I've always enjoyed travelling and have experienced the hot and the cold of Europe, from Iceland's waterfalls to Italy's volcanoes, slept out under the stars in Germany, and in Sweden on a sleeper train shunted into the sidings and converted into a hostel.
However, I always found that my visits were too brief to get a real feel for the place, people and culture. I began to realise that while I could try to see a bit of everything the world has to offer, what I loved most was to really get beneath the skin of the few places I was visiting. This desire led my husband and me to seize the opportunity to live and work abroad. Our first thought was "let's try Europe" but when a teaching position came up in Egypt we thought to ourselves "well, that's not too far from Europe" and decided that as kids of the Indiana Jones generation, we couldn't pass up this opportunity for an adventure.
That was nearly four years ago, and we very soon found that although North Africa is on about 30 minutes’ flight time beyond ‘Europe’, Egypt is anything but “nearly Europe”.
What I love most about Cairo is that every time you go out of your front door you can have an adventure. Some of the things I will tip about aren't going to be specific places or things to do, but just things to look out for. You can't plan most of the adventures you will have in Cairo - they just happen around you. This can also be one of the most frustrating aspects of being in Cairo - the "Cairo days" when you want a simple solution and things just don't go your way. You get them living here, and you get them visiting here too - just be prepared to roll with it and take things in your stride. You'll soon be laughing about the time when a friendly man told you the Egyptian Museum was closed, and persuaded you to spend three hours in his uncle’s shop with a load of overpriced spices before three hours until it reopened!
There is so much more to the Cairo than the pyramids, in fact Old Cairo (made up of Islamic Cairo and Coptic Cairo) was recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the same year as the ancient monuments. I love taking our visitors beyond the tourist market of Khan el Khalili as, just a few streets away from the English-menu cafes and glass pyramid paper-weights, you can be where locals shop for their spices, clothes and coffee. Just crossing the road takes you to a part of the city where there is a district for everything from gold to tents to electronic weighing scales.
Cairo and Egypt have always been the subject of many a dream holiday, with sunset at the pyramids and romance on the horizon. But now Cairo is more likely to be in the news pages rather than the travel supplements. Living here during a time of such change is exciting, but the images broadcast around the world can only ever show part of the story. Egypt has changed and it is still changing, but the majority of people here continue to remain friendly and welcoming to foreigners, so there is no reason to avoid the country. In fact, take advantage of the lack of tourists at the sights and negotiate cheaper holiday deals while you can.Alice runs I Spy Egypt.com (www.ispyegypt.com) where she highlights some of the 'little' things in Egypt that might otherwise pass you by. The aim is to look beyond the pyramids and enjoy immersing yourself in the sights of Egypt that make it such an exciting and fascinating place to visit. Some tips to get you going
Let me start off with some tips on getting a different perspective in Cairo: places to go with a view.Revolving Restaurant
You'll easily spy the Revolving Restaurant if you are in downtown Cairo and look up - it's the tall building on the Nile which looks like a UFO has landed on top of it. It's not nearly as futuristic once you've made the ear-popping lift journey up to the 44th floor, but it is just very sleek.
If you really want to splash out then you can have dinner in the restaurant, but a more affordable way to enjoy the view of central Cairo is by having a drink in the bar on the floor below the restaurant. They have a minimum charge, but two or three drinks will usually meet it.
The best time to go is just before sunset as you'll see the sun going down behind the pyramids, and the city lights coming alive.How to get there
: The Revolving Restaurant along the Corniche in the Garden City area of downtown Cairo. It is part of what is now called the Nile Grand Hotel, formerly the Grand Hyatt. If you ask a taxi driver for the Grand Hyatt you’ll get there. “Hotel” in Arabic is “fonduk” so simply ask for “Fonduk Grand Hyatt”.1089 Corniche El Nil, P.O. Box 63 Maglis El Shaab, Garden City 11519, Cairo, Egypt
+ 20 (2) 2791-7000
Google map: http://bit.ly/u89og6Bab Zuweyla
Bab Zuweyla is in the heart of Islamic Cairo, but actually marks the Southern gate of the old city (Bab meaning “gate”). The gatehouse has been restored, but the original arch and towers remain inside. You can enter the building to see the old gate, swing mechanism (including what are claimed to be the earliest examples of ball bearings in the world!), pottery and other fragments found by archaeologists. The main reason to visit, though, is to climb the gate towers to get a great view over this historic district of Cairo.
