During the Months of June, July and August 2011 Travelling Backflip will be enjoying the sites and sounds of Egypt, Iran, Turkey, Spain, Andorra, France, Italy, Switzerland and Germany. The middle eastern countries will be travelled by Footside in the punishing summer desert heat, while the 6 European countries will be completed on an epic 14 day road trip from Barcelona Spain to Frankfurt Germany.

September 7, 2011 - Gruyeres and Lake Lucerne, final destinations in Switzerland

Aigle Castle, Switzerland
Aigle Castle

We left Sion early and continued driving up the valley before taking a hard right and heading towards Lake Geneva. There was a quick stop to check out the vineyard bound castle of Aigle in all its early morning splendor before heading up and over the hills surrounding Lake Geneva and onto the famous cheese making town of Gruyères. At 810 m above sea level Gruyères is situated right in the foothills of the Alps. On this brilliant morning the sky was blue and the sun was heating up this lush valley early. We had pinpointed Gruyères for its castle, which is considered one of the most prestigious in Switzerland, and were not disappointed. Built between 1270 and 1282 it holds a prominent position upon a rocky knoll above the valley with one side offering a view of rolling green hills and fields and the other displaying the beginnings of some serious mountains.

Gruyères Village, Switzerland
Gruyères Village
Gruyères Castle, Switzerland
Gruyères Castle
Alps around Gruyères, Switzerland
Alps around Gruyères
Gruyères battle painting, Switzerland
Gruyères battle painting

The Gruyères castle was a mixture of medieval fortifications and and baroque interiors displaying how the life of the castle changed through the centuries, from defensive structure to stately residence. To go along with the usual weaponry and armour you see in many castles, there were some stunning paintings that adorned a main hall in the upper floors of the castle that were fantastic scenes of battle, hunting and nobles posturing. Outside in a lower walled area of the castle, there was a magnificent garden kept in perfect condition that adds to the whole backdrop of the Alps in the distance. Gruyères is not just famous for its castle though, it also offers some of the best cheese made in Switzerland. Le Gruyère cheese is the best I have ever tasted and we devoured blocks of it after getting our first taste. This mouthwatering cheese has been traded for centuries from this small town and helped keep the town from being destroyed during war torn medieval years as it helped feed a number of the armies doing battle.

View from Gruyères Castle, Switzerland
View from Gruyères Castle
Gruyères Castle Garden and Alps, Switzerland
Gruyères Castle Garden and Alps
Kapellbrücke, Lucerne, Switzerland
Kapellbrücke, Lucerne

Following Gruyères we travelled from the French region of Switzerland to the German influenced region and the capital of Bern. After an unsuccessful attempt to find a parking spot in the Swiss capital we ended up giving up and continuing on to the final destination in Switzerland, Lucerne. The city of Lucerne is picturesquely located on the banks of a lake with the same name and ringed by jagged Alpine peaks. There is a fast flowing river that runs through the heart of the old town and has a couple of old school wooden bridges crossing the torrential waters. The most iconic of these bridges, the Kapellbrücke, or Chapel Bridge, is a covered wooden footbridge spanning diagonally across the Reuss River with a octagonal medieval stone tower called the Wasserturm in the centre. Across the whole length of the bridge there are featured paintings in triangular frames that date back to the 17th century depicting events from Lucerne's long history. Restoration continues on these paintings to keep them fresh and it adds even more character to this unique river crossing.

Kapellbrücke, Lucerne Switzerland
Kapellbrücke, Lucerne
Kapellbrücke Painting, Lucerne Switzerland
Kapellbrücke Painting, Lucerne
Mill Bridge, Lucerne Switzerland
Mill Bridge, Lucerne
Grand National Hotel, Lucerne Switzerland
Grand National Hotel on Lake Lucerne
Mt Pilatus, Lucerne Switzerland
Mt Pilatus, Lucerne

Unfortunately the weather in Lucerne can be unpredictable and after enjoying some brilliant blue skies and sun on the day we arrived we woke up to a thunderstorm of epic proportions the next morning. Coincidentally, we were scheduled to climb Mt Pilatus which is a towering peak overlooking the lake and the city. As lighting was striking the lake in violent fashion and the heavens were opening up we could do nothing but sit back and hope things would clear. This did not happen and the downfall of such a tight schedule on this trip meant we had a wasted day of playing cards and drinking beer while it rained. Thankfully we were staying in the Grand National hotel, a 5 star establishment with stunning lake and mountain views. We had decided to stay in this upscale accommodation over our usual more reasonably price locations because of the overall cost of accommodation in Lucerne. This city has had a long history of tourism by Kings, Queens and the aristocracy of Europe for over 150 years, many of which stayed in the fashionable Grand National Hotel we were in. In general Switzerland is more expensive than most countries but Lucerne is pricier than most of the Switzerland, so expect to open the wallet in this impressive lakeside city.

View over Lucerne and the Lake Lucerne from the city walls, Switzerland
View over Lucerne and the Lake Lucerne from the city walls
Lake Lucerne and Alps Switzerland
Lake Lucerne and Alps

Switzerland ended up being our team's favourite country on this trip. Although prices are significantly higher than other major European destinations, this country is a must do on a European adventure. The scenery and history that combine French, German and Italian influences are unique to any country in Europe and offers a variety of different experiences depending on what part of the country you are in. Take the time to explore this mountainous country, it literally has it all.

Kapellbrücke and Old Town Lucerne on the Reuss River Switzerland
Kapellbrücke and Old Town Lucerne on the Reuss River

August 30, 2011 - The stunning Swiss Alps and the twin castle town of Sion

Alpine Meadow near Andermatt, Switzerland
Alpine Meadow near Andermatt

After the castle frenzy in Bellinzona we awoke early on Suisse Day (Switzerland's big national holiday) to enjoy some real Swiss Alp views. Leaving Bellinzona and the Italian area of Switzerland, we headed north up the narrow Ticino valley and experienced a truly Swiss drive complete with long tunnels, switchback roads and stunning viewpoints. After cruising the main toll highway for about 30 to 40 minutes, we entered the monster Gotthard - Strasse Tunnel which is almost 20 km long underneath a string of mountains. After what seems like an eternity you emerge from the tunnel and start the switchback roads up into real Alpine territory, with no trees and small farmhouses and barns sparsely dotting the grassy mountainsides below towering peaks.

Swiss Alps, Switzerland
Swiss Alps
Alpine Meadow, Switzerland
Alpine Meadow
Backflip 2450m above sea level, Switzerland
Backflip 2450m above sea level
Top of Furka Pass, Switzerland
Top of Furka Pass

We had specifically targeted the Furka Pass as the best drive that was heading in the direction we needed to take and we were not disappointed. Cresting out at 2437 metres above sea level, you get a breathtaking view of the surrounding peaks and can view the road descending down the backside of the mountain into the valley. The view was all we could have hoped for and it made up for the total lack of visibility and enjoyment we experienced in the Pyrenees earlier in our trip. On the descent, we saw ice cold, fresh waterfalls cascading down from the shrinking glaciers, while our ears popped the whole way during the switches back and forth down the mountain. After the magnificence of this Alpine pass we followed a valley of rolling green meadows with the occasional village of weathered old brown houses. It must snow alot here in winter as each house has an eight foot or higher concrete base before the wood structure of the actual house starts.

