I found myself attached to Siwa after reading Bahaa Taher's Sunset Oasis; then I watched the show based on the novel and I was completely hooked. I stumbled upon a three-day trip to Siwa organized by a tour planner, but getting my parents' approval was very difficult – the problem was that Siwa's pretty far and I was going to travel alone. So I booked the trip and told them just a few days before; arguments and fights aside, they reluctantly agreed. For me, I was excited; I like to travel alone and love seeing new places and meeting new people.
Once I got to Siwa, so many things caught my attention – the food, the tourist sites, Siwan art, and all the fun things to do there.
HOTELS AND FOOD
Siwa Shali Resort
Siwa Shali Resort is big and the design is ecofriendly; each room is separate from the next, and it also has a sulfuric water springs and pools. The hotel is beautiful and the accommodation is quite nice. I had my first lunch in Siwa there – pasta, rice, peas, chicken, and side dishes of salads and soup; breakfast was cheese, jam, and beans. As my trip progressed, I realized Siwa had better food options.
Nour El-Waha Hotel
This is a reasonably sized hotel – not too big, and the rooms have an open seating area in front of them filled with grass and palm trees. I ate abu mardam chicken here, which is chicken buried and cooked beneath the sand, and it tasted amazing; it was served with curry rice, oven-cooked potatoes, veggies, salads, tahini, and bread.
Kenooz Restaurant, Shali Lodge Hotel
Kenooz is two storeys high; downstairs is indoor seating while upstairs is an open-air rooftop setup with the option of one indoor room with floor seating. While heading upstairs I noticed that there was a palm tree coming out of the stairs and they hadn't cut it off – they just built around it! I later found out that they hold palm trees in a very special – almost sacred – regard, and they would never chop one down unless it's decaying.
I ate a meat tajin with onions, which tasted sweet and was very delicious, and mulukhiyah, which was by far the best I’ve ever had, along with curry rice and salads.
This one’s in the center of the oasis, next to the old Shali Fortress, and it’s relatively small compared to other hotels. I had a candlelit dinner on the rooftop of the hotel while the weather was beautifully chilly. The food was great and it was different; they served soup and salad as appetizers before the main course, which was a boneless chicken tajine made with olive oil and cheese strips. The olive flavor of the chicken was very distinct, and the mulukhiyah was also great.
WHAT TO DO IN SIWA
You haven’t really been to Siwa if you don’t go on a safari in the Great Sand Sea. Make sure to bring a shawl or a scarf and sunglasses, to protect your face and eyes from the sand; even then, you'll still get covered in sand. Either way, it's an amazing experience to feel the car go up the sand dunes and go down almost vertically. Not only that, if you’re a fan of sandboarding, you won’t find a better place. There’s also the cold and hot lakes in the middle of the desert, whose temperatures don’t change regardless of the season.
Before the day ended, guides set us up with a blanket in the middle of the desert and served us tea with lemongrass in small, shotglass-type cups – served with a side of peanuts, of course.
Old Shali Fort
This is one of Siwa's most famous landmarks, and it’s right in the heart of the oasis. It was built by the people of Siwa to protect themselves from neighboring tribes who tried to raid them come harvest season every year, and it was inhabited up until 1926. All the structures are made of karshif, like most homes in Siwa; karshif is a building material made of salt with clay, which helps the houses remain cool in summer and warm in winter.
Siwa's salt lakes have a very high concentration of salt, which makes it really easy to swim there; plus, the water is beautiful and crystal clear. The salt produced from these lakes is considered some of the purest in the world, and it also has therapeutic qualities.
Siwa is known as the sunset oasis because it’s the last place the sun sets in Egypt. Fatnas Island is considered the best place to watch that sunset; it’s surrounded by water from a lake and palms, and also the sulfuric well of Fatnas. The cafeteria there is known for its incredible date milkshake.
You don't really need a car to see the rest of the sites in Siwa; you could use just a bike, which you can rent from one of the many shops in the downtown area. Riding bikes in itself is quite fun; I fell off while I was riding and happened to be wearing a white dress, but I pressed on and kept riding.
Gebel El Mawta
You can go to Gebel El Mawta, which is a mountain filled with tombs from the age of the pharaohs, but the only one you can enter is Si Amun, which has strangely enough still maintained its colors. You can’t film or take photos inside the tomb, but don’t forget to look up and check out the gorgeous ceiling. After that you could go to Cleopatra Spring, the most famous sulfuric well in Siwa with therapeutic values. There's a cafeteria next to Cleopatra Spring where you can rest after, and they have strange drinks like guava with mint – which was actually good.
Cleopatra spring cafeteria
ART AND CULTURE IN SIWA
I joined a Siwan gathering of music and dance while I was at Nour El Waha Hotel – done by men, of course. It was hard to understand what they were singing, but the ambience itself is very vibrant and fun. You'll also hear Libyan songs due to the the influence of being situated so close to the Libyan border.
Siwans are also quite talented in handicrafts and rely on them as a means of income. You’ll find handmade Siwan outfits embroidered by the women and girls of the oasis; you’ll also find kilim with very unique and colorful designs, silver accessories, and salt lamps that are said to absorb negative energy. Siwa isalso very well known for olive and palm products, which you can buy from almost anywhere in Siwa.
Siwan women don't go out often, and will be wearing a loose black or tanned abaya with a burqa if they do. Their attire is different than the abayas and burqas found elsewhere in Egypt – their eyes barely show, and there's a dark, striped blanket covering any body features. Only young girls up to 12 years old will be seen with their faces uncovered. On the other hand, men wear galabeyas with pants underneath, similar to the traditional attire of Libya.
I expected Siwa to be different than what I read in Sunset Oasis because the events took place in the days of the English occupation, but I was surprised to find that there wasn’t much difference. They’re a conservative society that's maintained its traditions, language, and legacy throughout the years, but they're not an isolated society; the people are very welcoming, so it's easy to integrate there.
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