TBT: The Great Sphinx & Giza Plateau, Egypt

TBT to that awesome time I was in Egypt! TAKE ME BACK!!! I think people often consider The Sphinx as a bit of an afterthought to the pyramids, but, while it’s certainly smaller, it’s every bit as impressive! The Giza Plateau in general is a really beautiful area, and (if you can manage to block out the roaming salesmen) can be surprisingly peaceful if you have the time to just sit down and take it all in…

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Luxor Temple, Egypt

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It was around this time last week that I heard about a terrorist attack that was fortunately quelled at the Temple of Karnak in Egypt. I visited Egypt a few years ago, and have written a lot about it; I was a little apprehensive about visiting, given that we arrived in the middle of unrest and riots, but I actually found it to be a wonderful country for the most part, with very kind and generous people, who were just trying to do the best they could in the circumstances they were experiencing. So it was really sad to hear that armed attackers tried to force their way through a security checkpoint at the Temple.

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In much the same vein as the post I wrote on Bangkok last year when they were going through some political (albeit a lot less violent) turmoil, I still believe Egypt is worth visiting. And instead of just writing a lengthy post about the curiosity and generosity of the people, the incredible food, the crazy markets and the brilliant culture shock, let me just show you yet another stunning example of the gorgeous temples that dot the country. Real life history like no where else, and absolutely worth seeing for yourself…

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Travel Tuesday: The Hanging Church, Cairo, Egypt

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I’ve been spending a bit of time reminiscing over my trip to Egypt lately; two years ago, and it’s still so vivid in my mind. I know a few other people who’ve visited Egypt, more or less to tick off the big tourist draw cards. Great, seen the Sphinx. Pyramids? Tick. Felucca on the Nile? Yup. I’m not necessarily saying this is a bad thing, or that I wasn’t looking forward to these things as well, but honestly, they’re not the things that stand out in my memory, or the main reasons I wanted to go there. I’ve written a bit before about my reasons for wanting to visit Egypt, but basically I’ve been studying the country’s history and mythology since I was a kid (literally, primary school). I find it all fascinating. And while I was looking forward to the pyramids, Luxor Temple, Abu Simbel, I was really looking forward to the discoveries I hadn’t already read about. The Hanging Church was one of those things.

This place was fascinating on so many levels. It was hidden in plain sight, appearing seemingly out of nowhere. It was built above one of the gates of the old Roman Babylon Fortress, and is actually a Coptic church. It’s a stunning site, with the most beautifully intricate geometric patterns carved into the large wooden doors and windows, like this one..

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The inside of the church was just as beautiful as the surrounding structures. Unlike the temples we’d visited so far, this was a church that was actually in use, which made a big difference. There were quite a few worshipers praying at the time we visited, which made for quite a spiritual and solemn experience. It felt real, not just a place set up for tourists with people trying to sell you postcards and tacky souvenirs. It was a humbling way to see the reality of so many Egyptians, to “hear” the silence and to see their history. This was an experience I hoped so much to have in Egypt, and I’m really grateful to have had the opportunity to have seen this church. If you Cairo, make sure you ask your tour guide or hotel concierge about getting there!

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Eat here: Leyalina, Melbourne (Egyptian)

Leyalina
191 Lygon St, Carlton, Melbourne
https://www.facebook.com/leyalina.melbourne

It’s hard to believe it was just two years ago we were in Egypt; it almost feels like a dream, now. I’d been wanting to visit Egypt my whole life, but was a little hesitant about the food. I wasn’t too familiar with Egyptian food, and wasn’t sure I’d really like it. What if it was too spicy? Too strange? Ingredients I didn’t understand or like? But we don’t travel to be comfortable, so instead of taking the easy way out and ordering burgers and chips everywhere, I threw myself headfirst into it and ordered falafel and grilled meat of every variety, dips and flat breads, and whatever else people wanted to recommend. And I loved it, all of it! Even the stuff I didn’t recognise, like most of the stuff in the photo below that we ate in the Nubian village we visited – I know there was molasses and some sort of sugar paste something-or-other… I didn’t care, it was all so good!

But strangely enough, back in Melbourne (one of the world’s greatest cultural mixing pots), there really aren’t many/any options for good Egyptian restaurants, so it’s been a little difficult for me to sate my appetite and relive the good memories from that trip. Until now: enter Leyalina. This Egyptian eatery opened on Lygon Street only 7 weeks ago, and is already earning itself quite a reputation. Visiting on Saturday night, we couldn’t help notice that the two story restaurant was packed out for pretty much the entire duration of our visit, a solid two hours. A pretty impressive feat for a 7 week old restaurant.

The lovely Marco greeted us and continued to check on us throughout the night, making sure our food was coming out to us in a timely fashion (which it did, despite how busy they were) and that we were happy with everything, which we very much were. I’ll come back to that later, though. First, the food.

We got started with the house made hummus ($9.50) and lemonade with mint ($6.00). The lemonade was a little overpriced, but the hummus was fantastic! Super smooth and perfectly balanced, with the sprinkle of paprika and parsley, and drizzle of olive oil – no overpowering garlic or tahini or anything like that. Great way to start a meal.

