I met Guido Romero for the first time 3 or 4 years ago, on a drive out of Amman with a mutual friend. Guido is from an Italian family inextricably linked with the 20th-century development of Amman. His grandfather, Dr. Fausto Tesio, founded Jordan’s first hospital, in 1921, and Guido’s mother, author, artist and gallery-owner Flavia Romero, set up Amman’s famous Romero restaurant group, also playing a prominent role in the cultural life of the city over many years.
Guido is a doer, with a business head screwed on very tight. When I heard he was setting up a B&B, I guessed it might be good. I got in touch, and was lucky enough to spend a couple of nights there. He’s calling it By The Lemon Tree.
The B&B made it into the 2013 Rough Guide to Jordan – and the UK Independent on Sunday ran my review a couple of months ago – gratifyingly, across a double-page spread – though by then word-of-mouth (and positive online reviews from customers) was already having an impact. From what Guido has been saying, the place is pretty much full, pretty much all the time.
Amman needs more of this. Guido tells me he’s got all sorts of plans, for this property and others – and I believe him. Guido gets things done. I’m happy to count him as a friend, but here’s a shameless plug anyway: go to Amman and stay at By The Lemon Tree. It’s really rather nice.
Here’s the Independent on Sunday article:
B&Bs are a Middle Eastern rarity. In a region which favours five-star glitz – and where complex guest/host dynamics can foster a confusing kind of arm’s-length hospitality – chances to stay in local homes are few and far between. The Jordanian capital Amman, though, is starting to break the mould. By The Lemon Tree stands hidden among the old villas of Jabal Webdeh, a mostly Christian district on a hill above Amman’s downtown bustle. It’s a perfect way to duck out of Jordan’s standard offering of a big hotel in some bland tourist zone. Webdeh forms one of the capital’s loveliest residential quarters, arty, tasteful and walkable. You live amongst the comings-and-goings of an Ammani family. The streets smell of pine and sun-warmed limestone. Birdsong prevails.
The B&B occupies an extended 1960s’ townhouse alongside the Italian Embassy. But despite its evocative name and leafy location, you’ll search in vain for chintzy domesticity – and forget altogether about Arabian-style swagger. Interiors are sleekly modern, plain white walls offset with dark woods and antique chests, with floors of cool polished tile and cream canvas drapes to filter the bright sun. Six doubles and four twins all include ensuite bathrooms, a touch clinical with their neutral colours and designer fittings. From the large common area, arrayed with sofas, dining table and ultra-modern kitchen for guests’ sole use, stairs lead up to chairs and loungers on a shaded roof terrace. Wifi is fast and free – I got a reliable signal everywhere. Each guest gets a free bottle of wine on arrival, along with an open invitation to join the host family’s weekly drinks parties.
A trio of staff – Rowena, Juvi and Lisa – keep everything shipshape, which includes serving breakfast al fresco in the rear courtyard, under the huge lemon tree for which the B&B is named. It’s quite a spread: after tea and fresh-squeezed juice, I had hot toast (the bread is home-baked), scrambled eggs, tomatoes, grilled halloumi and – a rare delicacy hereabouts – proper bacon, everything served on handmade local crockery. After all that, pancakes with maple syrup seemed an over-indulgence. Beware, though: no breakfast is served on Fridays, Jordan’s one-day weekend. Amman’s always-busy downtown hummus parlours are a short walk away, but instead, on the Friday I stayed, I strolled three minutes up the hill to the Stop and Shop minimarket, assembled my own breakfast and picnicked on the roof terrace.
The owner, Guido Romero, whose Jordanian-Italian family has roots in Amman stretching back almost a century, lives downstairs, while the B&B occupies the building’s two upper floors, reached through a separate entrance. There’s not much molly-coddling – Guido, with characteristic forthrightness, has titled a section on the B&B’s website “Do Pay Attention!” – but instead you can expect razor-sharp repartee and cheerful down-to-earth practicality from a guy who is always ready with a laugh and a story. Guido’s grandfather founded Amman’s Italian Hospital in 1921: tap him for tales of local history.
It’s a few minutes’ walk to the contemporary art gallery Darat Al Funun (+962 6464 3251; daratalfunun.org), shoehorned into an atmospheric old villa amid trees and views. Open 10am-7pm, closed Fri; admission free. Several more galleries and arts venues lie within walking distance, including Jordan’s National Gallery (+962 6463 0128; nationalgallery.org), showcasing a fine collection of contemporary Islamic art. Open 9am-7pm, closed Tues & Fri; admission JD3 (£2.50). After exploring the downtown souks, head over to Rainbow Street, a funky quarter of espresso bars, pavement cafés and antiques shops, enhanced on summer Fridays by a relaxed flea market of clothes, crafts and music known as Souk Jara (facebook.com/soukjara).
Near the B&B, in another of Webdeh’s old townhouses, Maria Haddad runs Beit Sitti (+962 777 557 744; beitsittijo.com), an impromptu cooking school where you spend a couple of hours learning how to chop, prepare and assemble your own three-course Arabic meal under expert supervision. Bookings are essential, from roughly JD35 (£31) per person. For another culinary adventure, book at The Winemaker (+962 6461 4125; zumot-wines.com), a combination retail outlet and private restaurant run by local vineyard-owner Omar Zumot: a tasting of his world-class wines, accompanied by light bites or a full meal, sheds memorable new light on Jordanian culture. Prices vary.
