THE BLOG

Hurghada and St Anthony's Monastery

23/03/2015 11:40 GMT | Updated 20/05/2015 10:59 BST

2015-03-20-1426864516-2868442-EE1.JPG

The view from the plane was encouraging. Forget Fifty Shades of Grey, who knew there could be so many different blues, a whole 'Farrow and Ball' range from cornflower blue to teal and turquoise, deep navy to Barclays Bank blue. The Red Sea couldn't have looked bluer and a week in Hurghada for some much needed Winter Sun seemed even more appealing. "You'll hate it" old Travel Channel colleagues, announced surprised at my choice. However, I went prepared for an ugly sprawl, a mass market resort where it's possible to get a ridiculously cheap package holiday. £23 a day all inclusive (four meals, breakfast, lunch, tea and dinner + snacks and all drinks). If you could afford the time, who'd stay at home and judging by the literally hundreds of Europeans and Russians many had decided not to.

2015-03-20-1426864682-7750658-EE2.JPG

I'm always asked where's my favourite place, not difficult, always the last one I've been to and then worst. I don't normally have an answer for the latter, I've even started to like Dubai. Hurghada the leading resort on the Red Sea, 506 km South of Cairo was never going to win any beauty competition prize and at first glance, a dusty mass of building work and concrete it was in danger of taking up the position of my least favourite place. However, Hurghada's attractions mainly lie under the water, it's a well known diving destination with the warmest, clear water diving to the UK and this is where it's appeal really lies. I'm not a diver but The James and Mac Diving Centre based at the Giftun Azur Resort aloud me to join one of their dive boats for the day and a chance to snorkel amongst a myriad of magical marine life. The water was surprisingly cold (a wetsuit was needed) but the fascinating underwater world didn't disappoint. The Red Sea is unique in that it is home to around 20 per cent of the endemic fish species of the world and also for it's varied and rich coral reefs - more than 400 species of corals have so far been recorded.

2015-03-20-1426864803-7571892-EE3.JPG

Egypt's Red Sea coast runs from the Gulf of Suez in the north to the Sundanese border in the south. It is, effectively, the east coast of mainland Egypt looking across the sea to Sinai. Looking away from the desert and out from the coastline, you will find islands reachable on short boat trips and each with their own individual appeal. Giftun Island (renamed by many local travel companies as "Paradise Island") is among the main diving sites to which day-boats take diving parties. It's a beautiful sand reef, surrounded by a garden of corals and is a popular day trip, not only for divers but for those who like me just want to soak up the sunshine on the sandy beach and swim in the clear waters.

2015-03-20-1426865037-7489193-EE4.JPG

It is possible to escape the booming holiday resort and see parts of town that feel actually Egyptian. In Ed-Dahar, the old town (separated from the coast by a rock massif known as Jebel el-afish) the streets are strewn with litter, the buildings collapsing but at least it feels real. I'm never happier than when at a local market, enjoying the colours, the life and the friendly banter amongst the stall holders. The fish market next to the imposing mosque is also a great although somewhat whiffy place for a stroll.

2015-03-20-1426865176-5008164-EE5.JPG

I see no point in going anywhere unless you see some culture. Yes, relax by the pool, enjoy the sunshine and blue water but seven days of that would bore me rigid. The diving is undeniably first rate but there's one other nearby attraction, that's little known but in itself worth the visit alone. Hidden away in the barren cliffs of the Eastern Desert, the Coptic Christian Monasteries of St Anthony and St Paul are the oldest in Egypt. Built during the 4th century AD, they represent the beginning of the Christian monastic tradition. Wherever you step in Egypt, you're tripping over monuments and they've been attracting artists, writers, looters and tourists for centuries. However, what was special about St Anthony's Monastery was the sheer lack of tourists, just the one small group that I was with. Whilst St Catherine 's Monastery in the Sinai on the other side of the Red Sea is a major attraction for those visiting the resort of Sharm El Sheik, we had St Anthony's to ourselves and the undivided attention of one of the resident monks.

2015-03-20-1426865299-5818837-EE6.JPG

Father Ruwais Anthony, (all the monks have Anthony as their second name) should really have his own TV show. Speaking fluent English, good humorously teasing my fellow day trippers and chatting away to goodness knows who on his mobile phone. He repeatedly asked whether I had a little gift for him. Now, I don't tend to carry my "present draw" around with me on day trips to monasteries and he was therefore somewhat underwhelmed in receiving the only thing I could think to give him (a yellow highlighter pen). Well, he did after all have the latest I phone 6.

2015-03-20-1426865469-9118295-EE7.JPG

Despite attacks from Bedouin tribes in the 8th and 9th centuries, from Muslims in the 11th century and a murderous revolt in the 15th century, the monastery has retained much of it's original appearance and even though they have to get up at 4am daily for at least a couple of hours of prayer before breakfast the 70 resident monks remain a happy and contented lot. The monastery has several churches, chapels, a vegetable garden along with a lot of splendid wall paintings in the Church of St Anthony's, which contains the saint's tomb.

2015-03-20-1426865625-2596337-EE8.JPG

320 meters above the monastery is the cave where St Anthony lived. You'll need to climb the 1158 steps (just over half an hour) in order to get to the cave. The entrance is tiny but it widens out into the miniature chapel where the monk worshipped. It is hard to imagine living here for forty years, I'm somewhere claustrophobic and barely managed five minutes. Take a torch to see and a pen and paper to write your wish to St Anthony (mine was that I could live as long as he did, legend says to the grand old age of 105). There's a little tin on the alter in which to deposit your wishes.

2015-03-20-1426865775-802827-EE9.JPG

Along with St Anthony's, St Paul's is considered one of the oldest Christian monasteries and is also home to a fine collection of manuscripts, alters and wall paintings. Separated from St Anthony's by some 85 km it was sadly closed on my visit due to it being lent. Interest in Egypt is rising as memories of the violent revolution start to fade. Hurghada, is winter sun with a touch of bling, appealing to divers and anyone looking for a ridiculously good value place to fly and flop with easy access to the sights in Luxor. However, if you've seen the latter on a Nile Cruise and still want a dose of culture then the Monastery at St Anthony's is a rare treat.

Monarch operates scheduled flights to Hurghada from Manchester airport with fares, including taxes and fees, starting from £154.99 one way