Your first pause for breath is at the top of the gate, where you can walk around at roof-level and peer down onto the streets below as boys cycle with balanced racks of bread on their heads, and women hang out their washing from the windows or on roofs that are also home to the family goat or pigeon coop. Then climb the dark and narrow spiral staircase in either of the two towers, to the first or second balcony and even braving the final few metal rungs if you have a head for heights and nerves of steel. Up here you can see the Citadel and Al-Azhar park, and can continue to marvel at daily life as it goes by like a busy scene in Where’s Wally.How to get there
: To walk from Khan el Khalili, cross the Al-Azhar road using
the pedestrian underpass or the green footbridge. Near the footbridge you will find a bustling shopping street covered by a high wooden ceiling beside the Al-Ghouri mosque. Head down this street, called Muizz-il-din, and you will know you are on the right track if you are making your way past brightly coloured clothes stores, stylish gallabeyas and eye-popping lingerie. After about 10 minutes you will see the arched gate of Bab Zuweyla.
To walk from the Museum of Islamic Art (on the corner of Mohamed Ali Street and Port Said) come out of the main entrance and face the police station / prison opposite. You need to cross the road and take the street on the right-hand side of the police building. The street is called Ahmed Mahir and you are on the right street if you see lots of stone carving workshops, agricultural seed stores and then carpenters. Bab Zuweyla is on your left after about 15 minutes walk.
You will find the entrance to the gate in a small door (to your right if you stand with your back towards the Khan el Khalili). Bab Zuweyla costs 20LE to enter and closes at 5pm (although you can sometimes persuade them to let you stay up to hear the dusk call to prayer echo through Islamic Cairo).
While you are in the area you should cross the road and visit the Tent Makers’ market – though I’ll write more about that and other shopping to be done in Cairo in a future tip!Sharia Mu'ezz li-din Allah Darb al-Ahmar
Google map: http://bit.ly/vmYJBz
The Citadel and the mosque of Mohamed Ali gaze over the dusty city by day and shimmer beautifully in green and gold at night. There is much to see and do in the Citadel complex (it has several museums and re-furbished buildings to visit) but the highlight of a visit really is the view you get over the city.
On a good day you can spy the Cairo Tower and the pyramids in the distance, but don't feel disappointed if the Cairo smog puts their form out of reach as your eyes will be kept busy picking out the colour and movement of daily life as it flits across the grey canvas of the city below you. You can see the cars glistening as they drive along the Autostrad road, and this silvery streak through the city almost looks like a branch of the Nile. See if you can spot the different historic minaret styles that give a clue to the date of each mosque’s construction in he surrounding area.
If you can visit the Citadel on a Friday then do so: although you aren't able to go inside the Mohamed Ali mosque during Friday prayers, you can time a visit to experience the striking sounds of the call to prayer as it rings out across Cairo. To be looking out from the Citadel when the call to prayer goes out in the city of a thousand minarets is breathtaking.How to get there
: There is no nearby metro station, so you will have to take a taxi to the Citadel. Try to take a "white" taxi as these have meters, which mean you avoid any confusion over payment. Ask for “gamaa Mohamed Ali” (Mohamed Ali mosque) or “il all ail qalla” (Citadel)Wadi Degla
The National Protectorate closest to Cairo is on the fringes of the southern city suburb of Maadi, built during the 1920s and now home to a large number of expats. Wadi Degla is an ancient river bed that was gouged out of the rock 60 million years ago, leaving marine fossils and dried waterfalls behind in this desert landscape.
Walk between the high cliffs along the flat valley bed, or take a quick scramble up the right-hand side of the Wadi just after the gate. From the top of the cliffs you get views over the southern and eastern parts of the city, stretching over to the pyramids. At the weekend you’ll share Egypt’s ‘Grand Canyon’ with walkers, joggers and picnicking families.How to get there
: Get the Metro to El Maadi station and then take a taxi. Ask for Wadi Degla in Zahraa el Maadi. You may need to specify you want the Protectorate, as there is a sporting club housing an Egyptian premiership football team called Wadi Degla as well! Look out for the brown signs to follow when you are on the Autostraad.
Wadi Degla costs 5LE to enter and is open from sunrise to sunset. Bring plenty of bottled water, and don’t forget your binoculars.You can follow Alice's tips as she posts them on the site. Her username is AlipGo back to local's homepage