Well, my sunshine break in Egypt has been and gone and not without a few trials and tribulations. The start was hardly auspicious. I decided to take Victor’s advice and although my flight out of Toulouse was not until 1310 on 29 January, I thought it would be nice to take a nice easy drive down the day before and overnight in the Hotel F1 in Blagnac just outside the airport perimeter.
I’d run around the day before doing a few final tasks and so it was on Tuesday morning that I went out to clean the C-Max’s glass, plug in my phone etc and load my things into the boot. And what did I find? A flat left-hand front tyre, that’s what. Now France is not like the UK, especially rural France. You can’t just get your car down to the nearest Kwikfit where they will fit exactly the tyres that you want within an hour or so’s notice, do an oil change for you if you’re so minded and have you back on the road and away within a couple of hours.
Oh nooooo, in France it has to me muuuuuuch more complicated and difficult. Usually you have to find your tyres on the internet, then find someone who will fit them for you at a competitive price and either have them delivered to them or to your house. Either way, it’s a process that usually takes two or three days at least, not very helpful if you have a hotel booking at the other end of the country in a few hours and a plane to catch the next day.
Victor and I tried phoning around without much luck except for Promo Pneus in Montignac who said that they’d be able to help. Until I got there, that is, then they did the usual hand-wringing bit and said that if I’d leave the car with them they’d have the job sorted by the next day. Er, yeah…
Luckily the road to Sarlat from Montignac is south, so I decided that if I couldn’t get the job done there, I’d damn-well drive the whole way to Toulouse on my lightweight emergency wheel. But luckily I didn’t have to. At Norauto the desk agent took a look at my car, got confused when I told him that I needed two rear tyres (doh) and then said they’d be able to fit two new Michelins by 1700 that day.
I had to go for it, of course, because even so, I’d still have plenty of time to get to the Hotel F1. The price that they quoted made me whince, but the one thing the French are very good at is knowing when they’ve got you dangling on a hook with no choice. In fact, to their credit, they had the job done by 1500 and I had a nice easy drive to Toulouse in daylight the whole way. Sadly the tyres they fitted were not low-profile like the ones they removed, which means the rear ones will have to be the same when I have to fit them, but whatever. That’s hardly life-changing, is it?
The Hotel F1 belongs to a Spanish chain and is just about the cheapest of the cheap. After my Première Classe experience in Orléans, I thought that I owed it to myself to trawl the depths of the hotel market and reserved what F1 call a Tandem room with a double bed (yeah, I wondered too… they call a room with two singles a Side Car, so go figure, as they say). Neither of those rooms come with either a bathroom or even a toilet – you use shared facilities just along the corridor (take your own towel).
And know what? For the money I was very impressed. The room was cell-like and came with just a corner wash basin, a small side table and a couple of chairs. But it was warm, with a wall heater above the door and another under the window both of which could have been made to blow cold (Première Classe please note), clean and quiet and the bed was comfortable. What more do you need for a quick one-night stop-over?
The only thing I did wonder about was where do the guys who wake up in the middle of the night needing to pee relieve themselves? Do they go out to the toilet in the corridor or do they… oh no… I’ll leave that thought with you 😉
And so onwards the next day to Eco Parking P6 at Toulouse airport. I love Toulouse airport. It’s clean, well organised and a model of efficiency from the passenger’s point of view. The ‘navette’ runs every 10 minutes or so to whisk you from the parking to the main terminal and I really can’t see why anyone would choose more expensive parking, unless someone else is paying, of course.
The atmosphere is warm and welcoming and the seating is soft. It makes London Stansted look third-world in comparison and will continue to do so even when the latter’s ‘refurbishment’ has been completed. London Stansted lacks what Toulouse has in spades – it’s what’s called style.
And talking about style, or lack of it, let’s move on to Charleroi airport. My advice to anyone is, if at all possible, avoid it like the plague. It is disgusting, uncomfortable, lacking in facilities (unless all you want to eat during a long layover are over-priced sandwiches from Starbucks, hot dogs or waffles) dimly lit in shades of grey from gloomy to gloomier and cold as soon as they cut the heating, which they do despite the hundreds of people trying to sleep on hard metal seats, the floor and in fact anything they can lay their hands on, including packing cases, as there are only enough seats for less than a third of those who need them.
