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See Egypt on the Nile River cruise: All is calm in the land of the pharaohs

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Lydia Vasko on 09 Jul 2017

The Straits Times

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The best of home: Ambassadors to Singapore provide an insider's guide to their favourite destinations

 

Favourite destination: My favourite way to see Egypt is on the Nile River cruise between the cities of Luxor and Aswan in the south.

 

There is a lot to see in Egypt - from the exceptional coral reefs and diving areas in the Red Sea to Egypt's pharaonic, Coptic and Islamic heritage in Cairo. But it is on the Nile Cruise - ideally for five days and four nights - that I get a feeling of peace.

 

Often referred to as the world's greatest open-air museum, Luxor boasts staggering monuments and temples built by the ancient Egyptians, one of the world's greatest civilisations.

 

Around Aswan, travellers can enjoy the magical views of the Nile while on board a traditional felucca (sail boat) floating past colourful Nubian villages - the homes of an ethnolinguistic group indigenous to present-day northern Sudan and southern Egypt, who are descendants of the early inhabitants of the central Nile valley.

 

You will be surprised by the friendly people who will often invite you into their homes for hibiscus tea or shamsi (sun in Arabic) bread, a simple and ancient type of round wheat bread, which is left to rise in the sun before being baked in the oven.

 

Along the Nile is where I get a sense of the region's glorious history - of where it all started. This is where ancient Egyptians changed the history of humanity with the invention of the pen, ink and the papyrus (the precursor to paper), the 365-day calendar, knowledge of astronomy, farming techniques and even the invention of the wig, make-up and the toothbrush.

 

This is where the fundamentals of the Egyptian State started - with its culture, land and government - and where I get the richest feeling of belonging to this land and its people. I try to visit whenever possible.

 

SEE

 

In Luxor, the Karnak Temple Complex (tinyurl.com/ybh33wbz) on the east bank of the Nile and the Valley of the Kings (tinyurl.com/ya2qhgm2) on the west bank are breathtakingly incredible.

 

Karnak is one of Egypt's largest surviving temple precincts. Building started there during the Middle Kingdom, between 2050BC and 1800BC. It was one of ancient Egypt's main religious centres, with many extensively decorated temples and shrines devoted to the Egyptian gods.

 

I am always impressed by the Karnak Sound and Light Show (tinyurl.com/y9ojvxvd) at the temple. As guests walk through the temple, the images of pharaohs that are projected onto the walls narrate the story of the ancient city of Thebes - which is where Luxor stands today - its history and the pharaohs' achievements.

 

The Valley of the Kings is the site of the tombs of ancient pharaohs of the New Kingdom, from 1550BC to 1070BC.

 

Once you have seen the main sites, get to know the locals by visiting the less-touristy small villages around Luxor and Aswan, where you will experience the true Egyptian character of honesty, kindness and generosity.

 

Also, take a two-hour ride on a traditional felucca along the Nile out of Aswan. It is the perfect way to enjoy the natural scenery and gain peace of mind.

 

Another experience I highly recommend is taking a scenic hot-air balloon ride to watch the sunrise or sunset in Luxor. It offers views of everything - from the temples to the green Nile Valley and the desert behind. Sindbad Hot Air Balloons (sindbadballoons.com) is a reputable company.

 

If you would rather be on the ground, I remember that one of the most spectacular sunset views I had was at the terrace of the Sofitel Legend Old Cataract Aswan hotel (tinyurl.com/prk4rod), overlooking the Nile River.

 

Make sure you pass by Cairo to visit the pyramids of Giza and the Sphinx, as well as to explore the country's Islamic and Coptic Christian heritage.

 

EAT

Breakfast is important for Egyptians. A typical breakfast includes ful medames, which is fava beans chopped with garlic, onions, olive oil and spices. Some people also add eggs to it.

 

Falafel, a deep-fried mixture made of chopped beans, parsley, onions and spices, is also popular. Both are often eaten with eggs, pickles, tehina (sesame paste) and aish balady (Egyptian flat bread) or shamsi bread.

 

You can find traditional Egyptian breakfast easily and the cost varies depending on the place. It is available at restaurants and in hotel buffets or for less than $1 from a street vendor.

 

Kushari is another delicious dish you may want to try during your visit. It is a lunch meal made of brown lentils, macaroni, rice, chickpeas, fried onions and spicy tomato sauce on top.

 

I recommend molokheya, a sticky-green soup made from finely chopped Jew's Mallow leaves, served with Egyptian white rice and chicken.

