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In the footsteps of Pharaohs

Egyptomaniacs in the making meet gods, kings and friendly mortals face-to-face during a walking tour of the country's glorious past.

June 07, 2009|Kathryn Wilkens

CAIRO — A felucca sailed in front of an orange sun, which was sinking behind a ridge on the far side of the Nile. Turning away from the river, I darted through a stream of cars and horse-drawn calashes, then stepped onto the broad plaza of the Temple of Luxor. The sky was fast going to cobalt as spotlights illuminated a double row of sphinxes, an obelisk and the great entrance gate flanked by monumental statues of Ramses II. A recording of the call to prayer blared from loudspeakers on a nearby minaret, drowning out all other sounds.

On every vacation there's a time when sights and sounds intersect to create a memory that becomes one of the standout moments of your life. That balmy evening in Luxor was the essence of my recent "trip of a lifetime" to Egypt.

I wasn't enthusiastic, though, when my husband, Ralph, first suggested Egypt. I dreamed of seeing the pyramids, but the thought of planning a trip was daunting. But when Country Walkers, a Vermont-based tour group, announced its first-ever walking tour of Egypt, and Ralph noticed the March date would coincide with our wedding anniversary, it seemed preordained that we should sign on.

Friends and family were not as certain. "Egypt?" they said, after a pause. "Are you sure it's safe?"

It was after dark when we landed in Cairo, so I didn't see the pyramids until the next morning. I woke, raced to the balcony of our room at the Mena House Oberoi hotel and gazed out at an immense triangle, and another smaller one to the right. In the haze, they looked two-dimensional and, frankly, disappointing. It wasn't until I got a closer look that the massive, blocky structures became real to me. Lovely they are not. But as symbols of mankind's ability to conceive and execute a grandiose plan, the Pyramids of Giza are unmatched.

Most time-strapped visitors take a bus to the pyramids, but we were on a walking tour. Our group of 14, along with our guide, Egyptologist Inas Hassan, set out from the hotel, continuing uphill past the Great Pyramid of Khufu and the Pyramid of Khafre to a panoramic viewpoint. A long downhill stroll past the Pyramid of Menkaure brought us face-to-face with the inscrutable Sphinx. My lifelong dream of seeing the pyramids was fulfilled in a morning's walk.

We walked an easy two or three miles that day and averaged five to six a day. Because of the flat terrain along the Nile, the walks were not strenuous, and any reasonably fit person should be able to do them.

That afternoon, we took a motor coach to the site of the Giza Pyramids' precursor, the Step Pyramid of Djoser at Saqqara, completed in the 27th century BC. In the distance, we saw the Bent Pyramid, so called because the angle of slope changes halfway up, and the Red Pyramid. Amazingly, discoveries are still being made. In November, it was announced that a 4,300-year-old pyramid base had been unearthed at Saqqara, bringing to 118 the number of Egypt's pyramids.

The rest of our walks in Cairo were urban hikes. We trekked through the Citadel of Saladin and the Mosque of Muhammad Ali; through the Egyptian Museum and the bustling alleyways of the Khan el Khalili bazaar, where a bomb exploded in February, killing a French tourist.

We saw security police throughout the city and, like other groups, we were accompanied by a guard wherever we walked. The unsmiling guards dressed in suits and made little effort to conceal the automatic weapons under their jackets.

In my younger days, I wouldn't have considered traveling with a group. But now, I'm happy to let someone else figure out schedules, book hotels and arrange transportation. Country Walkers keeps its groups small, and I agree with its premise: Walking is a great way to see a country and get to know its people. Our fellow group members were veteran travelers. At mealtimes, we'd talk about the day's sights, then segue into our experiences in India, Bhutan, Corsica and Peru.

In visiting several Cairo restaurants, we found that Egyptian food isn't too different from other Middle Eastern cuisines. Lunches and dinners usually began with bread and starters, or mezes, made up of shared dishes of hummus, baba ghanouj, tahini or tamiya, the Egyptian version of falafel. A bowl of tomato or lentil soup followed, then rice and perhaps lamb, fish, chicken kebabs or a vegetable tagine. Dessert might be rice pudding or Om Ali, a light bread pudding laced with nuts, raisins and coconut. The most typically Egyptian dish we had was koshari, a mixture of rice, pasta, lentils, fava beans and garbanzos, topped with tomato sauce and fried onions.

It was a relief to leave busy, noisy Cairo. We flew to Aswan, and, after touring the High Dam, we boarded a luxury yacht -- a dahabeah (da-ha-BEE-ya)."

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