The sunset oasis
Amira El-Naqeeb composes a compact guide on how to make the best of a holiday in Siwa
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Clockwise from top: contemplating sunset; at home in the sky ceiling room; the majestic hills standing proudly in Taghaghien Island; bonding with nature in the Ghaliet photos: Iman Fouad & Mohamed El-Ghareeb
Siwa is much more than a getaway from the hustle and bustle of busy city life. It offers a beguiling blend of antiquity, nature and wellness. With Easter approaching, Siwa offers long weekend visitors a chance to make the best of their stay, teeming with life and activities.
You should mark your calendar for the Gabal Al-Dakroury and Siwan Festival which is a three-day event in October according to the Hijri (moon) calendar. Gabal Al-Dakroury was chosen by Siwan tribes as a middle ground for this annual festival, according to Mustafa Yousri, a local tour guide. "It is far removed from the tribal disputes of 150 years ago," he explained. "They decided to come together and celebrate for three days the harvest season and reconciliation among the tribes." People gather from all over Siwa, bringing food to eat and share together. Outsiders are welcome to join them if they happen to be in the neighbourhood during the festival.
According to Siwan tradition, unmarried women come to the festival in the hope of finding a love match since it presents an opportunity for single men and women to meet, and eligible men can propose to a girl's family if they feel rapport. In Siwan society, women are considered the backbone of the community since they work in the date factory and handicrafts, while marketing and selling these products is the responsibility of the men.
Gabal Al-Mawta (The Mountain of the Dead) is the principal graveyard for the inhabitants of Siwa between the 26th and 30th dynasties. According to Yousri, the most famous tomb belongs to Si- Amun one of the soldiers of Alexander the Great. The murals inside Si-Amun's tomb are masterfully crafted and the colours remain in good condition depicting scenes from his life. Since he liked life in Siwa and decided to live in the oasis, first marrying a Greek woman and then an Egyptian one. There were pictures of his Egyptian son wearing Greek costume, and his Greek son wearing Pharaonic Egyptian costume. "This is to show there were amicable relations between the two nations at that time," explained Yousri.
The Mountain of the Dead is an easy climb with a spectacular view of Siwa and plush with palm trees. Make sure you pack your camera.
Fetnas Island is a lake with a captivating view which has become the most famous spot for watching the sunset on the oasis. You can relax on one of the cushions lying around, order lemon grass tea, and slowly sip as you watch the sun take a dip into the silver lake. However, try to avoid going on national holidays because it will be overly crowded.
Begin by visiting the Fortress of Shali which is the old city of Siwa and a must see. Let yourself get lost in the labyrinth of the old city ruins where the houses are made of karsheef (a type of mud). Try to visit when you are not in a hurry in order to enjoy it to the most.
Cleopatra Spring is a good break even if you don't intend to take a plunge. For a pleasant stroll, take a walk around the fields and you might get lucky and find a fruit snack of sweet oranges or dates that fall off the trees. There is also a café perched on the top floor where you can have zarda (Siwan tea) while lounging amidst palm trees.
If you are not going to see anything else other than this island, then do it. When I set foot on Taghaghien Island, it felt like I found my own slice of paradise. A placid lake of molten silver with plateau-top cinnamon hills standing on its edge to guard against even a breeze that might disturb its serenity. When the sun took a dip into the lake, it masterfully coloured the sky with red, orange and violet hues. It was a full moon, yet, you don't have to tilt your head up to see it -- just watch its crystal clear reflection on the lake surface. Taghaghien Island offers visitors the option of spending the entire day with a LE25 entrance fee including one drink, but visitors can also stay on the island by renting a beautifully furnished ecological hut at LE400 for two ( www.taghaghien- island.com ).
Wahet Siwa (Siwa Oasis), also known as Mubarak Hotel, is a convenient and moderately priced option. It is close to downtown and has all the basic amenities. The rooms are spacious and clean with beautiful terraces and a garden view. The double rooms have air conditioning, mini bar and hot water at all times. The staff is friendly and helpful but the food is mediocre, and prices depend on whether it's a high or low season. The hotel will cater a traditional Siwan dinner for groups and serves it outdoors to the tunes of local folk music.
For a more pampered experience, look no further than the Ghaliet Hotel and Spa which emanates positive vibes. The friendly disposition of the couple who own it is imprinted on every corner of the ecolodge and spa. The owner cooked us dinner and it was cooked with love; steak, traditional rice ( maamar ), stuffed bell pepper ( mahshy ), baked potatoes, and salad. Dessert was mashed dates and tea.
I had booked the sky light room and was looking forward to lying in bed all night long looking through the ceiling, but the room exceeded my expectations. The sky ceiling room was roofed with palm trunks except for a rectangular opening revealing the starry sky. It was a full moon and the silvery moonlight shyly beamed into the room. I tried to keep my eyes open as long as I could but eventually my eyelids grew too heavy and I finally gave in to sleep.
The bathroom was another sketch painted by nature; ivory colour natural stone walls, a tub with brass faucets and a skylight brining in the green of palm trees softly caressing the ceiling. "I wanted guests to feel they are always connected to nature while doing any activity," the owner Magdy Riad told me over breakfast. A single room on Bed/Breakfast basis costs LE250, while double rooms are LE390 per night ( www.ghaliet.net ).
Safari day is always action-packed. The notion of spending the whole day rolling up and down sand dunes was enticing enough to wake me up in the wee hours. However, to enjoy the ride you must make sure your vehicle is in order, namely that the seats don't come apart, it doesn't break down after a few cruises in the desert, and that the driver actually listens when you tell him slow down. Otherwise, the hues of the towering dunes are most impressive throughout the day.
We started by going to Lake Shiata which is a natural protectorate 35km from the Libyan border. You can swim but the water is usually cold at this time of the year, but can most definitely repose and have lunch -- which you packed before you left. Sand boarding is a very popular activity in this area, so if interested make sure to tell your safari organiser to bring sand boards along.
After a long day in the desert, it's always advised to visit Bir Wahed (Well One) which is a hot spring of mineral water. Since it's very popular among tourists there will be many outdoor campers immersing themselves in steamy water. The spring is not too big, about four metres in diameter, so groups alternate turns and dive in. There is another small lake of cold water in the vicinity where usually people go to cool off after the hot spring. These two spots are usually visited together and consecutively, or you can ask your guide to skip them altogether.
Sand burial is another therapeutic practice that is special to Siwa but this treatment is effective only in the sweltering heat, so it begins in mid- June.
At night, you can go downtown and eat at a restaurant outside of your hotel. One of the most famous is called Abdo and offers an array of traditional dishes at moderate prices. There is also Konoz Hotel which offers a more gourmet experience and is a five-minute walk from Shali. After dinner enjoy local drinks at Al-Waha Café amid a romantic setting of a bonfire that people sit close to sipping drinks and enjoying its warmth as they snuggle with their significant other.
This day can be dedicated to more sightseeing. Even if you would rather skip history and archaeology, don't miss going to The Coronation Hall of Alexander the Great at the Oracle temple. The temple was originally a temple for Amun-Re, its columns and walls reveal many aspects of the period's architecture . Make sure you are accompanied by a local tour guide so they can tell you about the history; it makes the sites much more interesting.
The Traditional Siwan House Museum is also an interesting site where you are introduced to traditional Siwan way of life with displays of preserved handicrafts, tools, clothes and living.