Cairo: More than just the Pyramids

Cairo is a city of contrasts and it is so diverse. So different to anywhere in the world we have traveled before. I love how it is normal to see a 4×4, a donkey, a scooter, a camel and a horse and carriage – all in the same scene on a road. I really wish I had caught a photo of that when I had the chance!

As we spent an entire, wonderful day at Dahshur, Saqqara and Giza seeing the pyramids, we had a second full day in Cairo to see some more of its sites.

The first stop of the day was the Citadel where the Mohammed-Ali mosque is (no, not the boxer – as we were reassured several times). It was quiet here. The mosque was very pretty inside and out. The Citadel has a great vantage point over the city, but other than that, it was not a very exciting stop – we were there for only 30 minutes.

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A must-do is without a doubt the Egyptian Museum.

It is really worth hiring a guide to go inside with you as this museum is mad. There is very little information about any of the exhibits and there are many artifacts scattered around unlabelled, that you could miss some amazing treasures with an incredible story behind them. The quantity of artifacts is staggering, and this is only the few they have out on show, there are many, many more in storage!

Our guide gave us a choice of 1 hour, 2 hours or 3 hours. I wasn’t feeling very well (horrible cold) so, normally I would have said 3 hours, but I was struggling. J. said three hours though on our behalf and I didn’t feel I could go back. I wanted to make the most of the visit after all. Half-way through, we were both waning, and when I asked J. , he agreed he wanted to wind things up soon. Our guide sensed this and after two hours he called our driver to pick us up half an hour earlier. We were so lucky that we were able to do this. In the meantime J. carried my handbag around and looked very elegant.

We paid extra to go into the mummy rooms. J. asked – do you want to see the mummies? YES I do! These rooms are well labelled and you can meet so many of the famous kings and queens in here through the ages of Ancient Egypt. Some still have hair and jewellery on, it’s fascinating.

I was half expecting one to move and scare-jump me though. The Egyptians don’t really like the American film ‘The Mummy.’ Apparently Imhotep was a good guy and scarab beetles don’t eat you alive – actually, they are a sign of good luck and were a symbol of the sun-god Ra, as they would come out of the sand in the morning to greet the sun (so cute!).

Of course, the highlight of the Egyptian Museum is seeing all the artifacts from Tutankhamen’s tomb –  So. much. gold! We would later visit the actual tomb in the Valley of the Kings in a few days time. It was amazing how so much stuff fitted inside it!

After the Egyptian Museum, food was of priority. We made our way to the souk – Khan el-Khalili.

Khan el-Khalili – the souk (market)

Here our guide took us to an Egyptian falafel wrap place. I am not a massive fan of falafel, but he assured us that Egyptian falafel was different and better than any other kind of falafel (of course). In fairness to him, it was really good. We had a falafel wrap each and a chip wrap each. So. much. carb. He really made us eat local for the two days we were with him, and I’m glad for that. I was absolutely stuffed but we couldn’t just sit around, we had shopping to do!

We had about 45 minutes to ourselves to walk around and find some bargains. It was the one time in central Cairo when we were on our own and we felt totally safe. It might have been because the souk was so empty – we didn’t see any other tourists. I would have thought we would have been hassled more because of this, but no, not really. Most sellers tried to initiate conversation and get us to visit their shops, but they didn’t push us or make us uncomfortable.

My first purchase was a small wooden jewellery box which was pretty. I got it down from 750LE to 250LE. It was a hard bargain I was pleased with but it took a lot of negotiation. A lot of shops were selling identical items.

James bought some incense, an incense burner holder and an essence oil tealight burner. I also purchased some small perfume bottles to put my essence in from the day before. That was it. We wandered around and meandered through the little alleyways but not much else caught our eye that day.

I wanted a necklace with my name on in hieroglyphics – it’s inside a symbol called a ‘cartouche’ – our guide knew a guy. He called them and only an hour after arriving back at our hotel, he returned with it for me all finished. It was 12$ – I did get it checked and it is proper silver, not plated, so I am chuffed with that – although for the rest of the trip, if anyone could read hieroglyphics (you’d be surprised by how many!), they instantly knew my name…

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View from the Citadel

Visiting some extra little pockets of Cairo made the visit feel less rushed.

 

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Nile Cruise Day 1: Luxor Temples

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After a buffet lunch on the boat, it was time to meet our guide, Robert, and get a coach back to Luxor for our first of many temples for the next four days: Karnak Temple and Luxor Temple.

