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.
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.
Mexican and international artists and writers are drawn 6,200 feet above sea level to the mountaintop town of San Miguel de Allende by the glory of its Old Mexico charm and the purity of its seductive light. Among its many attributes are restored mansions of noble families, 18th-century churches, the always lively laurel tree-shaded El Jardin square, outdoor cafes, and excellent restaurants.
In addition, a still-active and centuries-old trade in traditional Mexican artisanship helps make San Miguel a vigorous cultural center. Founded in 1542 by wealthy Spanish cattle barons and retaining an aura of prosperity that came later from the Guanajuato region’s lucrative silver mines, this casual but sophisticated town draws a mix of well-heeled Mexico City weekenders, intelligentsia, international tourists, and a growing community of American residents.
Much of its fame has been secured by the long-term success of the Casa de Sierra Nevada, San Miguel’s most refined hotel (and one of Mexico’s finest inns). Built in 1580 and transformed into the sumptuous home of the Archbishop of Guanajuato in the late 1700s, it is comprised of seven colonial-era manor houses.
A welcoming staff gives new meaning to the expression “Mi casa es su casa.” Each distinctive suite has its own personality and decor: Some have wood burning fireplaces and their own courtyard patio or private garden, while many enjoy full views from the unique mountaintop vantage point for which San Miguel is known.
A crowning achievement of Greek civilization’s golden age, the astonishingly sophisticated Doric temple known as the Parthenon is the largest such structure built in Greece, and it has crowned the loftiest point of the city horizon (acropolis means “upper town”) since the 5th century R.C.
Dedicated to the patron goddess of the city, Athena Paithenos (Virgin Athena), it was originally so vividly painted (like all the other buildings on the Acropolis) that an alarmed Plutarch complained, “We are gilding and adorning our city like a wanton woman.”
Today it shimmers golden white in the sunlight, evidence of its subsequent incarnations as Byzantine church, Frankish cathedral, and Ottoman mosque lost to history. Save the museum for last and see, among other superb statues, four of the original Caryatids, or maidens, formerly serving as columns, and the marble friezes that Lord Elgin did not manage to take back to England.
Greece’s primary artistic event, the summertime Athens Festival, presents ancient dramas, operas, music, and ballet performed by local and internationally acclaimed artists. The 2nd-century Odeon of Herod Atticus on the south slope of the Acropolis has legendary acoustics.
The 14th-century poet Petrarch thought Cologne’s twin-towered Dom one of the finest cathedrals in the world. Take a 509-step hike to the windswept gallery high in the 515-foot south tower and you have climbed the highest church tower in the world, in its day the tallest manmade construction of any kind.
It took more than 600 years to complete the Dom. Construction was begun over some Roman ruins after Frederick Barbarossa donated the relics of the Three Magi to Cologne, establishing the city as a major pilgrimage destination. They are still on display in their original 12th-century reliquary behind the high altar, which itself dates back to the early 14th century.
Head into the far more distant past at the nearby Germano-Roman Museum, just south of the Dom. While building an underground air-raid shelter in 1941, workers unearthed ancient Roman foundations, including a perfectly preserved mosaic floor from a Roman trader’s villa.
Once you surface, you can head back to the future at the Wallraf-Richartz Museum and the Museum Ludwig, on the other side of the Dom. Housed in a huge art complex, the Wallraf-Richartz contains paint ings from the 14th to the 20th centuries. The Ludwig is devoted exclusively to 20th-century art, its collection rivaled only by that of New York’s Guggenheim. In effect, you can view 2,000 years of Western art and architecture without leaving the shadow of the cathedral.
At the end of the day, put your feet up at the Dom Hotel, nestled up against the great Gothic cathedral. The Dom Hotel proudly offers suave, old-fashioned, but friendly service that few hotels even aspire to anymore, with an almost one-to-one ratio of staff to indulged hotel guests.
