Love on the Nile, or how I fell for Cairo - Part 1
In November 2015 I had a rather nasty accident, and by the end of the year decided that I needed to treat myself to an adventure, something that would challenge me, would get the heart racing, and would be terribly exotic, exciting and possibly slightly dangerous. And with that in mind, I decided to head off on a solo trip to Cairo.
I'd never been to Egypt before, and when I told people that I was going alone, many said, with an arched eyebrow, "Are you sure?". And I was.100% sure. I asked Egyptian friends where to go and what to do. Some of them looked a little concerned when I said I would be travelling solo and planned to walk the entire city (which no one does, ever) but they sent me on my way and told me to have a nice time, while also telling our colleagues in the Cairo hotels to keep a watchful eye out for me.
And when I arrived, it was exactly what I'd been looking for. Crowded, chaotic, noisy, unfamiliar, friendly, and with an energy that immediately pulled me in. I'd heard the stereotypes about the men who would hassle a solo female traveller, how I would get ripped off in the souqs, how I would get sick from the food. And all of these stereotypes proved to be entirely untrue.
I also took with me memories of the stories my grandpa told me when I was little about his time in Egypt during the war, how he snuck out of the camp on the back of a train to go to an Egyptian friend's wedding, how loofahs grew abundantly on overhead vines, and about the one and only time he smoked hashish ("It tasted like a dirty, wet cigarette"). So I dove straight into the city, and loved every minute. I've been back a few times since and every time I love Cairo more and more. Let's take a wander through some of my favourite places. Hold on to your hats and put a few Egyptian pounds in your pocket - it's going to be a busy day, and there will be plenty of souvenir stops along the way.
First of all, let's assume you're already planning on going to the Pyramids. I would suggest going at sunrise on horseback, but will leave this up to you as not everyone is as keen as I am to get up at 4am. I'm sure you're also already planning on going to the slightly dark and dusty (but full of treasures) Museum of Egyptian Antiquities too. Pay the extra few Egyptian pounds to see the Mummies - they're fascinating and frightening in equal measure.
And now that's out of the way, let's get walking.
We'll start at Tahrir Square, which you may remember from the Egyptian Revolution of 2011 when it was filled with hundreds of thousands of protestors, eventually leading to the ousting of President Hosni Mubarak. We'll use the underpasses to cross the multiple lanes of traffic - I've followed the locals and dashed across before, but have been admonished enough times by enough strangers that this time we will be sensible. We're going to take a walk around the corner and even further back in time to 1908 and enter the wonderfully retro Cafe Riche. Once the haunt of intellectuals and revolutionaries, today it's home to wood-panelled walls, lazily rotating ceiling fans, slightly patchy service, and 1970s-style cuisine. If these walls could talk they'd tell us about the leaders of the 1919 revolt against the British holding their clandestine meetings here, and how future President Gamal Abdel Nasser frequented the cafe as he planned his overthrow of King Farouk. We'll soak up the ambience and once we're refreshed (they also have cold beers here) we'll head back outside, turn right at Talaat Harb Square, and continue along the fairly nondescript street until we reach a small fairly nondescript little shop with a few enamel signs in the window.
This is where you can get enamel house numbers made while you wait, with numerals in English and Arabic. The owner of the shop uses a template to trace the shape of the numbers, pours in the powdered enamel, then fires it in an incredibly hot kiln for a few minutes. And there you have it, your own freshly-baked custom-made house number sign. If you're not overly enamoured by wandering further along his street, jump in an Uber (Cairo is the only place where my Uber driver has ever offered to let me drive in rush hour "to see what it's like". I should have said yes) or negotiate with one of the ancient Lada taxis to take you to Bab Zuweila, where our walk starts to get really interesting.
Bab Zuweila is one of the three last remaining original city gates. Built by those great architects the Fatimids in 1092, much has changed in the centuries since, but its two minarets still offer spectacular views of the city and a helpful sign warns you not to "step in dangerous opening used to throw boiling oil down on the enemy". Sage advice indeed.
If we're hungry, there's a little foul stall (the italics are very important here - foul is a tasty Egyptian bean stew that is anything but foul) opposite the entrance to Bab Zuweila, so we can stop for a quick bite before we turn left and head into the narrow street that forms the Tent Makers' souq.
Have that pocket money at the ready as we can buy some lovely textiles here, whether it's the rolls of fabric used to make the local celebratory tents, Ramadan decorations, or hand-made quilts and table cloths. A small but packed-to-the-rafters shoe shop has also managed to squeeze its way into the souq here, and you can pick up hand-crafted camel leather shoes for just a few pounds.
