A Travellerspoint blog

By this Author: Julie1972

In search of the 'Big 5'

Our Kenyan Safari

The safari was the last of our three Must-Sees, and also our last major destination before we headed home. It proved a pain to book. We wanted to talk to a travel agent in person before making a decision, ‘cos we had questions and concerns that were not addressed by online tourist agencies. Our dilemma was this: either we paid a small fortune for a direct flight from London, or paid way less for a 20-odd hour flight that stopped heaven only knows where along the way. Long flights had been triggering migraines for me, so I really wanted to avoid that, but we didn’t really want to pay thousands for flights either. Package tours were way cheaper, but their itineraries were a killer (with the same potential migraine problem).

In the end we decided to heck with the money and concentrated on finding an itinerary that suited us. After several false starts, we eventually found a travel shop in London which said they could give us what we wanted. This didn’t work out exactly as we’d hoped, however, as the agent for some reason gave us stupidly long-winded transfers. We actually missed two days sight-seeing ‘cos we had to spend them travelling!

I did get my direct flight to Nairobi (approximately 8.5 hours), which was good ‘cos this was followed by a short transfer to our lodge in the Masai Mara in a twin-prop plane. I was okay until we took off, and then things went rapidly downhill. Can you say ‘bumpy’? I couldn’t; I was too busy squinching my eyes shut and trying to keep the contents of my stomach where they belonged. When I climbed out, I was white, sweaty, shaky, and cursing the travel agent who had talked us into fly-in transfers. “Remember my life list?” I asked Pete (who was grinning like a loon, having had a whale of a time). “Remind me to cross off flying lessons. There’s no way I can fly in turbulence like that, not unless the autopilot can take control of the plane and hold a sick bag at the same time.”

I am now looking for a new goal to replace my erstwhile flying asperations, one which will not leave me white-knuckled and with a stomach impersonating a spin dryer. Falling into a coma is my first choice, closely followed by watching paint dry.

Anyway, needless to say, when we finally got to the lodge I was not in the best of moods. I was hot, tired, hungry, grumpy and fully prepared to give that afternoon’s game drive a miss. But while we were being checked in and given the introductory tour by the manager, Pete pointed out something rather wonderful. Outside the lodge ran a river, and what I first took to be rocks or logs turned out to be these guys:

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I’ve never seen so many hippos in one place at any one time. The river was full of them!

Immediately all cranky thoughts went out of my head, and I was suddenly keen to go out and see all the other animals that were (hopefully) waiting for us! I say ‘hopefully’, ‘cos we were warned time and time again that there was no guarantee that we would see much of anything. We got lucky, though. We got to see three of the Big 5 on our very first game drive: lions, elephants and plenty of buffalo.

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This fella was an old bull elephant who had likely been forced to leave his herd due to old age. This wasn't the only elephant we encountered, either. We were also chased by a teenaged Dumbo, possibly because he thought we were a threat to the baby Dumbo in his herd. (Whatever the reason, we didn't stick around to argue with him!)

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An African buffalo. These creatures are under threat due to hunting and disease.

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We were so, so lucky to see this lion close-up. He has obviously recently fed (you can see the blood on his leg) and was too full and lazy to move. I could have reached out and touched him... 'cept I valued my hand too much! (I know he'd just eaten, but he might still have had room for dessert.)

The following day turned out to be one of the most exciting we spent on our tour. It started at 3am, showering and dressing by torchlight (the lodge turns the electricity off at certain periods), preparing to go for a hot air air balloon ride. The ‘3am’ and ‘torchlight’ parts were not much fun, but we didn’t care about that once we reached the balloon site.

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We got to see the balloons being inflated, which was quite an exciting business. It also took quite a while; it was pitch black when we arrived, but we got underway just in time to see the sun rise.

The most amazing thing we saw on our balloon ride were the wildebeest. Unfortunately we weren’t able to get to Tanzania to see the migration across the Serengeti, but we did see the wildebeest who had crossed the river only two days before.

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We got to see them running, too, 'cos the noise of the hot air jets scared them.

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Us, having survived a bumpy landing. Nine times out of ten the basket falls over when it lands, and you get dragged along the ground staring at the sky. (That's not as bad as it sounds, and just adds to the adventure!)

Note to anyone who thinking of going ballooning:
Pete and I took jumpers with us, assuming it’d be a bit chilly at three o’ clock in the morning - it was! – but what we didn’t consider was the blast of hot air from the jets. You stand right underneath ‘em, so I seriously recommend taking a hat of some sort. Your noggin will roast, otherwise!

The reason I wanted to go on safari was because I wanted to see a rhino in the wild. The poor critters have been hunted practically to extinction, so I knew that my chances of spotting one were slim. We lucked out again. Masai Mara has five white rhinos in a protected area, under armed guard, and we were able to book a tour that took us out to their sanctuary.

My previous experience with rhinos outside of zoos was at Longleat Safari Park in the UK. The main thing I remember about that part of the visit was the guy they had sitting in a bulldozer who was there in case one of the rhinos decided to charge at a car. This was worrying, at the time. (Even more worrying was the fact that the ‘dozer was dented, so at least one of the rhinos had obviously had a go!) Anyway, given their cranky natures, I really thought that if I got to see a rhino at all, it would be from the back of jeep five miles away and looking through binoculars. It’s nice to be wrong sometimes, though, isn’t it? Look how close I got:

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I did ask Pete to warn me if this fella looked like he was gonna charge!

It got better.

Meet my favourite rhino: Kofi Annan, the baby of the herd who was named after the Secretary-General of the United Nations:

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Somebody asked our guide, Julius, whether he was able to get close enough to the rhinos to touch them. “Yes,” he said. “Come here.” He used a branch to get little Kofi’s attention, then beckoned us closer. “Touch,” he said, pointing. I thought he was kidding.

He wasn’t. I got to pet a baby rhino!

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I was grinning like a lunatic for the rest of the day. This was the absolute highlight of my trip. Actually, scratch that. This is the absolute highlight of any trip ever!

We really didn’t want to leave the Masai Mara, but we had another lodge to go to: Taita Hills, near the Tsavo National Park. To be honest, after being so thoroughly spoilt at the David Livingstone lodge, we were a bit disappointed with Taita Hills. The area has been suffering severe drought, so there were fewer animals to see; also, we weren’t able to get up close and personal with the animals there, as it was dangerous for the jeeps to leave the paths.

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The land in Taita Hills consists of red clay, which gets everywhere. The poor zebras here are not so much black-and-white as black-and-brown.

That being said, we did get to go for a night drive, which was an interesting experience. And, best of all, we unexpectedly got to see a leopard – the last animal on our ‘Big 5’ list! (It was so bizarre. One minute we were driving along, staring at nothing in particular, and the next this leopard came out of nowhere and bounced across the road infront of our jeep. We did get a photo, but unfortunately it’s not clear enough to publish here. You'll just have to take our word for it!)

Note for friend Craig:

(I know you know what’s coming, but it has to be done. This is the last chance I’m gonna get to whine about all things slithery, and you wouldn’t wanna spoil my fun now, would you? No, of course you wouldn’t.)

Here we go then:

I have a complaint. Kenya is full of freakin’ ‘orrible snakes. This wasn’t too much of a problem, except for the one game drive we went on when the guide found a green mamba. (Why oh why did he have to point it out?) The thing didn’t much like being gawped at, got all moody and hid under the jeep. “Oh,” said the other girl in our group, looking down. “I do hope there aren’t any holes in the floor.” I screeched and tried to climb onto the roof (the only sensible response, as far as I’m concerned). Stoopid snake then decided to park itself underneath the jeep’s wheels. “Aww,” said everybody. “We can’t move; we’ll squash it.” “Move!” said I. “Drive! Reverse! Do the world a favour!” The outcome of this: the guide thought I was a complete lunatic, and the other people on the game drive thought I was some kind of psycho animal hater. Pete, of course, thought it was hilarious, and spent the next half hour making hissing noises at me.

