each.  Now, even in February, that was excellent value; actually less than airfare alone.  We flew Delta out of Washington Dulles (IAD) to Lisbon via New York (JFK).

Arrival at Lisbon was perfect.  We took the subway to our temporary home, Hotel Mundial, which is in the heart of downtown and within walking distance of the sights.  The ride took 45 easy minutes from airport to the stop on Martim Moniz Square, which was a few minute walk to the hotel lobby.

 

We were impressed by the hotel.  Our rooms had a view of the Square, which was frequented by Lisboners, including hosting a concert, while we were there.  It was only steps from the famous Tram 28 stop, and short walks to restaurants, supermarkets, and purveyors of the national pastry, the custard tart Pastel de Nata.  Truthfully, after reading the reviews at various sources, I wasn’t sure we were at the same place. Our stay was very pleasant, our rooms clean and well-kept, the breakfast buffet excellent, and the staff attentive.  I didn’t get the feeling we were lucky or exceptions.

Lisbon is easy to navigate, fun to walk, and not particularly crowded – certainly not in February.  While we were there the weather was comfortable, with daily temps in the 60s F.  Where Lisbon gets tricky is when walking takes one into the hills.  The central city is between two high bluffs.  There are various means to save your legs, particularly the trams and elevators.

The trams are much like San Francisco’s cable cars with one big difference: Lisbon’s trams are enclosed coaches.  Some take them for a scenic tour of the city.  I don’t know why as one doesn’t see much of the city, especially if standing in the frequently crowded car.  They are great as transport. Use them.  And beware the tight quarters – perfect for pickpockets.

The other alternative is an elevator that allows you to bypass the climb.  These “Elevadors” are part of the public transportation system, and there is a charge (€5.15) if not holding a transit pass.  The Elevador de Santa Justa, off the main pedestrian Rua Aurea, is perhaps the most famous of a few, lifting passengers about 150 feet from the city to Largo do Carmo, or Carmo Square.  We went early, before busloads of tourists arrived to overwhelm the lift’s capacity.  Waits then reportedly can run as long as a few hours.  We were off in ten minutes.  Spend the €1.50 to climb up the spiral stairs to the observation platform and take your time appreciating the view.

Walking the Rua Aurea is a treat.  Shops and eating establishments line the pedestrian street.  At the avenue’s end is the Praca do Commercio, with the beautiful, iconic Rua Augusta Arch and square beyond.  The arch celebrates the reconstruction of Lisbon after the 1755 earthquake. It is adorned with numerous statues representing such key Portuguese historical figures as Vasco da Gama and the Marquis of Pombal.  The statue in the square is of Joseph I, King of Portugal during the Great Earthquake.  His royal palace once stood at the site.  The view from the water’s edge is wonderful.

Lisbon is a city of food.  From fast food staples (even McDonald’s) to white tablecloth fine dining, it’s easily found.  Most have a substantial hotel breakfast to start the day.  We prefer the big meal at lunchtime.  Lisbon restaurants generally offer specials that are filling and fairly priced, just look for the street signage.  The meal is often labeled as a “Tourist Special”, costing around €7.50, and including starter, main dish, dessert and a drink (soda, beer or coffee).  The meals we experienced were well-portioned and delicious.  And the hospitality never quit.  We were often served complimentary port wine or ginjinha as a digestif after the meal.  The staff at most restaurants are very easy to engage as english is a second language in urban Portugal, a mandatory course in schools.  Service was invariably friendly and efficient.  Enjoy it.

Bread, cheese, sausage, olives, chips…go to the supermarket and you can have a delicious evening meal for not much money.  If you like sardines, Portugal is the center of canning and exporting the fish around the world.  There are even stores devoted exclusively to canned sardines.  The point is that there is great food all around you.

One bit of advice, given us by a guide, is to never spend more than €3.00 on a bottle of wine.  As John put it, spending more is a waste of money.  And buy your wine in supermarkets for best value.  We bought wine for as little as €0.90 that was enjoyable to drink – hard to believe, but true.  Portuguese beer is also a good buy.

The “national drink” is ginjinha, a liqueur made by soaking and fermenting aguardente and ginja berries, in water, with cinnamon, and sugar.  It tastes a bit like old time cough syrup, and you either like it, or not.  The drink is for sale all over Portugal for about €1 per shotglass serving.  For a few cents more it comes in an edible dark chocolate cup.  Try it with the cherry in your glass, “Com elas.”

