Sunday, 30 January 2011

The Kings of Egypt

You don’t really expect to find Swiss food in the heart of Upper Egypt but that’s how it is on Monday night at the Hotel Maritim Jolie Ville, Luxor. Rosti, Basler Mehlsuppe, Aargauer Rueblitorte, G'Hackets and Hoernli, emmental cheese quiche and Älplermagronen. Swiss flags on sticks. Outside is the Nile, inside it’s Zurich. Not that we should really get any of this out of proportion. Apart from the hotel’s main buffet restaurant, one night of the week, the Jolie Maritim is squarely Egyptian. Doorways are arched, staff wear jallabia, there are palm trees and camels. Everyone smiles.

I’m on King’s Island, slipped into the Nile a ten minute car drive south of Luxor. This is an oasis of green and calm set in a desert landscape where it hasn’t rained for a dozen years. Luxor and its temples, Karnak, the Valley of the Kings, the Valley of the Queens, the tomb of Tutankhamen, and the whole spectacular litter of the pharaohs are all minutes away. Luxor itself is a city made spoil tip by archaeological excavation. It has an economy that relies 85% on tourism. Egyptology drives. Around here touts proliferate, importuning visitors on every possible occasion. Carry your bag. Sell you postcards, water, fedora, straw boater, sunglasses, Pringles. Direct you to a restaurant. Find you a horse, a manservant, a guide. Change your money. Borrow your pen. Look at your camera. Smoke your cigarettes. Button your shirt. Hold your hand.

In Egypt it’s hard to know where to turn, or indeed how to turn. Smile at anyone and they’ll immediately begin the process that ends in you handing over cash. Persistent, irritating, pointless. But not at the Jolie Ville. Once you’ve crossed the newly installed road bridge, gone through security where men with mirrors on sticks check the undersides of your vehicle and the licence of the driver, you are free. Back to a world where a smile means a smile. You can cease muttering the mantra la shukran, thank you, no, go away, stop, don’t, please. Here service is delivered free. It’s part of the deal.

King’s Island was until a few years ago known as Crocodile Island – named after the reptiles that once swam the river here. Or maybe it was after the aged beast that lurked in the warm ponds of the Hotel’s zoo. Gone. The zoo’s croc sent on Egyptian government order to be set free in the waters of Lake Nasser. The island name changed because Kings sell better than reptiles. The island is a business after all.

General manager Urs Umbricht
and shoeshine man
Gamal Seddek Mansy Benjamen

Urs Umbricht, genial, fifty, is the King of Kings. He’s the Jolie Ville’s General Manager, the GM, forever present among his guests and his extensive staff. My predecessor, he told me, used to manage things by email, stayed in his office. I like to meet people and talk to them. The world spins better that way.

Urs has been in the hotel trade as long as he can remember. He began in the kitchens at his grandfather’s establishment, the Hotel Hasenstrick, in Zurich. He’s managed establishments across the world beginning with his first, in Kenya, at the age of twenty-seven. He’s a fixer. He moves in to manage change or to sort failure and then moves on. He was in Aswan before Luxor, and in Zanzibar before that. He’s been at the Jolie Ville for a year. Where next? Maybe my time of moving is over, he says. I’m getting older. Maybe I’ll stay.

The Jolie Vile used to be part of the European Mövenpick chain but now it’s owned by an Egyptian, Hassain Khaled Salem. Salem employs Urs on contract. And if that contract says “make it work” then Urs has fulfilled.

The hotel, which occupies the entirety of King’s island, has nothing over two stories with most of its structure at ground level. It has a central reception and series of restaurants around which, in landscaped gardens, are set residential bungalows. There’s a gym, tennis courts, football field, giant chess, a crocket lawn, ping pong, boules, hammocks, pools, snack bars, and more sun loungers than even the Germans can manage to reserve. Mid-afternoon a man with a trolley comes and sells you tea, coffee and cake. There’s no background music. All the sun does is shine.

