An unexpected treasure
Around 55km south of Suez is the town of Sokhna, whose beaches are popular with Egyptians but attract few foreigners. The town’s name derives from the hot springs (35°C) originating in the Jebel Ataqa.
During your MSC Grand Voyage you’ll be able to see light patches offshore that indicate coral reefs. MSC Grand Voyages also offer excursions to mystic places. Secreted amid the arid Red Sea Hills, Egypt’s two oldest monasteries – dedicated to St Paul and St Anthony – trace their origins back to the infancy of Christian monasticism, observing rituals that have scarcely changed over sixteen centuries.
You don’t have to be religious to appreciate their tranquil atmosphere and imposing setting, however, and there’s also scope for birdwatching in the vicinity. Around 30km south of Sokhna, the town of Za’Farana is the nearest settlement to the Red Sea monasteries. West from here, a wide valley cleaves the Galala Plateau and sets the road on course for the Nile, 168km away.
Called Wadi Arraba, its name derives from the carts that once delivered provisions to the monastery, though legend attributes it to the pharaoh’s chariots that pursued the Israelites towards the Red Sea. Travelling for 33km along this road brings you to a turn-off to the south, from where a dramatic ridge of cliffs known as Mount Qalah can be seen in the distance, with the Monastery of St Anthony situated beneath.
The monastery is effectively a self-contained village complete with lanes of two-storey dwellings, churches, mills and gardens of vines, olives and palms, surrounded by lofty walls with an interior catwalk – although most of the buildings themselves are recent compared to the monastery’s foundation.