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Footloose in Aswan

Egyptian Glories on the Upper Nile

February 01, 1987|BEVERLY BEYER and ED RABEY | Beyer and Rabey are Los Angeles travel writers.

ASWAN, Egypt — If you prefer your exotica blended into heady mixtures, this sleepy town is often said to be the end of Egypt and gateway to Africa. Nubian villages dotting the Nile's banks from here south to Sudan's Khartoum, create a marvelous confusion of cultures.

Its importance rose measurably in the 1960s with the construction of the Aswan High Dam, a monumental work that controls the water supply to Egypt's green and fertile Nile Valley, the country's agricultural life line that also prevents the catastrophic kinds of droughts that have wracked Ethiopia.

But Aswan has considerably more going for it than the dam and industry it has attracted. Certainly nobody quibbles with its boast of having the finest winter climate on earth, a fact noted by the Aga Khan when he moved here permanently and chose to be buried in a solid marble mausoleum on the river's west bank.

And Aswan is accepted as base camp for a visit to the ancient architectural wonders of Abu Simbel, 174 miles south near the end of Lake Nasser, an excursion of absolute necessity for anyone interested in seeing the two magnificent Nubian temples built by Ramses II.

We were certainly not the first to be captivated by Aswan's soft air, relaxed-resort feeling and colorful harbor etched with graceful feluccas gliding to and fro at sunset. And, according to the new hotels and restaurants still going up, we won't be the last.

Here to there: Fly TWA to Cairo with a change in New York, a number of foreign carriers with home-country changes. Egyptair will get you on to Aswan in little more than an hour. Yet the best way to truly appreciate the Nile Valley and its ancient cities is on a river cruise from Cairo to Aswan or vice versa. Abercrombie & Kent, Hilton and Sheraton all have luxury ships plying the river. See below.

How long/how much? Two days for Aswan, another for the 40-minute flight to Abu Simbel and return. The latter is not set up for overnight stays, having only one small hotel. Lodging and dining throughout Egypt go from reasonable to downright cheap.

A few fast facts: The Egyptian pound was recently valued at 70 cents, 1.43 to the dollar. October through February are best times for an Upper Egypt visit. Walk the central part of Aswan along the Nile, or take a horse carriage or cab, neither very expensive if you bargain with resolve. Industrial area outside the center holds no interest.

Getting settled in: The Cataract ($47 B&B double) was built in 1904 and has reeked with romance since. A movie of Agatha Christie's "Death on the Nile" was shot here, King Farouk hung around for years and the building's great old style seems more 19th Century than 20th. Long wide hallways, huge rooms, some with fireplaces, pool right on the Nile, lovely gardens.

New Cataract ($53 B&B double) is the modern twin that shares pool, garden and terraces with the old. Marble floors in lobby, gorgeous blue and orange carpets in rooms, second-floor dining room with a view of the Nile and very pedestrian menu that seems to ignore Egyptian dishes. There's a shopping arcade and most of the other big-hotel amenities.

Aswan Oberoi (Elephantine Island; $65) is considered one of Egypt's best; certainly the location in mid-river can't be faulted. More handsome grounds and flower gardens, pool, nightclub, health spa, bright breakfast room, Orangerie restaurant mentioned below.

Regional food and drink: Egyptians are very fond of salads, most of them made with cooked vegetables, as meal starters. Try salatet hommos of chick peas, onion, garlic and cumin, or loobeyah blardah, pureed black-eyed peas with olive oil, scallions and lemon. Fava beans are the basis of innumerable salads, while metabel mixes baked and mashed eggplant with lemon and yogurt.

Kammooniyya is a toothsome baked fish with tomatoes and rice; dawoud pasha, spiced meatballs often served with tomato sauce; bamia bel lahm, a stewed lamb and okra casserole, again with tomatoes and garlic, delicious.

Lots of wonderful fruits everywhere, wine passable, beer very good, but stick to bottled water at all times.

Moderate-cost dining: El Shati (Abtal Al Tahir Street) sits on a terrace above the Nile, tables inside or out, owner Mr. Saber very friendly. An evening meal here, the likes of lamb kebab hala, roast fish in earthenware pot, pigeon stuffed with crushed wheat or other kebabs cooked in an outside oven, will nick your wallet from $1.75 to $3. Saber makes a big deal of Christmas, with lighted tree and Nubian dancers, a weird combination but festive.

Saladin (a floating restaurant on same corniche) gives you an Egyptian dinner and belly dancers for $8.50, or try the lamb or chicken brochette for $7. This is a new and attractive place, just getting its sea legs, but everything seemed first rate to us.

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