Sunday, 25 March 2018

The best of Budapest in 72 hours

Rum Hotel
Let's go to Budapest, I said to my friend. Yes, let's, friend agreed. We met up for a planning evening and agreed an itinerary so we could fit everything in. Yay.
Why Budapest? People asked me. Really? Have you not heard about this beautiful city with a fascinating history? My answer? Why wouldn't you want to go?

To get a jam-packed visit on a budget, here's what you need to know:

Roof crosses
1. There is now a bus directly from the airport to the center of the city, with the last stop at Vösüsmarty tér, which is pretty much Pest central. It's the 100E and costs 900HUF, which is about £3.50 (or was, in March 2018). It takes about an hour, but is very popular, so not everyone gets a seat. You can also get a taxi, which is more expensive, but not crazily so (about £18),

Breakfast view
2. We stayed at the Rum Hotel, which was very convenient: about 2 tram stops from Vösüsmarty tér or a 10-minute walk. About 15 minutes' walk from the Jewish (aka 'Party') district where the ruin bars and much nightlife takes place, as well as even closer to the Central Market Hall and the very pretty No 2 tramline route, that runs along the Danube and which you'll no doubt ride a number of times. For a room with a double bed and a sofa bed, it's about €120 per night and that includes a good buffet breakfast with fantastic views of the Liberty statue. Two drawbacks: one, the lighting in the rooms is dim. Like, too dark to read by. We figured it was aimed at the 'screen-reading only' crowd, but it was a little wearisome to be in gloom; and two, the bathroom doesn't provide 100% privacy. This seems to be a hotel trend. Note to hotels: no one wants to watch or hear their friend or partner do their toilet. No one. Moving on...

Central Market
3. The Gelert Baths. These are fantastically ornate thermal pools in a neo-Classical building on the Buda side of the river. Pricey by locals' standards (about £12pp), but for a one-off, worth it to see the cupid statues and marvel at the tiling. There's a swimming pool, plus four increasingly hotter pools, plus treatments and steam and sauna rooms. Warning: you will feel incredibly relaxed after you've been, so don't do this first thing in the morning as we did - save it for the end of the day when you can go back to your room and collapse.

4. If you like food (who doesn't) stop in the Central Market on your way to the baths. It's another beautiful building and there's every kind of pastry, paprika, fruit, veg, meat and bread on the ground floor. Upstairs is 'Hungarica', or what the rest of us might call tourist tat, but still fun to look at and where you might buy your postcards.

5. We went to The Makery, a concept/experiential restaurant in the Jewish District. The idea is to make eating out a more hands-on thing, so you're given an iPad, from where you choose from the menu, your ingredients are brought to you (almost) all pre-prepared – except for an apple we had to peel and which friend had great difficulty getting to grips with, which put her in a bad mood about the whole thing – and then you follow the very simple step-by-step instructions. The upside? You produce dishes that actually look exactly like the picture and are certainly different from anything I would normally make (apple beer soup anyone?). The downside is that making your own dinner is time-consuming, so either don't come too hungry or come early enough that you can wait to eat.

View of Budapest from the hills
6. Getting around is easy. Really easy. Before you leave the airport, buy a 72-hour tourist travel card. It's actually more of a piece of paper, but at approx £12 is a bargain and means you can jump on and off the buses, trams, metro, water ferry and most everything else except the children's railway, the funicular and the chairlift. But don't let that stop you taking these modes of transport. The highlight of our visit was getting the No 4 tram from Pest over the Margit hid (bridge) to Széll Kálmán tér (a tér, by the way, is a square), taking the little escalator up to a higher street to catch the bus to the Hotel Budapest. Opposite this is the Cogwheel Railway, which you ride up into the hills, before changing over to the Children's Railway, which is a wonderful thing. Kids aged from 11-14 sell you the tickets, wave the train on, main the coaches as guards and generally do everything but drive the engine. It's a leftover from Communist days and a must-do.

You also get fantastic views back from the hills to Budapest. To make the journey complete, on your return journey, hop off at the Libegö stop and walk up the trail through the woods about 20 minutes, then get the chairlift down. 

Szempla kert
7. Of course, you'll have to go to Szempla kert, the biggest and best-known of the ruin bars. What's a ruin bar? Re-purposed old-style apartment buildings that were built around courtyards, now turned into banging clubs. Each room of the apartments has a different scene, from cocktail bar to craft-beer stall to speakeasy-type vibe to loud, thumping nightclub sort of thing. Szempla kert has all kinds of odd bits and pieces crammed into it and, like all the ruin bars, is furnished with what was found in rubbish skips, so no two chairs are the same and nothing matches. It's loud, busy and full of visitors – and locals – of all ages. We actually met friend's friend here on the Saturday night and she was 78. That said, I'm not sure she enjoyed it and we didn't stay as long as I'd have liked because she wanted to find somewhere quieter (as did friend, tbh), but I did manage to have a long-awaited palinka. Palinka is a fruit-based brandy that tastes like gut-rut moonshine, but as a national drink, it has to be done at least once.

