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Hotel Sofitel Legend Old Cataract Aswan
History, review and photos of Hotel Sofitel Legend Old Cataract Aswan
Article added on May 1, 2012 at 23:48 Egyptian time

Rebirth of a Legend: impressions of the completely renovated Old Cataract Hotel

Hotel Sofitel Legend Old Cataract Aswan is one of the world's legendary hotels. Before the 2008/11 renovation, the original building was much more attractive than the so-called New Cataract, which had been referred to as the “hospital” by both staff and regular guests. After the renovation, the historic Palace Wing, the new name for the Old Cataract, still looks great. However, the New Cataract, now renamed Nile Wing, with its fabulous balconies overlooking the Nile, has become the place to stay in style.

In the renovation process, the number of rooms has been reduced from 275 to just 138. Today, the hotel is more luxurious than ever. All Nile Wing rooms enjoy Nile view and feature a balcony.

In April 2012, I stayed in the Prestige Suite 2703 on the seventh floor of the Nile wing. It does not get better than that, although the Opera Suites in the corners enjoy Nile views to two sides, with windows in the living room too.

My room 2703 was one of 14 Prestige Suites in the Nile Wing with a surface of
67m². Take one like mine in the upper floors and you will not regret it. The rooms, bathrooms and  balconies are decorated with furniture in beech wood from Dubai. The room doors are made of Zen wood. The rooms, bathrooms and balconies are floored with teak wood from Dubai.

In the bathroom of the Prestige Suites, you can enjoy a great view from the free standing bathtub by Villeroy & Boch. In addition, the bathroom is equipped with a separate walk-in shower, two sinks and a toilet. The appropriate bathroom amenities were Un Jardin sur le Nil, created by Hermès in 2005.

The large balconies in the Prestige Suites are equipped with two deck chairs as well as a sofa, two chairs and table. The upper floors balcony is giving you some welcome shadow, the location high above the Nile the necessary privacy.

2703 was equipped with a tea and coffee making facility; in fact a coffee making machine as well as a kettle. In addition, the hotel offers in all rooms a red and a green button next to the bed to indicate whether you prefer not to be disturbed or whether you would like your room to be made up. That's exactly as it should be; no more unfashionable hanging out of signs that may fall down. Only very few hotels offer this service (yet).

On my site inspection, I have not seen a single boring room. The French interior designer, Sybille de Margerie has created a calm atmosphere, inspired by the Arabian style décor of the 1902 restaurant. Colors vary from one room to another. The style is fresher in the Nile Wing and more traditional in the Palace Wing. In the Nile Wing, Sybille de Margerie used crimson, cream, gold and sienna, whereas the Palace Wing is dominated by emerald, ecru, anis and aqua.

The bathroom colors vary too. I remember the Indian green marble in the Agatha Christie Suite, which could be found in some other bathrooms too. The Agatha Christie Suite was more feminine, more elegant in my opinion than the Winston Churchill Suite, which in return has the great advantage of an enormous terrace situated directly over the hotel's main and bar terrace.

Breakfast on the Nile terrace was served in style on a three-tier stand, reminding me of an elegant English Afternoon Tea. The second day, the attentive staff brought everything I had requested in addition to the basics the day before: a muesli with soymilk, sliced mangos, freshly squeezed orange juice, loose green tea with a removable strainer as well as some falafel. At Hotel Sofitel Legend Old Cataract Aswan you will enjoy a breakfast that you won't forget, Nile view inclusive!

The spa is situated on the ground and on the first floor of the Nile Wing. It includes a state-of-the art gym with Technogym exercise machines as well as a sauna and a very recommendable Hamam with two rooms, one warm and one hot; thanks to a staff member, I found out that some 10 minutes in the Hamam after one hour in the gym was the ideal combination for perfect relaxation.

The Spa features eight treatment rooms, in one of which I enjoyed a one-hour traditional, oriental massage by Tuk, the excellent Thai masseuse. Nefertari and Cinq Mondes are the two brands chosen for the Spa treatments. I went with sesame oil, scented with lemon grass.

