The taxi driver who picked me up from home at 6:10 a.m. on a dark and cold November morning was the same one who had explained how turbulence had affected the flight I was on returning from Turkey recently. The said driver told me that he held dual citizenship with Belgium, having been born on the North Sea, and had visited 100 countries. He said that travel is one of the greatest discoveries, and I agree. Before I met him, I was feeling chuffed that Cyprus would be my 70th country visited. Now I feel envious of the taxi man.
Of course, I arrived far too early at Gatwick for a midday flight to Paphos but I am aware that, with one hourly service from Reading, anything going wrong could spell apprehension or a missed flight. I had booked my seat almost a year ago to avail of the cheapest fare. So few people had booked in the intervening months that the fare was almost the same the day before departure. There may have been only about 30 of us on the flight and inevitably someone had taken my seat. It hardly mattered and we all dispersed and had a row to ourselves. It was rather nice.
Paphos Airport was a friendly and easy place and I was quickly through. Not so quickly out as the bus was badly delayed and it came twenty-five minutes late. Fares are very cheap (1.50 euros per single journey but payable every time one takes a bus unless a day ticket is bought) and the bus stopped outside the Veronica Hotel where I stayed. It would have been more helpful if the stop names were given inside the buses but, anyway, I was soon in my room.
The Veronica was very pleasant. Decent sized rooms come with balconies, and breakfast was very good also. It is popular too, and also convenient for the harbour.
I found a restaurant opposite which was quiet and which therefore suited me well. Everyone was very friendly and an 11 euro pork chop suggested nothing untoward. Let's just say that Cypriot dishes are generous. I have a decent appetite, but wasn't ravenously hungry but the size of the meal defeated even me and when the waiter asked how I found the provided bread, I could only joke and tell him politely that I wished that he hadn't given me it. I think he understood. It was a shame that the next day being Sunday, they were shut.
I had much to do in a very short stay in Paphos. I wanted longer but part of the Egyptian trip required a further day and so I had to make do with the one full day. It didn't start well as I was told that I could pick up a bus from either of the two stops close to the hotel as it did a circuit of the street. It didn't, and I picked the wrong stop which meant going into the harbour initially rather than Petra tou Romiou, the birthplace of Aphrodite, and one of the area's major highlights.
I also hoped that I might bump into legendary England wicket-keeper, Alan Knott, who I am told winters in Cyprus. I kept looking but without success. My brief stay on the island was wonderful and I am sure that I will be back. The harbour is pleasant yet not that big and it was a pleasure walking up the palm tree-adorned promenade.
I did make it Petra tou Romiou, but very briefly. The option was either ten minutes there or three-and-a-half hours. Suspecting that the latter would be far too long, I had just enough time to see the famous rock before returning to Paphos. I was pleased to have seen it and it is a nice area, close to the Aphrodite Hills.
I had bought a day pass on the buses and made use of it by going to one of the area's well-known beaches, Coral Bay. It seemed pleasant, with plenty of very good accommodation around.
I ate that evening in a restaurant near the harbour. Cypriot dishes, I noticed, tend to come with chips and salad predominantly and I had some excellent cod this time. Again, it was a thoroughly good and big meal which I finished (with help from a cat, but not with the bill. It behaved itself when its owners were about but jumped up when the coast was clear).
I moved on to Larnaca the following morning. It's odd how leaving ten minutes earlier than planned can make such a difference. In my case, the journey to Karavella Station from where the Intercity buses leave from, was the same and went via the harbour. Had I left ten minutes later, I would not have made the advertised direct service to Larnaca and would have changed in Limassol. This 0930 bus - which I caught at 0935 - was full, but after disgorging the majority of the travellers at the first Limassol stop, we were moved on to a bigger and more comfortable coach at Limassol Port, for whatever reason.
Essentially, I only went to Larnaca as I would be flying from there to Cairo the day afterwards. I had, for no particular reason, expected to enjoy Paphos more but I found Larnaca most enjoyable. The bus stopped at the beach station of Finikoudes, which was convenient for the Onisillos Hotel, where I stayed. I was too early to check in so enjoyed a couple of bracing walks along the delightful sea promenade, and also visited the beautiful Church of St. Lazarus, just a short walk from the Onisillos.
An evening meal sitting outside near Finikoudes was also very enjoyable and even better value. Just sitting on a jetty watching the waves was a special, later pleasure.
The Onisillos is on the bus route to the airport which was very convenient and so I ended up there in good time. The Egyptair staff kindly offered me the emergency exit seat, a luxury I did my best to scupper after joking about my deafness and nearly having the seat taken away from me. I should have realised that people in such seats need to be able to hear, but I kept it by promising to put my deaf aids in. A promise which I didn't keep.
