A Nile cruise is high on many people’s lists of must-do holidays, and with good reason - it's the kind of trip you'll never forget
I’ve done river cruises before. The Rhine, Mosel, Danube, even a trip along some beautiful Russian rivers from St Petersburg. But somehow I knew, even before I’d arrived, that the Nile would be special. Just how special remained to be seen, but with 6,000 years of history to cram into just eight days, I wasn’t going to be bored.
I was taking a trip from Luxor, via Dendera, to Aswan. The ship was about 20 years old, but has recently undergone a complete renovation, and I certainly couldn’t fault the quality of the accommodation. The main restaurant was spacious and well-decorated, and the food here and on the barbecue was more than acceptable. I was also pleasantly surprised by the size of the outdoor pool, which I later found to be an excellent place for relaxing, and watching the amazing scenery drift past.
After settling into the cabin, and enjoying a light lunch on board, we set sail northwards for the short trip to Qena. My first experience of sailing on such a legendary river was amazing. As we sailed serenely downstream, the Valley of the Kings was hidden over to the left, and Karnak’s Temples on the right were breathtaking. The banks of the Nile are far busier than I had imagined, with people swimming, fishing, or just relaxing around the waterside. Sometimes it's fairly flat land, with a fair amount of greenery, but sandy cliffs and higher ground appear regularly, often with some centuries-old monuments gracing the summit. The river itself is also busy, with a mixture of modern river cruisers and wooden sailing boats gracefully interweaving like a giant ballet.
Qena itself had little that I’d shout about, but the next morning we embarked on our first excursion. The ancient town of Dendera sits proudly on the opposite bank, and had been tempting us since we moored here the previous afternoon. Dendera’s principal attraction is the monumental Temple of Hathor, the goddess of love and joy. The main gatehouse is both huge and impressive, with its substantial columns giving a hint as to its period of construction. It dates back to the first century AD, when the Romans were making serious inroads into this part of Egypt. The temple, I was told, rose on the site of a much earlier Egyptian religious building, but I also noticed that many of the later additions were Roman.
Unless you’ve studied a fair bit of Egyptian history – and I haven’t – a trip like this can easily fill your head with all manner of confusing names and dates. Different royal families, different dynasties in different areas, all go to confuse the casual tourist. I made a conscious decision after the first day to take the many remarkable monuments at face value, and not worry too much if I didn’t fully understand the relationship between King X buried here, and Pharaoh Y who built the temple over there.
After a morning exploring the temple and its surroundings, we returned to the ship for the afternoon cruise back to Luxor. Here, the imposing ruins of Luxor’s temple, which formed part of our excursion the following day, dominate the riverbank. Luxor stands in part of what used to be the ancient Egyptian capital of Thebes, which also takes in the majestic temples of Karnak, a few miles to the north. The sights we had seen so far were unquestionably impressive, but Karnak took my breath away. The towering columns in the Temple of Anum, and the exquisite detail of the Great Hippostyle Hall, are astounding. I wandered around the Sacred Lake, in truth because I saw a good photo opportunity. But I found myself standing, gazing into the mirror-flat waters, and contemplating the centuries of activity that this monumental site had witnessed.
One drawback of being tied to a cruise was now becoming apparent. Although this was one of the more relaxed itineraries, half a day to see such a significant region was simply too rushed. The same could be said the next day, when we headed off to probably the most famous of all the Egyptian relics, the Valley of the Kings. Sitting in the searing heat of the Al-Qurn ravine, it’s the final resting place of the pharaohs. Despite the crowds, I was able to see a surprising amount in the relatively short time here. The inside of Ramses IX tomb had some incredible wall paintings, which left me wondering how they’ve lasted for so long. Others, such as Sethos I, had also maintained their colours superbly. The whole necropolis cannot fail to impress, but it didn’t quite live up to my expectations, perhaps because I already knew it so well through film and television.
Indeed, the smaller sights, such as the Temple of Horus at Edfu, and the Temple of Sobek and Haroeris in Kom Ombo, I found far more intriguing. I needed to explore these, as I knew little about them, and had never seen them before. They were both excellent stops on the cruise, and Horus in particular was one of the highlights of my trip.
All too soon, it seemed, we were sailing into Aswan, and the cruise had reached its conclusion. But a day in this southernmost point of the Egyptian Nile was not without its rewards. The trip to the High Dam was a welcome relief from the historic sights, and every bit as impressive in its own way. And a relaxing sail around Kitcheners Island in a beautiful white-sailed felucca was the perfect way to complete my week on the Nile. The schedule had been fairly relentless, but there is such a vast amount to see, this is the only way to even scratch the surface in such a short time. And even though many of the names and dates of Egypt’s past were just a blur in my mind, it was a week that will live with me forever.