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Ahead of the scorching summer and before tourists return en masse, you can have Tutankhamun and the rest of Egypt’s vast outdoor museum to yourself, says Fiona Hardcastle.
Why go now?
Six millennia of captivating myths and colossal egos; magnificent temples; the mesmerising Nile; man’s early attempts to make sense of mortality in the magical and profound Valley of the Kings: the reasons to visit Luxor, formerly the ancient city of Thebes, are countless.
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Go now while visitor numbers are low. Tourism in Egypt has yet to recover from the political upheaval of the Arab Spring – and even though security is tight and resort areas such as Luxor are safe, the decline in holidaymakers is marked.
Travelling with a tour operator is perhaps the best route to reassurance. Abercrombie and Kent, for example, is currently offering the flexibility to postpone a trip to Egypt for two years should any signs of disturbance cause concern.
For those who do seize the day, the result is the extraordinary experience of having the world’s greatest outdoor museum to yourself. If you’re lucky, you could even be rewarded with a private audience with the bare face of Tutankhamun.
Where to stay
North of town and with an unrivalled position on the banks of the Nile, the Hilton (1) is a special place to stay. A recent £2 million refurbishment has resulted in a luxurious hotel, with seven stylish bars and restaurants, a first-class spa and three Nile-side swimming pools – the unbroken view of the Theban hills from the submerged sunloungers is hard to beat. A seven-night itinerary at the Hilton costs from £845 based on two people sharing, including B&B accommodation, easyJet flights from Gatwick, private transfers and one-day private guided tour of the east and west bank of Luxor through Abercrombie and Kent (0845 485 1143; abercrombiekent.co.uk).
El-Luxor (2) (el-luxor-hotel.com) on the Corniche El Nil is in a good location. Nile-view rooms from £50.
Nefertiti (3) (Sharia el-Sahaby, off Sharia Karnak in the bazaar; nefertitihotel.com) is a friendly hotel with a rooftop view of Luxor temple. Doubles £15 a night.
Acclimatise to life nearer the equator with sundowners at the Hilton’s lounge bar, followed by dinner at Silk Road restaurant, where Asian fusion cuisine is done to zesty perfection. A three-course dinner for two, including wine, costs around £70.
Breakfast like an Egyptian with falafels and fuul, fava beans simmered overnight, before crossing the Nile to the Valley of the Kings.
Decide how many sights of the Theban Necropolis you wish to see and tailor your transport accordingly. Tour guides, taxis, boats, bikes and donkeys will all do the job, with varying cost and efficiency. Although 63 tombs have been discovered, only about 11 are open at any one time. Tickets cost £8 and give access to three tombs of your choice. A separate ticket must be bought for Tutankhamun – for an extra £10 – and buy it you must. This modest tomb (4), marked simply outside with a small yellow plaque reading “Tut Ankh Amon. Tomb 62”, is truly wondrous.
To the left, the mummified boy king, a shroud covering only the main section of his body so that head and feet are revealed; to the right, one of the three dazzling sarcophagi that held him for over 3,000 years. It’s dark so bring a torch, and on a quiet day you can gaze for as long as you like into the face of antiquity.
A hard act to follow, it is best to leave Tutankhamun until last before heading off to explore other highlights. The temple of the lone female pharaoh Hatshepsut is definitely worth a visit. Tickets £3.
Venture off the beaten track to Deir el-Medina (5) (£3), the tombs of the workers who built the Valley of the Kings, before a final pitstop at the sandstone Colossi of Memnon (6), soaring 60 feet into the sky.
Digest the morning’s excitements at a Nile-side table at the open-air Olives restaurant (hiltonluxor.com/olives; £45 for lunch for two, including wine). Start with tabbouleh salad followed by fattoush with shrimps and finish with shish taouk (delicately spiced chicken kebabs served with red onions and soft bread). Wash down with a crisp bottle of Obelisk white.
If temple fatigue is setting in, then a concise tour of the vast Karnak temple (7) by night is a good bet. The Sound and Light show (soundandlight.com.eg; £10) can be a rather bizarre experience as disembodied voices declaim the gods and men who once filled these hallowed halls, but the overall impression is still one of awe. Constructed over 1,300 years, with intervention from every major pharaoh, Karnak transports visitors to a land of giants. The great Hypostyle Hall, a mass of towering columns, covers an area large enough to contain both St Paul’s Cathedral and St Peter’s in Rome.
Climb aboard a caleche, a horse-drawn carriage, and ask your driver to take you to Luxor’s last outpost of the British Empire – the Sofitel Winter Palace (8) (sofitel.com). Once King Farouk’s winter residence, this grand hotel dates back to 1886 and has hosted Noel Coward, Agatha Christie and Winston Churchill. Although its splendour is a little tired, it still conjures up colonial pith helmets and attracts the local big-hitters. Don’t expect much change from £150 for dinner for two, including wine, at the hotel’s 1886 restaurant.
Wrap up warm and take to the Nile to have breakfast on a felucca, a traditional wooden sailing boat. The Hilton’s breakfast felucca ride starts at £15 per person.
Luxor temple (9) in the morning light is a lovely place to be (open daily 6am to 9.30pm, £5). Unlike Karnak, it is more coherent due to the fact that fewer pharaohs (four, as opposed to every Tut, Dick and Harry who immortalised himself in Karnak) were involved in its creation. On leaving, add your footsteps to the Avenue of Sphinxes, a walkway that once stretched over a mile to Karnak and is currently being excavated to link the two temples again.
Enjoy a final feast for the eyes at Luxor museum (10) (open daily; 9am-3pm, 5pm-9pm; £8). Treasures include a stunning gilded head of Hathor, the goddess of motherhood, and Tutankhamun’s funerary bed. Don’t miss the museum’s two mummies. You’ll find them in the wing named Thebes Glory – a synonym for Luxor itself.
Haggle to your heart’s content, but don’t forget to tip, for services both rendered and imagined. Little and often is advised.
Balloon flights over the Valley of the Kings have resumed following the fatal crash in February, with new safety measures in place. Use only the five approved tour operators.
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