Saturday, December 15, 2012

The Virginian in Cairo

From the title of this post, you may be thinking that I am referring to myself. Oh, how wrong you would be. This past week a small band of friends piled into a few cars and wound our way up and out of Maadi to the Moquattam hills in search of the fabled Virginian Pub and Cafe.

Fred & Meg at the Virginian

We departed immediately after school in order to beat the sunset. Rumor had it that The Virginian is one of Cairo's best kept secrets. Tucked up into the hillside, over looking the City of the Dead, Islamic Cairo and downtown, the patio of The Virginian offers one of the best views of the city.


Entering the Virginian brings to mind an old hotel whose doors were locked in 1967, the key to which was recently discovered again. A layer of dust covers nearly every piece of furniture in the place. Leather chairs are cracked and worn. Mylar "Happy New Year!" signs still hang from the wall, vestiges of celebrations long past. A dilapidated stage stands unobtrusively in the background of the crown jewel: the patio.

Everyday is New Years Day at the Virginian
Every day is New Year's Day at the Virginian

It felt as though the white sheets had been removed seconds before we arrived.

The bar at the Virginian
The bar looked like something preserved from an old shipwreck

Understated elegance

The stage at the Virginian
The stage

Adding to the time warp sensation was the musical selection. The Carpenters, the Bee Gees, and Tom Jones competed with the call to prayer emanating from the mosques below. This was truly surreal. With all of its quirks, the Virginian's claim to fame does not disappoint. The view of the city was well worth the trek.

The City of the Dead

Giza pyramids in the distance
Yes, this was a "clear" day in Cairo. The Giza pyramids are visible in the background.

City lights of Cairo
The city lights of Cairo


Food and drink are limited at the Virginian. The only beer available is the local Stella, and tirmis (salted beans in olive oil), pita bread, tahina and french fries rounded out the food portion of the menu. You are allowed, however, to bring your own picnic and beverages.

Sunset and Stella

Aside from our small party, I only spotted two other tables of guests. Both appeared to be young, unmarried Egyptian couples seated in discreet locations far apart from one another. My friend Moh, an Egyptian who had organized this outing, said that this was a place where young couples came to be together away from the disapproving eye of Egyptian society. What happens at the Virginian, stays at the Virginian.

Good folks

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Day 3: Hiking the Amalfi Coast, Italy

We woke up to overcast skies, the sound of waves crashing to the shore, and Day Light Savings Time. Miles and I headed down to the sea before breakfast to take some photos and watch the stormy waters.


Captain Miles

After breakfast we piled into the 9 passenger van that Jeff & Holly had rented, and drove in to Pompeii to go to church. Due to the heavy rains in the area, we encountered some spectacular flooding. This was my first time attending a Mormon service. Jeff & Holly explained their practices to me, but the entire service was in Italian, so even they had a difficult time following along. A young missionary translated most of the talks into English. The branch, as it is known, was quite small, approximately 50 people. We were one of three North American families visiting the branch that Sunday. Another was also vacationing in Italy during the Eid holiday from Saudi Arabia. The third was on a cruise and were coming from Vancouver, BC. The Italian children were quite distracting and noisy during the service. Chairs scraping on the tile floor, talking, arguing with one another and fussing throughout the service. I was surprised at how busy and distracting they were considering what a small space we were all in.


Quick shot taken out the car window

When the service concluded, we changed from our church clothes into our walking wear and got back in the car to head for the ruins of Pompeii. We had a difficult time finding it, and ended up parking at the Pompei train station and walking from there. The walk took us through a fairly run down part of the city. At one point, as we walked along looking for a sign to direct us toward the ruins, Holly noticed a long brick wall set back among the trees on the right hand side. It was an impressive structure and we wondered "what that building used to be" as we kept looking for our sign. Guess what it "used to be"?

Mmmmm...donuts for lunch on the walk to Pompei 

The walk from the train station to the ruins

Pompeii was impressive, stunning really, to imagine that all of it was buried beneath 30m of volcanic ash. I can only imagine what it must have been like to be a part of the team that unearthed its remains. I was surprised to see the vibrant colors that remained painted on the walls of some of the homes and rooms. Several of the orchards and vineyards had been replanted and were growing well amidst the ruins. The streets in the city were paved with large, smooth, flat stones with one stone raised up higher than the rest periodically down the center of the street. Ancient speed bump ?


I climbed up on the top of a wall to try to get an "aerial" view

Look at the colors still vibrant since 79AD

Look down the road and you will see the "speed bump" stones.