Note for friend Becky:

I know you like all things lion-y, so here are a couple of pictures ‘specially for you:

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The cub piccy on the left was taken on extreme zoom, as you can probably tell, but we thought it was cute the way (s)he just sat there peeking at us over the top of the grass.

Anyway, this is the last of my ‘What I Did On My World Tour’ entries (what d’you mean, “Hooray!”?), although I am planning to pass on the fruits of my experiences by writing an entry or two about packing and preparation and things of that nature. Before I go though, I’ll just leave you with a selection of pictures and a bit of advice for would-be travellers to Kenya.

Advice first:

- Make sure you get your yellow fever shots and anti-malaria pills before you go. Talk to your doctor to find out which pills are appropriate. We found out just in time that we'd been prescribed the wrong type. (Some regions of Africa have chloroquine-resistant malaria, so make sure you tell your doctor exactly where you are going.)
- To help avoid getting bitten, you might want to consider buying an anti-mosquito shirt. We bought a couple, although, as it turned out, we were traveling during the winter months so mozzies were not really a problem. Wear long-sleeved shirts and trousers during the evening, too, 'cos there are a lot of insects out at that time.
- Use plenty of sunscreen.
- Take lots of batteries (or rolls of film) for your camera. You will get through ‘em!
- You can buy Kenyan visas on arrival, though we chose to get them in advance to speed up the arrivals process.

And photos:

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A gazelle, a jackal, an ostrich and a hyena.

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A giraffe and a cheeky little monkey that came begging for scraps at our lodge.

Posted by Julie1972 18:18 Archived in Kenya Comments (0)

In Dublin's Fair(ly Wet) City

Celtic Contemplations

Despite my promises to the contrary, I have been slack in publishing this entry. What can say, except that boring day-to-day details like finding a job keep getting in the way *sigh*.

Anyway…

Ireland was another country I didn’t expect to see. I suppose you could say we ended up there for financial reasons: we finally found some cheap flights! True, they were with RyanAir, which isn’t exactly my favourite airline, but it was a short journey and we figured we could tolerate it for a few hours.

We decided to have a splurge while we were there, eschewing the usual cheap-and-cheerful hotels we’d grown accustomed to in favour of something a little more upmarket: a genuine castle!

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Clontarf Castle. The original structure disappeared a long time ago, and this version was built in 1837. It opened as a 4-star hotel in 1997.

The one place I was desperate to visit was Trinity College, home of the famous 9th century illuminated manuscript, the Book of Kells. The college grounds were surprisingly peaceful, given its location in the city centre.

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Trinity College courtyard. Being here made me miss my student days. As an enthusiastic graduate who would spend the rest of my life collecting degrees if given the opportunity, I found myself wondering about the odds of winning the lottery so I could go back to uni myself. (My conclusion: nil. We never buy lottery tickets. Kind of stacks the odds against me that, doesn't it?)

Trinity College was also where I fell in love… with the most amazing library I have ever seen:

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The Long Room: 65 metres stuffed to the gills with 200,000 of the Library’s oldest books. This place is a bibliophile’s dream!

I told Pete to gimme a flashlight, 'cos I had a plan: I was going to hide, get locked in and spend the night happily perusing all those wonderful old books. Sadly Pete refused to comply, stating that a) he didn't have a torch with him, and b) the librarians wouldn't approve. He eventually dragged me away, kicking and screaming (well, pouting and sulking, anyway), to see the Book of Kells.

This cheered me up no end, 'cos I have always been rather fond of illuminated manuscripts. I took a calligraphy class once, many moons ago, and discovered that pretty writing is actually very hard to do. The monks who created this book must have been so, so patient - the detail in some of the images is truly stunning. (Note: You're not allowed to take photos of the manuscript, but Google images has dozens of pictures.)

I guess we'd picked a good day to visit, 'cos we were able to spend a reasonable amount of time perusing the exhibition. (I have heard that during peak times the crowds are so dense that it's impossible to get near the display case containing the Book of Kells itself.) There are other illuminated manuscripts on display, plus a lot of information about the history and construction of the documents, but you only actually get to see a couple of pages from each book. If you want to see the Book of Kells in more detail, visit Clontarf Castle. They have a replica copy in the lobby, and if you ask the concierge nicely, he'll take it out of its cabinet and let you have a closer look.

One of the things we learned that day was that the scribes who made these manuscripts often made mistakes. I get weird connections in my head, and soon found myself wondering if they ever got bored like the disgruntled typesetter in Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman’s Good Omens. The story describes the “Buggre All This” Bible of 1651, which was renowned for the following entry:

2. And bye the border of Dan, fromme the east side to the west side, a portion for Afher.
3. And bye the border of Afhter, fromme the east side even untoe the west side, a portion for Naphtali.
4. And bye the border of Naphtali, from the east side untoe the west side, a portion for Manaffeh.
5. Buggre all this for a Larke. I amme sick to mye Hart of typefettinge. Master Biltonn if no Gentelmann, and Master Scagges noe more than a tighte fisted Southwarke Knobbefticke. I telle you, onne a daye laike thif Ennywone half an oz. of Sense should bee oute in the Sunneshain, ane nott Stucke here alle the liuelong daie inn thif mowldey olde By-Our-Lady Workefhoppe. @*Ӯ@;!*
6. And bye the border of Ephraim, from the east fide even untoe the west fide, a portion for Reuben.

Does the Book of Kells contain similar entries? There’s an incentive for me to learn Latin, if ever I had one!

Other things that Dublin is famous for include, of course, pubs and booze. We had a lot of of boring stuff to do while we were in Ireland - shopping, seeing doctors and depressing things of that nature - so we made a good choice in going to Dublin, ‘cos there were loads of pubs (*) to help ease the trauma after an hour in a department store.

(*) Between 900 and 1,000 of ‘em, if memory serves.

We, of course, spent many an hour in these Hostelries of Happiness, but didn’t feel that we could leave the city without visiting one of their alcohol-producing establishments. We had a choice of the Guiness Storehouse, or the Jameson Distillery, and chose the distillery, primarily because I can’t stand the taste of Guiness. (They give free samples at these places, you know. No way am I going on a tour where I can’t take advantage of the free booze!)

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Some of their whiskey was exceedingly pricey. I saw one bottle that was on sale for 129.00 Euros. Ouch!

It turns out that this place is no longer a working distillery, but more of museum with waxworks and videos, for which it has been heavily criticised. Personally, I enjoyed the tour. We got an overview of how whiskey was made (which really was the point of the visit), and a nice free glass at the end (a welcome bonus). However, one review I read described it as “an excruciatingly slow march to and through a gift shop”; if you are a real whiskey connoisseur you might want to give this a miss and take a tour elsewhere.

While I’m on the subject of musuems and the like, I can recommend the National Leprechaun Museum for forty minutes or so of mythology and silliness. This is a relatively new tourist attraction – actually, our taxi driver didn’t believe us when we asked to go there. He was convinced we were having a laugh at his expense, and only acquiesed when I showed him an advertising leaflet I’d picked up – and while it isn’t a particularly large musuem, it has been imaginatively designed. You get a good introduction from the friendly staff, then are left to wander through the remaining exhibits on your own. We liked the oversized furniture room (to demonstrate how the world looks to a leprechaun), heard a yarn or two from the story-teller, and generally had great fun learning a bit about Irish myths and legends.