But I digress…

 

 

 

Point and Shoot Cameraman

I’ve enjoyed photography since gifted with a 620 box camera in second grade, even having a basement “darkroom” as a young fellow, developing film and making prints.  I was particularly a fan of Ansel Adams, the legendary “landscape photographer”, drawn initially by his “Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico, 1941”.  And photojournalists such as Gene Smith.  Those were the days of titans.

One of the challenges of travel with a camera (or smartphone) in hand is what to do with your photos, how to keep them available and viewable – to share.  I tend to place mine in a photobook from one of the larger web-based companies, depending on who offers me the best deals.

Recently one offered free “unlimited” pages, same price as the usual 20 page effort.  I grabbed that FAST!  The result was a book for myself that I am willing to share here.  (It’s not for sale.)

So, just click on the link below.

I hope you enjoy this as much as I did all along the way.

http://share.shutterfly.com/action/welcome?sid=8AZNmjRy2asn-w

 

Alexandria, Cartouches and Home

Our last day we drove to the legendary city of Alexandria, Egypt’s second largest city. It was founded by Alexander the Great in 331 BC as a port on the Mediterranean Sea primarily to receive goods and food from Greece, and it quickly became one of the wealthiest and largest cities in the world.  Under his successor rulers, the Greek Ptolemies, Alexandria became known as the world’s great repository of knowledge with its library. One of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, the Pharos, or the Lighthouse of Alexandria, stood on the breakwater over the city’s harbor.  Supposedly, Alexander is entombed in the center of the city, unfound after all these years.

(NOTE: Place cursor over a picture to see captions.)

 

Along the way to our first stop we passed “Pompey’s Column”, a single column marking the site of what was once a huge and elaborate temple.  Supposedly the column marked the burial site of Roman Consul and General Gaius Pompey, who was Julius Caesar’s rival in a civil war and was murdered by a Ptolomaic pharaoh in 48 BC.  It is, in fact, a triumphal monument erected around 300 AD for the Roman Emperor Diocletian that has been a “tourist destination” for many years.  No need to stop.

 

Our first stop was the Roman Amphitheatre, which now stands in a large area of the ancient city that has been excavated. It is really one of several structures along a long stone-paved street.  The amphitheatre, dating from the 2nd century A.D., has almost 800 marble seats arranged around the stage.  It was discovered during excavations of the “Park of Pan. Two other archaeological sites were found in the layers of the above the Roman street, including a Muslim Cemetery and slums.

Next, the Catacombs of Kom el Shoqafa (Mound of Shards), discovered accidentally In 1900 when a donkey pulling a cart full of stone disappeared into a hole in the ground, falling into the rock-cut tombs.  The catacombs were opened in the 2nd century AD and used for the next 200 years.  It consists of three levels; its construction special because its mix of art and cultures – Egyptian, Greek and Roman – are not found in any other ancient catacomb.  No cameras were allowed inside, and the minders were actually minding the store.  (You can find photos on any search engine.)

 

Cities are interesting places, even if not in “exotic” places.  Here are a few street scenes of Alexandria – just living everyday life.

 

 

Lunch at the Fish Market Restaurant was a nice break after a long drive and a bit of touring.  It is located on the harbor, overlooking the marina and Citadel.  The food was delicious.  I am no fan of fish, but the others were very happy with theirs,  I had roasted chicken from the sister restaurant’s kitchen downstairs – and it was delicious.  Better was the view across the water and down the malecon.  One could see the beauty of Alexandria behind the slightly shabby exteriors of buildings needing maintenance deferred over years of strict rent controls.

 

After lunch we stopped at the Qaitbey Citadel, a 15th century fort built atop the foundations of the collapsed Pharos Lighthouse.  There were many vendors along the seawall.  Inside was a beautiful view of the Med and its waves breaking along the fortress foundation.

 

The Bibliotheca Alexandrina, or the New Library of Alexandria, was located very close to where the ancient Library of Alexandria stood before being totally destroyed by  .  The modern library is designed to hold over 8 million books, but its collection is far beyond that number thanks to digitization.  The collection is accessible by internet – so if anyone has a school project, or is just curious, go to bibalex.org and have at it.  Nonetheless, one thing that was apparent throughout our tour of the library is that the days of printed “dead tree” books are limited.