There are a lot of temples on this cruise – so either be excited at the prospect or deal with the fact that you are going to be temple’d out by the end! I was the excited-kind.

Karnak is absolutely massive and we only scratched the surface of the ruins. The temple was added onto many times over the course of centuries by many different rulers. As we arrived late afternoon, there wasn’t much time to go off and see everything. After a guided tour of the main sights and an introduction to ‘What to Look for in an Ancient Egyptian Temple’ – a pylon, courtyard, columns area and ‘holiest of the holies’ which would be repeated everywhere we would go for the next four days, we were free to explore for half an hour.

It was busier here than in Cairo, but it wasn’t hard to escape the hoards of groups. We managed to find a quieter part of the temple and get some nice snaps!

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After Karnak, we went straight to the smaller Luxor Temple. Work is currently being done to reconnect the two temples so people can walk between the two again. Not sure I would do that in this heat… In front of this temple is an obelisk. Its identical twin which stood next to it, is now the one that stands in the Place de la Concorde in Paris. The sun was setting and was bathing the temple in a lovely glow.

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That evening, we watched a belly dance show on the cruise and another type of dance, Dervish, originally from Turkey. The Dervish dancing was absolutely mind boggling and impressively skilled.

 

After dinner, we decided to have an early night as we would be up at 5am the next morning to go to the Valley of the Kings!

Robyn

Adventures at Home: Winchester, England

I have really been exploring the South recently! This time, it was to the quaint, historic center of Winchester for a lovely day out.

The city reminded me of York, but what puts Winchester on top is that it is the city less-traveled. There is plenty to see and do but you do not have to push through the hoards of crowds to get around – my kind of place!

From the train station is a short walk to anywhere in the city. Our first stop was the famous cathedral. Your ticket includes a free tour and remains valid for the rest of the year should you wish to return; we didn’t do the the tour but the guides who we spoke to were very knowledgeable and happy to answer our questions. The cathedral is perhaps most famous as Jane Austen’s final resting place – of course we paid her a visit, but it is also home to a 10th Century Bible. A very impressive book, huge and detailed. Written on velum, it has been impeccably preserved.

Only a few days earlier, I was watching a TV documentary about Jane Austin’s life in Winchester and Bath and then it just so happened that that weekend, I was walking on the same streets I saw in the documentary. History in action.

Our next stop after a pub lunch was Wolvesey Castle. A free English Heritage site, and well worth the visit to get to know the Bishops of Winchester who made this their home during the Medieval period. The bishop was the most influential and powerful man in the city and our visit here gave much more context to how important Winchester was at the time, second to London! Nowadays, the site is a ruin, next door though, the new residence of the Bishop of Winchester can be found.

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After a bit of window shopping on the busy High Street, we had a tea and cake stop at the nearby Winchester Café. On offer was a superb selection of cakes and teas. Spoiled for choice with regards to the tea selection, the waitress recommended the apple and mint tea – wow, it was so good. On the menu I read that it had won awards, so it was no surprise really.

From there, it was a short but uphill leisurely walk back to the station to catch the train.

Sunday Snapshot: Stratford-Upon-Avon, UK

Earlier last month, Kam and I went on a day trip to Stratford-Upon-Avon, the birthplace of William Shakesphere. This was my first visit to the historic town, and although the weather was bleak, the rain kept off long enough for us to enjoy the outdoors.

Quaint, extremely touristic but worth the visit, Stratford is essential if you are interested in learning more about Shakesphere and what life was like ‘back then,’ all while marvelling at some stunning Tudor and Elizabethan architecture. It really is incredible to see that these buildings – complete with thatched roofs, precarious, creaking staircases and wooden beams – are still standing today.

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Anne Hathaway’s House

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Outside Anne Hathaway’s House

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Anne Hathaway’s House gardens

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Anne Hathaway’s House gardens

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The Best of The Golden Circle, Iceland

The Golden Circle is one of the most popular travel destinations in Iceland, especially for those who are only in the country on a short lay-over. It has in fact become compulsory for any Iceland itinerary; it combines history, natural wonders and incredible sights in a very concentrated region, which is perfect for people who want to see a variety of things in a short space of time.