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Humungous props. A family with several kids went through the same time as us, and, I have to confess, they made me feel old and creaky! The little ‘uns climbed up and down the pieces of furniture with the agility of monkeys… while it took me five minutes and an eventual shove from Pete to get on that chair!

Dublin is also known for its fair share of things eerie and bizarre, and stories abound about hauntings and poltergeists and things that go bump in the night. For a city tour with a difference, we decided to take an evening ride on the Ghost Bus. For the next two hours we were regaled with stories about body-snatchers, banshees, and the creation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, complete with a variety of audio and visual effects (some scary, some cheesy).

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The scariest ride in Dublin! Notice there are curtains on the windows? These were kept shut while we were driving around so we didn't know where we were going.

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I think this guy has been riding the Ghost Bus too long. He doesn't look well.

This was a bus tours with a difference, however, 'cos at certain points we were allowed to get off the bus and walk around some spooky places. Our first stop was St. Kevin's churchyard, where we learned the ins and outs of grave robbing. Our guide even asked for a volunteer to perform an actual robbery!

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Our poor grave-robbing 'victim', who was not allowed to rest in peace.

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Our guide was a real character, and a veritable fount of all things horrid. The dark mark on the wall behind him is a mystery in itself: nobody knows what caused it, and when it's washed off, it always comes back again.

The tour ended in St. Audoen's Church and the forty steps, which are haunted by Dublin's most famous ghost: the 'green lady'. The guide told us that the tourists frequently get strange images here, and urged us to take lots of photos. We dutifully did as we were told, and all ended up with a gazillion boring piccys that look like this:

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I ain't 'fraid of no ghosts.

A couple of people claimed to have captured strange visual aberrations in their photos, at which point Pete and I looked at each other and rolled our eyes skeptically. Funnily enough, just after that we took another picture of the steps which was completely distorted - the only time our camera has ever failed to produce a coherent image - so perhaps there was something (or someone) to it after all! For those of you with an interest in the macabre, the company has a webpage where people can post the ghostly pictures they took during the tour.

We had a fabulous time in Dublin, despite the constant rain, so I guess I'll have to be forever grateful to RyanAir for selling reasonably-priced tickets!

I'll post my final entry (from Kenya) next week.

'Bye for now...

Posted by Julie1972 20:35 Archived in Ireland Comments (0)

Musings on Malta

Better late than never, eh?

Note:
This, as you may have noticed, is one exceedingly overdue blog entry! The truth of the matter is, Pete and I are now back home in New Zealand. The mortgage is well and truly blown, and we are now trying to get back to reality and deal with houses and jobs and all that jazz. To be honest, our energy and enthusiasm for travelling was somewhat depleted during our last couple of months on the road, which I why I haven't been providing updates. I still think it's worth finishing off the last few entries, though; partly for the sake of completeness, and partly because we did actually learn a thing or two while we were away, and this info might be useful to those who are just starting out on their adventures. So, enough with the excuses! Here's what happened in Malta...

I have some strange whims, me. I really wanted to visit Malta despite knowing next to nothing about the place. If I’m being totally honest, the few things I did know could be written on the back of a bus ticket. Look:

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I didn’t have a bus ticket handy, so I wrote ‘em on Post-it note instead.

If you can add anything at all to this list, you are more well-informed than me.

Of course, there had to be more to Malta than this, so I spent an hour or so with my friend Google and did some proper research. Here are a few factoids that I found:

- Malta consists of an archipelago of islands, only three of which are inhabited (Malta Island, Gozo and Comino).
- The two official languages are Maltese and English, but Italian is also widely spoken.
- Malta gained independence from the UK in 1964.
- It has been invaded umpteen times, and ruled by many nations.
- The entire island was awarded the George Cross in 1942, for the Maltese people’s bravery during the second Siege of Malta.
- Parts of the movie Gladiator were filmed here (the scenes set in Ancient Rome).
- And, finally, some people believe that Malta was the location for the Lost City of Atlantis.

Anyway, because apartments have been working well for us recently, we decided to rent another one for a couple of weeks. We totally lucked out – this was by far the nicest apartment we’ve stayed in on this trip.

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Our penthouse panorama. This is typical Maltese landscape: low hills, terraced fields and square buildings.

Because we were going to be there for a while, we decided to hire a car. Taxis are expensive, and the buses didn’t seem to run too regularly. This worked out well for us, ‘cos it meant we could get to tourist destinations easily, and drive to a decent-sized supermarket which was way cheaper than the local mini-mart. (I was happy to discover that Maltese supermarkets stock many of the brands I know and love from the UK!)

Driving was... interesting. The roads are not great: many are very narrow and in a state of disrepair, and signs/directions were intermittent, making navigation tricky. The locals were not as crazy as in other countries we’ve visited, but they were very impatient, and didn’t seem to know what their mirrors were for. One other blogger I found described it like this: “Driving in Malta is easy - if you have eyes at the back of your head.” I would like to add, “And in your ears,” ‘cos the number of people who just swing out of side roads without looking is truly frightening! Still, Pete seemed to get the hang of it easily enough, and we returned the hire car with no additional dings or dents.

So, having hired a car, off we went to explore the island.

Malta is a great place for anyone who likes their history... or prehistory. The island is full of well-preserved prehistoric sites, such as the Tarxien Temples and Ghar Dhalam Cave.

Tarxien is a megalithic temple complex built between 3600 and 2500 BC. Items from Prehistoric times suggest that it was used it for rituals and animal sacrifice, and in the Bronze age it was used for cremations.

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Stone balls found near the entrance suggest that Ugg and his pals rolled the megaliths into position. Sounds like hard work to me. They should have used dinosaurs like Fred Flintstone.

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I even saw a genuine caveman!

Ghar Dalam ("Cave of Darkness") contains earliest evidence for human settlement in Malta.

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Apparently the cave was used as an air raid shelter during World War II. I'm sure that this was a pretty unpleasant place to hide out - it was kind of musty down there.

Deposits were found that spanned a period of 130,000 years, including fossils from animals that died at the end of the Ice Age, to pottery and tools used by prehistoric and neolithic man.

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For once Pete was not the oldest thing here!

Note for travellers to Malta:

If you are interested in stuff like this and get the chance, visit the Hypogeum of Hal-Saflieni, the only underground prehistoric temple in the world. We were disappointed - we'd left it too late to get tickets. It’s not so bad in the winter, but in high season they sell out weeks in advance. Learn from our mistake and book early!

We did get to spend some time underground, however, when we went to see the catacombs of St Paul. Now, I know all about St Paul, thanks to that world-famous historian, Eddie Izzard (*)

(*) Warning: Contains swearing and religious themes. Do not watch if you are likely to be offended.

Actually, the catacombs don’t have anything to do with St. Paul other than the fact that they are near his church and grotto (**). They contain subterranean tombs that held over one thousand bodies.

(**) Where the Apostle was believed to have taken refuge after being shipwrecked in 60 AD.

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Me in the catacombs. I’m glad Pete was with me, ‘cos the place was huge with dozens of passages. If I’d been on my own, I’d probably still be stuck down there looking for the exit!

This was a fabulous way to get our daily exercise. Some of the catacombs are closed off to tourists, but there was enough open to keep us occupied for about 40 minutes. I’d also recommend taking a torch, ‘cos a few of the areas are accessible but unlit. Great fun! (Confession: I made Pete go into the dark areas first in case there were spiders.)