The flight was pretty much on time after which I changed money. It can be done in England but the rates are significantly lower (16.50 approximately to the 20.60 which I managed at Cairo Airport). The most galling aspect was the e-visa which I had laboured over in advance and ended up, at one stage, with three applications. It was probably partly me making too much of it - a bellringer who visits Egypt regularly wondered why I didn't just pay the US$25 at the airport (which would have been easier) - but I was pleased to have the piece of official paper in my hand. When I handed it over, the immigration chap barely looked at it. Great.
I stayed two nights opposite the pyramids and the hotel, the Giza Pyramids Inn, kindly collected me free of charge from the airport. I had managed to inveigle a detour to stop off at the East Delta Company's bus station at El Turgoman so that I could book a ticket to St. Catherine. Prior booking was another laborious process with a website essentially only available in Arabic, and no-one who answered emails (written in English and Arabic, courtesy of Google Translate...) I was pleased to have the £8 ticket quickly in my hand.
The Giza Pyramids Inn was a very friendly place with very helpful staff. My room was a good size but sleep did rely upon putting muffles in. The hotel advertised that they provide ear plugs for those who did not wish to hear the sound of the five times daily muezzin, calling others to prayer. Actually, the greater noise was what I took to be a generator/boiler making a muffled hum all the time. Regardless, I slept decently. The hotel's main attraction is its rooftop terrace where meals are served. The view of the pyramids and Sphinx is completely stunning, and watching the Son et Lumiere show was especially wonderful.
I visited the pyramids on my full day. After paying the LE200 entrance fee, most independent tourists will then have to put up with requests to ride on a camel or horse, or be given history lessons by uninvited people happy to show you their - one supposes - approved guide accreditation. I find that I can now be entirely polite but eventually the "vendors" go away disappointed. It takes time to get rid of such people, but I managed somehow to walk up to and around all the pyramids whilst walking further into the desert to take all three main pyramids in one photo. I felt myself too tall and claustrophobic to take on the inside of the Great Pyramid, though.
I was a little surprised to be told by the first person selling something that I looked like an Egyptian. The reference to my slightly greying beard from similarly slightly greying, bearded Egyptians may have led me to believe it somewhat naively, but after the next six people had also told me that I looked like an Egyptian, I soon switched off. A conversation would go along the lines of:
"You look Egyptian. Which country you coming from?"
"England! I have relation in York. Lovely jubbly. You want camel? I give good price and you don't want to talk to anyone else around here. You don't trust them."
Another issue was the amount of photo requests I had from families and school groups. At times I was completely bombarded by them and must have had sixty to seventy mobile 'phones thrust in front of me. Maybe it's the Egyptian-looking beard on a foreigner? Maybe the red floppy hat? Maybe the strings attached to the glasses? Maybe it was my alarming lack of fashion? One girl told me that she loved me, but no marriage proposal was requested. All of it was fun.
Buying alcohol is a little bit of an issue. Duty Free shops on arrival in Cairo will sell up to, I believe, an extra three litres, and a case of beer seems also to be allowed. There is a way of procuring it at heavily inflated prices elsewhere but I found a company called Drinkies which appears to be reputable and legal. I found one such inevitably in a back street near the pyramids and came back with a backpack full, enough for the entire holiday.
I ate in a restaurant close by and chose stuffed pigeon on the first night. When the poor creature appeared complete with head, I rather wished that I hadn't chosen it. Chicken was the order of the next day's meal.
There were plenty of people offering taxis. My initial verbal skirmish for a price had started at a whopping 300 Egyptian Pounds (approximately £15) which made my eyes water and led to a further polite refusal. I am not sure how reliable internet websites for taxi fares are, but one quoted 85 for the same journey. I settled on one for 120 and knew I would probably have trouble when I relied upon the driver for change.
Actually, the greater issue on the day of the departure was when I saw the chap's car and realised that he was not a taxi driver. It's not the first time it has happened to me and I guess that I could ask to see the car but I doubt that it would be agreed to or an excuse found. After this error, it turned out to be fine - other than, of course, the driver not having change - but I did initially feel slightly uncertain in the company of this chap. I had enjoyed a little fun with someone else just before leaving Giza.
Paphos harbour, Cyprus
Aphrodite's birthplace, Petra tou Romiou, near Paphos
Someone who helped with the evening meal, but not the bill.
Church of St. Lazarus in Larnaca
Seaside promenade near Finikoudes in Larnaca
The view from the rooftop terrace at Giza Pyramids Inn
Watching the Son et Lumiere show from the same terrace
The Giza Pyramids, seen without having to go by horse or camel
One of the pyramids at sunset
The Sphinx

