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A trip to Egypt in 1973 – GRJ’s very first tour

22 April 2024

1973 was a significant year for all sorts of reasons. The UK joined the European Economic Community, The Paris Peace Accords ended US involvement in the Vietnam War, and a three-day week was put in place in the UK. British music charts were dominated by The Rolling Stones, David Bowie, Marvin Gaye, Pink Floyd, and Elton John.

But to get to the point, 1973 was the year Great Rail Journeys began; when its founders, British Rail colleagues Ian Macbeth and Peter Henry, put together their very first rail tour, to Egypt. Inspired by the 'Treasures of Tutankhamun' tour in the British Museum, the pair planned an epic 21-day journey to Egypt's Valley of the Kings. Their first customers, three British Rail employees, were Charles Galloway, Bruce Masters and Ron Barby.

The tour notes for this incredible journey (compiled by Galloway) are fascinating, not just for the cultural history in the typed up pages, but also for the amusing reflections. Fifty years ago, travelling was a lot more complex than today; the journey really was a big part of the adventure.

Twenty years before the Channel Tunnel was created, the group travelled by 'relief boat train' from Victoria to Dover, endured a 'choppy crossing' on the King Leopold II boat to Oostende, then continued by rail through what was then Yugoslavia (now Croatia and Serbia) to Greece. After seeing the sights of Athens they took the overnight ferry from Piraeus to Alexandria.

To share a flavour of this extraordinary voyage, here's an edited summary of the notes. Think of it as a time capsule from 1973!

Days 1-7 London Victoria to Munich, Hellas Express to Greece, ferry to Alexandria and Cairo

The journey out took seven, freewheeling and colourful days.

'All fit for travel by arrangement with the NHS. Took a relief boat train from Victoria to Dover - no buffet car. King Leopold II boat and choppy crossing to Oostende. Three course meal - £1.85½. Very comfortable Belgian sleeper train from Oostende to Germany.'

On day three the group took the Hellas Express from Munich to Greece, stopping in Zagreb and Belgrade, now cities of Croatia and Serbia but then part of unified Yugoslavia.

'Left Munich 4 minutes late - train bounced and rolled during the night, passport control at 4am, lost time arriving in Zagreb, on to Beograd (Belgrade) stuck for an hour between Beograd and Vinkovic as engine broke down. Accordions and transistors playing…'

On arrival in Greece the next morning they travelled by rail to Athens: 'Sun out at Thessalonika. To Lharissa, then through mountains. Near top, shunted to let Akropolis pass. Came right down again at Linnokladion then climbed right up again. Thiva (Thebes), then after lunch to Athens. Hotel offered roast beef for dinner so went out to eat. Three course meal cost 31 drachmas = 45p, plus Lots of adding up costs - an evening out including wine, Greek coffee and ouzo cost 35 drachmas - 50p. Night out for less than a quid.'

The next day they saw main sights of Athens - 'Lycabettas Hill, up funicular, beer at top. Walked to Acropolis, went in Parthenon and Museum. Rail to Piraeus and ship Adsharia. First night on boat went to concert by ship's band (described as 'typical modern group') made up of electronic organ, two electric guitars, one a vocalist, sax and drums. They played Russian music and Beatles stuff. Got almost sozzled on vodka at 8 Drachmas a nip = just over 10p, and very pally with Russian crew.'

On day seven, the group of five reached Egypt and piled off the ferry - 'Arrived in Alexandria, passport and currency documentation on ship. Landed just before 10 then continued by rail to Cairo. Passengers jump on train when moving, trains start up slowly to give them a chance. Arrived 30 minutes late. Nice fellow we met in the train bar asked us to follow him for taxi at Cairo and too us into office. He disappeared. Later someone else said we could go now. Think he was a cop. Stayed in Cairo's Cosmopolitan Hotel. Walked to Cairo Tower, about the height of Beachy Head, fine view of illuminated town and Turkish coffee at the top for 12 piastres.'

