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Aswan, south of Luxor, and near the southern border of Egypt and Sudan, is a little known tourist destination. The people that you'll find there as visitors will be backpackers and those in search of an unusual getaway. It's very different to the Egypt you might imagine, and if all you know of the country is Sharm el-Sheikh and other hideous man-made tourist traps, then think again. Aswan is an oasis of Nubian-Egyptian culture, within easy access of the Aswan Dam (you can have a cruise on Lake Nasser if you feel the urge), and Abu Simbel, one of Egypt's finest temples, particularly in view of its history (it was moved when the Dam was built). The town itself is quieter than Cairo by a million decibels, and much more laid back. The boats permanently moored along the corniche are practically all restaurants, which do great food at amazing prices. From Aswan, you can visit Philae temple, which has a Son et Lumiere show in French or English nightly, and if you're feeling adventurous, you can sail from Aswan back to Luxor on a felucca - go to Elephantine Island and ask for Captain Jamaica.
Our family travels regulary (since 5 years) in the winter time to Aswan, to savour the Nile and its picturescue landscape. A tour with a traditional felucca (sailing boat) is, in our opinion, one of the most beautiful thing to do in Aswan. On the felucca you ride leisurely down the Nile, while the Nile Islands and sand dunes are passing by you can enjoy the Peace far from the hectical European Citys. Now and then you leave the felucca to visit old tombs, the botanical garden of Kitcheners Island or the Cloistre of Simeon in the desert. The time on a felucca tour is different because you align to the rythm of the Nile. The highlight is a day trip to the 1^st Cataract, where you reach behind the rapids unknown touristy area with Nubian villages and a bathing place. Here is the nature still intact, the Nile clean, the sand dunes and the green, copius Nile Islands with their biota espescially beautiful. If you want to, you can go bathing on the Nile beach or visit a Nubian village. Important for the 1^st Cataract trip is a experienced and trusted captain who can ride the rapids securely. The felucca should be therefor in a good codition, because the 1^st Cataract isn´t that untroubled, its very deep and you can be pulled down by the vortexes. For the tour is enough wind nessesary, what you should remind for your planning. Furthermore you should take enough water and sunscreen with you. We already made tours with unexperienced captains who couldn´t ride the 1^st Cataract which came into dangerous sloping positions with the felucca and turned over with the comment, that there isn´t anything interesting upwards the Nile and that the 1^st Cataract is much more behind (what was wrong). A very good captian is Abdullah, you can rent his felucca at the waterfront (Coniche) in Aswan right across from Elephantine Island for a very fair price (just ask for the boat/felucca Admacum of Abdullah Abu Zaid). He is a very calm, discreet and experienced captain, with him, we made some nice Nile trips to, for tourists, unknown places and can really recommend. His felucca was very clean and well-kept. To discover Aswan with the felucca one of the best things to do on a holiday in Egypt. We already look forward to our next holiday.
Half an hour after disembarking from the MS Prince Abbas after our week long cruise on Lake Nasser we were waiting with our luggage on the East Bank of the River Nile in Aswan as we watched the Pharoanic Barge make its way across the river from Elephantine Island to transport us back to our home for a further week-The Hotel Oberoi situated on this palm covered island in the middle of the Nile. Nothing had prepared us for the beauty we were about to experience. This stretch of the Nile between the city of Aswan, the Old Dam and the High Dam and Lake Nasser is scattered with islands. Ancient Aswan was originally sited on Elephantine Island as it could be easily defended against invaders from any direction. That ancient city has long disappeared and Elephantine Island can only be reached by the boats and feluccas that freely taxi visitors to and fro, day and night. The ancient city of Aswan was once the largest trading centre for Upper Egypt exchanging goods from equatorial Africa and the Mediterranean. Aswan lies on the first cataract of the Nile which acted as a natural insurmountable barrier for river traffic as the bubbling waterfalls, rocks and torrents were impossible for boats to navigate. South of Aswan goods had to be carried by caravan across the barren Nubian Desert. However, the building of the Aswan Dam in the 1960s changed everything. Damming the Nile and diverting the Nile flood waters into the artificial Lake Nasser has now established the pretty city of Aswan as the main river port for river cruises to Luxor and on the other side of the magnificent Aswan Dam, the dock for cruises over Lake Nasser. The Hotel Oberoi is the only hotel