Monday, June 28, 2010

The Egyptian Museum - And a 3000 Year Old Scandal

In Part 2 of Cairo: Crowds and All, Lorraine provides a game plan for tackling the Egyptian Museum and reveals a 3000 year old scandal.

A highlight of our visit was a trip to the Egyptian Museum.  

Gird your courage to the sticking point and brave the scrum at the ticket window to gain entry.  You won’t regret the effort, and you’ll feel a great sense of accomplishment when you finally walk away with your tickets in hand. 

A word of advice, hide your camera in your pocket or underwear (and yes, the image does defy the imagination).  A young woman inside inspects your bag and sends you back out to check your camera if she finds one.  However, once inside, people were snapping pictures happily with no apparent repercussions.

The museum itself is a large, somewhat gritty warehouse,  albeit a warehouse filled with priceless artifacts – a rare opportunity to walk 5000 years into the past.  We walked down aisles past hundreds of sarchophagi, jewelry displays, and death masks; we admired a written tablet that we suspected was the  Rosetta Stone  till I recalled that the Rosetta Stone had been shipped to England and resided in a museum there. And therein lies the challenge of the Museum. Signs in English are rare, and we often found ourselves speculating about the meaning of the exhibits.  While there are numerous ‘guides’ offering services before you enter the Museum, I can’t vouch for how knowledgeable they really are and would recommend that true history buffs check with Viator to find a guide, or the hotel concierge (if he’s more helpful than the one at the Sheraton).

Moving upstairs, we reach the King Tutankhamun exhibit. [Note to English speakers with limited knowledge of Egyptian history: The name is pronounced Tut (rhymes with hut) + ankhamun (rhymes with uncommon). Apparently, calling him Two Tank Haymen is the kind of error that embarrasses your partner and amuses other more erudite tourists.]   King Tut (this is the safe pronunciation option) burial chambers reminded us  of those Russian figures, where  you opened one to find a smaller identical figure inside, and so on till you reached the final, tiny figure. King Tut was the littlest doll in the center.  He was buried inside three gold covered box tombs,  sized so that they fit inside each other. And inside the three layers of gilded tombs,  was a solid gold king shaped sarcophagus (not on display)  and inside of all of this was the mummified body of King Tut,  the boy king,  wearing the well publicized and exquisite golden death mask that is on display at the museum.

The 3000 Year Old Just Revealed Scandal

We learned that King Tut was a rather unremarkable pharaoh, understandable since he ruled from the age of 9 till his death at 19.  His fame is all due to the grandeur of his tomb. In addition to youth, we’ve just learned that there was another good reason for little Tut’s less than distinguished rule. While we were there the Egyptians announced the results of DNA tests conducted on tissues from the Tut mummy (how wild is that – 3000 year old DNA?).  It seems he suffered from a number of nasty genetic diseases. This is not surprising since the DNA results revealed his parents were brother and sister. Compounding the problem, the boy was then married to his sister. A sad, but perhaps predictable discovery in his tomb were two of his progeny - mummified stillborn fetuses – products of that unfortunate union.  All that gold, and all that power, and no one seemed to have figured out the hazards of inbreeding. 

A final suggestion for those who like to read books about places they visit:  Egypt’s ancient and crumbling monuments are the tangible remnants of an ancient civilization; and modern Cairo, splendid, infuriating, and complex beyond all western understanding, is the proud  recipient of a 5000 year old legacy.  I often find that a good book can shine a light into the mysterious and exotic world of foreign travel.  My favorite fiction  books about Cairo are The Cairo Trilogy, by Naguib Mahfouz.  In the period between WWI and II, we follow three generations of a family .  For those who would like to browse even further I recommend, a website that allows you to type in the name of your city or country of choice, and then displays a wide range of books about the area. 

Photo of King Tut and Queen (sister) from the Egyptian Museum

Friday, June 25, 2010

Cairo - Crowds and All

If you are crowd-phobic like me, you might think that Cairo's not for you. That's not the case and No Crowds reporter, Lorraine leads the way on surviving and thriving in one of the world's most crowded cities.

The best time to visit is between November and March when the average daily temperature is 25C/77F. Right now the average temperature is 38C/100F so plan now and go later.

Egypt in winter so inspired Gustave  Flaubert that he recalls it started his  ‘literary pot boiling’, and shortly after returning to France he began work on Madame Bovary.  Florence Nightingale, was sent to winter in Egypt by her desperate parents, who hoped  that, seduced by the magic of the Nile, she would abandon her perverse interest in hospitals and find a nice young man to marry.  The magic of Egypt did indeed inspire her, but not in the way that her parents hoped.  She departed for the Crimean War after her return, and into history books as the Lady with the Lamp. (See Winter on the Nile: Florence Nightingale, Gustave Flaubert and the Temptations of Egypt. By Anthony Sattin.)

So it happened that last February, when Gary had work in Cairo, I happily made plans to accompany him, humming “see the pyramids along the Nile, dum de dum” while I hunted for bargain flights from Dubai to Cairo.  