Does it ever change, this blue sky weather? Outside, in early January, it’s a steady 26 degrees.Occasionally you’ll get cloud, says Urs. You are here in our mid-winter. You might be in t-shirt and shorts but the Egyptians will be wearing jackets and jumpers. We had a dust storm yesterday, highly unusual, caused chaos. The storm lasted half an hour and on the roads nothing moved for a whole day. Visitors from the Red Sea resorts, brought here by tourist coach, had to stay overnight. Bad for them, good for me. I sold an extra 200 rooms. A few years ago when I was in Aswan it rained for ten minutes. Egyptian houses don’t have roofs. Electrics are exposed to the air. There aren’t any street drains. The town shut down for forty-eight hours while they sorted things out.

The change Urs has been employed to manage at the Jolie Ville is the construction of an extension to the facilities. This is by way of a series of two-story bungalows to the island’s south, a new infinity Nile-side pool, an enlarged restaurant, a new reception and shops, and a set of town houses for newly-weds to the north. How do you stay open doing this in the heat and dust of an Egyptian forty degree summer without upsetting someone? Truth is you don’t. Some of the comments on Trip Advisor have been bitter. “If you want a break in a construction site then this is it.” “An oasis destroyed. We won’t be coming again.” “How could they do this to us?” But most have been reasonable. “The management have screened building work off. The Jolie Ville is an oasis of peace. The new build hasn’t made any difference to us at all.”

By the time I get there work is mostly done. There are some diggers in the distance slashing into the dry Egyptian sand where the town houses are going but you need to peer through screens to see them. Elsewhere all is calm. I don’t think I’ve ever been anywhere as comprehensively silent and unhurried. In the week I’ve been here I’ve read five books. Peter Guralnick’s biography of Elvis, an anti-intellectual rock and roll king if ever there was one, E G Farrell’s The Siege of Krishnapur, Paul Torday’s The Hopeless Life of Charlie Summers, Jess Walter’s The Financial Lives of the Poets, which turns out not to be what its title implies, and Tim Parks excellent study of urology, a subject dear to my heart, and meditation. It’s called Teach Us To Sit Still. A thing you do here, where stillness is omnipresent and sitting a joy.

But this isn’t really a place of the arts. It has little literary connection. Having said that Agatha Christie did come to Luxor before writing her famous Death on the Nile and the French decadent poet Arthur Rimbaud was here in the 1880s. His name is graffitied high up on one of the pillars at Luxor Temple. Urs Umbricht’s concession to culture is a regular classical concert played through loudspeakers at 6.30 pm. You sit on green baize covered steps. Beethoven is in your ears. The sun spectacularly descends. Herons fly in formation downriver. The feluccas drift. Vast five-storey white Nile cruise ships pass without making a sound. Fishermen cast their hand-made nets. You sip your sweet Egyptian tea. Bliss.

Change has been causing consternation among the Jolie Ville’s regulars for a year now. How much longer? Urs reckons four months but you never know, “Who can be sure. This is Egypt”. Returning guests are significant in the hotel’s business plan. Twenty per cent have been here before, some dozens of times. There’s one Swiss couple who have returned ninety-seven times. “I say to them,” says Urs, “ there are other places in the world, but they don’t listen.” The hotel sells to older guests and families with young children. There’s little here for young people. Target market is Germany, UK, Benelux, Switzerland, Scandinavia, France, a few Egyptians. I don’t want cheap drinking groups,” insists Urs. No fights round the pool, no raucous behaviour. No letting off of fire extinguishers in the corridors. There are no corridors after all.

In the Ascot Bar where, being a Muslim country, non-alcoholic cocktails feature strongly on the wine list, I’m downing a paper parasol festooned Nile Sundowner and feeling a bit like Del Boy. The Dusseldorf-based Downtown Jazz band are giving it a soft blow. It’s Tight Like That, St Louis Blues. Eighty-year old Ken Blakemore, former trombonist with Ken Colyer and more recently with the Crouch End All Stars sits in. The abundant Egyptian bar managers tap their feet. This is a feature of the Jolie Ville. The abundant staff rather than the foot tapping. Human labour is cheap so enterprises make good use. Your empty glass is cleared as soon as you put it down. You want peanuts? They arrive at lightning speed.

