Exploring Egypt: Cairo, Giza and Alexandria

The trip to Egypt was planned almost a year ago by my friends at Jadavpur University Alumni Association Hyderabad. Initially planned for February 2023, the planning and execution were entrusted to my friend Indranil Chowdhuri of Travel with Neel fame. The unavailability of some of us led to the dates being rescheduled to November, and the team size bulged up to more than 40, including members from not just Hyderabad, but Delhi, Kolkata, and Pune.

It was a complex assignment for Travel with Neel, with three countries (Egypt, Jordan, and Israel) planned over 20 days, with people joining and leaving the tour at various points. However, on 7th October, Hamas, the Palestinian fringe group attached Israel leading to a full-fledged war between Israel and Palestine, and as a result the Israel part of the tour had to be cut out of the itinerary. After lots of permutations finally on November 17th night, 30 of us assembled at RGI Airport Hyderabad, boarding a Saudia flight to Jeddah en route to Cairo.

We reached Cairo around 11am on the 18th, and the journey was a breeze in the company of good friends. A special mention needs to be made to how Travel with Neel smoothly handled our needs at the airports. At Hyderabad, at the behest of Travel with Neel, the Saudia staff were waiting for us outside the airport making the check-in process a breeze while in Cairo airport, a person from Neel’s team joined us inside the airport, helping with immigration, baggage collection as well as procurement of local SIM. In fact, throughout the trip, all small requirements of the tour members were catered to by Travel with Neel. 

From the airport, we headed towards Giza on our tour bus, our first stop was at an eatery “Tasty House Egypt”. The buffet there had about a hundred items and introduced us to the local Egyptian food. There were many creamy dip-type dishes, so typical of Mediterranean mezze platters. Eggplants are very popular in Egypt and apart from the dip Babaganoush, there were at least three other preparations. There was Koshari, the Egyptian national dish of rice, macaroni, and lentils served topped with tomato sauce. There was Falafel too. But the dish which impressed me the most was the Beef Stew, it went well with the not-so-soft Egyptian bread.

After a sumptuous lunch, we headed towards the hotel in Giza. The first glimpse of the three huge pyramids was seen on our right. Pyramid was something I was very familiar with from my childhood, the most popular wonder of the world to the people in India after the Taj Mahal. We were at the site in the evening for the Sound and Light Show. While the show was very informative, I felt that for such a popular tourist spot, the audio quality did not do full justice in terms of quality and clarity. Perhaps time to upgrade.

While coming back from the sound and light show, we purchased some papyrus paintings being peddled by street vendors. The next day, while visiting the Papyrus Museum, we were exposed to more such paintings. The intricacies of the painting as well as the quality of the papyrus differentiate these paintings with costs ranging from a paltry thirty to a few thousand Egyptian Pounds.

Day two was the most anticipated day of the tour, it was time to visit the Great Pyramids of Giza. The three towering pyramids stood next to each other as we jostled for pics and selfies nearby. The pyramid of Khufu was the biggest while his son Khafre and grandson Menkaure had smaller ones. The area had a festive look with tourists, camels, peddlers, and carriages. We hung around to get a feel of the place, visited the Great Sphynx, and bought some memorabilia from the small vendors. A travel tip, many locals will volunteer to take your pics, if you hand your camera to them, they will not let you go without parting with a hefty bakhshish. The memorabilia that we bought from there even after bargaining was much overpriced. You could get a better variety and cheaper ones at Khan Khalili market in Cairo. 

We proceeded by bus to the step pyramids at Saqqara, the structure of which was different from the smoothness of the Great Pyramids. As the name suggests the pyramid here had a step structure making it unique. These were possibly the first pyramids in ancient Egypt.

On the following day, we traveled to the seaside city of Alexandria, about three hours away from Cairo. The city located on the blue Mediterranean was named after Alexander the Great and was the capital of Egypt during ancient times. 

Our first stop was the Kom El Sharafa, an ancient archaeological site having three levels and housing some of the tombs from the Greek times. We went down three stories to look at some of the finest carvings and paintings and the stone sarcophagi in the central chamber. Next, we stopped at s and the stone sarcophagi in the central chamber. Next, we stopped at Kom El Dikka, the ruins of the Roman bath complex and Roman theatre. 

Our lunch was arranged at Branzino, a restaurant right on the Mediterranean seafront. A sumptuous lunch of fresh fish, squids, and prawns made our day followed by spending some time at the seafront. A big advantage of traveling with Travel with Neel is that you get to try out a lot of local food at the choicest restaurants in the city. It is a delight for a gourmand like me. We also visited the Alexandria library and then returned to Cairo by dusk.

A late evening visit to Khan El-Khalili, an Egyptian market from the 15th century regaled us. The whole place had a festive cheer, with the youth thronging the cafes and some even bringing their guitars along for the loud chorus. Small street vendor were peddling their wares on the street, while gift shops and restaurants abounded in the lanes behind. We had a nice time going around the bylanes, bargaining at shops for some of the huge collections of memorabilia that they were selling.

The mosques and museums of Cairo were kept for the last day. The Muhammad Ali Mosque is grand, the interior resembles the Hagiya Sofia mosque in Istanbul that we visited last year. Till now in Egypt we had only viewed empty sarcophaguses, now it was time to see the actual mummies at the new National Museum of Egyptian Civilization. The mummies were shifted here from the Cairo Museum a few months back. The museum is swanky and extremely well-run. Unfortunately, photography is not allowed in the Mummies Hall, section hosting the mummies. 

Finally the Cairo Museum. We really had to rush through it due to the paucity of time, but we decided to concentrate on the first floor – especially the rooms of Thutmosis and Tutankhamun. The amount of gold on display was dazzling and the intricate work impressed. The thrones and mummy masks were really exquisite. A thumbs down for the rough behavior of the museum staff, I saw them heckling and pushing tourists after the time was over.

