Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Cairo ~ A Stay at the Palace . . . I mean, the Marriott

As usual, The Scout, had done his homework on hotels prior to our trip to Cairo, Egypt. We were headed to the Cairo Marriott and Omar Khayyam Casino, in the Zamelek neighborhood of this sprawling city.

Cairo Marriott Hotel entry
What I hadn’t realized until our driver pulled into the guarded and gated entry (as most public places are these days in Cairo) that it wasn’t ‘just a Marriott’, on this island in the middle of the Nile River, it was a Palace! 

Quite literally, we’d arrived at the146-year-old former Palace Al Gezirah, the centerpiece of this five-star hotel.

Map picture

While I didn’t know about the palace prior to our stay, we were so taken with it while there that I've set out to learn more about its history . . .

The palace was built at the direction of Isma’il Pasha,(often referred to as Isma’il the Magnificent), who served at Khedive of Egypt and Sudan from 1863 until 1879 – its purpose was to be a guest palace for the Suez Canal inaugural celebrations in 1869.

Imagine the guests who've walked these stairs
The neoclassical building, (a popular architectural style throughout Europe at the time), was designed by Austrian architect Julius Franz. German architect Carl von Diebitsch, was responsible for the ornate interior design.

During our near week-long stay earlier this month we had ample access and opportunity to explore the former palace as its grand rooms are used for receptions, meetings and events and some have been converted to restaurants and  lounges. The casino is housed there as well.

Imagine making your entry via this hallway
It was easy to let our imaginations take flight when walking the long elaborate hallways – all the while wishing  that the walls could talk. So many tales they could tell of its guests; Empress Eugenie, wife of Napoleon III, among them.

One of the meeting/reception rooms
And then there were the events like Khedive Isma’il’s son’s wedding which reportedly lasted 40 days.

Setting up for a dinner 

The building itself has undergone a number of changes as it transformed from palace to a hotel. For instance, back in 1879 when it was known as the Gizirah Palace, it was seized by the state for outstanding debts and subsequently acquired by the Egyptian Hotels Company.

Another palace room
Between 1894 and 1903 an additional 400 hotel rooms were added, along with electric lighting.

During the British occupation of Cairo (from 1914 – 1918) the palace served as a hospital and then was returned to the Egyptian Hotels Company. The following year it was sold to a Syrian landlord who’d settled in Cairo. Habib Lotfallah, the purchaser, paid 140,000 Egyptian pounds. For 40 years it was known as Palais Lotfallah.

One of the hotel restaurants located in the Palace
In 1961 under President Gamel Abdel Nasser, the palace was nationalized and became the Omar Khayyam Hotel.  In the 1970’s Marriott International took over management of the hotel, renovating the palace, and building two towers that flank it. The resulting compound is more than 1,000 guest rooms, numerous restaurants and bars.

The Palace was breathtaking from ceiling to floor
While exploring the hotel was so interesting that we could have spent hours there, we had 'a bit more' history waiting for us in town and surrounding areas. . .you know, places like the pyramids and the Sphinx in Giza. . .just to name a few. We’ll take you with us as we set off exploring some of those in our next post. We also plan to backtrack a bit and show you around other places in the Middle East that we visited as part of our spring cruise.

PicMonkey Collage
Hotel grounds and our room
For those of you not ‘into’ history or palaces, let us assure you the hotel has modern guest rooms and beautiful grounds.  While we used accumulated Marriott loyalty reward points for our stay, room rates for rooms with view decks are currently about $150US per night, double occupancy on booking.com. (An incredible deal, as we paid that to stay at a Fairfield Inn in Central Washington State last summer.)

Happy New Year to you and yours ~  hope your 2016 is filled with travel adventures whether taken from your armchair or in real time! And as always, thanks for the time you spent with us today!

Linking up this week:

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Cairo: A Christmas of Contrasts

'Twas almost the week before Christmas and all the nearby villages were decked out in their finest. . .

. . .simple and to-the-point decorations reminding us all. . .

. . .of the reason we celebrate Christmas whether on December 25th as we do where we are from or on January 6th as we've learned some Christians in Arabic countries do.

A couple of new virtual friends in Greece have been writing about the Greek tradition of lighting boat images or decorating boats at Christmas. Quite a beautiful tradition but not one that is practiced in our area of the Greek Peloponnese.

