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Must see locations, events and places to travel and enjoy in Africa.
Must see locations, events and places to travel and enjoy in Africa.
The colorful little port town of Essaouira is a stone’s throw from Morocco’s best beach, a wonderful swath that curves for miles to the south. When you’re souked out from visits to Marrakech, Fez, and Tangier, this is the place to park your bag for some R and R, Moroccan style.
Within Essaouira’s walled fortifications, designed by a French architect for Sultan Sidi Mohammed in the 18th century, is the central medina, a hurly-burly whose narrow lanes teem with the craft shops and artisans for which this city is known, as well as friendly cafes in a relaxed atmosphere of a small-town neighborhood.
Since the 1980s Essaouira has been a secret (on everybody’s lips) as an excellent surfing and windsurfing destination because of the strong Atlantic winds, so its image as a hassle-free tourist-friendly town may soon be a thing of the past. Go now and check into the simple, serene, and stylish Villa Maroc.
The renovated hotel has twenty-two rooms with blue-painted balconies and shutters wrapped around an open courtyard filled with jasmine and bougainvillea. Some have fireplaces, others have antique canopied beds. The best part is breakfast on the open-air roof terrace, and dinner featuring aromatic spices from the local markets and served indoors by the soft light of wrought-iron chandeliers.
Since their logic-defying construction, the Pyramids at Giza have embodied antiquity, mystery—and far-fetched speculation. “From the summit of these monuments,” cried Napoleon, “forty centuries look upon you!”
The pyramids are the only wonder of the ancient world to have survived nearly intact. The funerary Great Pyramid of Cheops (or Khufu) is the oldest at Giza and the largest in the world, built circa 2500 B.C. with some 2.3 million limestone blocks, weighing an average 2.75 tons each, and moved by a force of around 20,000 men.
Two smaller pyramids nearby belonged to Cheops’s son and grandson. The Sphinx (Abu ’l-Hol, “Father of Terror”) sits nearby, a strange figure with a lion’s body, a human face, and a royal beard. The booming sound-and-light show that takes place every evening after sundown is a melodramatic display, yet a surprisingly entertaining crash course in pharaonic history. As Cairo’s population passes the 15 million mark, the pyramids’ former isolation in the desert has been infringed on by the suburbs that continue to grow around them.
Touts and persistent camel drivers offer their horses and knackered “ships of the desert” to see the pyramids as they were meant to be experienced. They are most magical at dawn and dusk, or when bathed in moonlight and silence.
Giving new meaning to the real estate dictum “Location, location, location,” the elegant 19th-century Mena House is just a stone’s throw from the Great Pyramids. Set within 40 acres of lush parkland and gardens on the edge of the Sahara, this veritable oasis of escape from the amusement-park atmosphere that now often surrounds the pyramids was once the rest house and hunting lodge of the empire-building Khedive Ismail.
The omnipresent pyramids loom in full, unobstructed view from your hotel room, the breakfast terrace (Evelyn Waugh thought it was “like having the Prince of Wales at the next table”), the hotel’s 18-hole golf course, and the garden-enveloped swimming pool. Maintaining much of its colonial air, the Mena House’s original wing was home to the 1943 “Big Three” conference attended by Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and Chiang Kai-shek, and was the site where plans for D- Day were initiated, as well as the formal signing of the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt in 1978.
The old, refurbished suites that command a view of the pyramids are far more interesting than rooms in the new annex. The Moghul Restaurant offers the finest Indian cuisine in Egypt, a culinary reminder of the hotel’s membership in the prestigious, Indian-based Oberoi hotel chain.
An amble through this overwhelming medieval microcosm, with what must be the greatest population density in the Middle East, is a remarkable passage through the Cairo of six or seven centuries ago. This ancient quarter of Cairo assails the senses, confounds, and confuses.
Amid barely contained pandemonium, oddly coupled with both intense poverty and one of the world’s lowest crime rates, lies the legendary hospitality of the Egyptian people. Meanwhile, chickens, horses, and sheep walk the narrow, potholed streets, further congested with men on donkey carts collecting garbage, itinerant street vendors, and people going about life as they always have.
The dust and rubble offset the faded architectural grandeur of a city that was once the intellectual and cultural center of the Arab world.
Given a daunting number of sites, start at the spectacular 12th-century Citadel of Salah al-Din; its founder was known throughout Christendom as Saladin, the Crusaders’ chivalrous foe. Perched on a steep spur, this heavily fortified bastion offers a matchless panorama of Cairo’s minaret-punctuated skyline and endless sprawl.
The holiest and most awe-inspiring of the city’s places of worship is the 9th-century Mosque of Ibn Tulun, notable for both its grand scale and extreme simplicity. The Islamic Art Museum’s collection, the most extensive of its kind in Egypt, spans the 7th to 19th centuries.
