Barely 3 months after returning from our incredible trip to Israel, we were ready to embark on another exciting journey to the Middle East. This trip would be see us exploring the timelessness and magnificence that is Egypt.
Our overnight Air France flight from Toronto to Paris was surprisingly relaxing and uneventful. We arrived in Paris at 10:30am local time and we spent the 5 1/2 hour layover in the free Paris Lounge reading, napping and snacking. We moved to our gate area about an hour before our flight and indulged in a Sushi lunch at a restaurant that featured a looping conveyor belt that carried the various items past the sit down counter. We would pick our preferred items off the belt as it swept past. Each item had a tag indicating the time it was prepared so we were always assured a fresh dish.
We boarded our plane and had another relatively easy flight, arriving in Cairo at 8:30pm where we were met by our driver who directed us to the luggage area, assisted us with obtaining our visas and waited as we purchased wine from the Duty Free store. This last stop was an important one for us as we were visiting in the middle of Ramadan and obtaining alcohol outside the airport and major hotels would prove to be a challenge.
Our driver navigated the traffic-jammed streets of Cairo from the airport to our downtown hotel. Cars were sometimes lined up 5 abreast on the three lane streets and jostled with one another, horns blaring incessantly as they pushed their way into tiny gaps in the traffic. While Cairo traffic is always busy, traffic during Ramadan is unusually so, especially after sundown when the celebrations are at their peak.
We eventually made it to our hotel, the Hilton Ramses, where we checked in, had a late (midnight) dinner at the hotel’s Breezes Cafe and retired to bed.
We woke to a bright and sunny morning on our first full day in Cairo. After getting organized for our day, we went to the hotel dining room where we would enjoy a complimentary hot and cold breakfast buffet from a variety of offerings. Following breakfast we oriented ourselves with the hotel and waited anxiously for our friend Sammy (from Toronto), who would be guiding us around Cairo on our first day here. Sammy came to Egypt in the fall of 2018 to teach at the Canadian International School in Cairo and would spent some time with us over the next few days.
Sammy arrived at the hotel lobby right on time at 11:00am, and after an excited welcome, led us out of the lobby and onto the relatively quiet main street that separates the hotel from the Nile River. The traffic, compared to the night before, was quite light. Such is the difference between daytime and nightime during Ramadan.
The view from our hotel overlooked the Nile River and the surrounding area. One of the major features that we could see from our room was a tall tower in the distance. It turned out that this is the Cairo Tower and a major site in the city. Sammy was taking us, on foot, from our hotel to the tower. We crossed the street from our hotel and climbed the stairs to one of the many bridges that spans the Nile. Our walk to the tower took about 30 minutes and as we neared our destination, we began to feel the effects of the heat since we weren't yet acclimated. As it was midday, the temperature had climbed to 31 Celcius. Fortunately, we were all carrying bottles of water.
After paying for the tickets to enter the tower, we walked through a large courtyard that was beautifully decorated for Ramadan. We took the elevator to the top and and stepped out onto a platform that circled the tower. From here we had spectacular views of the city of Cairo, the Nile River, our hotel and our first glimpse of the pyramids of Giza! The vistas were breathtaking and we spent quite a while just taking it all in.
Reluctantly, we got back into the elevator to descend to the bottom of the tower. After debating for several minutes as to whether to walk to our next stop or take an Uber, we opted to take an Uber - the heat was just a bit too overwhelming for another 30 minute walk under the cloudless sky. The Uber dropped us on a quaint, narrow side street in a commercial part of the town between the tower and our hotel. We walked a couple of blocks down more narrow streets, all decorated for Ramadan, and entered an old building, climbing several steps to the main floor. We had arrived at the Fair Trade Center - a wonderful old market featuring local, genuine handicrafts that are priced at significantly lower prices than the knock-offs sold in the tourist areas. We purchased a hand made alibaster candle holder as our significant piece of culture from Cairo (we always purchase a “significant” locally crafted item from each city we visit).
After visiting the Fair Trade Center we walked a couple more blocks to the Loft Gallery which was filled with unusual household items, many dating back a hundred years or more. The gallery is made up of several rooms, each with a different theme chock-full of old stuff and providing a visual sensory experience. One of the side-rooms is a workshop which is used to fix and build some of the more unusual items. Another room in the gallery is a cute little cafe where we sat down and had drinks before continuing on our walk.
As we were only about a kilometer from the hotel, we decided to walk back, crossing the Nile River at a different bridge from the one we had earlier when we were heading to the tower. At the hotel we first had a lovely dip in the pool and then met up with Karen and Geoff, friends from Toronto, who had been visiting Jordan and would be joining us for the rest of our trip. We convened in Karen and Geoff’s room for cocktails and to enjoy the beautiful view from their balcony as the sun set over the Nile and the desert beyond.