Another place worth seeing is the ancient capital of Malta, an impressive mediaeval walled town in the centre of the island.

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The protective wall was built by the Phoenicians, and the feeling of seclusion persists today. Vehicles are severely restricted here (necessarily so, due to the many narrow streets), earning it the nickname 'The Silent City'.

Of all the places we visited in Malta, I’d say that this one was the most touristy. As well as your usual palazzos and chapels, there were also attractions such as the Mdina Dungeons (supposedly scary; I don’t know for sure, ‘cos we didn’t see it), a Medieval Times exhibit (quite frankly, a waste of money), and a waxwork exhibition detailing the history of the Knights of Malta (***).

(***) Not to be confused with the Knights of the Round Table (Or try this link, if Lego is your thing. I swear some people have way too much time on their hands!)

These guys (who went by a number of names, including the Knights Hospitaller, the Order of Hospitallers and the Order of St John) were a Christian Military organisation that started in the Middle Ages. They began as acommunity of monks who helped looked after patients at the Hospital of St John in Jerusalem, but later became a military outfit that helped protect Crusader territory in the Holy Lands.

The Order was eventually forced from their original home by the Turks, so they ended up in Malta in 1530. They stayed for over 260 years, and were in large part responsible for making the country into a well-defended and much-coveted island.

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Me and some waxwork Knights. The audio doo-hickey I am wearing was a pretty good system, if a little poor in sound quality. The commentary was remotely activated as you approached the exhibits, so you didn't have to worry about typing in numbers or anything like that.

Like Mdina, St. Julian’s Bay is also set up for tourists, although it has a very different look and feel. It’s a popular coastal town full of restaurants and nightclubs (and, while we were there, lots of Brits standing around watching the World Cup in bars and looking disappointed).

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St Julian's Bay has some really amazing pizza restaurants. Seriously, the pizzas there were as good as the ones in Italy.

Ooh, and while I’m on the subject of restaurants, I can highly recommend that veggie fans try the Maltese salad. It’s a filling combination of lettuce, sun-dried tomatoes, cucumbers and olives, with feta cheese, Maltese sausage, Maltese biscuits and traditional bean dip called Bigilla.

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My favourite meal in Malta. Pete is not a fan of salad, as a rule, but even he agreed that this looked good.

Finally, if you want to escape crowds for a while and have a peaceful walk in pretty surroundings, we found two lovely gardens. The first was the Chinese Garden of Serenity in Santa Luċija. The place was deserted, so I’m not sure many people know about it.

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The elements and layout of the garden are symbolic: the rocks and water represent the basis of life, yin and yang.

The second was the gardens of San Anton Palace, the official residence of the Maltese president. They are formal gardens, with long walkways, ornamental ponds and sculptures. There are many varieties of plants from around the world, which makes it a great place to take a stroll, ‘cos the trees provide much-needed shade.

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The Palace of San Antonio and its gardens on an extremely hot day.

All in all, Malta was a surprise. It’s a small island with a great selection of things to see and do – we could easily go back for another two weeks and not be bored. I guess this was one occasion when my strange whim was worth paying attention to!

That's all for now. I'll post another entry very soon.

Julie

Posted by Julie1972 16:02 Archived in Malta Comments (0)

"What have the Romans ever done for us?"

Irreverence in Italy

Note: This is the second time that I have published this entry, as I have reason to believe that none of my email notifications were sent last time.

Hello all,

I must confess that this blog entry nearly never happened; in fact, the rest of this trip nearly never happened, ‘cos a few weeks back I decided enough was enough and I wanted to go home to New Zealand. This is what I wrote the day after we landed in London, on our return from Cairo:

What next? I tell you what’s not next: more planes. I am rebelling. I am done with airports, security checks and cattle class seats for the immediate future. If anyone forces me to get on an aircraft any time soon, I am gonna steal a drinks trolley and rampage through Business Class, throwing peanuts and mini pretzels at people’s heads!

The main reason for my airbourne antipathy is that we have simply spent too much time on planes recently. The Egyptian part of the trip took eleven days, and this was our flight schedule:

Day 1: Fly Fuerteventura to Madrid.
Day 2: Fly Madrid to Cairo, then Cairo to Luxor.
Day 7: Fly Aswan to Abu Simbel, return.
Day 8: Fly Aswan to Cairo.
Day 11: Fly Cairo to London.

That’s 7 planes in 11 days! I really do not envy people who have to travel a lot for work. How do you do it and stay sane?

Truth be told, I am not the most patient of people when it comes to flying, especially on long-haul flights. A couple of hours in, I am thoroughly bored and annoyed and spend my time composing letters to people. People like Richard Branson, for example:

Dear Rick,

I know you have ignored the previous dozen or so letters I have sent you, but I really do think I have a valid business proposition here. Aeroplanes are so yesterday’s technology, and I think that if you put your mind to it you could come up with newer, more exciting methods of transport. For example, have you considered the possibility of using pterodactyl DNA and genetically engineering a fleet of ginormous flying dinosaurs? (I think they explain how to do this in Jurassic Park.) Just stick some saddles on their backs and tattoo the Virgin logo on their foreheads, and there you go.

Alternatively I believe you could do something very interesting with hot air balloons... strap rockets to their baskets, for instance.

Or physicists:

Dear Brainiacs,

Please can you stop wasting time with Hadron Particle Colliders and nanotech and all that, and start seriously researching wormholes as an alternative to air travel? Wormholes are way more environmentally friendly than planes, and, being practically instantaneous, have the added benefit of eliminating air rage and the necessity for passengers to eat airline food. Our stomachs and blood pressure levels thank you in advance.

If things get really desperate, I’ll start writing letters to the Captain:

Dear Cap’n,

We are all really bored back here, and I wondered if you and your crew would join us in a little game of make-believe to help the time pass quicker. You could pretend that you’ve just spotted a Gremlin on one of the wings, like in that episode of the Twilight Zone. If you really wanna make things interesting, pretend that you’ve also seen him carrying a spanner or a big wrench or something. The cabin crew could help by pointing out of the windows and squealing occassionally, and tilting to one side when they walk down the aisle to give the illusion of extra weight on one side. (Note: they must decide in advance which way they are going to tilt if the effect is to be realistic.)

If, like all of the other captains on all of the other long-haul flights I have ever suffered through, you don’t want to play, could you at least drop the oxygen masks and pump some helium through ‘em so we can entertain ourselves by doing Alvin and the Chipmunks impressions? It would really help take my mind off the fact that my backside went numb three hours ago, and my concerns that I will never be able to stand up straight again.

Yours hopefully,

The poor human “battery hens” in coach.

p.s. Can you make this thing fly any faster?

Getting back to the point...

As you’ve probably gathered, I was in serious need of a time out. Pete pointed out that it would be silly to go home on a whim. This was a big decision, one that needed further consideration. We decided to think on it, deferred our immediate plans for onward travel and hung out in London for a while. This, as it happened, was just what I needed. I no longer want to go home, and we have decided to blow what’s left of the mortgage before heading back to NZ in September (or thereabouts).

Bizarrely, the trip has now taken on a new, less frenetic pace. Every country we visit feels like a bonus, and we’ve resolved to take our time over things. Instead of the crazy one-week pit-stop in Italy I’d been anticipating, we had a leisurely multi-city break which lasted for three weeks.

This is not our first time in Italy. Pete was here many years ago, and he later took me to Venice and Verona for my 25th birthday. I’d never been abroad before, so Pete booked us first class all the way, just to make sure I had the pleasantest experience possible and would want to travel more. (Was he planning to blow our future mortgage, even then?) It worked. I loved it, and we made a point of visiting a different country pretty much every year thereafter.