Egypt Air did the trick and we found it to be an efficient if not luxurious airline option. We spent a long week end exploring the city, visiting the Giza pyramids (who knew they were just 45 minutes outside Cairo?), and eating our meals overlooking the Nile. While I didn’t return to Dubai and begin writing a masterpiece, or head off to war,  I do have some advice for anyone who would like to  enjoy this hyperkinetic city that teeters on the brink of chaos and somehow always manages to survive.

Cairo is the second largest city in the world and second in population only to Mexico City; according to the cab driver who picked us up at the Cairo airport and drove us to the Sheraton Hotel, Towers and Casino. As always, we found that cab drivers are the very best source of local mythology when visiting any city, except New York, where language barriers or attitude seems to prevent any communication.  With help from cab drivers, a group of enthusiastic school girls we met along the way, tour guides, and our own always fallible trial and error method, we learned a little about how to enjoy Cairo. 

#1: To reduce crowds in Cairo, get up early and visit sites in the morning.  You’ll never be alone in Cairo, but early mornings (from 9 a.m. – 11) are somewhat quieter, plus it’s cooler.  Alternatively, the guide books suggest that late afternoon is less crowded, but the infamous daily Cairo traffic build up may well cancel out that advantage.

#2:  Learn to say ‘Halass’ (emphasis on second syllable) which seems to translate as a combination of ‘enough’  and ‘ it’s finished’. This phrase is important, especially at the Giza Pyramids, where raucous vendors pitch camel, horse and buggy rides, and guided tours. If you don’t want to be besieged by would-be guides and other vendors, pretend you are deaf and dumb.  We learned that smiling and nodding ‘No’ just encouraged a renewed, more emphatic sales pitch.

The 4500 year old Sphinx guards the entrance to the Giza Pyramids, and is also known as ‘The Father of Terror’.  It may have been because we approached  the sphinx from behind and from the elevated level of the Great Pyramid, or because of  the oddly peaceful expression on its face, but we both found the sphinx less terrifying and somehow smaller than we had imagined.  However, a ‘sound and light’ show is conducted several evenings a week, and I’m told that the booming voice of the sphinx does the narration.  Though we didn’t make the show, it did occur to me that for those seeking true horror, the show might be just the ticket.
As an alternative, we suggest that if the sun is not too hot, and your shoes are comfortable;  take a walk a little ways into the desert, feel the dry desert wind on your face, and  sense the silence that dominated this Necropolis for the 3800 years during which the Great Pyramid was the tallest man made structure in the world.
#3: Hot, sun baked, hungry and thirsty, we adjourned for lunch at the 100 year old Mena House Hotel at the Giza pyramids. The food is good and the view over lawns and Palm trees to the Great Pyramid is spectacular.  Don’t miss it. 

#4: Stay at a hotel with a room overlooking the Nile – it’s an endless source of fascination though most of the river traffic appears to be recreational, with no sign of the original commercial importance of the river in evidence. We stayed at the Sheraton Cairo Hotel, Towers and Casino, where, despite their advertised 5 restaurants, had only one lobby restaurant open for lunch.  However, our room had a spacious balcony overlooking the Nile and we developed the habit of ordering  room service lunch, which we ate leisurely sitting on our balcony gazing out at the river and listening to the car horns of Cairo.  Our taxi driver described this sound as the ‘song of the city’, and after a while it became a rather pleasant backdrop to our activities.
#5: Unimpressed with the tours (or lack of same) suggested by our hotel concierge, we discovered a web site which offers all kinds of tours and events, world-wide, ideal for the independent traveler who prefers to design their own itinerary as they go, but might need some help.  We used them to book a Nile dinner cruise, which was touristy but fun.  Viator provided an English speaking guide who met us at our hotel, drove us to the cruise ship and escorted us to our table.  At the end of the evening, we were met and driven back to our hotel.  Given the exuberant anarchy of Cairo driving, we deeply appreciated this level of attention.  We’ll definitely consult with Viator again when we’re in an exotic location. 

Our  dinner show consisted of the usual belly dancer, which is not part of Arabic tradition but somehow has become associated with the middle east, and is therefore essential to every tourist floor show. We were pleased to note that Size Zero body type is not much sought after among Egyptian belly dancers; when these ladies twirled, the boat swayed.  We did find the whirling dervish dancer to be terrific, if a trifle dizzying to watch. 

At night the river filled with small brightly lit party boats, festooned with flashing colored lights, each capable of holding up to about twenty people.  On Valentine’s night the boats were gaily tricked out in red flashing neon hearts, each boat occupied  by a couple, who sat together while the boat pilot squired them along the dark river.  Gary and I imagined that it was a big night for proposals, or at least (my cynical nature intrudes here), propositions .

#6: A word about Egyptian wine.  Don’t drink it!  Insipid is the best we can say about it, and unfortunately, it was the only wine we could find on any menu.  While just about any kind of hard liquor can be found in any restaurant or bar, the only wine served was Egyptian, with quaint names like Scheherazade or Omar Khayyam.  If you’re a serious wine drinker, bring your own (I know from grim experience that this weighs down a suitcase and always requires checking it but sometimes it’s the only option). Alternatively, you could try duty free at the airport when you arrive – though we didn’t think to check it out, you might find some marginally better choices.
#7: Finally, get lots of Egyptian small bills, since baksheesh (Arabic for tip) is expected as part of all exchanges.  10% was the recommended amount, and if anyone argues and asks for more, just remember to say ‘Halass’.  A good quick estimate to help get a sense of the currency, is to ask how much a Big Mac, coke and fries cost in the local currency.  Everybody knows the answer to that question.  

