Did we or didn’t we stay in a houseboat on the Nile in Cairo?

We have a layover in Cairo. How do you think we spent it? A – in a spiffy hotel near the airport, or B – in a creaky houseboat on the Nile?

(Before I reveal the shocking answer, we’re not coming all the way to Egypt to spend one day in Cairo. We’re going to Luxor today and we’ll be back in a week, where will we resume our current accommodation.)

And now for the big reveal…we are staying on a houseboat on the Nile. It’s a bit rough around the edges, the shower is a strong trickle, it is definitely not in the chic part of town, but it has a terrace with a panoramic view of the river, and for the rest of my life I will get to say that I stayed on a houseboat on the Nile in the middle of Cairo.

Our view from the houseboat

Our view from the houseboat

There are many ways to travel. You can do it the easy way, you can do it the interesting way, or you can try to find some kind of happy medium. The easy way goes like this – you arrive at the airport, you are whisked to fancy hotel in the nice part of town, and you take tours in a bus with a guide who ties a bandana to the end of a selfie stick so that everyone can see her. You travel in a scrum and you move at the group’s pace. No dawdling, or you’ll keep others waiting (at best) or be left behind (at worst). Wanna check out that windy alleyway? Tough toenails. How about that cool café that you read about? Not a chance.

Don’t get me wrong, that way still has its merits. It’s more expensive, but you see a lot of stuff and your marriage stays strong. I would say that in her heart of hearts Janine leans ever so slightly in this direction, but bless her heart of hearts, she indulges me. Still, we both prefer something more than the vacuum sealed version. It can be really hard to break out of the bubble, especially in places as mystifying as Cairo, but it’s almost always rewarding. (Although when it’s not rewarding it can be a serious drag.) It can also be pretty exhausting, and there are things off the beaten path that can make people uncomfortable.

Our houseboat host is an American named Dan who has been living in Cairo, off and on, for fifteen years. Dan arranged to have us picked up at the airport and when we arrived at the houseboat he sat with us on the terrace and gave us the skinny on Cairo. He told us where to eat and what to see. He taught us how to deal with cab drivers and how to cross the street. (Don’t laugh – there are no crosswalks and no stoplights, but there are lots and lots of cars, motorbikes, minibuses, tuk-tuks, and donkey carts, among many other conveyances. Crossing the street requires equal parts confidence, telemetry, insanity, and a fervent belief in a pleasant afterlife.)

Dan works with a local guide who can give personal tours to the pyramids and other fun spots around town. He will negotiate for you in the markets and he’ll take you to the places that tourists don’t normally go. How cool is that?

Our houseboat sits between two worlds – a fancier section of town (fancy being a relative term, but still) called Zamalek, where you can find boutiques and cafés – and the decidedly less luxurious neighborhood of two million people called Imbaba. Dan then took us on a short walking tour of Imbaba, which brings to mind some of the poorer parts of Nairobi or Dar es Salaam that I’ve visited. Dan took us through a women-run vegetable market, and we saw a few live animal butchers, an ironworker artist, a bakery, and all manner of life in progress. It’s loud, dirty, smelly, and chaotic, but it was fascinating, and the sort of thing that tourists in Cairo rarely see.

Indaba. A part of Cairo not on most tourist itineraries.

Indaba. A part of Cairo not on most tourist itineraries.

Winner, winner, chicken dinner

Winner, winner, chicken dinner

A man and his dinosaur

A man and his dinosaur

These guys really wanted us to take their picture. Then the guy in the red shirt, the one who make the dinosaurs, insisted on approving the final result. Some things are universal!

These guys really wanted us to take their picture. Then the guy in the red shirt, the one who makes the dinosaurs, insisted on approving the final result. Some things are universal!

We attracted a lot of attention, needless to say, but people were friendly and we felt quite safe. At the end of one of the alleys, Dan led us to the Swiss Club, an interesting oasis in this gritty neighborhood. The Swiss Club was holding a Christmas fair, and we wandered in to check out the stuff and stayed for lunch at their very pleasant garden restaurant. The Swiss Club is not at all fancy. It’s more like a clubhouse than a country club, but it would have been impossible to imagine that even this modest space would be sitting beyond the wall of such a neighborhood. Nevertheless, it felt slightly like the days of the Raj (although without the pith helmets and gaudy facial hair).

