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House & Garden

Although it was very late on Friday night, the hotel receptionist, was breezily effecient. He also suggested that he book us onto a tour.
"In the morning you will see the pyramids, then the sphinx, then the Egyptian museum. The next day you will leave for Aswan.."
" No, thank you, we've come to see the old Islamic city"
"I see sir, in that case you will begin with the Egyptian museum, then proceed to the sphinx and then the pyramids. The next day you will depart for Aswan."
"No, thank you, we just want to walk through old Cairo. You know, look at all the old mosques and Coptic churches"
"No pyramids?"
"No pyramids."
He shook his head in despair.

On our first night we had gone, still clutching our suitcaces, straight out to a fashionable candle-lit bar, L'Aubergine, in the smart embassy quarter of Zamalek. Despite paying for another couple, and tipping twice (due to the thirst and enthusiasm of a first night) the bill still came in under 40.

We took Saturday morning slowly. The hot and arid air, even in winter, takes some getting used to. Modern Cairo is not built with the pedestrian in mind and so we made ruthless use of taxis. They are battered but cheap once you got your head around the local currency. We must have taken half a dozen rides a day but spent less than 25 over the whole weekend. The images that first morning: especially the spice bazzaar, the hall of the dervishes of the Ghurri mausoleum, the tent-makers market and the sprawl of ancient carpets, fallen columns and sleeping worshippers in the Mu'adid mosque now seem like a kaleidoscopic fantasy. Lunch was taken in one of the booths of the cool and palatial interior of the Khan el Khalili restaurant tucked away in the centre of the bazaar quarter. In Cairo a blind man can smell what month it is through the scent of the squezzed fruit juices. We hit the end of the mango season but were plumb in the middle of guava and tamarind and at the beginning of bitter orange. A feast of juice and mezze dishes for two came to 10.

We then shopped through the lassitude of the midday heat, picking up a silk scarves and a pile of beautifully bound leather note books. At dusk we were taken upto the rooftop of the medrese of Barquq. My heart nearly burst at the beauty of the skyline. The all pervading grey dust of midday had been turned to gold, the extravagant towers, minarets and domes of old Cairo marched off in every direction. It seemed as if all the cathedrals of England had been packed into Fleet Street and sprayed with angel dust. After drinks at the Cairo Marriot, one of the grandest of the massive hotels that overlook the Nile, we dropped right down market to the street tables of Alfi Bey where we ate our way through plates of the cities favourite nibble: grilled pidgeon.

Sunday was when I realised that another love affair had been launched. A day spent exploring the intimate bewitching jewel-like Mameluke interior of the Gayer-Anderson house, the venerable sunken churches of the old Coptic quarter (one perched on a Roman gate of the Babylon fortress) and the vast cool marble clad interior of the Sultan Hassan college with its soaring arches culminated as dusk hit us in the centre of the vast courtyard of the Ibn Tulun mosque. We stood alone in one of the world's greatest buildings whilst the walls rang to the call to prayer and clouds of pidgeons flirted with the golden light. We gave grilled pigeon a miss that night and went upmarket, to one of the cities best Lebanese restuarants, Le Papillon, dining in some style but for only 30. We concluded that old Cairo is the most magnificent medieval city on earth, of a scale, of a crumbling dusty grandeur and magnificence that defies the imagination.

It is also almost completely empty of tourists, who are packed off to see the sphinx, the pyramids and the Egyptian museum. Looking out at dawn from the aeroplane window on Monday morning we saw the pyramids.

We found an enormous variation in flight tickets and eventually tracked down a pair of tickets for 470 which involved changing planes at Paris and stretching the weekend to noon on Monday.

Staying two nights in the biggest bedroom suite in the battered 3 star Windsor Hotel, one of the few old style neo-colonial hotels to have survived the cultural purge of the late 50's, cost the pair of us 351 Egyptian pounds (less than 70).

109 on meals including breakfast and drinks

25 on entrance tickets and a profusion of small tips to custodians and helpful mosque staff

Taxis are battered and by London standards cheap. We took half a dozen a day but spent less than 25 over the weekend.

35 on two pairs of silk scarves, street maps, local guidebooks and two pairs of gold slippers (went slightly overboard on the beautifully leather bound notebooks, spending 86 on the credit card)

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