For decades, the Nile Valley was a classic destination for American travelers. If you had the means, it was a place you simply had to see. Even though the crowds at the pyramids might have been oppressive, the structures themselves were still astounding. The Great Pyramid of Khufu was the tallest man-made structure on earth for nearly 4,000 years (in fact until the completion of Lincoln Cathedral in England in 1311). And ancient Egyptian civilization was incomparable: From the founder of the First Dynasty, Narmer, to the death in 343 B.C. of Nectanebo II, the last pharaoh of the Thirtieth Dynasty, it endured, astonishingly, for some 2,750 years.
Eventually, memories begin to fade, and the first six months of 2018 saw an increase in visitor numbers of 41 percent over the same period in 2017.
However, as a result of the Arab Spring in 2011 and the ensuing revolution and counterrevolution, the number of American visitors declined dramatically. Whatever the reality, Egypt was perceived as a hazardous place in which to travel. One of the first serious attacks on Western visitors had occurred in November 1997. An Islamist organization killed 58 tourists and four Egyptians near Luxor, in an attempt to undermine the economy and destabilize the government. After a brief hiatus, visitors returned. But the effects of more-recent events have proved long-lasting.
Eventually, memories begin to fade, and the first six months of 2018 saw an increase in visitor numbers of 41 percent over the same period in 2017. At the end of last year, we went back to the classic sites of the Nile Valley — in Cairo, Luxor and Aswan — to assess the situation for ourselves. At the time of writing this, February, the advice from the State Department is for Americans to avoid all travel in both the Sinai Peninsula and Egypt’s Western Desert, and the Travel Advisory is set at “Level 2: Exercise Increased Caution.”
As well as taking the temperature of the country, the purpose of our trip was to try to find some smaller hideaway hotels that might be recommendable. Most American visitors to Cairo, for example, stay in a large chain hotel downtown, notably at one of the two Four Seasons properties or at the Nile Ritz-Carlton on Tahrir Square. On this occasion, therefore, we made a reservation at Villa Belle Époque, located in the riverside suburb of Maadi, eight miles from the city center (25 minutes by car, depending on the traffic). Developed at the beginning of the last century, Maadi is nowadays home to more than a dozen embassies, a community of Western expatriates and wealthy Cairenes, whose residences are surrounded by sprawling gardens, filled with lemon, mango and guava trees.
Our first impression of the hotel was positive. A handsome 1920s mansion, it is set amid a sizable garden that contains a swimming pool, an outdoor dining area and several quiet patios. The atmosphere was peaceful, and there was no sound from Cairo’s chaotic and cacophonous traffic. The public areas of the villa have classical proportions, polished wide-plank wooden floors, fireplaces, antique furniture and an unusual art collection. Overall, the place seemed like a civilized and enviable private home. True, the man at reception was slightly disorganized, but he was friendly enough and we were prepared to overlook the paper shuffling at check-in.
The Villa comprises 13 accommodations, each of which is individually decorated. We were shown up a narrow staircase to Rosetta, which was spacious and tranquil but came with assertive floral wallpaper and a matching bedspread. The bath proved to be small and old-fashioned, with a single vanity. We were just deciding whether or not we would inquire about availability elsewhere in the hotel when the air-conditioning in the next-door room kicked in with noise that sounded like an elderly car in dire need of an oil change.
The receptionist didn’t seem especially surprised to see us when we returned to the lobby. He duly showed us to Fayoum, an alternative room on the ground floor. As well as featuring a comfortable, traditionally furnished bedroom, this space came with a small conservatory, which provided direct access to the garden. Once again, however, our nemesis was the air-conditioning. In the middle of the night, we were awakened by the sound of mice scurrying about in the air ducts overhead — indeed, judging by the noise, they seemed to be participating in the mouse equivalent of a Formula One grand prix — and nothing I tried would persuade them to desist. I set the air-conditioning as low as possible with the fan on maximum, and when this had no effect, I turned the heating as high as it would go. Eventually, there was nothing to do except rely on earplugs, which likewise proved ineffective.
It would be futile to enumerate all of the hotel’s failings — although the rocklike fruit at breakfast and the Wi-Fi that worked reliably only in the lobby perhaps deserve a brief mention — were it not for the fact that Villa Belle Époque is a lovely place in many ways and could be idyllic with sufficient investment and competent management.
Atmospheric and tranquil public areas with lovely old furniture and a striking art collection; the pretty garden.
Small, old-fashioned baths; noisy air-conditioning; poor Wi-Fi.