Perhaps that is because most of the fishing boats here have been pulled out of the small village harbors to protect them from the sometimes wild winter storms that kick waves over the concrete barriers. The few boats that remain are being used, as weather permitted for fishing and are devoid of decoration.

Thanks to our new FB friend, Robert Walker I can show you some of his photos of those boat decorations. I am using them with his permission.

Staying at our Stone House on the Hill was certainly a temptation this year as we love it and those villages around us. . .

. . . but as you recall, one of the reasons we wanted a base in Europe was to have access to other places. So last weekend. . .

Agios Nikolaos

. . .we drove to Athens and hopped an Egypt Air flight to Cairo.  This city of 24 million people, needless to say, is an absolute 180-degree contrast to the Greek villages in our area of the Mani which are populated by a few hundred people.

A shot of Cairo traffic from our balcony

So here we are in the big, no make that, enormous city, with a population demographic of about 85 percent Muslim and 15 percent Christian, just days before Christmas.  What you might find surprising is the amount of Christmas that can be found here. For example.

We are staying at the Cairo Marriott Hotel and Omar Khayyam Casino; this is one of two trees that grace the outside entry of the hotel.

The lobby is decked out as well

The Marriott is located on an island in the middle of the Nile River. Taking a stroll through the Zamarek neighborhood in which the hotel is located, is a sensory explosion of sounds, smells and sights.  It isn't for the faint-of-heart (walking anywhere in Cairo isn't for the faint of heart because there are no crossing lights and traffic doesn't stop for pedestrians - you dash, and I mean dash - between cars, but that's another story for another day.)

Our dasher, dancer, prancer walk on uneven - sometimes non-existent - sidewalks and across traffic took us through a rather posh area of the city where flower, specialty foods, clothing and delightful book stores lined the streets. As we wound our way back to the residential neighborhoods we happened upon a vendor selling both trees and poinsettias.

On our return to the hotel we found it to be an Episcopal Church  just a block away with a full slate of Christmas offerings.

Yesterday we headed to downtown Cairo to do some shopping. (the exchange rate is excellent with one Egyptian pound equal to 13-cents US).

But as often happens, we got sidetracked with exploring and found ourselves at a stately mosque, Al Rahma Mosque, right next to a similarly large and stately Armenian Catholic Church, the Cathedral of the Annunciation.  We were warmly greeted in the Mosque by one of the men doing some maintenance on the buildings interior.

Armenian Cathedral - Cairo
Then we visited the Cathedral where the doors were open and only another set of visitors was inside. (It does amaze us how even in big cities on this side of the Atlantic, churches are left open and in the States how many keep their doors locked for security reasons.)  Again, we found signs of Christmas:
Reason for the Season - Nativity Scene at the side of the nave

While our prelude to Christmas has been one of contrasts, it has also been one that removed the commercialism and hype from the holiday.  While it may sound rather unconventional, it may well be one of the best Christmas weeks we've ever celebrated. We plan to celebrate Christmas Eve at a Lebanese restaurant and Christmas Day will be spend on an airplane.

Where ever this finds you, we send our wishes for a happy holiday - whatever the holiday is that you are celebrating.  Merry Christmas wishes to those who do celebrate it. And to all of you, thanks for taking the time from your busy schedules to spend a few minutes with us.  We've seen a lot of new visitors here and want to welcome you. And a big shout out to those who shared last week's post in your social media. . .that meant a lot and it is nice you find TravelnWrite worth sharing!!

Happy holidays and safe travels to you and yours!

Linking up this week:
Photo Friday
Travel Photo Thursday
Wordless Wednesday
Our World Tuesday
Mosaic Monday
Through My Lens

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

The Greek Stone House on the Hill ~ One Year Later

Here we are in our Stone House on the Hill, this week  celebrating our first year as part time ex pats in Greece.

With most of our major projects completed, we’ve slowed our pace and indulged in blissful, idle hours ~ most of which we’ve spent gazing out over our small terraced olive grove and the view we have up the Mani coastline just beyond it; our own little slice of Greece’s Peloponesse peninsula

Dusk at The Stone House on the Hill

Many of you have followed along or been a part of the journey that brought us to this Stone House and you’ve stuck with us as we’ve turned it into our own. Some through the blog and others in real life, real time. Your companionship, encouragement and enthusiasm have been most appreciated.

