Category Archives: Shepheard’s

Posts about what was once one of the world’s most famous hotels.

If you knew Suzy

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Still on the theme of divas. I was at the recently reopened Musée Carnavalet in the Marais district of Paris, a beguiling labyrinth of grand old spaces devoted to the history of the city. In a room documenting Parisian city life of the mid 20th century I found the above painting of Suzy Solidor. She was most definitely a diva and there is an Egypt connection.

She was born Suzanne Louise Marie Marion, later changing her name to Suzy Solidor when she became a cabaret star and eventual owner of a number of infamous Parisian nightclubs. No surprise really that the Carnavalet should have a portrait of her because there were many of them made, mostly at the request of Madam Solidor herself. She was an obsessive collector of her own image, a Kim Kardashian of the 1930s, documenting herself in painted portraits rather than selfies. She commissioned portraits from artists as diverse as Francis Picabia, Jean Cocteau, Kees van Dongen, Tamara de Lempicka (below) and Francis Bacon. They hung in her clubs, where she and her guest artists would perform in front of them. After the Second World War, she was convicted as a collaborator because she’d kept her nightclubs open during German occupation and willingly, it was said, served German officers. She had to leave France and travelled to the US, taking her favourite portraits with her. By the time she died in 1983, she was completely forgotten.

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I first came across her name when she was mentioned in connection with the burning down of Shepheard’s hotel, in January 1952. Some of the newspaper accounts of the event record that one of the fleeing guests was Suzy Solidor. Some mention that she lost her jewellery in the fire; some reported later that some of her gems were recovered. Since then I’ve always been intrigued to know what she was doing in Cairo. Was she looking to add a selfie painted by Mahmoud Said to her collection? It’s unlikely we’ll ever know. Still, Solidor’s presence at Shepheard’s suggests that the hotel retained an air of glamour until the end.

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New Shepheard’s book

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Tarek Ibrahim’s book on Shepheard’s hotel is finally available. Back in 2016 I wrote about Tarek’s dogged research to uncover the identity of the hotel’s architect and of the trail that led to a castle in Bavaria containing the architect’s archive (such as it is). Here’s the link. All of this was done for his doctoral thesis, which has now been published by the German Archaeological Institute in Cairo.

The book – which was presented at the American University in Cairo earlier this year – focuses on the systematic documentation and analysis of the building and the different styles employed in its extravagant decoration. As Tarek writes, “More than merely lodging for travellers, Shepheard’s was a means to ‘step through the looking glass’, the very embodiment of Cairo and the tourist attractions along the Nile, and an essential part of the journey to Egypt in the golden age of travel.”

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Famed hotelier outed as vandal

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Marleen de Meyer of the University of Leuven and the Netherlands-Flemish Institute in Cairo emailed this week to draw my attention to a bit of graffiti she’d found in a Giza tomb. It reads ‘1860 S. Shepheard Eathorpe’. This has to be the work of the Samuel Shepheard, founder of Shepheard’s hotel, Cairo. Eathorpe is the address of his home in England, which he departed Egypt for in 1860. This defacing of a monument must have been one of Shepheard’s last (and least welcome) contributions to Egypt before retiring.

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The tomb, says Marleen, is G6020 and belongs to a man named Iymery; it’s located in the cemetery field to the west of Khufu’s pyramid. It is published in Kent Weeks’ Mastabas of Cemetery G6000 (Boston Museum of Fine Arts, 1994). The photos here are courtesy of Marleen.

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Sightseeing in Cairo

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In January 1869, exactly 150 years ago, Miss Riggs joined Thomas Cook’s very first tour to Egypt and the Holy Land. Travelling overland, the journey would take three months, there and back. Miss Riggs kept a diary of her adventure and I am going to be posting from it over the coming weeks. This is day fifteen.

Monday, 8 February
Started at 8 o’clock by train to Cairo – 5 hours journey, 150 miles – through the Delta … We first passed large swamps and Lake Mareotis, close to Alexandria; flat country – the first mud villages I had ever seen – the same all through the Delta. Arrived at Cairo at 2 o’clock, omnibus and carriage to Hotel Shepheard – not room for all so I, Miss Porter, Mr. Brewin, Dr. Lorne, Mr. Frith, Mr. Luckie and a few others to the Hotel l’Orient. Ours a very curious hotel – sale at the back and dark, but did very well.

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After lunch we went for a drive to the grand mosque of Mehmet Ali, standing on a hill with commanding view of the country, the green winding outline for miles which showed the course of the Nile – the pyramids at Gizeh – the pyramids of Sakara and Dashour and the grand and endless desert; this hill is called the Citadel. We descended what is called Joseph’s Well – hewn in the rock 260 ft. deep – a circular descent. A very deep well indeed and very tiring coming up; a winding cutting in the solid rock. From there drove to the bazaars – too late – they close at 5. Table d’hote at 6 – spent evening in bedroom.

So, 15 days and countless trains, carriages and boats to get from London to Cairo in 1869. It shows just what an undertaking travel was 150 years ago. Had Miss Riggs been travelling thirteen years earlier, she could have added another couple of days to the trip because prior to 1856, which was when the railway between Alexandria and Cairo opened, she would have had to be punted slowly up the Nile between the two cities.

