Yikes, is it already four days since I got back from my break on the sunny shores of the Egyptian Red Sea? Yes, I’m afraid it is – time marches relentlessly on. But boy, was that break worth it, even with the tortuous travel that was involved in getting there and back. That blast of sunshine on my poor old body was a godsend and came just at the right time for me 🙂
But one step at a time – so how was it getting there? The answer is ‘tedious and tiring’. It didn’t start out too well, really. The usual driving time between my house and Toulouse Blagnac airport is about 2½ hours but being a prudent kind of chap, I always allow a little bit longer in case of unforeseen events as I hate having to get somewhere by a deadline and then having to rush under pressure in the last stages to get there on time.
So I left home at about 9.30am having arranged a check-in time at the airport parking of 2-2.30pm, so plenty of time to stop on the way for refreshment. And lucky I did, because some attention was required to the carriageway of the motorway to the north of Montauban and in the usual French way, they just closed the road and shoved up diversion signs which you then had no choice other than to follow.
And that’s what the stream of traffic did – for kilometre after kilometre back north again but also out towards the east. And it went on and on and on. Sometimes you arrived at junctions and roundabouts and there was no hint of a diversion sign, so you just carried on ahead. That’s if the vehicles behind would allow you to after hesitating for a moment to make your decision without hooting their horns and nearly going up your back.
We continued heading east right out into the Aveyron, a considerable distance let me say. It would have been a pleasant drive under different circumstances, but not one that you really would have chosen to make with a flight deadline to be met at the end of it. However, once we crossed the river Aveyron at a quaint village whose name I have now forgotten in a mountain gorge that was infested with walkers in stout boots, warm jackets and beanie hats, we began heading back in the opposite direction towards Toulouse, still a great distance away.
So then, of course, we got stuck behind a huge truck, which had also been forced to leave the motorway, and had to sit in a massive queue behind it as it trundled along at about 80 kmh (50 mph), there being absolutely no chance of safely overtaking it on those narrow roads running through the rocky, rolling countryside. That’s until after the best part of an hour when we reached the motorway again at the junction after we’d been forced to leave it and the stream of trapped traffic popped out from behind the truck like champagne fizzing out of a newly opened bottle.
I’d been able to remain relatively sanguine about all this though, as I still had plenty of time to make my flight, but I had considerable sympathy for anyone who was already under pressure to make theirs and had been forced to sit in that queue for kilometre after kilometre as the clock ticked down.
Shortly afterwards the turn-off for Blagnac hove into view and not long after that I arrived at the airport, located my off-site long-term parking that I’d pre-booked and was transported to the Departures Hall by the free ‘navette’ or transfer bus for check-in on Turkish Airlines some 2 hours before scheduled take-off time.
Then through into the main departure area where, after an hour or so we were greeted with the news that the flight was subject to a 30 minute delay. Nothing to do therefore, except to just sit there patiently and wait. Blagnac is not the prettiest airport in the world but at least the seats were padded and it was possible to buy a tasty bagel and a drink and listen to a pianist playing on the now almost obligatory piano sited next to the seating area.
But eventually it was time to submit ourselves to the ritual farce of the security check. During the machinations imposed upon the normal families, grand-mas and grand-pas whereby we are all humiliated by having to remove items such as shoes and belts and take ‘suspicious’ items such as tablets and mobile phones from our hand baggage not only was the head cover of my electric razor lost but also a brand new, unopened small bottle of suntan oil that had cost me 18€ and that I’d foolishly declared (next time I’ll keep my mouth shut) was taken off me and tossed in the bin.
Personally I’m still of the opinion that at the end of the day the security staff go through their treasure trove and divide the spoils up between them, at the expense of the long suffering, innocent travelling public that they’ve put through the mill for what is clearly no reason other than a political display.
After the ritual humiliation, we were eventually all allowed to board the Turkish Airlines Boeing 737-800 that would take us to Istanbul on the first leg of our flight and as we taxied out we saw the Airbus factory which had not one but four of the Belugas, which are used to transport in parts like wings from the UK and other parts from elsewhere for final assembly at Toulouse, parked on its apron
Our pilot swung the aircraft very wide onto the runway and as he did so, I was able to capture this ‘captain’s eye view’ of the runway from which we would take off.
Toulouse was cool and cloudy as we climbed away, a far cry from the sultry southern city that it becomes later in the year as the temperature and number of sunshine hours both increase dramatically.
But if Toulouse was cool and cloudy, Istanbul was awash. It was chucking it down and cold with it and as the transfers to and from the terminal were by bus that you had to walk to in the open air, I was already missing my warm coat and cap that I’d left in my car back in Toulouse, thinking that I’d hardly be needing them in the Egyptian desert!
However, it was warm enough in the terminal building compared to outdoors, although you could hardly call the passenger accommodation ‘comfortable’ with its uninviting and uncomfortable metal seats. And it became even less inviting when the information that our flight would be subject to a 55 minute delay came through, meaning that we’d be stuck there for well over three hours.
But eventually it was time to go back out into the rain and make our way to the transfer bus and thence up the open stairs to the aircraft itself, which was another Boeing 737 I think. Both of its entrances were open, front and rear, and I judged that as my previous seat in row 24 was close to the rear, my new seat in row 15 would be better approached from the front.
Unfortunately, such logic wasn’t apparent to some of the other passengers, notably an extended Chinese family who took it upon itself to march the whole length of the aircraft, from the back to the front, against the flow of passenger traffic who just wanted to get on board, stow their cabin baggage in the overhead lockers and get seated.