Upon return from Alexandria, there was one last thing to do.  When we attended the Pyramids light show, Janet and her sister spied a jewelry shop nearby advertising cartouches for $10 apiece.  She make a mark in her book so she could return to get a few for family and friends with their names spelled in hieroglyphics.  This was her last chance, so we took a taxi grabbed outside the hotel and headed off.

The Cleopatra Jewelry store in Giza is a bright, shiny place that is unlike the dingy shops around it.  Inside the sales staff is happy to serve, in the inimitable Middle East style.  Janet and Judy did their thing, and the clerk pulled out each cartouche and wrapped it in paper with the name to be attached.  The promise is that they would all be done in an hour.  We asked our taxi driver to stay, and he agreed.

 

Time ticked and I was getting hungry.  There was a KFC across the street calling my name.  I walked over and through the phalanx of motorbikes used for deliveries.  The boys were all gathered around a table with the boss.  I ordered one of the meals for under $5 and took a table.  The food came quickly and was just what the doctor ordered – delicious.  I enjoyed my meal, and hoped the girls would be ready to ride when I returned.

No such luck, and the clock was ticking towards midnight.  We were invited to watch the craftsman put the cartouches together in the workshop down the street.  So, we did.  It was interesting to watch as one fellow picked out the letters and the other used flux and flame to attach them to the metal blank.

It was then we realized we would be hours waiting – and so we asked whether the completed pieces could be delivered to our hotel – very early – before leaving for the airport.  They agreed.  And they came through – the next poring they were at the desk waiting for our departure.

We flew out of Cairo on Egyptair.  It was a very pleasant flight – we were well taken care of by the flight crew.  Food was good, and the ride smooth across the Med and the Atlantic.  We arrived at Dulles Airport on time, and passed through passport control without breaking stride, thanks to Global Entry.

Our luck ran out when we started the drive home in rain.  Washington, DC, area traffic is renown for slow going on the Beltway during rush hours, but the ride was made more excruciating by a variety of wrecks that reduced speeds to a stop-and-go idle that lasted over two hours.  Arriving home in the early evening was a relief.

Until next time…

 

Luxor, Valley of the Kings and Karnak

After a wild night on the town in Cairo we were faced with another early morning call: 0330.  A box breakfast awaited us on our coach as we rolled out of the Oasis for our 0630 flight to Luxor.

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Luxor is the site of ancient Thebes, the pharaohs’ capital at the height of their power during the 16th–11th centuries B.C.  The modern city of more than half a million population is known as the “world’s greatest open-air museum” surrounding two huge ancient monuments: Luxor Temple and Karnak Temple.  And the main attraction, the Valley of Kings, is only about six miles from Luxor as the crow flies…about 20 miles as the bus drives.

Our first stop was the Valley, used for royal burials from approximately 1539 BC to 1075 BC.  The valley is known to contain 63 tombs, with the possibility of more.   Only about 20 of the tombs actually contained the remains of kings, the others nobles and other royal family members.  The largest tomb was for the children of Ramesses II, considered the greatest, most celebrated, and most powerful pharaoh of the New Kingdom, with at least 130 rooms or chambers discovered so far.

Our ticket limited us to visiting three tombs, which is fine as many of the 63 have little to see, or are not open.  Many of the tombs have been ravaged by water and sand after being opened by robbers, or are just not much more than a pit to begin with.  Moufid, our guide, walked us to each, explaining along the way.

We visited the tomb of Ramsses I, fairly small as he only ruled two years.  The walls were full of vibrant colors and scenes.  The other two were more of the same.  Each of those were entombed amid beautiful carvings, vibrant paintings, and walls engraved with innumerable hieroglyphics.  If you wanted to see the “star” tombs, like Tut’s or Nefertiti’s…well, that cost extra.

From the Valley of the Kings, we drive to the Mortuary Temple of Hatshepsut.  She…yes, she…was a rare female pharaoh, reputedly a very effective ruler, and this was her mortuary temple and memorial to her reign.   She came to the throne in 1478 BC,  ruling jointly with Thutmose III, who ascended to the throne a year earlier, only two years old. She was acknowledged as king, and not queen, of Egypt, and her statues depict her as a man, with loose clothing to disguise her sex.  She reigned for about 22 years.  Later, Thutmose III (or his son Amenhotep II) tried to eliminate her memory, having her cartouches and images chiseled off some stone walls, leaving very obvious Hatshepsut-shaped gaps in the artwork. In any event, it is an incredibly impressive edifice.