Thingvellir

Thingvellir, only an hour’s drive from Reykjavik is the first stop en route. It is a site of historical, cultural, and geological interest. It is remarkably, the sight of where the Icelandic Parliament was established all the way back in 930. It seems so strange as it is in quite a remote and desolate location when you get there!

Walking down from the Visitor’s Center, you find a large rift valley which you can walk through, which marks the crest of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. It is incredible to marvel at the geological formations there.

Rift Valley at Thingvellir

Rift Valley at Thingvellir

IMG_2407IMG_2405The Visitor’s Center has some interesting videos and you can learn all about the area, the natural wildlife which resides there, how the rift valley came to be created and the founding of the Parliament.

Gullfoss

Jumping back in our car, we heading straight to Gullfoss waterfall which took about an hour’s drive. We decided to bypass Geysir which is situated between the two and visit there last, as that was where our campsite was that evening.

The mighty Gullfoss

The mighty Gullfoss

Gullfoss area was extremely windy, wet and cold when we were there, and our Lonely Planet travel guide advised that Gullfoss can be ‘disappointing’ in bad weather. We neared with low expectations as visibility was quite bad, but we were blown away by the sheer awesomeness of this waterfall!

It was a bit cold

It was a bit cold and wet

There are several paths to take; one where you can see the waterfall from above and another one to go down by the water and see it up close, with the danger of getting very, very wet! We of course, took both paths. It was great to see the waterfall from different perspectives, but it was quite exhilarating to go so close to the waterfall and get splashed.

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Geysir

We drove back towards Geysir, which was a 30 minute drive from Gullfoss. As it was my first day driving, I was relieved to have survived Day 1 intact without too many problems. We did end up getting lost at the beginning as we took the wrong road. But after getting an Icelandic SIM and connecting to my phone’s GPS navigation, we were back on track in no time. There was a slight problem with the car not starting, but we were saved by our Icelandic hero, who I only know as Titi who got it working again. He was so helpful and friendly and I’m so grateful for his help. He works in the Gullfoss shop, so if you see him, say hi from the distressed English traveller who didn’t have her car properly in the ‘Park’ mode on the automatic gearbox… 

Geysir is the best place along the Golden Circle route, in my opinion, to go for a meal. There are more options here than at Thingvellir or Gullfoss. Thingvellir Information Center, a five minute drive from Thingvellir Visitor’s Center (more on this in the snorkelling post!), has a café and Gullfoss also has a café. Geysir has a hotel restaurant and two cafés, one has a little tuck shop for snacks, both adjacent to the souvenir shop.

Before even considering seeing Geysir, we located the café and enjoyed a very tasty Lamb Soup in the warm. We also asked where the campsite was located, and it was literally across the road which was very handy. We took the car across and decided to pitch the tent while it wasn’t raining, before walking across to Geysir.

Geysir is the most exciting stop on the Golden Circle, as although we know Stokkur is active and erupts every 5-10 minutes, it is difficult to time exactly when it will happen! Everyone is standing there, poised with their cameras ready and their fingers on the shutter, waiting to shoot this natural wonder.

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Waiting patiently

Waiting patiently

It all happens so fast and before you know it, there is this massive jet of boiling water about 20m into the air!

Stokkur erupts

Stokkur erupts

Then all of a sudden, it is over, and there is just some steam floating about in the air. And you find yourself waiting for it to happen all over again, and again!

IMG_2475This was the final stop of our Golden Circle tour that day but the best was yet to come…

Silfra

The next day we drove to Silfra, near Thingvellir, to experience snorkelling between two continents in clear, icy water with DIVE.is (I will be doing a separate post just on this). It was an incredible experience and was an massive highlight of the trip!

Kerið

We also drove to Kerð (Kerid), a volcanic crater lake, 30 minutes drive south of Thingvellir. There was an entrance fee for this (400ISK), but it was worth paying to see it.

Kerid volcanic crater

Kerið volcanic crater

We were pressed for time, as we still had to drive to Vik that evening, which is a two hour drive south and it was already 4pm by then. Still, we stretched our legs briefly and walked around the top of the crater which takes about 15 minutes. You can also walk down to the lake which takes 5 minutes. The water is a beautiful shade of blue.

Being awesome

Being awesome

Our drive through the Golden Circle was a fantastic start to our Icelandic Road Trip to get a taster for Iceland’s magnificent nature and variety in landscapes, more was sure to come! My favourite region however, was in the South, when we visited Skaftafell and Jökulsárlón in the Vatnajökull National Park (1 hour 30 minute drive east of Vik). If I could only go back to one or the other, it would have to be Vatnajökull National Park, for reasons you will have to find out about in a coming post…

Where’s your favourite place in Iceland? What do you want to see the most?