‘You are never to old to set a new goal or dream a new dream.’

    - C.S. Lewis

It was back in 2014 when we got serious about focusing that somewhat fleeting daydreaming of ours into an action plan. We - this 60-something duo – decided it was time for a ‘final fling’, a ‘new challenge’, a ‘project’, before we got too old to have one. We’d accumulated many daydreams during our travels but kept coming back to the idea of. . .

Growing Olives Instead of Old

Last December 15th as we sat with the sellers, an array of others, (three attorneys, our realtor and the Notary) in the Notary’s cramped second-floor office in the nearby village, we moved that daydream into reality.
As vivid as if it were yesterday, we recall those pages and pages of documents being read aloud (a legal requirement here) in Greek and translated to English. Then payments (both for the home purchase and costs associated with it) were made and handshakes offered.

The purchase process that had taken months to get in order, was over in less than an hour. . .

. . .then, ‘but, of course’ as they say here, we all – buyers, sellers, realtor and attorney - went to the cafe next door for a drink!

Celebrating the sale

Finally, that Grecian stone and concrete temptress was ours – ten days before Christmas.  We’d  nailed that daydream  - the one that had slipped between our fingers earlier in the year -- and made it reality.

The Stone House on the Hill

Recalling those first few days, we’ve laughed at what a stark reality we’d purchased. It was rather a bleak stone house, both literally and figuratively. Cold (we ran out of fuel for several days that first stay – both central heat oil and wood), empty (we gave away most of the old well-used furniture and the new hadn’t yet been delivered) and rooms with gray stone accents around white ceiling, walls and floor that didn’t make for a warm and fuzzy feeling. With no television or internet – it also felt a bit lonely. That didn’t deter us from the vision we had for this place. . .

December 2014 - The Stone House on the Hill

As the days became weeks, and weeks stretched into months the The Stone House on the Hill has evolved into our Stone Home on the Hill. New furniture, paint and decorating touches and a bit of hard labor, by us and others (not to mention two cats who adopted us) made for some remarkable changes even with this part-time life we’ve had here.
One Year Later - Stone House on the Hill

Changes in latitudes, changes in attitudes

Just as the house has changed, so have we.  This Greek adventure has moved us from our world, filled with family, friends and the familiar in the United States’ Pacific Northwest, into a dual existence – living two decidedly different lifestyles on opposite sides of the globe.

‘Let’s be honest. Retirement abroad is not for everyone. A totally new environment. Distance from relatives and long-time friends. Culture clashes. Health care issues. Language barriers. But it’s also possible to enjoy a higher standard of living at a lower cost in foreign locations of natural beauty, appealing culture and great charm.’
                                                                              -- Forbes.com

A neighbors night out 

By living part of the year ‘there’ and part ‘here’ we’ve enriched our lives with new friends; both Greek and other ex pats (from a variety of countries) and have neighbors who are friends as well at both of our homes.

During the months we’ve been in Greece, we’ve developed new daily routines and honed new and forgotten skills. We’ve gotten back in touch with the basics of our childhoods– stringing a clothesline, drying clothes on the line, washing dishes by hand, living without television, putting together the miniscule pieces that come in a box and turning it into shelves or coat racks or other items.

We learned to harvest olives - it is hard work!
Little successes are noted with pride; like learning bits and pieces of the Greek language. . .I know the days of the week and can count to six. We can both order wine and say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’. Vocabulary victories occur daily!

Two sets of friends from the Pacific Northwest visited us this fall. We explored areas and eateries, sharing quality, unrushed time together; proving as the old saying goes, that ‘the road to a friend’s house is never long’. . . okay, so the flight is rather long, but you get the idea!

As for ‘distance from long time friends and family’, as Forbes cautioned. . .well, technology has made that simply, nonsense.  Thanks to internet, Skype, Facebook and email, we are able to stay in touch with friends and family. My early 2016 calendar ‘back home’ is filling with social engagements and appointments that have been arranged while I am here in Greece as easily as if I’d been at the computer back there.