By The Lemon Tree, 1 Hafeth Ibrahim Street, Jabal Webdeh, Amman 11191, Jordan (+962 777 955 559; www.bythelemontree.com). Doubles start at JD50 (£45), including breakfast. There’s a two-night minimum stay.
The Independent‘s sister paper, the i, has a daily “Postcard From…” strand. A month ago I wrote a short “Postcard from Qena” (a city in southern Egypt) for them, with a mini-profile of the dynamic but controversial local governor. I heard nothing back – and what with all the, er, changes in Egypt I thought it had just been spiked.
Yesterday one of the foreign editors tweeted me to say they wanted to run the piece. I quickly tweeted some people and made a couple of phone calls, and discovered that not only was the governor no longer in post, his replacement had also just resigned. I rewrote the crucial para and refiled the piece. It ran in today’s paper – but the rewrites pushed up the word-count, which means the subs cut it to fit. Which lines did they cut? The ones referring to the recent changes.
So now it reads somewhat oddly – as if time stopped in 2011 (for some Egyptians that’s almost true, but not quite in the sense the Indy’s subs have left things…).
Click here for the piece as published. And below is my original, for your delectation. All this, for a 30-second read!
Qena lurks on the edge of things. This southern Egyptian city stands close enough to the tourist hotels of Luxor – sixty-odd kilometres – that nobody stays, but far enough away that nobody visits either.
Tour buses sweeping in from the Red Sea coast head straight for King Tut’s tomb, bypassing Qena. Itineraries to the temple of the love-goddess Hathoor, at Dendara nearby, include direct transport from Luxor by bus or boat – though these days there’s precious little demand.
What’s so awful about Qena that passers-by always detour? I walked on neat, shaded streets, causing cheerful pavement jams chatting to doorway loafers.
Ex-governor Adel Labib is credited with giving Qena some spit and polish after the devastating Islamist insurgency of the 1990s, building civic participation in schemes from fixing rubbish collections to launching a women’s football team.
Labib, with a background in state security, was rewarded by former president Hosni Mubarak with a transfer to Alexandria. He was governor there in 2010 when activist Khaled Said was beaten to death by police – one of the sparks for the Egyptian revolution. Days after Mubarak resigned the presidency in February 2011, Labib resigned his governorship.
He wasn’t gone long. Six months later, Egypt’s ruling military council sent him back to Qena – only for him to be kicked out by ex-president Morsi last month, a fortnight before Morsi himself was ejected from office. The new governor, Salah Abdel-Meguid, lasted 22 days; he resigned on Monday morning.
Regardless, Qena’s big families keep the streets calm. On a warm night in the main square, a group of teenagers around a booming sound system is drawing a crowd with backflips and 80-style bodypopping. Tambourines and trumpets fanfaring a street wedding add to the cacophony of car horns.
Insulated against tourist no-shows and ruled by familiar faces, it’s like the revolution never happened.
“Hope Floats” is the title Wanderlust have given to my article about the revived ‘long cruise’ along the Nile between Cairo and Luxor, published in the current issue (July/Aug 2013). I’m posting the text below – but they’ve done a beautiful job on layout, with lots of striking images, spread over 12 pages. Here’s a shameless plug. Wanderlust is a seriously good magazine, doing important and interesting work encouraging and facilitating independent, responsible travel. Go and buy it (or, better, subscribe), either in print or digitally. It’s the best travel magazine I know.
Here’s my Nile story. More pics here. Let me know what you think in the comments.
Temple fatigue. It afflicts us all. This pharaoh, that goddess, some dynasty or other. More columns, more carvings. It’s embarrassing, to be bored by something you know is wondrous.
And then, one bright day, up pops the antidote.
“Come and see!”
His name is Hesham Mansoor, and he may be the best history guide in Egypt. In Hesham’s world, every moment holds a story worth telling.
Amid the gloom of the great temple at Abydos he led a huddle of us onward with a whisper. “This is really a wow scene.”
A histrionic sunbeam was doing the Indiana Jones thing, slanting dustily down from far overhead to spotlight an ankle-high patch of wall-carving. The hum of voices was retreating. At a place of sacred pilgrimage 3,000 years old we were face to face with the gods.
And in amongst the flow of bulls and hieroglyphs, cartouches and almond eyes, Hesham picked out a single bas-relief. Beside falcon-headed Horus, eerily transcendent, stood two wasp-waisted figures, their hair, faces and fingernails carved with ancient, intimate perfection.
“Renpet, goddess of the year, and Maat, goddess of truth,” cooed Hesham. “They are telling us that Horus is always honest. Just look at these beautiful ladies. You have nothing to do but love them.”
And we did.
Again it happened, under fierce sun before the immense mortuary temple of Queen Hatshepsut in Luxor. As glistening busloads trudged to their photo-ops, Hesham took us aside.