The Khan el-Khalili’s maze of bazaars is another mind-boggler for its sheer size alone. The richly ornamented Qualawun el-Nasir complex includes a madrasa, or theological school, and mausoleums. Built by three of the most important Mamluk sultans, it is considered a large-scale masterwork of their lavish architectural style.
The list of Islamic Cairo’s highlights goes on, but culture shock may have caught up with even the most intrepid visitor, who by this point has likely had his or her fill of noise, belching bus fumes, and ornery livestock demanding the right of way.
Scattered among the remote villages of the Atlas Mountains, the nomadic Berber tribes maintain the ancient customs of their ancestors. The most emblematic ritual is the betrothal ceremony at the annual Imilchil fair.
Having spent spring and the hot summer days in the mountains with their flocks, neighboring clans return to the verdant plain of Imilchil every September to settle in for the winter and to celebrate with this much- awaited social gathering, a kind of marriage mart.
Singles come to find and be found: young men dressed in white djellabahs, displaying their most precious silver daggers; girls wearing modest dresses and handiras capes, heavily hand-embroidered and accessorized with as much jewelry as befits their family’s position.
It is the girls who do the browsing, making small talk; a young girl may take the hand of a handsome young man and lead him about, giggling and asking questions. If she decides he’s a kindred soul, they walk to the scribes’ tent, the two families close in to negotiate, and that evening the couple is married. The fair lasts just three days, and the music and dancing make it feel like one large wedding reception.
Noisy, wonderful, chaotic, and awash with the smells of spices, incense, and leather, Khan el-Khalili is one of the world’s great bazaars— a sprawling, confusing, enclosed city-within-a-city first set up as a caravansary in 1382.
Everyone here wants your business, your money, your time for a glass of mint tea. Whether you’re shopping or not, bypass the tiny stalls and workshops on the most trammeled pathways (which have become highly touristed) and penetrate deep into the bewildering warren of back alleys, where Cairenes still shop for their dowries, cotton galabiyas, fezzes, and sheehas, or hooka water pipes.
This is the place to practice your haggling technique, but don’t expect to win against merchants with thousands of years of practice in their blood. Almost everything is available here. Mini bazaars within the bazaar specialize in such goods as carpets, gold, fabrics, perfume, and cosmetics (where the tiny pots of eye-lining kohl, Cleopatra-style, are made from burned, crushed olive pits).
Open round-the-clock since 1752, El Fishawy is still the Khan’s most famous coffee and tea house, immortalized by Lawrence Durrell. In a rich 19th- century European ambience of gilded mirrors, hammered brass, and cracked marble-topped tables, puff on a water pipe, have your fortune told, people-watch, and order what is said to be the best coffee in the city, delivered in little brass pots.
Most tour groups head straight upstairs for the gallery dedicated to the mind-boggling treasures of boy-king Tutankhamen. Others make a beeline for the mummy room, only recently reopened after fifteen years.
Regardless of your viewing strategy, the museum houses such an unparalleled collection of treasures (arranged chronologically from the Old [2700—2200 B.C.], to Middle [2100-1800 B.C.], and New [1600-1200 B.C.] Kingdoms) that, allowing just one minute to examine each of its 136,000 pharaonic artifacts, it would take a visitor nine months to see it all.
Another astounding 40,000 items remain crated in the basement, evidence of the chronic space shortage that has plagued Egypt’s greatest museum since it was founded in 1858. A visit here is overwhelming, to say the least; so are the crowds.
After viewing the 1,700 objects unearthed in 1922 in the small tomb of the relatively insignificant pharaoh Tut and the two rooms of twenty-seven mummified royal pharaohs and their queens, the rest of the museum’s exhibits can seem lackluster. A more relaxed return visit can do justice to these other masterworks.
Ranking with Australia’s Great Barrier Reef as the world’s best place to dive, the Red Sea was described by no less an expert than Jacques Cousteau as “a corridor of marvels—the happiest hours of my diving experience.”
The sea is famed for its diverse marine life and the spectacular clarity of the water, with visibility often in excess of 150 feet. (The lack of rain in the surrounding desert means no runoff to degrade visibility.) Much of the uniqueness of a Red Sea dive derives from the dramatic juxtaposition of the stark beauty of the Sinai Desert above and the veritable Garden of Eden below. About 10 percent of Red Sea species are found nowhere else on earth.
At the southernmost tip of the Sinai Peninsula, dive resorts such as Sharm el-Sheik offer a range of day boats out to the spectacular dive sites of Ras Mohammed, Egypt’s first national marine park. But live-aboard boats can bypass the underwater crowds and head for even more pristine reefs, steep drop-offs, sea mounts, and wrecks.