We'll continue our walk in the direction of the Khan El Khalili bazaar, where Cairenes have been coming to trade, shop and gossip since the 1380s. The alley that takes us there is one of my favourites in the city, day or night. It's full of traders, shoppers, vendors balancing huge trays of bread on their heads, and one of the last remaining tarboosh shops in the city, in business for more than 150 years, although relying on far fewer customers these days. The wearing of the tarboosh was officially outlawed in the 1950s as it was perceived as no longer being in line with the new forward-looking Egypt. You'll recognise the shop by the leaning towers of red felt hats outside, and the big antique brass steaming machine (with King Farouk's seal on it) on which the hats are shaped and moulded. The artisans are friendly and will happily show you how they steam, stretch and form the hats, and you'll definitely need to pick up a tarboosh for your collection back home, or when you need to do your next Tommy Cooper impression. If you've ever wondered how the English comedian Tommy Cooper became synonymous with the fez, or more correctly, the tarboosh, the story goes that he was performing a routine during WW2 in Cairo and forgot the pith helmet that he was supposed to wear for the act. So he reached out, pinched a tarboosh from the head of a waiter, and - just like that - comedic history was made.
Continuing our walk through the narrow street, because it's in narrow streets that the most interesting things can always be found, we'll see cotton-stuffed cushions piled high, stalls selling cheap clothes imported from China, and just before we arrive at the main road that we'll need to cross (by underpass) to Khan El Khalili, we'll pass through the sexy underwear section. All the vendors here are men and I always wonder how a modest Cairene lady copes with asking for the merchandise. I remember the same situation visiting Damascus and wandering into the exceedingly racy lingerie market where they sold musical knickers that played the lambada when you pushed a button (yes, I bought them, and yes, the music started playing in my suitcase at the airport).
We'll take the circular underpass and enter Khan El Khalili. The bazaar has its fair share of tat, but you can also find real treasures, including some great antiques. But first, since we've worked up an appetite, we'll go to the Naguib Mahfouz cafe, named after the Nobel prize-winning Egyptian writer. We'll pass through the security check (they're serious about security around here) and take a seat at one of the hand-hammered brass tables. There's one particular reason that I like to come here aside from it being an air-conditioned refuge in the hot bazaar, and it's to visit the shoeshine man. The first time I came I was wearing dusty Adidas Superstar sneakers, and was asked if I would like to have them cleaned. It seemed like a novelty, so I agreed, the shoeshiner placed a small round leather rug under my feet, and took my sneakers away. Ten minutes later they came back gleaming white, including the laces, almost whiter than when I bought them. I thanked him and paid him, and as I put them on I realised they were fairly wet. And that my hands had turned white. I suspect he painted them, but by the time I'd finished my lemon-mint and koshari, they were dry and sparkling. And I've been back to see him on every visit since, always walking away with spiffy-looking sneakers.
The alleys around here are a great place to pick up souvenirs. Mild haggling is the norm, and it's all very friendly. I picked up a beautiful backgammon set inlaid with mother-of-pearl, and an antique wind-up telephone with Arabic numerals, which caused great consternation at the airport customs with its bundles of wires and dials. You can also find old gramophones, vintage movie posters, shiny new shisha pipes, tacky models of the Pyramids, jingly belly-dancing costumes, papyrus drawings, and plenty more to fulfil your Egyptian shopping fantasies.
And now we have a mission to navigate the narrow alleys with one more place in mind, El Fishawy Cafe, open since the late 1700s and the place for us to take a little break for tea, shisha and people-watching. It's a bit tricky to find, but someone will always show us the way if we get lost. Another favourite haunt of Naguib Mahfouz, the interior with its patina is beautiful, but we'll grab a table outside so we can watch the comings and goings of the souq.
From here we're just steps from Al Muizz Street, also known in its full form as Al-Muizz Li-Din Allah Fatimi. I should really say that we're back on Al Muizz Street as its southernmost point is Bab Zuweila where we were earlier. The street dates back to the 10th century, and the stretch closest to Khan El Khalili is home to some of the most impressive medieval buildings in the Islamic world, including restored mosques, madrasas and the wonderful Qalawun complex dating back to 1285 with its own hospital, mausoleum and beautifully ornate interiors. For 100 Egyptian pounds, one ticket will get you access to most of the buildings on this street where you are free to wander and photograph to your heart's content.
Our first day in Cairo is drawing to a close and there's only one place to be for sunset, so let's jump in a taxi and head over to the Nile. My favourite spot has always been on a felucca or from the balcony of my hotel room, where we will find ourselves today, with an ice cold Sakkara Gold beer in hand, watching the sun set over the longest river in the world and the Pyramids in the distance.
And since that seems about more than enough for one day, stay tuned for my second Cairo post when we'll embark on more adventures for Day 2...