12.02.2010 - 21.02.2010
Another Helsinki bus gate to the rather full a320. I really don't understand the logic of who gets a proper gate here as I see e-jets at the terminal. Slightly delayed flight but I had a long connection anyway. Being on enemy (skyteam) territory at Amsterdam was a big difference, oneworld transfer facilities were non-existent, so no boarding pass for me until boarding time. It’s handy that the “transfer” facilities are after going through immigration so I couldn’t go and get my boarding pass at regular checkin. This meant no lounge access and the rent-a-lounge people were useless in terms of getting me a boarding pass. To soothe my anxieties there was plenty of walking to do in this overly large and inefficient transit airport. Schipol is pretty much a stock standard “average” big airport, though the small Rijksmuseum was a nice diversion. Bought some Egyptian pounds and headed to my gate, which was at the very end of a long pier. They do security at the gates (like SIN) which annoys me to no end, plus when the gate staff finally turned up the boarding pass printer was broken so mine was handwritten on a bit of paper; good luck claiming FF points! Also that meant another transit desk experience when in Jordan, at least its firmly on Oneworld territory. The first Royal Jordanian flight of this trip was surprisingly full, unfortunately the IFE died shortly after takeoff which is normally quite good AVOD particularly on an a319. The food was great with 3 choices and oddly for an Arab airline alcohol was flowing like it was going out of fashion. Wine was served generously from the bottle and spirits likewise had no pourers so everyone was kept very happy during the 5 hour flight; maybe this was to compensate for the lack of IFE? Thankfully we arrived on time jut after dusk in Amman and my transit desk experience was painless so I was in the fantastic crown lounge in no time. It was only a brief 15 minute recharge but very useful to stock up on numerous prepackaged items. I headed down to the bus gate for my Alexandria flight where it was chaos, 3 flights at the same time with the same gate. Staff haphazardly updating the gate “signs” (powerpoint) made it difficult to know who was to go where and when. Luckily got on the right bus and was on the E75 after a longish bus ride which showed how far the new terminal construction has come along in the 12 months since I was here last. It is desperately needed. Another full flight but it was only a short hop to Egypt so not too bad. I didn’t understand the catering though, a roll with a single lonely slice of cheese and then another roll with a single slice of ham; hey guys why don’t you put them together? Arrived in Alexandria where it was immediately apparent that the airport is due to close within weeks; a brand new airport has just been finished much further out of town. The visa on arrival “process” was a big reminder I was in Africa. After procuring one and then being amazed that my bag made the connections I was in a 50 year old merc heading towards my coastal downtown accommodation, sans seatbelts and smelling like diesel. Pleasantly surprised by my very colonial hotel and was soon deeply sleeping after a long day of travel.
My first full day in Africa was spent checking out the city sights on foot. First stop was the train station where I needed to buy a ticket to Cairo for later. This was difficult with my limited Arabic and no western numerals. There are different windows for different classes and destinations. Eventually found out that there were no tickets available to meet my needs, travelling on the equivalent of a Monday morning for commuters. This was frustrating after spending time and baksheesh. Plan B was the bus, which I ended up getting a ticket for later that afternoon. I headed back to the corniche along the med and walked to the impressive Alexandria library which was packed with locals. I walked back to the centre of town near the tramline that had bizarre (Nothing like HK) double deck trams joined with standard single deck. Like the service taxis here, they don’t really stop, you just get on. I went the opposite way down the corniche in the afternoon past some impressive mosques to the old fort on a point packed with family groups and fishermen. Had some kebabesque food for dinner.
Time to head to the bus station just a little out of town. Pleasantly located next to a tip it was a challenge to find the “right” bus. Despite practicing my Arabic the night before. It was handy most were going to Cairo but I had to find one who would take me with my prepaid ticket. Strangely they take allocated seating very seriously, unlike my previous bus experiences in the baltics. The bus was slow but cheap and I was a novelty as the only foreigner. I surprised myself by getting off the bus in Cairo right where I wanted, walking distance to my hostel. Traffic is Vietnam style just with cars instead of motorbikes, which makes negotiating traffic as a pedestrian slightly easier, you still just cross as the few traffic lights here are just for decoration. The hostel is on the top floor of a large apartment block so good views of the very smoggy skyline. Non-functioning air con was an annoyance but I was only staying the one night. Hit the crazy streets to Islamic Cairo (actually no more Islamic than the rest of Cairo) where the most elaborate mosque is and also the citadel providing good views of the Nile. Walking back to the hostel I really enjoyed just watching the everyday street life play out around me. The mosque next door to the hostel was a major hassle blaring prayers for much of the evening and then at dawn again.
