Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Berat

Town of a thousand windows
Tuesday 4 June: Taking the bus south to the UNESCO World Heritage listed town of Berat, I'm lodging in a pleasant old Ottoman home, Lorenc Guesthouse, on the south bank of the river Osum. North of the river is Berat proper, a rare example of Ottoman architecture where a hilltop citadel, The Kale, defends the open town below. Tiered down the rocky mountainside the oblong houses have numerous south-facing windows to make maximum use of the prevailing sunshine, "the town of a thousand windows". It's a glum day but views from the fortress summit are spectacular.
Slideshow of Berat.

Monday, 9 December 2013

Kruja

Skanderbeg's castle remains
Monday 3 June: I jump on the local bus for a trip to the nearby mountainside village of Kruja, once the home of Skanderbeg, Albania's national hero. Easily recognisable by his goat-head helmet he remains a symbol of Christian resistance against the Ottoman Turks. Little of the original castle still stands but the cloud-shrouded mountain landscape makes a pleasant break from busy city life.
Slideshow of Kruja.

Sunday, 8 December 2013

Albania: Tirana

Generations of architectural styles
Finally, my laptop and I are up and running again!
Saturday 1 June: Not sure what I was expecting of Tirana, Albania's capital city, but it's a pleasant surprise with only the slight whiff of isolationist Communism remaining. Tirana's restaurants and bars are modern, trendy and full of emerging middle-class youngsters and with few beggars on the streets, and no hassles, it's a pleasant city to wander around before I retire to my cosy en-suite room in the comfortable Hotel Arleea.
Sunday 2: The green Skanderbeg square, surrounded by a whole range of architectural styles, is fantastic and the fresco-fronted national museum seems worth a visit, but disappointingly, it's full of little more than old religious icons. The Galerie E Arteve is far better with a fascinating collection of Communist era art as well as historic and modern impressions.
Wednesday 5 June: Back in Tirana again I dine, for the last time, in my favourite restaurant, Era. Great messes, rich red wine, I'm sad to leave.
Slideshow of Tirana.

Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Kosovo: Pristina

Europe's newborn nation, Kosovo
Tuesday 28 May: Taking the afternoon train to the Kosovo border I change trains and soon arrive in this new country's capital city, Pristina. With all the feel of a provincial town only the train driver and I disembark at the deserted station and there's not even a taxi in sight. I ask at the empty station bar, it's only a short walk to the centre of town.
Friday 31: Nine-foot tall lettering decorated with the flags of all the nations who accept Kosovo's legitimacy is Pristina's only monument, not a statue in sight. The Serbs gutted the city's museum before withdrawing so all it now houses is a sad assortment of small arms from the conflict.
I'm staying at Guesthouse Velania where an American UN worker befriends me. He's showing me to a good local restaurant when we bump into one of his Kosovan friends, Bujar Berisha, who in typical Muslim hospitality style insists that we eat at his home. I say yes but only if I can bring some beer as a gift. He reluctantly agrees as he has plenty of beer at home and I am a guest in his new hard fought-for country. The Berisha family live in a large comfortable apartment where his two loving kids are keen to practice their English. His wife is out so Bujar makes us a starter of olives and dried beef followed by a simple pasta dish and more beer. Bujar is the charismatic lead singer and front man of the region's most popular heavy metal band, Troja. Later his wife returns and the boys adjourn to the band's recording studios on the other side of town. Another band, Jericho, are there when we arrive, via a liquor store, with more beers. We talk of music and how challenging it was for young musicians in Tito's Yugoslavia to hear western bands - Beatles, Stones and Noel Redding (of the Hendrix Experience fame). There's much drinking, smoking and music until around midnight when Bujar drives us to his favourite bar. It's the one at the station, but now it's heaving. Everyone knows Bujar and beers come our way from all directions. At around 3:00am he drives us back to the guesthouse and gives me a Troja CD to remember him by, good evening, great Albanian Muslim guy.
Saturday 1 June: Bus to Tirana.
Slideshow of Pristina and videos of Troja playing Amaneti i Clownit and Mretnesha Kohe.

Sunday, 4 August 2013

Ohrid

Flying the flag over Ohrid Castle
Thursday 23 May: We have a bedroom each with shared kitchen in the clean but somewhat rundown Apartments Costa. It's next to the lake and centrally located in the old town of  Macedonia's favourite lakeside resort, Ohrid. Hiking around the lake shore and up the hill we soon find ourselves in the enthusiastically restored, 10th century, Car Samoil Castle with great views over the lake and town.
In the evening Tony reminds me of a lighthearted quiz game of Trivial Pursuits we played some years ago while on holiday in Etretat on the Normandy coast of France. It was the boys v. the girls and the dialogue went something like this:
Girls (reading the question): "What is the second most intelligent animal to man?"
Boys (in unison): "Woman."
Girls (laughing): "No, no you are not having that! It's Dolphins."
Tony (the quickest boy to respond): "That must make women third then!"
Saturday 25: Today we take a boat trip the monastery of Sveti Naum, with it's tiny Orthodox church, on the far side of the lake close to the Albanian border. In the evening I entertain Tony by playing six-nation rugby matches on my laptop. They are all England v. Scotland Calcutta cup tests at Murryfield and I don't seem to have downloaded any that England win. This is a pity as Tony is a keen England fan educated at Rugby school in the heart of England . . . "Come on Rory!".
Sunday 26: Following a rainy day-trip to the nearby town of Bitola where the Roman ruins hide an impressive mosaic we decide to dine at Sveti Sofia restaurant where we have enjoyed good food and great house red wine previously. However, our meal is interrupted when black limousines pull-up outside and large serious-looking men in black suits jump out and invade the restaurant. All with earpieces and jackets bulging with firearms they bustle a man to the rear and then sit down at the table next to two slightly alarmed Brits, us.
When we leave Tony, somewhat bravely, asks the waiter who he is. It's Tomislav Nikolić, Head of State and President of the Republic of Serbia. Good restaurant (no photos).
Slideshow of Ohrid.

