Al-Ahram Weekly Online   12 - 18 March 2009
Issue No. 938
Travel
 
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

The Talented Mr Clooney

Jailan Halawi, a la Milanese

Click to view caption
Castello Sforzesco

Italy being the land of love and promise, and one of the closest parts of Europe to Egyptian culture, history, and even language, I was very excited to be included in the press delegation accompanying Minister of Tourism Zoheir Garana on his trip to Milan. The occasion was the 29th Borsa Internazionale Del Tourismo (Bit) or International Tourism Exchange between 19-22 February.

The world's second most important tourism exchange would provide me with infinite opportunities to explore.

My colleagues and I took the Italian carrier Alitalia to Malpensa Airport, and after a three-and-one-half hour flight we landed shortly before midnight. There, procedures were swift and we were warmly received by Mohamed Abdel-Gabbar, head of the Egyptian Tourism Authority (ETA) and his assistant Mohamed Abdel-Ghani. A black Mercedes van whisked us to our hotel.

THE SAVOY: A glimpse of the luxurious Principe Di Savoia, once owned by Aga Khan before it became part of the Dorchester Hotels, is breathtaking. We later discovered that it is the favourite of celebrities visiting Milan.

In fact, a fellow guest during our stay was football superstar David Beckham, who was spotted by a male colleague -- and was naturally dismissed as "arrogant", though as far as I was concerned a more flattering adjective would have been more appropriate.

To my delight, the hotel -- like many buildings in the city -- is strictly non-smoking. The sight of smokers standing outdoors in -2 degrees Celsius weather for the sake of a few puffs made me glad I had quit years ago. And standing outside, guests were missing out on the grand interior which was a work of art.

The shop windows along the hallway leading to the restaurant displayed tempting products by top designers Christian Dior, Prada and many others. To work up a rich appetite as one headed to a meal, the windows showcased jewellery, handbags, shoes and suits -- a small reminder that this is the fashion capital of the world. Being a shopaholic, I sincerely hoped that despite the Bit's busy schedule I would have time to snap an original or two to add to my wardrobe.

With so much excitement, sleep was elusive. A variety of treats and amenities were provided in the room, but my favourite delights were the nighttime courtesy chocolates and the Acqua di Parma toiletries. The brand's shower gels and shampoos are well known since they came into production in 1916 and embody the essence of Italian elegance and savoir- vivre. A good soak in such relaxing and invigorating aromas certainly helped relax my tired muscles before heading to bed.

DEL TOURISMO: After less than three hours of sleep, it was time to get ready for the opening of Bit. At the Acanto restaurant, the staff were elegantly dressed and looked delightful. " Buongiorno Signora, coffee or tea?" was music to my ears. My caffeine metre fuelled up, we piled into the van for a half- hour drive to the Fiera Milano in Rho by an amazing-looking driver, appropriately named Valentino.

" Una momento Signora," Valentino stopped me, hurrying round to open my car door once we pulled into the fairground. This is normal etiquette here, so was the farewell peck on the hand. My girlfriends who had travelled to Italy had very high opinions of Italian men, and now I could see where that came from.

I was glad to be dropped off at the entrance closest to the Egyptian pavilion because the fairground was huge. Some 140 countries sent 153,800 visitors to attend the exhibition held under the slogan 'Nice to Bit you'. Of these participants, 101,000 were professional operators -- 81,500 Italian and 19,500 from overseas.

NOTHING COMPARES: Inside, most exhibits were creative and interesting, but Egypt's 306 square metres looked spectacular within the frame of a huge pyramid. Brandishing the logo Egitto, senza confronti (Egypt, nothing compares), 7,000 years of civilisation were put on parade for all to see. Large LCD screens displayed the magnificence of the Red Sea, its pristine turquoise waters, home to the richest, most bewitching corals; the grandeur of the Giza Pyramids standing defiant; the virginity of its oases; the wildlife and wild living.

I proudly strutted through the exhibit halls, and was met with much excitement by tour operators from around the world once they knew Signora came from Egypt. Regardless of what wonders their lands have to offer, they all noted: "Of course, ours is not as diverse and attractive as yours."

Only 11 Egyptian travel companies and seven hotels took part in the exhibit. A drop in the ocean compared to the 5,000 companies taking part from all over the world. It was unclear whether the modest Egyptian representation was due to the economic crisis, pessimism about the fair's turnout, or if people were saving time and effort in preparation for the world's top tourism exchange starting next week in Berlin.

Nonetheless, the first day of Bit was extremely busy for Garana and his delegation as they met with their counterparts.