“You know, this isn’t a temple,” he said, rising on his toes to gesture at the columned terraces. “It’s a philosophy. Death did not scare the Egyptians. You can feel the smile on Hatshepsut’s face here. Let me amaze you – listen.”
And deftly, passionately, with pacing and arm-waving, Hesham brought the ideas hidden in those hot, old stones to life before our eyes.
We lucked out with Hesham, for sure. But in truth this was never going to be an ordinary temple-hopping tour.
The story starts in 1992. Back then, during a violent insurgency against the Egyptian government, the Gamaa Islamiyya (“Islamic Group”) began targeting tourists. Militants attacked buses, trains and boats, killing foreigners and Egyptians alike. The horror culminated in a massacre of 62 people at Hatshepsut’s temple in 1997 which outraged public opinion across Egypt and paralysed the country’s tourist industry for years afterwards.
By that time the government had already halted tourism in the whole central section of Egypt. Nile cruises and organized excursions to sites between Cairo and Luxor were stopped altogether, and independent travellers who chose to venture to Middle Egypt cities such as Minya or Asyut found their movements heavily restricted by the police.
Tourism became concentrated in Cairo, the Red Sea coast and the south. Nile cruises focused solely on the stretch of river between Luxor and Aswan. Even after 2003, with the insurgency defeated and the Gamaa Islamiyya renouncing violence, river journeys south from Cairo remained a memory.
It was the 2011 revolution which prompted a rethink. Amid drastic falls in tourism – and broad consensus that the threat to foreigners has passed – politicians finally approved a relaunch for the once-popular route. The first public cruise from Cairo to Aswan in two decades set sail on 19th April this year. I was lucky enough to be on board.
First, let me reassure readers who aren’t fans of cruise tourism: neither am I. But oh my goodness! What a soul-stirring marvel of a journey this was. Michael Haag takes a cerebral tone in his brilliant guide for Cadogan: “It is godly to cruise the Nile through Egypt,” he writes. But for a cruise virgin like myself, being kissed for the very first time by 700 miles of the most famous river in the world made for an earthy old knee-trembler of a fortnight. It was travel of the most stimulating, seductive, deliciously slow kind.
And it doubles as an amazing opportunity for travellers curious to look past Egypt’s headlines. Of the 83 passengers on board our ship, the Mövenpick MS Hamees – mostly British, with a small group from Germany and two Swiss – I found only one who had never visited Egypt before. We’d all seen tombs and temples, many had already cruised the Luxor-Aswan stretch – but nobody had been through Middle Egypt, and nobody had travelled this part of the Nile. Protests or no protests, we all wanted to see for ourselves.
For six serene days – from Cairo through to Abydos – we saw no other tourists, and met no souvenir hawkers. Air-conditioned comfort, three meals a day and five-star service aside, it was as if we had gone back to an Egypt before mass tourism. Women washed morning pots at the water’s edge in village after tragically underdeveloped village. Hoopoes took flight. Fishermen heaved at plank-like oars. The banks narrowed, so the groves of banana and sugarcane felt a stone’s throw away. Then they widened, casting the whistles of children by tall-chimneyed brick kilns faint on the breeze. On one side, long-horned buffalo lounged on sweet rugs of grass, backed by moptop palms. On the other, a Coptic monastery wedged into a fold of desert hills turned its cupola-point cross to face the water.
Mid-conversation below decks, I’d catch myself wondering what was floating past unseen. Every page or two I’d have to check the view. While others snoozed shadily I’d be at the rail in velvet heat, watching a local ferry load up with farm trucks as be-robed men gossiped by the wheelhouse, or following a migrant glossy ibis as it swooped against the mango trees. I often woke early, catching drifting views alone in the sunrise cool.
Every archaeological excursion – and there were sixteen – was a winner. Thanks chiefly to Hesham’s narrative talent, Egypt’s endless tide of gods and pharaohs finally made sense, our drift southwards matching the chronological sweep from Old Kingdom pyramids at Giza to Middle Kingdom tombs at Beni Hassan, and then New Kingdom temples at Amarna and Luxor.
I’m no great fan of package tours, but it quickly became obvious that to see what we saw in those once-prohibited regions of Middle Egypt would have been nigh-on impossible without the backing of a tour company.
Beni Hassan is a case in point. These stunningly decorated tombs, cut into rocky cliffs high above the eastern bank of the Nile 250km south of Cairo, were once accessible only by private taxi with police escort. Our ship, though, had clearance to dock nearby. By 7 in the morning, our convoy of coaches and minibuses was sweeping past the bleary eyes and open mouths of villagers direct to the site.
From a high ledge by the tombs’ entrance, the strip of cultivation flanking the Nile – borne of the fertile soil deposited by annual flooding – shone electric-green against the dusty beige of the wilderness beyond.
Within the tombs, scenes of wrestling – two figures grappling across the walls, as if on celluloid film – were outdone by one of the most famous scenes in Egyptian art. Around 1890 BC, it seems, a caravan from Canaan (Palestine) visited the pharaoh, bringing gifts. The foreigners are depicted at Beni Hassan with unusual goatee beards, wearing sandals (Egyptians went barefoot) and dressed in striking multicoloured robes. Nobody is suggesting they are Israelites, but Joseph – known, too, for a coat of many colours – was in Egypt around the same time. The parallels with the Old Testament story rang like a bell. It was my turn to gaze open-mouthed.