Saturday, 3 August 2013

Macedonia: Skopje

All new statues and an old bridge
Monday 20 May: Handy for the railway station and the city centre I've booked a twin room in tiny Motel Le Village which has just six rooms set around a grassy courtyard garden.
Tuesday 21: Today I take the shuttle bus to the airport to meet one of my old muckers, Tony, who is joining me for a short holiday. First we head along the Vardar River to the city centre then across the old stone bridge to Kale Fortress and the Gallery of Modern Art. This city has more statues than anywhere else I can think of, mostly of Macedonia's famous son, Alexander the Great. We stop for a beer (the first alcohol I've tasted in a month) then for a good messes lunch at Stara Gradska Kuca restaurant before strolling around town for more statue and people watching (well, mostly girl's bottom watching). It's great to see Tony again, I've not enjoyed good English speaking company for a while, even if it does come with a slight Brummy twang.
Monday 27: Returning from a few days in Ohrid we lunch, once again, at the Stara Gradska Kuca. Unfortunately it's fully booked in the evening and we end up drinking far too much Alexander the Great red wine elsewhere. How Tony manages to catch the 3:00am bus to the airport I'll never know.
Tuesday 28: The old copper-domed Ottoman hammam or Turkish baths now houses the National Gallery and I have a quick look around the fantastic interior before, once again, catching the train north.
Slideshow of Skopje.

Friday, 2 August 2013

Thessaloniki

Thessaloniki's trendy promanade
Friday 17 May: Another early train northwards, this time to the modern port and transport hub of Thessaloniki.
Saturday 18: I take time to look around the White Tower before taking the 5:00pm bus northwards over the border and into another new country - the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.
Slideshow of Thessaloniki.

Sunday, 14 July 2013

Monasteries of Meteoria

Monk's lofty lairs atop rocky buffs
Wednesday 15 May: Still heading north, the 8:00am train from Athens' Larissa Station arrives at Kalambaka five hours later. Quickly checking in at the King Hotel I hike up to the two eastern monasteries in the chain of five that top the rocky limestone pinnacles of Meteoria, Agia Trias and Agia St Stephen
Thursday 16: Today I get the morning bus up to western Great Metoria and walk back down to Verlaam, Roussansu and St Nikolass monasteries, fantastic scenery.
Slideshow of the Monasteries of Meteoria.

Monday, 1 July 2013

Athens revisited

Silly walks Athens' guard style
Saturday 11 May: Early ferry to Pireas then the metro to Monastraki and a short walk to Soho Hotel, handy for Athens' main sights.
Sunday 12: The Acropolis Museum displays much of the decorative marble from the Acropolis except, of course, The Elgin Marbles that were purchased from Greece and remain in London. I follow a surprisingly good lunch at museum with a surprisingly entertaining spectacle - the changing of the guards. All pompoms and silly walks, the guards appear less threatening than a troupe of ballet dancers.
Monday 15: The Parthenon under repair is a little disappointing but the views from the Acropolis over the city, down to Ancient Agora and the Temple of Zeus are impressive.
Tuesday 14: The Archaeological Museum is great, statues of more Greek gods and nymphs than you can wave a siren at. A quick stroll around the Temple of Apollo and then to Cafe Fish for the best fish supper this side of Scotland.
Slideshow of Athens revisited.

Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Agia Anna

Waves lapping Agia Anna's beach
Wednesday 1 May: I move around the coast to Agia Anna where I've reserved a studio flat in Sophi's Pension for ten nights. Most years I undertake a ten-day detox diet: a single fruit only (watermelon then apples) for the first two days followed by a diet of raw fresh fruit and vegetables for eight days and this is the ideal place to do it.
Friday 10: After ten days free of alcohol, caffeine and other toxins I feel great. Time to move on again.
Slideshow of Agia Anna and day trips to Apollonas and, to the highest peak in the Cyclades, Mt Zeus.

Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Hora (Naxos town)

Fisherman's church, Hora harbour
Friday 26 April: Arriving on the newish Blue Star ferry Delos I'm soon comfortably settled in my little poolside studio in Irene Pension II and spend a few days exploring the town: hilly little old town backstreets, the boulder-topped causeway, Apollo's temple on the headland and the tiny fisherman's church set on a little island in the harbour.
Slideshow of Hora (Naxos Town).

Monday, 10 June 2013

Santorini

Oia, atop Thira's black caldera rim
Sunday 21 April: Once again aboard the aging ferry Prevalis I soon arrive in the jewel in the crown of the Greek islands . . . Santorini. A pastel and blue coloured pallet atop the hardened harsh-black and rust-red lava remains of the island's volcanic past.
Tuesday 23: The cliff-top footpath from Santorini's main town, Fira, along the caldera's steep black rim to the village of Oia is a sheer delight. So much so that, on Thursday, I take the bus to Oia and walk it back the other way. Fantastic.
Wednesday 24: Visiting the black sandy beach at Kamari on Santorini's east coast is a great but toe-roasting experience, it's bloody hot. Back in Fira I dine at Salt & Pepper, my restaurant of choice, where a starter of stuffed vine leaves, a shot of raki and a desert scoop of ice cream are complimentary. I leave a tip and on Thursday I get two stuffed vine leaves and two scoops of ice cream. Fantastic too.
Slideshow of Santorini.

