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Food and Travel: Festive fare at Meikles

A MERRY Christmas from Hurghada! Where?
Well I’d never heard of it, either, until I first re-visited Egypt four years ago after an absence of nearly half a century.

Then I was based at Sharm-el-Sheikh, one of the travel world’s most glitzy, ritzy destinations, of which no-one had heard 50 years ago: for the simple reason it didn’t exist!
I suppose it was there: a minuscule Bedouin fishing village on the Sinai Peninsula in the Asian bit of Egypt which was occupied by Israel and had a Hebrew name for decades!
Now “home” to hundreds of some of the finest hotels in the world and (until very recently) one of the best, most rewarding and safest places to scuba dive or snorkel, Sharm-el-Sheikh (the Bay of the Sheiks) repeatedly hit the headlines by, usually successfully, hosting major conferences aimed at Middle East peace settlements.
Totally improbable-sounding peace treaties between Jew and Arab: bitter enemies for centuries.
Sharm’s main rival on the ever-changing Egyptian and Middle Eastern travel scene was and is Hurghada, on the Red Sea coast of African Egypt, about 500km south-east of Cairo and around half that distance from Sharm by charter or scheduled flight, daily catamaran or weekly ferry service.
Human nature being what it is, I expected to bump into varying degrees of shadenfreude (that wonderful German word, meaning to take perverse pleasure in someone else’s discomfort) in Hurghada, because immediately before I arrived here several  shark attacks (including at least two fatalities) were reported from Sharm, where Oceanic White-Tips attacked  elderly German and Russian swimmers.
Wrong! Just one cynical comment by an Egyptian Thomas Cook guide that Sharm-el-Sheikh had now changed its name to Sharm-el-Shark, which might have lost something in translation from Arabic, and scarcely brought a whisper of a smile to the faces of his captive audience.
I wonder how those incidents went down in Sharm?  I went there about two years after a major terrorist incident in which Muslim fundamentalists drove an explosives-packed lorry into the reception area of an international hotel.  The blast which followed caused Egypt’s biggest single loss of life by terror, but when I asked which hotel was involved? Had it been demolished: in which case what happened to the land? Had it been re-built? Changed its name? 
Total zilch!  Stony silence! Heads shaken in disbelief! It was as if the whole population of Sharm was in denial!
Well, thanks to the telly, the whole world heard of the Jaws-style shark attacks, off the private beach of the Hyatt Hotel. We’ll see if they remember it next time I’m there.
Another major loss of life caused by Islamic militants was at Luxor, where we went on an exhausting whistle-stop one-day trip on Wednesday.
Home to the Valley of the Nobles, Queens and Kings (including the Boy King Tutankhamen’s grave), the breathtaking Temple of Karnak, the Memnon Colossi and the Hatshepsut Temple, Luxor is only about 250km, mainly through the bleak, unforgiving, Eastern Desert, from Hurghada, but ours was the first hotel from where our air-conditioned coach collected travellers; it was more than two hours later when we uplifted the last English-speaking culture vulture having called at five hotels up the coast.
I’m staying all-inclusive at the generally excellent Sindbad Aqua Club, almost in downtown Hurghada, which boasts four (Egyptian) stars. That’s probably about right, but their front office’s idea of an early morning alarm call to catch a coach leaving at 04:50 was…wait for it…03.07!
Having rubber-necked the extremely impressive sites and sights in debilitating heat, wolfed a typical tourist-aimed Egyptian buffet lunch against the clock in a massive restaurant at the side of the Nile, been shown round alabaster and papyrus “schools” where the driver and guide were clearly on  commission, taken a short boat journey on a pretty –– but pretty pongy –– stretch of the Nile  and grown increasingly cross with more-and-more annoying cheeky beggars importuning at every opportunity we were –– of course –– the last party to be dropped off.
At least they’d kept late supper for us. It was available from 11pm: about 12 minutes after we de-bussed.
Ignoring various meats, fish, salads, fruits and dessert, just two smallish bowls of a grand pulse soup, rolls and butter and three even more urgently needed glasses of draught Egyptian Sakara Lager slipped down a parched welcoming throat, before I staggered off to a very comfortable bed  more than 21 hours after I’d left it.
I’ll be back in the UK: in Faringdon in rural Oxfordshire on the cusp of the Cotswold Hills for Christmas when you read this, but I’ll continue with more tales from Egypt in the travel pages of ZimInd, NewsDay and the Standard.
As for future trips to Egypt, the tourist board is pushing El Alamein (scene of the pivotal World War II battle) as a destination. I may take them up in the northern hemisphere summer: it’s on the Mediterranean: too cold at this time of year.
I also really fancied the look of luxury houseboats ploughing their way upstream from Luxor (they now no longer sail from or to Cairo) to the ruins of Aswan. Initial enquiries indicate many of these cruises have a first or last night at the Old Winter Palace Hotel in Luxor, which was King Farouk’s favourite royal home at this time of the year and where a suite (room only) costs one-thousand (British) pounds a night!;


Dusty Miller

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