Lunch was at a hotel following a brief demonstration of alabaster carving.  It was almost comical at times, the many carvers obviously waiting for the tourists to pull up before springing into artful action whacking and grinding chunks of alabaster. Of course, inside there were works on sale.

 

Then it was on to Luxor.  Time was beginning to run short, and so to save time we were ferried by boat across the Nile.  The boats were boarded at the end of a rickety pier, and we were landed at another rickety pier…well, by American standards.  Along the way we saw many river cruise boats that had been tied up, unused for years as the tourism industry collapsed in the wake of the Arab Spring.  Tourism was once almost half the Egyptian economy, and it was halved back then.  It is still on the road to recovery.

Modern Luxor is site of the ancient capital city of Thebes.  The earliest monuments at Thebes date from the 11th dynasty (2081–1939 BC), when the local governors united Egypt under their rule.  Luxor Temple, where the kings of Egypt were crowned, is a substantial complex built around 1400 BC.  The complex is constructed of sandstone.  Its entry is flanked by colossal statues of the Ramses II.

One of the most impressive sights was the Avenue of Sphinxes that connected the two temples.  Amazing.  But that was the hors d’oeuvre.

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Karnak temple complex was breathtaking – size, scale, spelendor and all you can imagine.  It dates back over 3000 years, and one passes through a gate in the wall that stands 90 feet high into a Great Court, then to the marvelous Hypostyle Hall with its 134 massive sandstone “papyrus columns” representing the primeval papyrus swamp from which Amun; a self-created deity, arose from the waters of chaos at the beginning of time.  Archeologists believe at least thirty pharaohs contributed to the buildings, enabling Karnak to reach a size, complexity, and diversity not seen elsewhere.

We had a 6:30 flight scheduled back to Cairo.  Our bus got us there on time, and then hilarity ensued.  First, some Egyptian TSA minor domo got officious with our group – our Gate 1 contact at the airport was not our official guide, and it had to be sorted out as about 30  very weary tourists stood waiting for clearance to pass through the damn metal detectors.  When that finally happened the next blow landed…our flight was delayed indefinitely for reasons unknown. It was rumored a dust storm in Cairo caused the airport to close, but that was just a rumor.

The group passed time sitting wherever.  Some went to the snack bar area.  Others, like us, just found seats in which to relax.  Time ticked slowly, and folks were getting edgy.  We finally joined the snack bar crowd for beer and pretzels.

Egypt Air opened their counter, a sign that a flight would occur.  We had no luggage to dump, so we got our boarding passes and went through the final security check with no problem…and were shunted to another bigger snack bar area.  We grabbed a table and relaxed some more.

In the meantime one of our party lost it – she called Gate 1 in the USA demanding they arrange for a plane to come get us for return to Cairo.  She made all sort of accusations that were untrue, apparently trying to pressure Gate 1.  Needless to say, it was embarrassing to witness.

Finally we were taken to a gate to board a bus to take us to our plane.  The flight back was fine, and eventually we made it back to the Oasis…to get a few more hours of sleep before heading off to Alexandria, again in the early hours.

Cairo: Museums, Churches, Mosques and Markets

First stop this morning was the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities.  Like the pyramids, it is a key reason for visiting Egypt because it holds 120,000 objects, including the contents of Tutankhamun’s tomb.  Not all are on display, of course – and who would have time or even the desire to see every piece?  But anyone with even a passing interest in ancient Egypt must visit this museum built in 1902, until replaced by the billion-dollar Grand Egyptian Museum, due to open later this year near the Pyramids.  The “old” museum will still be a museum, according to some accounts.  But the “good stuff” will be taken to Giza.

We had another sunny day to visit.  Our guide Moufid got the tickets, including the extra fee “permits” for photography, and in we went, passing through the usual security checks and into the main hall.  The hall was massive – classic museum design, with high ceilings and lots of corridors and niches for displays. Immediately inside were giant statues of Pharos, flanked by mummy cases, sarcophagi and other relics.  It was a WOW!