 

Vegetable stews, especially okra, made with mutton and served with Egyptian rice, are also good dishes to try.

 

Aswan is famous for stuffed pigeon and the best place to have it is at EL Masry restaurant (tinyurl.com/yb36eqgj) .

 

El Dokka (tinyurl.com/y8k4kld9)in Aswan is a must-try - not only for the delicious Egyptian food it serves, but also for its stunning location on an island in the middle of the Nile. The restaurant runs a boat that takes guests to and from it and a full multi-course meal here costs about $12 a person.

 

For a higher-end restaurant, I recommend 1902 restaurant in the Sofitel Legend Old Cataract Aswan. It offers exceptional service and French-international cuisine. I love its duck flambe and risotto. A meal here costs $45 to $70 a person.

 

In Luxor, Sofra (sofra.com.eg) is popular for its local Egyptian food. You should definitely try the oven- roasted rabbit and rice-stuffed pigeon for a main course. The food here is delicious and affordable - at about $12 to $15 a person.

 

For dessert, umm ali, a warm concoction of filo pastry, cream, milk and nuts - topped with raisins and coconut flakes - is a must-try.

 

PLAY

Twice a year, locals and tourists gather at the 3,200-year-old Great Temple of Ramses II at the Abu Simbel Temples on the western bank of Lake Nasser - a 31/2-hour drive south of Aswan - to witness the Sun Festival.

 

Pharaoh Ramses II built his temple at Abu Simbel so that the sun would light the sculptures and internal chamber of his tomb twice a year - in February on the day of his ascension to the throne and in October on his birthday.

 

Partially to celebrate this astounding feat, Egyptian and international folkloric art groups gather in Aswan for street performances and concerts as part of the Aswan International Festival for Arts and Culture (tinyurl.com/yav96k2h).

 

To experience the unique local Nubian culture and heritage in Aswan, you have to visit or rent one of the Anakato Nubian houses in the small villages where the locals rent out their colourful homes to travellers.

 

If you have more time, the Red Sea is an incredible destination for diving and relaxing, notably the resorts in Sharm El Sheikh and Hurghada.

 

From Hurghada, you can go to El Gouna (elgouna.com), a resort town which is not known to many foreigners, but is a common holiday spot for locals.

 

It is a city-like beach resort with high-end hotels, entertainment facilities, a marina, shops and restaurants. From there, you can go on day trips to secluded islands.

 

SHOP

The Aswan Spice Market (the Souk) and the Nubian villages sell artefacts, clothes, paintings, spices and hibiscus tea.

 

In Luxor, you can shop at the souks (traditional markets) and bazaars and galleries such as Caravansarai (caravanserailuxor.com) and Habiba Gallery (www.habibagallery.com) that sell more high-end souvenirs such as jewellery, detailed and carved handicraft and metal work.

 

Otherwise, pick up shamsi bread from street vendors or local bakeries in Aswan. STAY Take the Le Fayan Nile cruise (lefayan.com), which sails between Luxor and Aswan, and visit historic sites along the way.

 

I also recommend Sofitel Legend Old Cataract Aswan and Sofitel Winter Palace in Luxor (tinyurl.com/ojm5np). Both hotels were built during the 19th century and every corner of the properties not only portrays beauty, but also unveils thousands of legendary stories.

 

Imagine Victorian architecture with a hint of Arabesque.

 

GETTING THERE

There are daily flights from Singapore to Cairo via Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Istanbul on Etihad Airways, Emirates and Turkish Airlines.

 

From Cairo, EgyptAir and Nile Air offer multiple daily flights to Luxor and Aswan.

 

TIPS

• Spend a week in Egypt, including a two-day visit to Cairo.

• For help on planning your trip, go to www.egypt.travel. To better understand Egyptian history and culture, read Zahi Hawass' The Royal Tombs Of Egypt: The Art Of Thebes Revealed.

• Avoid going to Luxor and Aswan during summer because it is too hot. However, northern- hemisphere summer resorts around the Mediterranean are great places to visit during the months of June, July, August and September.

• The security situation in Egypt is good, the tourism sector is safe and the airports and hotels are secure as well. Countries such as the United States and the United Kingdom have no travel restrictions to major tourist sites and cities in Egypt, such as Cairo, Luxor, Aswan, Abu Simbel, Sharm El Sheikh, Hurghada, and along the Mediterranean coast in Alexandria.

 

The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.