On the lawn at the Swiss Club

On the lawn at the Swiss Club

The houseboat itself is a trip. Evenings are delightful. Last night (Friday, which in Islamic countries is the first day of the weekend) a parade of neon-lit party boats floated past, thumping Egyptian technopop (imagine if Britney Spears woke up one day in a Bedouin camp in the Sahara and started singing without her autotuner). We sat on the terrace, sipped duty-free gin and watched the parties glide past. (You probably already know this, but we just realized that duty free shops will take all your excess local currency, charge the rest to your credit card, and you will be well provisioned for sundowners! This is particularly useful in countries that don’t sell booze.)

Mornings aren’t so bad either. This morning, as we had our coffee, a couple in a small wooden post paddled by – the wife was working the oars and the husband was pulling in a simple fishing line that had been set with hooks and bait every five feet or so.

Gone fishing on the Nile.

Gone fishing on the Nile.

We then watched boat after boat from the rowing club on the opposite bank slip into the water for a morning training. In the middle of one of the loudest, craziest, most chaotic cities in earth, there is another city that moves at the decidedly more leisurely pace of the Nile. Also, we have been regularly reminded that we are afloat – every so often a speedboat will whiz by, leaving a wake that rocks our world, literally. It takes a bit of getting used to.

We are now off to Luxor, where we will nod toward reality and take a boat tour down the Nile. Short of renting one’s own vessel, this seems like the best way to visit some of those famous sights that we’ve always dreamed of seeing. My guess is that there will be plenty of ancient relics on the boat as well – I have a vision of doing the hokey pokey with a few hundred elderly pensioners, dining with Captain Steuben, and dancing the foxtrot with a dowager from Notting Hill Gate, but we shall see.

Well, so how’s Istanbul? Our intrepid traveler has some thoughts.

Istanbul has long been at the top of my list of places I’ve wanted to see. The Bosphorus Strait, which bisects the city, also serves as the dividing line between Europe and Asia.

bosphoros

Ships ply the Bosphorous. Across the strait is Asia.

That seems interesting. The city has been the capital of both the Roman and Ottoman empires. Must be important. These days, it is overwhelmingly Muslim, and you can count on the call to prayer at 5:00 am or so to wake you up unless you’re a very heavy sleeper or you’ve remembered to put in your earplugs. At the same time, you can easily get a drink. It seems that you see just as many women in jeans as headscarves. What’s going on here? I’ve always wanted to know. For my entire adulthood, I have wanted to experience this amazing stewpot of history and culture.

There are three buildings that everyone associates with Istanbul, and for good reason.

The Hagia Sophia is maybe the most famous of the three.

Inside the Hagia Sophia.

Inside the Hagia Sophia.

It began its life as a church, was converted into a mosque, and is now a museum. It was built in less than six years by 10,000 men, many of whom, I suspect, would have preferred to do something else.

The Blue Mosque is an extraordinary artistic and architectural achievement, and welcomes millions of visitors of all faiths every year while clearing the place out several times a day so the observant can pray.

Blue Mosque

The Blue Mosque

The Topkapi Palace reminds you that until the early twentieth century, a sultan ran an empire right here, complete with a harem full of eunuchs and concubines, among other anachronisms.

These three important structures are within five hundred meters of each other.

How can you not be fascinated by a culture such as this? On the other hand, is it possible to meet such outsized expectations?

Well, probably not.

In between all the history and all the east-meets-westyness, Istanbul is an onslaught of sales without marketing.

Walking down the Grand Bazaar helps me understand what a cocktail waitress at the Tailhook Convention must have felt like.Or maybe a nice Midwestern kid off straight off the bus at the Port Authority. Janine and I have a running joke about the shopkeepers who venture out into the street inviting you back to their shop, just to look. “C’mon, honey, let’s go back to my place. We’re just gonna talk.”