I was very excited to be back in Italy, though, especially as we got to visit three new cities: Florence, Rome and Naples (plus day trips to Pisa and Pompeii).

Florence

Florence was an absolute delight, all the more so because I never expected to go there. It is a beautiful city, famous for its ice cream (*) architecture and the part it played in the Renaissance, cultivating artists such as Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Botticelli and Donatello.

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Two views of Florence: on the left is the Ponte Vecchio bridge, noteable 'cos it's got shops built along it; on the right is the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore. Its huge dome has a fascinating history - the guy who won the commission to build it had no idea whether or not it would collapse under its own weight! It is largest brick dome ever to be constructed.

(*) I wanna know: Who’s supporting all the gelaterias in Florence? Seriously, I’ve never seen so many ice cream shops in my life! Actually, I can partly answer my own question. During our time there, Pete and I contributed heavily to the gelateria business. It was pure coincidence that we arrived during the weekend of their Gelati Fiesta (honest), but we felt obliged to join in. When in Rome (or Florence), as the saying goes...

Anyway:

Art. You can’t escape it; Italy is full of the stuff. I remember ‘burning out’ on religious artwork last time I was here. I readily admit that I am a philistine about such things. I fall slap-bang in the middle of the “I don’t know anything about art, but I know what I like” school of art appreciation. I’ve visited a fair few galleries on this trip, but I tend to avoid the guided tours and audio explanations. I much prefer to interpret paintings on my own terms. (I don’t particularly care if I’m right or not – and besides, I think a lot of these so-called experts talk a lot of rubbish. It’s true – even the most bird-brained among us can become art critics these days). But, despite this, the one place I did not want to miss while in Florence was the Uffizi Gallery, one of the oldest art museums in the world.

Note for anyone intending to visit the Uffizi during high season:

High season is, of course, the worst time of year to go anywhere. Every popular attraction is ridiculously packed, and the queues stretch for miles. But your visit can be made less stressful by following a few simple guidelines:

– Don’t queue! Buy your ticket in advance and make sure it specifies a visiting time. (You can either book on the Internet, or ask Tourist Information about other vendors in the city).
- Do not take bottled water with you, as they don’t allow any liquids inside the gallery.
- Don’t take a backpack unless absolutely necessary, because they make you check it (which means waiting in another stupidly long line). Even more irritatingly, they make you remove all cameras and laptops and carry ‘em with you. I would have been exceedingly annoyed if I’d had my Netbook with me, ‘cos it doesn’t have a carry case.
- Wear comfortable shoes and bring a tonne of patience. It will be crowded, people will insist on jostling you and getting in the way, and you will probably have to wait a while to get close to the more popular pieces.

As you might expect, the Uffizi contains a serious amount of religious art. Every other painting has the words ‘Madonna and child’ in the title. My favourite stuff, however, was by Botticelli, primarily this 'un:

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The Birth of Venus

Of course, Monty Python fans will recognise this image from one of Terry Gilliam’s cartoons, so then I started thinking about Python sketches and got the giggles. (I think we have already established that I am a philistine, so there’s no need to go through all that again.)

They also had a special exhibition by Carravagio, where I saw this horrible thing. I won't put the actual picture here, due to the serpent-y subject matter (**).

(**) Question for friend Craig: Did you know I hate snakes? Have I mentioned this before? I do, you know. Can’t stand the things. Ought to be banned.

Pisa

Florence is also convenient for a daytrip to Pisa, taking approximately one hour by train. Incidentally, the tower was intended to be vertical. It started tilting during the early stages of construction, apparently. I dunno why they didn't try and fix it back then - it took two centuries to complete, so they had plenty of time to sort it out!

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Me and the wonky tower. I swear it was like that when I found it!

Here’s a pop quiz for ya. Why did Julie go to Pisa? Was it:

a) For the stunning architecture?
b) To measure the angle of the tower?
c) To see another of the World’s Seven Wonders?
d) To make like Galileo and throw balls off the tower?
e) None of the above?

I am sorry to say that the answer is e). I went to Pisa, not for culture or architecture or history or experimental purposes or anything like that; no, I went for this:

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So I could say I’d eaten pizza in Pisa! (Philistine? Check.)

Rome

You know you’re in a major city when, within ten minutes of stepping off the train, you’ve been ripped off for 20 euros by yet another taxi driver. (How do these people sleep at night? Do they have to turn in their consciences when they collect their public vehicle licences, or something?) Anyway, a word of advice to anyone who opts for a cheaper hotel on the outskirts of the city: don’t bother asking a taxi driver to lug you and your luggage there. They’ll give you a price, get you in the car, increase the price twice, then change their mind, decide its too far and dump you at the nearest Metro station. (Or, in our case, a station that was two stops before the the train station we’d just left!)

The one consolation in all this is that Rome's Metro service is superb. You pay one euro per ticket, whether you are going two stops or twenty, and the trains run every couple of minutes. We'd booked ourselves into a self-catering apartment in an area called Anagnina, which was right at the end of the line. It worked out well - the apartment was way nicer than anything we could have afforded to rent in the city, and it only took 15 - 20 minutes on the Metro to get to the centre. Win-win!

Rome is, of course, a major tourist destination, packed to its ancient gills with people like me who wanna have a peek at all those famous archeological sites. Although considerably larger and busier than Florence, the city has a lovely feel to it; simply walking around is an adventure ‘cos there is so much amazing architecture.

I had three must-sees here: the Trevi Fountain, the Colosseum and the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

The Trevi is the largest Baroque fountain in Rome. It marks the end of the Aqua Virgo, an aquaduct built in 19 BC. The original fountain that stood there was deemed too boring, so Pope Urban VIII commissioned an alternative.

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This fabulous sculpture shows Neptune as the central figure, riding a shell chariot drawn by two seahorses.

Legend has it that if you throw a coin into the Trevi Fountain, you will return to Rome one day. (It worked for Pete!)

The Colosseum was the one place I really wanted to explore, so I was delighted when we discovered we didn’t have to queue for tickets. You can also buy them at the nearby Palatino – well worth the short walk to avoid standing in a line for two hours!

The Colosseum is largest ampitheatre in the Roman Empire, and was used for gladatorial games and other public shows. (They even used to flood the place and hold mock naval battles!) It could seat up to 50,000 spectators.

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(Left) The building is an entirely free-standing structure, but large sections of the exterior wall have been damaged by earthquakes over the years.
(Right) The arena itself was a large wooden floor covered with sand. Beneath the floor was a network of tunnels and cages, where the galdiators and animals were kept before the games began.

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I was gonna feed Pete to the lions, but apparently such a thing never happened. According to the historian Tacitus, Christians were generally ripped apart by dogs, crucified, or burned alive - no lions! Still pretty gory, though, eh?

By the way, Pete and I were both philistines that day, quoting Monty Python’s Life of Brian (***) and basically behaving like a couple of five year olds. Well, there’s no law against it, is there?

(***) See blog title. You watch the scene in question here, if you like.

The Vatican Museums contain the humungous collection of art belonging to the Catholic Church. It all started in the early 1500s with a statue of Apollo, donated by Pope Julius II della Rovere; 500 years later, the museums house thousands of sculptures and paintings – way too much to explore in one day. It’s an impressive collection that really does defy description.

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The elaborate ceiling in the Hall of Maps. It was impossible to avoid bumping into people, ‘cos everyone was staring upwards and not looking where they were going!