on the island set in beautiful gardens with swimming pools, poolside bars and restaurant and all the bedrooms with balconies trailing with hibiscus and panoramic views over the River Nile and Aswan. The most striking feature of the Hotel Oberoi is the twelve story tower that has a 360 degree view through h uge plate glass windows where visitors can sit and have a drink or a light meal. Our first view from the top of the tower of an Aswan sunset over the West Bank of the Nile was unforgettable as the sun sank, rapidly sliding behind the desert, while on the West Bank in the City of Aswan the lights twinkled on the Mosques. We mused as to how the name Elephantine Island came about? Looking south down the Nile from the tower we could see we were surrounded by large grey rocks and they all looked like elephants rising out of the water. Or was this romantic thinking on our part and the name Elephantine Island was because of the ancient trade in ivory from Upper Nubia-now modern Sudan? Perhaps the name is a bit of both eh? The intention was to purely relax, read and write and laze about by the pool in this very comfortable hotel and the gorgeous sunshine but there were far too many things to see in Aswan. However, the very nature of a cruise means the visitor is almost over protected from the cut and thrust of every day life in an Egyptian city as any excursions from the ship are done in a group and with the Egyptian Tour Manager. We were soon to discover how protected we had been. Woken by the call to the Mosque at dawn and then having strong coffee sitting on our balcony and watching the sun rise over Aswan, after a delicious breakfast we caught the Pharoanic Barge across the river to the Aswan Corniche along the banks of the Nile. We had only walked a few yards along the Corniche when the hassle began. It is intolerable. Caleche drivers, taxi drivers, self appointed unofficial tour guides, Felucca boatmen and children descended upon us as if from nowhere offering us rides, discounts and artefacts. I understand the poverty in Egypt and the need to take every opportunity to earn money from the tourist but this persistent pestering has the opposite effect on me. I just want them all to go away as I will spend my money as and when I want and certainly not a s a result of this relentless hassling. We decided to take a Caleche ride-horse and carriage- along the busy Corniche to the famous Old Cataract Hotel, where Agatha Christie stayed, to have coffee on their illustrious terraces overlooking the Nile. I insisted we chose a Caleche with the healthiest looking horse but after just a few yards I realised the horse was tired. My heart sank when the carriage driver cheerfully told us she had just had a baby. Fortunately, the Old Cataract Hotel was only a short distance away and after the usual haggling over what was originally an agreed fare, and then the driver asking for more money to feed the horse leaving me muttering that next time I'd buy my own oats, we were sitting on the terrace admiring the beauty of the Nile. Drawn to the water we chose to take a Felucca sail boat ride back to Elephantine Island and our hotel, stopping first at an archaeological area on the Island where excavation began in 1969 to uncover the ancient settlements. The fare was agreed with the Felucca boatman by the hour to include one hour's waiting time as we explored the archaeological area and visited the small Aswan Museum. It was so very exhilarating sailing along as the gentle breeze caught the white sails of the Felucca and we leisurely basked in the hot sunshine. The Nile was a hive of activity with boats of all shapes and sizes going about their daily business. Our boatman expertly used the wind to tack to and fro around the massive grey 'elephant' rocks that loomed out of the river like giant statues. Once again we were caught off our guard as we bought our entrance tickets. From nowhere an unofficial guide attached himself to us and wouldn't go away. We wanted to quietly walk around the excavations referring to our guide book when necessary and enjoying the peace and tranquillity as we imagined the Romans who had once lived here, imagining the Cemetery for the Sacred Rams where the blood stains co uld still be seen and gaze at the carvings in the Temple of Khnum. We were patient with him until he got rather excited about a carving of a Pharaoh sporting an enormous black penis. He then suggested his penis was bigger than the Pharaoh's and how did Morty's compare. That was it for me! Off with him! Nevertheless, he insisted on payment not only for his services but for his seven children. From this moment on we decided to make use of organised trips to see the rest of the delights Aswan has to offer. So! They are more expensive than doing it yourself, but at least on an organised tour with an official English speaking Egyptian guide you get the freedom to concentrate on what you wanted to see and not forever doing deals. We were a bit 'Templed-Out' by now, as anybody who has ever been to Egypt would