This airport should come with a health warning but I had no choice and was unfortunate enough to be subject to a 15 (yes fifteen!!!) hour layover after arriving from wonderfully civilised Toulouse before my Tui Fly flight the next day to Hurghada. Here are some shots that I took as people were preparing themselves to sleep on the floor. I couldn’t take more for fear of being intrusive.
Now you’d think that things couldn’t get much worse, right? Wrong. The young guy next to me seemed to be having no problem sleeping sprawled in his hard metal seat, but I wasn’t so lucky. Because seat space was at a premium, you just had to perch where you could and I was unfortunate enough to end up with someone one seat down from me but on the same bank who just wanted to constantly play with his cellphone and keep wriggling the whole time.
So just as you hoped to be dropping off, he’d do one of his wriggles which would wake you up again, but that wasn’t all. He also kept loudly coughing and clearing his throat, which was the last straw as far as I was concerned. So I moved one seat left, closer to the young guy who was peacefully sleeping and turned myself away in an attempt to avoid the germs that Mr Wriggle-Arse was projecting everywhere.
But then checkmate. That left two seats between me and him and before I could say ‘Flu Bug’ some weasel sat in the seat next to me that I’d just vacated, turned in my direction and sneezed all over me. I couldn’t believe it, but what could I do? And so it was, therefore with predictable inevitability that I found that shortly after arriving in Hurghada, I went down with the most vile streaming head cold that I can ever remember having in the whole of my life.
But all things must end, including the torture of the magnitude inflicted on passengers at Charleroi airport and so it was that eventually the lights began to come back on again and we were allowed to stumble bleary-eyed out of the transfer ‘lounge’ (I use that word in the loosest possible sense) into the less coercive atmosphere of the departure gates. And what did we find? Snow. The apron and aircraft were plastered with the stuff.
But nobody seemed to be too energised about getting rid of it, which you have to if you want to get arliners into the air. Now I’m no expert when it comes to de-icing aircraft, but I’d have thought that if you want to keep the airport moving and get flights away on time, you need to start de-icing ummmm… let’s just say, a bit before hand. But it appeared that nobody had thought of that (probably something to do with EU work time restrictions, this being Brussels).
So it was after a delay, during which the same couple of stupid passengers kept walking near the automatic doors subjecting all the rest of us to icy blasts from the wind outside on the apron, that we eventually boarded our aircraft and still no attempt had been made to start de-icing procedures. The captain came onto the intercom to say that we might be subject to a further delay of up to two hours and you could hear the mutiny in the passengers’ voices in response.
Either he decided not to risk it or he managed to bring our aircraft forward in the de-icing queue, but in any case, shortly afterwards they began spraying the wings, empannage and fuselage with the goop they use to remove the snow and not long after we were taxying for take off in a fairly heavy snowfall.
To the airline’s credit, the Tui Fly flight to Hurghada was as enjoyable as could be expected, but in common with all of the low-cost airlines, you had to buy your own refreshments. However, a chicken sandwich (Belgian style) and a beer went down well enough. This was an odd flight because Tui take in both Charm el-Cheikh (to use the French spelling) and Hurghada at the same time. The total time is shown as 6 hours 40, but that includes a landing at Charm el-Cheikh.
Charm el-Cheikh has been particularly badly hit by the terrorist events that have occurred in Egypt in recent years. Hurghada is on the west bank of the Red Sea but Charm el-Cheikh is on the Sinai peninsula on the east bank. One wonders if perhaps this makes it more accessible for terrorists from Palestine who can get in and back out into the rugged Sinai terrain. Escaping from Hurghada would be much more difficult as the only way out would be either north or south in Egypt itself where there would be little or no cover in which to hide.
It was already approaching dusk when we began our approach into Charm el-Cheikh, which should have been some three hours earlier. The approach and subsequent short hop to the other side of the Red Sea must be pure fun for the Tui pilots who do it all manually. After landing at Charm el-Cheikh, dropping off a contingent of passengers, taking on others for their return flight to Charleroi, and a quick refuel with the fire truck standing beside us the whole while with all of its emergency lights flashing, we were off.