The doors we open and close each day decide the lives we live.
- Flora Whittemore
Opening any new chapter in life often means ending or modifying others. Our increased time in Greece required that I resign from a board of directors for a non-profit educational agency on which I had served for 15 years. That was tough.  It also sidelined my freelance writing for a time.
The Scout, who used to focus on the logistics of life (investments and finances among them) as well as finding travel deals from Seattle has had to expand his calculations to international finances, thinking both in dollars and euros. And I’ve written previously of how this base in Europe has given him a whole new candy-shop of travel options to research.

Dusk in the Village of Stoupa
We’ve discovered the joys of village life with its laid-back pace. As we get to know people in the area trips to town take longer as we must stop and visit, or give a quick hello to someone we know. We refer to businesses by the owners name, “Let’s go to Yiannis’ and Eleni’s tonight” . . . “Let’s see if Ellie has fresh calamari” . . .’'We need to stop at Dimitri’s for nails’.

Slow travel in The Mani

Our pace has slowed here – a stark contrast with life back in the states.

Our olive crop waits for the press
Little did we know when we purchased this home and its 15-tree olive grove how attached we’d become to this agricultural lifestyle. Harvesting our first crop of olives was an unforgettable experience. We are already looking forward to next year’s crop.

Dwell in Possibility.

         -- Emily Dickinson

We are looking forward to new adventures in Greece during our second year here and hope you’ll be back regularly to share them with us. We are off to Cairo this coming weekend so will have tales to tell from there as well as more stories from Greece in future weeks. Until then, safe travels to you and yours~
Some of you who’ve signed up to receive these posts in your email seem not to have gotten some of the recent ones, if you could take a minute and reply to this post, saying, “got it” we would appreciate it greatly.
Linking up this week:
Photo Friday
Travel Photo Thursday
Wordless Wednesday
Our World Tuesday
Mosaic Monday
Through My Lens


Tuesday, December 8, 2015

O’la Kala’ ~ All is Good in our Corner of Greece

“Looking forward to hearing more reports from The Mani.”
“How are things really going in Greece?”
Your comments and questions to recent posts – similar to those above --  prompted this week’s report from Greece:

Traditional dance - Oxy Day Celebration - Kardamyli 
First, we can’t speak for all of Greece, as it is a country spread out over 131,957 sq. kilometers, (50,949 sq. miles) with a population of more than 11 million people. It’s northern border runs the length of Albania, the Republic of Macedonia, and Bulgaria. There are so many Greek islands that the generally accepted number for their count is 1,425 with 166 of them being inhabited.Greece colour.png 
World news brought Greece to the forefront of headlines back in June when the country’s economic situation shook all the world’s markets.
Since then we’ve all followed the story of what a tough time Greece and the wonderful people who make up this country are having. Greece’s financial lifeline cast by its European Union lenders has tightened with demands for accountability and severe cuts to government spending.
Since spring thousands of Syrian refugees have landed by the boatload on Greek beaches; most needing food and rest before moving on. The Greek government and its citizens have stepped up to provide food, clothing and shelter for those uninvited and unexpected arrivals.
We are far removed from the front line of the exodus from the north here in The Mani but local food and donation drives have been held to send help to those areas serving the refugee population.
Greek flags displayed for Oxy Day
In recent weeks we’ve noticed Greek unions (opposed to the austerity measures) are stepping up their schedule of strikes. A bomb went off in Athens last week – no injuries, as those responsible for it called to warn authorities in advance of its detonation.  A few days ago Greek fighter jets tailed a Turkish fighter jet they claim got into their airspace over the Aegean.
We’ve not been impacted by the strikes here in the village. We saw the report of the bomb on a television in a village cafe (where a Greek man told us it wasn’t a terrorist bomb; it was ‘just Greeks’ and they warned people in advance).  We watch air force planes fly over the coast every so often, none of them appear to be chasing Turkish jets.
Just harvested olives waiting their turn in the press
What we can tell you about is our little slice of Greece, the Messenia’s Mani, where olive harvest is underway in full force now, with truckloads of olives arriving at all hours of the day and the presses running into the late night hours.
Our home and the surrounding villages are near the Messenia/Laconia border, both prefectures within the Peloponnese.  We are far removed from the headlines of Greece; much like living in Washington State on the US west coast removes us from the headlines of Washington DC, our nation’s capital.
By the truckloads olives are deposited into the press
Here residents may make reference to ‘the crisis’ and the impact of capital controls but there is no hand wringing and  ‘Oh, woe is me’ – in short, they don’t dwell on it.
Eggs for sale at the supermarket where we shop
Grocery store shelves are well stocked, with imported as well as locally made products. Some of you would be surprised to see HP Steak sauce and Wheatabix and Kellogg’s breakfast cereals, Heinz ketchup, S&W canned products, Hellmann’s mayonnaise, Dijon mustard, Kikkoman soy sauce and other brands ‘like home’ in plentiful supply.
Christmas decorations are going up throughout the area
Christmas – true Christmas, not ‘holiday’ – displays are (now that December is here) going up in all the villages; something we find a curiously refreshing break from the PC-bickering in the United States.
The Kalamata Yacht Club has had a busy summer
 Storefronts in Kalamata, a city of 95,000, about an hour away from us, are decked out offering designer clothes and furnishings as well as practical every day items. There’s a beauty shop on every block it seems and the cafes along the pedestrian mall are lively places; this time of year filled with more Greeks than tourists.
Heading into the village 
There are still limits of 60-euros per day on bank machine cash withdrawals from your Greek bank account. We can use our account in the States and withdraw much more, but are also limited to the 60-euro limit on our Greek account.  Something, though the media headlines back last summer didn’t mention it (at least back in the States) was that those Greek bank debit cards could  be used at retail stores to make purchases of groceries, drugs and other items.
Village of Stoupa has calmed after the summer's tourist crush
A handful of sun-seeking tourists remain in the villages. They are being replaced by the winter visitors who may be fewer in number but who still beat a steady path here from northern European countries. Snow birds, we might call them in the United States, as they ‘fly’ south when winter arrives.  The beaches were packed and the villages filled with tourists all summer long and only a couple weeks ago began heading home. They were wise enough to not let headlines scare them away. 
Of note, is that Delta airlines has announced increased flights between Athens and New York and British Air is introducing twice a week flights between London Heathrow and Kalamata in the 2016 season.
PicMonkey Collage
Scenes from our corner of Greece - the Peloponnese