understand, so we chose a visit by Felucca to Kitchener's Island, also known as the 'Island of Plants' to be guided by an expert of flora, fauna and wild-life and to follow this with a motor boat trip upstream to the now peaceful First Cataract and through a wild-life sanctuary. General Kitchener was the British Consul General in Egypt in 1910 and he created this luxuriously planted island. After seeing many dusty ancient ruins, the Nubian Desert and large expanses of lake this was a delightful contrast. Kitchener planted many varieties of plants here that grow in our own gardens in the UK so it was strange to see waist high Bizzy Lizzies and huge Lupins alongside lemon and date trees. The motor boat ride up through the First Cataract is awesome. Huge granite boulders that once caused the waters to roar over them in plumes of spray now stand exposed in the reduced waters of the Nile. The boat wove its way through these immense boulders and we saw herons, kingfishers, terns, kites and other abundant birdlife plus water buffalo and mules. It was eerily silent and the birds seemed to be putting on a show for us as they appeared to order as if by magic for our expert guide. The final part of this tour was to spend an hour in a genuine Nubian village on the West Bank. The people of the village opened their homes for us, showed us baby crocodiles in tanks, scorpions in jars and played with snakes. They also gave us mint tea and we bought two Egyptian cotton shirts for two pounds sterling each. The Nubians are a very elegant and good looking people with a quiet charm and I felt sad that many of the older Nubians in the village would have been forced to leave their homes in the 1960s when their villages were drowned by the forming of Lake Nasser. A must to see if ever the reader is in Aswan are the temples of Philae. The island that the temples of Philae originally stood on for three thousand years were partially flooded by the construction of the first Aswan Dam in 1902 and completely submerged by the building of the new High Dam. Consequently, the ruins were dismantled and rebuilt by UNESCO on another island one mile south of the Aswan Dam on the stretch of the Nile between the two dams. A short coach ride and we stood in the afternoon heat watching a scene of utter madness as hundreds of dilapidated old motor boats with engines that had seen better days fought for space at the quayside so they could moor up and let the many tour groups board to be taken to the Island Of Philae. By now we expected our appetite for ancient temples to have been sated but as the boat approached the temples we were very impressed with the magnificence of the obelisks and enjoyed a couple of hours quietly wandering around. Ready for our hotel room by now and a drink before dinner we still had one more visit to the granite quarry to see the unfinished obelisk. Mmmm! That's what I thought too as quarries do nothing for me so that Egyptian beer back at the hotel was calling me. A little more to tell here about Egyptian hospitality and the Hotel Oberoi in Aswan-throughout our stay b oth on the ship and in the hotel we were amused at the bed-towel art that greeted us every night when we retired to our room. The room service made exotic animals and birds from white towels using rose petals and hibiscus flowers as decoration and laid them on the bed. This was apart from the very grim crocodile on our cabin floor wearing dark glasses and a wide open mouth held in position by the television remote control. It is the custom on a cruise to put money in the envelopes provided for gratuities. The last night on the ship we were greeted by towel art of a man in the bed wearing Morty's jumper, dark glasses and holding the tipping envelopes in its hands. The hotel was a little more romantic as they created graceful swans and rose-strewn hearts to surprise us every night. We were also happy that there was no need to 'dress-up' on either the ship or the hotel for the evenings. We prefer the casual approach as we are on holiday and pressure of any kind is unwanted. Egyptian wine leaves much to be desired. The choice of red, white or rose is limited and some likened it to a chemical cleaner, but being a brave little soldier I soon adjusted my palate to the white wine and got rather fond of it. I've had worse in English pubs! The only beer available was a tinned variety of Fosters which was refreshing enough when required. There was a fridge in our room both on the boat and in the hotel so there is a choice to drink any duty-free in the room. The meals in our hotel were excellent. Buffet style but a continual stream of freshly cooked food was brought from the kitchens to the endless buffet tables. It was possible to eat European as well as more Egyptian style food and vegetarians were very well provided for. The vegetables were grown in the hotel gardens and I wanted to hug the pastry chef as the deserts were wonderful. There was a wide variety of good breads and I had cinnamon pancakes with honey and thick yoghurt with plump raisins