Moufid got us all together and explained how we would move chronologically, seeing the main objects.  He would explain it all along the way to add the necessary historical context.  Egyptian history spans over 5000 years, an incredibly long span.  (The birth of Christ was only 2100 years ago – less than half.)  It takes a guide to make the “Old” and middle kingdoms, the intermediate periods and so on understandable.

Our first stop was at a display case with a fist-sized “rock” that looked like Mr. Potato Head.  It was the oldest “sculpted” relic found, a very early carved head 5000 years old.  As we continued along one could see the evolution of the sculptors’ skills and use of materials.

A bit further we saw the The Narmer Tablet, dating from about the 3100 BC depicting the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt under the King Narmer.  It is also significant because it shows some of the earliest hieroglyphic inscriptions ever found.

We made our way through various collections, seeing the many sarcophagi and mummy cases until we reached the King Tut collection.  It is kept separate from the museum’s other pieces, with an added charge to see and photograph.  We’d seen the Tut exhibition three times before, including its big spask at the Smithsonian years ago that stoked initial interest in the USA.  It is imposing to see all the beauty and wealth on display.  Consider that Tutankhamun was a minor Pharaoh, a William Henry Harrison among his peers.  He came to the throne in 1333 BC, only nine or ten years old, and reigned for about ten years generally thought guided by his Grand Vizier Ay, who later succeeded him.  He was the end of the Thutmose dynasty, and Ay, his successor, erased Tut’s images and cartouches to further establish himself as the legitimate next Pharaoh.

Honestly, by then we’d seen enough mummies and tomb finds to last a lifetime.  It was time to move on to a more modern world.

We first visited Coptic Cairo.  We were a bit trepidatious as there had been some recent attacks within this community, not to mention the bombing of a tourist bus.  All that considered, we decided to go – and were glad we made that decision.  Upon arrival we found safety was a big concern of everyone as Egypt depends on tourism, and lost a big share after the “Arab Spring” fiasco.  We never felt any threats from anyone.

The Copts are one of the oldest Christian communities in the Middle East, and have survived as a religious community representing around ten percent of Egypt’s population.  Saint Mark, considered the first Patriarch of the Coptic Orthodox Church, brought Christianity to Alexandria shortly after the ascension of Christ around 42 AD.

Our first stop was at the Hanging Church, officially named Saint Virgin Mary’s Coptic Orthodox Church.  It was built in the 7th century atop a gatehouse of the Roman wall.  The beautiful screen of the central sanctuary, assembled without use of nails, is made of ebony inlaid with ivory, and dates from the 12th or 13th century.

After walking through some very narrow “streets” we arrived at the nearby Saints Sergius and Bacchus Church (Abu Serga), the oldest church in Egypt, built in the 5th-century over a cave where the Holy Family took refuge during their flight into Egypt. The church is named for Saints Sergius and Bacchus, who were soldier-saints martyred by the Romans in Syria during the 4th century after refusing to renounce their faith.  Their relics are kept in a case near the front door.  Below is a crypt 10 meters deep where Mary, Joseph and the infant Jesus are said to have rested after arriving in Egypt.

We briefly saw the Monastery and Church of St George, an early 20th-century church. It is one of the few round churches ever built in Egypt as we made way to the Ben Ezra Synagogue, once a Christian church dedicated to St. Archangel Gabriel.  The church was sold for 20,000 dinars to the Jewish community in 882 A.D to pay taxes. The “new” synagogue was named after Abraham Ben Ezra who bought the church. The synagogue is best known for its Geniza, an archive of thousands of rare, ancient Jewish manuscripts.

Our next stop was the Great Mosque of Muhammad Ali Pasha, which greatly resembles the Haia Sophia in Istanbul. Built in Cairo’s Citadel above the city, it was completed in 1857. The rise on which the mosque was built is debris from the earlier buildings of the Citadel, established in 1183 to protect Cairo from the Crusaders.  The view of the city, with the sun setting in the dusty sky, was spectacular.

Finally, we arrived at the Khan el-Khalili Bazaar – a major souk in the city and one of the oldest bazaars in the Middle East.  It was a rabbit warren of tiny walkways, and had all the usual stuff – and then some.  This was still a “department store” for locals, not merely a giant junk stall for tourists, although there were plenty of tourists on hand, including us.