Saturday, 18 May 2013

Bali, Crete

View from a balcony, Bali harbour
Sunday 14 April: One of my reasons for coming to Crete was to walk the Samaria Gorge but, due to the risk of avalanche, it's closed until May. Also, the weekly ferry to Santorini has been cancelled and wet windy weather are forecast. So, I decide to stay in the little north coast fishing village of Bali where the Hotel Sofia is offering an incredibly good value half-board deal (€17 a night). This is less than I usually pay for just an evening meal. The room has a huge balcony, breakfast and a three-course hot buffet dinner are served in a nearby restaurant. I soon discover that the other guests are paying considerably more than I am. There are worse places in the world to wait for a ferry. 
Two photos of Bali.

Wednesday, 15 May 2013

Rethymnon

Rethymnon's Venetian fortress
Thursday 11 April: Returning from Sougia I overnight in the Irene Hotel in Chania before continuing to Rethymnon the next day where I'm the first and only guest in the Olymmpia Hotel. I have a comfortable studio with balcony overlooking their newly filled pool (€20). Rethymnon is a resort town with a beach strip, old quarter and large Venetian fortress perched on a rocky headland. It also has a shopping centre where I buy a pair of good quality running shoes, light yet tough, ideal. 
Slideshow of Rethymnon.

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Coastpath to Sougia

The craggy 'E4' path to Sougia
Sunday 7 April: The European 'E4' route coastpath west from Palaecoro starts along a well-trodden track but gradually, as it begins to rain, it narrows and becomes steeper and more rugged. It seems that inclines of sharp rocks and loose rubble pass for a footpaths in Crete. Broken ankle terrain! Soon my cheap trainers, that were fine when I started, begin to fall apart so, when I arrive in the old abandoned village of Lissos, I take shelter in a deserted house until the rain stops.
The scenery is good and Spring flowers are in bloom but when I eventually reach the little village of Sougia my shoes are split down the sides and both soles are hanging off. I'll have to curtail my walking plans and bus it back to a northcoast town, I need footware.
Slideshow of the Coastpath to Sougia.

Monday, 6 May 2013

Palaechoro

Thursday 4 April: From Chania I take the morning bus to the sleepy southwest coast resort of Palaechora. It has a bit of a dead end feel about it with twin beaches each side of a rocky headland. There are no ongoing roads but there is a ferry during the season and a coastal footpath, that suits me just fine. The local rock is a pebbly conglomerate set in coarse matrix so the going is likely to be to be rough
Saturday 6: Hiring a mountain bike I cycle west along a made-up gravel farm track. I want to get to the little sandy island of Elafonissi that you can paddle out to at low tide. It's about 15 miles away but it's tough hilly going over the goat-grazed cliffs and I stop short, just close enough to take a photo, knackered.
Slideshow of Palaechoro.

Sunday, 5 May 2013

Chania

Chania's charming Venetian harbour
Monday 5 April: I have a small en-suite studio with a tiny balcony and sea views in 'Room 47' in Chania old town perched above the little port's Venetian harbour. It's a charming place with narrow pedestrian backstreets, a lighthouse at the end of the harbour wall and colourful tavernas lining the quayside. My restaurant of choice is Tamam Taverna, back from the waterfront, where a small complimentary flask of raki unexpectedly appears at the end of your meal.
A pretty place to spend a few days.
Slideshow of Chania.

Wednesday, 1 May 2013

Crete: Heraklion

Knossos, rebuilt in the early 1900s
Thursday 28 March: The capital and main port of Crete, Heraklion has a Venetian fort and harbour with a two-kilometre long breakwater pointing into the sea like a massive crooked finger. It's a fair walk to it's end but with great views back towards the snow-topped mountains beyond the city.
Friday 29: Today I'm taking a stroll around the old city walls but, apart from the cathedral, the views across the modern city aren't the best.
Sunday 31: Every visitor to Heraklion heads out to Knossos Palace and I am no exception. Capital of ancient Crete and fabled home of the half-man, half-bull creature, the Minotaur, who feasted on youths and maidens. Mostly bull I think. Discovered in 1900 by British archaeologist Arthur Evens, he subsequently rebuilt it using reinforced concrete adored with reproduction frescoes. After Egypt it's a little disappointing.
Friday 19 April: Back in Heraklion I visit the Archaeological Museum to see the original Minoan artifacts and frescoes, and also play spot the difference.
Slideshow of Heraklion.

Sunday, 28 April 2013

Rhodes: Lindos


Lofty outpost of the Roman empire
Saturday 23 March: Taking a day trip to Lindos I climb up to to the ancient city atop a rocky outcrop above the pretty modern village. Like Rhodes, the whole village reeks of fresh paint as busy locals prepare for the tourist season.
Sunday 24: Departing from Rhodes I find a comfortable corner of carpet in the lounge of ANEK's ferry Prevalis for the overnight sailing to Crete. There's only a handful of other passengers.
Slideshow of Lindos.

