Getting To Luxor (Thebes).
We set off from Gatwick on the 14th December 2005, this was after taking up the option of staying overnight at the Hilton Gatwick, which included the cost of parking the car for 15 days. I would definitely recommend this, particularly if you have an early morning flight, as it avoids the M25 / M23 rush.
We chose to have breakfast in the airport, this was not a good experience, the quantity of food was small, the quality was not much better, the service was slow and we almost left without paying as the staff delayed with the bill – with hindsight I wish I had.
The flight itself was good through Thomas Cooke, and we left and arrived in Luxor to schedule. Getting through immigration was fairly straightforward, be ready to pay about £10 in sterling for Visa entry. The Thomas Cooke transfer bus was there waiting, but beware of offers to carry your bag – it is only a few yards and they expect payment or bakshee for it – so my advice is a firm and polite – no thank you. The advice offered by the courier on the bus on this issue was spot on – only pay a tip if you think the service was good, not just because they expect it or they ask for it – as they regularly and routinely do.
We stayed at the Mercure Inn (previously known as the Egotel), this was supposed to be a 4* hotel but was not – maybe it was Egyptian 4*. A couple of the things missing by way of example were a kettle and hair dryer, which I would have expected to be there for such a star rating.
The room was acceptable though old fashioned in an ok sort of way, the bathroom itself was a bit on the shabby side. What I would recommend is getting a room with the balcony facing South, particularly if visiting in winter as you get the sun for pretty much the whole day, we were on the 3rd floor, above might have been slightly better, though in summer this may be too much for some. Servicing of the rooms is every day and the staff are very friendly, we had no problems over security at all, and I gave a good tip to the cleaners and porters.
The swimming pool is adequate, it is cleaned each day and the area is good for sunbathing. Changing facilities and toilets are clean. I suggest you grab the spaces at the far end away from the café. The café itself serves pretty good western Italian style meals – lasagne and pizzas at reasonable costs for around E£22. The service is ok but can be painfully slow, as the staff seem to be content with filling their time rather than giving a good service. This is one place you will however be free from the “hassle” of Luxor life, though there is haircutting and a massage service touted daily.
The breakfast arrangements are ok, it is self service with a fair variety of foods available, the main moans are; the insistence of the staff on serving tea and coffee rather than giving you a pot, as a consequence we seemed to be always asking for more, also it was sometimes not very hot; and only one chef who cooks the fried eggs or omelettes on a singe hot plate, so rather slow, having said that as long as you are not in a rush then enjoy it. Although most of the hotel is no smoking the restaurant is not so this may cause some people problems.
As far as the bar itself is concerned, prices are good at around E£14 for a beer, but beware imported specialist drinks may be expensive.
There are currency exchange facilities available in the hotel without charge but no doubt the rate reflected this, and there are ATMs about 10 minutes walk away. Certainly no problem with changing sterling and getting money from your own bank account. The rate will of course vary and you may get a charge, for me it was about 4% and I bank with Nat West, I am sure there are better deals, but this was very convenient
The hotel is private and there are guards at the front entrance and at the head of a longish driveway. Along the driveway there are a few shops which hassle you every time you go up and down the drive, and can be a bit of a pain, my advice is go in and decide whether you want something, if not, then tell them and thereafter you will get less hassle.
Part way down the driveway is a restaurant, managed if not owned by the hotel. Good food, help yourself style is available (the Egyptian sweet cakes are fabulous) every Thursday along with a band, singers, a belly dancer and a colourful whirling dervish type of act ( this is truly amazing, he turns for over 15 minutes without stopping). This is a must not miss night; the price is about E£70 each plus beer, which is well worth it. The service is good and very friendly.
Luxor is surprisingly safe, initially you may feel intimidated, but it is the hassle that is intimidating not the place itself. We walked around much of the time, including the old market areas, along the Corniche to Karnak, around the town and out to some of the more remote parts. My advice if you have the time, experience the place, by walking, but do be aware of taxis, cars and the kalish (a horse drawn carriage), they drive on both sides of the road and without regard for other drivers or pedestrians, fortunately rather slowly.
