Hottest Winter Destinations: Go South, to Minya

Public-parks-by-the-Nile

An article I wrote for Egypt Today Specials, which is the online portal offering a more personal perspective on current affairs and lifestyle in Egypt, about Minya. The article looks at Minya as a touristic destination, art initiatives in Minya and alternative travel. [Published in Egypt Today]

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As a child I found flying a kite quite liberating. It’s challenging, especially when the wind refuses to cooperate. That said, you immediately feel a sense of accomplishment, even smug satisfaction, when you finally succeed in keeping it in the air. I hadn’t flown a kite since I was a kid, at least not until my trip to Minya last July, when friends and I bought LE5 kites covered with pictures of Detective Korombo (The Egyptian answer to Sherlock Holmes). This time around, my kite took flight on a mountain with a breathtaking view of one of Egypt’s most interesting cities, both historically and culturally.

The kind of experience Minya gives its visitors is the same one gets when flying a kite for the first time in a couple of decades: Why on earth do I not do this more often?

Minya is the capital of the Minya governate, located at the far north of Upper Egypt, earning it the label “The Bride of Upper Egypt.” With a great university, a young culture and an equal ratio of Muslims to Christians (possibly unique to this city), Minya offers activities and sights that will probably leave any hardcore traveller or quick visitor in awe.

The first thing I noticed when I got off the three-hour train ride from Cairo was the amount of non-veiled Egyptian women. Not that I have anything against the lack of the scarf, mind you. It’s just that my eyesight had gotten used to constantly seeing a sea of veiled women on Cairo’s streets.

One of the first things that struck as well was the different architecture of the city, rich in its diversity. From old downtown-Cairo-like buildings with intricate details in the design and a European retro touch to new tall structures that are not riddled with either dirt or AC systems sticking out — the city had a fresh feel to it.

Minya is built in a horizontal pattern along the banks of the Nile. Almost the entire corniche of the city is a public park overlooking the Nile. As you take a stroll through the streets, you can frequently see families enjoying their day or evening, along with younger people hanging out in groups.

On our first night at the park, some friends and I got ourselves some chilled sodas from one of the many kiosks overlooking the Nile as we relaxed by the banks, enjoying the sounds of people quietly chattering around us, while watching hundreds of little birds flying from one tree to another.

An added bonus? We experienced almost no sexual harassment.

Minya Egypt Today

Dahabia, Dahabia

We stayed at the Dahabia Hotel, which is a stationary boat by the banks of the Nile. The hotel is also a social center for Minyans, offering a cafe, event hall and restaurant that are all open-air. The hotel is clean and very cheap, not to mention small. If you are travelling in even a small group, you could feasibly book all three rooms. After about 10 o’clock, the cafe’s guests leave and so do the hotel staff, making Dahabia your own boat-home in Minya.

The rooms’ windows overlook the Nile; it’s so close you can actually reach your arm out and touch the water. The three rooms share a bathroom where you can literally shower with a Nile view. The Nile in Minya is very wide, and scenic, with the river bank rife with agricultural fields/

The Dahabiya room, which I highly recommend, comes with a breakfast of delicious eggs and foul along with tea or coffee. The staff are very friendly, they even learned our names on the very first night we were visiting. It wasn’t a challenge with us being the only three guests there, but we still found it adorable.

Food and an Unexpected Surprise

Our travel party consisted of two Cairenes and a British friend and we were very lucky to have had local friends in Minya showing us around the gorgeous city they call home. As soon as we arrived in Minya, we asked our local “Minyawy” friend Shady Khalil about places to eat, and he immediately recommending trying Minya’s local delicacy. We were intrigued.

As we drove through the city, wondering what this mysterious dish we were about to consume was, we were astonished when he stopped and parked in front of a crepe shop. Shady explained to us that, believe it or not, crepes were actually the food that Minya was famous for. Beni Suef — we were told— had been competing with Minya over the best crepes, but Shady promised us that Minya’s would beat anything.

