The trials of the early Nineties are over; the tourists are back. And Luxor is still a fascinating destination. By Chris Caldicott
Without the ruins, Luxor would be a provincial agricultural town of little importance. Foreigners have travelled down the Nile valley for centuries to excavate, study, rob and admire Egypt's Pharaonic ruins. The greatest concentration of these are around Luxor. But, recently, the place had a taste of relative anonymity. In the first half of the Nineties, regional instability caused by the Gulf War, Islamic militants inside Egypt deliberately shooting tourists, and economic recession in Europe, combined to starve Egypt of tourism. Cairo and Aswan are cities large and diverse enough to carry on much as usual without tourists. For Luxor the effect was serious.

Anyone who did visit Luxor during those difficult years was rewarded with a warm welcome, feeling genuinely appreciated as a cafe customer, passenger on a felucca or horse and carriage, or hotel guest. The Pharaonic temples and tombs were quiet and cost only a couple of pounds to visit. Sailing down the Nile was a truly romantic experience; Luxor was a pleasant destination for a week of winter sun.

But now it is definitely back in the business of mass tourism. The Egyptian authorities have been quick to cash in on the boom. Entrance fees have doubled at most of the sites. The tomb of Nefertiti in the Valley of the Queens costs pounds 20 per person for a 10-minute glimpse; Tutankhamun's in the Valley of the Kings costs pounds 8 per person, the Temples of Karnak and Luxor pounds 4 each. With dozens of sites to visit, sightseeing can quickly become expensive.

Even at these prices, the magnificence and drama of the ruins cannot be diminished. To get as good value as possible at each site, a dawn start is essential. Hiring a taxi for the morning is the quickest and most comfortable way of travelling; a bicycle is more fun and considerably cheaper. Boneshakers hired in the back streets around Luxor station can cost as little as 60p a day. Bits and pieces fall off these with alarming regularity. The boys in the hire shops seem unsurprised to receive a bike back in several component parts. The best-looking bikes, from the Hotel Mercury, cost 40p an hour. Donkeys are another way of exploring the West Bank, the main (possibly the only) advantage of doing it this way being the chance to avoid roads.

The most famous sites may well be the most impressive, but there are some gems among the lesser ones, too. At Dier el Medina a badly ruined temple stands in romantic isolation on the edge of the desert, and below it are the excellent tombs of the Artisans. Beyond obscure entrances, tiny, narrow passageways lead to almost undamaged tombs with paintings in vivid colours.

The Egyptian authorities are not the only ones keen to cash in on the tourist boom. At every site the men employed as caretakers to the antiquities have always been eager to show tourists "secret" places and hidden details in the hope of a tip. The rules are being quite openly bent in their favour these days. At the Valley of the Kings, the men who guard the tomb entrances willingly forget to tear the entrance tickets for a small consideration, allowing repeated use of one ticket. For a rather larger bribe, they allow flash photography inside the tombs, which, according to the notices forbidding it, damages the fragile paintings. A common trick at temples is to erect makeshift barriers to passageways and rooms; with theatrical displays of furtive conspiracy these are removed, and demands for baksheesh are quick to follow.

The cruise boats may offer an escape from these negative sides of Luxor, where most trips begin and end. Some are better than others; the worst scenario offers over-priced, dull food and incompatible fellow passengers, but many people do have a successful cruise, enjoying the cuisine and making friends. The boats tend not to feature many traditional Egyptian dishes,and nor do the hotels on shore, preferring expensive, theme-night buffets. The streets of Luxor offer little alternative. There are a few half-hearted tourist restaurants where overcharging is routine and the food average. Genuinely local places are incredibly scruffy and not very welcoming. In contrast, Aswan is home to some fine restaurants along the Nile that offer good food at good prices, enjoyed as much by Egyptians as by tourists.

The exception to the dilapidation of Luxor and the sterility of the chain hotels is the magnificent Old Winter Palace Hotel. This is an oasis of style, elegance and calm, right on the Corniche overlooking the Nile. The rooms are all pleasant: those with a Nile view and private balcony are the best; the rooms at the back overlooking the extensive, tranquil gardens are bigger. A stay here, some dawn visits to the West Bank treasures and Karnak; a few trips out of town to places such as the wonderfully preserved Temple of Hathor complex at Dendara, well off the main tourist circuit, and Luxor is still a perfectly reasonable base for a week's holidayn

Luxor essentials

How to get there Numerous firms operate package holidays to Luxor and the Nile, including Somak (0181-423 3000), Thomson (0990 502399) and Voyages Jules Verne (0171-616 1000).

Who to ask The Egyptian State Tourist Office is at Third Floor, Egyptian House, 170 Piccadilly, London W1V 9DD (0171-493 5282). British citizens require a visa, issued by the Visa Section of the Consulate-General at 2 Lowndes Street, London SW1X 9ET (0171-235 9777). You need a passport, a photograph and pounds 15.

What to read The latest edition of Lonely Planet's Egypt was published last November and costs pounds 11.99.

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