SFORZESCO: After a long day at the fair, we headed back for a quick change of clothes before the next event. My first encounter with the splendour of the Principe Di Savoia was overwhelming -- the sweep and shimmer of its immense marble halls, the stern figures gazing down from the paintings, and hotel staff who give the impression they are there to attend on kings and queens. After the first day, indeed, I too began to behave with some grandeur.

Parading into the hotel's lobby to meet my colleagues for a ball hosted by the ETA that evening, I summoned the spirit of Queen Hatshepsut and decided to borrow her airs for the rest of my visit.

The guest list included representatives of 350 of the most prominent Italian tourist companies and tour operators, who are either partners with Egypt or potential investors in the country's tourism industry. Everyone was elegantly dressed at the Castello Sforzesco, the Citadel of Milan, with many mink coats in attendance.

Sforzesco Castle was built in the 15th century by Francesco Sforza and it is now home to a fine art collections that include those of the Museum of Antique Art, the Museum of Musical Instruments, and the Picture Gallery. The Rondanini Pietà, Michelangelo's unfinished last work, is there, while the Picture Gallery has works by Renaissance and 17th-century Italian masters, including Andrea Mantegna, Giovanni Bellini, Filippo Lippi, Correggio, and Jacopo da Pontormo. There is also a fine collection of French and Dutch works.

Inside the castle there are also the archaeological and numismatic collections and the Achille Bertarelli collection of prints, as well as institutions such as the Biblioteca Trivulziana, the Biblioteca d'Arte, the Drawings Cabinet and the Art School. Recently a new lighting system has helped to enhance the castle silhoutte by night.

It was obvious that Egypt is well connected in Italy. As ETA chief Abdel-Gabbar revealed, this was the first time ever that a foreign country is allowed to host an event at the spectacular Castello Sforzesco since its prestige for Italians compares to Egypt's Salaheddin Citadel. Indeed, the fort is grand and spacious and you can sense history everywhere. We walked through the garden on a pathway adorned by candles, then down the stairs and through a small room of Egyptian exhibits, finally reaching the ballroom where the festivities were underway.

A palatable variety of Italian delights were served for dinner, my favourite being the Fagottini pasta bundles with radicchio and Taleggio cheese, and the mouthwatering Meringue with chestnut cream and crunchy hazelnuts.

Entertainment consisted of a magnificent performance by Egypt's National Folklore Troupe, who performed my favourite whirling dervishes show and Mezmar, among other great numbers showcasing Egypt's rich folk heritage. At the end of the night, 15 guests won free trips to various destinations in Egypt for periods ranging from one week to 10 days.

MORE FAIR: The second day at the Bit was just as busy as the first, and I expanded my tour of the exhibits to discover destinations that I had never heard of. Budva, for example, was completely unknown to me. It is known as the Queen of the Adriatic Sea, situated on the Montenegro Coast with 35 beautiful sandy beaches -- eight of them awarded the Blue Flag, a prestigious international certificate for quality beach service.

The brochures made even familiar places look fascinating. Honduras, located in Central America, is a destination which is rich and intriguing, with numerous national parks, biological reserves, extensive Caribbean beaches which and second largest coral reef in the world; living cultures are evident in the Garifuna coast as well as the inland Lencas, I am told, while colonial cathedrals and the majestic Copan stands as proof of the artistic power of Mayan civilisation. It certainly promises an unforgettable travel experience.

I took my time walking around the various pavilions, from Greece with its open bar and buffet to Estonia, Bermuda, India, Turkey, Yemen, Ethiopia, Japan, Libya, Palestine and the US. Some pavilions offered traditional snacks to visitors, while others made do with a box of courtesy candy.

The Syrian pavilion looked positively festive, as its National Folk Troupe performed all day and visitors were served delectable oriental pastries while they admired intricate silver jewellery. But amidst all this charm, it was the magic of Persia or Iran, the land of Paradise, palaces and poets that captured my imagination.

I was asking for the brochure in English as opposed to Italian when I was greeted by Mojghan Attarzadeh, the marketing executive of one of Iran's top travel agencies. An elegant woman with a British accent, I later learnt she was an Iranian who, born in Kuwait, lived in the UK for 24 years before going home to work in the field of tourism. Attarzadeh was my guide on my virtual tour of Iran -- a pity that politics have closed the borders between our countries, preventing me from visiting this land of extraordinary contrasts.