Hesham, once he’d told the tale, shrugged and smiled.
Our convoy whisked us to the beauty of remote Tuna El Gebel, its angular stone mausolea romantic in the afternoon sun against tawny dunes, hair-raising catacombs beneath filled with mummified baboons sacrificed to Thoth, god of knowledge.
In farflung Tell El Amarna we roamed the sun-temple, built 3,400 years ago by the revolutionary pharaoh and queen Akhenaten and Nefertiti. Their newly egalitarian forms of government and worship lasted barely two decades in the teeth of a furious hardline counter-revolution. Pacing the rubble of betrayed dreams, I bit my lip for Tahrir Square.
And then we returned to the river. Excursions fell between mesmerically long stretches of cruising. Average speed on the Hamees was 8 knots (roughly 9mph), but even that wasn’t nearly slow enough.
Once, close to Esna, I experimented with real-time writing. First I logged a range of sawtooth cliffs rearing up on the western shore, topped by a squat, domed lookout. They were still passing when I noted a photogenic pair of date palms, one resting on its neighbour’s shoulder. I broke off for the putt-putt-putt of a mudbrick pumping station on the opposite shore, drawing water up to cascade into beige irrigation channels. Before that faded, six or seven kids were leaping off a grassy bank, their bodies slick in the afternoon sun. A buffalo bathed, snorting in the shallows. Then came a picnicking family, whooping as our five-storey mobile hotel rudely parped.
Worlds kept revealing themselves, minute by minute.
And it didn’t let up after dark. Before, if you wanted to travel through Middle Egypt, you faced tediously long train or bus journeys, a scant choice of hotels and a fair bit of suspicion – and that’s if the security situation allowed a visit at all. Now, the Hamees delivered us direct to a succession of cities completely untouched by tourism. I was out every night.
In Minya, where a swanky new archaeology museum is due to open, I ambled through a city centre as charming as anywhere in Egypt. A 20th-century cotton capital, exporting to Europe and beyond, Minya sings with the textile magnates’ colonial Rococo and Art Deco villas, many now artfully crumbling. Stares broke into smiles at my “salaamu alaykum”. Fathers nudged their moon-eyed children. Lads jostled for photos.
Dodging taxis emblazoned with Jesus stickers – Minya’s population is roughly half Christian, half Muslim, evidenced by the cheerful mix of hijabs and hair-bands – I stopped for tea off the main square. A dreadlocked hipster was talking to a blonde woman – his sister? girlfriend? – in sign language. A passing cigarette-seller boomed (in Arabic), “Foreigners are welcome.” The guy over the road smoking a water-pipe pointed and waved. The tea cost me 20p.
When I lived in Cairo in 1993, only journalists visited Asyut, preferably in body-armour. Times have changed. My Rough Guide enthused about Asyut’s Qasreya souk: “A web of shadowy lanes smelling of incense and offal,” it said. I asked the dockside police how to get there. After their initial surprise (“How does he know about Qasreya?” I overheard), one agreed to take me. It was sensational. Forests of cotton-polyester draped broken alleys in day-glo. There were saucepans, spice grinders and plenty of eyebrows, as coffeeshop loafers registered a tourist in their souk. Shouldering between cobblers and herb-sellers, I – literally – stumbled into a medieval wooden-galleried caravanserai, unrestored and gloomy, perhaps from the miserable days when Assyut hosted the biggest slave market in Africa.
By midnight I was sipping tea on a packed café terrace, while music played and laughter danced over the implacable Nile. The cruise had unlocked a whole new Egypt.
For Egyptians, times are as hard as they’ve ever been. Of 6,000 tour guides nationwide, 5,500 are out of work. Fewer than a quarter of the Nile’s 300 cruise ships are operating. Nine out of ten hotel rooms in Luxor are empty. The country may be going through political transition but that shouldn’t be a stick for us to beat it with. Quite the opposite. Planes are flying. Tours are running. Prices are low. Sites are quiet.
And Egypt’s spirit, of course, remains undaunted. At Meidum, our excursion to the 4,600-year-old Collapsed Pyramid happened to coincide with National Orphans’ Day. Beneath the high old walls girls in yellows, blues and pinks twirled together, clapping and chanting on their day out from school. Boys posed, one or two boldly asking my name. A teacher shook my hand.
“We’re happy that you come to visit us in such circumstances,” he said. “You are fighters, really.”
But it didn’t feel like a fight at all. In truth, it felt silky smooth.
Asyut, Minya and the other cities of Middle Egypt, for so long denied the opportunity for growth, now, finally, have a chance. This cruise links them with Cairo and Luxor in an entirely new way, on a single, hassle-free itinerary. They benefit from the cruise companies, who take on supplies mid-voyage. They should also benefit from tourist footfall.
In the echoing souks of Luxor and Aswan, forlorn shopkeepers brought me tea. Everyone was angry that protests limited to a small zone around Tahrir Square, 700km away, should still be blighting the whole country’s prospects.