St.Catherine's Monastery in Sinai

Entrance into St. Catherine

Catherine Plaza Hotel

Mount Sinai

Myself in front of Mount Sinai

The Nile at Cairo

"You know what?" he started.
"Yes, I know, I look like an Egyptian," I quipped, whilst getting into the cramped car.
Oh dear, how to describe the East Delta bus journey down to St. Catherine? Well, let me say first that I was trying beforehand to dispose of the empty beer tins, many syphoned into more reliable litre, plastic bottles. I suspected that emptying them into the first provided bins which I had seen in Egypt might not look too good (especially with, in my estimation, too many people about who were also close to the wretched bins), so yet again they accompanied me.
More recently, ongoing unrest in the Sinai region has led to many checks. I wondered why the East Delta bus could give a departure time but not a reliable arrival time in St. Catherine. The trouble seems to be more in Northern Sinai but St. Catherine is in the south. Lots of military personnel are employed in the region, especially by the Suez Canal (which is not visible when going through the area).
So, the journey. The bus started on time but crawled through the traffic until we reached presumably the outskirts of Cairo where the first of possibly ten or eleven checkpoints was situated. The bus was checked, something within the luggage - which I was told failed to pass rigid tests for entry into the Suez tunnel - caused offence and the driver was marched off, presumably arrested. Certainly, he didn't return and we had a two-hour wait for a replacement. The Suez was equally slow and we were all told to disembark, identify our baggage and, whoops, open it. Yes, the policeman saw all the empties. Detailed to put them in the bin in front of a much larger audience, I made damn sure that my back was towards them. Another lesson learnt.
Passports and ID cards were checked at most places and the journey was endless. I don't like making mobile 'phone calls on coaches - I don't like mobile 'phones, to be honest - but was feeling desperate to do so, took a deep breath, pushed the go button and what happens? No service, we were going through the South Sinai mountainous region... My little insecurities were badly shown up on this epic, ten-and-a-half hour journey which eventually saw me at the Catherine Plaza Hotel in St. Catherine just before 10 p.m., having left Cairo at 11:30 a.m. The journey normally takes six to seven hours apparently.
Having written to the hotel a year beforehand to ask if they would match a similar, but less flexible, bed and breakfast rate, I was touched when they agreed but also added half board. By the time I had checked in, dinner was long gone but they kindly provided me with a decent meal which was much appreciated. The beer went down a treat also.
Many people have slogged up Mount Sinai in the early hours of the morning to see the sunrise, and I have friends who have done this. I have to say that I had little inclination to do it, especially after the somewhat draining journey but I did come to St. Catherine in the hope that I might meet an old school contemporary who is a priest within St. Catherine's Monastery. I had written a year ago asking if it might be possible to meet him, but the answer came back offering guest house accommodation next door suggested to me that the person replying might not understand English that greatly.
Google Translate came out again and, when I was finally satisfied with the copied-and-pasted efforts after endless checking and rechecking, I sent it off. An answer - in English - quickly came back from another Father saying that my school contemporary was away in England.
I admit to not realising that the monastery was around a half-hour walk from the hotel so I ended up taking a shared taxi from the St. Catherine Village, a ten-minute walk from the hotel. I was the sole passenger but, to be fair, I was not greatly fleeced. I did, though, lose my favourite red, Peruvian hat somewhere between taking the taxi and reaching the monastery which saddened me. My bag was checked at the checkpoint and some other travellers joined our taxi afterwards. Neither the checkpoint could later find the hat, and no-one in the group was certainly wearing it by mistake later, and it couldn't be found in the taxi later so it was disappointing.
Not as disappointing, though, to find that my school contemporary was still in England. I must say, though, that when I explained the story to a couple of staff in the monastery by means of a further Google Translate letter of introduction, if you like, they were extremely helpful. Being a Friday, little of the monastery was open as it is only open for around forty-five minutes. We were allowed inside the church and I later followed a couple up the stairs before being told off for going up there. I was told that I had been asked three times not to go and only heard the third request. The problems and inevitability of poor hearing.
