Travel post­card: 48 hours in Cairo, a study in con­trasts

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Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - TRAVEL 2010 -

PAIR­ING an an­cient pharaonic legacy with a cos­mopoli­tan buzz t hat has made it a cul­tural hub of the Mid­dle East, Egypt’s 5 000-year-old cap­i­tal is a study in con­trasts.

Cairo, where Ori­en­tal bazaars with tra­di­tional hand­i­crafts nes­tle be­side neon malls dis­play­ing the world’s top fashion la­bels and where over­crowded slums border lav­ish neigh­bour­hoods, has long cap­tured the imag­i­na­tion of ad­ven­tur­ous trav­ellers.

Dubbed “the city of a thou­sand minarets,” the Cairo sky­line is pierced with count­less domes and minarets of mosques that over­look its fre­netic, con­gested streets.

It has also been called “Paris on the Nile,” a home to relics of colo­nial-era ar­chi­tec­ture in­spired by France and rang­ing in style from neo-baroque to art deco.

A c h a o t i c , c r o wded metr o p o l i s teem­ing with traf­fic, Cairo elic­its all but in­dif­fer­ence from its vis­i­tors. It is a glo­ri­ous bea­con of his­tory and cul­ture, in­ter­weav­ing in­flu­ences from Turk­ish, French and Bri­tish colo­nial rule.

In mod­ern times the city has be­come an an­chor for film, mu­sic and pop cul­ture em­braced across the Arab world.

Egypt’s week­end days are Fri­day and Satur­day, just enough time to get a glimpse of its cap­i­tal’s many faces.

Fri­day: 8am – The early hours be­fore t h e c a l l t o J u mu’ a h ( F r i d a y ) n o o n prayers are the qui­etest of the Cairene week. Lo­cals sleep in and the nor­mally over­whelm­ing traf­fic is tem­po­rar­ily sub­dued.

Kick off your visit with a trip to the peer­less Giza pyra­mids on the western edge of Cairo. Make sure you book a tour guide be­fore you go and, if you de­cide on a horse or camel ride, hag­gle over price be­fore­hand. You may also have to hag­gle as you try to get off the ride.

1pm – Lunch and a beer at the cen­tury-old Café Riche in the down­town Cairo neigh­bour­hood. Its base­ment was a meet­ing point for re­sis­tance mem­bers dur­ing t he 1919 r evo­lu­tion against Bri­tish oc­cu­pa­tion. Decades later, the cafe be­came the favourite haunt of Egyp­tian No­bel l au­re­ate, the writer Naguib Mah­fouz.

It is now a pop­u­lar hang­out for many of the city’s in­tel­lec­tu­als. Some­times, Café Riche hosts an ac­cor­dion player on Fri­days.

3pm – While in down­town Cairo, am­ble through its 19th-and early 20th­cen­tury boule­vards and build­ings. The neigh­bour­hood, once home to Cairo’s elite, has been sul­lied by years of ne­glect, but re­mains home to Frenchin­spired ar­chi­tec­tural gems built dur­ing the reign of Ot­toman ruler Khedeve Is­mail.

Down­town of­fers cul­ture buffs an in­ter­est­ing shop­ping ex­pe­ri­ence. Sherif street is home to Lehn­ert & Lan­drock, a book­shop sell­ing replica pho­to­graphs of Egypt and North Africa taken by Aus­trian Ru­dolf Lehn­ert and Ger­man Ernst Lan­drock at the turn of the 20th cen­tury.

For rare books, lith­o­graphs, maps and other col­lecta­bles on Egypt, drop by L’Ori­en­tal­iste (www.ori­en­tale­cairo. com) on Kasr El Nil Street.

The area’s streets are stud­ded with lit­tle shops sell­ing an­tiques, pa­pyrus paper, per­fume oils and other cu­rios.

6pm – Sai l i nt o t he s un­set on a felucca, Egypt’s tra­di­tional wooden sail­boat, and en­joy a tran­quil moment on the Nile. A felucca can be rented for less than $20 an hour. A good place to board one is on the river­side boule­vard, the Cor­niche, in front of The Four Sea­sons Nile Plaza ho­tel or far­ther down in the Maadi neigh­bour­hood.

7pm – Haven’t had enough of the mighty Nile? Then din­ner at Se­qouia (www.se­quoiaon­line.net), an open-air r e s t a ur a nt r i ght on t he Nil e i n t he Za­malek district, is a must. Built like a mod­ern tent with a white mar­quee, canopies and up­hol­stery, Se­quoia serves Mediter­ranean cui­sine in­clud­ing tra­di­tional Egyp­tian dishes, as well as sushi and wa­ter pipes.

