Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Weekend Getaway to EGYPT!!

Les and I decided to make a trip to Egypt for Memorial Day Weekend...about a week and a half before the weekend. In the days leading up to our trip I couldn't quite grasp where I was going.  Even while I was there I had to give myself several reality checks. I had a hard time believing that I was actually crossing off one of the top items on my bucket list...and probably one of the items that had been on the list the longest! I still can hardly believe that I actually SAW the pyramids, and the sphinx!!

So, here are the long awaited pictures and a recap of our trip.  We flew in on Saturday, May 23, 2009.  Our plane landed at around 7-something and, after the longest bus ride from plane to terminal that I've ever been on, we were off trying to find our way through crazy security (I'd never seen anything like it!) and find our tour operator. Finally our group assembled and we made our way out of the airport and to our hotel.

On the way to the hotel my eyes were wide open, trying to take in every detail around me.  Cairo is a HUGE city. There were lots of lights, billboards, and insane traffic. I tried to take a few pictures from the moving bus, but because of the darkness they didn't turn out too well.

We arrived at our hotel about a 1/2 hour after leaving the airport. It was lovely.  We stayed at the Hotel Safir in the Dokki district of Giza. After checking in we started checking out our surroundings. We took in what was available at the hotel gift shop and then made our way upstairs for a delicious dinner in the main dining room. After dinner we hit the sack. Morning was going to come much too early. Our tour guide had instructed us to meet in the lobby for a 7am pickup. Egypt is an hour ahead of Italy so this was really 6pm for us.  Uff.

I was so excited, though, that I didn't sleep well.  My eyes popped open bright and early the next morning.  I hurried to get ready, had breakfast and soon we were on the bus headed for the pyramids!! Ok, not directly to the pyramids. We had to make a stop at another hotel to pick up the rest of our group, but then we were off to the pyramids.

Crossing the Nile with the Cairo Tower in the background

The Nile River from the bus

My first glimpse of the pyramids!!

Camels and other animals frequently share the roads with cars in Cairo and Giza

Once we arrived at the pyramids we had to get off of the bus to get our tickets.  While we were standing in line there was much confusion, and a few heated words between our tour guide and another gentleman trying to buy tickets.  I'm not sure what all was said as it was in Arabic, but it wasn't friendly.  At any rate we got our tickets and those of us who wanted the tickets to go inside the Great Pyramid were able to buy them.  They only sell 150 of those tickets a day so we were lucky enough to get there early.

After purchasing our tickets we had to go through security on foot. Our bus met us on the other side.  While we were walking toward the bus I saw this guard, possibly a military policeman(?) just relaxing on his camel.

The Great Pyramid

Entrances into the Great Pyramid

This is the pyramid that we went into. In the picture above you'll notice two entrances into the pyramid. The upper, larger entrance is sealed.  The lower entrance is where we went in. The climb was difficult, some portions of the tunnel were no more than 1x1 meter, with traffic going both ways. The climb was steep, and there were very few places to stop and catch your breath. The air was thin, musty, warm, and humid.  I struggled to keep my claustrophobia under control. Finally we reached the room where the pharoah had been entombed.  The room was reasonably large, but not huge, tall cielings, black walls, dimly lit, and contained only an empty sarcophagus.  It wasn't long before the dark, warm, moist air reminded me that I was inside a tomb.  I was slightly creeped out and decided it was time to go. The climb down was almost as tough as the climb up.  Even now, two days later, my legs are so sore!

Happy, Smiling Camel

A close-up of the happy camel

After a bit of time to explore the area around the Great Pyramid we were back on the bus and moving on to a fantastic lookout point.

This was also the location for us to take camel rides, if we wanted to.  We jumped at the chance!  The camel ride took us from the lookout above to the smaller of the three pyramids, on the right.

Camels are rather awkward, especially while trying to kneel down

Once I was seated on my camel I was instructed to lean as far back as possible.  The next thing I know I am hanging on for dear life as my camel awkwardly brings itself up to standing from its kneeling position. That in itself was quite a ride!

Les on his camel, taken by me while riding my own camel

Our group, heading out across the desert

Riding a camel was quite an experience.  They have an unsteady feeling gait that made me feel as if I was in constant danger of falling off.  And they are TALL!!  About halfway through our ride the guide stopped us for pictures. He unroped each camel to take pictures of each person individually with the pyramids as a backdrop. As I was waiting for my turn my camel got bored and decided to take a walk.  I had no reins and couldn't stop him as he headed off toward the open desert.  Only after yelling for help, while laughing, did one of the lead men come running to catch my camel.

Our next stop inside the pyramid park was to see the Sphinx!  I thought he was beautiful!