Days 8-14 Cairo, Pyramids of Giza, Egyptian Museum, Luxor & Valley of the Kings

The author wrote up his first day in Cairo while 'sitting in an easy chair on the large terrace, smoking Cleopatra cigarettes at 25 piastres for King Size - same price as twenty Tipped Woodbines.'

'Caught taxi to the Citadel, went into a minor mosque then a big one. Impressed by the carpeting and circles of electric lighting. Taxi to the bazaar, wandered for hours in and out of the narrow alleyways of shops. Everyone pleased to meet the English, even if no sale involved, many went out of their way to help us.'

The next day the group took a taxi to the Pyramids of Giza, seeing building development along the road the whole way - 'Pyramids a staggering sight when examined close up. Went into the burial chambers down steep passages about 4 foot high. Hot enough without the additional exertion. Took a camel ride to the Sphinx and had a look at some of the tombs of the Old Kingdom. Moved on to Saqquara, stopping enroute for a drink at an Egyptian roadhouse called Ayesha.'

'Circumnavigated the Step Pyramid, went in umpteen tombs including that of Hotep Horus and the Pyramid of Ories. Moved on to Memphis where not much to see but magnificent 30 x 6 foot statue Rameses II. At a bazaar near Shepherd's Hotel 'Ron bought a burnous but the rest of us watched the Americans being conned.'

The travellers then went off to see the Friday night 'Son et Lumiere' at the Pyramids - 'Dinner at Hylton Hotel. Crazy to travel over 2,000 miles to Egypt to eat an Italian meal in an American hotel.'

Day ten was museum day - 'Egyptian Museum and Mummies room. Rameses II mummy and Akhen-Aton statues. Tut-ankh-Amun display disappointing as many not labelled and others being packed for Moscow. Impressed by the way the war graves section was kept neat by War Graves Commission. Then on to a papyrus paper making factory on a Nile boat. Final evening meal on £1.50. Terrible. Temperature 32 C degrees.'

The next day was a combination of heat and illness - 'Up early. Tummy not feeling so good. Chaos at station as derailment outside. Felt terrible all day. Arrived in Luxor 18.30, about half hour late. Horse carriage to hotel on banks of the Nile. Room air-conditioned so best sleep since arriving in Egypt. Temperature Cairo 31-20, Luxor 36-21.

Illness affected them each in turn, so the next day their appetite for sightseeing was weak. 'Woke up feeling alright. Think upset due to the dates we ate. Went for a walk along river front into town and had ghastly drink at the station. Took carriages to Karnak and Luxor temples in the afternoon. Very hot.'

Day 13 was momentous, as they reached the Valley of the Kings - 'Crossed the Nile by boat at 07.30 where driven to Valley of the Kings early in the morning, nice and cool. Went into the tombs of Tut-ankh-Amun, Rameses III and most impressed by that of Seti. Drove to Hatshepsut Temple, bally hot by now. Then to Valley of Queens where we went into the tomb of Rameses III' wife and another of his son.'

' A final stop at Colossus of Memnon. Guide worked for Howard Carter and was extremely interested in Egyptology - believed he is a Copt descended from the Pharaohs. Says no rain for ten years. Watched the sun set over the Nile.'

Early the next morning the tireless group headed to Aswan - 'Horse and carriage to station for train to Aswan. Taken to river steps opposite Egyptian airlines office. Waited for motor boat from Amun. Hotel a dream. Lunched on fruit juice, roast chicken and potatoes, watercress salad with sweet green orange straight from the tree. Lounged on the terraces all afternoon drinking iced fresh lemon then dinner in illuminated garden overlooking the Nile. Not much hotter than Luxor. Lot of gun firing at 9.30pm. Turned out it was a 21 gun salute for Ramadan.'