I would first travel to the tropical Caspian shore, with its rice and tea plantations, then to the oilfields and sugar canes of Khuzestan. From there, I would move onto the orchards and wheat fields of the fertile province of Azerbaijan, then to the deserts of Kavir and Lut with their oasis towns. I could wrap up at the central arid plateau or the snowcapped Zagros and Elborz mountains.

SHOPPING GALORE: It would have been madness to be in Milan and confine myself only to the Fiera, so I took off on the second day to roam the streets of the city. Although this was my first time ever in Italy, I refused a chaperone and insisted that it is only through losing yourself in a city that you get to know what it is really like.

I began at the Piazza del Duomo or Cathedral Square, where I spent eight hours in awe -- and shopping. The duomo is impressive, with endless rows of statues and paintings; and the square is the fashion centre of the world's fashion capital. To the left is the entrance to the Galleria Vittotorio Emanuele II, housing an assortment of designer stores including Prada, Massimo Dutti, Armani, Just Cavalli and Dior.

Also on location is the den of La Rinascente, or Rebirth, the city's premiere department store. There, shopping is divided into high-end, mono brand and popular fashion. I spent a lot of time on the ground level where the cosmetics and perfumes were being sold, and the first floor which is home to splendid designer bags, shoes and accessories. Much to my liking, fiery red seems to be in fashion these days, whether in the form of bags, shoes or clothes, so is pea green, navy blue and shades of beige. Black and silver remain on top for evening fashion.

Outside, the square was teeming with activity. Extremely elegant men and women are leisurely shopping or relaxing in the sun at café and restaurant tables.

I walked around, trying to take everything in, until my feet demonstrated against my high heels. They told me to stop at the next shop and buy comfortable shoes; and here began my shopping marathon. As if in a trance, I shopped as much as I could until I came back to my senses when a voice at Zara announced it was 15 minutes to closing time. Thankfully, I had already bought my four-year-old niece her summer wardrobe from Zara's new collection.

At the cashier I spotted an old friend whom I had not seen in a decade, obviously buying clothes for his children.

We went to dinner at the Duomo's Gallareia Restaurante, where I had the best plate of penne al arabiatta in history; it was just perfectly spiced and "al dente", just as it should be. And while my friend chose a seafood pizza as a second plate, I preferred having Grand Copo, Gellato, or ice cream with chocolate, strawberry, lemon and biscuit. We ended our meal with a single espresso, of course served with dark chocolate, leaving me wanting nothing more than a good night's sleep.

LAKE COMO: On the last day, ETA deputy chief Abdel-Ghani took us on a sight-seeing tour of Lake Como. "Outrageously exotic" was our unanimous verdict as we left the ferry. Lavish villa after villa bordered the lake -- obviously the rich have long lodged in fantasy houses around here. From Italian aristocrats and scheming cardinals of the past, to modern day Virgin tycoon Richard Branson, the Guinness dynasty and the area's new resident mascot George Clooney. Indeed, the villas seemed made of dreams floating above water.

I was famished by lunchtime, so we headed to Café Maya where -- to the surprise of my colleagues -- I ordered both pasta and pizza, both of which I could not finish, of course. We then went on a long walk on the cobbled streets up and down the mountains as penance.

The sunset at Como is spectacular. We wished we had more time to spend so we could visit the mysterious wooded Island on Lake Como , Locanda dell'Isola Comacina, reachable only by boat from Sala Comacina. According to legend, as retold by Abdel-Ghani, a restaurant there serves the same set menu since 1947. Apparently, at the end of every meal, the proprietor performs an exorcism to rid the island of a curse believed to date back to the 12th century.

ARRIVEDERCI: Alas, it was time to leave the Principe Di Savoia, even though I didn't take a plunge in its heated pool or try its famous Asian masseuse. While I'll surely miss Milan and come back for more scenery, harassment-free walks, shops, food and handsome, courteous men, I was already longing for the Cairo bustle and a bite of spicy fuul sandwich from Shabrawi -- the taste of pickled aubergine.

Egyptian travel companies taking part in the Bit

-Travel Ways Egypt

-Seti First Atom Travel

-Diplomatic Travel Services

-Venizia Travel

-Planet Tours and Travel

-ETTA Luxor

-ETTA Alexandria

-Cali International Travel

-Crocodile Egypt Travel

-Travco Travel Company of Egypt

-Cataract Travel

Egyptian hotels taking part in the Bit

-Sunrise Resort and Nile Cruises

-Resta Hotels and Resorts

-Fairmont Hotels

-Concord El-Salam Hotels

-Maritime Jolie Ville Resorts Egypt

-Savoy Sharm El-Sheikh

-Golden 5 City Hotels and Beach Resort

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