In the winter of 1922 Howard Carter, probably the most famous archaeologist of all time, working for his wealthy patron, Lord Carnarvon, discovered the tomb of King Tutankhamen in the Valley of the Kings near Luxor. Egyptology was a global obsession, capturing the imaginations of young and old throughout the western world, and Luxor was the capital of it all. The discovery of this intact tomb was world news and was picked up by the press all over. But where did Carter post his announcement?
Why, on the notice board of the Winter Palace Hotel in Luxor, of course. Because, the Winter Palace, built in 1905 to cater for the rich and powerful of colonial Egypt, and the richer and more powerful from Europe who financed the big archaeological expeditions, was simply the place to be.
Building a luxury hotel with around a hundred rooms and six sumptuous suites in a small, dusty town three days in a boat from Cairo may have seemed an odd gamble at the time, but it was done with such style, with such an uncompromising drive for elegance and comfort, that the magnet worked, and the cream of Cairo society flocked there to get away from the city.
And the magnet went on working; Agatha Christie wrote Death on the Nile there, Albert I of Belgium was a regular guest, Tony Blair has stayed there with Cherie, as did Kissinger, Princess Diana, George Clooney Sadat and a host of others. When Nicolas Sarkozi, still President of France, wanted to impress his new girlfriend, Carla Bruni, where did he take her? Yup, you’ve got it; the Winter Palace in Luxor, of course!
When a friend suggested a short break in Luxor I was excited about seeing the ancient ruins but was totally unprepared for the hotel. Situated on the banks of the Nile, the broad fin de siècle frontage gives the first hint of what awaits inside. A huge lobby in authentic period style, the outstanding service and welcome you would expect from a Sofitel, possibly the grandest staircase I have ever seen, and vast corridors built, before air conditioning, in a town where the temperature regularly reaches 40°C.
We had a suite with a balcony overlooking the Nile, so of course, breakfast on the balcony was just about obligatory. The suite was beautifully fitted out giving a place where we could relax properly after a hard day out looking at palaces, tombs and temples.
Once the worst of the heat had gone from the afternoon (we made the mistake of going in the hottest part of the summer) we explored the huge gardens behind the hotel, filled with mature trees, shrubs, little lawns and wonderful places to sit, a set of gardens where you can really lose yourself and forget the realities of the world outside. Almost hidden in the gardens (gives you an idea of the scale) we found a full-length swimming pool, with a separate shallow pool for children, attached restaurant and mid-pool cocktail bar. Just the perfect way to fill that difficult moment between coming back from the ruins covered in dust and getting dressed for dinner!
When you have pulled yourself away from the pool, perhaps had a quick drink on the balcony watching the sunset over the Nile, and got ready for dinner, the next thing on the list is the bar for a pre-dinner cocktail. Huge, again, kept in the authentic period style with leather chairs, vast bookcases and beautifully carved hardwood everywhere. Sitting there drinking a perfectly mixed gin and tonic it is impossible not to feel the echoes of past ages around you; the archaeologists, their patrons, the stars, the diplomats and the politicians in black tie discussing the day’s events and tomorrow’s plans.
The two, principal attractions in Luxor are the temple of Karnak and the Valley of the Kings. There are plenty of other sites but, time being short, we decided to spend time at these two sites.
The hotel organised a guide for us, a young local guy who clearly knew his stuff extremely well and judged very quickly what sort of tourists we were, setting his tone and style perfectly. He came with a car and driver, at a very reasonable price, which meant we could do things at our speed.
First, we went to the Temple complex at Karnak, which is truly epic. You may not be aware of it, but you have almost certainly seen it in a film; the Jaws/Bond chase/ fight scene in From Russia With Love, Death on the Nile, The Mummy Returns, Transformers; Death of the Fallen, even Battlestar Galactica used it! And it is an obvious film set, the scale and the state of preservation of the structures is simply mind-blowing.
Karnak is said to be the second biggest ancient religious site in the world, the biggest being the Angkor Wat, and is reportedly the most visited historical site in Egypt. It is certainly big, but it really didn’t feel over visited; we found it very easy to get away from what few other tourists there were, and while it wasn’t quite as empty as Ba’albek we certainly didn’t feel jostled or put off by the crowd, and when our guide left us to wander on our own for an hour it was easy to find secluded places from which to look up in awe at the four-thousand-year-old stonework. Parts of the temple date to 2000BC, it includes a number of halls, courtyards and structures and there are columns which rise to 22M and are up to 3m in diameter, all beautifully preserved by the dry climate and all covered in hieroglyphics. It’s difficult to put into words just how incredible this place is, you might just have to take a visit for yourself…
The Valley of the Kings is another thing altogether. If you haven’t properly thought it through before going, it’s initially quite disappointing; it’s a dry desert valley with a number of holes in it. But then you start going down into the holes… and a whole other world awaits you.
Each hole leads to a burial chamber some thousands of years old. Long sloping corridors into the side of the valley open into ante-chambers and then the burial rooms themselves. Most of the artefacts have been taken away, but many of those which were not removed to Europe or elsewhere are on display in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo (Cairo blog coming soon!) but this really does not detract from the experience. The decorating on the walls and the ceilings, in colours which look like they have been painted yesterday, are something just to stand and gawp at. Anyone who needs a reminder of the ephemeral nature of modern society need spend no more than five minutes in one of these chambers to get a grasp of what the phrase ‘built to last’ means. Private guides are not allowed into the tombs, but ours had given us a pretty good crash course in the symbolism of Egyptian burial rites, and with a little extra explanation from the state guides inside the tombs we soon started being able to decrypt the carvings and paintings ourselves, which was great fun. Perhaps the most striking thing, for me at least, because it gives a sense of proportion to the age of the tombs, is one tomb in which there is some ‘modern’ graffiti near the entrance. Painted by early Christians hiding from their Roman persecutors.
Photos inside the tombs are not allowed (and this is quite strictly enforced) but I have included a few images just to give an idea.
So if you are looking for a warm getaway saturated with opulent and interesting history make sure you ad the Sofitel Winter Palace to your list of must-see unique vacation destinations, or alternatively get in touch with me for further information about staying here and custom itineraries.
Live Well, Eat Well, Travel Well.
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