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Getting around

Part 3: Siwa, Marsa Matrouh

25.12: Munich -> Cairo -> Alexandria
26.12: Alexandria
27.12: Alexandria -> El Alamein -> Siwa
28.12: Siwa
29.12: Siwa -> Marsa Matrouh
30.12: Marsa Matrouh -> Luxor via Alexandria and Cairo
31.12: Luxor
01.01: West Bank -> Nile river -> Luxor
02.01: Abydos, Dendera, Luxor
03.01: Luxor -> Edfu -> Kom Ombo -> Assuan
04.01: Assuan
05.01: Assuan -> Abu Simbel
06.01: Abu Simbel -> Cairo
07.01: Cairo, Sakkara, Memphis
08.01: Cairo -> Munich

28.12: Siwa
Hotel Safari Gardens, Siwa. After one day in this hotel we realise a few things. First of all the water in the toilet is really salty. Tastes horrible when rinsing the mouth after brushing the teeth. I guess this is a generic problem here in Siwa, although I had read somewhere that they managed to install some system to make the water less salty.
Second problem, this place is full of mosquitoes which I was not expecting from a place in the desert. We may be in the desert but the humidity level is higher in this hotel than on the coast in Alexandria. The breakfast is ok, but is not buffet type. You are served a dish with stuff you may or may not like. Lunch is not bad either, but not that great. Quite a few tourists visit this place.

Weather: sunny with many clouds in the morning, in the late afternoon the sky is free of clouds. No rain, windy and fresh.

When we wake up we notice that the face of Natasha, our three years old girl, is swollen and full of red dots. Especially the right eyelid is terribly swollen. We initially think of bedbugs, later in the afternoon we realise that it's mosquito bites and the hotel is in fact full of mosquitoes.

We have breakfast at 9:30am, then discuss with the hotel owner the plan for today. Essentially it will be a visit of Siwa oasis in the morning, around 2:30 hours, back in the hotel at 1:30pm for 200 EGP (with a car) and a desert trip in the afternoon, starting at 2:30pm and finishing after sunset for 650 EGP.

Total cost 850 EGP, which is really expensive and makes me think for a while. But without knowing the place and having prearranged something with another operator or having a price comparison it's impossible to know if the hotel owner is overcharging us.

However I remember that the desert trip on a 4WD car in Oman was also very expensive, so perhaps this is the price you have to pay for a 4WD trip into the desert.

In any case at 10:45am we start with the morning trip. We must skip the Siwa house (sort of an open air museum), because it is closed today.

The first stop is the mountain of the dead which we reach at 11am, a hill in Siwa from which you have a great view of the entire oasis. It's called mountain of the dead because there are many graves inside the hilltop, some with ancient Egyptian frescoes. Very interesting and scenic place, we spend 40 minutes there and I shoot over 100 frames, because the views here are great. Entry ticket is 25 EGP for an adult non-Egyptian.

It's almost 12pm noon when we reach the next place, the temple of the Oracle. If I'm not mistaken this is the place which Alexander the Great visited during his campaign against Persia. It's mostly ruins in a very poor conservation status, but the setup of these ruins is quite scenic. Again 25 EGP entry for an adult non-Egyptian, which is a bit pricey for a place like this where there are just stones without carvings, frescoes etc.

We just spend 20 minutes here then drive to the temple of Amun (free visit). The only thing left of this temple are a couple of fallen rectangular pillars and the piece of a wall with ancient Egyptian carvings. Not much to see, but a very scenic place considering the desert backdrop.

At 12:40pm we reach the last place, the so called Cleopatra bath. This is a round pond with, well, not hot water. It's possible to take a bath in it, but the water is quite greenish and dirty, not exactly appealing. Around this pond are a couple of cafes for the tourists and a souvenir shop. Adjacent to it the date palm plantations. In fact this spot is quite cosy, and if the temperatures were a bit higher and you don't mind swimming in the not so clean water, it's a place where to relax and have a drink or two at the juice bar.

It's 1pm when we drive into town and have a look at the "shops". Actually there is not much. Near the Siwa Shali, a ruin of former Siwa village, there are a number of restaurants, hotels, bicycle rentals and simple shops. You could spend some time walking around exploring the area, although it's not too interesting.

At 1:30pm we are back in the hotel, thinking of having lunch. Surprise, you must book the lunch if you want to have it. But ok, they still agree to serve us some lunch. Lunch is not too bad, although the lasagne are already cold. Opposite to us there are two families with small children on the other table. In fact there are quite a few tourists travelling with small children in Siwa, we are not the only ones.

At 2:40pm we start the desert trip in a 4WD Toyota car. For the next hours and until sunset we drive into the desert and visit a couple of places, of which one is a hot spring and one a cold spring in the middle of the desert. We drive for about 13km to the southwest of Siwa. Here the desert consists of sand dunes and driving  up and down the dunes is really fun. The dunes are not too big by the way - those of the Wahiba desert in Oman were more impressive.