Alas, this seems to be the only boutique alternative to the large chain hotels in downtown Cairo.
During our stay in Cairo, we visited most of the principal sites, including the incomparable Egyptian Museum, which is scheduled to relocate to an enormous new structure in Giza, close to the pyramids and the Sphinx, sometime in 2020. (Giza is the third-largest city in Egypt, with a population of more than 8 million, but it is also a continuation of the Cairo metropolitan area on the west bank of the Nile.) On the Giza Plateau, we clambered up the passageway inside the Great Pyramid of Khufu and found our way to the King’s Chamber with its 4,500-year-old sarcophagus.
At both the museum and the entrance to the pyramids complex we were obliged to go through airport-style security and have our camera bags scanned. But the throngs of visitors seemed to overwhelm the personnel, who went about their assigned tasks with minimal diligence and an air of resignation. Police with automatic weapons were much in evidence, but in neither place did we feel any particular threat. (This made it all the more disturbing to learn of an attack on a tourist bus in Giza on December 28, five weeks after our return to the United States, in which three Vietnamese tourists and an Egyptian guide were killed.) We also went into Old Cairo, which contains many of the city’s most famous mosques and madrassas as well as the Khan el-Khalili, the famous medieval bazaar. Walking along the narrow, crowded streets, we were by no means the only Westerners and the atmosphere seemed relaxed.
From Cairo, it is a one-hour flight to Luxor (ancient Thebes), a city of 500,000 inhabitants on the east bank of the Nile, which has been described as the world’s greatest open-air museum. Luxor Temple was constructed in approximately 1400 B.C., while the vast Karnak temple complex to which it was once connected by an avenue began during the reign of Pharaoh Senusret I, who ruled from 1971 B.C. to 1926 B.C. At Luxor, the Nile flows directly north to south, so the sun sets opposite the city. The west bank of the Nile, therefore, became identified as the land of the dead, and hence an appropriate place to build the legendary necropolis today known as the Valley of the Kings.
For many visitors, Luxor is a place where they board a cruise boat for a three- to four-day voyage upstream to Aswan. (Many of the vessels have lain idle for several years due to a lack of customers, but my guide estimated that about 60 percent of the fleet is now back up and running.) Affluent American travelers who choose to linger in the city generally stay at the Sofitel Winter Palace Luxor, where the 92 rooms and suites are divided between the 19th-century hotel overlooking the Nile and a modern structure on the far side of a large and colorful garden. Rooms in the higher categories are well-furnished, and those in the old building are atmospheric. The new annex is functional and unremarkable. Although the Winter Palace has residual glamour — in 1922 Howard Carter announced the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamen from the main staircase in the lobby — it is a property that appears to require increased investment. For example, some of the furnishings seem in need of replacement, and the paths through the garden are cracked and uneven in places.
On this trip, we decided to try a boutique hotel on the west bank of the Nile, located a 30-minute drive from the center of Luxor. The 54-room Al Moudira was the dream project of Lebanese photographer and jewelry designer Zeina Aboukheir, who moved to Egypt after a spell in Tuscany. Her intention was to create an Arabian Nights fantasy of pavilions, cupolas, patios, loggias and fountains, all surrounded by 20 acres of gardens.
The property is set back from a dusty road in an agricultural area dotted with small villages. Initially, I was unimpressed by my surroundings, but once through an imposing archway and inside the hotel complex, I was agreeably surprised to discover a calm, self-contained world of considerable refinement. Despite having been completed in 2002, Al Moudira looks as though it has existed for centuries. Our spacious and atmospheric air-conditioned suite came with a four-poster bed, hand-painted murals, a large sitting area, shuttered windows and a screened outdoor terrace. As well as a bath with a tub, there was a separate shower room. Striped Egyptian-cotton bathrobes provided a stylish touch.
An excellent breakfast featuring both Egyptian and European breads with local honey and preserves, plus fresh fruit juices, cheeses and eggs, is served on a sunny terrace overlooking the gardens. And each evening the chef offers an excellent dinner menu of Levantine and Middle Eastern cuisine, which is presented in the central dining courtyard. Amenities include hammams and a large swimming pool surrounded by date palms. Overall, my stay at Al Moudira was comfortable and enjoyable, and the staff were consistently pleasant and helpful. However, it is the sort of place that will appeal only to experienced and worldly travelers who are looking for somewhere that is idiosyncratic with a strong sense of place.
Romantic Arabian Nights architecture; refined and imaginative décor; comfortable and atmospheric accommodations; the peaceful and colorful gardens; the large and attractive swimming pool.