Taxis are very cheap, pay no more than E£10 (often less) for anywhere within Luxor and Karnak for a single journey, you will of course be pestered for more money and more business, but agree the amount before getting in, if they say it is not enough walk away and try another, without doubt the first taxi driver will agree to what you offered.
All the taxi drivers are friendly and helpful, if you are staying any length of time as we did ( 2 weeks) then negotiate a price with him for any of the tours that you may be planning, we did 4 tours using taxis.
Typically for a tour of part of the West bank, (you can not do it all – we did 3 West bank trips and still there was much that we did not see) you can take the taxi from either bank; pay no more than E£170 for about 5 hours, this includes the driver taking you to whichever site or monument you want to see, waiting for you, then taking you to the next. Once you have agreed the price do not pay for extras, that he will most certainly try to get you to pay, for example as happened to us, if he is asked to pay the policeman, it is probably because his licence is out of date, it is his problem not yours so he should pay. He will probably try to persuade you to visit an alabaster factory, where you will be offered tea and shown how they make the alabaster, my advice is be careful, he is on commission and if you do not want to buy, then say no and goodbye. If however you want something specific then this is as good a place as any, my advice is think of a silly price then half that and offer it, go no higher than the silly price you thought of, walking away usually does the trick, with us we finalised the deal whilst in the taxi driving off as the owner hung through the window.
The kalish (a horse drawn carriage), is a very pleasant experience, and a must do photo opportunity, agree a price before getting in and make sure it is an all in price not per person. Allow slightly more (perhaps 10% more) for the kalish than the taxi.
The ferry across the Nile is located at the north end of the Luxor temple and costs E£1 each way for tourists, the locals pay virtually nothing, get a return handwritten ticket. The ferry runs all night or so we were told, the latest one we picked up was just after midnight. The alternative is the motorised small boats which are all along each of banks of the Nile and cost up to E£5 if you are in a hurry. The one experience of this for us was part of a specific tour and I would say the ferry is much better.
We tried to get a train to Aswan, but the train was fully booked, which was a disappointment for us, so book ahead is my tip, and if travelling with a female send her to the front of the queue as this is the custom in Egypt, she should be prepared to shout to make herself heard. Within the station is the Tourist Information office, which we found most helpful and surprisingly no charge.
I would encourage most people to go to these sites independently, rather than going as part of a group as you will have more time. There are guides available but I preferred not to use them but to occasionally listen in to somebody else’s.
Most of the sites are now E£20 per person for each site, the Valley of the Kings entrance fee allows access to 3 tombs, as does the Valley of the Queens and the Nobles and the Artisans, assuming the tombs are open. Payment for all of the West Bank sites is in a small office at the junction of the main road just out of town. Remember to get your change as the clerk is rather slow on returning this on the basis that many people will forget and he can therefore pocket this himself.
The most annoying aspect is the many locals, including the security guards, who come over to give their advice, to point out the obvious and offer to take or be in photos, and then ask for bakshee. If you have read up on the many books then you will probably know more than them. It may be rude but I found the best way was to say very firmly “No Thank You” I know they are in some cases desperate for money, but I found this aspect of the visit almost too much.
For us we saw this Temple every day as the hotel entrance was opposite it as we walked along the Corniche or into the market area. The Temple is remarkably impressive, with its high columns, specifically Amenhotep's colonnade, and I particularly liked the avenue of sphinxes, many of which were damaged, but if you explore the town to the North, you will see examples of remains of this avenue which originally stretched to the Karnak Temple. There is much to see here, with many piles of stones, which hopefully will be returned to their original place, as with many of the sites there is some ongoing repairs and restoration. Make sure you check out a doorway leads surrealistically out into thin air some 25 feet above the ground, this exit is from the Abu Haggag mosque.
The Temple can get very busy with fellow tourists. Before you go in you will probably see a great deal of heavy duty trench work going on around the Temple, particularly at the South end outside the Sanctuary of Amenhotep up III to where there are the remains of the Roman Fort. This work has apparently been ongoing for a few years and is expected to continue for a few more, the problem is the sewer and water system which needs replacing as it is leaking and damaging the foundations of the South and Eastern part of the Temple.