Last but not least, let's mention Dominique Ferchaud, the French chef who is cooking on a Michelin-star level. In short, Hotel Sofitel Legend Old Cataract Aswan with its 138 rooms, including 82 suites, is currently second to none in Egypt.



A history of the Old Cataract in Aswan, Upper Egypt
  
The Old Catarat Hotel Aswan was finished in the last year of the 19th century and opened, according to The Egyptian Gazette of January 3, 1900 in the first month of the new century. It was not fully finished until a few years later.

Thomas Cook & Son, present in Egypt since 1869, had offered beds in a decent hotel in Aswan since 1892, but just two seasons later, they were forced to employ a moored boat as a floating hotel again to satisfy the demand (Humphreys).

Situated on a granite bluff overseeing the Nile, the Old Cataract Hotel became an instant success. It was designed by the Englishman Henri Favarger, who had already added  some fairy-table Arabian magic to the existing Mena House by the Locke-King family in Giza some thirteen years earlier.

At the Old Cataract Hotel, Henri Favarger built Moorish horseshoe arches and decorated it with Mashrabiya screens and brass hanging lanterns. The success of the hotel was such that tents had to be erected to cope with the influx of travelers. In 1902, a third story with additional 60 rooms was added, bringing the total number of rooms to 220. The hotel was already equipped with a hydroelectric elevator.

For the dining hall at the Old Cataract Hotel, inaugurated on December 10, 1902 Henri Favarger was inspired by the Mamluk mosques of Cairo. The base of the central dome was decorated with carved “stalactites” and punctuated by windows covered with grills modeled on the those of Cairo's Ibn Tulun Mosque; it cost the equivalent of $1.2 million today! Present at the opening, which was coupled with a ball in honor of the opening of the Aswan Dam, were Khedive Abbas, the sovereign of Egypt, the former British consul-general Lord Cromer, the contractor of the Aswan Dam, John Aird, as well as the Duke of Connaught, the third son of Queen Victoria, together with his wife.

At the Old Cataract Hotel, guests indulged in sitting on the Nile terrace, playing bridge, crocket, golf, tennis, polo and witnessing donkey and camel races by locals.

Al-Ahram newspaper criticized Henri Favarager for an act of vandalism, because his workmen had come across 200 mummies while leveling the driveway to the hotel, which they simply destroyed with their picks.

The general manager and leaseholder of the Old Cataract Hotel was Ferdinand Pagnon, who co-owned the Upper Egypt Hotels Company, established in 1905, mainly with the Swiss hotelier Charles Bähler aka Baehler (1868-1937) and the Cypriote George Nungovich in collaboration with Thomas Cook & Son.

Born in Bourgoin near Lyon in 1847, the Frenchman Pagnon had moved to Egypt with his parents in 1855. After his father's death, he took over the family's Hotel Pagnon in Ismailiya. After managing hotel Victoria in Venice, John Cook persuaded him to return to Egypt to organize the Thomas Cook Nile expeditions.

In 1877, John Cook had decided to build Hotel Luxor, first managed and later owned by Ferdinand Pagnon. With money lent from Cook, the Frenchman even bought two other hotels in Egypt. While still under constructing, the Old Cataract Hotel was leased to him too. John Cook, who had built the Egyptian travel business, died in March 1899 well before the opening of the Aswan luxury hotel. Ferdinand Pagnon himself died from pneumonia in Aswan in 1909.

Since 1905, the Old Cataract had become part of Charles Baehler's Upper Egypt Hotels Company, of which Pagnon was just a small minority stakeholder. With the exception of the Savoy in Aswan, the company controlled all major hotels in southern Egypt.

In 1937, Agatha Christie's novel Death on the Nile was published, best interpreted on screen by the unforgettable Sir Peter Ustinov (German article)  The Cataract hotel was named and described in her murder story. The author had visited Egypt as a debutante in 1910, again in 1931 and in 1933, then in company of her second husband, the archeologist Max Mallowan, as well as the daughter by her first marriage, Rosalind. In 1934, Agatha Christie had already published a novel entitled Death on the Nile, but with a different plot and cast of characters.

