Where does one even begin when it comes to Greece and Egypt? There are so many, you’ll definitely need time to see them all.
It is just over 300 miles south to Luxor from Cairo, but if you have the time, you should make the journey to what is often known as “the world’s greatest open air museum.” Luxor was the ancient city of Thebes, and features the Luxor temple, Valley of the Kings and Valley of the Queens.
You can visit the tombs of such legendary pharaohs and queens as Horemheb, Seti I, Ramesses III, Queen Nefertari and the tombs of Ramesses III’s sons. Just be aware that these sites are all in the desert, so you’ll be braving high temperatures, especially in summer.
Expect very pushy sellers at all the major tourist attractions. Know that “la shokran” means “no thank you” in Arabic and start using it if you’re not interested in what they’re offering.
There are many destitute people in Egypt, and you’ll see a lot of them on your trip. It is fairly standard practice to pay for sheets of toilet paper in all public bathrooms, even in the Cairo museum. From some people, this is the only way to make any money, so bear that in mind. Have some Egyptian pounds available at all times.
When a museum is considered to be one of the world’s greatest, it seems that it might be worth a look. This one contains artifacts from a variety of archaeological locations around Greece and contains the richest collection of artifacts from Greek antiquity worldwide. Located in central Athens, the National Archeological Museum is easily accessible. One of the quickest ways to get there is via the metro – get off at the Victoria metro station.
Many taxi drivers operate as private tour guides, which is allowed, as long as they do not walk with you at the historical sites acting as an official guide. You can book an official guide as well, but it will cost you. We simply went with a driver, who had many reference books and pamphlets for us to take with us as we explored each site at our leisure. He was also very well versed in the history of Athens.
You may not see it, but there is a lift at the Acropolis for those in wheelchairs or scooters. We saw a woman on a scooter at the top and couldn’t work out how she’d made it up all those steps. Turns out she hadn’t.
Don’t drink the water at public fountains. Lynne had a small mouthful on the climb up to the Acropolis and regretted it for days afterward.
My friend Lynne Firth and I traveled to a number of these countries over a few weeks and were in awe of what we saw. We highly recommend a journey from Rome through the Mediterranean at least once in your lifetime.
I think it was about 10 years ago when any mention of Athens would garner negative reactions from those who had been there. Anyone I knew who had visited said the city was “a dump” or similar. I was therefore pleasantly surprised to find that it was neither when we visited in October 2009. According to our taxi driver and guide, it was Athens’s winning bid to host the Olympics in 2004 and its preparations to join the European Economic Community that brought about the changes. The city we saw was certainly very cosmopolitan and clean.
Where does one even begin when it comes to sites in Athens? There are so many, you’ll definitely need time to see them all. It is possible to enjoy the highlights in one day, but under those circumstances you’ll want a guide.
The Acropolis sits high atop a rocky outcrop with an unparalleled view of the city and comprises a number of ancient wonders, including the Parthenon and the Erechtheion with its famous ancient Porch of the Caryatides. This is not the place to wear uncomfortable shoes, as it’s a bit of steep climb in places.
Once there, you can stand back and drink in the majesty of it all. Try to carry a book or some reference material about the site if you’re not on a tour, as it will give you the history of everything you see.
Temple of the Olympian Zeus
Only 15 columns remain standing of this once colossal structure, yet even those give an idea of the sheer scale of the temple when it stood in all its glory in the 2nd century A.D. Alas, once completed it did not remain intact for long, as barbarians pillaged it in the 3rd century, and it is thought that it was never repaired afterward. A 16th column lies where it fell in a storm in 1852, which gives visitors a close-up view of how large those columns really are.
Roman Forum and Tower of the Winds
Julius Caesar founded the Roman Forum in 51 B.C. and moved Athens’s marketplace here from the old Agora. It was larger than what remains today, and it was the city’s commercial and administrative center until the 19th century. The octagonal Tower of Winds was built in 50 B.C. It depicts the eight winds on its sides, and a water clock was operated inside the tower by a stream from the Acropolis.
The present political situation in Egypt is serious, and as a result many countries have warned their citizens about traveling there, particularly to Cairo. As tourism represents approximately 10 percent of the country’s annual revenue, the ongoing violence must be taking a significant toll on many Egyptians whose income relies on tourists’ outlay.
This transcontinental country has a population of approximately 80 million, and whether you arrive in the port of Alexandria, or fly directly into Cairo, the assault on the senses will be the same. The overwhelming volume of human beings swarming the streets by foot, in cars, on carts pulled by donkeys or riding camels is difficult to take in all at once. For most, it will likely be completely different from anything experienced before.
