Teeming wonder on the Nile

Costa Rica

Cairo is hot, noisy and teeming. It is also utterly mesmerizing and endlessly fascinating, with a welcome for visitors is as warm as anywhere, Oh, and it has the only surviving ancient Wonder of the World. Gareth Huw Davies takes on the hustle and bustle, the traffic and din and savours one the one of the greatest city experiences on earth. This is his ''Don't Miss'' list.

Wonder of the World

My first view of the three 5,000-year-old pyramids, the only one of the
Seven Wonders of the World to survive into modern times, was at night , from
my window in the Mena House hotel. They were like a hologram projected by
aliens, more massive and steep than I ever imagined. It gets very busy up
on the Giza plateau (9 miles out of the city centre) so go as early as you
can. The King's Chamber, the deepest, man-made silence on earth, far inside
the 400 feet high Great Pyramid, is stupendous. I was once in there, if
briefly, quite alone during a lull in the throng, for one of the most scary
yet sublime moments of my life. Then see the nearby Sphinx, the huge
enigmatic half cat, half human figure. Touts are everywhere; a 2 hour camel
ride (pyramids and Sphinx) costs around £5 if you bargain.

Golden Marvel

Richer cities than Cairo would smash auction records to buy the funeral mask
of Tutankhamun, probably the most sumptuous and instantly recognised piece
of decoration ever to emerge from the craftsman's studio, if it went on
sale. It never will, so head for the Egyptian Museum to see the mask (which
never leaves Cairo), and the other treasures unearthed by Howard Carter in
1922. The museum is worth at least half a day, and several return visits to
check that the mask is as wondrous as you first thought. It is. (The
Tutankhamen exhibitions touring the world will pay for a new museum for
treasures in Cairo, due to open in 2012.) To me the most intriguing thing
here is the curious 2000-year-old 7-inch wingspan 'bird', mysteriously
carved from sycamore in the shape of a prototype aeroplane.

Easy Riding

How do you move about this crazy, teeming city of 18 million? Don't even
consider hiring a car. Instead negotiate a taxi for a full day (9 am to 5.30
pm), either through your hotel (more expensive) or out there in the street.
Take your time and look for a good, well maintained car. Current rates for a
full day range from £16.50 to £25 (for a new and comfortable car) including
the driver's time. £38 is a typical rate quoted in a hotel. It's worth
paying an extra £19 - £25 for a guide, who can help you negotiate the
pyramids, sort you out in old Cairo, find you good authentic restaurants and
show you the wonderful Sakkara site, with its Step Pyramid, on the edge of
old Memphis. (Last November [2008] they discovered an entirely new pyramid
here, under 60 feet of sand). And don't miss Dahshur, for the Bent and the
Red pyramids.

Fine fare

Hotels will feed you well with international cuisine, but authentic Egyptian
food - both subtle variations on staple dishes found across the Middle East,
and unique local dishes - is simply too good to miss. And certain to please
vegetarians. Standard menu items include falafel and koshari (lentils, rice
and tomato sauce, the city's spicy fast food). Then there is ful mudammas, a
dried fava bean stew, and ta'amiyya - mashed broad beans and spices. Shwarma
is a concoction of grilled meats and spices, with pita bread, hummus, tomato
and cucumber. Try koshary, a blend of pasta, fried onions, lentils, chick
peas, garlic and chili sauce.. The Naguib Mahfouz Café (Sekket al-Badistan)
near the Khan al Khalili market is an terrific post-shopping stop. They do
an superb kebab.

Buy wonder

Some say Khan el-Khalili, one of the world's oldest and greatest covered
market, prompted the discovery of America. Founded in 1382, this was where
the great camel trains, laden with produce, used to halt. It grew into a
massive bazaar, cornering the spice market in much of the known world. One
result was Columbus's search for a new trade route to the Orient. Today it
is one frantic, dizzying retail extravaganza, where you can buy pretty well
anything you want, from jeans and gold, to hookahs to magical oils in
mysterious glass bottles. Be prepared to haggle. Then cool off in Cairo's
natural air conditioning system - the Nile - with a trip on a felucca .Pick
one up on of these traditional flat-bottomed sailboats on the corniche
opposite the Four Seasons Hotel.

Bond with old Cairo

Last year (2008) the government finished a big restoration project in the
area known as Islamic Cairo, described as the biggest Islamic open museum in
the world. Nobel Prize winner Naguib Mahfouz's book Midaq Alley is a good introduction.
So is Bond movie The Spy Who Loved Me, filmed at the
Gayer-Anderson Museum, a 16th-century Ottoman merchant's home, and the
nearby 9th Century Mosque of Ibn Tulun, one of the most remarkable of
Cairo's many Islamic buildings . An inscription over a mile long encircles
the building, on wood some say was salvaged from Noah's Ark. Also worth
visiting is Coptic Cairo, a stronghold for Christianity in Egypt, for the
Babylon Fortress and fine old churches.
It's easy to reach, to Mar Girgis on the Metro from Sadat Station

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