Tuesday, 23 April 2013

Rhodes Town

Fortress gateway to old Rhodes
Monday 18 March: It's off-season but, even so, my spacious double-balcony twin-aspect apartment with lounge and kitchen in the Panorama Hotel, just southwest of the Medieval city walls, is exceptional value (13 per night). I'm ravenous but the lady in the local Taverna speaks no English so I simply give her a 10 note and indicate that I want food. Soon she brings me a feast of mixed starters: deep fried sardines, various beans, potatoes, stuffed vine leaves, bread and a bottle of Retsina. She offers to bring more but I'm full.
Tuesday 19: The old city of Rhodes is a Medieval Crusader fortress full of narrow wandering lanes, restaurants, shops, mosques, an archaeological museum, a clock tower and a grand palace. Now a World Heritage Site, the town's moat is dry and grassed over which makes it a fantastic walk around the great bastions.
Tuesday 19: Walking inland I reach Rhodes' acropolis with a few surviving columns of the Temple of Apollonas.There are good views over the old port with a lighthouse and several old French windmills.
Thursday 21: The Archaeological Museum, in the former Knights of St John hospital, is interesting enough but if I see another Greek urn I think I'll scream.
Friday 22: The Grand Masters Palace is an impressive castle-like building with fine mosaics on the floors. Restored during the Italian occupation it was intended as a holiday home for Mussolini, but never used. 
Slideshow of Rhodes Town.

Friday, 19 April 2013

Greece: Athens

Ancient landmark, Athens' Acropolis
Friday 15 March: There's no longer any ferries from Egypt to Europe so I'm forced to fly to the country of Alexander the Great's birth, Greece.
Saturday 16: I'm in Fivos Hotel just off the touristy Monastiraki Square in the shadow of the Acropolis but it's also handy for the James Joyce Irish pub where I spend most of the day, pint of Guinness in hand, watching the culmination of the Six-Nations Rugby. Disappointing results and the pub's full of noisy drunk Welshmen but I've had a huge all day breakfast, my first taste of bacon for several months, fantastic.
Sunday 17: Circumnavigating the Acropolis I climb to the summit of Filopappos Hill for great views over the ancient and new cities, then down past Ancient Agora to the Temple of Olympian Zeus. This is just a quick visit so I don't go into any of the sites. I'll be back but, as there are no ferries yet, tomorrow I'm flying to slightly warmer climes, the island of Rhodes.
Slideshow of Athens.

Sunday, 14 April 2013

Alexandria

Alexander the Great's capital city
Friday 5 March: I can't find my hotel so I take a horse-drawn Caleche (98th mode of transport) but even so it takes an hour or so as the driver asks directions. Eventually we find it and I've walked past it several times this afternoon, a name plate would have been useful.
There's not much left of the city founded by Alexander the Great around 2,350 years ago. No Cleopatra's palace, no lighthouse, no great library, even the museum is closed for renovation. Only a few Roman remains survive: an amphitheatre with mosaics, a single standing great pillar and some catacombs but the jewel in the crown is Alexandria's new modern library, an attempt to replace the ancient one. It's a cool and relaxing place away from the heat, noise and dust. There is even a small map library, the ideal place to plan the rest of my trip, fantastic.
Thursday 14: It's my last night. I've downloaded the movie and I end my visit to Egypt in the 1940's style Cap D'or bar in Alexandria's backstreets . . . Ice Cold in Alex, sadly John Mills and Sylvia Sims are not here to join me. 
Slideshow of Alexandria.

Friday, 12 April 2013

Modern Cairo

Cairo's wickerwork tower
Monday 25 February:  The title 'Modern Cairo' is a tad misleading as most of the modern city is stuck in a time warp, middle of the last century. Today I'm climbing Cairo Tower to get a panoramic view of the city but the pollution is so bad I can't even see the minarets of Islamic Cairo let alone the pyramids at Giza. As compensation there are good views across the Nile to Tahir Square, the Egyptian Museum and, if you look carefully, a block of white masonry on the riverside, The British Embassy.
Saturday 2 March: Back in Islamic Cairo I'm visiting the former home of a British Major, Robert Grenville Gayer-Anderson, who was an obsessive collector of Egyptian artifacts. Now a museum, he bequeathed his collection to Egypt and in 1945 King Farouk honoured him with the title of Pasha. Several scenes from the he James Bond film The Spy Who Loved Me were shot in the reception area and on the rooftop terrace where you can just imagine Roger Moor allowing 'Jaw's' sidekick to drop to his death after loosing his grip on 007's tie.
Thursday 7: Cafe Riche, the long established meeting place of Egyptian intelligentsia, is my restaurant of choice in downtown Cairo, but today I'm taking an old Glasgow tram (97th mode of transport) to the Belgian built northern suburb of Heliopolis, a place old allied soldiers would have known well. It's my last night in Cairo and two bars on my mini pub crawl are reminiscent of that era.
Friday 8: Taking the Metro to Cairo's newly named 'Al shohadaa' station I get the train from Cairo's magnificent station. I'm off to Alexandra and the Mediterranean coast.
Slideshow of Modern Cairo.

Thursday, 11 April 2013

Egyptian Museum


Warehouse of wonderful treasures
Monday 18 February: I've been here before, of course, but it's never disappointing. It's an old warehouse of wonderful treasures but nowadays photos are not allowed. Today I'm focusing on the Old Kingdom artifacts on the ground floor, Tut's riches can wait for another day. First I head for the Narmer platter, a mere 5,150 or so years old carving. I've managed to smuggle in my camera and  can't resist taking an aerial shot of the statue of Khafre from the 1st floor balcony. There's a winged carving of Horus behind his neck as protection. Also, there's a tiny statuette of Khufu. Ironically the only one surviving of the great pharaoh who built the great pyramid.
In the evening I dine in the Windsor Hotel, the former home of the British Officer's Club in Cairo and, apart from the TV, is doesn't look like it's changed a jot since the war.
Thursday 7 March: Returning to see the magnificent Tut collection the museum scanner picks up my camera, no photos.
Slideshow of the Egyptian Museum.