I returned to the closed monastery in the afternoon to take better photos in a less harsh light. By the time of my return, I was becoming an instantly recognisable sight and began to make some friends amongst the armed and unarmed guards.
St. Catherine of Alexandria, after whom the monastery is named, had a short but notable life converting many people to Christianity before being martyred at the age of around 18. Her torturous death led to the later naming of the Catherine wheel.
Being alone and independent (much the preferable way to me), the afternoons could, though, be quite long but I enjoyed walking around the area and into the village admiring the stunning scenery. The locals were friendly and helpful and it was nice talking and waving to those who had helped me. Even the children were welcoming, and the whole experience was a fascinating and pleasant one.
I went up to the monastery again on foot on Saturday and saw a little bit more. I chatted to a couple of the monks who were extremely friendly and generous, and I also enjoyed some of the treasures in the monastery's museum. The monk in the souvenir shop was very happy to be photographed and I was impressed by the languages which the staff could break into. Someone thought that I was German so I was happy to reply in German. The loss of my hat the day before did not deter another Egyptian asking for a photo with me: it mystifies me but it cannot just be the hat which intrigues them.
Guides are now required for anyone wanting to walk up Mount Sinai. It may be good old health and safety, it might be a way of people making a living but I am led to believe that there is a set fee of LE250 ( approximately £12.50p). Inevitably, I was stopped by someone purporting to be a guide who naturally started off at LE300 on the grounds that he had three children. Without much difficulty, I got him down to LE150 (before he ran out of change...) and I was on my way. As my head was slightly burned from the day before, I resorted to my Nepalese tiger hat used for cold weather but no-one gave me an especially strange look.
I was happy to settle for an hour's walk which gave decent views of Mount Sinai and a different perspective of the monastery. The path was easy and, even though I carelessly lost my footing occasionally probably whilst taking photos, I was more concerned about the guide who seemed quickly out of breath. Having given his guidebooks to someone to look after, I rather fancy that he was not a mountain guide. Anyhow, his presence allowed me up the trail towards the mountain and for that I was grateful. It was a good compromise.
The three nights in Sinai were pretty cold. Admittedly, I must accept some responsibility for this as I had not realised that the bedroom door leading on to the balcony was a little temperamental. Having closed one end, it took two nights before realising that one end might have been shut but the other had opened in the process...
The return journey to Cairo was very much more straightforward than the one down. The scenery, especially along the Gulf of Suez was wonderful, as was the mountainous terrain after leaving St. Catherine. I was very grateful to the bus driver and his colleague who went out of their way to drop me at a place where I could see the Hotel Beirut where I stayed the night before my flight home. This saved not only negotiation with a taxi driver for the seven or eight mile journey from the Cairo bus station, but more importantly it allowed me to spend the afternoon in Cairo admiring the Nile which probably would not have been possible had I spent extra time reaching the hotel.
It was a busy area which I visited and I travelled by the metro. I made a bit of a meal of reaching Nasser Station and would have had an easier time had I left at Attaba. Never mind, the people were very friendly and helpful and I was impressed when two people offered their seats to me. Maybe it is the white, Egyptian-looking beard which is making me look old?
The Hotel Beirut was very comfortable. What's more, I enjoyed a Shish Tawouk (essentially chicken kebab) with my first glass of wine in Egypt in their restaurant. The room was spacious and very comfortable but I had to suffer another early morning the next day. The hotel very kindly offered a free drop-off at the airport but insisted that I was there three hours before the flight. In the end, it was three-and-a-half and it was all supremely unnecessary but the time went comparatively quickly.
As Egyptair is a dry airline, I had been led to believe that they do allow travellers to tuck into their duty free and still provide mixers etc. Whatever, the bag was firmly sealed with instructions not to open until the final destination so, having been through all anticipated checks, I bought a very expensive can of beer only to have it confiscated at further checks at the gate... Oh well. The flight was very comfortable and the meal excellent, but a wonderful trip ended with a glass of mango and guava juice.