Furka Pass View, Switzerland
Furka Pass View
Furka Pass Road, Switzerland
Furka Pass Road
Furka Pass Road, Switzerland
Furka Pass Road
View from Chateau de Tourbillon, Sion, Switzerland
View from Chateau de Tourbillon, Sion
Sion Switzerland
Sion, Switzerland

The town of Sion, where we spent the night, is a mixture of old town with a few windy alleyways, and 1960's and onwards apartment/office buildings. The large Rhone river runs through the town and the primary attractions are the two castles that stand over the settlement. The more intact castle, Valère Basilica, is more of a fortified church, built in the 12th and 13th century. It has a large amount of scaffolding in place that detracted from its grandeur. The museum tour was impressive though, with medieval weaponry, frescoes, displays of Roman and post Roman coins, a video counting back in time the changes to the town of Sion through its 3000 plus years of history, and another video counting forward on the projected effects of global warming on the valley.

Valère Basilica, Sion, Switzerland
Valère Basilica
Valère Basilica Fresco, Sion, Switzerland
Valère Basilica Fresco
Valère Basilica Sunset, Sion, Switzerland
Valère Basilica Sunset
Château de Tourbillon, Switzerland
Château de Tourbillon

The second castle, Château de Tourbillon, is on a small hill parallel to Valère. Built at the end of the 13th century, the castle is mainly in ruins due to a fire in 1788. To complete the day, we enjoyed some good Swiss beers and chocolate on the castle walls overlooking the ring of peaks surrounding the valley. It was at this point in our journey through Switzerland where one realizes that even though it costs a good chunk more than other countries, you can be rewarded with some spectacular scenery that makes these historical locations even more memorable. The evening was capped off with a crazy fireworks display for Suisse Day. Not only did the town of Sion go off with hours worth of fireworks but the villages that run up the huge mountainsides around the town were firing some stunning displays for hours, almost as if they were competing with each other. 

View from Château de Tourbillon, Switzerland
View from Château de Tourbillon
Château de Tourbillon, Switzerland
Château de Tourbillon
Château de Tourbillon, Switzerland
Château de Tourbillon

Being in Switzerland for Suisse Day is well worth your time but be prepared for nearly all businesses, except the occasional restaurant, to be closed. Each city hosts a big concert in their main squares with fireworks shows which is great, you just need to plan accordingly to avoid inconveniences.

Château de Tourbillon and the valley leading up to Sion, Switzerland
Château de Tourbillon and the valley leading up to Sion

August 21, 2011 - Bellinzona Switzerland

Arrival into Switzerland was one of the most stressful parts of the entire drive through Europe. The tiny road that hugged the cliffs of Lake Lugano on the Italian side of the lake were the smallest I have ever driven on, and if I wasn't narrowly missing the rock wall on one side I was narrowly missing oncoming cars on the other. As per most of the borders we crossed we emerged from a tunnel and drove into Switzerland where we finally saw some borders guards, they were standing around not paying any attention to the traffic going either way. Once into Switzerland we were officially in country number 5 on this European adventure.

The 3 castles of Bellinzona, Switzerland
The 3 castles of Bellinzona

As usual we didn't have enough time to stop in Lugano which is one of those cities that has an interesting blend of Italian and Swiss heritage and both cultures compete for influence in the town. Lugano is nestled in a beautiful location being surrounded by mountains and set on a large alpine lake that could take days to explore. We immediately headed north up the valley to the triple castle town of Bellinzona. A tip for anyone travelling through Switzerland by car, to drive on the main highways you require an Autostrada Pass which costs 40 Swiss francs. We did not get this pass right away and thus had to drive the side roads to ensure we would not get fined. You can buy these passes at the border, in post offices and gas stations. The Swiss are sticklers for rules and will punish you with heavy fines if your caught driving without this pass so its well worth getting it in advance.

Bellinzona Old Town, Switzerland
Bellinzona Old Town
Castelgrande, Bellinzona, Switzerland
Castelgrande, Bellinzona
Bellinzona Old Town Walls, Switzerland
Bellinzona Old Town Walls
Bellinzona Town
Bellinzona Town

We started Switzerland off staying in the historically rich town of Bellinzona. This town boasts 3 castles that at one time formed a barrier across the entire Ticino valley. This string of fortifications was built to exact tolls from anyone wishing to pass unmolested and to form an obstacle against confederate Swiss armies. Most of the building activity of these pieces of history were undertaken by the Duke of Milan in the 15th century. The town was the site of many battles and was a strategic spot to gauge who had more control over the larger surrounding region, several key alpine passes meet in the area around Bellinzona making it a key trading centre. If you held Bellinzona you controlled trade and thus power. All 3 castles survive to this day and these 3 fortresses are among the finest example of medieval fortifications in the alpine region. Also, unlike everything else in this expensive country, all 3 castles are free to visit! You only need to pay to go inside a separate museum in each castle, the walls, gates, courtyards and ramparts are all free access.

Castelgrande, Bellinzona, Switzerland
Castelgrande

The main castle is 50 metres above the town and is called Castelgrande (great name). The site on which it stands has evidence of being inhabited since neolithic times (5500-5000 BC). The Romans also built a fort on this chunk of rock realizing the strategic aspect of controlling the trade through this valley and it shows evidence of dating from around the 4th century AD. The current castle has seen a number of restorations with the main structure being started in the 13th century, enlarged between 1473-86 and then restored in the 17th and 19th centuries. There is also a large portion of an original wall that extends down into the town centre that is a great spot to stroll and view all 3 castles. Access to the castle can be either by the old cobblestone pathway or through an elevator cut into the base of the rock.

Castelgrande, Bellionzona, Switzerland
Castelgrande
Castelgrande, Bellionzona, Switzerland
Castelgrande
Castelgrande, Bellionzona, Switzerland
Castelgrande
Castello di Montebello, Bellinzona Switzerland
Castello di Montebello

The second castle is 90 metres above the town and is called Castello di Montebello. This castle was constructed in the 13th and 14th centuries and has also been restored several times. The defensive walls of the old town originate here still survive in sections running down into the town. The view from this castle is stunning with a full look over the valley and a perfect panorama look at Castelgrande. Access to the castle is from a stairway off Piazza Collegiata in the old town.

Castello di Montebello Backflip
Castello di Montebello Backflip
Castello di Montebello and Bellinzona Old Town
Castello di Montebello and Bellinzona Old Town
Castello di Montebello
Castello di Montebello
Castello di Sasso Corbaro, Bellinzona Switzerland
Castello di Sasso Corbaro

The third castle in this remarkable town is 230 metres above the town and is called Castello di Sasso Corbaro. This castle was designed and built in 6 months in the year of 1479 by an extremely skilled military engineer named Benedetto Ferrini of Florence. Its dominant position over the Ticino valley gave even more added protection to this string of fortifications. From the almost 5 metre thick walls you can see Lago Maggiore to the south. Access to the castle is on the same path to Castello di Montebello through a wooded area of the hillside.

Castello di Sasso Corbaro
Castello di Sasso Corbaro
Bellinzona Defensive Walls
Bellinzona Defensive Walls
Bellinzona Defensive Walls
Bellinzona Defensive Walls

This could be one of the more amazing towns we have ever visited and a must do if you are ever in the south of Switzerland.