I was expecting to see rooms with the well known Pompei mummies curled in the positions in which they died lying on the ground, but this was not the case. There were a few of the mummies on display, 2 in cases in the bath house, a few in the granary, but otherwise out of sight.

IMG_3708 IMG_3716 

Why do people throw pennies at the mummies' feet?

For me, the most striking image was turning the corner at one intersection to find myself looking up at Mt. Vesuvious. To see this notorious volcano with the ruins of Pompei in the foreground inspired pause. I cannot imagine what it must have been like to be standing on that corner looking up at a towering cloud of ash and knowing that there was no where to go.

The ruins of Pompei with Mt. Vesuvius in the background 


As the sun set, we headed back to the car and began the drive to Maiori. Holly and I set out in search of a bus ticket for me the following morning and something to bring back for dinner. Three pizzas did the trick. We hit the sack for our early morning wake ups and the beginning of a long day of travel back to Cairo.

I will leave you with a few more photos from Pompeii.

Mosaic tile counter top, Pompei
Tile counter top

Old ruins, new life. Stunning images.
Amphitheater, Pompei

Amphitheater, Pompei
Amphitheater interior

Steps of the Amphitheater, Pompei
Steps in the amphitheater


Monday, November 5, 2012

Day 2: Hiking the Amalfi Coast, Italy

The threat of rain was heavy in the air all day today. We all went down to the shops to select the fruit and pastries for breakfast. Afterward we set out for the bus to Amalfi, where we intended to spend the day exploring the small alley ways and staircases that connect the city.

Vegetable market outside our apartment Maiori, Italy

Vegetable market outside our apartment Maiori, Italy 

Before we could get to Amalfi, we had to catch a bus. Easier said than done here. The next bus was scheduled for 1 hour from the time we arrived at the stop, so we walked on around Maiori. A one point we poked our head into a Catholic church and walked around. I noticed the holy water basin on the wall inside the front door and went over to dip my fingers in, but noticed that it was dry. All along the bottom of the basin was a build up of crystals. I dragged my fingers along them and touched them to my tongue: salt. these basins are filled with sea water from the Mediterranean Sea, which is then blessed as holy water. Wen the water evaporates, the sea salt is left behind.
Sea salt crystalized in the Holy water vessel inside a Catholic church. Maiori, Italy Maiori Coast Maiori Coast

The rain held off for quite awhile, and we enjoyed cool temperatures and dark gray skies as we climbed the staircases that form a labyrinth within this city. Mason, Greyden and Reece were our scouts, and they set out ahead to find the best route. Nearly every turn revealed a picturesque view of the sea, colorful tile work, or lush potted succulents in pots.

IMG_3613 The cross of Amalfi. This flag was hung throughout the city. Amalfi, Italy 

In Amalfi our first stop was the steps of the Amalfi cathedral. Shortly after we headed to a gelato shop for our mid-morning ice cream break. We continued our hike throughout the city alleyways and came out, eventually, in the next town of Anarato. Here we walked over to the seaside where the boys skipped rocks and tip toed up to the edge of the waves turning to run back at the last second. I collected broken pieces of Italian tile that had been washed ashore.

The Amalfi Cathedral 

The Amalfi Cathedral

Gelatto for lunch

Skipping stones on the Med

We worked our way back toward Amalfi as the sky grew darker. Across the seas we could identify the distinct line of rain advancing on the city. Nearly back to the Amalfi cathedral the sky opened up and the rain poured down, followed shortly by hail the size of peas. All 7 of us ducked back into a covered alley for safety, but a city made of tile and stone does not absorb rain well and our alley was quickly turned into a gutter of rushing water with 7 bodies pressed against on the wall on the only strip of ground not swallowed up by the rain.

Here comes the storm, Amalfi, Italy RAIN! 

I found Casanova's House 
I found him. Casanova lives at #4 Amalfi, Italy.




By 4 pm we were back on the bus headed for home. Holly and I made a quick trip in a second down pour to the grocery store to grab a few items for dinner and breakfast tomorrow, while Jeff took the boys back to the apartment for baths. The three adults made dinner and had great conversation in the tiny kitchen until Mason came in tears to report that Reece had broken part of his tooth off. The boys had been playing, Reece got mad and Mason's face met a marble floor. Dinner was put on pause while mom and dad dealt with those two. Meanwhile, Miles and Greyden and I dashed for the back bedroom to entertain them with my iPad.

