Who isn’t interested in ancient Egypt?
Probably very few people could deny any fascination with what remains of the Seven Wonders of the world, hieroglyphs and monumental temples. My earliest memories of them are from trips to my grandparents and the 1930’s history encylopaedia they kept in their living room, then ten years we had to kill a few hours before a friends wedding, got comfy in a bookshop and browsed a oversized coffee table book of the Valley of the Kings, easily accessible from Luxor. That was it – the following year I booked a flight and a hotel in Luxor and set out to explore the wonders of the ancient world.
Some of these wonders I had meticulously planned, like Abu Simbel, others just came to me through a chance meeting with a lovely German woman in one of the more obscure temples on the West Bank who goes to Egypt for three weeks every year.
Instead of getting that coffee table book, I found The Travellers Key to Ancient Egypt by John Anthony West, a smallish volume stuffed with information about archaeological sites in Egypt – think what you like about the symbolism theories, and some fair mystic tinting, the history and art basics are pretty solid.
But Abu Simbel? That site is well known, firstly for its magnificence, secondly for its salvage (can I say “salvage” when such a wondrous magnificent site is concerned?) in the 1960’s from intended flooding through the newly built Aswan Dam. The problem is, Abu Simbel is miles from any other ancient sites, about 300km south of Assuan in the Nubian desert.
But don’t worry: Visiting is straightforward, especially if you have a bit more time. Aswan to Abu Simbel can be done in a day on a modest budget. You can read about it here.
My itinerary was more rushed, I only had a week, flew to Luxor and wanted to be based in Luxor. So, off to the Egyptair website and flights from Luxor to Abu Simbel booked. I booked maybe six weeks in advance, and bought tickets for about 100GBP return.
So, what does a day trip from Luxor to Abu Simbel look like? It must be quite luxurious to fly there just for the day, right? Well… it was an early start, and a long day. My trusted taxi driver (more about that later) took me to the airport. I checked in for my Egyptair flight to Aswan in a deserted terminal, and the flew in an ageing Boeing with about three other people in it. Aswan airport (smaller city, smaller airport) was mayhem. I had to check in AGAIN (why???) and this time, the airplane (a new-ish Airbus which I think was on stopover from Cairo) was chock-full of American package tourists. The second flight was maybe 40 minutes, and I was lucky to have found a seat on the left window, as we descended with sweeping views over the temples. Abu Simbel airport is tiny, a one-storey building, really, and passengers disgorged from the plane speedily, and into waiting Egyptair buses. Usually, people have very little other business than to visit the temples so flights are even timed to coincide with tourist schedules, and buses are part of the ticket.
Ten minutes later, we were dropped at the gate, and asked to be back in two hours, paid the entrance fee, and free to wander. Because it was desert-hot, most people headed straight to their destination, the monumental temple of Ramesses II, flanked by four partially damaged colossal statues of Ramesses himself, built into the rock. Inside the rock, it was pleasantly cool, and thanks to the enormous dimensions of the two temples, it mattered very little that an Airbus full of tourists had just descended on the site. A temple similar in style, but slightly smaller, is the Temple of Nefertiti a couple hundred metres away.
Here you see both temples, part of a rock formation. The Temple of Ramesses II on the left is larger in size, the Temple of Nefertiti on the right maybe smaller but has not four, but SIX, somewhat more varied colossal statues flanking its entrance.
Temple of Ramesses II.
Two hours were plenty time, except if you wanted to walk round the rocks, which I don’t think was possible. There was a lot of military everywhere – you are free enough to roam around, but think of getting truly off the beaten path, you will soon be asked to return to the fold – I don’t find this a problem, but maybe half as many guns would have done the trick nicely, too.
Bus ride back, plane boarded (not much checking here, it occurs rarely that blind passengers join from the desert), and back to Luxor. Or so I thought. You could stay in Abu Simbel, if you wish to explore repeatedly or get that perfect sunrise photo or have a thing for desert nights, there are about three hotels. The flight back was marred by weird turbulence despite fine weather. I wasn’t sure whether it was the deathly silence, or the fact that the plane was filled exclusively with Westerners, or the fact that I am not the best flyer in the world, but spooked, I decided not to get back on a plane today.
Aswan is a touristy city, right? Nile Cruises go there. It has a train line. So, I haggled for a cab to take me away from the airport… the airport is well out of the centre, so when the driver suggested we stop by the Nasser Dam, and I demanded he stops off at Philae Temple (Temple of Isis) too, we negotiated a suitable price, and two hours and another two sights of Southern Egypt later (again, Philae is rather little visited, and nicely located on an island, well worth visiting), he dropped me off by the train station where I went up to the counter, purchased a second-class ticket to Luxor for later that afternoon, walked to the touristy shop strip in Aswan, ate lunch, sat around by the Nile a bit and bought a backgammon board… Aswan has fewer visitors than Luxor, but has a fully grown tourist infrastructure.
The train ride itself was lovely – I think that was the first time in my week in Egypt where i wasn’t approached by anyone to buy anything. Perfectly safe in second class, polite fellow passengers, of course, the prerequisite chickens travelled along, too, bit of Nile Valley scenery from the window… I arrived back at dusk in Luxor, walked out of the train station and… no “guides”! Probably they don’t find it worth their time hanging out by the train station waiting for a stray Westerner. I walked the kilometre back to the Winter Palace, had dinner, but too late for the pool today. My leisurely agenda of early rises, temple, afternoon by the pool had been disturbed but it was so worth it!
Flights: I flew from London Heathrow to Luxor and back on Egyptair, booked through a consolidator, and booked my Luxor to Abus Simbel flight on Egyptair.
Accommodation: Once in Luxor, I stayed at the Sofitel Winter Palace Hotel, booked through a hotel booking website. Before you get too excited, bear in mind that the Winter Palace then had three buildings: a beautiful historical wing (Old Winter Palace), a 1975 Soviet Style “New Winter Place Wing” (demolished in 2008) and a 1990’s Pavilion Wing. Both the Old Winter Palace and the pavilion Wing are four-to five-star, the New Wing was three-star. Guess which one I stayed in! The good thing back then was that they were sharing pools and garden, so they were beautiful and five-star standard. You find both high-end and mid-range places at the Corniche, where I recommend you stay. If you do a lot of sightseeing, try to stay close to Luxor temple, as this is where the ferry to the West Bank departs. Back in 2007, I also liked the laid-back and pretty untouristy atmosphere of the West Bank Village, which, I was told, was very “up and coming”. I wonder what it is like now? Has any one stayed there?
Local Transport: For the West Bank, usually the frequent public ferry in the early mornings, then I haggled long enough with a taxi driver of one of the many waiting taxis at the ferry pier to take me wherever I wanted and wait, then take me to the next place. Usually went well without any involuntary detours to alabaster factories.
For longer trips, I always hired the same taxi from a relative of a relative that someone knew… In short, I met a German woman in one of the temples who went here every year and knew people, so she helped me find a good driver from one of her many acquaintances.
The Winter Palace is in good walking distance to the train station, and I took the train from Aswan to Luxor once. I felt very safe in a second-class carriage as a lone Western woman.
Can’t remember if there is public transport within Luxor, I don’t think there was back then.
PS: I travelled to Luxor as an individual in 2007, in what I consider a relatively safe period between large-scale tourist attack of 1997 and the Egypt Revolution of 2011. I never had any concerns for my safety whatsoever while I was there. At the time of writing, both the German and the UK Foreign offices have partial travel warnings for Egypt in place. I recommend you check with your foreign office concerning safety in Egypt.