for breakfast every morning as I never have that at home. Not to be deterred by the hassle from the Corniche we decided to take a Caleche ride through the Souk or market. Avoiding eye contact I chose a horse drawn Caleche and made sure the horse had some meat on it and didn't look old and worn out. Better luck this time, as we ripped along the promenade at a fair pace with a comparatively happy horse and the driver took us on a tour of Aswan. It is a small city and it was good to see schools, childrens' play parks, well maintained Mosques, Coptic Churches, local shops and the general hustle and bustle of every day life. The Souk in Aswan is recognised as being the best in Egypt with quite wide streets and a huge variety of goods on sale. Emboldened by the lack of hassling we paid our driver and walked the mile or so back through the Souk to get the full atmosphere of the shops and peddlers selling their goods. So many spices, materials, fruits, leather, meat, rugs and vegetables for sale and thankfully we were left alone and no more harangued than in a typical London street-market. Aswan is very proud of their new Nubia Museum opened in 1997, and rightly so. It is situated opposite the Old Cataract hotel and stands in its own vast gardens with water features, statues, palm trees and walkways. It is spread over several floors and displays very important objects from throughout Nubian history. As with many museums there is too much to take in on one visit alone so rather than get culture weariness we made two trips and wandered around at our leisure. I understand that the Cairo Museum is relocating and building a new museum to house its treasures. If it is half as wonderful as the Nubian Museum in Aswan then we are all in for a treat as that makes returning to Cairo a must in the future. There were so many other places to visit in Aswan and the surrounding areas but none of them are compulsory. You don't have to be active. There ar e some who would prefer to take advantage of the beautiful weather and stay by the pool to swim, drink, eat, sleep, visit the gym, have beauty treatments and massage and wallow in the luxury. During the week we did a bit of both and as we flew from Aswan International Airport on our return flight to Gatwick we both agreed that this, our second visit to Egypt, was probably our best holiday yet and certainly not our last to the Land of the Pharaohs.
I travelled to Egypt with a company called Explore Worldwide who specialise in what they call "small group exploratory holidays". They are perfect for those travelling alone - as I was - as you get to join a group of other like minded travellers. There holidays are for those wishing to go "off the beaten track" and get a real taste of a country travelling by local means of transport and staying in local style accomodation. This does mean "roughing it" a little but suits anyone with a sense of adventure. When I travelled to Egypt the group ranged from two teenage Australian sisters to a retired couple from New Zealand! Their website is www.exploreworldwide.com and the tour I went on was The Nile Felucca Sailtrek. This is part 2 of my travelogue days 3 to 4 of a 10 day trip. Aswan was probably my favourite of the towns we stayed in during our two weeks. The first morning we arrived and walked through the bustling streets from the station to the hotel I knew I was going to like it. The bazaar with it's bright stalls of multi coloured spices, the people hurrying about their business with smiling faces, it was wonderful. I'd heard so many bad stories about Arab markets,about the hard sell from the sales men who just wouldn't let you go, that I was a little apprehensive but we discovered the truth was very different. That first morning a group of us, mostly female,decided to go out and explore the bazaar. As soon as we walked into the street we were hailed from every side by people shouting "Hello, how are you?". Initially we did feel a little intimidated but we soon realised that a smile and a friendly answer to their enquiries and a polite indication that you weren't interested in buying anything and you were sent on your way with a friendly "Enjoy your stay in Egypt". We quickly discovered that there was something of a pattern to the conversations. For us girls, th e first question was always "Are you English?" which got a great response from my travelling companions as most of them were Australian!. The second question was inevitably "Are you married?" We were later told that a lot of Egyptian men have a fascination with English women and they would love to have English wives. After a while, as we became more used to the Aswan bazaar, we began to give answers such as "Yes, I have 4 husbands at home" and on one occasion when our group consisted 5 girls and one guy we all claimed to be his wives, to which the reply came "Very lucky man!". During my stay in Aswan I did not feel threatened at any time. The people there rely heavily on tourism so, let's face it, it is in their interest to make you feel relaxed and at