We arrived in Alexandria port and were met by our tour guide, driver and security. When you book a tour guide, particularly to take you from Alexandria to Cairo via the Desert Road, it is standard practice to have a driver and a security person in tow. Our guide’s name was Rehab, of all things, and the moment we headed into the melee of Alexandria, she began hitting us with the facts. The position of tour guide is a revered one in Egypt, as it requires many years of studying. Not surprising, considering the vast amount of information there is to absorb.
The Desert Road takes two to three hours to travel, and as you approach Cairo, expect to be faced with the same level of bustle that you experienced in Alexandria.
When we visited Egypt, our tour was well designed to lead up to the grand finale of the pyramids at Giza and the Sphinx.
The Mosque of Muhammad Ali
This was our first stop as we entered Cairo. The mosque is in the Citadel of Cairo and was commissioned by Muhammad Ali Pasha between 1830 and 1848. It is the most visible mosque in Cairo and was built in memory of Tusun Pasha, Muhammad Ali’s oldest son, who died in 1816.
You can go inside and take a seat on the floor to properly appreciate the beautiful interior, but you must remove your shoes before entering.
One of the most interesting sights at Saqqara is the original Egyptian pyramid, the Djoser Pyramid, also known as the Step Pyramid. It shows the early architecture that would eventually lead to one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World: the Great Pyramid at Giza.
As Rehab reeled off rapid-fire facts, names and dates, she gave us binoculars that allowed us to see the Bent Pyramid and Red Pyramid in the distance, at the Dahshur Necropolis. These were constructed after the Djoser Pyramid, and along with the Meidum Pyramid, represent three of the pyramids that Pharaoh Sneferu had built in his lifetime.
Museum of Egyptian Antiquities
You really can’t visit Cairo without visiting this museum, home to thousands of artifacts, including the famous Gold Mask of King Tutankhamun. The museum has two main floors displaying statues, papyrus, coins, sarcophagi and many other fascinating items. For an extra cost you can also enter the Royal Mummy Room, including the eerily preserved bodies of Ramesses II and III and Queen Hatshepsut.
We didn’t have near enough time to spend here due to being delayed earlier in the day. Honestly, give yourself at least a couple of hours to roam the museum, and more if you can.
The Pyramids at Giza
It is difficult to describe the feeling of standing there in the desert, staring at three of the most magnificent monuments you will ever see in your life. As grand as they appear in pictures, they are incredible in reality. It was our last stop in Cairo before returning to Alexandria, and we had made our way through a couple of generations of pharaohs before arriving in Giza.
The Great Pyramid, the largest of the three, is also known as the Pyramid of Khufu or Cheops. Khufu was the son of Sneferu and the second pharaoh of the 4th dynasty.
The Pyramid of Khafre or Chefren is the second largest of the three pyramids and the only one that still has some of its original limestone casing at the top. Khafre was the son of Khufu, and ruled from 2558 to 2532 BC.
The third and smallest pyramid is Pharaoh Menkaure’s, and archeological findings suggest he was the son of Khafre.
It is possible to go inside the pyramids, but this is not for claustrophobics or the physically challenged as it can get tight at times, requiring visitors to bend down to keep moving.
You cannot visit Egypt and not ride a camel. You will find a tented area on the periphery of Giza where you can pay to be led on a camel toward the pyramids. It will be your big Lawrence of Arabia moment! Prepare to lean forward and backward at the appropriate times as the camel rises from the ground; it is the oddest sensation when one of these animals gets to its feet. They seem much taller when you’re sitting on them.
Again, it was amazing to be standing beside the Great Sphinx of Giza after seeing it featured in numerous documentaries and films over the years. This limestone statue may have lost its nose, but it has lost none of its grandeur. Although there is some debate as to which pharaoh the Sphinx represents, many authorities on Egyptian history believe it was created in the likeness of Khafre.
Nile dinner cruise
This was a last-minute decision for us on our first evening in Cairo, and we had no idea what to expect. It ended up being a fabulous evening on a large, multi-storied cruise boat with a huge dining room on the main deck complete with large chandeliers and a big buffet. The entertainment included some singers, a belly dancer and a fascinating Whirling Dervish – a man wearing a full costume with a long skirt who twirled at dizzying speed, sending the skirt up around his waist and then flying around his head, completely obliterating the top half of his body from view. We wouldn’t have missed it for the world.
If you can afford it, try to book a private tour guide in all of these places. Getting to know someone from the country, learning about their culture firsthand, and getting the benefit of their extensive knowledge is something you can’t really put a price on.
Hopefully the unrest in Egypt will calm down soon. It would be a shame to visit that part of the globe and not see one of the greatest empires of the ancient world in all its glory.