Of course, the main reason I wanted to visit the Vatican was take a peek at the ceiling in the Sistine Chapel (****). This provides me with one last chance to be a philistine, and I’m gonna take it:

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”Pull my finger!”

You have no idea how much I enjoyed that.

(****) Note: you can’t take pictures inside, unfortunately, so I cheated; I bought a postcard and photographed that instead!

One last thing:

Most of the things we saw in Italy were popular tourist attractions, so, before we left Rome, we made a point of searching out something that most people would likely not see. We found a museum that was both tiny and bizarre: the Museum of Purgatory, located in the Church of the Sacred Heart near the Vatican. It’s little more than one wall of objects in a small room, but each of those objects supposedly shows evidence of contact made by souls trapped in Purgatory!

The theory is this: a dead soul who is trapped between earth and the afterlife can get to heaven faster if the living pray for them. The weird marks on these objects have been interpreted as ‘messages’ from beyond the grave - requests for prayers from the deceased.

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The wall and its spooky collection, plus a fiery handprint left by Joseph Schitz on his brother’s prayer book. The man was believed to be asking forgiveness for his lack of piety during his time on earth.

Now, I am a card-carrying skeptic when it comes to the supernatural, but I had a hard time finding rational explanations for some of those exhibits. There were books which clearly had hand/finger prints burned onto the pages. Are they fakes or miracles? I really don’t know.

Naples

Naples, by comparison, was disappointing. I think part of me was expecting it to be a bit like Florence. It wasn’t. Oh, it had the winding streets and old buildings, etc., but the place was, to put it politely, grotty in the extreme. Many of the buildings were run down, and practically every square inch of wall from ground to eye level had been covered with graffitti (as had statues, train carriages, and even rocks by the sea!) The streets were also filthy, with litter piled everywhere. It’s a shame; what could be a very pleasant city has been spoiled by the seeming lack of concern of its residents and council.

And the freakin’ Vespas! I have been totally lied to about Italians and their Vespas. Admittedly they drive slightly better than they did in Vietnam, but only just. You are still in danger of being run over walking along the pavement.

Anyway, no matter. The only reason we ended up in that region at all is because it was convenient for Pompeii.

Pompeii

Back in 79 AD, the town of Pompeii was destroyed when Mount Vesuvius erupted. The eruption lasted for two days, burying everything under 22 meters of ash and pumice. Many people realised the danger when the ash first began to fall and tried to escape, but not everyone made it. Experts believe that the residents (including the animals) died either from asphyxiation or thermal shock:

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Man and dog (lying on its back)

Their bodies lay undiscovered for more than 1,600 years.

This account of the disaster was given by one of the survivors, Pliny the Younger, an eighteen year old who lived in the town of Misenum:

Ashes were already falling, not as yet very thickly. I looked round: a dense black cloud was coming up behind us, spreading over the earth like a flood.'Let us leave the road while we can still see,' I said, 'or we shall be knocked down and trampled underfoot in the dark by the crowd behind.' We had scarcely sat down to rest when darkness fell, not the dark of a moonless or cloudy night, but as if the lamp had been put out in a closed room.

You could hear the shrieks of women, the wailing of infants, and the shouting of men; some were calling their parents, others their children or their wives, trying to recognize them by their voices. People bewailed their own fate or that of their relatives, and there were some who prayed for death in their terror of dying. Many besought the aid of the gods, but still more imagined there were no gods left, and that the universe was plunged into eternal darkness for evermore.

Today a large part of Pompeii has been excavated, revealing an incredibly well-preserved town. Many of the buildings are still standing, and as you walk along the cobblestone roads it seems hard to believe that the place was once buried under layers of ash and soil.

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A couple of amazing buildings: a Roman villa, and the arena.

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The Temple of Isis... and Pete!

These days vulcanologists keep a very close eye on Mount Vesuvius. Since the destruction of Pompeii, there have been many more eruptions (between 30 and 50, depending on which sources you believe). The last one occurred in 1944, and the volcano has been quiet ever since.

If it does erupt again, the outcome will hopefully be less traumatic than it was in 79 AD. Today eruptions can be predicted up to two weeks in advance, and the Italian government has an emergency evacuation plan for the 600,000 people who currently live in the danger zone. They are actually actively trying to reduce the number of people who live there by demolishing buildings and paying people to move away!

So, this is the end of my rather long (and silly and irreverent) entry about Italy. Although it was not one of the most exotic locations we’ve been to on this tour, it will certainly be amongst the most memorable.

My next post will be from Malta - hopefully very soon!

'Bye for now...

Posted by Julie1972 00:18 Archived in Italy Comments (0)

Idol Curiosity

Of Pyramids, Pharoahs and a Prodigious Pantheon

Anyone who has spent any amout of time perusing travel blogs will likely be aware of the ongoing debate concerning the differences between a ‘tourist’ and a ‘traveller’. A quick Google will reveal a plethora of answers (see this page, for example), many of them contradictory. Some people say there is no difference; others believe there is a difference in attitude; some say that it is a matter of geography (a tourist will see only the main sights, whereas a traveller will get off the beaten path and find things that aren’t mentioned in the Lonely Planet guide). I think my favourite definition of all, though, comes from one Mr. Craig Heimburger, who said:

Tourists expect toilet paper — travelers carry their own (with the carton roll removed and pressed flat).

This made me laugh out loud. We do indeed carry our own loo roll wherever we go, but this is not always as usfeul as you might think, especially in countries where they operate a Menaces Money system for public toilets (more on this later).

Personally I think that the terms ‘traveller’ and ‘tourist’ are closely intertwined. During this trip we have made our own way through countries without any real idea where we’ll end up from one day to the next (Vietnam is a good example of this), but we’ve also spent a fair amount of time on pre-paid tours being ferried to major tourist destinations. I don’t feel that one approach is better than the other. As far as I’m concerned, travelling on an air-conditioned bus with a guide and set itinerary is better than not travelling at all!

The reason I bring this up at all is because for the Egyptian part of our trip we decided to go ‘’tourist” all the way. Instead of spending hours trawling the Internet for the best flight and hotel deals, we talked to see a travel agent in the UK and said, “Find us a cruise ship, please, and make it a nice one.” We deliberately chose a luxury package rather than our standard cheap-and-cheerful affairs, ‘cos this was one of our top three Must-See destinations, after all.

If I’m honest, though, that wasn’t the only reason we wanted a high quality tour. Safety was another serious consideration, given that Egypt has had its problems in the past. We also weren’t sure whether there was going to be a strong anti-Western feeling running through the country. (Our paranoia is justified on this score, I think, given the negative reactions we had from the locals when we missed a connecting flight and were forced to spend the night in Bahrain.)

So, for all these reasons and more, we sat back and let somebody else do all the work. (We booked with these guys, by the way, and highly recommend them.)

Of course, booking with a reputable company is no guarantee that Mother Nature won’t find a way to throw a spanner in the works... this time in the form of an Icelandic volcano.

Actually, I have a sneaking feeling that that might be my fault.

See, the week before we decided to take a last-minute break in the Canary Islands - primarily to escape the evil British weather. This was not by any stretch of the imagination a luxury trip, and the journey to Fuerteventura was hell-on-two-wings. In mathematical terms, I would describe it like this:

cramped seating + noisy, inconsiderate passengers + unruly kids fighting in the aisle = Julie + (alcoholic miniatures x 20)

In other words, I soon found myself praying to any gods that’d let me join their fan club that I wouldn’t have to suffer the flight back. The very next day: volcano!

I should have been more specific in my prayers, however. No one had any idea how long we were going to be delayed, and we weren’t sure that we’d get back to London in time for our flight to Egypt. In the end we took matters into our own hands and arranged alternative flights via Madrid. It cost a small fortune, but that was better than losing out on our cruise altogether.