Monday, 8 April 2013

Giza Plateau

The Great Sphinx at Giza
Tuesday 5 March: A free lift, organised by my hotel, drops me at 'El Haram', the entrance to the pyramids, and I've allowed a whole day to look around this magnificent wonder of the ancient world. So, avoiding the camel and horse hawkers, I head first to the Great Sphinx, then to the relatively small Pyramid of Menkaure and onto the large limestone-capped Pyramid of Khafra which, because it was built on a hill, looks to be the largest of the three main pyramids. Finally, I look around the Great Pyramid of Khufu which is the oldest of the trio and largest pyramid in Egypt. All three pyramids were built for Old Kingdom 4th dynasty pharaohs who ruled around 4,500 years ago.
It's really fantastic to just wander around the spacious site, particularly as it's a grey windy day and there are few tourists, perfect. You can no longer climb the pyramids but you can still sit on the bottom courses of stone blocks and this is where I have my picnic lunch. All too soon, as the site closes, I fall asleep on the 4pm red number 135 bus back to Cairo (E£2).
Slideshow of the Giza Plateau.

Saturday, 6 April 2013

Saqqara revisited

Stairway to the netherworld
Thursday 28 February: Now that I have time to explore Saqqara I'm pleased that several of the New Kingdom tombs are open including the vault of the 18th dynasty great warrior king, Horemheb, but he real highlight for me is the Serapeum.
To ancient Egyptians Bulls were sacred and many of these huge animals were mummified and entombed in great stone coffins. The massive sarcophagi and burial chambers are astonishing and it's almost unbelievable that the huge heavy sculpted stone coffins, and their contents, were manhandled deep into this great rock-cut underground warehouse, fantastic.
Slideshow of Saqqara.

Monday, 18 March 2013

Dashur and Memphis

Red Pyramid at Dashur
Thursday 28 March: Hiring a car with driver for the day (E135, about £13) we first head to Dashur to see the Old Kingdom's Bent Pyramid, the perfect Red Pyramid, and the Middle Kingdom's damaged Black Pyramid which the armed guards won't let me approach. Memphis Museum is all that is left of the great capital city of Memphis. The reclining statue of Ramses II and the Memphis sphinx are potent reminders of a monumental past.
Slideshow of Dashur and Memphis.

Saturday, 16 March 2013

Islamic Cairo

Mamluk style Sultan Hassan Mosque
Wednesday 20 February: Walking east from Garden City I soon reach the backstreets of Islamic Cairo and the small Mosque of Sarghatmish. Stopping to look in through the window I'm ushered in to the small, quite attractive, Ottoman style courtyard and encouraged to climb the minaret. From the top there are great views towards the Citadel and down over the magnificent neighbouring Mosque of Ibn Tulun.
Ibn Tulun Mosque's simple Addasid style curves and lines are reminiscent of the great Persian mosques in Iran. Built around 1,130 years ago sultan Ibn Tulun it is the oldest mosque in Cairo. Well restored today you can climb the spiral minaret and access the roof for even better views over the dusty Cairo skyline, great.
Wandering through the narrow lanes eventually I find my way to the green and peaceful oasis of the Citadel View Restaurant in Al-azhar Park. It's an expensive lunch stop but, the pleasant vista across the park towards the Citadel, eases the pain.
Tuesday 26: Back in Islamic Cairo, the ornate Mosque-Madrassa of Sultan Hassan, built 650 years ago, is regarded as the best example of early Mamluk architecture in the city. From here I climb up to the hilltop fortress that was home to generations of Egypt's sultans, the Citadel. Saladin started building it 837 years ago as a defence against potential Crusader attacks from their Holy Land stronghold. It was subsequently enlarged by the Mamluks before it fell to Napoleon's troops and subsequently, when the French withdrew, into the hands of an Ottoman soldier, Mohammed Ali. A lieutenant in the Turkish army Mohammed Ali's rise to power was both swift and brutal. On 1st March 1811 he invited the Mamluk beys to a banquet in the Citadel in honour of his son's impending departure to Mecca. When the feast was over and the procession of mounted Mamluks, dressed in all their finery, rode towards Bab al-Azab gateway the gates slammed shut. First gunfire rained down on them and then Mohammed Ali's troups waded in with axes and swords to finish the slaughter. No Mamluks survived. He went on to destroy most of the Mamluk architecture in the Citadel and replace it with the Turkish style multi-domed Mosque of Mohammed Ali that still dominates Cairo's skyline. Today the Citadel is a large complex filled with mosques, old palaces and mediocre museums.
Walking back towards Downtown Cairo I stop for a kushari lunch (a mixture of rice and various noodles topped with lentils, tomato sauce and crispy onions) before visiting the Blue Mosque and adjacent house.
Wednesday 27: The Museum of Islamic Art is interesting but no photos.
Slideshow of Islamic Cairo.