I promised them I’d get the word out.
Click here to listen to the audio from BBC Radio 4, or click here to download the podcast (MP3 file: 13MB), which also includes great stories by journalists from Lebanon, Romania and elsewhere. A slightly shorter version went out on BBC World Service radio; this edition includes a fine report by Shaimaa Khalil from Upper Egypt. I have pasted the transcript of my Minya piece below:
A voice called out behind me.
“Mister! Hey, mister!”
He was a captain of the Egyptian police, a handgun holstered on his hip, and he had a serious look on his face. I explained I was just crossing the road to meet a friend. He waggled a finger at me. “No, no.”
There followed fifteen minutes of discussion before I was allowed to proceed – after he’d noted my passport and my friend’s name, address and phone number.
The police in Minya can be jumpy around foreigners. This Nile-side city of a quarter of a million people saw devastating violence in the 1990s, during an insurgency led by the Gamaa Islamiya.
Attacks had already been on the rise when, in 1992, militants announced they would begin targeting tourists. A bloody campaign of bombings and shootings culminated in a horrific attack at the 3,500-year-old temple of Queen Hatshepsut in Luxor in 1997, when 62 people died.
Egyptian public opinion was outraged. Even hardline Islamist groups denounced the massacre. The subsequent government crackdown killed thousands of militants in and around Minya and put thousands more in jail.
By then, tourism to the whole central section of Egypt was at or near zero. Cruise ships were withdrawn from the long stretch of the Nile between Cairo and Luxor. Cities at the heart of the insurgency, such as Minya and its neighbour Asyut, disappeared from tourist itineraries.
Almost twenty years on, with the insurgency defeated, Egyptian tourism is back in the doldrums. This time post-revolutionary instability and a deteriorating international image are to blame. Both are compounded by a faltering Muslim Brotherhood government, for whom it’s hard to find much enthusiasm among Egyptian travel industry bigwigs.
“They don’t know how to run a country,” fumed one tourism executive to me.
But they do know how to spread their influence. In Minya, as elsewhere around the country, the new governor is a Muslim Brotherhood placeman.
I drove to see his clifftop residence, its high walls bedecked with fairy lights, on the edge of New Minya, a Mubarak-era boondoggle of mean little concrete houses packed around barren roundabouts. Despite generous housing subsidies, sand-blown New Minya is a ghost town. People prefer to live where they’ve always lived – down by the Nile.
As street-lights came on in Minya’s old quarter, highlighting Rococo curlicues on the abandoned villas of 20th-century cotton magnates, many told me of a deepening atmosphere of political repression.
“We need a new revolution,” said Maged Nabil, who works for an Egyptian microcredit NGO. “If the president doesn’t make a break with the Muslim Brotherhood, there will be all-out street war.”
This summer, tourism is returning to Minya. The ban on cruising has been lifted, and passenger vessels are once again plying the full length of the Nile, bringing tourists to previously hard-to-reach ancient sites – the startlingly colourful 4,000-year-old tombs at Beni Hassan, and Tell El Amarna, royal capital of Tutankhamun’s father, Akhenaten. Minya’s giant pyramidal antiquities museum, built but idle, is finally due to open.
But armed plain-clothes police are posted aboard every ship, and police launches bob about in the wake. Tourists who wish to explore Minya or Asyut independently may do so only with police escort.
If it’s safe, why all the police? And if it’s not safe, why are tourists being allowed back?
“We’re treading on eggshells,” one boat manager told me. “We do what the police tell us.”
Egypt’s tourism industry relies on mass movements of people – in aircraft direct to beachfront resorts or in tour buses between archaeological sites. Personal encounters are kept to a bare minimum. That concentrates power in the hands of big business: tourism brings in billions, yet most Egyptians scrape by on less than two dollars a day. Abject poverty prompts desperate souvenir-hawking at tourist sites – which, in turn, discourages tourists from seeking personal interaction.
Something’s clearly wrong. Yet faced with current instability, many now hanker for the bad old days, when at least the arriving planes were full. These days, nine out of ten hotel rooms in Luxor stand empty.
In Minya, still reliant on cotton, sugarcane and cement production, it’s hard to see tourism making a difference. On a lane behind the brightly lit souk, Yehya Senoussi cracked a tired smile. He works a full day in Minya’s tax office, then is out each evening until midnight, selling vegetables off a barrow to make ends meet.
“Everything is worse after the revolution,” he told me. “Safety is down, prices are up. People need bread and fuel, and we have neither.”
Then he looked hard at me, to make sure I got the message.
“Egypt’s resources are being mismanaged,” he said.
I know this looks like link promotion, or a hamfisted attempt at DIY SEO, but it’s really not – there have just been some recent innovations on flights to Jordan from the UK, which I thought I’d highlight. Nothing in this post earns me a penny.
For years, two aspects of air travel from the UK to Jordan have hamstrung tourism growth. One has been unsociable flight times, which forced British tourists to effectively ‘lose’ two days either side of their trip on late-night arrivals and early-morning departures. The other has been the limited or non-existent access to airports other than Amman.