Next day I began with an Egyptian breakfast and then was on my way to the pyramids across the river. I hired a driver for half a day so we left early. Despite this the 24/7 bad traffic slowed us but we still managed to reach the Giza pyramids (the famous ones) before most tour busses. On the way we passed a petrol station where a bus was majorly on fire, but no one seemed to care much. I was very impressed that my student card worked at all the sights I visited so half price admission, which really added up. The sphinx was a little underwhelming but the pyramids themselves were much larger than I imagined and were amazing to see. As expected touts were everywhere but I didn’t really fit their typical demographic so didn’t get too much hassle. Baksheesh was the order of the day to gain access to “closed” tombs etc. It was awesome to satisfy my inner Indiana Jones and actually go into some of the pyramids and their strange designs. All my primary school Egypt project stuff came flooding back. Next was the Saqqara site where lesser know older pyramids where located, including the very first one that started this weird craze thousands of years ago. The best interior was here complete with traps and all. Then down the road to Memphis where the main attraction was statue of Ramses in a “garden”. After this it was back up the road and across the Nile to the city. I spent the afternoon checking out Coptic (Christian) Cairo and then also had a look at the island suburb in the middle of the river, home of the very minaret looking Cairo tower. Got chatting to some locals in a park and went and had some tea on the street. Back at the hostel had a bit of time to kill before heading to the airport and got talking to some Canadians that just arrived from Jordan. Made it through the peak hour (not much difference) traffic to the new terminal 3 exclusively for Egypt air. Checked in and didn’t know what to do with myself on my first star alliance flight for a long time. The airport was relatively quiet, I guess they actually built it with room for growth, so had lots of space to chill, which was good after the hustle and bustle of a city with the population of my country. Bussed to yet another full E70 and had a brief chat with the pilots who were having a preflight smoke on the stairs. Straightforward 50min flight however the luggage took ages to appear and I was pretty tired by the time I reached the hotel at about midnight. After they finally found my reservation I slept very well.
Luxor was like a tiny country town compared to Cairo and it is clearly very dependent on tourism. After a late start and dodgy Egyptian brekkie it was time to check out the rive droit sights starting with Karnak temple, the largest such in existence. I ambled my way through town and randomly ran into a Japanese guy looking for Karnak aswell. We soon found the entrance and toured the site together, alas my student getup failed in this hardy tourist town. We then headed down the corniche along the Nile to the Luxor temple. My new friend was amused at locals always assuming he was chinese, of which there were many, though Europeans were ubiquitous. The sun was going down and bright coloured lights lit up the monuments. We parted ways as my touring companion had to sort out some accommodation issues after being taken for a ride earlier. I felt sorry for him as a typical Japanese person his English wasn’t great and the Egyptians are always trying to scam some cash out of foreigners, especially in Luxor. Hopefully I helped him regain his faith in non-group travel, as a Japanese I was shocked to find him on his own, but then again his circumstances were very similar to mine. Had a self catering disaster with some tinned Russian fish product turning out to be fish brains not tuna as I was hoping. But bringing bulk bottled water with me was still a good idea.
Next day it was across the river on a felucca to the left bank where the attractions where more distant so I hired a taxi for a half day. My itinerary began at the Valley of the Kings where most pharoic royalty is buried, including Tutankhamen. With the entry ticket you got 3 tomb entries of your choice so headed to the most distant and difficult ones. Despite my legs being sore from a lot of archaeology of recent days they were still very satisfying as they were still quite well preserved and devoid of other older fatter tourists. I was surprised by how hot some were despite going down quite deep. Then it was around the (rather large) corner to the valley of the queens which featured an impressive temple complex. I couldn’t get over the people mover craze taking American tourists 500m up a sealed flat road from the ticket office to the actual site for an exorbitant fee that is rampant down in south Egypt. Finally we stopped by the Habu temple, which is massively underrated, and has some fantastically preserved hieroglyphics and towers. Then it was back across the river, this time by a kid no older than 8. I was pretty buggered after a lot of climbing and walking so headed straight back to the hotel after getting back to the city side of the Nile. On the walk back I witnessed a fatal motorbike/car accident, which was a telling reminder of the daily carnage on the roads here, and made me glad I had travel insurance. Caved and plumped for maccas which is a big deal here.