The recorded classical concerts and this bit of sloppy Dixieland are the most music I encounter all week. There was a belly dancer in the restaurant on New Year’s Eve and a spectacular demonstration of Dervish dancing. But mostly the Jolie Ville goes in for birdsong. I stuff my earphones back in and listen to John Lee Hooker. Crawling King Snake. The Mississippi boogie man. The antithesis of Upper Egypt.

On site the Jolie Ville offers free Egyptian Arabic classes. We sit in the shade sipping fresh orange juice as Gamal explains how basic greetings work. I learn a few which I later try out on Ali in the corner shop back home in Cardiff. He is from Yemen. “This Egyptian Arabic is different from my Arabic, you know”, he complains. Waed, the Jolie Ville’s Tunisian receptionist says the same thing. But Egypt is the country that makes all the films and TV programmes and these are broadcast right across the Arab world. So everyone understands.

Urs, amazingly, doesn’t speak Egyptian. Why should I, he asks. The language of the Jolie Vile is English. English it may be but there are still some Egyptian guests. Does he have a position on the advance of radical Islam? Has there ever been trouble here? No. In the past the occasional devout female swimmer will have demanded to go in the pool wearing her street clothes. The lot. But we don’t allow that. Now they have these head-to-foot Islamic bathing costumes so it’s okay. Does this happen often? No.

The Jolie Ville has 647 rooms and 780 staff. That might sound high density but it is spread over 660,000 square meters of island. Everyone smiles at you. They all speak. The secret of the operation’s success, apparently, are the “7 Jolie Keys For Happy Clients”, a hospitality Bible carried in the top pocket by all those working here.

Hospitality Key no. 3. Entering/leaving a guest’s room. Wait at least 5 seconds before knocking a second time. Wait again a moment before opening the door.

Hospitality Key no 1. Attending to the guest. Show initiative. Ensure eye contact. Listen carefully. Show interest. Mention guest’s name.

I try this out. Sabah el Kheer (Good morning), I say to a gardener. He makes eyes contact as instructed, gives me toothy grin, and replies in English. “Ah, you speak Egyptian.” I shake my head. La, I reply.

Come again? As this is the most reliably hot winter destination reachable from the UK at reasonable distance then yes. It’s a five hour flight into the bedlam of Luxor airport. Then half an hour by coach to the Jolie Ville’s five star peace. You can get a free boat or bus into town to spend an enjoyable day being hassled beyond as you negotiate the bazars, temples, museums, mummies, tours of the tombs, visits to the amazing Colossus of Memnon and the vast Temple of Queen Hatshepsut. You can fly over the lot by hot air balloon for eighty quid or visit Cairo for the day by plane for three times that.

But I’m here for lying down. According to Guralnick Elvis did a lot of this. Hanging out by the pool. I’ve just ordered a club sandwich and another glass of Egyptian Stella. Alcohol content 4.5%. I can imagine the King doing that.

The Maritim Jolie Ville Kings Island Hotel Luxor is at Awameya Road - Kings Island, Luxor – Egypt, +20 (95) 2274855,

In late January 2011 the Egyptian revolution reached Luxor and there are reports of trouble near the town’s big hotels. The ruling party’s HQ has been set alight, says a posting in the blogosphere. There are tanks on the streets. UK Foreign Office advice is to avoid travel to Egypt until things settle down.

Peter Finch

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Great article! And, we agree that the JV, Luxor, is a wonderful place. We have been there 7 times in the last 6 years - and plan on going again in 2012. And Urs Umbricht is indeed the most genial and attentive of hosts, always out and about, charming the guests. Regarding the Revolution in Jan 2011 year: We stayed at the JV in May - and nothing had changed, either there or in Luxor itself.
Personally I would not be too keen on going to Cairo at the moment, but people should be told that Luxor is safe!!
Martin & Julie - England