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Next up was the mixed grill plate ($27.00) – three skewers, one each of chicken, lamb shish kebab and lamb kofta on a spiced rice with raisins. The rice was delicious, again balanced just right, nothing too overpowering or too subtle. The skewers were amazing – the chicken and lamb were both really tender meat, and the kofta was perfectly seasoned. There was also a small side salad on the plate, which made it a pretty good main meal for one.

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The falafel. Very, very good. Deep fried little balls of goodness, smothered in sesame seeds and partnered with some spicy picked vegetables and a little cup of baba ghanoush, if I’m not mistaken. They were a little different to the ones I remember eating in Egypt; a lot smoother and less chunky, and we both really enjoyed them.

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The next dish we had was the foul mendammas, something I really wanted to try in Egypt but never had the opportunity to. It’s a traditional dish of cooked and mashed fava beans with vegetable oil and cumin, and occasionally garlic, lemon juice, onion, parsley – different areas will have different variations, like pastas in Italy and bun cha in Vietnam. I loved this one, so did husband; it’s amazing how much flavour you can get into a dish this simple when you know what you’re doing with it! It was thick, rich, so full of flavour, real comfort food. Huge tick for this one!

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And, because no great meal is complete without dessert, Marco kindly recommended the Om Ali tagine – nuts, sultanas and pastry layers baked tagine-style with milk. It came out looking less than appetising. It was destroyed in a matter of minutes. Don’t be deceived by looks, this is the darling of the dessert menu for good reason! The crunchy little hazelnuts and juicy raisins were strangely perfect with the milk-softened pastry. I’m glad I got this instead of my usual baklava order; it’s something I’d have never ordered unprompted or expected to like. This is why you need to trust the guys working behind the scenes in restaurants! Thanks Marco!

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Throwback Thursday: Walking the streets of Cairo between riots, 2013

It’s hard to believe this was two years ago, almost to the day… Throwback Thursday it is, indeed.

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I’ve written a bit over the past year about the life changing time I spent in Egypt back in 2013, but haven’t really yet touched on the fact that we happened to visit in between flare ups of rioting and fighting. The trip had been booked and paid for well in advance, and we weren’t about to cancel it without an extremely good reason. The official travel advisories stated that in the week we were to be there, it would be sufficiently safe; that was good enough for us! We were only in Cairo for a few nights, anyhow, and didn’t think we’d be getting too close to the troubled areas of the city anyway.

Turned out we arrived a day before the rest of our tour companions did, and our brilliant guide Medo had an offer we couldn’t refuse – a private tour of the city. Absolutely; we figured it’d be our only real chance to see it safely. It was a confronting experience, but I’m glad we did it.

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The first thing that was blatantly obvious, was that I stood out like an elephant wearing a tutu. I felt like a zoo animal being walked around on a leash for the day. I was covered up, wearing pants, a long sleeved top, closed shoes. I left my hair out to cover my neck and partially hide my face. I wore sunglasses, and all of my tattoos were hidden. I wore no jewellery other than a simple black leather bracelet, a silver necklace chain and my wedding ring, turned around so that the diamonds were in my palm. I did my best to keep myself hidden in plain sight. But I couldn’t hide the fact that I was a lily white Western woman, with freckles and auburn red hair. That made me different enough for unending stares. The strange thing was, they weren’t rude stares; merely inquisitive. I didn’t feel like people were offended by my presence, I just felt like they were very curious about me. Medo put me at ease instantly, letting me know that I was as much a tourist attraction to them as the Nile was to me.

The second thing was the damage that had been caused as we reached Tahrir Square. Windows had been smashed. Buildings had been gutted by fires. Cars upturned. Store front boarded up and spray painted. It was exactly as it had been depicted in the media, yet I still wasn’t ready for it.

Again, Medo urged us not to worry; he explained that the locals understood very well that their livelihoods relied mostly on tourism, and as such, if any rioting was to break out, we could rest assured we’d be left completely untouched and unharmed. The riots were a hell of a lot more organised than we’d been led to believe from the media reporting, too; they were planned and announced, for the most part, in advance. That’s how the news reporters knew where and when to turn up. Hotels also let their guests know when to avoid the square for these pre-planned events. Real life on those streets was far less frightful than the news would have had us believe.

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We came from Melbourne to Cairo; “polar opposites” would be the phrase that first comes to mind. Coming from such a safe city, being afraid to leave my house for fear of fighting or rioting is not a notion I have ever had to entertain, not even in my most ridiculous dreams. I’ve never avoided an area in my city for fear of my personal safety. It’s second nature for me to walk around with whoever I want, wearing whatever I want, doing exactly as I please. I know that not everyone has that privileged, yet it’s not something I’ve ever considered myself lucky to have had. I’m glad we weren’t there on the day of a riot, because the aftermath was scary enough for me. But honestly, other than being the unwitting and uncomfortable centre of attention, I felt surprisingly comfortable in Cairo with Medo as our guide. The locals were as curious about me as I was about them, nothing was hidden, it was all put out there for the world to see. Somehow, that’s more comforting. It was an encounter I’ll always remember, and something I’m so glad I had the opportunity to experience.