We paid 2 visits to this site; the first was to see the light show in the evening. Remember to check the times which suit you as these are in different languages and at different times on each day. There is not very much to do or see outside the Temple, though the one café did good tea and when pressed, the waiter managed to find a small cake for us to have with it.
The light show was ok; the seats at the end were reasonably comfortable, you may wish to take a torch, and in winter, as we travelled, you will need to wrap up warm. This is a good way of spending a few hours in the evening before having dinner. If however you are short on time then this may be one to miss.
We returned during the day and would say this is one not to miss, particularly if travelling independently as the site is enormous, and the size and number of features, is covered in hieroglyphics, and can be quite overwhelming so take your time, oh and take water. Although there are areas that are off limits, we just ignored this and wandered everywhere, the Mut Temple area is being rebuilt using a crane and people are still excavating in the area, but do try and see this part. There are too many specific areas within the Temple to mention in detail and the many guide books cover these much better than I could, though the numerous statues and the obelisks do stand out in my mind. There is a small café on the site which gives some relief to the heat of the day. It’s worth just sitting and marvelling and taking it all in. If you want to visit the open air museum part you will have to pay a small extra charge, and of course pay bakshee for the use of the toilets, which were very clean for Egypt.
On the Corniche, this is well worth a visit; the pieces are well laid out and well lit, with many interesting notes to explain them. Take your time; do not be rushed, as you go through the museum. I found that much of the readings done prior to your visit start to slot into place as you go through the museum and see the exhibits. Even here the guards will try to explain things for you for some bakshee; I just ignored them as it detracted from my concentration on the exhibits, many of which are almost perfect. At the end before exiting, do not miss the last gallery, which is easy to miss. There are some recent finds from the Luxor Temple where 20 + New Kingdom statues were found under the floor in the inner sanctum area in 1989, some of these are exhibited and are in very good condition.
The Mummification Museum
Walking from Luxor towards Karnak this is on the left hand side of the Corniche. This is an interesting place to visit, but is rather dark and is not a priority visit, we visited this museum before our visit to the Luxor Museum and I would recommend the other way around as you may have seen sufficient by then.
Places to eat
As well as the restaurants within the grounds of the Mercure Inn, there are some good reasonably priced places to eat, mainly on the East Bank. My advice is to be adventurous, if the place looks reasonably clean and the locals use it, then it is worth a try. Two worth a mention that we tried and returned to was in the market area the Chez Omar and next door to it, I can’t recall the name
The food at the Chez Omar was quite traditional; I would especially recommend the aubergines and the meat stews. The food comes piping hot. They do serve beer here, it is wrapped in a napkin and they provide you with a colored drinking glass, I am not sure whether this was a disguise or not.
Next door was more basic, but very good both in quality and quantity, I recommend looking at what the locals are eating and if you fancy it then ask for that. No beer here though.
On the West Bank was the rooftop restaurant of the Nile Valley Hotel. This was very good, and a definite recommendation, so much so that we spent Christmas night here celebrating with yet another belly dancer, another whirling dervish type of act, two bands and a singing troop, all topped up with participated dancing.
For our last night we decided to treat ourselves and turned up at the Winter Palace Hotel intending to eat in the 1886 room, but was told we should have booked, but if we could wait two hours then they could fit us in. We decided not to wait, but took in the old fashioned surroundings of this late 19th century colonial building, which has much history to it, including where Carter stayed. We moved on to the Miyako, this is a Japanese restaurant and is to be found within the St George Hotel. This was very good and I would recommend a visit, but was the most expensive meal we had during our visit, but it still compared favorably to UK Japanese restaurant prices with some fixed price items, which we had and found to be very good and included some sushi.
Valley of the Kings
The approach to the Valley is quite stunning, we took the train, but it is not necessary unless it is very hot. It is difficult initially to get a scale of things as there are many Tombs, but most are closed and your ticket allows access to only 3, if you want to see more then buy an extra set of tickets would be my advice, or pay 2 visits as there is such a lot to take in.