Wednesday, 13 March 2013

Old Cairo

Coptic Cairo's Hanging Church
Sunday 17 February: All the trains from El-Minya to Cairo are full so, avoiding a police escort, I go to the small but chaotic Upper Egypt Bus Company bus station where a grumpy ticket seller points me to a seat. Two uneventful hours later all the people around me suddenly rush to the ticket booth. Fortunately I decide to join them and mange to fight my way to the tiny window for a (E£30) bus ticket to Cairo. Just one hour out of El-Minya the back of the bus fills with acrid smoke and we stop by the roadside. Two hours later a replacement bus arrives.
I'm not concerned as I have a reservation for the Juliana Hotel in the leafy Garden City area of Cairo, a short walk from the Corniche, just behind the British embassy. But, when I eventually arrive I'm told "We're full, another guest has decided to stay an extra night". Tired, hungry and angry I'm directed to the nearby New Garden Palace where my room initially seems fine but at bedtime I discover that the crumpled bedsheets have several pubic hairs between them none of which are mine. Knackered I unpack my sleeping bag. Not a good day.
Monday 18th: Returning to the apologetic Juliana Hotel I inspect my room carefully: crisp clean sheets, spotless bathroom and floor, patio door to an airy balcony, a large fridge, cable TV and breakfast delivered each morning to your room (E£61, about £6 a night). I like it so much that I extend my stay to a fortnight.
Sunday 24: To Egyptians Old Cairo runs from Garden City to Coptic Cairo, the historic centre of the Coptic Christian community in Cairo. To get there I walk south along the Corniche, past Manial Palace across the river, where I'm surprised to spot a colourful Hoopoe feeding on the riverbank. The Church of St George is closed for refurbishment but the Hanging Church of St Mary, built on top of the old city's Roman water gate, is open and very atmospheric.
Slideshow of Coptic Cairo:

Monday, 11 March 2013

Tel Al-Marna

Tel Al-Marna's Nile valley panorama
Friday 15 February: Based at the comfortable Akhenaten Hotel in the Nileside resort town of El-Minya I take a taxi (E£70) to the rock-cut tombs of Beni Hassian, not great (no photos).
Saturday 16: Around 3,350 years ago heretic pharaoh Akhenaten set up his new city and centre of Aten worship at Tel Al-Marna. A hard-haggled taxi for the day (E£115) runs me, via the Nile car ferry, to and around the spread out site. For security reasons I'm not only accompaied in the taxi by the key guardian but also by an armed soldier. I've never been a Lada before (96th mode of transport).
Destroyed and recycled by subsequent rulers there's not a lot left to see at Tel Al-Marna. Strictly no photos inside the cliff-cut tombs, but great Nile valley views.
Slideshow of Tel Al-Marna.

Thursday, 7 March 2013

Abydos

Journey to the afterlife
Wednesday 13 February: Back in Luxor, only two Cairo bound trains a day stop at the small station of El-Balyna and as a foreigner I'm not really supposed to board these slow stopper trains. But I buy a 2nd class ticket anyway (E£26) for the three hour journey north. I'm guessing that El-Balyna station won't have have a sign in Roman script so I try and memorise the Arabic version. It looks like an elongated "W" followed by a tall squashed "w," followed by a separate "I" which I know means "El" (Arabic reads right to left), plus a few dots scattered around for good measure. Three hours later as the train slows I spot an El-Balyna sign, jump off the train and flag a tuk-tuk (E£25) for the half-hour ride to Abydos. Good, I've avoided a police escort.
I'm staying in the House of Life, a quirky mostly half-built spa style hotel, where later I talk to a young French couple who arrived with a full police escort. They've had police in tow since leaving Dendera, forced to take a taxi with the officers to Qena station, accompanied by them on the train to El-Balyna and then brought here by taxi. I guess the pair are considered potentially at risk due to the French government's intervention in Mali. This is a strong Muslim fundamentalist area of Egypt and until fairly recently it was off limits to tourists. Ever prepared, I have a stash of Stella beers in my rucksack.
Thursday 14: Abydos is the mythical burial site of the god Osiris who became ruler of the netherworld and symbol of eternal life. The cult centre for the worship of Osiris, it has been an important burial site ever since and contains the mastaba tombs of several of Egypt's 1st dynasty pharaohs from around 5,000 years ago.
From the rooftop of my hotel, the original Old House of Life, the temple's row of chunky square limestone columns almost make it look new but the surviving structure was built by Seti I and completed by his son Ramses II (the Great) around 3,300 years ago. Once inside the two hypostyle halls the reliefs are vibrant and colourful, amazing. More important to Egyptologists is the Gallery of Kings which is carved with the cartouches of all the pharaohs from the 1st to the 19th dynasties making it a vital historical document. However, the 18th dynasty cartouches of the unpopular female pharaoh Hatshepsut and heretic pharaoh Akhenaten have been mysteriously omitted. Behind the temple is another mystery, The Osireion, a submerged columned chamber constructed of great blocks of granite.
A local taxi takes me to the station at El-Balyna where I board the train to El Minya, four-hours north. It's full so I end up standing most of the way until a kind young Muslim guy offers me his seat which I reluctantly accept, I'm a guest in his country.
Slideshow of Abydos.