For the movie starring Peter Ustinov as detective Hercule Poirot as well as Bette Davis, David Niven, Mia Farrow, Maggie Smith as well as other stars, scenes were shot on the hotel terrace as well as in the restaurant 1902. In the movie, the hotel entrance was on the side of the terrace. In reality, no barouche ever approached the Old Cataract from that side. The movie director took other liberties to make it more colorful, for instance adding a souk to Nile side of the hotel. However, the paddle steamer which stopped in front of the hotel was real, one of three still functioning on the Nile today.

The shooting of the Death on the Nile scenes at the hotel took several weeks, with the Old Cataract still receiving guests. All leading actors stayed at the nearby Mövenpick Resort Aswan, then an Oberoi hotel.

Another movie shot on the hotel ground was the 1980s Awakening, starring a Pharaonic princess who awakened after thousands of years.




More celebrities, anecdotes and details

Sultan Muhammad Shah, Aga Khan III, first stayed at the Old Cataract in 1937 on his honeymoon trip. Subsequently, he reserved a suite every winter. Before his death in 1957, he requested to be buried in Aswan, with his mausoleum facing the Old Cataract Hotel from the other side of the Nile.

A lesser-known regular guest at the Old Cataract Hotel was Lord Benbrook. He annually booked a room and was not amused when his favorite table on the terrace was taken. He informed the seated party that the table was reserved. “Since when?”, an American in a comfortable chair asked. “Since 20 years”, Lord Benbrook coolly replied (Humphreys).

In 1941-2, King Farouk reserved an entire floor for himself and his guests. He was said to have enjoyed taking potshots from his balcony at Nubian boys paddling their boats on the Nile below. In the gastronomic restaurant 1902, you will see four balconies above you. Two were destined for musicians who entertained Farouk, the other two for women of whom the notorious playboy would later chose one for his very private entertainment.

Incidentally, over the Royal Table at 1902 hangs the hotel's oldest chandelier, dating back to 1898. According to the restaurant manager, 1902 features Egypt's oldest piano (?), signed “1900 Paris” and “1904 St. Louis”.

The longtime hotel manager Karim El Ghoul, who had arrived at the hotel in 1975 aged 16, told me several stories and showed me many photographs as well as Golden Book entries. His father had been a famous chef nicknamed “Meshmesh” (apricot), who had worked many years at the Old Cataract, at the Winter Palace in Luxor as well as abroad. Karim El Ghoul's grandfather had even worked at the Old Cataract since its opening!

The hotel manager told me that the New Cataract had not been constructed for the Russian engineers who built the High Dam. In fact, there had already been a pre-existing four-storey hotel dating from 1963, which was simply enlarged for the Arab Summit of 1966 to the present nine floors.

Karim El Ghoul told me that not everything at the hotel was so glamorous in the great old times. Until the 1980s, just 16 room had a private bathroom! All rooms had sinks with hot and cold water, but most guests had to share public baths together. [Added on July 27, 2012: Incidentally, many of the not so fancy rooms without bath were of course occupied by the servants of wealthy clients].

Karim El Ghoul also remembered the frequent guest François Mitterrand. I found his last signature dated February 28, 1995. He died in January the following year. The manager remembers the former French president sitting all day long on the terrace of the Churchill Suite just one week before his death. He was accompanied by his daughter Mazarine, fostered out of wedlock and whose existence had been a state secret until just two years before his death.

Among the many politicians and celebrities found in the Golden Book and/or documented on photographs let's mention Nicolas Sarkozy (as minister of the interior), President Jacques Chirac, Prime Minister Jospin, Princess Diana in 1986, whose pink dress Karim El Ghoul remembers as if it had been yesterday, many kings, queens and presidents, sixteen alone for an event organized in honor of the opening of the new Alexandria Library.

A quasi historic document is the Golden Book entry by the later Israeli president Ezer Weizman, who came in context with the Peace accords between Israel and Egypt. His entry is all in Arabic and a kind of peace manifesto. Maybe Karim El Ghoul will later translate if for me.