The first Tomb we visited was Ramese III, we took our time as there were some very interesting side chambers, but unfortunately this Tomb was very busy, and it was difficult to properly view.
The best for me was Tuthmosis III, this is to be found at the farthest end of the valley, where the Tomb is approached up many steps, once at the top then you descend into the Tomb down more steps, be careful, take your time as this could be difficult for some, do not bump your head. I do not know how they got the coffin into this Tomb, as this was enormous and made of granite.
The next best for me was Tausert / Setnakht, this is one of the largest Tombs in the Valley, this has two burial chambers with columns which have linked walk ways, the wall paintings were very clear and seemed almost new, but there again it was one of the more recent Tombs that the Pharos had built, all relative of course.
Valley of the Queens
Much smaller than the Valley of the Kings, and when we visited, the one to see Nepertari was not open, in fact it had not been open for over a year and there was no indication of when it would reopen. As a consequence we only were able to Tombs of sons, rather than Queens, though a little disappointing, this disappointment is only relative, when compared to the other sites available at Luxor.
Medinet Habu (memorial temple of Ramesses III)
In my opinion this was one of the best sites I visited, so it is highly recommended and is a must see site, allow sufficient time, there are fewer tourists here for some reason, which I could not understand; maybe the site is not on the coach tour list.
It is very large in area, and is situated next to a cluster of shops that sell the usual things, but also you can get some tea or water and something to eat.
The carvings here are really quite deeply engraved and there is lots of it, the first pylon is particularly impressive. There is quite a bit of restoration going on within a few outbuildings , which are out of bounds, but do take time to look around the outside of the Temple itself. Inside the columns are just amazing, both in size and in their inscriptions, towards the back and to either side there are some rooms where you would benefit from having a torch to see the engraving and paintings. Surrounding the Temple are more recent mud brick walls, which are impressive in themselves
The Ramesseum (memorial temple of Ramesses II)
This Temple is in need of much restoration and there is some ongoing, if you go to the outside of the 1st pylon, into the field you will see that it is in great danger of collapsing, and already has to a great degree. This needs to be restored soon as it will simply fall down if not.
There is one enormous granite statue, that has toppled over and broken, I did not understand how it could have happened, because it is so big and no doubt extremely heavy, but it would be fantastic to see this restored. As with other Temples there are many mud brick walls around the perimeter of this site and some evidence of Roman occupation, so check it out.
Deir al-Madinah (workers’ village)
This is quite an extensive area with the remains of the workers homes in the lower area but there are some tombs further up the hillside, most of which are not open, some have not been looked after and there is much strewn rubbish around and in and around them, but it is worth going as high up the hill as you can, to get the view. At the far end of the workers homes there are the remains of a Greek Temple, but when we went it was locked, so we could not really check out the inside. Beware you may be offered so called originals here, we chose to ignore him, but it was a distraction.
Tombs of the Nobles
These Tombs are somewhat hidden amongst the homes of locals, and consequently very few tourist visited here whilst we were there. I understand, but have nor verified the fact, that these people will be moved sometime in the next year or two, so that the Temples can be better protected and then, there is the possibility of finding more Tombs. From the tourists perspective this is a good move, maybe not for some of the locals.
Surprisingly here we found some of the best paintings inside any of the Tombs, and some were much larger than we expected, this is a place to explore, do not be put off by the locals who want to show you other things. A torch would certainly help here, though at one of the Temples a local guide had designed a system of mirrors and tin foil to reflect the suns rays which was imaginative and very useful, this was one occasion I gave bakshee. I wish we had spent more time here as I am sure there is much more to see than I saw, but it is difficult to get a scale on things as there are many homes scattered over the hillside.
Temple of Seti I
Though this is a little off the beaten track, and is need of substantial repair, there is much missing, it is worth the effort as few tourists find this place, so you can wander about at your leisure. The columns are very large and extremely impressive. There are also some Roman remains here also in the grounds.