Those who head to the mountain-lined coast of the Red Sea for diving and snorkeling holidays should consider an unprogrammed off-road segue into the Sinai’s desert wilderness with a Bedouin guide. On the Gulf of Aqaba, Nuweiba is the best jumping-off point for treks by foot, jeep, or camel.
It’s near the ancient Byzantine monastery of Santa Katerina, located on the slopes of Mount Sinai, from whose summit God is said to have delivered the Ten Commandments to Moses, and Colored Canyon, where the rock strata contain an outstanding spectrum of colors that change with the light.
Members of some of the fourteen indigenous tribes of nomadic Bedouins have chosen to take up the opportunities offered by tourism, most commonly as guides for overnight (and longer) trips to oases and nomadic camps.
There you can experience life as the Bedouins have known it since biblical times. Book your trip to Nuweiba for mid-January, in time for the annual camel races at Wadi Zalaga, when tribes converge from across the southern Sinai.
Anywhere from 60 to 100 camels race 12.6 miles, while honking jeeps and fellow dromedaries race alongside to cheer on their favorite mounts. The barbecue and party the night before rivals the post-race celebration.
Nuweiba, long a popular ferry departure point for Muslim pilgrims en route to Mecca, is now aiming at more of a resort and diving village atmosphere. The nicest top-end hotel option is the beachfront Hilton Coral Resort, which can arrange any of your Bedouin fantasies.
More than 3,000 years ago, on the 34th anniversary of his reign, the never modest Pharaoh Ramses II ordered the colossal Sun Temple of Abu Simbel to be carved into the side of a cliff—with four 65-foot-high seated statues of himself as a young pharaoh on the exterior and an equally awesome interior.
The immense monument took an unknown number of men thirty-six years to complete. In the 1960s an ingenious UNESCO rescue operation saved this and twenty-two other temples from being submerged forever when a high dam was built at Aswan.
The $40 million effort entailed moving and rebuilding both the temple and the statues on higher ground. Engineers even aligned the relocated temple to reproduce a semiannual phenomenon on February 22 and October 22, thought to be the anniversaries of Ramses’s birth and coronation: When the first rays of the sun reach 180 feet deep into the temple’s sanctuary, they illuminate murals of the deified pharaoh and his fellow gods.
The result of the Aswan High Dam is Lake Nasser, or the “Nubian Sea”—the largest freshwater man-made lake in the world. Long unvisited and forgotten, it was a blind spot on the Egyptian map for decades. But the first cruise ship (and still without question the handsomest) parted the waters for tourists on this 300-mile-long lake in 1990: the fifty- four-cabin M.S. Eugenie, a faux steamboat appointed in homage to the opulent comfort enjoyed by wealthy, fin-de-siecle Egyptophiles.
While the majority of foreign cruise passengers today sail north on the Nile from Aswan to crowded Luxor and its legendary sites, travelers heading south to Lake Nasser on the M.S. Eugenie may feel they have the lake’s temple- dotted shores almost to themselves.
The empty desert beyond is like a moonscape, its wind-hewn natural pyramids and bluffs a quiet source of fascination. The steamboat was named after the French empress who opened the Suez Canal in 1869; the Eugenie’s piece de resistance is the Imperial Suite, six times the size of the average spacious cabin. It would have pleased Her Majesty, indeed.
Toward the south of Egypt, near the Sudanese border, the Nile becomes increasingly dramatic; the desert closes in and palm-studded islands and elephantine granite boulders lend a natural beauty and sense of occasion to Egypt’s (and once the Roman Empires) southernmost town.
Since time immemorial, Aswan’s position at the crossroads of important caravan routes gave its markets a flourishing trade in gold, slaves, and ivory. The souk still brims with spices, perfumes, and produce; it’s Egypt’s most evocative and colorful marketplace after Cairo’s.
Aswan has long been a favored winter destination for foreigners, a restful yet exciting town, where idleness and sightseeing mingle effortlessly. Sail into antiquity aboard a traditional felucca in the late afternoon, or arrange a five-day float downstream to Luxor.
Or book into Aswan’s Old Cataract Hotel, on a picturesque bend in the Nile. Agatha Christie was so captivated by this timeless scenario that she staged and wrote much of Death on the Nile here. When the movie adaptation was filmed, the Old Cataract Hotel was given a plum part. Everything about it suggests a marriage of Edwardian and Oriental elegance, a magical ambience that lured Aga Khan III to honeymoon here and return regularly. He even chose to be buried in Aswan, and his simple mausoleum, one of the town’s most-visited sites, can be seen from some of the guest rooms.
While any of the refurbished rooms in the original wing will do, the individualistic suites have added drama and history. Agatha Christie’s favorite suite has a small balcony from which she could watch the sunset in privacy and retreat to a small writing room at will to pen her Nile romances. And speaking of Nile romances, the Suite of a Thousand and One Nights (now known as the Winston Churchill Suite) will make you want to stay at least that long, or maybe longer.