Awhile later we enjoyed dinner together as a family. Even with the rain, hail and broken tooth, still a fantastic day in Italy.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Day 1: Hiking the Amalfi Coast, Italy

Over the recent Eid el Ahdha holiday in Cairo, I tagged along on a family vacation with my running partner, her husband and their four sons to the Amalfi Coast in Italy. We stayed in a large apartment in Maiori, Italy and got around by bus or on foot for the most part.

On our first morning Miles (4), Reece (6), Greyden (8) and I went down to the street to find breakfast. The boys scared some birds and we bought donuts and croissant, which the boys said were dessert. Then we found a fruit stand, but it wasn't open yet. So, we went to the sea and we saw fishermen and stinky, yucky water. When we turned around we saw "farmer steps" in the hillside (actually terraced gardens). We went back to the fruit stand and bought apples, pears and grapes to go with our dessert for breakfast. We brought the goodies back home and ate together.


We took the bus to Amalfi and switched to another bus to Positano. The views from the bus were remarkable. The bus wove around tight corners hugging the cliff face.  From there we bought bread, cheese, and chocolate cookies for lunch. We began an epic day of hiking by walking up many stairs in alleys between houses until we found our path. Our first destination was Santa Maria de Castello. It was a steep trail of switch backs winding up the cliff face from the coast. The boys moved lickity split to the top, pausing now and then to let the old folks close the gap. We were sweaty and chilled as we hiked up into the clouds to the top of this first leg. We ate our lunch at the church looking down at how far we had come. A little dog found us and was hoping the boys would drop their lunch, but no such luck.

IMG_3548 IMG_3555 Positano, Italy
Santa Maria del Castello. Lunch stop
Santa Maria de Castello Church

We continued on for the second leg of our hike, which turned from the main road and dropped onto a forest path. We continued to climb, but more gradually this time. A forest fire had clearly burned a portion of the woods. We looked back across the gorge to the church where we had just eaten lunch and were surprised to see how high it was above the coast road where we had begun. The boys were amazing hikers. Their energy knew no bounds, and they continued to have to stop periodically to wait for us to catch up.

Hiking through a burned section of the forest
Scrambling along the trail through the forest fire remains

In Nocelle we dropped back down to the main road and caught a town bus to the next town over. On our walk to the bus stop we passed grape vines, a fig tree, a persimmon tree, lettuce patches and gardens growing fennel, carrots, and tomatoes. At the bus stop we noticed 2 squash vines climbing up a stone wall with blossoms and young squash growing. It is quite impressive to see the local's use of this land for agriculture. All around the coast, terraced land can be seen for growing a variety of crops. We spotted lemon trees from the bus, but much to Holly's disappointment, have yet to walk through groves of them.

Gardens everywhere! 

Getting off the bus we continued to feel our way to the start of our next hike: Foot path of the Gods. Jeff's hiking guide book never let us down, although we continued to double check with locals. I love the water fountains strewn about the city. Brass piped protruding from stuccoed walls with a small basin beneath, or small, unobtrusive spigots tucked away at the base of a stairway. While we stopped to refill our water bottles, we heard the clomp, clomp of horse hooves on concrete. Looking over our shoulders a young girl was climbing the stairs between two building on horseback, naturally. A concerned old man stopped and asked us if we were planning to hike the Foot path of the Gods with the boys. He urged us against it, saying that it would be too dangerous for them. Clearly he underestimated these hiking machines.
Italian man who was concerned about the fact that we were bringing 4 children on the Footpath of the Gods hike.
You no take children on Footpath of Gods!

This horse just walked up the stairs in the alley behind
How do the locals manage the endless stairs of Amalfi? On horseback, naturally!
Up we climbed, again. This trail hugged the coast almost exclusively, giving way to stunning views of the Mediteranean Sea and the towns below. W stopped to explore an old ruin along the way, but tried to keep our pace up as we were concerned about beating the sunset. After a small directional hiccup, due in part to a crucifix hidden in a garden behind a mesh fence, we were back on track as the dark clouds settled lower over head. Winding our way between terraced gardens and evergreen forests, we came out at a grotto where a couple of horses were stabled. This took us nearly to the end of our hike, with one short segment to find our way back to a town and the bus that would take us home. All in all, we managed to cover what, according to the guide book, should have been 8 hours of hiking in just under 6 hours, including a lunch break and exploring. And all that with 4 boys under 12!

IMG_3566 View of the sea along the Footpath of the Gods hike Terraced gardens and arches in the cliff face Footpath of the Gods hike

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