You could almost sense the smile on the 737’s captain’s face. We never made it up to normal cruise speed because the distance wasn’t great enough and as I was in a right-hand window seat, I was treated to a superb view of the surroundings as we approached to join right base to land at Hurghada.
Then he added more flaps, dipped the nose down and pulled a hard bank to the right to line up with Hurghada’s runway. We had landed on a southerly heading at Charm el-Cheikh but by now the evening wind had moderated to more or less nothing and we landed on a northerly heading at Hurghada. It was a perfect short-field landing with a full Boeing 737 and the pilot should have been well satisfied as he plonked the main gear down onto the runway, dropped the nose and threw in reverse thrust. The experience was worth the whole flight to have participated in.
OK, so what about the hotel itself? Had there been any changes in the past 12 months? Yes, there had been, some good and some not so. The first things that I noticed were the impressive new vertical water features outside the main entrance, but I’ll start with my room itself. It was a couple of floors below the one I had last year and on the same side but was ‘the other way round’. The bathroom and bed were on the opposite side to last time but essentially little else was different.
The shower still leaked over the floor just like last time so if you sat on the loo after having taken a shower, your left foot was in a pool of water. The plumbing joints all looked as though they should leak but, miraculously, didn’t and it seems that Egyptian plumbers have a lot in common with Egyptian builders in that they don’t like to be held up too long by having to finish jobs off. I’ll come back to that later.
If anything the room decorations were more tatty than last time but so needn’t have been if someone had only taken the trouble. The basic idea was good. The sliding doors had a triple curtain arrangement – a blackout, a mesh and curtains that pulled across from side to side. The only trouble was that someone in the past had pulled the end of the mesh down and instead of replacing it properly, the hotel staff (I assume) had hung it onto anything that was available and just left it.
The result was a sad apology for window decor. Not only did it look awful but it also made it impossible to pull the curtains back leaving the mesh in place. As the doors this time opened onto a public area rather than a private balcony, this was OK for exhibitionists who want to walk around their room naked in public view, but not so good for others of a more, let’s say, modest disposition.
Before the end of my break the problem was solved when the end of the mesh fell down again completely and someone arranged for it to be replaced in a slightly more effective way – still not right and not pretty, but at least I could walk around my room after a shower without there being shrieks of dismay from the other side of the glass from any passing ladies.
My room seemed clean enough, but I did notice one thing. If I walked around on the all-tiled floor for very long with bare feet, after a shower say, the soles of my feet were quite dirty when I checked them afterwards. You could only come to one conclusion and although I didn’t give a toss about getting into bed with dirty feet, I did always make sure that I put on my socks and shoes as soon as I could after showering before my feet had a chance to pick up too much grime.
What else to say about my room? Just one thing. This time it came with a locked connecting door into the next room and it’s amazing how much noise can penetrate even a heavy wooden door compared to a solid wall. One of the things that I’ve particularly noticed over the past couple of visits is that small Arab boys spend a lot of their time crying, usually it appears, as a result of someone in their family circle having used the word, ‘No!’ (or its Arabic equivalent). Small Arab girls are completely different but I’ll come back to that later.
Now it just so happened that for the first few days of my break I happened to have one such small boy on the other side of that connecting door and it’s amazing just how long and hard he could howl for. It just so happened that by then I wasn’t feeling so well because of my ex-Belgian head cold but mercifully just before I was about to request a change of room, the family left. What blessed relief, if not from my cold!
What about small Arab girls, you ask? Ah, in comparison they are a delight. Just like little girls everywhere, they hop, skip and dance through their lives, occasionally dashing off to their parents to show or tell them something or ask them a question. Then off they twirl again back into that special little world that exists in their heads, talking to themselves, pirouetting and dancing their way through their lives fuelled just by their imaginations.
I’ll not quickly forget one tiny little charmer this time around. She was only five years old at most and she had followed her dad over to my table who had asked to take one of my spare chairs. He only needed the one but she then asked if she could take my other one. I smiled and said ,’Of course’, and as she pushed it away she looked at me demurely with her little brown eyes twinkling like lanterns and said, ‘Thank you’. Imagine a child from our country of that age who had never lived in an Arab country being able to say ‘Thank you’, in Arabic. Absolutely charming.