Next installment: The Egyptian Museum + The Unfolding Two Tank Scandal

Photo Credit: Gary Ransom

Friday, June 18, 2010

The Flame of French Resistance

March 2010, Paris

David Cameron: “Fancy a day out, Sarko? Call me Dave, by the way. Look, I need to beef up my European credentials. You need a break from pension reform so lets celebrate the 70th anniversary of Charles de Gaulle’s radio broadcast on June 18th together here in London. Bring Carla.”

Nicolas Sarkozy: “ Dave. I can do better than that. I can cover a Eurostar with pictures of de Gaulle, fill it with 800 former servicemen AND bring Carla. The myth, oops, I mean the flame of French resistance must not be extinguished.  See you in June.”

While in Paris last week, No Crowds also took the chance to  ‘refresh’ the flame of French resistence by visiting the Memorial to Marshal Leclerc, dedicated to the Commander of the Free French Forces and the liberator of Paris, and the adjacent Museum of Jean Moulin, devoted to the leader of the French Resistance. Both of these museums can be found in the illusive Jardin Atlantique, located on top of the Montparnasse train station.

Now, you would think a roof garden on top of a train station would be easy to find. Not so. To begin with, there are two entrances with free-standing glass elevators that, in better days, would whisk visitors up to the garden in the sky but judging by the amount of rubbish in the empty and sinister relics, they haven’t worked in ages. Two other possibilities exist: a staircase in the far left corner of the Montparnasse train station and an entrance from Boulevard Pasteur.

Because it is hard to find, this 8.5 acre roof top garden in the middle of a densely populated part of the 15th Arrondisement is an uncrowded and rather magical place. Surrounded on all sides by modern high rise buildings, including the uniquely ugly Tour Montparnasse, the garden is filled with trees and plants from the Atlantic area of France. The space is a surprising urban oasis that is perfect for children who love the many hiding places and views down onto the train tracks and station through the ventilation shafts.

OK, the name is a mouthful, but this museum, which is actually two exhibitions in one building which tells the story of France’s experience in World War II through the eyes of two very different Frenchmen. Marshal Leclerc was the Commander who led the 2nd Armored division that liberated Paris from the Germans (‘aided’ by the Americans as they put it) while Jean Moulin was a French government official tortured and executed by the Germans who is considered the father of the Resistance. Both museums have large collections of photographs, documents and film from the period. Unlike most museums in France, many documents and explanations have been translated into several languages, including English. The museum is well-curated, empty and the permanent collection is free. During our visit, a French school group joined us briefly. Otherwise we had the building entirely to ourselves. Closed Mondays.

Now, at first I thought it was a weakness that this memorial/museum presents a view of the resistance and liberation not universally shared by all historians. But increasingly during my visit, I came to appreciate what Charles de Gaulle and his compatriots were able to pull off with little more than rousing oratory and good political instincts and after a visit to The Memorial of Marshal Leclerc Hautelocque and of the Liberation of Paris and the Museum Jean Moulin I know exactly why Dave and Sarko are so keen to share in the warm glow of de Gaulle’s inspiring London broadcast to the people of France.

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Recipease - Where No Crowds Learns to Cook Like Jamie

Jamie Oliver. What a brand. What an empire. You can eat in his restaurants, watch his shows, buy his books, support his campaigns and download his iPhone apps.  Does the guy ever sleep?  I’ve often wondered what all the fuss was about until last night when I joined a group of friends at Recipease – Jamie’s community based food ‘happening’ in south London – and got the religion.

The idea was both fun and simple. We assembled a group of friends, picked from a list of dishes (we chose Thai Green Curry), grabbed a glass of wine and started cooking the fresh ingredients that had been assembled for us. An energetic, Jamie-like professional chef guided us along using a combination of skill, humour and charm. At the end of the class, we got to sit together around a table and eat what we prepared. And all for the price of what we would have spent for an ordinary meal at an unmemorable restaurant. While we were part of an evening group event, Recipease also offers classes for individuals and couples at different times during the day.

According to the website, Recipease was conceived as a community based food emporium where everyone can get involved with food, no matter what your ambition level, starting position or finances. And here’s the thing. The concept is delivered in a fresh and original way and it works. The place looks and feels welcoming. The products are appealing and fairly priced – and in London, that’s huge. The staff has the kind of energy that only comes from people who believe in what they are doing. Best of all, Recipease absolutely proves the point that good cooking can be big fun.

For locals, Recipease delivers a welcome change from the standard restaurant hustle and hassle. For fans of Jamie Oliver from all over the world, Recipease delivers an interesting opportunity to experience Jamie’s food revolution first hand and visitors to London can use the easy-to-use online booking system to plan and book ahead of a visit.