Castelgrande and Long Defensive Wall, Bellinzona, Switzerland
Castelgrande and Long Defensive Wall

August 14, 2011 - The Castles, Lakes and Mountains of Northern Italy

After an amazing 2 days in Genoa sampling quality food, wine and old world Italian architecture we struggled up early on a Saturday morning with a punishing red wine hangover to make our way north to the lakes of northern Italy and the Alpine valleys lorded over by medieval castles. Leaving the brilliant blue of the Med and the Italian port city behind was hard to take, not just from the hangover, but because we had really stepped into a new level of travel in this city. As the car punched its way through a tunnel that put us on the other side of the hills that tower over the city we looked onwards to a different side of Italy, one of mountains and turquoise lakes that the wealthy enjoy as their summer retreats.

Lake Garda, Italy
Lake Garda

After a solid 2 plus hour drive on the motorways going north we arrived at Lake Garda and stopped in the peninsula town of Sirmione that juts out into this massive lake. Immediately the heat was noticeably stronger than Genoa had been on the coast, now being inland the humidity was much higher. The second thing that you cannot help but notice is how much money is on display in this town. Ferrari's drove by us and into walled compounds, well tanned men and women lounged on expensive speed boats and unlike the bigger cities of Italy the streets and public areas were immaculately clean. Tourists flocked through the narrow streets of the medieval old town that is accessed over a drawbridge under and through the gates of the Scaliger Castle. Its a beautiful old town but prices are exorbitant, a small bottle of sprite costing €3.20, however the town was somewhat rushed as this was just a minor stopover to get a taste of what the rich and famous of Italy and Europe in general enjoy in their coveted lakeside resorts before moving on further north into the Alps.

View up the Trentino - Alto Adige valley from Castel Di Avio
View up the Trentino - Alto Adige valley from Castel Di Avio
Castel Di Avio, Italy
Castel Di Avio

We easily could have lost a couple days chilling out on Lake Garda but likely could not afford to do it properly. As we drove away from this wealthy region we headed into the Trentino - Alto Adige. This stunning valley is walled on each side by towering sheer rock faces that boast the occasional medieval castle at their base and is carpeted with vineyards that take up any available growing space. The first castle we stopped at was Castello di Avio located above the village of Avio. To access the castle you have to drive through this ancient village on extremely tight streets that were obviously meant for a small cart and donkey, not a car. After negotiating blind corners and some really tight squeezes you vibrate your way up the final stretch of thousand year old cobble stones to the parking lot. The castle was impressive with a massive tower, 3 sets of defensive walls with many courtyards and complete chambers. There were some frescoes of a battle still surviving and each access rampart was covered by grapevines. The old narrow wooden staircases to access the tower was the best part giving great views over the valley and of the towering cliffs above.

Castel Di Avio, Italy
Castel Di Avio
Avio inner courtyard and tower, Italy
Avio inner courtyard and tower
View from Castel Di Avio tower, Italy
View from Castel Di Avio tower
Castel Beseno, south of Trento, Italy
Castel Beseno, south of Trento
Inner Courtyard, Castel Beseno
Inner Courtyard, Castel Beseno
Castel Beseno Backflip, Italy
Castel Beseno Backflip

Another 30 minutes of driving takes you further up the valley towards the city of Trento, with two more castles. The first is Castel Pietra which we enjoyed from the seat of the car on our way to the largest fortified structure in the Trentino - Alto Adige, Castel Beseno. The powerful fortress has stood above the village of Besenello since at least the 12th century. The views from the walls are magnificent offering a full panoramic look at the valley below so you could spot marauding armies from miles away and prepare to rain destruction down upon them. The castle is roughly 250 metres long and 50 metres wide and is perched upon a large limestone formation. Inside the structure are fortified gates, levels of ramparts, courtyards, cellars and several faded frescoes of a forgotten age.

Trentino - Alto Adige from Castel Beseno overlooking the village of Besenello
Trentino - Alto Adige from Castel Beseno overlooking the village of Besenello
Castel Beseno, Italy
Castel Beseno

The staff of the castle in some areas also wear medieval clothing and have displays in weaponry, cooking and other aspects of what life was like in the castle 500 years or more ago. The castle also show how these impressive fortifications had to adapt to warfare with gunpowder during its history. So strategic was the castle that all manners of upgrades were created and are clearly evident to withstand a prolonged siege. This castle is so inaccessible from below I cannot imagine how it would be possible to take it in a siege and although the Castel Pietra below was subject to being overrun in its history, Beseno seemed much more secure on its perch.

Inner Walls Castel Beseno Italy
Inner Walls Castel Beseno
Besenello Italy
Besenello
Inner Courtyard, Castel Beseno Italy
Inner Courtyard, Castel Beseno
Inside the first set of walls, Castel Beseno
Inside the first set of walls, Castel Beseno

We finished this mammoth day by driving a final 30 minutes to the city of Trento. Since we arrived late there was no time to fully explore the sites but a couple hours of strolling the streets showed a clean Italian city with a mixture of old and new architecture that blended well. There was a huge bike race the next day starting in the main square below our room so sleeping in was not an option.

Trento Main Square
Trento Main Square
Trento Bike Race
Trento Bike Race
Italian Alpine Village
Italian Alpine Village
Castel di Toblino
Castel di Toblino
Lake Como, Italy
Lake Como

We left Trento after a brief one night layover and continued through some true Alpine passes and mountain towns towards Lake Como and the Swiss border. Lake Como was even better than Lake Garda as its location is much more dramatic and pleasing to the eye. The lake is surrounded by towering mountains and has small villages and resorts dotted around the small amount of land that borders the lake shore.

Lake Como, northern Italy
Lake Como
Italian Alps
Italian Alps
Italian Alps
Italian Alps

We stopped for a lunch of pizza and desert of gelatti one last time before we left behind the good times in Italy and entered the land locked mountain country of Switzerland. After lingering at the lake shore wishing I could spend a week or two exploring all the small villages around this famous Italian lake, we said goodbye to Italy knowing that all of us would come back again to this amazing country as the more you explore the Italian boot, the more you find out there.

Italian Alpine Pass, 2037 meters above sea level
Italian Alpine Pass, 2037 meters above sea level

August 11, 2011 - Genoa

Below is a full rundown on the amazing couple of days we spent in the northern Italian port city of Genoa. Highly recommend anyone going to Italy try and fit it in with all the other amazing things to see and do in this old world country.

Genoa Palazzo, Italy
Genoa Palazzo

After a long drive from Avignon France to the border with Italy we finally emerged from one of the many tunnels the main toll road has through this hilly area to see a sign notifying us that we were crossing into Italia. The next 170 plus kilometre drive to the port city of Genoa was a rally car race where no matter how aggressive I was it would not be long before someone was riding my bumper at 140km/hour trying to pass me.

As we got closer to the city it became a situation of gridlock where scooters seem to roll in packs and swarm between cars who are at a standstill. We finally creeped our way to the main toll booth to pay and exit into Genoa. As you pass through the final tunnel you can't help but marvel at the stunning skyline of multi coloured buildings blanketing the hillside and adding an instant character to the city. Finding parking was a challenge but even more so was keeping calm while driving the city as scooters and cars race in small streets to be the first through the lights and to their destinations. Considering how slow moving some aspects of Italian life can be their driving does not reflect this at all.