Days 15-21 Abu Simbel temples, Aswan Dam, Temple of Philae, and the journey home

A flight over the Abu Simbel temples was a highlight the next day. Back in the 1960s, to make way for the Aswan High Dam, these temples were dismantled and moved to higher ground - '43 seater Russian turbo-prop flight over desert. Lovely view from air of Abu Simbel temples on approach to landing. Just an airstrip and a building from which 15 minutes coach drive to temples of Rameses and Hathor. At Abu Simbel the air crew joined in the tour. Hotter than Aswan. Hired felucca and went to near 1st Cataract where we climbed the bluff and saw the Aswan Dam, and in the far distance, the High Dam. Boatman guide invited us to his family's house in Nubian village where their best china was brought out and a lovely cup of tea provided.'

Day 16 was another early start to catch boat and private car trip to Aswan Quarries to see the unfinished obelisk, which would have been bigger than Cleopatra's Needle, then on to the Aswan High Dam. 'Colossal work in desolate country. From there, sailed in small boats to the submerged Temple of Philae.

Landed on one above water bit. Carvings most impressive. Now almost surrounded by steelwork for coffer dam. Intention is to drain the water temporarily, cut up the temple and rebuild on island nearby which is being levelled up to take it. Overnight train to Cairo via Luxor.

With five days left to reach home, on Day 17 they were 'running out of piastres so just a cup of tea on the train and home reserve biscuits. Arrived in Cairo, enjoyed tea at the expense of café staff as only had enough piastres for three. Sailed on the Armenia back to Greece, with more tea and an English dinner'.

On the ferry back to Piraeus, Charles' tour notes mention a film show of a 'very long drama set on a spaceship. Without understanding a word, aware this was an internal conflict of an astronaut with a wife, family and dog at home and a girlfriend on the spaceship'. This must have been the Russian film, Solaris, updated decades later with George Clooney in the lead role. On their second night on board, the group - 'Enjoyed concert by ship's crew. Seven girls and three men sang and three girls did Ukranian, Hungarian and Russian dances accompanied by band of squeeze box, clarinet/baritone sax, electric guitar and drums.'

On Day 19 they reached the Greek mainland. 'Arrived in Piraeus, train running on a winter service so had hours to wait for train to Athens. So bought the Saturday Telegraph and read the first English news for 18 days. Arrived in Athens and put luggage in a cloakroom while enjoying a slow souvlaki and chips lunch in a nearby café, with beer and ice cream. Left that evening saw Lianokladion (Thessaly) all lit up as we passed through. Woken up 3 or 4 times in the night for passport/customs.'

From Athens the group continued north, then west through Europe. In Skopje, Macedonia, 'the train climbed through green hills with sparse trees. Long haul through magnificent tree clad mountain scenery then descended into Lescovac. Arrived Belgrade, continued to Zagreb, arrived in Rosenbach in the middle of the night.

The next morning was Day 20 - Lovely morning. High Alps around Mallnitz, Austria, covered with snow. Misty over lake and mountains, short tunnel then out into brilliant sunshine just before Salzburg. Continued to Munich, Stuttgart then Cologne. Lovely ride all day, timekeeping all the way, smooth and quiet running.'

Finally, they reached the port to catch their ferry home. 'From Hoek van Holland we took the beautiful MV St George boat which arrived into Harwich next morning. The train was overcrowded, but appreciated a good old English breakfast.'

A 21st century tour of Egypt - 12 days, and a luxury cruise… five stars all the way

Fifty years have passed and the world has changed considerably. Rail travel is still the most leisurely way to explore Europe, but there are now many high speed trains. Added to this is the huge increase in passenger flights.

To mark the company's 50th anniversary, Great Rail Journeys has produced a tour to Egypt which follows in the tracks of its founders. Starting in 2024, this holiday includes flights to and from Cairo, rail travel and a luxurious river cruise, and tours to many of the sites mentioned in this 1973 diary.

Treasures of Egypt and 5-Star Nile Cruise