I have written in the past about the sheer terror that a tourist feels when trying to buy something in Morocco. Well, if Turkey’s not any worse in this regard, it’s certainly not any better.

There are thousands of carpet shops in Istanbul, and I would be willing to wager that if you ask about the price of ANY carpet in ANY one of these shops, you will be quoted a price that is outlandish and obscene. This is exhausting. If you ask me, if Istanbul wants to become a truly great city, it has to cut this out. It has to treat its visitors like guests, not marks.

On the other hand, if you are lucky and intrepid (and my dear wife is both) you can find stuff that is unusual and maybe even unique, and you won’t have to sell a kidney to pay for it. For example, Janine, who has made pilgrimages to flea markets in Rome, Athens, and now Istanbul, found a seven story market called the Horhor antique flea market in which we succeeded where many others fail. Mind you, we had to take a tram out of the city center and then stumble our way through a nondescript semi-residential neighborhood in the rain to find the place. Once we arrived, we discovered that we were the only customers in the place. In Istanbul! On the fifth floor, amid a graveyard of lamp parts and other detritus, we settled on an old Turkish lamp that will assume a prominent place in our apartment, if we can figure out a way to get it home.

IMG_2363

Our Horhor lamp. (The blue one)

We didn’t buy a lamp, we bought a chapter out of Homer and a story for the poor sap who looks up at the lamp back home and says, “That’s nice. Where did you get it?

Next time: We meet some of the archetypes of Turkey – let’s call them the Turquetypes.

I Heart Athens! Who knew?

Raise your hand if you’re a big fan of Athens. I know, right? It’s hot, it’s noisy, and as Yogi Berra probably didn’t say, nobody goes there anymore because it’s too crowded.

Well, the hip, happening bars are crowded, that’s for sure. And so are the very good restaurants. It’s crowded in a good way. Now that summer’s over, the only tourists here are the childless and the Dutch.

I’m not entirely sure why we’re here in the first place. Janine always wanted to go to Greece, but she really wanted to go to the islands. Having decided that beach season is over, we plugged Athens in for a week anyway, just because.

We have been delighted by the warm reception. After Greece’s brush with economic death, Athens feels like that girl who has finally been asked to dance and she responds with, well, let’s call it enthusiasm. People have been friendly and welcoming. I have to confess that by contrast more than a few Italians seemed like they were doing their best impersonation of Parisians.

We arrived with no expectations whatever. Would we be able to communicate? In most of Europe we seem to be able to get by just fine, but Greek is, well, Greek.

What looks good to you, honey?

What looks good to you, honey?

We needn’t have worried. Pretty much everybody in this part of town speaks English better than we do. I had assumed that we would like the food, but I didn’t realize how much. Greeks know how to eat (although they’re not sure when).

Our Greek arrival party started ominously, when a dour woman answered the door to the apartment we rented. The apartment is right off Monastiraki Square, which is not as touristy as Plaka (which boasts pedestrian alleys all selling the same I Heart Greece t-shirts), but more conventional than Gazi, where you find the techno clubs and gay bars.

Athens!

Athens!

Our landlady Valentina, a serious woman in her fifties, started to warm up as she pulled out a map and gave us the lay of the land, telling us where to go and what to do. She also wanted to make sure we felt safe. “In Athens, you don’t worry from nothing,” she reassured us, although she reminded us to leave our passports in the room. Trust everyone, but cut the cards, as the saying goes. Why does every city think it has the best pickpockets?

Often, the first night in town sets the tone for the visit. For us, it’s the most unstructured time of the trip. I usually haven’t found the out of the way restaurant in the hip neighborhood yet (more on THAT later). Most of the time, you just want to get your bearings and find something to eat. Sometimes this results in the lousiest, most touristy thing you do. Other times, you hit paydirt. On our first night, we made a trip to the supermarket, and then started wandering in search of a meal. At first, the pickings were looking kind of slim. We were in a fairly commercial part of town and nothing was open. Then, all of a sudden we found ourselves on this charming plaza full of restaurants and cafes in which happy, hip young people were tucking into plates of fish and meat and bowls of other stuff. Things were looking up. We approached one of the restaurants, called Melilotos, and were greeted by a fellow who seemed genuinely happy to see us. I wanted to hug the menu. Everything looked good. We settled on a very fresh salad and a roasted boneless chicken leg coated with some nifty blend of Greeky spices and stuffed with greens and just a bit of greek cheese. For four euros, we had a half a liter of a light, fresh, white that was everything I love about Mediterranean wine. I think the whole thing was thirty bucks. This was a very good start.