The hotel feels somewhat isolated, and the surrounding agricultural area is uninspiring.
The restaurants of downtown Luxor are a 30-minute drive away.
The nearby Valley of the Kings was the principal burial place of the major royal figures of the New Kingdom, a period of Egyptian history that lasted between the 16th and 11th centuries B.C. A sun-scorched desert wadi, overlooked by crags and a pyramid-shaped mountain, Al-Qurn, it contains 63 tombs, all of which — with the exception of Tutankhamen’s — were robbed in antiquity. (Rumors abound that other unopened tombs await discovery by modern ground-scanning equipment.) Their chief glory today is the brightly colored hieroglyphic decoration of the walls and ceilings, much of it perfectly preserved by the almost complete lack of humidity. Some of the tombs are much more dramatic than others, and the best ones, like that of Ramses III, require a supplementary charge. (Tutankhamen’s tomb, as opposed to the treasures that were found within it, is comparatively dull.) The most spectacular royal tomb of all, however, is that of Nefertari, the wife of the great pharaoh Ramses II, which is located in the nearby Valley of the Queens. Not for nothing is it referred to as the “Sistine Chapel of Ancient Egypt.”
As at Giza, the principal sites near Luxor require visitors to pass through airport-style security systems, and there are numerous armed police in evidence. But the crowds of visitors, including many Americans, were cheerful and relaxed. Things were rather different on the road between Luxor and Aswan. As I did not have the time to take a boat, and there were no flights, I hired a car with a driver for the five-hour, 142-mile drive. This is definitely not an experience I recommend. The road is narrow, the surface is poor, the standard of driving is erratic and the military and police presence is almost ubiquitous, with watchtowers, steel barriers and roadblocks.
It was therefore a relief to arrive in Aswan, an ancient and lovely city traditionally regarded as the southern gateway to Egypt, situated at the First Cataract (whitewater) on the east bank of the Nile, approximately 750 miles from the Mediterranean. Aswan provides a base for travelers to visit the great temples of Philae and Abu Simbel, but its clear skies, benign winter climate, exquisite scenery and fascinating river life also make it a delightful place in which to relax.
The city has no recommendable boutique hotels, so we opted to stay at the Sofitel Legend Old Cataract Aswan, the old Palace Wing of which was built in 1899, perched above the Nile with a view across to Elephantine Island and the crumbling remains of a temple. A modern tower, the New Cataract, was added in 1961, which was intended for more-budget-conscious travelers, but during a restoration of the property between 2008 and 2011, the two structures were combined into a single luxury hotel.
The security precautions at the Old Cataract were the most thorough that we encountered at a hotel on our entire trip, with an extensively equipped reception area located 100 yards from the main entrance. No cars are allowed onto the grounds. Once inside, the hotel is an oasis of calm set amid manicured gardens. Public areas of the Palace Wing are wonderfully atmospheric, with Arabic arches and carved wooden mashrabiya screens. The bar was long a favorite of Winston Churchill, who liked to winter here, while I would gladly have lunch on The Terrace every day for a month, in order to watch the supremely graceful feluccas (traditional wooden sailing boats with lateen sails) sliding across the glassy dark-blue water of the Nile.
We found that we had been upgraded to a suite (No. 1224) in the Palace Wing, and it proved to be one of the truly great hotel rooms of the world. Not only was it supremely comfortable and well-appointed, it was set on a corner of the building, with a view across to Elephantine Island from a small private balcony and a second view down the Nile to the city of Aswan from the shuttered windows of the bath. Over the years, I have stayed in a number of rooms where I felt inclined, budget permitting, to take up permanent residence. And this was one of them.
Exceptionally comfortable and atmospheric accommodations; lounging in a wicker chair on The Terrace watching the feluccas; the incomparable view across the Nile to Elephantine Island.
The hotel’s modern Nile Wing would not win any architecture prizes.
The son et lumière show at the Temple of Philae is definitely worth the effort.
Surrounded by the Nubian Desert, Aswan seems a world away from the political and religious conflicts of the Middle East. Indeed, sub-Saharan Africa feels relatively close here, and Lake Nasser, created by the construction of the Aswan High Dam in the 1960s, stretches south from the city’s outskirts for 230 miles to the northern border of Sudan. The Egyptian government is clearly desperate to protect its tourist industry, along with the employment and foreign currency that it provides. Statistically, the risks to American travelers in Egypt are minimal. But, alas, such slight threats do exist. Personally, I would not hesitate to return.