9pm – Just a 10-minute walk from Se­qouia is the glitzy Aper­i­tivo, a bistrolounge that opened last year. Adorned with crys­tal chan­de­liers, leather up­hol­stery and funky art­work, it’s the ideal venue to sip cre­ative cock­tails and ex­pe­ri­ence the glam­orous side of Cairo.

11pm – Still feel­ing en­er­getic? Take a t axi t o down­town’s Arabesque, a re­cently re­fur­bished Ori­en­tal-style bar­turned-danc­ing-hotspot churn­ing out Western and Ara­bic tunes, now a pop­u­lar hang­out for Cairo’s young crowd. A belly-dancer per­forms there ev­ery Fri­day. The venue gets crowded on week­ends, so book at least a week in ad­vance.

Mid­night – Wrap up the night at Af­ter 8 (www.af­ter8­cairo.com), a bar right next door to Arabesque where you can tap your feet to live mu­sic and a DJ well into the wee hours of the night. What­ever time of the night or early morn­ing you fin­ish, you’ll al­ways be able hail a taxi on Cairo’s street to get back to your ho­tel.

Satur­day: 9am – Depend­ing on how long the evening lasted, you’ll de­cide whether you can brave a long morn­ing trek to ex­plore Egypt’s re­li­gious her­itage. Most tour com­pa­nies of­fer a half­day guided tour of Is­lamic Cairo, the Cop­tic quar­ter and Ben Ezra, the old­est syn­a­gogue in Egypt.

A good start­ing point is Cop­tic Cairo, home to the in­tri­cately de­signed Hang­ing Church, which is said to have been orig­i­nally built in the 3rd or 4th cen­tury AD on the site of a Ro­man fortress.

In the 11th cen­tury, the church be­came the of­fi­cial res­i­dence of the Cop­tic Pope.

The district is also home to Ben Ezra syn­a­gogue. Orig­i­nally built in the 4th cen­tury as a church, it was turned into a syn­a­gogue five cen­turies later. Leg­end has it the syn­a­gogue was built near the spot where Pharaoh’s daugh­ter found baby Moses.

11am – Is­lamic Cairo is just a short drive from the Cop­tic quar­ters and is brim­ming with mosques and other mon­u­ments. Be­gin a tour of the area with Ibn Tu­lun mosque, named af­ter the founder of the Tu­lun dy­nasty that ruled Egypt in the late 9th cen­tury, and AlRi­fai mosque, now the burial spot of E g y p t ’s K i n g F a r o u k a n d I r a n ’s Mohamed Reza Shah Pahlavi.

A must-see in Is­lamic Cairo is the renowned Ci­tadel, a 12th-cen­tury bas­tion built by Ayyu­bid ruler Salahud­din to pro­tect Egypt against the Cru­saders. Also there is a grand mosque built by Muham­mad Ali Pasha, Egypt’s Ot­toman ruler through­out the first half of the 19th cen­tury.

2pm – Stroll around the gar­dens and foun­tains of Al-Azhar park (www.alazhar park.com). The park, trans­formed from a garbage dump to a lush ur­ban oa­sis, houses a 12th cen­tury Ayyu­bid wall built dur­ing the Salahud­din era.

Ar­guably the green­est spot in Cairo, you can grab a bite at its Stu­dio Misr res­tau­rant, which over­looks the Ci­tadel and the park’s verdant hills and of­fers a va­ri­ety of lo­cal dishes.

4pm – Splurge at Khan El Khalili, a vast bazaar sell­ing tra­di­tional sou­venirs in­clud­ing home or­na­ments, jew­ellery, gar­ments, spices and wa­ter pipes. Ven­dors hike up prices for tourists, so make sure you’ve honed your bar­gain­ing skills.

Sip a warm cup of mint tea and puff on a hub­bly bub­bly (wa­ter pipe) at the Khan’s El Fishawi café, which claims it hasn’t cl osed i t s doors s i nce i t f i r s t opened in the late 1700s.

7pm – Sneak around t he corner f r o m K h a n E l K h a l i l i t o Wi k a l a t A l Ghouri, a re­stored 16th-cen­tury Mam­luk ware­house, where you can sit back and en­joy a Sufi whirling dervish dance per­for­mance. The shows are free on Mon­days, Wed­nes­days and Satur­days. They start at 8.30pm, but it’s best to ar­rive early to get a good seat.

9pm – Af­ter the long busy day, treat your­self to de­li­cious sushi and Far East­ern fu­sion cui­sine at Asia bar (www.blue nile­boat.com.eg/asia-bar.html), lo­cated on Za­malek’s moored Blue Nile boat. The up­scale res­tau­rant-bar fea­tures an in-house DJ spin­ning ex­cel­lent tunes to chill out by. Book at least a day ahead. – Reuters

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