Luxor, no longer a luxury
The city that is the cradle of civilisation is now a no-frills flight destination. Simon Calder enjoys this Nile gem that offers culture and pleasure in equal measure
Wednesday 27 October 2010
Gatwick's longest no-frills flight begins next week. The destination, five hours away, of the easyJet plane is the city on the Nile that combines an astonishing amount of history with a laid-back vibe and clear blue November skies.
About 400 miles south of Cairo, Luxor exists because of one reason: the Nile, the great river of Africa that, even here, is a half-mile across. This was the ancient city of Thebes. It brought agriculture and civilization to Egypt at a time when the English were still working on piles of stones in Wiltshire.
"Royal Thebes, Egyptian treasure house of countless wealth, who boasts her hundred gates/ Through each of which, with horse and car, two hundred warriors march." Homer, The Iliad.
"I love history and your country is full of it. Brazil is only 508 years old and we don't have history to tell. Please, preserve your history for the humanity." "Wishmasterrr", reviewing Luxor on TripAdvisor.
On the cheap?
You can buy a flight on easyJet (0905 821 0905; www.easyjet.com) for £267 return in November. Add a stay at the Domina Inn Emilio (00 20 95 237 6666), which next month will cost around £20 for a double, including a modest breakfast, and you can have a week for two for a total of £675. The hotel might not be anything special, but the staff are friendly and there's a rooftop pool and bar from which you will delight in a spectacular view of the temple of Luxor.
A cut above?
Thomson has charter flights every Wednesday from Gatwick, with a range of hotels on offer as part of one-week packages. At the time of going to press, a departure on 17 November with B&B accommodation at the Sheraton Luxor Resort cost £1,350 for two. The pool at this hotel overlooks the Nile, and the grounds are pleasant, but it is 2km from the centre with only infrequent shuttle buses to town ( thomson.co.uk).
For bliss on the Nile, fly out from Heathrow on a scheduled Egyptair flight to Luxor and stay at the five-star Sofitel Winter Palace, a hotel with ambience straight out of the golden age of travel – or an Agatha Christie novel. Its gracious rooms and gorgeous gardens are carefully protected against curious tourists staying in cheaper digs. For £2,499 for two, Expedia will throw in a buffet breakfast ( expedia.co.uk).
Ignore the good-natured invocations from traders in the small, modern souk, and instead peel back the millennia. Get to the temple of Luxor as early as you can (it opens at 6am), to evade the crowds and the fury of the sun. Enjoy a first glimpse of this sacred masterpiece (and come back later, with the same ticket, for the night-time illuminated version). Be amazed by the Avenue of the Sphinxes. The ranks of stone felines that you can see comprise just a tiny part of the whole thoroughfare: archaeologists have long known about the avenue, flanked by beautiful stone creations, each of them different. But only recently has the sheer scale of this ancient creation become apparent. It stretches all the way to the Temple of Karnak, about two miles away, providing Luxor with a pathway to the past.
Once the temperature and visitor numbers rise, escape into the cool of the Luxor Museum; unlike the main museum in Cairo, this is a modern, sophisticated collection of the archaeological wonders.
Day to remember?
Take the municipal ferry from the east bank to the west, and pause for a drink while one of you negotiates with the guides who will doubtless make themselves available. You'll need a guide and driver, because of the distances involved and the insights that a good local expert can provide. I paid around £50 for a group of six for a four-hour stint, not including admission fees (the guide will explain the complicated ticketing system).
The first essential is the Valley of the Kings, a surprisingly bare, scruffy hillside that just happens to be the necropolis for the masters of the known universe 4,000 years ago. Whichever tomb you choose to visit (many are sporadically closed), the sense of time travel has never been more intense.
For a bit of modern (or at least 19th-century) context, insist on a visit to Howard Carter's house – where the Egyptologist stayed while searching for Tutankhamun's tomb. It does a good impression of being a dusty old museum telling a dry story of this remarkable dig, but there are rumours that a café is soon to open.
Make your last stop of the day the Temple of Hatshepsut, a place of terraced grandeur despite the imposition of a coach park and tourist tat. Then time your run to the ferry to coincide with sunset, when the feluccas are sailing on the evening breeze.
You will either feel energised or exhausted by Luxor's feast of history, but to witness the marvels of the past on a stupendous scale save the Temple of Karnak till last. One of the many chambers – probably the hypostyle hall, a forest of ancient stone columns – may strike you as the most astonishing room you have ever seen.
Besides the audacious architecture, there is art in abundance. This is a city where the past is constantly with you; rarely is history so accessible – and powerful.
What Google will tell you
"There remains a risk of indiscriminate attacks including places frequented by expatriates and foreign travellers, such as hotels and restaurants. Security authorities may insist on escorting you in some areas. We recommend that you carry photo identification and co-operate fully with officials." (Foreign Office).
What Google will not tell you – until today
The best elevated view of the Temple of Luxor is from the upstairs dining area of the branch of McDonald's on the south side of the site. The ice cream is both delicious and safe to eat.
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