A Luxor Adventure
by Seif Kamel
It was about 8:30 in the evening when I took a cab to the Ramses Train Station in Cairo, or to the Misr Station as most Egyptians prefer to call it. One can travel to most areas of Egypt from Ramses Square. I had a ticket in the sleeper car in the train going to Luxor. After running with my bags around the station, I was able to find my car, and was greeted by an honest, warm man with a big smile who was responsible for my car. He welcomed me, checked the ticket, and asked a young man to take my bag to my cabin in the train.
It was only a narrow, small room with three chairs linked together and I thought, "Am I supposed to sleep on these chairs?" The young man who held my bag saw the question in my eye and told me that the attendant would come and help me turn it into a bed when I needed to sleep. Others more experienced with sleeper cars might not have had a problem, but this was my first time. The room seemed normal at first. However, it turned out to be a very interesting room. It had a small desk that, when opened, had a water tap. It also had electricity that could function for laptops, to charge a camera battery, or even use for an electric shaver, and above it was a small mirror.
There were three types of lighting, for reading, relaxing, and a very dim light to use while sleeping. After having a nice hot dinner, the attendant turned down the bed and in 20 minutes I was fast asleep. I reached Luxor at 4:30 in the morning. I took a cab for five pounds to the national ferry that took me to the West Bank, where I was to stay. The West Bank was, of course, the necropolis for the ancient city of Thebes, and it seemed so at five in the morning. Everything was so calm and somehow a bit scary. There was only one cab and I paid the driver another five pounds to take me to the Amun El Gezeira Hotel where I was supposed to stay.
Most of the hotels and attractions are on the East bank but I chose the West Bank for two reasons. First of all, the hotels on the West Bank are much cheaper and simpler than those on the East side of the Nile. Secondly, the West bank is very quiet at night and I wanted to sleep well because I was sure to have a hectic day in the morning. It did not take me long to fall back to sleep. In the morning, it was very sweet to hear all the birds singing around me in the open terrace of the Amun Hotel, which is a small hotel with less than twenty rooms. However, my room was very clean with a private toilet and air conditioning.
The terrace of the hotel is full of greenery, small palms and trees. The weather was excellent for a winter morning so I was really encouraged to start my adventure of exploring the city of Luxor. When I awoke, I found a town very much unlike a necropolis, as I walked back to the national ferry. There were many kids going to school, many people going to their work, and at least some tourists were also staying on the West Bank. There were at least four or five Oriental cafes that seemed nice, as well as a famous African restaurant that specializes in grilled items.
The national ferry was nothing like last night. It is a two story open air boat that costs 25 piaster to go between the East and West Bank. It doesnt have set schedule. At any time you will find a boat, but they wait until it is full of people before departing. It takes about 20 minutes to get going, but the stay in the sun especially in the winter is fascinating in Luxor, and if one is hungry, there are sandwiches and sweets for sale on board. I also spent fifteen minutes watching the Nile and the many cruises that were full of tourists.
There was a tourist riding a jet ski in the Nile and everybody in the ferry was watching him and making comments. This got me into a little chat with a young child who works as a shoe polisher. He told me that he chose to leave school and work in order to help his family. But suddenly he disappeared toward the front of the boat where an old man and a woman, from the first glance tourists, were sitting. However, in no time I arrived on the East Bank of Luxor (ancient Thebes), the center of the Pharaonic civilization during the New Kingdom and the largest open air museum in the world. I have to admit that I am not really that much into monuments. I visited the Luxor and Karnak temples several times when I was younger, but I was here to find out what else there is to do in Luxor besides antiquity sightseeing.
I began by asking around and the people I met were very helpful. Riding seemed to be the magic answer. To have some fun in the morning or the afternoon in Luxor other than looking at monuments, one had to ride something. Many of the older tourists seem to prefer the traditional Hantoor (horse carriage ride). There are actually, I suppose, too many of them on the East bank, so bargaining is always in order. The Hantoor mostly sit along the Cornish next to the Nile, but people also take them for rides into downtown between the shops, restaurants and cafes. There were three Hantoor full of tourists from Asia and they were racing along the Cornish, which looked like great fun. Perhaps there should be organized Hantoor races in Luxor.
The younger generation seemed to prefer bikes, which is a very nice idea for Luxor, which is not a huge town. There are many places to rent bicycles downtown, where one may rent a bike for an hour or even a whole day at very good prices. Furthermore, there is no fear of having the bike stolen. I saw two Italian couples who left their bikes outside a restaurant and had dinner, and then continued their ride, so it is generally no problem to leave a bike for an hour or so and it will still be there when one returns.
There is a ride that is suitable and fun for all ages. It is the camel or horse riding, especially in the West Bank. I found an animal stable called The Pharos Stable near the Amun hotel in the West bank. They rent camels and horses for 30 pounds an hour with a guide that takes them in a ride around the most important attractions in the West bank. I met and had a talk with the owner of the establishment, Haj Bakr, who told me that this is a family business operated by him and his brother. They own seven horses and ten camels. The tourists come and select their ride, and then relax in the office with tea or coffee until such time that the animal is ready. Most choose camels, and then ride about the West Bank for an hour.