Genoa Cathedral di San Lorenzo, Italy
Genoa Cathedral di San Lorenzo
Piazza di Ferrari, central Genoa, Italy
Piazza di Ferrari, central Genoa
Chiesa del Gesu, Genoa Italy
Chiesa del Gesu

Genoa has been inhabited since the 5th century BC but the harbour area was being used even before that so this is an old port city that has the good, the bad and the Italian on offer. During the Middle Ages it became a powerful city state that traded all over the Med and much of its prestige and wealth came from this trade. Wealthy merchants worked hard to outdo their neighbour or business partner by lavishly decorating anything they owned. You can't help but be overwhelmed by how distinctly Genoese and intriguing this city can immediately be.

Genoa
Genoa
Tower of Cattedrale di San Lorenzo
Tower of Cattedrale di San Lorenzo
Narrow alleys of Genoa
Narrow alleys of Genoa
Cattedrale di San Lorenzo overlooking Genoa harbour
Cattedrale di San Lorenzo overlooking Genoa harbour

Once the car was gone it was time to slow down ourselves and reflect upon the stunning architecture on offer. Ornate buildings are impossibly crammed into a narrow warren of streets where they reach up 5-8 stories high and nearly touch gutters blocking out the sun. The attention to every little detail on each building to go along with the statues and fountains throughout the city can take your breath away. You can be on a seedy side alley that's no more than 2 metres wide and suddenly you emerge on a Palazzo (Palace) square with carvings, mosaics, frescoes and stunning facades. This city has so much history built literally right into the streets its mind boggling, palaces loaded with art that's 500 years old, churches built in 2 or 3 different kinds of marble and piazzas with ancient buildings once decorated long ago by a rich merchant all compete for your attention. The Via Garibaldi with its palaces and the Via San Lorenzo with the churches and marble facades are the easy places to start then just get lost from there.

Domed skyline of Genoa Italy
Domed skyline of Genoa
Backflip on the top of the Palazzo Ducale tower, Genoa Italy
Backflip on the top of the Palazzo Ducale tower

If you get some sensory overload on all you see it's time to sit down and change it up with some really great food. Genoa has its own special focaccia bread and is the home of pesto to start, toss into that some gelatti and pizza and your loving life… then stop off in one of the wine bars to wet the palate and you may lose a few days in this city.
There are certainly some seedy sides to this ancient port city to go with all the good. It seems strange and wrong to see some of the uglier sides of a big city mixing with the high culture and impressive legacy of a renaissance power.

Genoa Alleyway in the Old Town
Genoa Alleyway in the Old Town
Palazzo on the Via Garibaldi, Genoa Italy
Palazzo on the Via Garibaldi

The alleyways can be loaded with people and teeming with food and ice cream vendors then suddenly prostitution is the number one trade on offer in a small side street. There also seems to be a serious drug problem in some areas that happens almost out in the open. Right next to a stunning church facade I openly saw people shooting up and smoking crack. There is also the medieval human habit of using the narrow streets and alleys as a toilet which can stop you in your tracks. These small aspects of the city have been going on for over a thousand years though so you just take the good with the bad and roll with it.

Palazzo Ducale (Dojes Palace), Genoa Italy
Palazzo Ducale (Dojes Palace)
Carvings on Palazzo on the Via Garibaldi, Genoa Italy
Carvings on Palazzo on the Via Garibaldi
View of Genoa hillside, Genoa Italy
View of Genoa hillside
Piazza di Ferrari
Piazza di Ferrari
Cattedrale di San Lorenzo
Cattedrale di San Lorenzo
Palazzo Ducale Grand Hall
Palazzo Ducale Grand Hall

August 2, 2011

We have now made it through Spain, Andorra, France and Italy and this update comes long overdue from Switzerland. Access to internet has been pathetic at best with weak excuses like a lightning storm knocked out the router or in Italy a simple "I don't know or care" shrug would be the norm. Below is the information on the amazing stops in France and the rest will have to follow when time and internet access allows...

Carcasonne inner walls, France
Carcasonne inner walls

With rain clouds following us the entire way from Foix, it was no surprise that we entered the lower city of Carcasonne under a blanket of fog. The town's mighty medieval fortress remaining frustratingly out of sight until we final broke across the river and were finaly rewarded with a disney-like panorama of multi tiered walls, turrets and gateways lording over us. It was also at this same time that we realised what it meant to be in one of the top ten tourist sites of the worlds most popular tourist visited country.

Carcasonne Outer Walls, France
Carcasonne Outer Walls
Fine wine and food in Carcasonne
Fine wine and food in Carcasonne

During the peak of the day, the old town is a heaving mass of tourists jamming the many restaurants, creperies and boutique shops. Cars packed the streets and people competed for space along cobble stone ramps. It is only during the late afternoon that the frenetic pace subsides and one can stroll the alleys and soak up the atmosphere of this exceptionally well preserved medieval city. This was also the time to enjoy the specialities of the local cuisine. Duck, cheese and of course red wine. Fantastically lit up at night, the fortress is a photogenic beacon which can be enjoyed from a number of lower vantage points. The main draw cards are the completely intact outer walls and the central castle, both of which attract a flood of tourists.

Certainly one of the best walled cities and fortress's that our experienced team have visited, Carcassonne is more than deserving of its title. However if you limit yourself to a day trip, just be prepared to enjoy it with everyone else.

Carcasonne Inner Town, France
Carcasonne Inner Town
Pont Du Gard, near Avignon France
Pont Du Gard, near Avignon France
Pont Du Gard Backflip, Backflip
Pont Du Gard Backflip

Travelling eastward towards Avignon brought us to the truely epic Pont du Gard. Only a small portion of the original 50 plus km aqueduct remains, however the triple-tiered arches that still span the river provide a great illustration of the once mighty roman construction. The pont is surprisingly accessible, with children bathing or kayaking in the waters beneath its 2000 year old arches, and local families walking its lower platform often stopping for picnics. Enjoying the best vantage point of the pont with local wine and cheese was certainly a highlight and the best way to appreciate this towering achievement.



Pont Du Gard
Pont Du Gard
Pont Du Gard
Pont Du Gard, France
Pont Du Gard

At night, a 2 hour light show, illuminates the pont for the enjoyment of the few groups that make it out to this relatively remote area. The Pont du Gard is constructed almost entirely without mortar and the giant blocks (some weighing up to 6 tons) are precisely cut to fit perfectly together by friction alone. That realization as you stand below this towering structure that has stood for over 2000 years can give you even more appreciation for the quality of construction.

Avignon Papal Palace
Avignon Papal Palace

Unfortunately, due to time constraints, Avignon was afforded about half a day on our hectic itinerary. Crucially, starting early, we entered the walled old town and weaved our way to the Papal Palace. Appreciation of the palace was hindered by a lack of english explanation and the fact we didn't have time for an audio guide. Having to be content with visual aesthetics only, the palace featured a number of rooms obviously devoted to artworks commissioned by the Popes of the catholic schism. The courtyards and alleys of the old town contained much of the European gothic architecture that one would expect but nothing that really impressed.

The partially collapsed Pont d'Avignon is nothing more than three arches of a bridge than once spanned the river. Without any artwork or notable architecture to redeem itself, this pont is a relatively sorry sight, especially for travellers who could marvel at the longevity and design of the pont du gard only 20 minutes drive away. Although the city is ringed by a set of remarkably well preserved and intact walls, access to this attraction is heavily limited. Only a very small portion was open at the time of visiting, with a gateway being mysterious locked before us and thus cutting the amount of accessible wall to no more than 50 metres.