First, the cheapest option from the UK to Jordan is still EasyJet from Gatwick to Amman. At the moment they go three times a week (Tues, Thurs & Sun), departing Gatwick’s North Terminal (*eyeroll*) 12.50pm lunchtime, arriving Amman 8pm. The turnaround is quick, departing Amman 8.45pm, landing back in Gatwick just after midnight.
In late-Oct 2013 that drops to two flights a week: Sundays roughly on the above model of lunchtime departure/evening return, and Thursdays departing LGW 9.15am, arriving AMM 4.25pm, then departing AMM 5.10pm to land back in Gatwick 8.50pm.
Prices remain low. On a test booking today, six months in advance, I could get a week’s return in late November/early December 2013 for a pretty unbeatable £149.98 (hand-baggage only, pay by debit card) – well under half the price of any other option, and one-third the fare of the nonstop legacy carriers.
Mornings, afternoons & overnight
Over at Heathrow, Jordan’s national carrier – what does that even mean? – Royal Jordanian is sticking to its time-honoured schedule, which is designed principally to serve connecting traffic to/from the US and Asia rather than to suit point-to-point travellers.
Their once-daily flights depart Heathrow Terminal 3 around 5pm, landing in Amman just after midnight – which, if you add in airport formalities, a forty-minute drive into the city and hotel check-in, means your head won’t realistically hit the pillow until 2am. That’s Day 1 of your holiday used up on the flight, and Day 2 undermined by tiredness. RJ’s return flights leave Amman around midday – which means your last day in Jordan involves an early breakfast and the airport highway – to bring you back to Heathrow around 3.30pm.
At British Airways, by contrast, schedules to Amman have been completely revamped, and bumped up to 11 flights a week. Daily flights from Heathrow Terminal 1 (until T1 is demolished, perhaps in 2014) depart around 9am, landing in Amman at 4pm, then turn round to depart AMM 5.30pm, landing back at Heathrow just before 9pm.
If you can handle that 7am check-in time, that means Day 1 of your holiday would finish up rather nicely, with a spot of sightseeing, a sunset drink and dinner. At the end of your trip you could wake up anywhere in Jordan (city, desert, seaside, mountains), have a generous half-day out and about, and still get to the airport in time to check in. From Petra, say, it’s only 200km to the airport, driveable in a bit over 2 hours.
And BA is also throwing an intriguing new option into the mix – four days a week (Mon, Wed, Fri & Sat) it now has an overnight flight to Amman. Until October 2013, it departs Heathrow 10.20pm, arriving Amman 5.25am; after October, times change slightly. It’s short – realistically, you’ll only get at most a gritty-eyed four hours’ sleep in your seat – but it lets you hit the ground running in Jordan. The return is a 9am departure (Tue, Thu, Sat & Sun), landing at Heathrow just after midday.
Return fares on either BA or RJ start around £450. Why so high? Mumble mumble, market forces, mumble mumble, difficult times, mumble mumble, nobody really knows.
If you’re collecting miles, they’re both in the oneworld alliance.
One-stop options: hello Aqaba
There are lots of options for one-stop flights on a welter of airlines out of most UK airports – Lufthansa via Frankfurt, Air France via Paris and loads more. One to note is Turkish Airlines. They’re often the cheapest of the full-service carriers – but are part of the Star Alliance partnership and have a good reputation.
As well as Amman, they’ve also recently started flying into Aqaba, Jordan’s southernmost city on the Red Sea beaches. This opens up previously elusive open-jaw possibilities (bizarrely, none of Royal Jordanian’s domestic shuttles Amman-Aqaba is timed to coincide with the arrival of their Heathrow flight).
And Turkish fly out of Heathrow, Birmingham, Manchester and Edinburgh, opening up travel for non-London types.
The only problem? Utterly mad flight times.
They fly twice daily Istanbul-Amman, departing at either 8.20pm (arrives 11.15pm) or a cheery 2.20am (arrives 5.15am).
So if you’re starting from Birmingham or Manchester, you’ll depart at 4pm, have four hours layover in Istanbul airport (10pm-2am) and then about two and a half hours in the air to “sleep” before landing in Amman in the pre-dawn gloom. Fresh as a daisy.
The godawful returns depart Amman at 2.40am (arrives Istanbul 5.35am), or 7am (arrives 10am).
Turkish’s Aqaba flights (3 weekly: Wed, Fri & Sun) are even nuttier. Depart Istanbul 12.30am, arrive Aqaba 3am, with the return departing Aqaba 4am, arriving Istanbul 6.30am. Enjoy weaving THAT into your holiday plans.
But at least they exist. As I’ve written elsewhere, Aqaba airport is perhaps Jordan’s single most under-used national asset. Bar a sprinkling of seasonal Scandinavian or east European charter flights, it is a full-size international airport in the middle of the country’s premier tourist region – within easy reach of Petra, Wadi Rum and the Red Sea beaches – standing effectively empty. One nonstop flight a week from a handful of key European hubs could inject new vigour into Jordanian tourism, cutting out the need to loop back overland to Amman, opening up new tours, new ways of visiting, new markets. It’s an investment opportunity. It’s a vehicle for growth.