Of course, there are always people walking about, along the Nile and visiting the shops. Others prefer a little water activity, either using motor boats or felucca, the small traditional sail boats. The motor boats cost about 20 pounds and travel up and down the length of the city. If riding something is not your style, another nice, very relaxing experience is a stop at the Old Winter Palace, for a lemonade (a good class of lemonade is a must have in Egypt, and this place serves some of the best) or other drink in surroundings that might take one back to Victorian England. Indeed, it derives its name from the fact that wealthy Europeans once wintered here to escape the harsh climates of their home countries. It has its own history, as one of the oldest hotels in the city, and the place where Howard Carter first posted his famous find of Tutankhamun's tomb.
Many other tourists come to Luxor just to relax in the sun, whether it be at a fine five star hotel or one of the budget facilities. The Movenpick on Crocodile Island is a popular retreat for such people (and they have a nice little zoo for the kids). One can find them lazing about the pool area all day, or perhaps playing a bit of golf at the resort's course. Later that day, back at the Amun Hotel, I found an Australian couple enjoying themselves on the roof terrace. I chatted with them for a while, and asked them why they chose the West Bank rather than one of the big hotels on the East Bank. Rod, the man, told be it had nothing to do with cost. Rather, it was because of the greenery and quietness, and that it felt more like they were living among the Egyptians.
In the evening, tourists who are not visiting the Sound and Light Show turn to clubs, shopping and dining. Many of the hotels in Luxor offer some sort of dinner package for tourists, but there are also a number of good private restaurants outside of hotels. One can certainly find good Oriental food and the chance to eat real Egyptian plates while enjoying a view of the street. Downtown there is a famous restaurant named El Za'eem which serves Koshary (Egyptian pasta), or Om Hashem, a grill well known for its vegetable plates. Hamees is a cafe near the old Luxor Hotel that serves a good variety of food and shisha pipes.
The El Hussein Restaurant is known for Feteer, Egyptian pastries. Along the Nile is Maro Abu Zeid Restaurant and Cafe, where people seem to like to hang out with friends or have a romantic dinner. And then there is always McDonalds, more popular than one might imagine because, not only does it overlook Luxor Temple, but kids sometimes find it a welcome break from their exotic adventures. Shopping is another favorite activity, throughout the day and into the evening, and there are many shops in Luxor. There are, of course, shops all along the Nile, including a few of Tour Egypt's favorites such as Gaddis, where old photos are sold, and the Fair Trade Center. However, there are two main shopping areas.
The first is the normal tourist bazaar, a long corridor with shops on both sides selling souvenirs of all kinds, including statues, silver and gold jewelry, T-shirts, dresses, Bedouin accessories, perfume, pottery, oriental musical instruments, spices and papyrus. Of course, there is also the alabaster, for which Luxor is famous. This is primarily the hand hewn pieces from workshops located on the West Bank.
There is also the Oriental market, perhaps better known as the old market in Luxor, though it is less of a tourist shopping area. It actually has more of the feel of a real Souq, and consists of a really narrow street beginning near the Holy Family Church and ending some three or four kilometers to the north. Here, one mainly finds normal products that a family might need, such as groceries, though there are many spice dealers as well, and some of the best peanuts one can find.
Mostly, here the prices will be better than at the tourist bazaar, but there just simply isn't that many souvenirs. However, it is a fine place to purchase batteries, pharmaceuticals such as aspirin, or even beer. Of course, many people spend the evening in various clubs and bars. All of the major hotels will have clubs and discos, often with live music. The Sheraton is a good example, and usually pretty lively, as is the Novotel Luxor Disco, which stays open from about 11:00 pm until 2 or 3 in the morning. Sometimes there are Oriental bands and at other times, foreign bands playing everything from hip hop to light, classical rock and roll. At all of these one can find both alcoholic and non alcoholic drinks.
At the Mecure Hotel there is the Le Champelion bar, which is small and where there is soft, romantic music. Its a good place to chat with friends, but there is also a disco where every other night there is a belly dancer with an Oriental show. There are also discos at the Movenpick Joie Ville (which has only recently finished massive remodeling), the new Meridien Luxor and the Hilton. Outside of the four and five star hotels, a favorite among many frequent visitors to Luxor is the bar in the basement of the St. Joseph Hotel, where the beer and drinks are a bit less expensive. It gets a good crowd on many nights and is intimate enough that people often get to know one another. One must keep in mind that such bars stay open late, and sometimes cabs are difficult to catch at such hours.
There are also private bars. Some on the West Bank have a tendency to be tourist traps, where the drinks are rather expensive, but on the West Bank the private bars are different. I was recommended to one on the West Bank called Ali Baba, and since I was staying on that side of the river I decided to check it out before heading back to the hotel. It is a real example of a local bar in Luxor, though they only serve Pepsi, beer and shisha pipes.
As I arrived, most of the people were locals, but Mr. Hany, the owner, explained that in the afternoon the place is usually full of tourists as they serve special grilled items. Interestingly, there were mostly waitresses, which is a bit unusual. Other than the antiquities and monuments in Luxor, the whole atmosphere is different than any other city in Egypt. It is first of all a tourist town, catering and making its living from tourists. It is all centered around tourism, perhaps with the exception of the West Bank. It can be a bit overwhelming to the uninitiated, while those who visit more often have a tendency to enjoy the grounds of their hotels or stay on the West Bank. It's nevertheless a great experience, provided one can have a bit of fun while constantly being solicited by merchants and Hantoon drivers.
Last Updated: June 9th, 2011