Pont d'Avignon
Pont d'Avignon
Popes
Popes
Avignon
Avignon
Avignon Clock Tower
Avignon Clock Tower
Papal Palace Fresco
Papal Palace Fresco

Perhaps it was due to the short time frame, or natural comparisons to the preceding day which featured both Pont Du Gard and Carcassonne, but Avignon did not impress. Its art and architecture failed to set it apart from many other southern French cities which would love to boast even half its history and intrigue.

July 26, 2011

We have now worked our way through countries one and two on this trip and have settled in for a few days in France, country number three of the trip.

After a punishing 22 straight hours of travel we arrived in Barcelona Spain feeling a little worse for wear. The flight went fairly smoothly but there was certainly no sleep possible. Once we breezed through immigration and secured our backpacks it was onto the airport bus and into the Catalan capital. Barcelona on a Sunday morning at 8am is a sleepy laid back place with none of the chaos you usually see in such a large Spanish city. After dropping our backpacks off at the hotel we legged it out to the premier site in this great city, the Sagrada Familia. This amazing Basilica is unlike any church or cathedral you will ever see. Designed by the Catalan architect Antonio Gaudi in the later years of his life it incorporates Gothic and Modernisme forms of architecture along with what I think could be called cubism in the statues that adorn the one side of the structure. Since the Sagrada is still under construction it is covered in scaffolding and has cranes towering over the unique towers. The inside has been  completed and is again totally different from any Christian building I have seen. Essentially none of the interior surfaces are flat, the decoration is expressive and rich diversity, consisting in large part of abstract shapes which combine smooth curves and jagged points.

Sagrada Familia, Barcelona
Sagrada Familia, Barcelona
Sagrada Familia, Barcelona
Sagrada Familia, Barcelona
Sagrada Familia, Barcelona
Sagrada Familia, Barcelona
Medieval Quarter, Barcelona
Medieval Quarter, Barcelona
Barcelona
Barcelona

Upon completion of visiting the Sagrada we were hitting that wall you run into when not sleeping for 30 hours and not eating much. We wandered back through the city and through the impressive Medieval quarter where the buildings tower over narrow alleyways that you could get lost in for days. About this time the hotel allowed us to check in and the next 5 hours were dedicated to passing out and waking up with that strange sensation that you are in a different land but just cannot move to take advantage of it until the batteries get charged again. By the evening the final member of our team, Footside, arrived fresh off the plane from his time in Iran and ready to have some drinks. Since our balcony lorded over the iconic street of Las Ramblas we enjoyed the scene and some Estrella, a Spanish beer. At around 1130 pm we ventured out for dinner, to find the city in full swing and many people just starting their meals. A dinner of cured meats, seafood rice, deep fried squid rings and plenty of Sangria topped off a great opening day.

Foix Castle, France
Foix Castle, France

The next day we rented our car and battled our way out of Barcelona with no car accidents and minimal swearing at the the endless number of scooters who cut us off. The plan was to explore the Pyrenees mountains and spend the afternoon in the small principality of Andorra. When we left Barcelona the temperature was 28 degrees, when we arrived in Andorra it was pissing rain and 10 degrees. We were well above the tree line in the town of Pas de la Casa and there are "apparently" towering peaks that make up the spine of this mountain range but you would never tell as it was so socked in you couldn't see 30 feet in any direction. Pictures were thus pathetic to be politically correct. Needless to say it was a major disappointment and the drive out in France ended up being through a torrential downpour. By the time we reached the French town of Foix our excitement had been tempered by the terrible weather and although it got a boost from seeing the 3 turret castle of Foix we needed a good many drinks to forget about how wet we were.

On the road to Andorra
On the road to Andorra
Ruined Castle in Andorra
Ruined Castle in Andorra

Final update from Footside in Iran on his time in the amazing Islamic town of Esfahan and his journey to the border with Turkey. July 21, 2011

Imam Mosque, Esfahan, Iran
Imam Mosque, Esfahan
Shiekh Lotfollah Mosque, Imam Square, Esfahan, Iran
Shiekh Lotfollah Mosque, Imam Square, Esfahan

Esfahan -

After 10 days and still not having got my fill of mosques, arches and blue-tiled portals, I arrived in the classical city of Esfahan which promised enough of the above to send me from Iran a happy man.

The main drawcard and epicentre of Esfahan is the massive Imam Square. Second in size only to the monstrous concrete slab of China's Tiananmen, Imam Sqaure is conversely well landscaped and architecturally proportioned.

Sealed by walls of arched shopfronts, the square is almost anonymous from outside. With the towering minarets of the Imam Mosque and the elevated Ali Qapu Palace providing the only indication of grandeur.

Imam Mosque, Esfahan, Iran
Imam Mosque, Esfahan
Imam Mosque, Esfahan, Iran
Imam Mosque, Esfahan
Imam Mosque, Esfahan, Iran
Imam Mosque, Esfahan
Ali Qapu Palace, Esfahan, Iran
Ali Qapu Palace, Esfahan
Imam Square, Esfahan, Iran
Imam Square, Esfahan

Entering by the western gate, I was instantly awe-struck by the sheer size of the square. With three massive gateways, two mosques and a palace rising above the green lawns and water features, this was the iconic persian/middle eastern/old silk road vision that I had hoped for. During the night, it is somewhat surreal to see thousands of picnicking families occupy the square under floodlit mosques and listening to the 9pm call to prayer.

Si-o-seh Bridge, Esfahan, Iran
Si-o-seh Bridge, Esfahan
Si-o-seh Bridge, Esfahan, Iran
Si-o-seh Bridge, Esfahan

There are enough other sites to keep one interested for a few days here, the Coptic Christian quarter and the Jameh Mosque, to name a few. Just don't be fooled by the countless postcards and promotional posters depicting the famous bridges of Esfahan. At one time, described as the Florence of the middle east, due to network of ornate stone bridges, the rivers have since run bone dry. Of course these bridges are still standing, but they simply ferry people across the decade old dusty sand bed and are a shadow of their former glory.

Jameh Mosque, Esfahan, Iran
Jameh Mosque, Esfahan
Imam Square, Esfahan, Iran
Imam Square, Esfahan
Jameh Mosque, Esfahan, Iran
Jameh Mosque, Esfahan
Qareh Kalisa Church, near Maku, Iran
Qareh Kalisa Church, near Maku

Maku -
The final run to the border was as slow a journey as I have ever experienced. Police check points at every other stop and a van then seemed to lurch from life to death depending on the slope of the road and the abuse of the driver. Nonetheless, the scenic ride to the eastern tip of Turkey took us via the small village of Maku. Nothing more than a pit-stop wedged between an isolated valley, the town provided a link to the remote Armenian church of Qareh Kalisa.

Northwestern Iran
Northwestern Iran
Qareh Kalisa Church, near Maku, Iran
Qareh Kalisa Church, near Maku

Well worth chartering the private taxi, the church,  and its fortified walls are literally in the middle of no where with the scenic drive being a bonus.

Having returned to Maku and discovering that the towns water supply had been turned off for some unknown reason, we pushed onto the border and without incident into Turkey.