Deluxe rooms face the Dom Platz and have an angled view of the cathedral, which may also be admired from the glass-enclosed Atelier am Dom, the hotel’s see-and-be-seen outdoor cafe. A view like that calls for a glass of the popular Kolsch beer, a light, clear local brew. Then you have an appointment with Petersglocke, the world’s largest church bell, which tips the scales at 24 tons. When it rings out the hour, you’ll know.
Built during the city’s 18th-century glory period, destroyed—like 80 percent of the city—in 1945 by one of WW IPs most savage air raids, meticulously recreated in the late 1950s, and barely escaping the ravaging floods of the summer of 2002, the Zwinger remains Dresden’s—and one of Germany’s— most famous Baroque buildings.
The fabulous artwork that hangs in the museums found within the Zwinger Palace’s complex of buildings was removed for safekeeping at the beginning of the war, hidden in the Soviet Union, and eventually returned to Dresden when still under Communist rule.
The aptly named August the Strong (1694-1733), elector-king of Saxony, borrowed from brimming coffers to create this voluptuous pleasure palace and then filled it with such a remarkable art collection of old masters that art historians compare 18th-century Dresden to Florence or Venice, and even today it is considered one of Europe’s most important art scenes.
The Zwinger’s showpiece museum is its Gemaldegalerie Alte Meister, awash with old masters: Raphael’s Sistine Madonna, Giorgione’s Sleeping Venus, and Titian’s Tribute Money are just a few. The Zwinger’s Rustkammer (arms room) is a stunning collection of ornamental armor and weaponry, while the famous Porzellansammlung is the world’s most significant porcelain collection.
Before August the Strong began to collect great artwork, he collected women, and is known for his bevy of some 300 concubines. Perhaps the most famous was Cosel, and the august ruler commissioned E. M. Poppelman, daring architect of the Zwinger, to build her the Taschenbergpalais.
This great Baroque love nest (that could easily have accommodated his 299 former love interests as well) was also demolished by the saturation firebombing of 1945, although its smoldering shell was left standing. Countless deutschemarks later, the phoenixlike Kempinski Hotel Tasehenbergpalais has risen on the spot, surely the most romantic and luxe hostelry in the area.
In downtown Berlin today, it’s hard to tell just where the demolished Berlin Wall once stood. But the Brandenburg Gate (Brandenburger Tor) still stands. Conceived in 1791 as a triumphal arch to celebrate a Prussian victory and, ironically, as a “Gate of Peace,” it was incorporated into the wall when it was built in 1961 at the height of the Cold War.
The gate is an emotive icon of the country’s reunification, and it still elicits a frisson of excitement and unease. Tourist vendors around town continue to sell what they claim are chunks of the infamous wall. Once measuring 29 miles long and 13 feet high, with barbed-wire extensions that stretched across the countryside as a tangible Iron Curtain, large protected sections of die Mauer have been left standing in Berlin, designated as “historic landmarks.”
Before the wall came down, the Brandenburg Gate was within the eastern sector in a grim no-man’s- land. Walk through its majestic arch today and you are in the former East Berlin, for forty-one years the Communist capital of the German Democratic Republic. This area was formerly the proud showpiece of Hohenzollern Berlin, and is again drawing visitors as the site of the city’s most imposing monuments, which somehow escaped destruction.
East of the gate rolls Unter den Linden (Under the Linden Trees), once the main east-west axis and one of the city’s grandest boulevards. Revitalized, it is again the site of many embassies (relocated from Bonn) and renewed pulse point of the restored capital.
The quietly plush and superbly located Adlon Hotel was destroyed by the Soviets in 1945 and rebuilt in 1997. Its marble lobby, with the original grand staircase intact, shines with prewar glory and hums with top-flight service.
The setting of the 1932 classic Grand Hotel was modeled after the Adlon Hotel; in a scene from that film, the divine Garbo first uttered “I vant to be alone.” The Presidential Suite promises a view of the awe-inspiring Brandenburg Gate.