Deir el-Bahri (temple of Hatshepsut, etc.)
This is just amazing and a definite must see. When we went it was particularly hot so remember to take lots of water. The view as you approach the Temple is quite breathtaking, apart from your fellow travelers who tend to get in the way. Although there is a short train service, I would recommend not taking this as the short walk is part of the experience. When we were there was a group of people meditating in one part of the Hathor Chapel, which made it difficult to properly explore and see the carvings and paintings which were particularly good.
Colossi of Memnon (memorial temple of Amenophis III)
This is one of the sites where you do not have to pay. The site is just off the main road leading away from the Nile towards the Valleys, you can not really miss the two huge figures. It is a definite photo opportunity, but there are lots of tourists around so they will definitely be in your photo frame.
Other things to do and visit.
We went for a balloon ride, and although more expensive than other activities at Luxor, I would highly recommend this. The trip starts early in the morning and you have to get to the West Bank. We were lucky in that the basket was not overcrowded, but we did see some that certainly were extremely full, this would certainly detract from the experience.
Obviously you go where the wind takes you, for us we crossed the Nile, which was apparently not the usual way the wind blows, crossing over Luxor itself getting a birds eye view of people getting up, brushing their teeth – you can see right into peoples homes, then there was the aerial view of Luxor Temple and for us we could see our own hotel room. The ride takes about an hour, the landing for us was smooth, but I understand from others can be less.
Taking a faluka sailing trip is a must if you visit Luxor, but you must agree a price, we agreed E£15 per hour, which is mid range, but remember it is per hour and the pilot will keep you on the Nile as long as he can, for me I really enjoyed it sailing on the Nile, visiting Crocodile Island and Banana Island, was a nice extra, but not essential in my view.
We took a short camel ride for half an hour; this was enough for me as it was good to have had the experience. Prices vary considerably, we considerably overpaid for this experience at E£50 each, and so make sure you agree a figure below this.
You have to experience the market areas, you will be hassled constantly, if you go into a shop do not initially tell them what you are interested in as you will not see anything else browse around, if you are interested in something, then offer the lowest possible price you dare and stick to it. Although harmless, you will from time to time be accompanied by; usually young children who want to show you around, and expect some bakshee, tell them firmly no thank you and they may go away, but not always. Take it as leisurely as you can, soak up the atmosphere, this is the life and style of the traders and is the heart of Luxor and Egypt, you can feel the heart beating.
We booked a Taxi to take us to Abydos and Dendara, which is a few hours drive to the North of Luxor. You will need to agree this trip the previous day as you go in a police escorted armed convoy, which sets off at 8am and returns at 5pm. In between there is a lot of driving very fast with your taxi driver constantly being pushed by the police to go faster, as a consequence he is forever trying to overtake other cars and busses in the convoy. This can be a little scary but also exhilarating as the police sirens wail and the traffic is stopped just to let us through. I really enjoyed this, as did the driver I believe, but my partner, she was less enthused about it, particularly as there are no seat belts in the back of the taxi.
At Abydos The Temple of Seti I itself, there is little time to explore, but lots to see, so get on with it quickly as the convoy leaves after about an hour. There are toilets here so make use of them. This Temple is one of the few that has an almost complete roof to it and quite beautiful and as such leaves a much different impression than those that are open to the elements.
At Dendara The Temple of Hathor, similarly you will have to rush as the convoy will be keen to set off and return to Luxor before 5pm. This is a truly wonderful and there is a great deal to see, For me the best and most interesting parts were the most unusual in so far as there is a roof are to visit, which you reach by some steps to the right and back as you go through, do not miss it. The ceilings here are particularly well adorned, check out the Zodiac, which looks real but I understand is a plaster cast
This trip was well worth while, not very expensive, but when we visit again, and we will, we will rent out an apartment or villa as they are very cheap. Two weeks was about right, anything less than a week would not do justice to the place. The food was moderately exciting, the sights were absolutely out of this world, the only regret was not getting to Aswan, but there again we can go there another time.