Love on the Nile, or how I fell for Cairo - Part 2
Following on from my post Love on the Nile, or how I fell for Cairo - Part 1, and ensuring that our love affair with the Egyptian capital doesn't become a one-day stand, let's embark on our second day of exploration of the city known as Umm Al Dunya, the Mother of the World. We'll visit Coptic Cairo where Egyptian Christianity first emerged, relive our James Bond fantasies at the little known filming location of The Spy Who Loved Me, buy some impossibly kitsch souvenirs, and we'll end the day in the only place possible, on the waters of the Nile as the sun goes down.
The Nile can be swathed, mummy-like, in mist in the early morning, and there's no better place to watch the fog lift as the city comes to life than from the balcony of your Nile-facing hotel room. And yes, you must pay the extra and book one - can you really say you've been to Cairo if you don't have a view? If you're lucky and the air is clear enough, you may even be able to catch a glimpse of the Pyramids silhouetted against the Giza skyline. If you're here in mango season make sure you have a fresh mango juice to sip (Egypt produces some of the world's best) and if not, a good strong coffee should set you up to tackle day two of our Cairo adventure.
Our first destination is Coptic Cairo, the birthplace of Egyptian Christianity. The metro is an easy way to get to Mar Girgis, meaning St George, station but we'll take a taxi as there's always something interesting to photograph out of the car window, and it's often an opportunity to sit in a Lada that feels almost as old as the city itself. Cast your mind back to Sunday School classes and think of the stories you learnt about Joseph, Mary and the baby Jesus fleeing King Herod's persecution, and about Moses being found in a basket in the reeds. Today we're going to walk in the Holy Family's footsteps and see the places where all of this is said to have happened.
There's a large and often undercover security presence in Coptic Cairo, as illustrated by the men with weapons casually tucked away in what look like civilian clothes. Egypt's Copts have been targeted by fairly frequent attacks in past years, and understandably there are strict security checks to pass through to enter the main heart of this area. It's all very polite and professional, and you'll be warmly welcomed.
This part of Cairo has a different feel from the rest of the city, and with its narrow maze-like and car-free alleys, it's a quiet place for a stroll in the early morning. Greek Orthodox churches, ancient monasteries and a 9th Century synagogue nestle cosily alongside each other. We'll pop into the Church of St Sergius and Bacchus, the oldest church in Egypt, for a closer look at the cave in the crypt said to have been a refuge for Joseph, Mary and the infant Jesus as they fled King Herod's orders to kill all first-born sons. Egypt's oldest synagogue is also located here, converted from a church dating back to the 4th century, just next to the spot where Moses was said to have been found in his basket in the reeds. History lives and breathes here. To learn more about the rich Coptic history we'll delve into the Coptic Museum with its intricate mashrabia, beautifully painted icons, 4th century tapestries, and wooden children's toys dating back to the 5th century that don't look all that different from wooden toy animals today.
There are a couple of souvenir and antique shops here that are worth a look, and the fact that tourists have been in short supply in recent years is fairly evident by the layer of dust on the guidebooks snoozing away on their metal racks. We're going to visit a small shop next to the museum run by a friendly elderly gentleman who, on my last visit, insisted on making coffee for me from his little kettle and jar of Nescafé, and set up a chair for me in the sun. Make sure you have a few Egyptian pounds at the ready to buy a couple of papyrus paintings from him. He has lovely hand-painted saints in the Coptic style, as well as traditional Egyptian motifs such as cats and scarabs. Hopefully visitors will be able to return here soon to buy more of his stock, as I can't imagine he's done a roaring trade these past few years.
I live by the motto that you can never have a souvenir that's too quirky, so we'll also visit a small antique shop close to the main security checkpoint that's become a favourite of mine. Old brass irons, crystals that were separated from their chandeliers long ago, empty perfume bottles, film reels showing who knows what, and dusty alarm clocks are just some of the treasures to be found here. And yes, the handmade needlepoint work of the kitten in the faux-baroque frame in the photo is now gracing my wall. The kitscher the better, I say.
