Al-Ahram Weekly Online   4 - 10 August 2011
Issue No. 1059
Travel
 
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Paradise hidden

In the mood for love? Amira El-Naqeeb wakes up to a shimmering salt lake and spends the night in the city with the brightest stars

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Clockwise from top: one of Adrere's mud-brick palaces standing majestically with the azure sky as its backdrop; seeking warmth from Siwa's cold; Adrere offers a divine eating experience amidst nature's embrace; the façade of Albabinshal Hotel; a contemplative look at the scenic picture perfect of Adrere photos: Osama Danoura

Sixteen kilometres away from the charming town of Siwa, lies Adrère Amellal. An ecolodge overlooking Lake Siwa at the foot of the mystical White Mountain, after which the place is named. We took a mini-van on the 560- kilometre trip taking Cairo-Alexandria Desert Road to Siwa. We took Alamein road passing by Marsa Matrouh and after a hectic 10-hour drive we finally arrived. The silhouette of Adrère looked like remains of a castle; perhaps, the ruins of an ancient city from centuries ago. A place where time has stood still.

For first-timers like ourselves, the place was as enigmatic in location as it is in name -- taken from the Amazigh language of the natives. It took me some time to pronounce the name properly, and I even tried looking it up to make sure I'm pronouncing it correctly, but could not find it. It is a hidden language, and when I reached Adrère I realised that it was also a hidden place. There are purposefully no signs on the road that leads to the lodge in order to maintain its privacy. Luckily, the reservation manager was on the phone leading us through the twists and turns of a mud track that led to the lodge.

We got out of the car as the lodge staff helped us with our bags. The road leading to the lodging buildings was lit with flambeaus and gas lamps, since there is no electricity or telephones at the property. Although it was dark, seeing the silhouette of the mud-brick palace filled me with awe. It was as if I was treading on holy ground that demanded respect. Seeing it the next morning I understood why it is hidden; when you are there, you want it to yourself alone.

My photographer colleague and I were led to our rooms, which felt more like hand-carved caves in the heart of a mountain. The entire building was made of karshif, a traditional building material from mud, sand and sun-dried salt harvested from the oasis's salt lakes. The people of Siwa have been building their homes with this blend for millennia because it maintains a moderate temperature indoors.

The roof is made from palm and tree beams, while the walls of the room were a combination of natural local stone and salt stones, with grooves and ledges to nestle candles. The bed and side tables were made of salt stones, with pure cotton sheets and a handmade wool blanket. Everything in the room spelled intimacy, and you could almost sense a story behind every wax candle, every yarn in the blanket, and every motif on the carved wooden chests.

Getting into bed that night, I felt a hot pack tucked under the bed cover to give me even more warmth. Sometimes, in my mind's eye, I would see smiling faces of men and women making clay candle holders and giving me their blessing to use and enjoy their handmade products. I would smile back and doze off. Every night going to bed felt like entering a chrysalis until the morning.

There are 43 rooms at Adrère, two suites and 10 special desert rooms, and each has its own unique interior. The special desert rooms cost 450 euros for foreigners and half the price for Egyptians while the regular room costs $265 per night for Egyptians, and $550 for foreigners. Adrère also houses a horse stable, a bazaar and a mini spa. The salt bath is another treatment that is one of the main attractions here. People bathe in the salt lake which has a very high salinity level, and is famous for treating numerous skin-related problems. Staying at Adrère is always an all-inclusive package, including different excursions and tours around Siwa.

Our first dinner was in the salt room which is made from salt stone brought from the adjacent Lake Siwa. The entire room was lit by candles in every corner, shedding light on the fine grades and shades of brown and yellow in the natural stone on the walls. "Is this an optical illusion?" my companion wondered about this perfect romantic setting. "This is a room where love can be born, or even better, revived," I replied.

Food at Adrère is like nothing I have tasted before. My palate was re-introduced to the taste of eggplant, zucchini and beetroot anew, and discovered an exquisite olive marmalade. The food is organically grown on a farm located a stone's throw away from the lodge.

At Adrère Amellal you can choose to practise the art of doing nothing or dolce far niente as the Italians call it. Although Adrère offers abundant activities for the willing, I felt compelled to do nothing. Eating lunch by the lodge's lush gardens amidst the palm trees overlooking the swimming pool filled with natural spring water, or taking long walks in the surrounding area would have been enough for me.

Yet, out of curiosity and upon the suggestion of my companion, I went on a safari to the natural protectorate of Shiata west of Siwa behind Gabal Al-Hegara (Rock Mountain). We met our guide and desert guru Abdallah Baghi who took us on a bumpy yet scenic voyage. It took us 30km from the ecolodge to reach Shiata, which is also 15km away from the Libyan border. Baghi, an expert on the area, explained that Shiata is a natural protectorate because of its rare flora, and is the only place in Egypt where you can see the white Gazelle and migratory birds, such as flamingoes, at certain times of the year.

ALBABINSHAL (THE CITY GATE):

NESTLED IN THE PALMS OF HISTORY:

After spending three days in almost total isolation, entering Albabinshal (a boutique hotel in the heart of Siwa) was not a smooth transition. The hotel is owned by Environmental Quality International, the same company which owns the Adrère, and is literary next door to the crumbling ruins of the 13th century Shali Fortress.

The hotel entrance looked more like a family lodge, cosy and warm, and altogether had the same concept and spirit of Adrère Amellal with a few alterations. The sight of a TV set and a receiver at the entrance of the lodge was shocking; the electricity and fan robbed the rooms atop the winding staircase of their innocence. This lodge is a combination of nature and modernity in a more subtle way. It offers 14 rooms, each with its own unique interior design, and caters for travellers who want to sample nature with urban amenities. The single room is for LE285, and the double is for LE375 per night, on bed and breakfast basis.

The same building materials used at Adrère are also used at Albabinshal, and the lodge won the noted Egyptian architect Hassan Fathi's Certificate of Appreciation in the field of architectural heritage preservation for the year 2010.

My room had a view of downtown Siwa, alive with the sounds of bicycle bells, local coffee shops and bazaars. The terrace, which is kind of annexed to the room, overlooked history on one side and urban Siwa on the other. Matchbox apartments in disharmonious buildings of odd colours are being constructed on every corner, and grotesque edifices eclipse a nation of palm trees.

The scene was like a discordant note in a beautiful serenade. But since this nature- sanctuary is adjacent to the historic Fortress of Shali and in one of the most important oracle centres of old times, it still felt like it was touched by magic.

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