Saturday, November 24, 2007

Travel: Downtown Cairo hotels

Al Ahram Weekly (Nagal Nkrumah)

A downtown Cairo hotel might not be the place to put down new roots, but there are notable exceptions. Most of the hotels in this part of Cairo have seen better days and are run-down, dilapidated lodges that house rucksack European and East Asian tourists stopping over in Cairo for a week or so. They hark back to the good old days of Khedive Ismail's belle époque. He tried to construct a "Paris along the Nile" fashioned in the unique style of the Parisian architect Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann, commissioned by Napoleon III to revamp the French capital.

Contemporary Cairo tenaciously holds onto some of the stuccoes, impossibly high ceilings and marble lounges and reception halls of those long bygone days. Like an indefatigable belle who bewitches her beholders -- the rose fades, but its scent lingers on, as an Egyptian saying tells of ageing beauty. After its turn-of- the century heyday, the fortunes of downtown Cairo declined. It was, however, an unhurried fall from grace. Today, the central part of the city is invariably kitsch -- at best, and at certain places alarmingly so. The pensions of downtown Cairo are on the whole miserable, bleak resting places. More suitable, perhaps, for drunkards, who just want to lie down and slumber to ward off the frightful impact of hangovers. But dipsomaniacs toying with the notion of visiting the country ought to be forewarned that downtown Cairo is fast becoming short of watering holes.

Worn and threadbare sheets and old, uncomfortable mattresses in dingy hotels should come as no surprise, so do inspect the bedrooms before you check in. Do not be fooled by the marble and mahogany bourdoir sumptuousness of some establishments. Many were almost written off as a lost cause decades ago. Some are ugly enough to satisfy a certain type of backpacker's appetite for visual offensiveness and discomfort.

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