Those of you wanting more of an in-depth look at Greece and the events leading up to its current situation would likely find a book by James Angelos, second-generation American-Greek of interest.
Angelos, a former correspondent with the Wall Street Journal, has written a book – The Full Catastrophe, Travels Among the New Greek Ruins -  that is easy to read and filled with real life stories of Greece.  He puts a face on this economic crisis.

As we’ve sadly learned from New York, Paris and San Bernadino, life can change in an instant. But for now, reporting from the Stone House on the Hill in the rural area of The Mani, I can assure you that all is “o’la kala’’~ all is good.

That’s it for this week but we do want to welcome to our new readers who’ve signed up to receive TravelnWrite posts in their inboxes.  Thank you!

If you’ve not done so, you can by providing your email in the box on the right hand column.  You’ll be sent an email by Feedburner, asking you to verify that you want to receive the posts, and after you confirm that, they’ll start appearing in your inbox.

However, you arrived here, we are glad to have you with us. Hope you’ll be regulars. Until next week, happy and safe travels to you and yours~

Linking up this week:
Photo Friday
Travel Photo Thursday
Wordless Wednesday
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Mosaic Monday
Through My Lens

Monday, November 30, 2015

‘Oh there’s no place like. . .’ Cairo for Christmas

Sub-title: ‘Twas just days Before the World Went Willy-Wonkers again…

Timing is everything when it comes to travel. Our mantra, as regulars here know, has been ‘research, wait, watch and research some more’ before making any travel commitments. We like flexibility and options.

For that reason we arrived in Greece back in October without a return ticket to the States.*

Emirates has non-stop flights between Dubai and Seattle

Because there are no non-stop Seattle – Athens flights, we must have a connecting city somewhere between the two. We wanted to pick and choose our return routing from the myriad of possibilities that Europe affords. We also wanted a reasonably good airfare – often times the departure city does make a difference when seeking deals. So The Scout went to work and over the course of several weeks and several options, it seemed he’d found us both an interesting routing and at a good price.