Following cocktails, we all ubered to the British Club, a private dinner club for British ex-patriots, where we met up with a group of Sammy’s friends and colleagues for dinner, drinks and many laughs. Some of the group partook in smoking shisha from the tall, ornate waterpipes provided by the club. It was well after midnight when we headed back to the hotel in Ubers, but the traffic was every bit as busy as it was the night before. Tired as we were, we were all excited about spending the next day the Great Pyramids.
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Our last day in Israel. The previous 8 days had gone by so fast and it was hard to believe that it was nearly over. But we still had some exploring and sightseeing to do and we would be starting our day at the archeological site of Herodion, the palace fortress built between 23 and 15 BCE, and reputed to be the burial site of King Herod the Great.
Herodion is situated in the Judaean Desert, approximately 12 kilometers south of Jerusalem, and 7 kilometers southeast of Bethlehem. It took approximately 20 minutes to drive from our hotel in Bethlehem (the Saint Gabriel) to this historical site. Herodion is built at the top of a cone shaped man-made hill that is approximately 750 metres above sea level and therefore, the tallest peak in the Judaean Desert. We arrived at the base of Herodion just before 10:00am on a gloriously sunny Saturday morning. Our driver parked our bus in the vast lot part way up the hill. We disembarked and walked through the ticket entrance and a small visitors area, then proceeded along the trail that winds its way up to the top of the hill. The wind grew in intensity as we crested the peak and found ourselves looking down into the palace ruins that appeared to be built into a crater at the top of the hill.
It is said that Herod built his fortress on this man-made hill so he could see Jerusalem and the Holy Temple from his palace. The views from this summit were spectacular and totally unobstructed in every direction. A steep set of stone steps leads from the crest of the hill down into the palace. The ruins of several rooms are clearly evident in the centre of the palace as you descend the steps. Scattered around the ruins are cisterns and stone urns. Partial walls can still be seen dissecting the large open courtyard.
Along one edge of the palace is an entrance that descends into a labyrinth of tunnels that leads to an exit part way down the hill. We entered the tunnels and walked through them to the exit where we emerged into bright sunshine. The tunnels run parallel to the aquaduct system that was built by Herod and which empty into a cistern. We walked around the outside of the hill about 1/3 from the top and came upon another excavation which is purported to be the tomb of King Herod. We then continued our descent to the park entrance where we boarded our bus to head back towards Bethlehem.
Arriving in the Arab village of Beit-Sahur bordering Bethlehem on the southeast, we visited our next site, the Shepherds’ Fields, where it is suggested that the angels announced the birth of Jesus to the shepherds that were tending their flock. The site is marked by a Fransiscan chapel that was built in 1953 by Antonio Barluzzi and funded by Canadian benefactors. The chapel is built in the shape of a shepherd’s tent and topped by a starry dome. Next to the chapel is a large grotto that could have been used to house shepherds and their livestock in ancient times.
We left the Shepherds’ fields and continued into Bethlehem where we would visit our last site in Israel - the Church of the Nativity. The Church of the Nativity is built on an ancient grotto that is traditionally believed to be the birthplace of Jesus. This grotto is the site that is the oldest continuously used place of worship in the Christian world. The Church is undergoing major renovation and has in fact seen multiple reconstructions since the original basilica was built here in 330 AD.
The Church of the Nativity is one of the busiest sites in the Holy Land, especially during the Christmas holiday season. Even though we were past the holiday season (near the end of January) we still waited in line for nearly 90 minutes to pass through the Church to the entrance of the grotto beneath the altar. As we approached the entrance, we waited another 30 minutes as this was the time of day for the Armenian prayers and the entrance is closed during that time. We squeezed through the narrow entrance into the grotto and passed by the Bethlehem Star, a 14-point silver star on the marble floor of the grotto that marks the birthplace of Jesus. We then exited the grotto and entered another one that was used as a stable and the manger where the holy family purportedly spent their first night.
We walked from the Church of the Nativity a few hundred yards to a market square where we had a late lunch at a small restaurant tucked into the side of a building, and ate our last falafel in Israel.
After our brief but delicious lunch we boarded our bus and drove the short distance to our hotel. Since we had a late night flight back to Toronto, our tour company had arranged a late checkout for us. Kim and I had one final walk in the vicinity of our hotel before picking up our bags and getting ready for our trip back to Canada. After leaving the hotel, we drove back towards Jerusalem where we had one final group dinner at a local restaurant. The tour company had arranged for traditional dancers to perform for us as we finished our meal.
We then boarded our bus for the last time and drove to the Ben Guiron Airport in Tel Aviv where our trip to Israel had begun just 9 days before.
Israel had been on our bucket list of places to visit for a long time. It is recognized around the world as the Holy Land - home to the religions of Abraham: Judaism, Christianity, Islam and Bahai. But it is more than that. It is a rich tapestry of ancient civilizations that include Persians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Fatimids, Turks, Crusaders and Egyptians. It is small, it is diverse and it is well worth visiting.
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