While we're in the mood for kitsch, let's jump in another taxi and head to a distinctly non-kitsch museum that played host to some exceedingly kitsch fight scenes in the 1977 James Bond film The Spy Who Loved Me. The Gayer-Anderson Museum is named after Major R.G. Gayer-Anderson Pasha, a British army doctor who assembled an extraordinary collection of antique furniture, carpets, textiles, art and exquisitely carved mashrabia in two beautifully restored houses dating back to the 16th and 17th centuries. In the film, a dapperly dressed Roger Moore manages a smooch with a glamorous Bond Girl before fending off a would-be assassin on the rooftop terrace, managing not to collide with a single piece of intricately carved wood despite the typically florid fight moves. They'd obviously been strictly warned in advance not to damage any of the architectural treasures. It's a beautiful place with a fascinating collection, worth a visit whether you're a Bond fan or not.
It's well past lunchtime now and after our fairly indoorsy morning we could do with sitting in the sun for a while. Fortunately the lovely Al Azhar park is not too far away, and is home to Studio Misr for Egyptian food that won't blow your socks off, but with views of the Citadel, the medieval fortress originally constructed in 1176 to protect the city from attack, that quite possibly will. The park is popular with school trips, and on my last visit I was surrounded by a group of junior school girls with smiles from ear to ear, all wanting to talk and take pictures. One particularly bold little girl tore me a sprig of bougainvillea flowers from a nearby plant, receiving a stern admonishment from her teacher, which did nothing to stop her smiling. I still have it to this day, pressed between the pages of the book I was carrying with me at the time - A Woman in Arabia by Gertrude Bell.
We explored Khan El Khalili on our first day in Cairo, but that doesn't mean it's not worth heading back to again, especially since it's a short postprandial walk from here. A mint tea, shisha and people-watching at El Fishawy are always worth a detour, and we may still want to spend a few more Egyptian Pounds on hand-hammered brass lanterns, glass tea sets or pretty prayer beads. But before we do, let's go to one of my favourite little shops, and one of the last bookbinders in the city, Abd El Zaher. Located behind the Al Azhar mosque that dates back 1,000 years, Abd El Zaher have been binding books on this site since 1936, although the building itself dates back centuries to Mamluk times. On one of my visits the owners were trying to fix the ancient plumbing, a skill they hadn't mastered quite as well as binding their beautiful leather-bound journals. Their craftsmanship is exceptional, and every time I go I buy stacks of notebooks to fill with scribbles, ideas and vocabulary of the latest language I'm trying to learn, and to give as gifts. Prices begin at around 100 Egyptian Pounds (under USD 7) and you can have them monogrammed in gold lettering for free while you wait. From full leather covers to leather and marbled paper, leather and papyrus, and traditional Ramadan tent fabric, they are some of my favourite travel souvenirs, and always bring a smile when I offer them as gifts.
We woke up by the Nile, and there's really only one place for us to end our Cairo adventure, with one of the world's most evocative, romantic sunsets. We're going to jump onboard a felucca, a small sailboat that will carry us peacefully and quietly on the waters of the longest river in the world. Feluccas are available right outside the Four Seasons hotel on the east side of the river in Garden City, and an hour should be enough for a leisurely cruise to see the sunset. The captain raises the sail, using a wooden oar to push us away from the banks if necessary - nothing is motorised here - and off we'll go for a gentle float to watch the sun setting over Giza and over the sails of the other feluccas that will be sharing the waters with us. Some will have live music onboard with musicians playing and locals clapping and singing along. Others blast out Gangnam Style, which seems to endure in popularity here. But we'll enjoy the peace and quiet after our time wandering this frenetic and fascinating city. We'll also take a couple of cold Sakkara Gold beers with us to toast our good fortune at having had an excellent couple of days in Cairo, and for finding many reasons to fall in love with the city, and many reasons to come back again to discover even more.