I get caught in a sandstorm while I'm taking some pictures. My hair, nose, ears etc. everything is full of sand.

It is possible to swim in the desert springs, in the hot spring also on cold days. In fact we meet other cars with tourists at both springs.

At 5pm we reach the sunset point, a dune from which we wait for the sunset. After sunset, at 5:25pm, we drive back to the hotel. In the evening we do nothing, except having dinner at 7:40pm.

29.12: Siwa -> Marsa Matrouh
Hotel Beau Site, Marsa Matrouh. USD 66 for a double room in a beach hotel. Decent room, three stars, with attached toilet+shower. Nice setup, good furniture, not too big but more than adequate. Room has TV, phone, fridge A/C, no heating. Friendly staff at the reception. Good restaurant serving us a delicious dinner, which however is not as cheap as I had hoped (well, you pay for quality). The hotel is directly on its own beach. Small, cramped shower cabin, very little water coming down, it takes for ever to rinse the soap away. Beautiful white sand beach with crystal clear water in front of the hotel.
Weather: mostly sunny the whole day, occasionally some clouds, fresh. No rain. In Marsa Matrouh a bit cold in the evening.

We check out at 11am. I discuss the bill with the hotel owner. This includes the accommodation and the trips of yesterday. Suddenly he tells me that I have to pay an additional "military permit" fee for the trip into the desert of 4 x 55 EGP, total 220 EGP. This sounds very weird, because we didn't pass any military checkpoint and the driver didn't have to pay anyone to leave Siwa. Also, the owner didn't mention this additional cost yesterday when he offered me the trip.

Further discussion, I ask the owner if he can organise a minibus for us to Marsa Matrouh at 4pm. Cost will be 25EGP per person + 5 EGP per piece of luggage. Then I get a map of Siwa and some advice about what to do today.

It's finally 11:30am when we finally walk into town (just a 5 minutes walk from the Siwa Gardens hotel). The first thing to do would be to get some cash from the ATM. It takes a while to find the bank, because the map of Siwa I got from the owner is a bit confusing. At the bank for some reason the ATM refuses to accept my Maestro card, and apparently this is the only ATM in Siwa.

The first sightseeing spot is the Siwa house which is open today (8am-2pm). This is a reconstruction of a traditional Siwan mud brick house from old times. Some workers are busy restoring/rebuilding one of the two buildings. There is not too much to see and the building itself is locked. We take some photos and after 10 minutes, at 12:20pm we walk to the next spot, the Siwa Shali.

The Siwa Shali are the ruins of the old Siwa mud brick town, encircled by walls. Part of the Shali has been restored, and it is easily possible to walk to the top, but the overwhelming majority of the mud brick buildings are more or less completely destroyed. Only some walls are still standing. Probably the historic centre of Siwa was abandoned for some reason many years ago and the houses fell apart over time. From the top of the Shali there is a great view of Siwa (the Shali is on a small hill).

By 1pm I'm done exploring the Shali and join again the ladies who refused to climb up to the Shali and instead chose to have a drink in a cafe in the meantime.

Because Alissia wants to do a donkey trip we talk to one of the donkey cart owners and ask for the price of a donkey cart trip to Fatna island on the lake of Siwa. Surprise, for a two hours trip the guy asks for only 50 EGP. Initial asking price, we might perhaps have even negotiated down the price.

So we have a lunch in the nearby Abdu restaurant. The food is good and the bill for the five of us (three adults + two kids) including the drinks is only 79 EGP. Unbelievably cheap lunch for five people.

Siwa seems to be a mix of very affordable things and very expensive things. Trips organised by good hotels tend invariably to be expensive, while you can find locals who show you around for very low prices. Compare yesterday's trip to the desert which totalled 870 EGP with this donkey cart trip to the Fatna lake for just 50 EGP.

At 2pm the donkey cart guy picks us up and we head to the Fatna island. This is a former island in the Siwa lake which now is connected to the mainland by a road bridge. It lies about 4km from Siwa, which the donkey manages to cover in 25 minutes.

Fatna island lies around the date palm plantations. On the west beach facing the sea, there is a simple cafe with tables and chairs. Great views of the lake and this must be a good place from which to wait for the sunset.

After a while at the lake we head back to the hotel, arriving shortly before 4pm. The minibus to Siwa is still not here and in fact we will not be leaving before 5pm. At 5pm, when the minibus finally arrives, some discussion with the driver. In the end we charter the whole minibus. For 350 EGP the guy will bring us to the hotel in Marsa Matrouh. The minibus itself is quite huge and can seat 14 people + the driver in five rows of seats.

