Siwa is magical, the loveliest place we visited in Egypt. That sentence takes some writing. What do you mean the loveliest spot in Egypt? What about the Valley of the Kings? What about the Nile? What about the Pyramids at Giza? It is the sort of sentence that gets you into trouble, but what the heck: Siwa is cool, no doubt about it.
Siwa is an extremely remote oasis that sits on the edge of the Great Sand Sea, a small eastern enclave of the Sahara. The landscapes here are nothing short of magnificent. Spin out into the desert and you’ll find hot springs, vast dunes, sandstone mountains and Roman tombs. You’ll race past 27-million-year-old fossil beds, pick up fragments of meteorite, see ancient footprints embedded in the rock. Then there’s the silence, which comes as a surprise, especially if you live in a city. At times you cannot hear a thing, not the slightest wisp of wind, not the merest distant hum. It’s pretty wild and it makes you smile. If you’ve ever wanted to walk in a desert, this is the place do it.
As for the town, it has the vibe (some places do, others don’t). It’s small and there’s not much to do, but that is one of its charms. One of the loveliest things about Siwa is that in some ways it is an unremarkable place. It does not carry the weight of history like so many other towns in Egypt. It is fresh, unknown, waiting to be discovered (by western travellers, that is). Perhaps that is what makes it so special.
If Siwa is too far afield, you can get a taste of the desert nearer the Cairo-Luxor-Aswan axis, at the oases of Dhakla and Kharga. Kharga is the more accessible, nearer the Nile and served by occasional flights from Cairo. But Dhakla is far the prettier of the two, and one of the largest and most impressive of all the oases on this route – 50km of palm groves, lush fields, blue sky, golden mountains. You can ride camels in the desert, bathe in hot springs, visit Al Qasr, an abandoned medieval complex. And Mut, the main village of the Dhakla oasis, is also worth a visit for its labyrinthine old town and ruined citadel. Dhakla is about 500km west of Luxor; a private transfer cost E£750 (€90) each way in 2010, and will take 5-6 hours.