Oh never mind. Nobody listens to me :-)
I just got back from a cruise up the Nile in Egypt. These have long been a common tourist fixture in the south, between Luxor and Aswan, but it’s been almost twenty years since cruise ships have been seen in Middle Egypt, between Cairo and Luxor. So when people on the banks caught sight of our ship, the Hamees:
which is a five-storey behemoth in white, 72m long and towering almost 12m high, lined (as it was) with pasty, grey-haired tourists pointing cameras at them, it was a sight to behold. I watched him watching:
And they watched me watching them watching me:
But when it got to all of them watching all of us watching them, I wasn’t sure who was really watching who:
I think we all thought it was the other lot who were really worth watching.
She stopped work to watch:
They’d already stopped:
(A little bit of audio here.)
And I’m not sure this lot had even started:
Sometimes, people just refused to be interested.
Other times, it was the best thing that had happened all day – heck, all WEEK!
These guys in Assyut couldn’t get enough pictures of our boatload of fat, old Europeans taking pictures of them. “Check out this one!”
“No seriously, welcome to Egypt!” (“Oh God, this is so embarrassing…”)
“Oh yeah, forgot, cameras, gotta strike a pose. There.”
Or, er, not.
And after the Assiut boys had their fun, it was the Assiut girls’ turn.
I love this one:
These tiny kids already knew they should do the waving at tourists thing.
But these two definitely weren’t about to do THAT. They’d seen MUCH bigger ships LOADS of times before, anyway.
But it’s only a ship. Definitely no need to get too excited.
Unless you’re a camel, that is.
…and then there’s so over-excited your pants are showing:
Then again, not everyone bothers with pants.
(Trust me, you don’t want to see the hi-res original of that.)
More from Egypt to follow…
[UPDATE - 3 July 2013: Since May, when I wrote this post, the situation in Egypt has changed for the worse. However, I'm not providing updated info on this page. Read on for a general overview of travel safety in Egypt, but also follow the news, ask travel companies and check your governmental travel advisory for up-to-date guidance. And/or follow me on Twitter @matthewteller]
I’m just back from 3 weeks in Egypt – and yes, the country is safe for tourists.
That’s it. Go ahead and book your holiday. You’ll have a fabulous time. Thanks for reading.
Oh, you want more?
For this particular trip I didn’t go to Alex or the Delta, I didn’t go to Sinai & the Red Sea resorts, and I didn’t go to the Western Desert. That’s a chunk of Egypt missing. But I did spend time in Cairo, Luxor and Aswan, I did visit key cities and archaeological sites in Middle Egypt, and I did talk to a few people. Here’s my take on things.
Tourism to Egypt is way down. In 2010, 15 million tourists visited. In 2011 that was down to 10 million. Then 11 million in 2012.
But in my book 11 million people is a pretty sizeable vote of tourist confidence – in terms of sheer numbers, it’s more than Morocco gets, more than South Africa, and far more than Argentina, India or Japan. But there’s a political transition under way in Egypt. The country is emerging after decades of dictatorship. Vested interests are jockeying for position. That means Egypt is in the news quite a bit. Work with that. Understand it. Don’t wait for things to go back to normal. There is no more ‘normal’.
And lack of political stability doesn’t necessarily mean lack of tourist safety. Quite the opposite. Police are extra-vigilant now around tourists. The local tourism industry knows it can’t afford to be even a tiny bit complacent. Nobody is taking any chances. Egypt, in some ways, is safer now for tourists than it was before 2011.
Package tours – a worry-free holiday
Book a package tour through a reputable (bonded) company – with flights, transfers, accommodation and excursions included – and you’ll be as safe as safe can be. Even if your tour operator at home is hazy about what’s happening on the ground, their Egyptian agents will know the score at every point, adjusting and refining itineraries to match current conditions.
If you’re on the Red Sea, everything will be normal in and around your resort. If you’re in the south, all of Luxor and Aswan are safe for tourists (other than desperate vendors and guides being extra-specially pushy). If you’re in Cairo, you’ll likely be placed in a hotel away from the downtown area – probably out near the Pyramids, which is absolutely fine. If you make any excursions to sites, it will most likely be by private bus, possibly in convoy with other buses and/or with police escort.
All in all, it’s a worry-free holiday.
Personally, I don’t like package tours. But if you want to see the sights and cover decent ground, a package tour is probably the best way to visit Egypt at the moment.
If you’re travelling independently, you need to have your head screwed on and take slightly more care.
Independent travellers – Tahrir Square in detail
Most guidebooks start their Cairo city account with Tahrir Square. But times have changed. Travel writers would do better to pick another starting point. Currently (May 2013) Tahrir has become distinctly dodgy. Aside from the Egyptian Museum – best reached by taxi – I can’t come up with a compelling reason for tourists to go to Tahrir Square at all just now. Half the square is cordoned off as a construction site. The ex-Nile Hilton – now Ritz-Carlton – has been closed for years. The shops and cafes along the square’s eastern frontage are distinctly ordinary – and, with the square’s new notoriety, are now fringed by vendors and other boisterous characters keen to latch onto foreign gawpers. There’s fast food – KFC, Hardees, Pizza Hut – but not much else.