But it’s only later that things change for the girls and begin to go ‘wrong’, as far as we see them from our cultural standpoint. However, I’ll come back onto that a bit later and first a bit more about the hotel and its facilities. Last year after my chemo, all that I wanted to do was lie in the sun and get my strength back. I wanted to do the same again this year, but this time I had my eyes open a bit wider and was more aware of things going on around me.
The Riviera is, like most of the hotels along this part of the Red Sea coast, an aqua park resort. As such it’s self-contained and offers all sorts of activities and attractions, both internal and external. Pools, cascades, water slides, a spa, adventure excursions and more, in fact everything to amuse an average family for a couple of weeks.
Singletons like me are only allowed during the winter low season to fill otherwise vacant rooms and I don’t think that I’d get a look-in if I tried to book a room just for myself in high season. One thing that I noticed immediately is that there were more signs of ‘management’ – youngish blokes (exclusively, except for the ladies in guest relations, who were foreign) with shiny shoes dashing hither and thither, getting staff to pick things up and clear things away even before the guests had had a chance to put them down. And I soon found out why – outside in the ‘back’ it was clear that quite a significant investment had been made since last year.
The main swimming pools closest to the hotel were, unsurprisingly, still there, the difference being this time around that they were packed with Arab clients. Initially I thought that this was just something to with the Egyptian school holidays, and perhaps it was, but then I noticed something else. Last year there were a few ‘garden bungalows’ along the edge of the excellent and well-maintained gardens but this year their number had at least doubled and more were under construction almost as far down as the water’s edge.
I also made my way directly to the beach on my first morning and immediately found that this was where there had been major changes. Half of the old beach area with its sunbeds, parasols and screening had been dug up and replaced by a large new swimming pool complete with pool-side bar. I wasn’t complaining – far from it, it was a pleasure to be sunning oneself by the pool knocking back the odd all-inclusive Coke, beer or something a bit harder for many of the guests. And one thing struck me that made sense of something else I’d noticed a bit earlier.
Signs around the new pool said ‘Bikinis Only’ and it was obvious that they were effective, because whereas the pools closer to the hotel were teeming with Arab clientele (they were mayhem actually) with ladies in head scarves, pyjama suits, burkhinis and even full burkhas, here there were none of such garments to be seen. Instead there were exclusively European clients (mainly, like last year, Eastern European) lying around with suntanned bodies and brief swimsuits.
And how did this make sense of what I’d noticed earlier? Last year there was just the one main or general restaurant and as it was just one floor below my room, it was the one I first went too. To be honest, it was not an enjoyable experience at all. The guests were almost exclusively Arab and the noise was near deafening. It was also almost impossible to walk to or from your table without bumping into anyone, a problem made worse by the number of children running around, playing, shouting and fighting.
I did it for the evening meal on my first day and breakfast the following morning and did not want to repeat the experience. One of the reasons was the following. Without being disrespectful to the Arab community, it is well know that Type 2 Diabetes is spreading through their countries like an epidemic and it’s not difficult to see why. It was common to see people heading back to their tables with plates piled high – and I do mean high – with almost every food available on the buffet.
How many dishes does one person need, how many bread rolls, how many sweet and soggy pastries covered in sugar coating to finish off with? The answer is not as many as most people were taking. OK, we know that it was ‘all inclusive’ but surely that is not supposed to include an obesity induced heart attack, because that was the direction in which most of the patrons were heading?
And the results of this over-indulgence were plain to see. The young fathers seem to start off by trying to keep their ‘youthful’ shape even after their wives have lost theirs, possibly long ago, but certainly after a couple of kids. Huge bellies are to be seen hanging over the jeans and tracksuit tops and some, a few years later, are so huge that they can hardly even get up out of a chair, let alone walk.
And as for the sweet young girls with their twinkly brown eyes, they are first made to wear head scarves as they approach puberty and are then made to cover up completely. And once they attain it, they are ‘fed up’ until they begin to acquire often gargantuan shoulders, hips and thighs, so gargantuan in fact, that by the time they acquire their first child, and certainly by soon afterwards, they can be seen waddling along flat-footed with a ponderous, heavy gait.