Here is a tip from Cook’s Handbook for Egypt (1905):  “When asked to name a price for a certain object (the merchant) always mentions a figure which is enormously in excess of the value of the object, knowing full well that there is very little chance of getting it, and that he will have to reduce it ; the price asked may be said to be always out of all proportion to the market value of the object, plus a generous allowance for working expenses.  The haggling and bargaining, however, is not really about the value of the object, but about the amount of the profit which the merchant is content to make out of it, for the market value of most things sold in the bazaars is very well known, and every good merchant knows at the beginning what is the lowest price for which he will part with an object.”

The bazaar was next to the Al-Hussain Mosque, built in 1154 on the cemetery of the Fatimid caliphs. Shia Muslims believe that the head of  Muhammad’s grandson, Hussain ibn Ali, is buried on the grounds of the mosque.

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The Al-Hussain Mosque

Nile River Cruise

After a long day exploring the Giza Pyramids, Memphis and Saqqara, we returned to Cairo for one more “optional tour”:  A dinner cruise on the Nile.  Although ready to return to the hotel for some rest and recuperation, we volunteered (and paid) for this.

Tour companies use optional tours to turn more bucks from their clients.  They know what the clients’ largely want, and they provide with a bit of a premium added for the convenience.  In this case, the dinner cruise on the Nile Maxim , including transportation, was $75 per person through our tour provider.

There are a number of excursion providers one can check and use these days to get the best price for an “optional tour”, the biggest is Viator.com, which is part of the TripAdvisor travel empire.  Checking around, a vendor there offers the same dinner cruise for $14.99, including dinner, entertainment and pickup and drop-off – drinks extra.  There are a number for vendors and prices there to consider.

Oddly, one price hard to find is that charged by the Nile Maxim directly.  Best I can find is about $38, plus transportation.  The point is that the prices are what they are depending on the tour vendor – and the prices vary widely.  Just make sure you know what the total deal includes and costs.

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Entry to our dinner cruise on the Nile Maxim.

The Nile Maxim is a pretty boat. It has sparkle that seems to indicate a special night is ahead.  Our group took chairs at our appointed tables – all stretched in a line.  The tables had white table cloths and the necessary accoutrements for a meal.   Our waiters came to take drink orders – you get ONE soft drink, beer or coffee/tea.  No more, and no refills.

Then we were invited to the salad bar.  There was a nice assortment of “salads” and the usual “mezza” side dishes.

Main course choices included chicken, “veal” and fish.  I had the “veal”, which was chewy and just okay.  No one raved about the food, but no one complained much about it either.

There was some concern that we were going to be fed on a moored boat, its floating at the dock considered a “cruise”.  Into the meal we’d gone nowhere.  Finally we cast off and headed up river.  Cairo along the Nile will never be mistaken for Paris along the Seine.  I can’t think of one romantic song or other reference to the Nile as it flows through Cairo. (You’re welcome to offer one.)  The closest thing to an Eiffel Tower is the Cairo Tower, a concrete spire standing 614 ft., the tallest structure in Africa until 1971.  And, reminiscent of Shanghai, there were a few gaudily lighted boats gliding back and forth on the river.

 

Then came the live entertainment program, which according to the Nile Maxim website, “will add an unforgettable atmosphere to the whole scenery through the extravaganza Band‚ Belly Dancer and the Folkloric Tanoura show ‘Spin Man’.”

The entertainment began with a local crooner singing the predictable song list – mostly well-worn Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra nuggets. The scene was classic, right out of a Holiday Inn bar any Saturday night.

Then the real show began with a “whirling dervish” appearing in colorful costume spinning around the floor under the colored lights.  The “real” dervishes are Turkish, usually completely in white or gray, spinning as if in a trance in a dance filled with religious symbolism.  This performance was strictly entertainment.  The highlight was when the electrical switch was flipped and the costume lit up like the “Electric Horseman” in the movies.

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The Electric Horseman

It was actually pretty spectacular in the dim lighting.  Later the dervish walked through the diners with an electrified cape spinning overhead like a Brooklyn pizza maker’s crust.  Okay, I’ll say it was cool to see.

 

The following act was the belly dancer.  I’m not a belly dancing aficionado, but I know what I like…and the pulchritudinous young lady did her thing to my satisfaction.

 

The finale was the band playing some Egyptian standards, finishing off with some American rap that brought many of our group to the dance floor.  It took me a week to get the tune out of my head…

It was a fun evening.  At the end, I didn’t even mind the price we paid.

 

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