Let me know in the comments below.

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A Day Trip to York, England

Despite calling Yorkshire ‘home’ for more than two years already since studying at The University of Sheffield, I was quite embarrassed when I came to the realisation that I hadn’t seen much of the region at all, or even in more general terms, the UK. This is something I am working on though now.

During my Year Abroad, I travelled around France and Spain extensively at weekends and during holidays. Since I have returned to the UK for the next 12 months at least, I felt it was time to devote some new energy into appreciating the beauty on my doorstep and not just in exotic destinations abroad that are out of reach for now. Well, while I still can before the new academic year sets in; weekends will be spent mostly in the library over the next year!

Yorkshire-wise, I have been into the Peak District where I climbed to Stanage Edge in Fresher’s Week of my first year and I also went to Chatsworth House last summer, but I have hardly ventured into other parts of Yorkshire. I remember some Erasmus students in my Second Year who would travel around the country during weekends while I would either be studying in bed, or studying in the library and they were somewhat unimpressed with my lack of energy to get out and about.

It’s easy to have so much more enthusiasm when you are abroad, exploring a different culture. You are in ‘adventure mode’ and that is certainly how I felt when I lived in France, Spain and Portugal. I do love living in Sheffield though and I am content enough to spend my free time there, as there is so much going on at the university for me! I have society events, part-time jobs and circles of friends, all of which I had zero access to when I was abroad.

With a weekend free, James and I decided to book train tickets to York for our first visit to the city. Famous for its Minster, historic walls, cobbled streets and other heritage sites, it is only one hour from Sheffield.

Walking into town from the station

Walking into town from the station

I understand that we visited York on the Saturday of August Bank Holiday, so we didn’t choose the best day to go in terms of avoiding the crowds, but there were so many tourists!!! Due to the narrow streets, the heavy crowds made it difficult to get around and it was quite stressful.

The short walk into the city center from the train station was very pleasant though. We climbed up the steps to walk along a part of the city walls on the way in, not something you do every day! Then we crossed the river:

Walking across the river from the station

Walking across the river from the station

Our first stop was to admire the outside of York Minster. Tickets are not cheap to enter, as we found out with most attractions in York, however their website does state that it costs £20,000/day to run York Minster and this is the reason why they charge so much for entry! I see why they have to do it, but if they charged a little less, we would have been more inclined to go inside.

York Minster

York Minster

Walking around the old streets, we came across some beautiful old buildings on every corner:

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Walking down the Shambles

Walking down the Shambles

We ate at a small pub in one of the main squares for lunch before walking towards the other side of the city to the York Castle Museum. Entry was £5 for us as we were under 26.

The museum is housed in a former prison, and you can see some of the original cells which have projectors in each room with recordings of individual inmates sharing their story of how they ended up in the prison.

The rest of the museum is a fascinating collection of social history, reflecting everyday life in Yorkshire. Upstairs, there are ‘period rooms,’ examples of a farmhouse room, how a living room looked in the 1950s, a kitchen in the 1940s etc.

Downstairs you can explore Kirkgate, a recreated Victorian street which was originally built in 1938. This feature is the most iconic part of York Castle Museum and it was incredible to walk around! The street houses real shop fronts and products that were from that era, all originals, and thanks to extensive research, every single shop is based on a real York business which operated between 1870 and 1901! You are walking through history in this place.

The street has its own schoolroom, police cell, Hansom cab, Cocoa House and cobbled street. A few years ago, they added on a new backstreet, Rowntree Snicket, to portray the life of the poor who lived in Victorian slums in York; there is a very foul-looking toilet shed and an example of a working class home, showing where a family would live (one single bed only – mother slept at night, father slept during the day). The alleyway is dingy and smells awful thanks to the artificial scents. There is a candle factory there though and our guide said that the smell coming from that room is very real, because the candles were made with animal fat. It was all quite revolting so I was happy to get out of there! I wouldn’t last very long as a Victorian…

They also gave a talk on the Victorian Cocoa House which was run by Quakers. Their philosophy is that alcohol is bad, so they drink hot chocolate instead. The Cocoa House was a meeting place where families were welcome, different to the pubs where the adults could go but children had to stay at home, and there was entertainment free of charge. It was a way of educating the poor into a ‘better way of life,’ without alcohol and spending quality time with the family.