Our North Egypt tour ended with a journey to the Giza railway station for a train ride to Aswan, about which I will talk in a separate post. Cairo is an ancient city, dusty with sandstone being the color used everywhere. The people were nice and friendly and some were very poor. I hated seeing small kids begging in the streets all through our trip to Egypt. It is sad to see the plight of the poor, not just in our country but all over the world. 

Continued: The Temples of South Egypt

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Novotel Vijayawada Varun: An ideal Staycation Location off Hyderabad

We were travelling to Vijayawada on some work towards the end of the week. We needed a little time to relax and I remembered that a few of my friends had recently visited Novotel Vijayawada Varun, and had a good experience there. My Accor Plus membership ensured a good weekend deal in the hotel, and on a Saturday afternoon, we arrived at the hotel after a nice time in the Tadepalli-Mangalgiri area. 

The hotel is located near Benz Circle Flyover, bang in the middle of the city. We had a quick check-in and were allotted a room on the fifth floor. I have some friends in the Accor Group, and a word from one of them ensured a tremendous welcome – a specially designed Welcome Hamper in our room when we occupied it. The Executive Chef Mr Suraj was personally present to deliver the hamper of dry fruits and goodies.

The room provided some excellent views of the hills and the surrounding localities. I was told that the rooftop had an even better view, and after some freshening up, we went up there. You can almost see the entire Vijayawada city from the tenth floor, which also houses the swimming pool, the Calm Spa and the Skydeck restobar. The hotel rooms are completely non-smoking, so if any guest wants to smoke, a smoking corner is available on this rooftop.

The hotel has four food and beverage outlets, - Food Exchange, the buffet place, Gourmet Bar in the lobby, SkyDeck the resto-bar on the rooftop and Wugan, the pan Asian place. As a food enthusiast, I wanted to try out all the four places. In the early evening, I went down to the Gourmet Bar at the lobby level to taste a special Hi-Tea session there. 

A mélange of savouries and sweets were presented for the Hi-Tea, Shrimp Cheese Quiche, Root veggies Feta Bruschetta, and Stuffed Cut Mirchi Bhajji were some of the highlights from the former. Vijayawada is known for its Punugulu and aptly, there was Punugulu with assorted chutneys. Among the sweet items, there were Strawberry Macarones, Clair Pistachio and Raisin Scones. The Gourmet Bar also has the best liquors available there, and the bar person there can make some kickass cocktails and mocktails.

The hotel has two types of rooms in terms of views – the city and hill views respectively. On the top two floors, they have single and double-bedroom apartments where long-duration guests usually stay.

We went back to the rooftop Skydeck in the evening. The outlet has two levels, sitting on the top level with a beer and snacks and enjoying the night view of the city was surreal.

Our dinner was at the buffet place Food Exchange, which is also located at the lobby level. The dinner had a good spread, the highlights for me being the Telugu starters and main courses. Miryala Chicken Fry, and a hot Andhra Mutton Curry were my picks from this section. The Pan-Asian and continental sections were also adequate, though I missed a pizza oven here.

After a good night's rest, the next morning we were back for breakfast at the same place, and this was a delightful experience. They have several types of dosas that they make at a live counter – Ragi Dosa and Egg Dosa to mention a few. The Tea and Coffee counter was quite crowded with people opting for their favourite versions of tea and coffee. Down south for me, it is always the filter coffee. The idlis were also available in a couple of varieties – Thatte Idli from Karnataka, and a yellow ural dal-based one, the name of which I forgot. There were vadas of different types too, not to speak of about ten types of chutneys accompanying these delicacies. These made me skip the other types of breakfast available, except for a huge Cheese Masala Omelette.

The heavy breakfast was followed by a leisurely walk in the colony next to the hotel. The place mostly had independent houses that had an old-world charm. There were carts selling dosa, idli and other delicacies and people were thronging to them. 

We had visited Vijayawada on at least half a dozen occasions earlier, so the major sightseeing locations were all familiar to me. However, if you are here for the first time on a vacation hire a transport to visit the Kanakadurga Temple, Bhavani Island on River Krishna as well as the Mangalgiri town about 15 km away to have a look and purchase their iconic cotton products like saree and kurta cloth. The hotel will be most happy to make the arrangements.

A highlight of our stay at the hotel was the food of Wugan, their Pan-Asian restaurant. Arguably the best oriental place in town, the restaurant was closed for renovation, but the management arranged for a special tasting session on the last day of my visit so that I could have a feel of its dishes. And, I was very pleasantly surprised, the food was as good as the best in Hyderabad. And it is the only place in Vijayawada to have a teppan.

We started with Salmon Nigiri and went on to taste their California Roll and Asparagus Bell Pepper Maki. The Prawn Tom Kha was nicely presented inside a tender coconut, and the taste complemented the looks. This was followed by some lovely dim sums. The star of the afternoon was the Chicken Yakitori, while the Donburi impressed too. The other dishes we tasted were Kung Bao Chicken and Basil Crispy tofu. The taste overall was excellent. Look up the restaurant when you are in Vijayawada, it is scheduled to reopen after a renovation soon.

Was very pleased with the cosiness of the hotel, where all the staff had a smile on their faces. Every staff member was eager to help and chip in with their suggestions regarding the food and surroundings. Novotel Vijayawada Varun is definitely a good place to visit for a short break from Hyderabad. If you are an Accor Plus member, you can get special vouchers with your membership that will make your stay quite economical compared to the rack rates.


Novotel Varun Vijayawada

near Benz Circle, Bharathi Nagar, Vijayawada 520008

Telephone: 0866 666 8999

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