Part three – Aswan
After a colourful four-hour train ride from Luxor spent hanging our heads out of the cabin, sharing a cigarette or three with some gracious locals, our journey to the picturesque town of Aswan was complete.
Stepping off the bustling platform the change in scenery is immediate. With a much busier, lively feel to the mainland, Aswan radiates African culture. Close to the border of Sudan and one of the Southern-most cities in Egypt, Aswan is truly a one-of-a-kind gem.
We eventually opted to stay in a seriously affordable homestay on Elephantine Island we stumbled across on Booking.com. A ferry ride over the Nile from the big smoke, Elephantine offers rustic beauty and kind-hearted locals at every turn.
A word of advice that you’d be utterly braindead not to listen to – plonk your weary toosh down in a comfortable, wicker seat at the island’s true attraction, the Nubian Dreams Restaurant. I kid not and lie never, so listen up and let me tell you why.
The Nubian Dream is Egyptian oasis on every level of the word. With a beautiful, bohemian backdrop of hand-crafted cushioned seats, cane chairs and cold beers, the friendly faces of the staff, their buddies and every other happy chap visiting the mecca of good ass North African cuisine will have you sold.
A strenuous six feet and six stairs from the ferry port, the Dream offers up the most incredible tagines one would possibly lust over. Any mention of the eggplant, zucchini or spicy fish tagine send bolts of electricity to my tastebuds and dare I admit it, other less kosher parts of my body.
If you have the pleasure of stumbling across a delightful local man by the name of Mufasa at the Dream, buy him a tagine. He’ll sit with you, chat, dance, sing, bring you traditional desserts, take you on a three-hour felucca ride with his family, wake up at 4am to personally escort you to a taxi and leave the best, lasting impression on your Aswan experience and all just for shits and giggles. A true gent and truly fond of French women!
Lavished with cool beverages and plates of hot food cooked on the premises by owner Ali’s talented mama, the soulful tunes of Bob Marley sank into our weary, travel-ravished bones, giving us the perfect backdrop to end our day in Aswan.
To start your day, I suggest strolling over to The Ibiza Hostel. A colourfully painted hostel offering up some delicious local fares. We stumbled across it by chance and were hospitably sat on the balcony overlooking the shimmering Nile and within a stone’s throw of Kitchener’s Island – Aswan’s answer to a Botanical Garden.
Our hosts plonked down some piping hot, minty tea, some freshly squeezed juice and let us have our pick of some falafel, soft pita, thick syrupy honey and deliciously greasy eggplant – again with the electricity bolts.
With the Movenpick hotel at one end of the island, offering their pool side beers and top-notch bartender banter to visitors of the island (at a fee, of course). I recommend securing yourself a primo spot pool-side and setting up camp for a relaxing mental health day if that floats your traditional Egyptian sail boat.
It’s not a day in Aswan without a boat ride, so taking a felucca (traditional Egyptian sail boat, duh) ride from the Movenpick’s dock will show you some of the hottest spots this idyllic cluster of islands has to offer. The Old Cataract Hotel to name just one – Agatha Christie fans delight . If the wind, (not the man-made, falafel induced type) is hiding away for the day, a motor boat (good lord, the satirical avenues are endless) will suffice.
One of the best experiences up for offer in Aswan is enjoying the mind-blowing sites by river. Dipping your stinky toes into the Nile as a felucca leads you to some serene, secluded spots along the river – some of which, you can even have a swim in.
While I was encouraged by all to swim, my skimpy bikini might have caused more of a splash than my meanest cannonball, so I opted to wade (pee) in the shallows while my adventurous travel companions embarrassed Australian’s everywhere with a poorly executed race to a large rock mid-river.
For those of you worried about the conservative nature of Egypt and how that translates to swimwear and sartorial choices, I would not sweat it. While you might get a few looks, Elephantine and its surrounding islands are tourist friendly and it’s not necessary to be covered head-to-toe at all times. I would however, recommend travelling with men (or in my case, two very hairy man-boys) if you can and keeping legs and shoulders covered on the mainland.
A more than frequently asked question we encountered in Aswan was “Abu Simbel?”. For those amongst us not familiar with the temples, Abu Simbel are two massive rock temples originally carved out of a mountainside in 13thcentury BC but were relocated in 1968 (moving mountains, huh?) and now they sit a 4 hours’ drive of Aswan on the border of Sudan.
A total sight for sore eyes, sore thanks to the 4am wake up time and subsequent four-hour van ride, we were slightly disillusioned by the 45-minute time limit we were given to look around once we were there. Don’t let my sour puss explanation dim your enthusiasm though, Abu Simbel is really, truly mind-boggling. My advice – make sure you are given enough time to look at everything you want to and take the second van ride of the day, the early start doesn’t help avoid the tourist explosion.
The final verdict on Aswan? Just really, bloody good for the soul. The perfect place to end an Egyptian adventure with its rich cultural tapestry, unbelievable food and even better company, Aswan has my stone cold heart. Talk to as many locals as you can and achieve the eggplant tagine trifecta – breakfast, lunch and dinner.