8. Final day. Friend's friend kindly invited us for tea at her apartment and this was a real highlight. It reminded me so much of the apartment I grew up in in NYC, with its parquet floors and white walls and the general proportions and layout. I guess the NY architects took their cues from Europe when they built their pre-war buildings.

That's it really! Except, we noticed an odd thing. License plates with the word 'JEW' on them. Of course, the Hungarian language doesn't include this word and it could be argued they are simply randomly generated letters and numbers, but as friend's friend said, it's still a word that would be recognized there. I include them for interest and because it was slightly – just slightly – unsettling to see.

Sunday, 24 September 2017

Why you should visit Egypt now

When I first got back to London after 10 days in Egypt, I suffered reverse culture shock. It felt so decadent to go to the giant Tesco and see every kind of food and plenty of household commodities in over-abundant displays all ready to be plonked in the generous trolley supplied for my convenience. Toilet paper could be flushed down the toilet. Water drunk from the tap. Rubbish was swept up from the streets and carted away. Everything looked so neat and orderly, and complaining about anything – from late trains to chilly nights (after all, I could just turn a dial and heating would come on in my flat) – seemed too petty.

On the other hand, no one met my eye on the street. Strangers didn't say hello or smile in greeting as we passed. Most of my neighbours don't know each other except maybe by sight and local children don't wave at me. For the most part, everyone here is in their personal-space bubble and that's the way they'd like to keep it, thank you very much. I missed the easy friendliness of Egypt, the wide open spaces, the beautiful landscapes, the differentness.
I also feel like I need to set a few misconceptions right, because Egypt is fascinating, fun and an amazing place to visit. Here's why you should go and the sooner the better:

Safety: I never once felt unsafe. From the moment I stepped on to my Egypt Air flight, where there's more legroom and wider seats in economy than any other carrier I've been on (and believe me, I've flown plenty), was served a delicious vegetarian meal (and that doesn't happen often on an airplane) and experienced high-class, professional service from the cabin crew, all my fears floated away.
Cairo is a big, mad, busy city, but it doesn't feel dangerous or edgy. In fact, I would say New York has more of a jumpy vibe. Yes, you will see guards, police and army personal, especially around places of importance, like the Aswan Dam or the pyramids, but after a time or two, you'll barely notice.

Dress: I worried way too much about covering up or being appropriately dressed before I went, so here's the deal: if you're a woman, it doesn't hurt to carry a pashmina, which you can stuff in your backpack, in case you go somewhere out of the way or small town, just to throw over your shoulders to be respectful of local customs. Mostly though, T-shirts and shorts are fine. Really.

Haggling: Another thing I worried about. Yes, you will be asked to buy many, many things. Scarfs, towels, tablecloths, statuettes, scarabs, necklaces, purses... Here's what you need to do: simply say, 'La shukran' (no thank you) and keep walking. If you can't remember those two words, say them in English – you'll be understood. On the other hand, sometimes what they're offering is actually so ridiculously cheap (two cloth purses for £1?) why not buy them? You can give them as gifts when you get home or stuff your Egyptian money in them while you're there. If you can't stand haggling, I recommend shops (see below) where it's not necessary.

Two other notes if you hate haggling: if you tell him or her what you're after, your guide* (*see below) can do it for you or, if you're staying in a larger hotel or on a cruise ship, the onsite shops will have set prices.

Guides: hire one. If you're taking a cruise, like the excellent one offered by Orbital Travel, one will be provided. But even if you go on your own, you'll get so much more out of your experience if there's someone there to explain it all to you, arrange transportation, take you to the best vantage points and be your conduit to all things local. I had the luck to be guided by two during my 10-day trip, one in Cairo (Sam: and one along the Nile (Elia: and would highly recommend both.

Finally: Go. The exchange rate is incredible right now, so everything is a crazy bargain. The international sightseeing crowds haven't cottoned on yet that it's cool to go back, so it's not rammed. And? You'll have an amazing, trip-of-a-lifetime experience seeing all the stuff you've only ever read about or seen pictures of. Plus, you'll gain an appreciation of Egypt that will stay with you forever. I was one of you before I went – a little nervous, a little worried – and now I'm totally converted and am recommending Egypt to everyone. Really, you're going to love it.