Tuesday, 5 March 2013

Hurghada

Red Sea snorkeling frenzy
Tuesday 5 February: From Luxor's scruffy little bus station, just south of the train station, it's a five hour bus ride (E£40) to the Red Sea resort of Hurghada. Templed out, I'm in need of some sea and sun. So, away from the package tourist strip, I check into the Four Seasons Hotel at Hurghada's Dahar beach. Two minutes from the sea, the bar next door has a happy hour for both food and drink that coincides with the timings of the Six-Nations rugby matches this weekend, perfect.
Friday 8: Most of the beaches are private and the public beach isn't great so I take an all day snorkeling boat trip, a chance relax and sunbathe on deck. The modern launch (95th mode of transport) is full of Swedes and Russians and at our first stop we dive along an offshore reef then, after lunch, land on Giftun Island's soft sand beach to paddle and sunbathe. Both stops are so crowded that I'm surprised there are any fish around. It's all a bit too organised for my liking but as lunch and a Stella beer are thrown in it's fantastic value (E£100, about £10 for the day).
Sunday 10: Happy hour lasts for three hours with half-price meals and bottles of Stella at E£7.5 (about 70p a pint). I'm the only customer watching the rugby and Scotland claim their first win in the championship which makes me even happier. Goddess Hathor is clearly smiling down on me, joyous intoxication.
Slideshow of Hurghada.

Sunday, 3 March 2013

Dendera: Temple of Hathor

Temple of sensual goddess Hathor
Friday 18 January: Today I'm  taking a 2nd class train (E£18) north from Luxor to Qena (pronounced Kena), the nearest station to Hathor's cult temple, a three-mile taxi ride (E£25) further north, at Dendera. Hathor, the goddess of love and sensual pleasure, has been worshipped here since ancient times but, by Egyptian timescales, her temple is new.
Completed by Roman emperor Tiberius about 2,000 years ago the hyperstyle hall's magnificent 24 stone columns are adorned on all four sides by Hathor's distinctive features, her beauty only slightly defaced by Christian fundamentalists in later times. Out of reach of the Christian's wrath the ceiling retains well preserved scenes from the afterlife: colourful barques, a multitude of gods and cartouches against a powder-blue background. Deeper into the temple in the older inner sanctuary there are more reliefs of Hathor, typically depicted wearing a headdress of cow's horns. She was regarded not only as the goddess of love and pleasure but also the first lady of drunkenness and joyous intoxication - my type of girl!
Outside a deep pit filled with lush palms is all that remains of the once beautiful sacred lake but the temple's stout exterior walls remain decorated with lion-headed gargoyles and at the rear there is a large relief showing Cleopatra VII with, Caesarion, her son by Julius Caesar. Near the exit, next to an undamaged face of Hathor, is a relief of the grotesque dwarf god Bes who frightened away demons thus protecting women during childbirth.
Returning, I flag down a purple & white taxi from the end of the drive for the (E£20) trip back to Qena and a reasonably comfortable 3rd class seat (E£2) for the one hour journey back to Luxor. 
Slideshow of the Temple of Hathor at Dendera.

Friday, 1 March 2013

Edfu: Temple of Horus

Cult temple of falcon god Horus
Tuesday 15 January: Taking a 1st class seat (E£32) south from Luxor my train soon arrives at Edfu the jumping off point for the cult temple of the falcon god Horus. A two mile taxi ride (E£10) over the Nile bridge and I arrive at the temple entrance. Falcon god of the sky Horus has been worshipped here for more than 5,000 years but the current temple is relatively new and was completed by Cleopatra's father, Ptolemy XII, just 2,070 years ago. Classically designed, the twin pylons are decorated with reliefs of Ptolemy XII smiting his enemies. The gateway between them, leading to the great court, is flanked by granite statues of the great god Horus. Beyond this a further pair of statues guard the entrance to the columned hypostyle hall with further reliefs beyond.
Now that I know the route, I walk back through town, follow the promenade north, cross over the Nile bridge, take steps down to the riverbank and follow the riverside track back to the station for lunch and an, only slightly less comfortable, 2nd class seat (E£7) for the hour long journey back to Luxor.
Slideshow of the Temple of Horus at Edfu.

Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Tombs of the Artisans

Visionary art in Pashedu's vault
Monday 7 January: The now ruined village of Deir al-Medina is where the families of the craftsmen and artists who dug and decorated the royal tombs were housed. Their own small but exquisitely decorated tombs are right next to the village and clearly, here in their own tombs, the painters also excelled.
Sennedjem's Tomb (# 1)
A royal tomb artist, his own tiny vault showcases his talent. There are images of Sennedjem and his wife Lyneferti worshiping gods of the afterlife together with scenes from the book of the dead including a black-and-white calf, representing rebirth, carrying Sennedjem on his back. A 19th dynasty artist, Sennedjem's tomb was created around 3,300 years ago.
Irinufer's Tomb (# 290)
Most of the images here are well preserved and in the style of the royal tombs. However, little is known about the 19th dynasty tomb builder.
Monday 14: Now back in Luxor town I've decided to take a trip back to the West Bank to see one tomb, not enthusiastically described in my guide book, that I missed earlier. So, I take the ferry across and a bus up to the ticket office. I'm glad I did, it's a stunner.
Pashedu's Tomb (# 3)
The mural on the back wall of the burial chamber depicts Osiris with the Mountains of the West behind him and the eye of Horus, the avenger of Osiris, looking out from the mountains. There's an image of Pashedu drinking from a pool beneath a palm tree together with numerous images of the black jackal-headed god, Anubis, god of mummification and tomb guardian.
Slideshow of the Tombs of the Artisans.