What is the purpose of this, we ask? To protect their modesty, is the reply. What arrant nonsense. There are very few foreign sexual predators in their homelands and if they need any kind of ‘protection’ it can only be from their own menfolk. Surely this is the problem that needs to be addressed rather than wrapping the girls up in shapeless, ugly robes and in so doing trying to hide or disguise their femininity. I find such hypocrisy monstrous and I think most Westerners do too.
And it seems that the hotel management had recognised this, as for whatever reason they have now decided to segregate their markets. Last year there was just the one restaurant that I’ve referred to above, but that wasn’t the case this time around. This year there was a ‘Europeans Only’ restaurant at ground level called the ‘Bonappetit’.
The menu was more ‘European’ orientated than that of the main restaurant and the atmosphere was far calmer and less stressful. And the interesting thing was that whereas Europeans were entirely at liberty to continue using the main restaurant if they so desired (few did), Arab clientele were totally barred from entering the ‘Bonappetit’ – and a courteous hotel security guard on the door made sure that it stayed that way.
Let’s talk about the fabric of the hotel itself. Readers may be amused to hear that on this occasion I got stuck in one of the lifts. I got into the car at level 1 and pressed the button for level 3. The doors closed quite smoothly but on the way up the lift doors kept loudly striking some external obstructions in the lift shaft. This was disconcerting to say the least, the more so when I arrived at level 3 and the doors refused to open. And whatever key I pressed, the lift refused to go either up or down and neither was there any response when I pressed the alarm button.
I couldn’t see myself running out of sustenance or oxygen for a while so didn’t panic and after a while I picked up the emergency phone and waited for a voice to come on. I explained that I was stuck in a lift but from the response I do not think that this was an unusual event. The voice told me that they’d send someone so I hung up and waited.
All of a sudden the lift began to travel back downwards again, thumping the same obstructions as it went, until it reached the level from which I’d started whereupon the doors opened with a flourish. And then I made a fundamental mistake. Instead of cursing the damn thing, brushing myself down and taking to the stairs, I pushed the button for level 3 once again.
That was a foolish move, because it then did exactly the same thing again. This time I didn’t bother lifting the emergency receiver but instead waited until it eventually restarted and returned to level 1. As soon as the doors opened I leapt out blinking like an escaped fugitive into the lights of the foyer and scampered off to the stairs before I allowed myself to be trapped once more.
What about the general external fabric of the hotel itself? Take a look at these, just a few of the (somewhat major) building defects that caught my eye around and about the exterior of my room and make up your own mind.
The last one above is of the balustrade just outside my windows and is illustrative of how it was cracking up in several places. I’m assuming that the picture is of a repair and I dread to think what it must have looked like before the work was done. I also made sure that I didn’t put too much weight on it by leaning on it and peering over as you can’t be too careful and it certainly didn’t look very safe to me.
Can you see my point about the Egyptian artisan not wanting to waste too much time finishing his jobs off? I’m assuming that whoever did the work had access to a trowel but in my mind you’d have thought that even the most brainless idiot could have got a better finish using a garden rake.
The pictures also give a clue, I think as to why Egypt won’t be constructing a space shuttle any time in the foreseeable future.
To finish off, what about the general environs around the hotel itself? I hardly went out of the hotel at all last year and this year, although I had no intention of travelling farther afield, I thought that I’d at least stick my nose outside. I’d got a pretty good impression of what to expect because unlike last year, I’d travelled in the taxi from the airport in daylight and the moonscape-like character of the terrain had been laid bare.
Although everyone drives like maniacs sounding their horns the whole time to indicate when they are about to undertake or overtake the vehicle in front, none of the roads have been completed in the European sense and few are in any kind of condition for vehicles to drive on at the speeds that they do. I was amazed not to come across any breakdowns and you can only assume that drivers know which models to go for that can cope with these kinds of conditions.
It’s difficult to know whether the sides of the roads are used as depositories for old, damaged or unwanted building materials or if that’s just what they’ve become by default over the years, but building waste is everywhere. Then suddenly there’s a spanking modern Mercedes dealership standing by itself in the middle of nowhere with hardly more than a cart track leading up to it.
Every now and again on the route from the airport you come across a building ‘development’ of what looks like groups of unfinished small apartment buildings being constructed in the usual manner in concrete with wood props and shuttering and steel bristling out of the tops of the ceiling supports ready for the next floor to be added who knows when. But with absolutely no sign of any building activity. And often, sitting in the middle of the mayhem, like an oasis, a beautifully painted white domed building with trees all around it. The effect is mystifying.