ease. The highlight if our stay in Aswan came on the last night when we travelled up-river past the cataracts to visit a Nubian village for the evening. A local family welcomed us for dinner and then entertained us with traditional songs. This is a real feature of Explore holidays (the travel company I made my trip with www.exploreworldwide.com), wherever possible they try to use local forms of transport, local accommodation and they also try to let the local people earn money without foregoing their traditional way of life. Allowing local families to earn money by entertaining small groups is one such way. For us, the tourists, it's an experience we won't forget and for most of us this is the reason we are travelling - to see different cultures and the way they live. Later in the evening the daughter of the family decorated us with henna tattoos, the Nubian women use henna to decorate their skin for weddings and festivals. My tattoo,which went around my wrist like a bracelet, lasted for several weeks and caused something of a stir in the next board meeting when I returned to work. As I handed a document to one of the directors my sleeve rose up to reveal it and his eyebrows also rose - I don't think it was quite what he expected from the company accountant! At the end of the night we said goodbye to the family and headed back down river in the moonlight for our last night sleeping in Aswan and our last night sleeping in a bed for some days - the next day we boarded the feluccas! Please see my other articles for details of the other main sites in Egypt
I can’t believe that noone has written an opinion on Aswan. I have been to Egypt four times (twice backpacking and twice on packages) and always try to get to this wonderful town if I can. In short, it has the best market in Egypt (in my opinion) and some wonderful places to visit. Aswan is not the place to go if you want sheer luxury, but it has some majestically decrepit hotels on the waterfront that cost a fraction of those in Luxor. On my first visit in 1993 I stayed in a room right on the Nile, with a balcony, for £5 a night. I would be surprised if the cost has gone up that much in the last few years. Once you have sorted out accommodation you are free to visit the many and varied attractions that Aswan has to offer. In order of my preference: 1) Abu Simbel: Four hours drive across the desert is one of the Egyptian “big five” (The Pyramids, Abu Simbel, The treasures of Tutankhamun, Karnak and the Valley of the Kings). For me, Abu Simbel is a must. I have twice done the “eight hours in the non-air-conditioned taxi for 90 minutes at the site” journey. Fortunately for you, the driving option is now banned and you have to fly. It now costs £80, flying from Aswan Airport, but is worth it for the views as you come in to land (sit on the left of the aircraft), and being so close to the awe inspiringly beautiful statues. Abu Simbel is not really in Aswan, and you can fly there from Luxor too, but it is still top of the list. I have been there three times, and it is jaw-droppingly beautiful. Twice I have seen my travelling companions stopped in their tracks by the majesty of the place. 2) Philae: Like Abu Simbel, a temple that was saved by the UN in the 50s after the building of the High Dam. This sits on a peaceful island a few miles outside of Aswan. You can filch a ride over with a tour group if you are independent, and that gives you more than the statutory hour on the island. 3) The Marke t: At around 10 pm mayhem starts in the Aswan market. Vibrant and noisy, it is the Harrods of the Nile. You can get anything. I used my usual market test, and went looking for a bath plug. Within five minutes there were two or three children scouring the market for plugs and bringing back all manner of alternatives. The market is very “in your face” (my wife didn’t like it), but if you are up for it, you can spend a long time wandering round, especially in areas away from the Nile where there are far fewer tourists. 4) The Islands: Elephant Island and Kitchener Island are well worth visiting, especially if you can haggle for a felucca to sail you there and back. Kitchener Island is a botanical garden built by Lord Kitchener. Elephant Island is more archaeological. 5) Sail to Edfu: The three day felucca to Edfu from Aswan is brilliant if you enjoy sleeping in the open and don’t have a problem with going to the loo outside. You cruise along in the cool breeze and watch the world go by. It is two nights and three days of total relaxation. There are more things to see, and do in Aswan, but these are the tops. You can also get a taxi to the wonderfully complete temple of Edfu, or just out of town see the 42m x 5m unfinished obelisk and sarcophagus in an ancient granite quarry. In summary, don’t write off Aswan if you don’t have much time in Egypt. It is well worth going to, much more peaceful than Luxor and slower paced (until the market kicks off!). And if you ask me nicely, I will even tell you where you can buy your beer for the sail down to Edfu.