Getting there early had its advantages, however, ‘cos it meant that we got an extra day in Luxor (we weren’t actually due to arrive until 9.30 that night). I’m glad, in a way, ‘cos this was the one lazy day we got to have that week. The rest of it was a gruelling schedule that made us wonder whether we’d mistakenly ended up at boot camp. You think I’m exaggerating? Well, I am... but only a bit.

To give you an idea, this is what we did on day 1 of our cruise:

We were woken up at 5.30 am by the sadistic crew (*) for the first of our route-marches through Luxor. We met in the lobby, a collection of shell-shocked, sleepy Brits, wondering what on earth we’d let ourselves in for.

(*) Just kidding, they were all kind, friendly people with a great sense of humour.

This is what the River Nile looks like at six o’ clock in the morning, by the way:

Nile_view.jpg
To our great disappointment, we were unable to book a balloon flight. Apparently they only operated once a week, so we’d already missed it. Darn!

Our itinerary for the day consisted of four interesting sights (and one Blatant Shopping Opportunity), starting with the Valley of the Kings. This was excellent news, ‘cos the VotK was one of my absolute must-sees while we were there. Also, because we were leaving so disgustingly early in the morning, the weather was still cool and pleasant, and once I’d woken up a bit I was really able to appreciate the fact that I was finally getting to explore a genuine ancient Egyptian site. After many years reading about ‘em and watching National Geographic documentaries, this realisation gave me a real thrill.

A word about our tour guide: We were in the care of a lovely fella named Ehab. As well as being our point-of-contact and general trouble-shooter on the ship, Ehab was also a fully qualified Egyptologist. Because we were by no means the only tour groups in the area (everywhere was heaving, even at 5 o’clock in the morning), he gave us a group name of ‘Ramses’ for easy identification. One memory of this trip I will always carry with me is Ehab holding his pink clipboard in the air and shouting, “Ramseeeeees!” then hurrying off to the next destination, us lot scurrying along behind trying to keep up.

Our visits were generally divided into two parts: a guided tour with explanations from Ehab, followed by a short period of time where we could explore by ourselves, take photos, get harassed by vendors or just find somewhere cool(ish) to sit for a few minutes. At the valley we only had time to visit three tombs. (I would have spent the entire day there, given half a chance!)

The Valley of the Kings is an area on the west bank of the Nile where Pharoahs were buried for almost 500 years. Tutankhamun’s tomb was discovered there by Howard Carter in 1922. Although all the valuable stuff is now on display in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, you can still go into Tut’s tomb and have a look at his now-mangled mummy. Sadly we were told to leave our cameras on the bus so I can’t provide pictures, but you can see some good ones here.

Next came the dreaded Blatant Shopping Opportunity. They give us one every trip. This time we were taken to a family workshop where they produce Egyptian tat... sorry, souvenirs from alabaster. I have to admit, though, despite being an obvious attempt to separate gullible tourists from their money, these guys put on a great show. They gave us a carving demo at the beginning, with one fella giving the explanation and the others providing a kind of chorus. Their script was beautifully worked out and very funny in places. Main guy would say something, then the ‘chorus’ would chip in with a comment or two of their own, usually sarcastic. At one point they were illustrating the difference between items made from basalt and those made from cheap plastic (plastic burns, alabaster doesn’t); when he set fire to the plastic thingy, the chorus started singing ‘Happy Birthday’!

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The ‘chorus’ making souvenirs... and their shop.

We still didn’t buy anything, though.

And they hassled us for tips on the way out.

A note about tipping: The Egyptians are all very keen to point out that tipping is optional in their country. What they don’t point out is that if you fail to respond to a request for baksheesh, you are likely to be followed and harassed by an annoyed vendor/taxi driver/maid for the next ten minutes. In our hotel in Cairo we even had staff come knocking on our door when they had no reason to do so, obviously just looking for a handout. This is bad enough, but what makes it worse is that it is almost impossible to find small change. ATMs all issued large denomination notes which our hotel reception couldn’t exchange; even the bloomin’ shop owners told us they couldn’t break large notes (and lost our custom because of it). I have a theory, however. I know who has all the small coins in Egypt: the Menace Money ladies!

A note about Menace Money: Some countries have an unusual approach to public toilets. Instead of providing loo roll and hand towels inside, you have to purchase these items before you are allowed in. These Guardians of the Public (In)Conveniences are little more than schoolyard bullies, and heaven help you if you try to get out of paying. To be fair, they do only charge a small amount, but again this can be a pain if you don’t have any coins, ‘cos the Menance Money people are often reluctant to give change. Don’t think you can get away with it by trying to take your own paper in with you, either: I saw one M.M. lady having a full-blown argument with a couple of tourists in the Egyptian Museum because they refused to cough up; on another occasion the attendant actually followed someone inside, yelling at them all the way. We discovered later that most M.M. attendants will usually accept US/British/European money, so we made sure we carried some pence and cents with us at all times after that.

And so the route-march went on. Once we’d escaped from the Alabaster factory, we were taken to the Tomb of Queen Hatshepsut, Egypt’s only female Pharoah:

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The tomb was built high in the cliffs in an attempt to deter robbers. It was discovered by Howard Carter in 1916, eight years before he went on to discover the tomb of King Tut.

Hatshepsut wore men’s clothing and even had a fake beard, but she wasn’t fooling anybody; she was still a girlie even if she was Pharoah, and the misogynists of that time strongly disapproved. Her successor and nephew, Thutmose III, even had her name chipped off all the temple walls when he came to power some twenty years later. (She obviously wasn’t his favourite aunt!) Still, Egypt was prosperous during Hatshepsut’s rule, so she couldn’t have been all that bad.

This was followed by a five-minute stop to see the Colossi of Memnon:

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These fellas are two humungous statues of Amenhotep III. They used to stand guard at the entrance of the Pharoah’s memorial temple, but floods and thieving construction workers destroyed the actual buildings.

Finally, we ended up at the temples of Karnak. Quite frankly most of us were too hot and tired to really appreciate it at this point, which was a shame ‘cos it’s a fascinating place.

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Karnakian crowds. It was like this pretty much every place we visited in Egypt, but it was slightly harder to cope with here because of the lack of shade. Tour group leaders are pretty good at spotting cool places to hide, but, even so, we still had to stand in direct sunlight being lectured for half an hour at a time. Don’t they realise we’re British, for heaven’s sake? We don’t know how to cope with sunshine!

Karnak, for the uninitiated, is a complex of temples, chapels and other buildings, and is the largest ancient religious site in the world. One of the big differences between Karnak and similar sites is the length of time over which it was developed and used. It was built and extended over a 1,300 year period, and approximately thirty pharoahs contributed to it.

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One of the main points of interest is the great hypostyle hall. It contains 134 columns arranged in 16 rows, and originally had a covered ceiling.

By the time we were all convinced we were going to die of starvation or heatstroke, we were finally herded onto the bus and taken back to the boat. We ate lunch in a daze, and most us napped that afternoon. Everyone agreed that the pace was quite manic. (We also agreed that we needed to take more water, sunscreen and snacks on subsequent trips!)