Sunday, 24 February 2013

Tombs of the Nobles

Girl band grace Nakht's tomb wall
Sunday 6 January: Following a light lunch at the Ramesseum Rest House I cross the road and, avoiding a handful of touts, climb up the hillside towards the beckoning tomb guards. Tour buses don't stop here and it's late afternoon so I have the tombs, and their guardians, all to myself.
Royal tomb art tends to depict scenes of gods and journeys to the afterlife whereas art in the tombs of ordinary folk tends to focus on more down-to-earth subject matter. 
Nakht's Tomb (# 69)
A scribe and astrologer during the reign of 18th dynasty ruler Tuthmosis IV (the pharaoh most famous for clearing the Great Sphinx of Giza of sand) Nakht's tiny tomb is one the West Bank's beauties. Among other scenes, the figures of a trio of female musicians playing the harp, lyre and pipes is one of the most elegant, seductive and endearing of all Egyptian art. Girl power preserved in painted plaster 4,500 years ago, don't you just love it.
Ramose's Tomb (# 55)
In contrast to Nakht's, Ramose's tomb is large, plain and incomplete. What it does have are surviving reliefs (most were desecrated by later rulers) relating to the rule of 18th dynasty rebel pharaoh Akhenaten who, during his short 17-year reign, changed Egypt's multi-god religion to the worship of just one god, the sun god Aten. He also moved Egypt's centre of worship to Tel Al-Marna, several days sailing to the north. Ramose, a local visor at that time, followed the court to Tel Al-Marna abandoning his unfinished tomb here in Thebes.
Sennofer's Tomb (# 96)
Sennofer was clearly a man after my own heart because when you duck under a low beam to emerge in the inner sanctuary of his tomb you find paintings of grape vines heavy with fruit growing up the walls and covering the whole ceiling. Absolutely fantastic but, sadly, just one photo and no flowing wine.
Wednesday 9:
Khonsu's Tomb (# 31)
Khonsu lived during the reign of 19th dynasty king Ramses II (the Great), around 3,250 years ago. There's many colourful scenes of Khonsu, the shaven-headed priest, making offerings to the gods, but more remarkable is the beautiful ceiling adorned with pastel-shaded birds swooping down from the sky.
Ushrhet's Tomb (# 51)
Much of the decoration here was chiseled out by tomb robbers in 1941 but the celestial ceiling remains. Ushrhet overlapped the reigns of 19th dynasty kings Ramses I and Seti I.
Benia's Tomb (# 343)
A golden false door in the first chamber was intended to lead Benia to the afterlife, wonder if it worked?
Thursday 10:
Roy's Tomb (# 255)
I was going to miss out Roy's tomb but as I'm cycling past it to Howard Carter's house today I've decided to drop in, and I'm glad I did. Only recently opened to the public, Roy's tiny tomb is beautifully decorated. There is a vibrant scene of Roy and his wife, Tawy, being introduced, by falcon-headed god Horus, to the seated god Osiris, ruler of the underworld. Next to it the couple make offerings to Hathor and Reharkhty. Roy was a steward to 18th dynasty warrior king Horemheb who ruled around 3,330 years ago.
Slideshow of the Tombs of the Nobles.

Friday, 15 February 2013

The Ramesseum

Ramses II's great funerary temple
Saturday 6 January: Constructed 3,250 or so years ago by Ramses III's father, Ramses the Great, the monument is dedicated to, you guessed it, himself - Ramses the Great. From a distance you can appreciate the whole of the site and the sharp contrast between the barren 'red land' of the desert and the cultivated 'black land' earth of the Nile flood plain. As his funerary temple, Ramses II intended the Ramesseum to last until eternity but the columns and statues lie in ruins. Even the great power of Ramses was no match for an earthquake.
Owned by the son of a friend of Howard Carter, the friendly fair-priced Ramesseum Rest House is my lunchtime stop of choice.
Slideshow of The Ramesseum.

Tuesday, 12 February 2013

Habu Temple

Relief, Ramses smiting Libyan foes
Saturday 5 January: Leaving the Valley of the Queens, I walk back and down to Medinet Habu for lunch. Opposite the restaurant is Habu Temple, the mortuary temple of 20th dynasty king Ramses III, constructed around 3,180 years ago.
Although part-built, altered and extended by many rulers, the most spectacular works were created Ramses III. The twin towers of the first pylon has huge reliefs depicting Ramses victory over his Libyan foes. There's a lot of smiting going on but one gruesome scene shows a scribe counting the severed right-hands of the enemy to get a tally of the dead. Perhaps unhappy with the total, or maybe there was a left-hand or a woman's hand in the pile, Ramses ordered a recount. In the next scene the process is repeated but this time the mound in front of the scribe is a pile of severed Libyan penises. Well, I guess that's one way to do it.
Slideshow of Habu Temple.

Monday, 11 February 2013

Valley of the Queens

 Afterlife journey depicted in pastel
Saturday 5 January: A short morning stroll northwest of my hotel is the Valley of the Queens. Surprisingly, all three of the tombs that are open to the public here were built to contained the mummies of the sons of 20th dynasty king Ramses III, who ruled around 3,180 years ago. None of the Queen's tombs, including that of Nefertari which is regarded as the Thebe's finest, are open.
Prince Amunherkhepshef's Tomb (# 55)
Scenes show Amunherkhepshef, with a boy's side-locks of hair, being presented to various gods by his father, Ramses III. He was probably a young teenager when he died and was entombed here in the Valley of the Queens where his sarcophagus remains.
Prince Khaemwaset's Tomb (# 44)
Another of several of Ramses III's sons who died young, Khaemwaset's tomb is similar to that of his brother's tomb nearby. His sarcophagus and mummy are in the Ezegio Museum in Turin.
Prince Sethherkhepshef's Tomb (# 43)
Originally built for yet another of Ramses III's sons, Sethherkhepshef, the tomb was never finished and the prince was buried elsewhere. 
Slideshow of the Valley of the Queens.