Business class seats British Air

Again, you long-time regulars know that a plus for having a home base in Greece is that it we have a launch pad to explore more places on this side of the Atlantic Ocean without a 20+ hour trip to do so.

Europe’s low-cost regional airlines offer such enticingly low fares that we’ve felt like kids in a candy store when pondering the many possibilities The Scout found for our return. In the last few weeks we’ve considered:

Gift shop display in the Dubai airport

*Flying to Dubai, taking a round-trip 7-day Royal Caribbean cruise around the Saudi Arabian peninsula and returning to Seattle from Dubai on Emirates Airline (which has non-stop service between the two cities). Starting price for a balcony cabin, $524, with a ship board credit of $350 on select balconies.

Airbus 380 has two levels of passenger seating

* Flying to Istanbul and spending a few nights there. Various prices and places to stay and airfare of about $100 to get there for each of us.

* Or heading to Budapest for a few nights and returning from there.

Night time in the Middle East aboard the Oceania Nautica

*Flying to London, taking the Queen Mary across the Atlantic (rooms begin at $599 for a seven night crossing) and flying to Seattle from New York.

While the two cruise options were enticing we really don’t have clothes in Greece that are appropriate ‘cruise attire’.  Blue jeans and flannel shirts, shorts and tee shirts make up our wardrobe. So, I voted against the cruise options.  Budapest almost got the nod but then we checked December temperatures and with an average high of 28F-degrees, decided we didn’t have enough winter travel clothes to handle it.


So we decided on Cairo, Egypt. It is a long-time, high-ranking destination on our ‘must-see’ list. Friends who’ve been there rave about their experiences. Two tickets on Aegean Air: $350. We are using Marriott hotel points for our stay in this fabled city. And we found a good business class airfare flying Air France from Cairo to Paris, then connecting with with Delta, arriving back in Seattle on Christmas Day.

We booked the stay and the airline tickets.

Two days later the world went willy-wonkers again: 

First, the Paris attacks. Then news of New York City on ‘heightened terrorist alert’. A few days later Brussels was shut down. If you read travel news headlines, as we do, you've seen travel warnings are all encompassing. Literally, the US State department has issued a world-wide travel alert reminding Americans to be vigilant no matter where they are – home or abroad.

edited_20151114_093933So what do travelers do? 

In our case, we are going ahead with our plans to visit Egypt – our tickets can’t be changed or cancelled without great penalty. Christmas Eve in Cairo sounds pretty exotic. Hopefully the time for connecting flights in Paris in light of heightened security there will be sufficient or we might find ourselves spending Christmas in Paris.

We will continue to monitor world events – just like all of you.

A person could reason that sitting here in The Stone House on the Hill for the rest of our lives might be the safest option. But just the other day a woman was killed in her home when an earthquake in the northern Greece caused one of her stone walls to tumble on her. 

Note:  We do take safety and security seriously and for that reason – for the first time ever – I have enrolled in The Smart Traveler Enrollment Program, STEP, a service of the Bureau of Consular Affairs, US State Department. I’ve submitted our dates of stay in Cairo, location of stay, and emergency contact information for us while there and our designated emergency contact friend in the United States.

[If you are a U.S. citizen planning to travel abroad here’s where to find more information and enroll in STEP: https://step.state.gov/step/]

The information I provided has been sent to the Consulate in Cairo. Staff there will know where we are supposed to be and how to find us. By enrolling in this program we will receive email advisories and any security alerts both by email and phone. Currently, there are no alerts or advisories about Cairo for Americans. . .other than that world-wide alert I mentioned above.

We've got a few more weeks left in Greece so will show you more of The Mani next week. And if any of you have recommendations or links to articles on Cairo that you’d care to share, we’d love to see them.  As always, thanks for the time you’ve spent with us ~ hope you’ll come back often.

Until then, safe travels to you and yours~

Linking up this week:
Photo Friday
Travel Photo Thursday
Wordless Wednesday
Our World Tuesday
Mosaic MondayThrough My Lens

* As Americans traveling on tourist visas, we can be only so flexible because Greece is among those participating in the Schengen Border Agreement, an agreement among 26 European countries that basically opens up travel between them without border checks. For those of us outside the EU it also means our tourist visa is good for a 90 day stay within each six month period in the Schengen zone. (Longer stays require a different visa).


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