THE MAIL ON SUNDAY
11 JANUARY 2011
CAIRO WITH THE KIDS
Magic Kingdom: Discovering The Mummy on a family-friendly trip to Cairo.
Certain things matter to certain people on holiday. To me, it's the quality of the rosé; and the potential for tanning. To my two sons, it's how big the swimming pool and TV are. Call us philistines - their father certainly does - but there you go.
Sightseeing does not figure prominently on our priority list when it comes to going away.
But you can't go through life without sightseeing. And so it is that the three of us find ourselves on our way not to Alton Towers, but the bustling city of Cairo for a half-term break. Egypt.
Yes, the Cradle of Civilisation (Neolithic farming communities were already established in the Nile area in 5000BC), but also where The Mummy was set - one of the most important films ever made, as anyone who has children between the ages of eight and 13 knows.
Cairo has not had a very good reputation on the accommodation front. You hear about the dormitory-style hotels. But ours, the Kempinski Nile, right on the banks of the historic river in Cairo's upmarket Garden City district, is nothing of the kind.
Billing itself as the first boutique hotel in Cairo, it has just under 200 bedrooms and suites - and not a detachable hanger in sight.
To the children's delight - that's Flynn, 13, and Django, eight - we have no less than three huge flatscreen TVs in our ultra-modern pistachio and purple hotel suite designed by Pierre-Yves Rochon. If they get bored of the 130 on-demand films available, there is always the Chocolate Lounge on the ground floor, selling horrifically calorific pastries, sweeties and hot chocolate from 6.30am to 1am.
Despite all these enticements, the boys are, unusually, raring to go exploring when we get up the following morning, and I have to persuade them to wait until after lunch so that their mother can have a quick sunbathe by the small rooftop pool first.
There's a joke among the Cairenes about how they treat their tourists better than they treat their own children. Tourism is the most lucrative industry in this city of 20 million people (one of the most densely populated in the world). if our guide Tariq is anything to go by, they may not be kidding.
What a joy it is to be with someone who is not only super accommodating but fascinating and funny, too.
He suggests as the first port of call, the Egyptian Museum, which houses the world's largest collection of ancient Egyptian artefacts. Apparently if you allowed one minute for each exhibit, you'd be in here for nine months.
We head first for the Children's Museum underneath the museum proper. To the eight-year-old's joy, it is filled with giant Lego models of Osiris, the king of the underworld, the first ever mummy - his evil brother Set - and Osiris's falcon-headed son Horus.
To put it in context, Osiris is Mufasa, Set is Scar and Horus is Simba, as Tariq helpfully explains to the little one. Oh, yes, all life can be seen though the prism of the Lion King.
The biggest attraction in the museum proper, arguably, is Tutankhamun's solid gold death mask and sarcophagus, which Howard Carter famously discovered in 1922.
What will surely stick in our minds more, though, is the Royal Mummy Room, home to 11 disturbingly well-preserved pharaohs. Hardest for us to tear ourselves away from is the body of Ramses II which, despite being more than 3,000 years old, still has his hair (baby-fine and slightly yellow from the mummification process), some of his skin and his teeth. Much scarier, we all agree later, than the Chamber of Horrors at Madame Tussauds.
Next day and they're up and at 'em again in a way they never are at home during the holidays. After a large buffet breakfast, we meet Tariq for our second trip. First stop Saqqara, the ancient necropolis beside Memphis, the world's first imperial city, where the very first pyramid was built; and then to the more famous pyramids (plus the Sphinx) at Giza.
Many people skip Saqqara for Giza, but because it is around 4,700 years old, and because the step pyramid of King Zoser is one of the first stone structures to be built, I feel quite smug that we haven't.
The boys are interested because it was built by Imhotep, a.k.a. the bald-headed baddie in the Mummy. Although, as Tariq points out, in real life he wasn't a baddie at all, but a great architect, a polymath and, according to eminent physician Sir William Osler, the 'father of medicine'.
Onwards then to Giza, which is teeming with coaches and insistent young touts selling camel rides.
But to see the only survivor of the Seven Wonders of the ancient World (as the great pyramids of Kings Khufu, Khafre and Menkaure are) for real, is breathtaking - to think that each block weighed an average of 2.5 tonnes and that for one pyramid there were 2.3 million of them. as my youngest aptly remarks: ' What's the big deal about Stonehenge?'
One big tip: if you are claustrophobic, like me, don't be bullied by your children into going inside the great pyramid of Khufu. There is a terrifyingly steep corridor, with only ropes to hang on to. You must climb this, mostly in crouching position, for what feels like miles before you get to the chamber with the king's empty sarcophagus.
But somewhere in here is said to be a fourth chamber containing the king's treasure, which is yet to be discovered.
On a sunset trip back and forth across the Nile in a little felucca, we fantasise about the idea of coming back to Giza and somehow finding it. I can see the little one's mind working as the call to prayer rings out over the crimson-tinged water. How many Play Station and Wii games would that treasure buy?
On our last day, after visiting the Saladin citadel from which you get magnificent views over the entire city, we head for the famous bazaar quarter, established in 1382.
Reports of dirtiness and aggressive street vendors from friends made me wary. Actually, the city is very clean. Sure there are mounds of rubbish here and there, and the faint whiff of sewer occasionally. But I've seen worse.
And you should see how spotless their new metro system is. The metro is about a million times more preferable to the buses that tend to have neither lights nor windows and career down the corniche like Sandra Bullock in Speed.
The bazaar itself is not nearly as crowded as I'd expected (most of the tourists come in the day, as Tariq explains, leaving the evenings free for locals and clever visitors such as ourselves), and aside from the odd skinny kitten prowling about and rather noisome public loos, it is remarkably well-kempt.
I wish my other half (the cook in the family) were here to witness - alongside-the ceramic scarabs, the gaudy belly-dancer costumes and the Bedouin jewellery - the exotic-smelling tubs of cardamom, turmeric, saffron and carob. And the El-Fishawy, allegedly the oldest cafe in Cairo at which the Nobel Prizewinning author Naguib Mahfouz would drink hot sweet mint tea and write most of his books.
The three of us, not being known for our adventurousness on the food front have, shamefully, eschewed the local cuisine, eating in our hotel's delicious restaurant, Blue, for every meal.
There's always a next time, though. These things have to be done in stages.
And guess what? Neither of them went in the pool once.