Recommended shops:

For papyrus: Isis 2 Papyrus Museum, Hilton Road, El Karnak, Luxor

For alabaster and statuary" Abo El Hagag Alabaster Factory, West Bank, El Qurna, Ezbet El Ware, Luxor

For rugs: Tohamy Carpet School, Saqqara Road, Saqqara

For kartouches, other jewellery and souvenirs: the onboard boutiques on the Royal Esadora cruise ship

Sunday, 17 September 2017

Last day in Luxor

Yesterday was a total relaxathon. I took myself up to the sundeck of the Royal Esadora, helped myself from the stacks of yellow and white towels, and found a lounger at the very front. What was I going to do? Watch the Nile world go by. It never gets boring.

Things I’ve discovered I love: water buffalos, who come in a shade of grey moleskin that makes them look almost cuddly. Donkey carts and especially donkey carts where the donkey colt trots alongside its mother, learning the ropes. Also, mule carts. Why? Because they’re everyday, ordinary sights here that the Egyptians don’t even look at twice but I’ve never seen before and they seem like a piece of life that hasn’t changed for generations. Then there are the colours: blue for the Nile, green for the land, sand for the mountains and blue again for the sky.

Today, though, is a different story. Being in Luxor means you’re in ‘the world’s largest outdoor museum’. What that means is Karnak, which is a vast area – think maybe four football pitches – full of statues, columns, pylons (that means high entrances) and even a sacred lake.

What makes this place so fascinating is that some of the bas reliefs still have their original colours on them, giving you a hint of just how bright and spectacularly painted this place once was; and that it’s still in the process of being restored, a process that’s been going on since the 1800s. In fact, while we were there, we watched a group of men, with the help of a crane, position a giant block back in place.

We also learned, by visiting the Isis 2 Papyrus Museum (on Hilton Road in Luxor) how papyrus was – and still is – made into paper and that it’s a roughly three-week process. The ancient crafts clearly take patience.

And now… Well, now we prepare to leave tomorrow. Ugh. Talk about that Sunday-night feeling. All I really want to do is go on, maybe to Hurghada or Sharm for a few days snorkelling and then…?Well, everywhere seems to be calling my name.

Going away is a bit like going to Narnia, the CS Lewis made-up land where whole lives can be lived, but when the people return, not even a minute has passed in Earth time. Us travellers also feel that: we see so much, have so many new experiences, make connections with people we meet along the way and when we return, it feels as if we’ve been away months, even if it’s only been a week or two. Then, when we go home, people say, “Oh, have you been away? I didn’t realise…”

Some folks are never bitten by the travel bug and, yes, there’s a little bit of envy there. After all, they don’t suffer from that almost-constant craving to go somewhere new, see something they’ve never seen before, meet people they might never have met and find out how they live. But if you have that itch to go see what’s over the next mountain, round the next bend, on the other side of the river, lake or ocean and you can see a way to scratch it, well, life becomes incredibly rich. After all, if travel makes one day away feels like a stay-at-home four or five, it’s almost like living forever…

Saturday, 16 September 2017

Aswan to Luxor

Cairo was amazing, Luxor is incredible, but for position on the river, old-school charm and birdwatching, I’m going to say that Aswan is my favourite town on the Nile – so far. I was very lucky and got taken to the Old Cataract Hotel for a sundowner.

A few things. First, a cataract is the fast-moving water around a rock in the river, nothing to do with failing eyesight. Second, the Cateract Hotel was built by Thomas Cook in 1899 as a colonial-era stay for travelling Brits, then did service as a palace for King Farouk – Egypt’s last reigning monarch, who stepped off the throne in 1952 – and it's now a five-star hotel of the sort where the carpeting swallows up the sounds of any footfalls, the hard flooring is either marble or teak, and suites are named after their most famous inhabitant. For this reason, when you walk down a corridor and read ‘Winston Churchill’, ‘Aga Khan’ and ‘Omar Sharif’, you’re learning a bit of history as well as getting to your accommodation.

Our lovely guide, Elia
We were given an extra-special treat: a private terrace above the Nile, looking across Elephantine Island (named for the large boulders rather than actual animals) to the Aga Khan’s mausoleum on the hill opposite. Below us, feluccas – the traditional sailboats – as well as one brave soul paddling across sitting on something that might have been a tea tray, plied the water. Graceful white herons, something that looks like a speckled pigeon and egrets did their thing and, slowly at first, then suddenly speeding up for the grand finale, the sun slipped behind the hills. What a magical experience. I know, none of this comes cheap (the Winston Churchill suite costs US$10,000 a night), but if you can splash out for a G&T to get a ringside seat, it’s worth it.