Clifford's Tower

Clifford’s Tower

After a tour through the rest of the building, we got some fresh air and had a look at the iconic York Castle next door, which was built on a conical mound by William the Conqueror. It’s an English Heritage site, so it is free entry if you have membership, otherwise entrance is £4.40 for adults and £4 for students. Other than climbing to the top to get a view over York, it didn’t seem like there was much to do inside, and TripAdvisor reviewers had been “disappointed” with their visits for the price of the ticket, so we decided not to go up.

After some retail therapy, we ate at Pizza Express which is located in a large Victorian building, much in keeping with the rest of the historic city, before catching the train home to Sheffield in the evening.

York was a wonderful place for a day trip, very historical and plenty of things to see and do. It has a very different vibe to Sheffield, which has been shaped more by its industrial past, but is now a beautiful, green, hilly city that’s full of students. I am biased though.

I’d recommend the York Castle Museum as somewhere you must visit when in York; the exhibits have been well researched and thought through, it was an education. We also enjoyed walking around the walls and seeing different perspectives of the city for free.

Here’s to visiting more of the UK this year!

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Hammam Al Ándalus in Madrid

Ever since my wonderful experience at the Hammam Al Ándalus in Granada (which I wrote about here), I wanted to return straight away! The Hammams are located in Granada, Málaga, Córdoba and Madrid, so if you find yourself in any of these cities, it is definitely worth booking in if you appreciate some well-deserved relaxation.

Unfortunately, I was living in the north of Spain, and therefore a minimum three-hour train journey from the closest Hammam (Madrid) which made it more difficult for me to return. I managed to prevail though, and squeezed in a return trip to Hammam Al Ándalus, this time in Madrid, during my first visit to the capital. It was the perfect treat to end my four months living and studying in Spain, the evening before flying home to the UK.

Relaxation Room

The Hammam in Madrid is excellently located in the city center, between Puerta del Sol and Plaza Mayor which makes it easily accessible and was only a five minute walk from my hostel.

After taking a walking tour during my visit to Madrid, it was interesting to learn that the city itself has a fascinating Moorish history which nowadays is very unknown; originally known as Mayrit, Madrid was founded in the 9th century. Its location in the center of Spain was no coincidence either – at that time, it was a crossroads between the divide of Christian North and Moorish South and therefore in an important defensive position, especially as it is slightly north of Toledo, which was the capital of Spain, to protect it from invasions from the north. Although the Hammam baths bring some of the luxury of Andalucía to the capital nowadays, the baths are in fact perfectly at home here in Madrid, which was once an Arab city with a mosque, souk and hammams, however much of this is now lost and Hammam Al Ándalus is the only hammam now in Madrid.

Still, the cathedral in Madrid, called “Almudena” although named after a medieval icon of the Virgin Mary, the Patron Saint of Madrid, the word “Almudena” in Arabic translates to “the citadel,” and traces of Madrid’s Moorish roots are still to be seen. Therefore, a visit to the Hammam in Madrid is still a culturally enriching experience as well a relaxing one.

My hammam experience this time also started with a 15-minute full-body massage, and I chose the Red Amber oil again as I loved the scent the last time. In the Relaxation room you can find a “Fuente de té” (a tap that provides hot Moroccan Mint tea). I love the tea so much and I drank countless cups of it in between relaxing in the heated pools. There are three pools to choose from: cold (18°C), temperate (36°C) and hot (40°C) and also a steam room, my favourite being the hot pool. I enjoyed starting in the temperate pool, moving on to the hot, the steam room and then cooling off the with cold pool and a shower – I was not as brave as some of the other people who got fully submerged in the cold pool! It is just so cold.

As I went mid-week at 8pm, there were not as many people in the baths as there were when I went to Granada on a Friday evening. This was great as there were fewer people in the pools and I mostly had each area at a time to myself to unwind! I would definitely recommend booking to go during the evening as it allows you to relax after a long day of sight-seeing during the day and I fell asleep easily when I went to bed.

All I have left now is to check out the remaining Hammams in Córdoba and Málaga (hopefully sooner rather than later!), when I am in Spain in the future. I still hope they will expand and come to the UK – it’s cold here and we need some Hammam luxury please…

Hasta luego,

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