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Flashback Friday: A night at the Temple of Edfu, Egypt

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Flashback Friday!! Hooray! It’s that time when you’re counting down the minutes to the end of the work week, and letting your mind wander a little more than usual. For me, that usually means thinking about packing my bags and leaving again. Which also makes me think of adventures passed; the time I spent in Egypt almost two years ago often comes to my mind when I think of “adventure”. Back in April, I wrote about the journey that took us from Kom Ombo Temple to Edfu – thought it was time to re-visit that day and talk about how it all ended. Welcome to the Temple of Edfu.

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The Temple of Edfu, dedicated to the God Horus and located somewhere between Aswan and Luxor, was one of the best preserved temples that we saw, despite building having been completed somewhere around the year 50 BC.

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We arrived to find that we were in fact the only tour group there at the time…. amazing!! That meant we got to walk around uninterrupted, not needing to wait around to look at anything, not having to worry about getting other tourists in our pictures, and having a great time taking photos like this, that will remind me of the trip of a lifetime for the rest of my life…

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We saw the most beautiful things in that temple, fascinating, too. One of the things that I remember most vividly and struck me hardest was the painting on this ceiling – the colour was still largely in tact. After thousands of years, the original colour was still there.. how incredible is that?!

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It was a pretty amazing temple to visit, and as the sun went down, it only got more beautiful… this statue of Horus was the last thing I saw when we left; it was perfect.

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An interesting encounter at the Temple of Karnak, Egypt

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We arrived at the Karnak Temple complex after a quick visit to the Colossi of Memnon, and bang in the middle of a sandstorm. It was one of those things you see in movies or travel documentaries that looks kinda cool, but is actually just crap in real life. The sandstorm, not the temple.

An absolutely stunning, staggeringly enormous open air museum of sorts, it’s the second largest temple complex of it’s type in the world (Angkor Wat takes the title). While it’s hard to pick favourite parts, some of the more impressive sections, in my eyes, included the great Hypostyle hall of columns, the rows of ram-headed sphinxes lining the entrance to the complex, and the few obelisks scattered around.

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It was a really amazing complex, quite large and diverse compared to a lot of other sites we visited. It stood out for another reason though; I had quite a confronting experience there.

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Our tour group was comprised of myself, husband, another young lady and two other guys, all of us being around the same age. Us two girls hadn’t had too much trouble during the trip, which we were very thankful for, but what happened here certainly tested our nerves. While we were looking around the lake, we became quite conscious of the fact that we were being circled by a few young Egyptian men. They’d have been somewhere between 18 and 25 years old, if I had to warrant a guess. Anyway, I guess the cockiest one, with the oiled, slicked back hair, tight fitting singlet and gold neck chains got a little bored of staring from a distance – I hadn’t really registered that he’d disappeared from my sight until I turned around to look back at the lake to find him only a few inches in front of me and my fellow female travel companion, camera pointed in our faces, clicking away like a possessed paparazzo.

Needless to say, we were pretty freaked out! We turned to face each other as closely as we could, so that he could only see our backs, and our amazing local guide, Medo, stepped in pretty quickly to get rid of him (thank goodness!). Once he was gone and we’d gotten over our initial shock, we asked what the hell it was all about. Medo explained that the big temple complexes attracted a lot of young guys coming from the “country side” (remoter areas) where they don’t get Western tourists. They come to the big tourist spots with their cameras to capture the foreign women they see, so that they can take the pictures back home to their friends and brag and exaggerate about what they’d seen and their holiday conquests. Because I wasn’t already feeling like enough of a zoo animal, being porcelain doll-white, auburn-haired and freckled.

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While it freaked me out, it was also a really interesting experience; I think I’d kind of expected to encounter this sort of thing the whole time we were in Egypt. But this was the seventh day of our eight day trip, and it was the first confrontation of that type we had. I think I was also so taken aback because us Melbournians aren’t really all that surprised or intrigued by different cultures to that extent. Melbourne is a stomping ground for any and every culture under the sun – Fijians, Chinese, Americans, Italians, Vietnamese, Indians, Brits, Greeks, Jews, Muslims, Catholic nuns, Buddhist monks… They all coexist in our city without any of the outlandish curiosity we were shown in Egypt. Hell, I’ve seen a mature-aged gentleman of what seemed to be eastern European descent standing in the middle of the CBD dressed in a skirt and heels, holding rosary beads, and no one blinked an eye at him as they walked past. It made for a very interesting social experiment, and really made me wander about my own upbringing and how much I’ve completely taken for granted exposure to other cultures from such an early age. Even as a kid, with friends who looked so clearly physically different to me, I don’t think I ever really wandered (or cared) why, yet here were these young adults making special trips from their quiet, secluded home towns to see what foreigners looked like and take home proof that they’d seen these fantastical creatures…

Anyone else ever experienced something like this on their travels?

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