The Sphinx with the Pyramid of Khafre in the background

The remains of the structure in front of the Sphinx is where the priests would prepare the pharoah's body for mummification.  The construction of these massive stones was incredible.

Each column was made out of a single stone

The corner stones were actually shaped into corners to protect the building from the winds and sand

Ever wonder what the Sphinx is looking at?  Well, now you know!

We had a few minutes to kill before our bus left for our next bit of excitement so we decided to grab sodas at a little cafe.  This was our view:

Our next stop was a papyrus shop.  They showed us how papyrus paper is made and then we had the opportunity to buy hand painted payarus.  We brought a few home with us :)

Demonstrating how papyrus is made

Our guide took us to a few more shops, and then it was lunch time. I was ready!  On our way to and from lunch I took in my surroundings.  Here are a few things that popped out at me:

After lunch we went to the Cairo Egyptian Museum.  No cameras allowed, unfortunately.  What an amazing place!  I had a hard time believing that I was looking at the real stuff that came out of ancient Egyptian tombs!  We even saw the King Tut exhibit, the amazing pieces that don't go on tour around the world!  Spectacular!!  Sadly, we didn't get to spend nearly enough time in the museum.  It could have easily been at least a half a day for me, but when you try to cram everything into one day something has to give.

We moved on to the Oriental Bazzar after the museum.  We had hoped for some free time to take off on our own but because of an "incident" a couple of months ago, and because we were Americans we were forced to go as a group with an armed escort.  This didn't give us much flexibility to shop and barter, but I did manage to buy a few things and take a lot of pictures.  Here are a few of the sights from the bazzar:



Mother-of-pearl inlay boxes and trinkets

Hand-blown glass perfume bottles

Scarabs (good luck bugs) and Beads

Silver Jewelry


Dresses for the modest Muslim woman

Detail on a scarf


Quilted Pillow Covers

After quickly moving through the market we met back up with our guide and sat down for a snack at a nearby cafe.  We ate the most delicious falafel pitas and had the excellent turkish coffee. I wish I could drink turkish coffee more often!  I need to learn how to make it.  So good!

A mosque near the cafe

And that was the end of our whirlwind tour day.  Our bus took us back to the hotel where we cleaned a bit of the sand and dust off of our feet, walked around the neighborhood, and then sat down to a leisurely dinner. We started with some wine and sushi in the hotel's sushi bar where we made friends with our server who taught us a few words of Arabic.  I think he was flattered that we asked to learn a few phrases because he gave us complimentary desserts and coffee!  After an hour or more of just chatting and sipping wine we went up to the main dining room, ate a bit more, and then went upstairs and to bed.  My head hit the pillow and I was out.  It was a full, exhausting, but extremely fulfilling day.  Can you believe that everything I've written about in this post took place in one day?  I can't!

The next morning we got to sleep in a bit, but eventually had to pull ourselves out of bed, get packed up and head to the airport.  On our way to the airport I took a few pictures, many of which didn't turn out, but I will leave you with one that was pretty good, considering it was taken from a moving bus, and I was on the opposite side of the bus from what I wanted a picture of!

This was a massive mosque that looked like it had a very strong, stone fortress built around it.

We had an amazing time in Egypt, but I wish we had a bit more time.  Trying to cram everything into one day was challenging and there were definitely places where we would have liked to spend more time.  But, overall, it was awesome.  I saw the pyramids!!!

Friday, May 22, 2009

La Scala Infiorata - Caltagirone

Yesterday a friend and I decided to go to Caltagirone to see the steps decorated for spring. We both love taking pictures so we were both lugging around our cameras and tripods in the sweltering heat (had to have been in the 90's) but we had a blast. I took the opportunity to practice a few HDR shots:

On our way to the steps I noticed a shoe sitting in a doorway.  Not sure what this means, but I had to take a picture.  I guess we got yelled at, I was oblivious in my little photo world.  Apparently the people inside the doorway were not happy at me taking their picture.  I just rolled my eyes and smiled. I didn't want their picture, just the doorway and the shoe.

The steps, decorated for Spring:

We walked all the way to the top of the steps, stopping in each of the ceramics shops and enjoying the handcrafted beauty that is unique to Caltagirone.

After our climb to the top of the steps we made our way back down to La Scala Ristorante where we enjoyed a delicious lunch of Fettucine with Aritchokes and Pancetta and Caprese Salads.  YUMMY!  And of course, no day trip in Sicily is complete without a scoop of gelato.  I had coconut, which was awesome!

After our lunch I had hoped that the steps would be nearly deserted during the afternoon resting time, but no such luck.  There were actually more people on the stairs in the afternoon that there had been earlier in the day.  There went my hopes of getting a picture of the stairs and flowers without people.  Oh well.

What a wonderful way to spend the day!