I was one of the lucky ones. While the Chinese family disrupted everything and everybody by their thoughtless behaviour, I was at least able to stand up-front in the cabin in the dry. I pity all of the others, especially the young mums carrying little babies of which there were one or two, who were forced to stand outside on the boarding stairs in the meantime in the lashing rain.
By the time we had arrived at Hurghada, purchased our $25 entry visas (mine was 21,30€) and cleared Egyptian immigration, it was after 4.00 am local time and although I had a voucher from my tour company for a free transfer to my hotel, I doubted, as I was evidently the only person heading in that direction, that it would happen. And I was not to be disappointed.
I found a Thomas Cook office adjacent to the parking area but they claimed that although I was on a Thomas Cook ‘tour’, it wasn’t their responsibility as my booking (made on the French Thomas Cook web site) was via FTI, an independent French company. I was hardly in a position to argue at that time of the morning and as there were several taxi ‘touts’ operating in the vicinity, I allowed myself to be taken over to a waiting taxi.
The driver grabbed my case and bundled me into the back of his cab, but when I told him that I had a voucher for a free transfer to my hotel, he bundled it and me back out again. I then went vainly in search of the FTI office that somebody claimed to be nearby, but as if it was there it was obviously closed, I made my way back to the taxi rank.
Then the fun really began. Their general idea is to get you on board and rolling, preferably as far as possible, before telling you how much your journey will cost. But I’d have none of that and as the supply of passengers had dried up to a trickle by that time and the parking lot was nearly empty, I had the whip hand 🙂
I told the driver where I wanted to go, the Hawaii Riviera Resort Hotel, and asked him what he’d charge. He squirmed a little bit but when he saw that if he continued he might lose my business completely, he asked if I wanted to pay in Egyptian Pounds or Euros. His eyes lit up when I said Euros, and he told me he’d want 20€ for the trip. So it wasn’t worth arguing and in we jumped and away we went.
My first taste of the external security was as we drove away from the airport, which you couldn’t do without going through a security barrier and identifying yourself. That hurdle overcome, off we went again. I was amazed – the journey was like driving through a bomb site, or a demolition or construction site at least. To one side of the road there was just the desert and to the other sundry buildings in various states of construction (and those being constructed surrounded by wooden scaffolding that seemed just to have been chucked up as building had progressed).
On either side of the road there were just low heaps of what looked like rubble – either from buildings that may have previously stood there or intended for use in the construction of ones yet to be built, it wasn’t obvious. And the road itself was an eye-opener. Its surface near the airport was quite respectable, nicely metalled and with high, bright street lamps. But things changed as you got further away.
The first indication of this was when, while driving along at a breakneck 50 mph or so (with no seat belts and the driver frequently one or no-handed while taking calls on his mobile phone) the driver slammed on the brakes. The reason became obvious when you realised that not only was there no road surface in front of the taxi but what was there was at about a kerb’s depth lower than the road we’d been driving on.
The driver knew all of these obstacles intimately, of course, and after we’d bumped up and down and went over and around all of them, we eventually arrived at my hotel. Ah, then there was a problem. I thought that I still had a 20€ note but I’d forgotten that I’d used it to buy my entry visa at the airport. I had a 50€ note but the driver didn’t have change and I didn’t have anything like sufficient Egyptian Pounds to pay him off, even after I’d scrabbled together all of the odd Euros that I had in my pocket.
I said that I’d try to get some change from the hotel reception (imagine being able to do that at 5.00 am) and he said he’d wait. Sure enough, the reception staff couldn’t help but we found a solution. In the reception area there was a mysterious National Bank of Egypt machine that they knew very little about and which moreover, evidently they regarded with some suspicion.
However, it transpired that it would devour a 50€ note and disgorge a huge wad of Egyptian Pounds in return (I didn’t see any Egyptian coins during the whole of my stay and I don’t think that there are any as the currency is so low in value, there are only paper notes), that I could use to pay off the taxi driver, who by now was waiting somewhat anxiously, I thought, at the hotel’s main door.
So armed with my wedge of cash, I went across to him and asked how much he wanted in Egyptian Pounds. He did a quick calculation and said that he needed 200, which I swiftly handed over. I was well ahead of him. I’d agreed to pay 20€ for the journey. When I swapped my 50€ for Egyptian Pounds, I got just over 1000 of the latter, making 200 worth 10€. I bet he was the only Egyptian taxi driver who got bamboozled by a tourist that day 😉
So at around 5.00 am I was checked into the hotel and taken up to my room. And not before time as far as I was concerned, as that equated to 4.00 am French time and I’d left home at 9.30 am the day before. I placed the ‘Do Not Disturb’ tag on my door and after a quick shower, eased myself into bed and was soon asleep. Funnily enough, although I missed breakfast that morning, which was from 06.30 to 09.30, I was awake and not feeling at all tired after having slept for less than 5 hours and pulled back the curtains to the vision of a glorious hot, sunny day. Bliss!
Here are the initial shots that I took of the hotel and my room both of which I found more than satisfactory. This being an Arab nation, all of the hotel staff were male and I was very impressed by the care taken by the young man who looked after my room and was in attendance from early in the morning till late in the evening, as most of the general staff were.
And so ended the first stage of my Hurghada Red Sea ‘break’. Now it was just for me to put my personal plans into action, namely to eat, drink (a little) lie in the sun, read a bit and sleep. And it was easy for me to do just that as the hotel was ‘all inclusive’ and I didn’t therefore have to worry about a thing.