Turn back the clock and follow in the tracks of Germany’s eccentric Ludwig II along the “King’s Road” in a horse-drawn coach. Authentic 19th- century carriages hold up to nine passengers, who often choose to ride on leather-covered seats behind the uniformed coachman.
The spectacular, unspoiled beauty of the Bavarian meadows, dense woodlands, mountains, and crystal-blue lakes is enhanced by the sound of cowbells and horses’ hooves. Forgotten coach roads are practically traffic-free and lead you at a leisurely pace past isolated rural villages, historic gasthof inns, and country churches with onion-shaped domes, to the Mad King’s flamboyant Neuschwanstein Castle and its fairy-tale alpine setting.
Neuschwanstein was one of three castles created by Ludwig, and by far his most ambitious and theatrical extravagance. Set on an isolated rock ledge amid heart-stopping scenery, it is the turreted prototype that inspired the castle in Sleeping Beauty and later at Disneyland.
An expert at turning his will and whimsy into reality, Ludwig called upon the royal court’s set designer rather than an architect for the creation of Neuschwanstein. (You can also visit the nearby castle of Hohenschwangau, where Ludwig lived while overseeing the work of Neuschwanstein.)
It would take seventeen years and endless royal funds before it was finished—following Ludwig’s mysterious death at age forty, days after he was forced to abdicate for reasons of insanity. Ludwig lived at the castle only 170 days before he died.
People still flock here in the thousands the way they did in the Middle Ages when St. David’s Cathedral was one of the British Isles’ most popular pilgrimage spots. Small by English standards, the medieval cathedral dedicated to Wales’s patron saint is the largest in the country, overwhelming what is officially Britain’s smallest city (the presence of a cathedral designates the village as a city despite its size). St. David founded a monastic community in this coastal comer of southwestern Wales around A.D. 550 that grew to great importance.
The cathedral, begun in the 12th century, is believed to stand on that site, flanked by the once magnificent Bishop’s Palace; then boasting lavish apartments, it now sits quietly in glorious ruins. Together they constitute Wales’s most sacred site, and one of its most visually evocative—the setting is a remote and tranquil part of the valley of the River Alun barely inland from the coast whose jagged terrain protected it from marauding pirates. A number of ecclesiastical buildings grew up in the shadow of the centerpiece cathedral. Dating back to 1860, the Choir School is one of the more recent, and is the site of today’s Warpool Court Hotel, whose manicured lawns lead down to the Irish Sea.
It is all part of the 250 miles of unspoiled coastline whose inlets, coves, and huddled bays make up the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park, one of three national parks that cover Wales’s most scenic landscape and the only one in Britain to include its balmy coastline. Its 182 miles of marked serpentine footpaths provide excellent walks in the company of wildflowers and seabirds.
Stonehenge can still be the magical, mystical, mysterious kind of place it was probably meant to be—but only if you catch it between tour bus caravans. No one knows who built Stonehenge or why (far-fetched theories credit aliens from outer space, King Arthur, Merlin and the ancient people of Atlantis) although it is pretty certain this stunning collection of artfully placed rocks was used for rituals or ceremonies pertaining to the sun.
The massive trilithons—two upright stones with a cross lintel on top—were assembled some 4,000 years ago. Some of the standing stones weigh up to 50 tons—it is estimated that to drag each one into position took over 1,000 men. Scholars disagree about where the stones came from (some say southern Wales) and how they got to the windswept Salisbury Plain. In the 17th century, the widely held view that the circle was somehow connected to the Celtic druids took hold and has never died, even though it has since been proven that the site predates the Iron Age priestly cult by at least 1,500 years and probably more.
Researchers believe the stones were to be put together in three distinct stages (two of which were never completed), in alignments made possible by sophisticated builders with a knowledge of astronomy, mathematics, and engineering unparalleled anywhere in Europe at that time. It was probably intended as a solar or lunar calendar, among other things; today, thousands gravitate here for the summer solstice.