Update from Footside in the punishing summer desert heat of Iran. July 19, 2011

Yazd Skyline, Iran
Yazd Skyline, Iran
Yazd Old Town, Iran
Yazd Old Town

Yazd -
So it seems that I just can't find fault with Iran. One would have thought that a 14 hour bus ride through the summer desert would be enough to test any mans optimism. Yet once again, the hospitality of fellow passengers and the antics of ridiculously moustachioed men on the in-board tv screen made for an entertaining journey. As an old time desert outpost, Yazd has served as a travellers reprieve for thousands of years. This was no more evident than in the Silk Road Hotel, which acted as an oasis for desert hardened travellers. Traditional lounges set amongst a communal and naturally breezy open air terrace, complimented other such rarities as internet access and not having to surrender one's passport. The only thing missing was a cold beer - no chance of that. There were more travellers in this hotel than I had seen in all the museums and sites in Iran over the last 5 or so days, and it was clear that they too enjoyed a break from the otherwise hectic schedule that Iran demands.

Jameh Mosque, Yazd
Jameh Mosque, Yazd
Amir Chakhmaq, Yazd
Amir Chakhmaq, Yazd
Yazd Skyline
Yazd Skyline
Yazd Gateway, Iran
Yazd Gateway
Yazd Alleyway, Iran
Yazd Alleyway

After a few hours of welcomed relaxation and conversation, I vanished into the maze of mud brick laneways which had been scorched by a thousand years of the same summer sun which now beat down upon me. Geez it was hot, the locals were saying 45 degrees, and that I had been lucky as it tipped the other side of 50 just last week. With clear, blue skies, it was best to hug the shadows of the laneways or better yet the covered bazaars. Thankfully free of the no-rules traffic that plague near every other piece of flat surface in the land. To counter the extreme heat, the Yazd skyline is marked by tower-like constructions called 'Badgirs'. These rectangular protrusions, are the hallmark of the city, funnelling even the slightest breeze into the buildings below.

The old town is littered with underground museums and other pieces of impressive Islamic architecture. The massive dome of the Jameh Mosque and the Amir Chakhmaq complex both provide striking vistas when offset against the rare clear blue sky.  The terraces of Amir Chakhmaq can in fact be climbed for great views over the city, especially during the late afternoon once the force of the desert sun has subsided. Unfortunately with nothing more holding me to Yazd,  and as much as I would have liked to stay for another easy day or two, I couldn't justify staying another night in this oasis town and it was time to return to the realities of travel....back on the bus.

Persepolis, Iran
Persepolis, Iran

Shiraz -
It's funny how often I've heard people remark about the beauty of the city of Shiraz. Countless excited Iranians have launched into almost poetic superlative at the mere mention of its name. Im not really sure what happened. Maybe it was simply local bias, the wrong time of year or perhaps I missed something, but whatever these people saw in the city of Shiraz I certainly did not. Firmly planted in the midst of low lying hills and desert the city seemed almost permanently encircled by a grey haze of heat, dust and pollution. Only in the early mornings did this atmospheric layer lift and tinges of a blue horizon crept in.

Persepolis, Iran
Persepolis
Naqsh-e Rostam, Iran
Naqsh-e Rostam

Not that it concerned me for one moment, Shiraz was merely a base from which to explore the famed Persepolis ruins and some ancillary tombs about 50 kilometres along the northern highway. With nothing keeping me in Shiraz, the first available taxi was charted for the afternoon run northbound. As the evening sun began to dip behind a thick mesh of clouds, the first stop was the epic Naqsh-e Rostam. A sequence of 4 tombs cut high into a remote cliffside, whilst somewhat reminiscent of the ancient city of Petra, they certainly don't match the grandeur of that famous site. The tombs were designed to be inaccessible, and as such can only be admired from below, but nonetheless, the setting makes for a spectacular view.

Xerxes Gateway, Persepolis, Iran
Xerxes Gateway, Persepolis

Moving on quickly to Persepolis, the centre piece of Iranian archeology, I must confess my initial disappointment at the scale of this near mythical ancient city. Somehow I had constructed an expectation - perhaps shaped by the efforts of Egypt or by exposure to the Roman achievements in North Africa and neighbouring middle eastern countries - of a massive desert complex. The initial Xerxes Gateway, provided the iconic introduction to Persepolis that I had hoped, but beyond the great pillars of the central hall the site consists mainly of low lying foundations and walls. With most of these foundations inscribed with various carvings and writings, there is certainly cause to linger, but ultimately they don't hold one's attention for long.

Central Hall Pillars, Persepolis Iran
Central Hall Pillars, Persepolis

Hiking the eastside hills to a couple of tombs are notable mainly for the excellent view over the entire site, but again, it was from this perspective that my disappointment was confirmed. Whilst still a thoroughly worthwhile site, which should be on any travellers Iranian itinerary, one's expectations have to be tempered by the understanding that since Persepolis was destroyed by Alexander the Great, it can not match the regions better preserved ruin sites. Finally breaking from a succession of 1-night stops, Shiraz provided a seemingly leisurely 2 day rest before heading back on the road to the 'Jewel in the Iranian Crown' - Esafhan.

Persepolis, Iran
Persepolis

Update from Footside on his experiences in the Islamic Republic of Iran. July 17, 2011

Outer Gates of Haram, Mashhad, Iran
Outer Gates of Haram, Mashhad, Iran
Ayatollah, Tehran
Ayatollah, Tehran

Tehran -
So in the end, it took longer and required more paperwork to exchange some US dollars than what it did to clear immigration at Tehran International Airport. So was it really necessary for me to pre-emptively delete all those hollywood movies from my laptop? What about those english language books in my backpack? No way rookie. Without so much as looking up, I was stamped, waved through immigration and left to my own devices. So where were the plain clothes police who track foreigners, to whittle out the spies, newsmen and moral corruptors? easy now rookie, forget those hollywood movies. Forget the billboards slashed with Islamist slogans, forget mobs of angry bearded men and forget the omnipresent portrait of the Ayatollah - although I did manage to find one such painting presiding over a local court.

Apart from the laws requiring women to wear a head scarf and the prohibition on alcohol, Tehran was just like any other traffic plagued middle eastern city. A big concrete sprawling metropolis that whilst functional is far from pretty. Perhaps one difference is the overwhelming hospitality of the Tehrani people. Don't expect to get anywhere without some inquisitive conversation from the locals, all eager to outdo their friends in their command of english. I quickly lost the resilience I had been building in Egypt and was happy to embrace their refreshing honesty.

Very light on sights, Tehran was more of a transit point, however the ridiculously low entry fees mean that at least a few of the city's museums and palaces should be explored. The Golestan Palace, provides a welcome respite from the downtown compression of heat and traffic, as well as a quick introduction to persian architecture and furnishings. The National Museum, features everything super-old, and keeps safe many of the original ornaments sourced from archaeological sites nation wide. With little more than a full day in Tehran, and having realized the truth behind the famed Iranian hospitality, I was determined to push into the far east and the sacred city of Mashhad.