Time to leave the third world and headed to the airport, with full knowledge (free wifi) that I had a long day ahead of me as the inbound was late leaving Europe. Managed to find the right checkin desk amongst the sea of Air Berlin flights, 5 in 90 mins. Got told the flight was gonna be late and got some paltry refreshment vouchers which would be sufficient downtown but not at airport prices. Though was surprised to see my boarding pass not for the seat I had paid for (3 euro) but a K seat indicating a wide body which was puzzling. All was revealed once we finally boarded to find a Qantas era 767-300 instead of the anticipated new 737-800, as it went tech in Brussels so they subbed this last minute instead. My first semi-charter/scheduled “holiday” type flight was not something I will be rushing to do again, it’s the Europe equivalent of a package flight to bali. The all economy plane flew 20 minutes to the coastal resort of marsa alam before heading to Brussels to complete the triangular route. Interesting that seating is arranged into meal (prepaid) and no-meal sections. Immigration was surprisingly robust for Europe; I guess the only non-eu passport on the entire flight does stand out. Despite this the baggage service was excruciatingly slow. Due to arriving 3 hours late the free shuttle to my airport hotel had finished for the night so I was stuck with getting a taxi at the welcome-back-to-the-first-world price of 20 euro for 5 kms.
Got as much sleep as I could before having to get up and head back to the airport. Brussels airport is way better than schipol and was pleasantly surprised to find Iberia have their own lounge here (not rent-a-lounge) with plenty of cans of stella just begging to be taken to Portugal. The food was a bit lacking so I had a Quick breakfast (get it?). The A321 left on time and it was nice to be on a flight that wasn’t full for a change. I was disappointed to find on my first Iberia shorthaul flight that not even water is free! 2.5 hours later was at the lovely Barajas airport t4, the Dali lounge to be exact. A quick 15 minute plundering was all I could afford, as my gate was a regional gate it was at a far corner of the spacious terminal. I was grateful an airline had confidence in my legs as I didn’t have to endure an insultingly inefficient 100m bus ride like at some airports. Boarded the CRJ900 for the 50min and 50% full flight to Porto. I love that the regional flight attendants everywhere are always way younger and enthusiastic than their older craggier mainline counterparts. Flew in with a great view of the city and touched down right on time at the modern terminal. Bags were prompt and I was on the impressive metro in no time. Interesting ticketing system with cardboard chip cards that cost 50 cents but are reloadable. Was at my lodging in 30mins flat, despite the hilly city centre. The metro system only in existence for less than 10 years was a good spend of 3.5 billion euro in my opinion.
First proper day back on the continent and I headed out to the casa do musica a very contemporary concert hall and tried in vain to get tickets for the evenings cello recital but it was all sold out. Then I strolled down to the river Douro past some old churches and laneways. Porto is the home of many cool Port caves, which people drink heaps of here (surprise) and it’s cheap as chips with some budget stuff at about one euro per litre, which makes goon look expensive. I think I've been in Europe too long as I found the 15 degree sun a little warm. But I still enjoyed walking down along the river then up the steep hillside and across the many bridges, including some designed by gustav Eiffel’s protégés. Can definitely see why it makes such a great location for the red bull air race. Decided to explore this more residential side of the river and ended up semi lost on some farm. I eventually made it back to the river and tried to cross but the nearest bridges were a train only and freeway only bridge, pedestrians apparently aren’t meant to exist here. Back down to the river I went and bush bashed my way along the muddy shore along an old path with some missing bridges and vicious spiky vines, so much so that they tore my jeans, but it was fun. I finally got back on the beaten track and made it to the main side of town and back to my hotel right on one of the main squares. I love Portugal because proper restaurants here are cheaper than fast food (actually everything is cheap on the euro scale) and there is this cool reverse colonial influence. Can definitely see why our German friends have their holiday house in Portugal.
The rain that caused the deadly floods in Madeira has arrived today, but here it is only light intermittent drizzle. I head out to see the main stadium in town at the end of the metro and also spot a UFO type dome structure, which apparently is the basketball stadium. The rain lends itself to indoor pursuits so I am glad I covered so much ground yesterday; though I did check the forecast. Porto is like Perth on a Sunday, dead. Though some shops are open and there are some tourists around it does get slippery on some of the steep streets here. I’m still loving not having to buy bottled water every few days. Do a bit of laundry in the bidet and watch some subtitled trash on the public broadcaster. Nice lazy Sunday before the final hectic fortnight; will be flying on everyday but two.