The taxi driver had told me that the Hawaii Riviera was more or less ‘the end of the road’ on this part of the coast as there was little more beyond it in the northerly direction, and he was right as I’ll show in a moment. But to the south on the road leading into Hurghada there were several other hotels and resorts starting right next door to the Riviera with its sister hotel, Hawaii Le Jardin.
The contrast heading in the other direction could hardly be more striking with a couple of tawdry ‘shopping centres’, unfinished roads, unfinished buildings and yet more ‘hotels’ being thrown up.
The exception to all of this was yet another Hawaii sister hotel located right at the top end before civilisation as we know it ended, in the form of the Hawaii Cesar Palace Resort, a somewhat strange name for an Egyptian hotel, I thought.
Other than that there were just more unfinished roads and car parks the like of which I can never recall having seen in Spain, for example, during the period it was being transformed from being fishing villages to international tourist watering holes. And always yet more rubbish and waste.
To their credit, the owners of the Hawaii hotels had made certain that their facilities are unaffected by any of this as they have taken great care to ensure that everything outside has been painted, cleaned and made as tidy and possible, but as soon as you walk to the left or right beyond the limits of the buildings, the contrast is striking.
Eventually I found myself needing to plan my journey back to the airport and the day before I spoke to a young man sitting in the hotel foyer with a board labelled ‘Taxis’ in front of him. Last year I’d haggled a price of 20€ with a taxi driver in the middle of the night to get from the airport to the hotel and this time I’d ended up paying 25€, so I was quite expecting him to quote me a high price. I was amazed, therefore, when he said 15€.
He really wanted to be paid immediately in advance but I told him that I’d pay him the next day as I had no money on me and he seemed quite happy. In fact the next day I paid him 20€ and got him to look after my case and coat which saved me the bother of having to do so while hanging around waiting for the time to leave, during which Reception were happy for me to have a lunch even though I’d checked out, so I think that we were both happy with the arrangement.
Hurghada airport is strikingly new and modern and bristling with security. Along the way there, there are armed security posts and all vehicles are thoroughly checked before being allowed into the airport itself, including their undersides with mirrors.
The airport security staff seem somewhat intoxicated by the power they see themselves as having and although I didn’t have a problem like last year when I had a standoff with one and refused to throw the tiny nail scissors contained in a manicure set in my case into the bin, to his shock, I did have to shout at one who started grabbing at my belongings as in his opinion I wasn’t placing them quickly enough in the plastic trays provided for scanning.
While I was wandering around taking the above photographs in the terminal, a burly security guard ambled over and asked me what I was doing. ‘I’m killing time’, I replied. He seemed happy enough with that and ambled off again.
By this time my sunshine break was coming to an end and to be honest, by now I was glad it was. The streaming head cold that I’d had early on had taken a grip on my chest in the latter stages and without going into the somewhat gruesome details, I was constantly coughing and spluttering and couldn’t wait, really, to be home again.
But I still had two more air legs to go – EasyJet from Hurghada to London Stansted and Ryanair from Stansted to Toulouse. My booking agent fouled up on me and despite my having called them at great expense fron Hurghada, had failed to send me my Ryanair boarding pass. That meant that I had to pay the latter’s extortionate £20 charge for printing it off at the airport which further dampened my mood.
I’ve been back home now for a week and a half and have still not fully shaken off the bug that took a hold of me right at the beginning despite taking pills etc prescribed by my local doctor in here France. In that time we’ve enjoyed a week of the best winter flying weather, windless with blue skies, that I recall since being in France but once again I’ve been indoors peeping out at it through my windows.
So was my trip worth it? Despite all of the trials and tribulations, on balance I have to say ‘Yes’. With or without my cold, the blast of sunshine in early February was very welcome. Will I be going back again next year? The answer has to be ‘No’. I think I’ve seen enough of Hurghada to last me for a while, although the idea of a sunshine break in the early weeks of the year still remains very appealing. I think that next year, though, I’ll be looking for a new destination – just somewhere that doesn’t involve me passing through the ghastly airport of Charleroi.