The Golden Book is endless. And we are talking only about the last one. Sofitel Legend Old Cataract Aswan has a great past, an impressive present and surely a great future!

Sources, literature, further reading:


Andrew Humphreys: Grand Hotels of Egypt in the Golden Age of Travel, The American University in Cairo Press, 2011, 215 pages. Andrew Humphreys: Grand Hotels of Egypt in the Golden Age of Travel, The American University in Cairo Press, 2011, 215 pages. Order it from Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.comAmazon.de. This book was a valuable source for my article.

L. Gaulis, R. Creux: Pionniers suisses de l'hôtellerie, 1975.

F. Ammann: Schweizer Gastgeberfamilien, 1980.

Manager Karim El Ghoul.

Egyptian art books from Amazon.comAmazon.co.ukAmazon.de.

Today's deals at Amazon.com - Special offers on new releases from Amazon.co.uk.


The bar with its contemporary, yellow chandeliers. Photos © Hotel Sofitel Legend Old Cataract Aswan / Fabrice Rambert.


Al Saraya Restaurant. Photos © Hotel Sofitel Legend Old Cataract Aswan / Fabrice Rambert.



View of the hotel, its pool and the Nile from one of the hotel's fabulous Nile Wing rooms. Photos © Hotel Sofitel Legend Old Cataract Aswan / Fabrice Rambert.


The fabulous Terrace, where breakfast is served; behind the separation in the background, you can find the bar terrace. Photos © Hotel Sofitel Legend Old Cataract Aswan / Fabrice Rambert. - Egyptian art books from Amazon.comAmazon.co.ukAmazon.de.


A Nile Prestige Suite as mine (2703) with a green, contemporary chandelier over the bed. In the foreground you would find a large sitting area. The Nile view from the balcony is spectacular. Behind this window, you have the sofa, a table and two chairs, which have been removed for the photo. To the right on the balcony, you would find another large space with two deck chairs. In the room to the right is the spacious bathroom with Nile view. Photos © Hotel Sofitel Legend Old Cataract Aswan / Fabrice Rambert.


A bathroom as of my Prestige Suite 2703 on the seventh floor of the Nile Wing. To the left of the bathtub is a floor-to-ceiling window front with doors which open to the elegant balcony in beech wood. Photos © Hotel Sofitel Legend Old Cataract Aswan / Fabrice Rambert.


Andrew Humphreys: Grand Hotels of Egypt in the Golden Age of Travel, The American University in Cairo Press, 2011, 215 pages. Order it from Amazon.co.uk. This book was a valuable source for my article. - Egyptian art books from Amazon.comAmazon.co.ukAmazon.de.


An in-room dinner on a lower floor in the Nile Wing. Photos © Hotel Sofitel Legend Old Cataract Aswan / Fabrice Rambert.


A Palace Wing Cataract Suite. Photos © Hotel Sofitel Legend Old Cataract Aswan / Fabrice Rambert.


The Library. The design by Sybille de Margerie is new, many of the books old. Photos © Hotel Sofitel Legend Old Cataract Aswan / Fabrice Rambert.


View of a Palace Luxury Room. There are only recommendable rooms in the hotel. Photos © Hotel Sofitel Legend Old Cataract Aswan / Fabrice Rambert.


View from the Oriental Kebabgy Terrace, where you can for instance enjoy Lebanese food. Photos © Hotel Sofitel Legend Old Cataract Aswan / Fabrice Rambert.


The large pool area. Photos © Hotel Sofitel Legend Old Cataract Aswan / Fabrice Rambert.


The indoor pool. Photos © Hotel Sofitel Legend Old Cataract Aswan / Fabrice Rambert.


The reception area. Photos © Hotel Sofitel Legend Old Cataract Aswan / Fabrice Rambert.

Deutsch Politik Geschichte Kunst Film Musik Lebensart Reisen
English Politics History Art Film Music Lifestyle Travel
Français Politique Histoire Arts Film Musique Artdevivre Voyages

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© Copyright www.cosmopolis.ch  Louis Gerber  All rights reserved.