So, back to the cruise and where were we? Since last writing, I’ve been to a place that’s on many people’s bucket list: Abu Simbel. This is the collective name for two temples – one belonging to Rameses II, and the other built for his favourite and the most beautiful of his 67 wives, Nefertiti. What makes these structures so remarkable, aside from their size (huge), decorations (many statues and hieroglyphics with their original colours) and location (60 clicks from the Sudanese border) are two things. One is that when they were first built, their architect figured out how to position them so a statue of Rameses inside was struck by sunlight twice a year: once on his birthday in February and again on his coronation day in October. The other is that the entire constructs were moved 300 metres up in 1961 when the Aswan dam was built and Lake Nasser created. But? The modern minds couldn’t quite get the position right and now the sun hits the Rameses statue one day later than his birthday and coronation.

Lake Nasser, the world's largest man-made lake
How, you keep wondering, did they do it? It’s all part of our collective fascination, wanting to know the secrets these places aren’t quite ready to serve up.

If you think the three-hour drive through the Sahara to get there might be too long or dull, let me disabuse you of this. It’s fascinating. Along the way going – because you leave the ship while it’s still dark – our lovely guide Elia had the bus stop so we could watch (and take pictures of) the sunrise in the desert. This is another memory that I’ll never forget for its majesty and beauty. And, on the way back, we stopped again, this time to see (and take pictures of) the biggest mirage in the Sahara. It’s an extraordinary thing and amazing how even the rocks and hills are reflected in it. You can easily imagine weary, heat-exhausted travellers endlessly heading toward it… We also passed what I think was a French Foreign Legion camp, with round, white tents, tanks and a French tricolour up a flagpole. Fascinating.

Also, a word about the whole driving at breakneck-speed convoy thing and armed escorts this trip had a reputation for, because all that is in the past. You travel at a perfectly reasonable speed, in an air-conditioned bus with onboard toilet, the lovely Royal Esadora serves breakfast before you go and provides a lunch bag which you can fill with sandwiches, danishes, juice and water for the trip, so it’s all very comfortable and safe. There is no convoy and no police escort, because it’s not needed. In fact, a brief word about safety here in general: I've never felt anything but safe and relaxed in Egypt. Really. And remember, I'm a solo female traveller. If you've ever wanted to visit this fascinating, welcoming country, really, do it now before the hordes start coming back.

Thursday, 14 September 2017

Royal Esadora

Whether you’re new or old to it, the essence of taking a cruise is that you get to stay put – that is, in your floating hotel – while you’re ferried to various sites and sights. It’s an ideal way to see as much as possible, while relaxing and enjoying the journeys in between. So, now we’ve established that it’s a wonderful way to travel, how do you decide on a ship? Especially if you’re heading somewhere with a great deal of boats offering similar itineraries such as, say, the Nile?
This is where service, attention to detail, good food, plenty of amenities, entertainment, the best guides, cleanliness, comfort and fresh, up-to-date accommodation come into play and why I’m recommending the Royal Esadora. Also, if you fancy adding a couple few days either or both sides of your cruise in Cairo or Hurghada, they can arrange this as well – everything from flights to transfers to guides to accommodation to tours to all-inclusive, so all your drinks are included as well.

My ‘room’ is actually a suite, so there’s plenty of space to spread out. Inside is a TV, mini-fridge/freezer, a desk, plenty of storage, sofa, coffee and occasional tables, two chairs, tasteful artwork on the walls – and that’s just the living room. The second room has the quite frankly enormous bed, double wardrobe, safe, loads of shelves and drawers, full-length mirror and a bathroom with a shower over the water-jet bath. The only shame is how little time I actually get to spend in there, because there’s so much else to do. To give you an idea, take a look at the itinerary I’ve included from our second day on board. It’s an A-list of Egyptian celebrity sites – and that’s all before lunch.

If you think the wake-up call looks early, remember that at this time of year (September) it can still get extremely hot, so it’s actually simple good sense to get out there and hit the highlights before things heat up. It’s also, as our clever guide Elia pointed out, a good way of beating the other tours so we get the places to ourselves. It’s certainly worked so far.

Around the boat, service is always with a smile, a “Hello, how are you? Are you enjoying your day?” and delivered with speed and courtesy. The staff must have been hired for their good memories too, because they remember all sorts of small things that make a stay that much more memorable for the guests. One of our group liked a nicely presented fruit plate she had on the first evening. Now, whenever she goes up to the buffet, the man who cuts the fruit has a special plate prepared just for her. Meanwhile, I’ve let slip to one of the chefs that I’m a vegetarian and now he’s quick to let me know which dishes are meat-free, as well as offering to cook me anything else if I don’t see something I’d like on offer. I haven’t had to take him up on this though, because the extensive buffet, starting with salad, soup, breads, cheeses and working through main courses of meat, fish, vegetables and often pasta, all the way to the fruit section and heaving pudding table, has always had more than enough choice for me.

