Want to impress your teenagers? Take them on a Red Sea cruise to the land of the pharaohs to soak up some history, says Linda Aitchison
As my daughters gaze wide-eyed at the vibrant hieroglyphics depicting complex scenes of power and opulence, I’ve never seen them so engrossed. Our guide to the Valley of the Kings, Hassan, is unravelling enigmas inspired by the pharaohs and we are all transfixed.
“This is awesome, Mum,” says Melissa. “Amazing,” Emily echoes. Armed with a key to deciphering the ancient symbols, they eagerly spot the letters in a labyrinth of passageways leading to the royal tombs.
Our journey so far has brought us through much of Egypt, listening to exciting tales of wealth, death and destiny – as unforgettable for me as it is awe-inspiring for my twin 14-year-olds. The contrast with everything we have experienced earlier in the day is striking. We’ve travelled through chaos, noise and vast spaces broken only by the sight of men and horses working the land, much as they have for hundreds of years.
At the Valley of the Kings, history springs to life in an epic tableau. The major burial site with its abundance of Egyptian mythology has been a focus of discovery since the late 1700s. The work here of British Egyptologist Howard Carter, known for discovering the tomb of 14th-century BC pharaoh Tutankhamun, has captured the world’s imagination.
The valley is known to contain some 63 tombs and chambers, but it’s that of the Boy King, found by Carter’s team in 1922, which has the biggest pull. Earlier in the week at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo we marvelled at the glittering spoils that were pulled out of the young royal’s final resting place. This treasure trove of gold and ebony is the most complete chamber ever uncovered and is truely amazing.
Today, stripped of its finery, the tomb itself appears unremarkable but the treasures on display in the capital, including the incredible golden mask, preserve its iconic status… as does a famous curse.
Gripping stories of the curse of the pharaohs ripple through the crowd and there’s a collective reflective sigh as Hassan explains how some connected with the discovery of Tutankhamen’s remains allegedly met an untimely and mysterious end. Two workers who forced open the door to the tomb were said to have dropped dead on the spot, while Lord Carnarvon, who funded the trip was bitten by a mosquito and died five months later. Carter himself fell victim to Lymphoma.
Our visit to the Valley of the Kings came three days after we journeyed to the Pyramids, on a packed and stunning itinerary with the Thomson Celebration Red Sea Magic cruise. The ship docked at Sharm El Sheikh, before heading to Aqaba in Jordan, Port Sokhna as a gateway to Cairo, then Safaga for Luxor and the Valley of the Kings, and back to Sharm El Sheikh.
We sailed during a very busy week, but the service was always friendly, the atmosphere surprisingly informal – a refreshing and relaxed backdrop for the grandeur we were discovering on our daily travels.
Some nights we dined in the self-service buffet restaurant which has different themed nights, including tastes of Asia and Mexico, and is open 24-hours a day.
While the restaurant was often packed, waiting was kept to a minimum. Each afternoon there was also a chance to sample afternoon tea with dainty sandwiches and cakes, although we were too busy sightseeing to try it. We also enjoyed the waiter-service Meridian restaurant where six-course meals were served – including impressive dishes like lamb wellington or beef with pâté, beautifully cooked and presented, giving us a of a taste of a more formal cruise setting, chatting to fellow diners.
Waiters aboard the Celebration were a joy to be around, attentive and friendly without being pushy (service charges and tips are included in the price of the holiday). My girls sipped non-alcoholic cocktails every night and it felt like a real grown-up moment. During a day at sea, staff toured the decks to wait on guests as they lazed in the sun.
The on-board entertainment was amazing. A show based on the sights and sounds of Africa sparked a standing ovation, and I loved the nightly quizzes and games from the entertainments team.
The expert destination services staff were firm in their guidance about the pitfalls of visiting the most popular tourist attractions – don’t be tempted to ride a camel at the pyramids, they advised, you’ll end up paying to get on and then off again as well, and don’t engage in conversation with the souvenir sellers waiting at the steps of the bus.
But my daughters gained a lot of attention from over-zealous hawkers. They attached themselves to us, shouting “Shakira, Shakira,” offering me an ambitious five million camels for Melissa and assuring me I’m lucky to have Spice Girls as daughters.
Despite the wisdom of the Celebration staff, we were a little overwhelmed at first by being targeted so forcefully but we laughed it off.
Another surprise, this time at Giza, near Cairo, was the chance to go inside a pyramid. “Don’t do it if you have a bad back or if you suffer at all with agoraphobia,” the Thomson team advised us. In we trekked, bent double and perhaps a little close for comfort to the people in front. Reaching the end of a ten-minute descent in a narrow, low-ceilinged corridor, stepping cautiously, a cheer went up as we reached the site of the most famous pyramids, one of the Seven Ancient Wonders of the World.
Supposedly built on the instruction of the Egyptian sun God, Ra, the pyramids are said to be shaped to represent the rays of the sun. Catching our breath as we viewed a tomb inside, dating back thousands of years, we came face to face with a more modern Egyptian phenomenon. A man, wanting to know if we wanted a photo, even though cameras are banned.
A more substantial brush with Egyptian entrepreneurship came at an alabaster factory near Luxor. We listened, watched and laughed as the owner sold his wares, telling us with a well practiced accent that he was from Leeds. The good-natured banter worked. Our fellow travellers left clutching miniature sphinxes and cats, although their provenance was debatable. While the stone carvers kept us entertained outside, there could be little doubt the goods on show inside were mass-produced.
Our trip was a whirlwind of sights, sounds, smells and textures, and we loved every minute. In Cairo, en route for the Egyptian Museum, we were open mouthed at the traffic – there appeared to be eight lanes, with no order whatsoever. We felt as though we were taking our life in our hands. “The first rule of driving in Egypt is that there are no rules,” joked our guide Dina.
But there was also plenty of time for relaxation. At the Dead Sea, on a visit from Aqaba, we slathered ourselves in unctuous mud before bobbing around in salty waters where it’s famously impossible to sink. Another life-affirming moment.
As we prepared to head home, one last excursion took us on a glass-bottomed boat tour off Sharm’s balmy shore. We saw stingrays and dozens of species of fish. The coral glowed and the blue-green hues of the Red Sea glistened in the sun. A truly unforgettable cruise.
Thomson Cruises offers a seven-night Red Sea Magic cruise on Thomson Celebration from £604pp based on two adults sharing on a full-board basis. It visits Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt; Aqaba, Jordan; Port Sokhna (for Cairo), Egypt and Safaga (for Luxor and Hurghada), Egypt. It departs on 11 April 2013 from airports nationwide. Price includes return flights, transfers, port taxes, tips and service charges.
For more information, or to book, go to your local Thomson travel shop or call 0871 230 2800.
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