On our first full day in town we did one of the most touristy things you can do – we hopped aboard the hop on, hop off bus. I actually like these things. They’re an amusement park ride of whatever city you’re in. You sit and watch all the attractions go by. Sure, you can hop off and do something, but doesn’t that really defeat the purpose? The goal, as far as I’m concerned, is to sit and do nothing, but feel like you’ve actually accomplished something. If you’re really ambitious, you make a few mental notes of places to return to. This also was very much in keeping with our sightseeing philosophy – try to walk the thin line between boredom and exhaustion.

A perfectly good view from the hop on hop off bus.

A perfectly good view from the hop on hop off bus.

After we finally hopped off, we settled into what has become our evening ritual – cocktails at a bar or café, preferably on a nice plaza, and then dinner.

I should note that Athenians eat really, really late. Like Madrid late. We have pushed the cocktail hour later and later and we are still the first ones in the restaurant at 8 or 8:30. Anyway, we had our cocktail at a fun little place around the corner called Bar Osterman, and headed off to dinner. (I herewith make a very shameful disclosure – I discovered all three of the establishments we patronized this evening in an article in the New York Times. I am now the middle aged, post-yuppie who outsources his travel advice to the New York Times.)

Our division of labor generally proceeds thusly – Janine is the expert in selecting our lodgings and does so with verve and panache. I make restaurant recommendations and I am the navigator. For dinner, I had selected a place called Manimani, at which you can get a “modern taste of hearty Peloponnesian cuisine” according to, yes, the New York Times. Armed with Google Maps, which has changed the modern traveler’s life, we set out for the restaurant. Things didn’t go quite according to plan, however. Google Maps seemed confused, with the little blue arrow twitching this way and that. Janine wasn’t fully invested in the selection of the restaurant in the first place, nor did she particularly feel like walking the twenty minutes the Google told us it would take to get there. When this happens, she either starts walking slower or she just pulls up, like a steeple chase horse who refuses the jump.

By this point, my confidence in the whole endeavor was flagging, but I was not ready to throw in the towel just yet. I was a one-eyed Sherpa with diminished lung capacity and a bad back, but I was determined to lead the summit push. After much backtracking, we arrived at our destination, but something was obviously wrong. There was no hip, New York Times-recommended hotspot, just an empty storefront. “I think we’re on the wrong street,” Janine offered, unamused. Thank heavens. We redirected to the proper street, where we found…another empty storefront.

Oops, I was looking at the wrong number. There it was, little more than a staircase with a very small sign leading to the restaurant above. There was still hope.

Once inside we were welcomed like old friends. We had no reservation but were seated at the last two-top in the place. We had a great meal with more ridiculously cheap but delicious Greek wine. The highlight was a perfectly roasted lamb on a celery root puree.

Roasted lamb on celery root puree. Even Janine admitted it was worth the shlep.

Roasted lamb on celery root puree. Even Janine admitted it was worth the shlep.

Our server wrapped up the meal by bringing us a complimentary little bottle of mastiha, a grappa-like boozy thing from the island of Chios, wherever that is. It’s hard to describe, but it smelled like a pile of raked leaves on a fall day and tasted like I imagine the bark of a tree would taste like if you fermented and distilled it. But in a very good way. I love a meal that ends with a bit of free tasty hooch that I’ve never heard of. Janine forgave me.

We ended the evening with a nightcap at a very cool spot next door to our apartment called Six d.o.g.s, a place that would be quite at home in Soho. It has a gallery space, a club with live music, and a courtyard bar packed with hip young people. We sipped our drinks, took in the vibe, and couldn’t believe that we were in Athens, of all places. I heard about it, you guessed it, in the New York Times.