Golestan Palace, Tehran, Iran
Golestan Palace, Tehran
Palace Paintings, Tehran, Iran
Palace Paintings, Tehran
Golestan Palace, Tehran, Iran
Golestan Palace, Tehran

Mashhad -
As predicted the 9 hour express train to the holy city of Mashhad was packed solid with excited pilgrims. Obtaining a ticket with such short notice would have been impossible and despite a few last minute surprises from the local travel contact, we arrived in this far north eastern pocket of Iran. Having been force fed by generous locals throughout the entire train ride, I was somewhat pleased to escape, however not before the mandatory taking of photographs with the entire family. Being the peak pilgrimage season and also the height of summer, Mashhad is a furnace of congestion. Literally tens of thousands of transient pilgrims descend upon Iran's holiest city every single day, to attend the Haram shrine. In a logistic nightmare, not even the 8 lanes of roadway that lead to the haram can keep the traffic from permanent gridlock and with two designated bus lanes, pilgrims are ferried in and out an epic 24 hours a day.

Outer Gates of Haram, Mashhad, Iran
Outer Gates of Haram, Mashhad

Mashhad has a very conservative and pious feel, it seems that everyone is there for a purpose, and that purpose is to worship at the Haram. The idle onlooking backpacker who was drawn more by the forces of viewing the central asian architecture rather than spirituality. Great emphasis seems to be placed on the fact that the Haram is not a tourist attraction, and should be respected as a private religious experience. Large walls and arches block enquiring views from outside the complex and cameras are strictly forbidden. Even outside the Haram, amongst the swell of black chadors, burqas and men in traditional robes, I got the feeling a happy-snapping tourist would be both inappropriate and disrespectful. The Haram is a massive religious complex, encompassing museums, libraries, tombs and a number of mosques all surrounded by huge  open courtyards which cater to the sea of worshippers during prayer times. The courtyards, which feature giant domed gates and portals decorated with traditional blue and white tiles, are unfortunately the only areas of the Haram open to non-muslims. The mosques and burial chambers are strictly off limits and enforced by a phalanx of suited men ironically brandishing feather dusters.

Mashhad City from Kuhsangi, Iran
Mashhad City from Kuhsangi
Inside Haram, Mashhad, Iran
Inside Haram, Mashhad

Walking through the carpeted courtyards during prayer time is a surreal experience as giant screens and a network of reverberating speakers relay sermons to the devout. This is a time of no-nonsense, where the simple tourist should keep a low profile and drift into the background. Outside of these times, there is a far more relaxed feel, with strolling families filling the forecourts with idle chit-chat. Unfortunately, limited access to the Haram and the restraints of free picture taking was a let down, especially as the interior of the Haram was a photogenic masterpiece. However, as with the pilgrims, the sole purpose of my journey to Mashhad was to visit the Haram, so with that done and after needing 2 hours and nearly 2 dozen helpful locals to negotiate the chaos of the city bus terminal, I was set for a 14 hour bus through the desert to the central Iranian city of Yadz.

Outer Gates of Haram, Mashhad, Iran
Outer Gates of Haram, Mashhad

Second update from Footside in Egypt with pictures and info from the ancient city of Thebes modern day Luxor. July 12, 2011


Medinat Habu Temple, built by Ramesses III, Luxor
Medinat Habu Temple, built by Ramesses III, Luxor
Luxor Temple, East Bank, Luxor
Luxor Temple, East Bank, Luxor

With probably the greatest concentration of ancient archeological monuments anywhere in the world, the area of Luxor is deserving of its label as 'one giant open air museum'. Once beyond the typically gritty and provincial east bank of Luxor town, you have all the temples, tombs, valleys and desert that anyone could want. Throw in a decent stretch of the Nile River and Luxor represents the 'essential egyptian experience' that the fly-by package tourists crave. The justifiable attraction to these cashed-up hordes, unfortunately also makes Luxor the hassle capital of all of Egypt and a local economy hugely dependent on the tourist dollar. So in July 2011, with the temperature reaching an uncomfortable 45 degrees and nervous thoughts still turning to the civil disturbances in Cairo, the usual Luxor 'off season' has in effect become a dead season.

West Bank at night, Luxor
West Bank at night, Luxor

An almost complete lack of tourists has turned this city of felluca captains, tour guides, restaurantuers and hotelliers into a cacophony of salesman pitching their trade from taxis, rooftops and sidewalks. All day, every day. The flip side however, and certainly what makes it all worth while, is the relatively unfetted and personalised access to most of the sites which comprise the Luxor open air museum. The famed west bank of Luxor, usually choked with tour buses, was as peaceful and untouched as perhaps those thousands of years before.

Medinat Habu Temple, Luxor
Medinat Habu Temple
Medinat Habu Temple, Luxor
Medinat Habu Temple

Standing up to the summer heat, and with a full day barely enough to do the west bank justice, first stop was the awesome Medinat Habu. In my opinion, the best temple on the west bank, Medinat Habu boasts two massive east facing facades that crown a towering gateway to the inner temple. The deep cut hieroglyphs and colourful ceiling paintings are a testament to how well preserved this temple is. Simply a must do. The famous Ramesseum, with the toppled statute of Rameses left in situ is deserving of a brief stop before the adjacent Tombs of the Nobles which sweep up the neighbouring red sandstone cliffs.

Tomb of the Nobles, West Bank, Luxor
Tomb of the Nobles, West Bank, Luxor

With far fewer visitors, the tourist baksheesh is warmly welcomed and extends further than the more fancied Valley of the Kings. The tombs, whilst not as deep, have a detail and colour equal to that of the Valley of the Kings. Through the shimmering desert heat, the sprawling multi-tiered temple of Hatshepsut, cut deep into the rubbled cliff face looks spectacular but is light on any other features. The hiking tracks which once bridged this site to the Valley of the Kings have unfortunately been covered. Despite our stubborn attempts to summit regardless, we were pushed back down but not before taking in the red earth panorama of the Valleys.

Temple of Hatshepsut, West Bank, Luxor
Temple of Hatshepsut, West Bank, Luxor
Tomb of Seti II, Valley of the Kings, West Bank, Luxor
Tomb of Seti II, Valley of the Kings, West Bank, Luxor

Since my last trip, the Valley of the kings has become somewhat sanitised and regulated. The usual Egyptian practice of baksheesh affording an absolute freedom no longer exists. Photography anywhere within the grounds themselves is strictly forbidden and to my surprise, adhered to. Ironically, it took the final tomb of the day, and perhaps because it was right on closing time, to restore my faith in the Egyptian commercial compass. A proposition, a quick backhander and a silent acknowledgement of pursed lips, just like 5 years ago and no doubt 60 years before. It was only a quick snap shot, but hey, its impressive.

Karnak Temple Causeway, East Bank, Luxor
Karnak Temple Causeway, East Bank, Luxor
East Gate, Karnak Temple, East Bank, Luxor
East Gate, Karnak Temple
Hypostyle Hall, Karnak Temple, East Bank Luxor
Hypostyle Hall, Karnak Temple, East Bank Luxor
South Gate of Karnak Temple, East Bank Luxor
South Gate of Karnak Temple

The final days in Luxor were devoted to the east bank, particularly the epic Karnak Temple. Considered by many as the greatest temple in all of Egypt, it certainly possesses an unparalleled scale. The formidable hypostyle hall features an obstacle course of pillars, all intricately carved and towering over all observers. The extensive grounds of Karnak are littered with massive gateways, temples and obelisks all of which dwarf most other sites in Egypt. The less impressive, but still worthwhile Temple of Luxor rests on the east bank of the Nile River. During daylight the symmetrical pillars of Luxor provide a foreground to the hills of the west bank, and by night is transformed with a light show. Museums, markets and street dining occupies what remaining time travellers can afford in Luxor. With 5 days down, next stop is a multi-hop flight to Sharjah in the UAE before hopefully a smooth and uncomplicated entry into Tehran….

