Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Egypt: Land of the Pharaohs, Along the Suez Canal

Chapter Four - Along the Suez Canal

The road along the Suez Canal is a toll road from near Qantara until near Port Said. It costs E£1.25 either way. On entering the Port Said area, it is quite easy to pass customs and forget to declare any goods you bring in (especially electrical devices), because you just start to notice the customs when you've already driven past them and then you say "Oh, well, what the heck." Unfortunately, it's impossible to forget to do so on the way back, as you will be stopped by the officials. In our case, the trunk of the car was very briefly searched and that was it. You'll get a customs receipt.

The Suez Canal HousePort Said is a change. Modern shops and restaurants. Easier traffic. Wide boulevards. It's a relaxing place to spend some time, even days, although there's almost nothing to do in the line of sight-seeing. Most beautiful is - as commonly known - the Suez Canal House. Regrettably, it's not open to the public and there was no point in trying to talk our way past the guards. The best option to get a good look, is to take the free ferry to Port Fouad. The crew is very friendly.

At the entrance to the canal, on the north side of Sharia Palestine, one can still see the stone pedestal from which a stone De Lesseps gazed over his creation. In 1956 he was removed from it and thrown in his own canal. Sharia Palestine is probably also the best place to look at the ships entering and leaving the Canal.
We arrived at about 10am at the Military Museum. It looked open but it wasn't. A looksee in the garden was satisfying enough.

Best hotel deal was the Hotel de la Poste. A really clean double off the street with private bath, TV and refrigerator was E"27, breakfast not included. As a matter of fact, I found this hotel the best deal during the whole journey. The manager is a very polite man.

Ismailia indeed is the most picturesque of the canal towns, the east side that is. The peaceful feeling emerging from this city, together with its colonial-looking mansions, reminded me of some places in Sri Lanka. The fact that there's really nothing much to do, is just the point of coming here.

Ismailia's Museum is very interesting. Entrance is E£3, photography another five. Like in the Greco-Roman museum in Alex, you have to leave your bags at the entrance and take only with you what you need. The problem here is that the bags are unattended and just stand there. The guard was a very friendly guy, pointing out the most interesting objects to us, some really obvious. Highlight of the collection ? For us, this was of course the great mosaic. For him, it was a small phallus (about 3 centimetres. Erect). During our visit, a bus-load of school girls dropped by the museum. Within a few minutes, WE were the highlight of the collection. It was a pleasant surprise. The boldest of them tried to start up a small conversation to impress their friends. One of them, a real daredevil, asked me if her friend could take a picture of the both of us (me and her, that is). Most of the time, Muslim girls and women are so reserved in public. So this was a pleasant surprise.

I didn't find the nearby Garden of the Stelae really worth the (small) trouble of asking permission from the museum. The view from the street is - as is the case with the Military Museum in Port Said - satisfying enough. A better place for a walk are the Mallaha Gardens, of which the surroundings should especially appeal to lovers of Egyptian (read : French) drawbridges. There are some fine examples of these. From the tip of land at the end (or the beginning) of the Sweetwater Canal, there's a good view of the Suez Canal (or Lake Timsah, if you wish). It's not a wide view, but a photogenic one.

On the triangle between the two gardens (the one of the stelae and the Mallaha) there's a nice Banyan tree. It's at the diversion to the ETAP Hotel.
I read somewhere that at the Canal near the Customs House, a watchtower has been built from which there are excellent views of passing convoys. It was supposedly situated between a Coptic church and a mosque. We searched for it, but couldn't find it. The many people we asked, couldn't help either.

Another place we had trouble with finding it, was the De Lesseps' house. It's not really difficult to actually find, but it's easily overlooked, because much of the front gardens around here are not so well kept and overgrown. When I found it at last, I couldn't visit it. However, it should be possible if you can get permission from the Suez Canal Authority.

Mohammed Ali Quay (where this house is to be found) along the Sweetwater Canal is a very nice place for a stroll. This is a good place to meet some locals.
The totally out-of-the-way youth hostel immediately makes an ultra-clean impression. It's a good place to stay if you want to spend some time on the beach. The beaches are very nice around here. Near the street is an information booth. It wasn't manned though. The information that the people at the reception/information desk inside can provide is also very (and too) limited.

Much better located, but also more expensive, is the El-Salam Hotel. A clean double with a nice interior (including TV, fridge, private bath) was E£43, including breakfast. The hotel's restaurant is quite good, although a bit expensive. However, it's the greatest place to sit in the evening and watch the street as literally hundreds of people pass by.

I asked for some chips with my kofta here. What I got, was a bag of crisps on a plate, topped with a slice of cucumber. Like in Belgium, crisps are called chips here. I couldn't help laughing loudly when the waiter served me this 'dish'. He clearly didn't understand. So, remember, don't ask for chips if you want French fries. Better to ask for 'pommes frites'.

The receptionists are all very friendly and helpful here. Another great place to hang out in the evenings - if you want to be part of the promenading yourself - is the small park near the passports office at Midan al-Gomhurriya.

The best place to eat that I tried out, was no doubt King Edward's. I didn't find it hellishly expensive (not cheap either) and the food is very good. This is also the place where local youngsters hang out to play pool. So, I you want to have a go and challenge one of them, you know where to head to now. You don't have to eat if you don't feel like it. For meat, the King Edward restaurant was a lot better than the El Gandool. Over there, we ordered roasted chicken, but what we got on our plate looked more like a lump of burned wood taken out of the fireplace. It wasn't so cheap either (and really expensive if you make the price/quality balance). What is really good about this place, are the amazingly clean and modern toilets, so if you're desperate, this could be the place to consider having a soft-drink.

Ismailia street scene We also discovered that Sharia Sultan Hussein is the place to watch out for touts and scoundrels. It also seems that someone at the Crocodile Inn has a hand in this as all these people try to steer you thither. No matter if you want lodging, food, telephone, souvenirs, or whatever : the Crocodile Inn will have it. After so many meetings with friendly and helpful persons, it is all too easy to fall into a trap. My friend wanted to call home, so we asked directions to the telephone office (my guide was still in the hotel room). "Telephone office ? Come !" We're taken by the arm and before we know we are standing at the reception in the Croc Inn. We don't want to phone from here, but we think asking for the price is not harmful. "About 55 Pounds for six minutes, sir." That's not unreasonable, so we can as well call from here. My friend has the number dialled for him and connection is made. Not a clear connection as the only thing that we hear is noise. We let the receptionist listen and he says something in the line of "OK, put down the phone." My friend does so. The receptionist writes down something on a piece of paper now. It's the bill ! Fifty-five pounds ! My friend protests, and immediately the guy who took us by the arm starts up a discussion with the man in Arabic. Suddenly, he doesn't speak English no more. They're not bad at their job, but they surely have never heard of theatre schools. Whether we try to interfere or not, nobody wants to take notice of us. After a while, the street tout has agreed that half the price will do. Sick and tired of this shit, my friend pays. I say to the tout that he can f**k off. Nevertheless, he stays with us to our very hotel. There he demands ten (or eventually five) pounds for helping us so much. We ignore him and walk up to our rooms. End of the story. This was not the only 'incident' on Sh. Sultan Hussein, but the most typical.

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