I’m no shrinking violet, and I’m also not a government official obligated to promote maximum caution. I’m just a British outsider who’s lived, worked and played in Cairo, and been round the Middle East circuit a few times over the last 20 years to boot. And my advice is to think very hard before going to Tahrir Square.
If you want to go, go in daytime – and don’t hang about. If this is your first time in Cairo, I suggest you skip Tahrir.
Either way, I certainly wouldn’t go to Tahrir after dark, or anytime on Fridays.
(Here comes the scary bit.) Tahrir is where protests start, it’s where mobs gather, and it’s where police have laid walls of concrete blocks across several side-streets in order to cut off exit routes and kettle people inside the square (photo and map). And in case you weren’t aware, not all protests these days are noble demands from righteous citizens for democracy. They’re just as likely to comprise several hundred pumped-up young men, armed with knives, guns, molotovs and/or other makeshift weapons, setting fires in the street and facing off against the police for no clear reason. This exasperates ordinary people and committed activists alike. Law and order aren’t totally breaking down, but economic pressures are intense and crime is on the rise (from, it must be said, a very low starting-point). Sexual assaults on women – by which I mean forcible seizure and/or abduction, violent bodily attacks, mass public rape – are a growing feature of the ‘protests’ in Tahrir.
Most of the time, of course, daily life is tension-free. You might not see or even sense anything untoward. These tourists didn’t, for instance. I’m pleased for them.
Be aware that the area around Tahrir – from 6th October Bridge in the north to the British Embassy in the south – is dodgier than the square itself. The side-streets behind the Mogamma building – particularly around Simon Bolivar Square – are notoriously unsafe after dark (this is where Guardian correspondent Jack Shenker was mugged earlier this month, and also where mobs smashed their way into the InterContinental Hotel Semiramis). Mohammed Mahmoud Street – now blocked by a concrete wall – has seen many recent protests. If tear gas is being fired, the ventilation system for Tahrir Square’s metro station (named Sadat) has been known to suck the gas underground into the metro.
If you’re visiting the Garden City district, or staying in one of the hotels there (Kempinski, Four Seasons, Grand Hyatt or others), be aware that Qasr Al Aini Street is blocked at the Tahrir Square end: the only access is along the Corniche. But the Corniche tunnel exit by the Qasr Al Nil Bridge (directly beside the Semiramis) is one of Tahrir’s flashpoints, where crowds gather: if you’re driving back to Garden City after dark you’d do better to make a large circle around the area to approach it from the south instead.
Independent travellers – around Cairo
Cairo seemed fine to me this time, no scarier than any other big city and less scary than many. (The Financial Times agrees!) I walked a lot – around the Coptic churches near Mar Girgis metro, across downtown from Tahrir to Ataba, all the way through Islamic Cairo on Muski and Al Azhar to El Hussein, into the backstreets off Al Moaz, outside the walls past Bab Al Futuh, etc etc – and everything felt crazily normal to me.
I’m pretty naive, though – and people tell me I also blend in fairly well as a local. And I’m male. All of which slants my experience.
But I think visitors would do well to ditch the idea that Tahrir is some kind of Times Square/Piccadilly Circus/Place de la Concorde. Stay elsewhere. Stay in Zamalek. Stay in Dokki. Cairo is big enough that every district is like its own city centre.
The best bit of advice I ever heard for walking in Cairo? Carry your stuff (camera, water, book etc) in an ordinary black plastic bag, the kind the locals carry shopping in. Nothing says ‘foreigner’ more than a daypack. A plastic bag – along with a button shirt, long trousers and a bit of facial swarthiness – has let me amble unremarked into more back alleys than I can remember.
[UPDATE: Travel writer Zora O'Neill tweets to tell me the plastic bag advice was hers - she put it in the LP Egypt guide in 2007, she says. Credit to Zora. And apologies too.]
Independent travellers – around Egypt
As for the rest of Egypt, there are probably only two areas of concern for independent travellers. One is the Sinai. The south Sinai coast, from Sharm to Taba, seems to be fine – but any excursions inland (including to St Catherine’s) seem significantly riskier just now. One Egyptian travel agent I talked to said he’d recently refused to book transport from Sharm to St Catherine’s for a client – “I don’t want the responsibility,” he told me.
Would I travel overland between Cairo and Sinai just now? I’m not sure. I’d take advice before deciding. I might fly.
The whole of northern Sinai is off-limits to tourists.
Middle Egypt – effectively, the Nile between Cairo and Luxor – is just opening up again to tourism. Visiting these places (Beni Suef, Minya, Assyut, Sohag) was never easy. For a time in the 90s and 00s, during an Islamist insurgency, tourists were barred altogether. Even if it’s possible to travel there independently now, from what I’ve been told you’ll very likely be assigned a police minder for the duration of your stay, both inside the cities and if you choose to head out to any archaeological sites in the countryside. I saw no other tourists when I walked in these places last month.
Elsewhere, Luxor and all points south are suffering badly from the lack of tourism just now. Group bookings are way down – which means independent travellers can reckon on quieter excursions and more rewarding encounters. Visit, and you’ll probably be welcomed like a long-lost relative. Who’s come to buy things. Lots of things.