Luxor Temple
Luxor Temple
Medinat Habu Temple
Medinat Habu Temple
Ramesseum
Ramesseum
Hall of Tuthmosis III, Karnak Temple, Luxor
Hall of Tuthmosis III, Karnak Temple
Hypostyle Hall, Karnak Temple, Luxor
Hypostyle Hall, Karnak Temple
Hypostyle Hall, Karnak Temple, Luxor
Hypostyle Hall, Karnak Temple

First update from Footside in Egypt. July 2, 2011

After flying the long-haul from Sydney, the quick decent into Cairo Airport was not only a relief but a fantastic chance for an aerial view of Egypt's capital city and surrounding landscapes. Sitting either side of the Nile, Cairo is an  otherwise sprawling metropolis of concrete, unfinished brick buildings and of course heaving traffic, hemmed in by a horizon of scorched Saharan sand. Easily visible from above, the Giza plateau and the Pyramids of Dashur and Saqqara sit in the southern pocket of outer Cairo, at precisely the point where the city gives up to the desert.

Pyramids of Giza with the sprawl of Cairo in the background
Pyramids of Giza with the sprawl of Cairo in the background
Giza Plateau
Giza Plateau

Cairo:
There are few pleasant places in which to spend the Egyptian summer, and surely the pollution and congestion of Cairo place it near the bottom of the list. Nonetheless, as the home of the sole surviving Wonder of the Ancient World, no traveller should move on until first ticking this box.

After dumping the bags it was straight into a taxi and the inevitable gauntlet of locals using every trick in the book to offload camels, donkeys, tours and carpets. The mere sight of a foreigner in a taxi acted like a magnet, with touts flagging down the vehicle, jumping in, and going through the motions of a well rehearsed sales pitch. 'Just look..good price...the gate is closed...come eat with my family...your ticket no good...' and so it continued as one after the other was met with a cold resilience. My initial pleasantries and veiled civility eventually whittled down to curt refusal.

Great Pyramid
Great Pyramid

As with any part of Egypt, in Cairo, you have to expect the hassle, take it with a degree of humour and move through it. But there is no doubt everyone has their limits.

Once inside the Giza compound, and with attentions firmly turned to the matters at hand it is hard not to be struck by the panorama of these ancient mega-structures. Seemingly rooted in the desert, this last remnant of ancient antiquity towering over the background of a modern city.

It is difficult to truly grasp the scale of the pyramids, and although the compound was nearly deserted as a result of the summer midday heat and the recent political troubles, the perspective afforded by the few people that were present showed them to be nothing more than specks against these giant constructions.

Giza Plateau with Sphinx in the foreground
Giza Plateau with Sphinx in the foreground
Step Pyramid
Step Pyramid

In my opinion, one trip to Giza is never enough, and only two days later these pyramids were again visited in combination with those in Dashur and Saqqara. Unfortunately the Step Pyramid of Saqqara was undergoing extensive restoration and although blighted by makeshift scaffolding, this was somewhat excused by the fact it remains the oldest construction on earth, being the pre-cursor and testing ground for those in Giza.

The Eternal Sphinx
The Eternal Sphinx

With the intense heat of Summer, and stepping straight out of a difference of 8 time zones, the remaining days of Cairo were slow paced and easy. Enjoying the English gardens by the east bank of the Nile, spending a long afternoon in the Egyptian museum or just people watching on any of the heaving roads and footpaths in any part of downtown Cairo.

Having just missed some pretty serious riots in central Cairo's Tahir Square and with nothing further holding me to the city it was a matter of overnighting it to Aswan and 41 degrees in the shade.

Nile River and Aswan
Nile River and Aswan

Aswan:
Holding a reputation for relaxation, Aswan provides Egypt with a redeeming respite from the intensity of Cairo. A combination of calming breezes from an untainted Nile River and a palpable lack of local hassle give the town a welcome provincial feel. Fellucas tack back and forth across the Nile, while restauranteurs vie for the attention of passing customers who are otherwise preoccupied with the tranquility of their afternoon stroll. However despite this serenity, there is still some serious activity to be had in and around Aswan.

Tomb of Nobles, Aswan
Tomb of Nobles, Aswan

With limited time, it was straight across to the famed west bank of the Nile and clambering through the Tombs of the Nobles which are honeycombed throughout the sandstone cliffs. With the assistance of a local, who predictably had the key to unlock many of the vaulted tombs, it was possible to view the ancient carvings, hieroglyphs and interestingly some old Christian Orthodox paintings which featured within these tombs. After dispensing the mandatory backsheesh, and summiting the cliff face I was determined to revisit the monastery of St Simeon, which long abandoned, resembled a desert kasbah. Despite filling my boots with sand for a good few kilometres it was apparent the guardian of the monastery had either gone home early or not shown up at all. Emboldened by the solitude and isolation of the desert, what should have been a simple and discrete scaling of a low wall somehow attracted the attention of two locals. In the end, they chose to accept our claim that we were unknowing tourists and we close to accept their claim that they were ticket sellers. With this bit of desert business done, it was back to the Nile and the last few rays before sun set.

Nile River at Sunset
Nile River at Sunset
Temple of Ramses II, Abu Simbel
Temple of Ramses II, Abu Simbel
Abu Simbel
Abu Simbel
Monastery of St Simeon
Monastery of St Simeon

The following day kick started at 3.30am with the southern convoy to Abu Simbel. Mercifully saved from burial beneath Lake Nasser, the temples and imposing reliefs of Abu Simbel are the main draw card for the southern most tip of Egypt and well worth the effort.

Buried beneath the sand for hundreds of years, the floor-to-ceiling hieroglyphs are some of the best preserved in all of Egypt, however lingering was not an option, with only 2 hours being afforded until the final armed convoy moved northbound.

Abu Simbel
Abu Simbel
Temple of Isis, South of Aswan
Temple of Isis, South of Aswan

The 3 hour drive through the desert eventually brings you back to the Nile and a short boat ride from the Island of Philae. With time of the essence, the usual banter and bargaining was replaced by a quick hand over of cash with no questions asked. Again, as with other parts of Egypt, the entire temple complex was devoid of other tourists and even the guardians who are usually so keen to offer commentary could hardly muster the effort to wake from their rest.

Temple of Isis, Philae Island
Temple of Isis, Philae Island

Looking ahead to the treasure trove of Luxor, it was essential to grab the last northbound train out of Aswan. Thinking we were cutting things fine we were informed the timetables had change that very day and the next train would not depart until almost 8.00pm. With a couple of hours to spare, and drained from the early start we needn't go further than a local tea house from a quick meal and game of chess before boarding the train.

Temple of Isis, South of Aswan
Temple of Isis, South of Aswan

Catching a night train in southern Egypt is certainly an experience as foreigners are not technically allowed to catch such trains unescorted it was not possible to pre-buy and hence reserve seats. However one of the peculiarities is that they tend to cast a blind eye if you simply jump on and pay on board. It's as easy as that until, the hordes of locals flood on board with reserved tickets in hand. After being bounced around from seat to seat we eventually found what must have been a black-hole in their reservation system as settled in two seats to Luxor.

By the time the train rolled into a packed Luxor station it was nearing midnight and thankfully the end of a day in which some 900km was covered.