But let me explain, crepes in Minya are not your traditional French variety. Oh no, if there is anything I’ve learned about Minya it is that its people are much more creative than that. With fillings varying from shawerma to sausages, veggies, cheese and even liver, the Minyans have made crepes their own, to say nothing of the sweet crepes with bananas and hazelnut chocolate cream, which were mouth-waterningly delicious. While most varieties were delicious, the chicken a la greque, made of chicken, vegetables and a cream sauce, was undoubtedly the best.

The city has countless crepe shops but the locals recommend Crepes on Taha Hussein Street, so make sure you check it out while you’re there.

If your interest is hanging out in a bar and getting a few drinks, you can also do that in Minya. There are many bars that offer drinkes cheaper than those at your average pub in Cairo. Most of them are in hotels. Cleopatra Bar was the one we visited where a beer cost around LE 13. The cheapest option is Lotus where you pay LE 8.5 for a beer and that includes some mezza appetizers along with the service charge. It leaves you wondering how they even make profit. For those who don’t mind a bit of a pricy night in return of a beautiful evening sitting by the Nile, then head to either Horus or Aton.

Getting There and Around

Minya has public transportation, just like those offered by major cities (with the exception of an underground metro). Prices are low and traffic is minimal. Inside Minya a taxi would cost no more than LE 2. If you are leaving the city or going to New Minya, you’ll pay a fiver. It’s that cheap.

New Minya is the new city, with a nice breeze and a beautiful view, built high up on a hill across the Nile opposite Minya itself. New Minya’s houses buildings that are no more than four floors high, with a public garden around each cluster of four to five buildings.

In Minya, felukas will also give you a ride, except they’re more for recreation than transport. A feluka can take you to an island where you can also swim in the Nile, which in Minya has a very fast current, so it could be dangerous for those not-so-strong swimmers. The upside of the strong current is that it leaves the Nile very clean, which is why a swim is risk free, health-wise.

Minya Egypt Today

Art and Culture

Minya is a young vibrant city. However, it lacks art venues for exhibitions and music. The Jesuit School theater often has performances of bands from Cairo and Alexandria, but not nearly enough — maybe once or twice every two weeks.

That is why a group of Minyan youth, calling themselves Oyoun Art Group, started an initiative to encourage street performances, art workshops and any other events that support self-expression. They’re currently hosting monthly open mic nights in the park by the Nile with much success. Look out for them on the last Friday of every month.

Tourism in Minya

Minya houses largest collection of ancient artifacts in Egypt after Luxor and Aswan. The artifacts hail from Pharaonic, Greek, Roman, Coptic and Islamic times. There are also some 19th century Egyptian buildings still standing strong.

The city is home to sites such as El Amarna, an archaeological site built by Pharaoh Akhenaton. It is believed to be where he made an offering to the first unified god of Ancient Egypt, Aton.

Some 20 kilometers south of Minya is Bani Hassan El Shurugg, a temple built within the rocks of the mountains dating back to 1820 BC. There is also Tehna El Gabal, which you can find following a short hike in the mountains, where there are Roman and Greek ruins along with mummified crocodiles.

However, the city that was once a must-see on every tourist’s itinerary quickly disappeared off the travel map due to the rise of Islamist extremism in the 1990s which saw arson attacks against churches, businesses and charities run by Christians. Even though these terror acts didn’t persist, the incidents, coupled with the bombing of a German tourist bus during the same period, caused international tourism to Minya to become almost obsolete.

Oyoun Art Group have plans to create alternative tourism programs in Minya for locals and foreigners alike. They plan to organise trips to interesting sites around Minya and bring tourists and locals together. “We want tourists to meet the people who live in Minya, who live among these artifacts,” Shady Khalil one of the volunteers and founders of Oyoun, told me. “We want to tell their story”

With the weather getting colder, a trip down south is almost necessary, especially in a city as vibrant, interesting and with so much history and culture as Minya. And one more perk? You’ll have a lot of fun, with little train on your pocket.

Minya Egypt Today

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