If you like a drink while you watch the sun sink behind the date palms, I don’t know what it’s called, but the one made out of gin, apple, mango and hibiscus juice tastes as good as it looks. Then, once the sun has gone down, you can take yourself to the lounge bar for a spot of dancing, a chat or watch the entertainment that’s laid on – we’re all looking forward to the Nubian dancing, the dervish, the belly dancing and, of course, our Egyptian night, when we get to dress up in traditional robes and play games. That one hasn’t actually happened yet, so I’ll have to let you know how it goes – and how much laughter it generates.

Meanwhile, there’s the swimming pool and generous sundeck with loungers and a bar, lots of shade if you want it and, downstairs, you can get your gift shopping in without any haggling or hassle from the two shops, where products are top quality at good prices, offering everything from postcards to custom-made kartouches to traditional statuary and clothing.

I must also mention the young man who cleans our corridors’ rooms and his sense of humour with the towel creatures he makes. The swan was lovely, the flowers pretty, the elephant cute, but towel man? When I said my room was spacious, that wasn’t a hint I wanted company! I’m kidding. The truth is, when I came in and saw 'him', I couldn’t stop laughing.

The Royal Esadora has made this trip memorable in all the best ways, so if you’re not sure which boat to book, take my tip and go for this one.

Wednesday, 13 September 2017

Cruising on the Nile

Is it day 3 or 5? Not sure how to count it, but it’s my fifth day in Egypt, third on the good ship Royal Esador. We are currently parked, sorry, docked, at Esna, some 64km south of Luxor. Yesterday, we’re all very keen to tell each other, was 50°C! Yes, really. Or, for those who don’t do centigrade, about 134°F. I’ve never experienced heat like that outside a sauna and I have to admit to some wilting tendencies. We started at 6am with our fabulous guide Elia leading the way and were at the Valley of the Kings before 7am. What? So early? Yes, please, because at that time of day, not only did we have it to ourselves, but it the temperature was tolerable.

Our ticket gave us entry, plus a choice of three tombs (note: photography isn't allowed, hence no pictures). They’re open on a rotating basis to preserve them and I admit to going to the ‘easier’ ones. That is, those without long flights of stairs down. Think of it as trying to preserve myself!

The most interesting thing in these places are the sandscapes – vast, tracts of hills and rocky faces you feel sure are hiding dozens more of these intricately decorated and hieroglyphic-covered caves – and those paintings themselves. The colours are still so vibrant – blues, yellows, reds (Oooh! We’ve just set sail – lovely!) – that haven’t been retouched. I’m trying to get the hang of the ancient writing: so far I know the symbol for life and the symbol for fertility, also the eye of Horus (good luck).

Do you want or need an itinerary of the rest of yesterday? OK, very briefly, we also hit the Valley of the Queens, the Temple of Hatshepsut (the only female ever to have ruled Egypt), the Medinet Habu Temple and, my favourite, the Colossi of Memnon. Come on, who doesn’t love a big statue? We also visited an alabaster shop, Abo El Hagag, on the West Bank, at El Qurna, Ezbet El Ward, very near the Valley of the Queens, where we were treated to a demonstration of how alabaster is harvested from a site about 80km away, then carved and polished by hand. None of this imitation stuff you’re offered at the sites, but the real McCoy that becomes translucent when a light is behind it. They also carve basalt, granite and something they call moonstone that glows in the dark. The reason I’m mentioning this place, and why I would recommend stopping, is that their pieces are wonderful – cats, lions, crocodiles, jars, vases, pyramids – and individually made by hand. You’ll also get a welcome drink (and believe me, at this stage it will be very welcome), air con (yay) and salesmen who speak perfect English and won’t pressure you to buy. It’s all a very pleasant experience and the place to get your local-to-Luxor gifts without any hassle.

I just glanced out my window and caught sight of a group of boys, maybe three or four of them, about 10 to 12 years old, running along the river path with a few goats, with date palms, banana trees and bamboo the backdrop. It’s both modern and completely unchanged ancient here, a total mash-up that’s endlessly fascinating.

There’s so much I want to say about the antiquities, the people – who are so genuine and warm and friendly – and the ease and comfort of this ship, which are considerable, but I just have to share what Salah, the young man who cleans my room, constructed for me today and will finish with that. Suffice to say, I totally burst out laughing when I came in and found my new roomie.