Temples were a major feature of our tour. Here are a few more:

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Top left: Edfu, dedicated to the hawk god, Horus. Amongst other things, the Egyptians believed Horus was responsible for ensuring the sun rose every morning.
Top right: Kom Ombo, which we got to visit at night, hence the unusual colours. This is a double temple, dedicated to the crocodile god Sobek, and Horus the hawk god.
Bottom left: The Philae temple complex had to be dismantled and moved, due to the construction of the Aswan Dam. It is dedicated to the gods Isis, Horus and Osiris.
Bottom right: One of the two rock temples at Abu Simbel (*). It was designed to commemorate the reign of Pharoah Ramses II and his wife, Nefertari. These temples also had to be relocated to an artificial hill – again due to the Aswan Dam.

(*) Abu Simbel was an optional tour, which required a 3 a.m. start and an half hour flight. The airline gave us the best safety briefing I have ever heard: “There are four exits,” the stewardess said, “two at the front and two at the rear of the plane. There is a safety card in your seat pocket. Read it.”

These temples were remarkably similar in many respects. The interior walls and ceilings were covered with painted heiroglyphics and scenes depicting the Pharoah’s life, and many rooms contained enormous statues in various states of disrepair. The exteriors also had elaborate carvings with repetitive themes, such as the one shown below:

Offering_carving.jpg

The scene on the wall shows a Pharoah making an offering to a god. This is common in Egyptian artwork - unsurprising really, given that there were over 2,000 gods and goddesses in the ancient pantheon. For example, they had Anubis, a jackal-headed god devoted to embalming; Bastet the cat goddess of protection; Horus the hawk, god of the sky; Sobek, the crocodile god of the Nile; and Khnum, the goat god who created mankind on a potter’s wheel and breathed life into them.

Can you imagine what it would have been like if all these deities had turned up to receive their offerings at the same time? No? Let me paint you a picture. This is what I think the average Pharoah went through on offering day:

So, who’s first? *whistles* Come on, Anubis, here boy. I’ve got some nice Pedigree Chum for you. No, don’t growl at Bastet like that, you bad dog, or I shall whack you on the nose with a rolled-up papyrus!

Bastet... ah, we’re out of Kibble, I’m afraid, so I guess you’re on your own today. You’ll have to go and catch yourself a nice mouse or something. Or a bird, you say? Yes, you could do that instead. No, don’t go hunting Horus. He’s a very busy avian – he has to battle the forces of darkness every night just to make sure that the sun rises in the morning, you know. If you eat him, the sun won’t come back and the slaves will rebel. I can’t have that right now, ‘cos I need all the bodies I can get to finish building my pyramid. Actually I’ve being thinking about making some changes to the design. I mean, pyramids are so fourth dynasty; I’d like something with a few more curves. I’ve talked to Imhotep about it, but for an architect he is so one-track-minded. “Pointy, pointy,” that’s all he ever says.

Khnum, how are you doing, my goat-faced friend? Ah, you’ve already eaten, I see. What is that sticking out of your mouth, anyway? My altar cloth? Okay. And you’ve also eaten Queen Hatshepsut’s false beard, three tunics and some mummy wrappings. Well, I’m not surprised you’ve got indigestion. Chew your soft furnishings slowly in future, okay?

Who’s next? Sobek. Right, then, let’s see what we’ve got for you today... What d’you mean you want sausages? Well you can’t have any; the Greeks haven’t invented them yet. How d’you know about those, anyway? You saw ‘em in a Punch and Judy show? Sobek, have you been hanging around the mummification room again? You know that sniffing embalming fluid makes you hallucinate. So, no sausages. Try again. Oh, so now you’d like a nice leg of human, would you? Who d’you think we are? Aztecs? No, mate, we don’t do human sacrifices here. Leave that to that bloodthirsty lot in Mexico. No, I don’t know if the Aztec pantheon is hiring. Well, it wouldn’t hurt to send in an application, I suppose. Go find a scribe and we’ll write up your resume. Of course, given how complicated our alphabet is, this may take a while. By the time it’s done, they may well have invented sausages. Here, how do you spell your name, anyway? Horizontal bar, black squiggle, lower leg, feather and some kind of basket-shaped thing. No, I don’t know how to spell ‘sausages’; I keep telling you, they don’t exist yet.

Blimey, I can’t wait ‘til that heretic Pharoah Akhenaten gets rid of you lot and introduces a monotheistic system of worship based on the sun. It’s like a zoo in here!

There, I feel better now. This blog entry was getting way too factual, and I wouldn’t anyone to accuse me of coherency or anything.

So, enough silliness, and enough of temples, too! The main attractions in Egypt have got to be the Sphinx and pyramids at Giza, and we weren’t leaving until we’d been for a gawp along with everyone else. We flew up to Cairo after the cruise, determined that our route-marching days were over. We made a cursory enquiry about bus trips, pulled faces when they told us the schedule they had in mind, and immediately hired a private tour guide named Dahlia. Dahlia came with a flexible schedule, an air-conditioned car, a driver and a whole wealth of knowledge gained during her seven years studying Egyptology at university. She was a fabulous guide, so interesting and full of useful information; I wish I could remember a fraction of the things she told us!

So, there we were, standing in the Sahara desert and staring in awe at three humungous pyramids, and wondering, like so many before us, just how the ancients managed to build such impressive structures with such limited technology.

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The Giza Necropolis: The pyramids of Cheops, Khafre and Menkaure. Compare ‘em to the size of those cars!

I am sorry to tell all you conspiracy theorists and tin foil hat wearers out there that the pyramids were not built by aliens. Dahlia was having none of it: “People and hard work,” she insisted, over and over again.

The high point of the day (aside from the one on the top of Cheops), was being allowed inside a pyramid. We’d asked about this in advance and were told that it was possible; what we weren’t expecting was to be allowed inside the Great Pyramid itself! It was an interesting climb, to say the least. There was only one passageway open, which was basically a steep wooden ramp. It was very narrow, so you had to bend over or crouch as you climbed, and it was very congested because the ramp had to contain people coming down as well as those going up. At the top we ended up in a plain room that contained a sarcophagus and not a lot else. They wouldn’t let us take photos in there, the meanies (they even confiscated our camera at the front entrance), but for a bit of baksheesh the camera-confiscator took a picture of us inside the entrance (even though he said he wasn’t supposed to).

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Us outside the Great Pyramid of Cheops... and inside it.

sphinx.jpg
Poor old Sphinx. If you believe the legend, he was sitting there minding his own business, back in 1798, when along come Napolean who shoots his nose off for no reason. (How does he smell? Awful!)

We also saw another pyramid that day, one which was quite unexpected. We were driven to Sakkara, the place where the very first pyramid was built for Pharoah Djoser.

Sakkara_pyramid.jpg
This pyramid was a relatively recent discovery. Sadly we weren’t allowed inside, ‘cos the Powers That Be deemed it unsafe.

It was designed by an architect called Imhotep, who had quite an impressive career. He had many titles:

- Chancellor of the King of Egypt
- Doctor
- First in line after the King of Upper Egypt
- Administrator of the Great Palace
- Hereditary nobleman
- High Priest of Heliopolis
- Builder
- Chief Carpenter
- Chief Sculptor
- Maker of Vases in Chief.

I think they missed one, though:

- Pharoah’s pet.

The highlight of my week, though, had to be the Egpytian Museum. I loved this place and could’ve spent the entire day exploring it. Dahlia, excellent as ever, hit the high points for us. We learned how to interpret the statues, and saw the loot from Tut’s tomb – for real! (We’d already seen mock-up versions in an exhibition in Barcelona, but nothing can beat the real thing!)

And that was the end of a fantastic – if exhausting – week. The whole experience was amazing, beginning to end. Despite its sometimes frenetic pace, this trip will definitely be one of our highlights!

More from the road soon,

Julie & Pete

Posted by Julie1972 13:25 Archived in Egypt Comments (1)

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