A small digression regarding the Egyptians we have met so far in Alexandria and Siwa. These are mostly friendly, helpful and honest people, not the kind of persons who charge you a special tourist price, multiple of the real price, and are not pushy. Probably this is because Siwa and Alexandria are far less touristy than for instance Cairo or Luxor where people can be very aggressive. If you allow people to earn some money and do not try to bargain hard to the last cent, you can have a very relaxed trip.

So we leave Siwa at 5:15pm. Again we pass the military roadblock a bit out of town, this time the soldiers look more professional and inspect the minibus. Then we proceed at high speed towards Marsa. For a while we are driving at 140km/h, but because of a stop along the way, we "only" reach Marsa Matrouh at 8pm. Then it takes a while to find the hotel. On one road there is a roadblock manned by soldiers next to a tank.

We are in the hotel at 8:30pm. After checking in we have a late dinner at 9pm. Excellent multiple course dinner, but too much food given the late time (and a bit pricey as well, but never mind). We arrange for a minibus to pick us up tomorrow at 10am for Alexandria airport for a fee of 500 EGP. Initial asking price was 750 EGP which apparently was their standard price. No idea how they managed to reduce the price that much. We just told them that the trip from Siwa to Marsa, which is the same distance as from Marsa to Alexandria, just cost 350 EGP.

30.12: Marsa Matrouh -> Luxor via Alexandria and Cairo
Hotel Royal House, Luxor. A double room with everything except heating (TV, fridge, phone etc). Old furnishings however, the hotel is quite old. The bathroom has been recently renovated. Shower in the bathtub, not enough hot water for a shower (too small electrical water boiler system). The closing mechanism in our room is damaged so that cold air flows into the room at night and the street noise comes in (the room is cold). Good breakfast, not buffet style. Very friendly staff. Noisy room.
Weather: sunny, blue sky, but fresh the whole day.

We are ready in the lobby at 10am, then it takes half an hour of time to settle the bill because the credit card machine supposedly doesn't work and the bill is not set up correctly and it takes forever to get a new bill issued.

Anyway at 10:30am we leave the hotel in the minivan we booked yesterday. Everything proceeds smoothly and by 1:30pm, i.e. in three hours we are at the Borg El Arab airport, the current Alexandria airport.

Some discussion with the driver when we arrive. Apparently he understood that we are driving to Alexandria, not Alexandria airport and now wants 600 EGP instead of 500 EGP. This is weird, because the distance to the airport is 40km less than the distance to the city centre. In any case I just give him 500.

The Borg el Arab airport is smallish and quite new. Apparently it is used now as a substitute for another Alexandria airport which is undergoing renovation. It's quite modern, although the facilities are a bit Spartan. For instance, there is no restaurant, only some bars and places selling snacks.

Unpleasant surprise at the check-in counter. Our flight is delayed by over three hours, from 4:40pm to 8pm. The airline didn't bother informing us. Despite the delay we get nothing: no access to the business class lounge, no upgrade to the business class, not even a drink. Instead we have to spend many hours waiting inside the domestic gate area, where there is just a bar selling snacks.

Egyptair sucks. They cite some technical reason, but the real reason is probably that the route Alexandria-Cairo is not so important and does not carry much traffic. So, if there is any glitch anywhere and a plane is missing, Egyptair just takes it from the Alexandria-Cairo route. In fact, we originally were on the 6pm flight in Alexandria, then they cancelled this flight and reassigned us to the 4:40pm flight, forcing us to change our travel plans. And now the 4:40pm flight becomes an 8pm flight and Egyptair does not bother informing us. These Egyptair flight times go up and down like a yo-yo.

Actually, had we continued by car to Cairo, we would have arrived before 5pm at the airport and could have caught an earlier flight. But the idea of taking the flight in Alexandria was to minimise the ground travel time because my wife was complaining that I was subjecting the kids to so much travel time. In fact had there been a flight in Marsa Matrouh or Siwa I would have gladly used that, but there are no such flights, at least not in winter in Egypt.

In any case finally at 8:10pm the flight takes off from Borg el Arab airport and lands in Cairo at 9pm (almost empty plane). Lots of walking in the Cairo airport terminal looking for a transit counter which does not exist, or an information counter which also does not exist. In the end I just walk to a check in counter and the second guy I talk to agrees to issue new boarding passes for Cairo-Luxor.

It's 9:30pm and we rush, rush, rush to the gate and manage to catch the 10pm flight, which takes off with some delay. The plane is full in the economy class and quite empty in the business class. By the way, no food is served on both flights, only drinks.

We land in Luxor at 11:07pm, retrieve the luggage by 11:35pm and are in the hotel shortly after midnight. 11km from the airport to the hotel, the taxi costs 60 EGP (as a comparison we paid 50 EGP for an 18km trip in Alexandria).

Copyright 2012 Alfred Molon