The party finds Shepheard’s full because this is not the grand hotel of later fame with its 300-plus rooms, but a previous, smaller incarnation of the hotel. The alternative hotel to which Miss Riggs and some of the others are directed, the Hotel l’Orient, was on the far side of the Ezbekiyya Gardens, on the edge of the old city.

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The Mohamed Ali Mosque she visits is not long completed (1857). She provides a lengthy description in her diary, which I’ve left out. More interesting is her descent into Joseph’s Well. This, of course, has nothing to do with the biblical Joseph and was sunk during the era of Salah ad-Din. It is an 87-metre deep shaft wound around by a spiraling staircase. It was a big tourist attraction in the 19th-century but has long been closed to the public because its decrepit state makes it extremely dangerous.

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Vintage Cairo from the BnF

Ryder Kouba, a colleague working at AUC, recently pointed me to the website of the Bibliothèque nationale de France. I wish I had known about it when I was putting together Grand Hotels. It has some excellent vintage images of Cairo and Egypt that I would have loved to have included in the book. Malish, maybe if we do a second, updated edition. Meanwhile, see if you can identify the places below – captions at the end.

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The pics are Emad ed-Din Street; the main entrance of the Savoy Hotel on Qasr el-Nil Street; Boulaq Bridge, looking toward Zamalek, since replaced by the 26th of July Flyover; the Heliopolis Palace Hotel under construction (now the presidential palace); Shepheard’s Hotel, burned down in 1952; Ataba Square, looking west; Bab al-Hadid Station, now Ramses Square; Opera Square; Rondpont Suleiman Pasha, now Midan Talaat Harb, dominated by the Savoy Hotel; the Hotel d’ Angleterre, next to the Hashamayim synagogue on what’s now Adly Street; Shepheard’s street-side terrace; rue Suleiman Pasha, now Talaat Harb; the Boulaq bridge.

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An eyewitness to the burning of Shepheard’s

Another curiosity discovered in the archives of the American University in Cairo. In an old alumni newsletter I saw a notice for the death of Claude Feninger, who was described as the last manager of the old Shepheard’s hotel. Really? I’d never heard of him. A little googling and I find that it’s more or less true and that Claude even wrote an autobiography, Sang Froid: Keeping My Cool in the International Hotel Business, much of which can be read online.

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Born in Cairo of an Egyptian father of Swiss descent and a Neapolitan mother, after completing his education Claude had to wait until the end of World War II before taking the first boat out of Alexandria. He was bound for the Ecole des Hoteliers in Lausanne, Switzerland. After a brief experience managing a small hotel in a Swiss resort town, he returned to Cairo at the age of 25 to become the ‘resident manager’ of Shepheard’s, working under general manger Antoine Foester.

You can’t trust everything Claude writes. For instance he says Shepheard’s was the first hotel built in the world, which is a ludicrous claim to make – it wasn’t even the first in Cairo. He also says that he started work on 12 October 1952, which he calls ‘the best day of my life’. Except Shepheard’s burned down on 26 January 1952. I think that’s probably a typo and was meant to be 12 October 1951. Claude knows very well when Shepheard’s burned down because he was there and he describes the day in his book.

He relates how that Saturday began with Mrs Blanche Weinberg, a long-term resident, knocking on his office door to tell him she was off to spend the day in Maadi with her daughter-in-law. Twenty minutes later there is a call from Mr Ibrahim Yehya, the minister of culture and a family friend. He says there are anti-British riots breaking out in the city and that Shepheard’s may well be targeted. Claude thanks him for the information and goes to find his boss, Antoine Foester. Foester can’t be found so Claude takes his passkey and goes through the hotel, instructing all the guests to leave what they’re doing and quickly assemble in the gardens at the back of the hotel. By noon, the streets are filled with rioters chanting, ‘Death to England. Death to the puppet Farouk’. Black smoke rises above the surrounding streets. Nubian staff are posted at the entrances to the hotel but the rioters force their way in and start fires all over the hotel. As the flames take hold, 250 guests are in the garden, terrified. They need to be evacuated and taken through the city streets to somewhere safe. Claude steps up on a chair and shouts at the rioters. ‘You’ve done your damage. Now I need some help take the guests to safety.’ He was, he says, swamped by willing volunteers.

Once the flames died down three bodies were found in the ruins. Two were looters found in the basement where the hotel kept its silver. The other was found in suite 302. It was Mrs Weinberg, who must have changed her mind about going to Maadi and returned to the hotel. Claude had never checked her room because he thought she was out for the day.

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In the picture above (click to enlarge), the streetfront terrace is at the bottom of the picture with steps in the middle leading up to the main entrance. The domed structure is the Moorish hall. To the left, beyond the burned-out Shepheard’s, is the Windsor hotel, still in business today.

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Thieves Fall Out (in Cairo)

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The versatile Gore Vidal wrote 25 novels, two volumes of memoirs, countless essays, plus numerous plays and screenplays, including for the films Ben Hur and Suddenly Last Summer. But he is probably best remembered for simply being Gore Vidal, originator of such fine aphorisms as ‘Every time a friend succeeds, I die a little’ and ‘The four most beautiful words in our common language: “I told you so”’. He also suggested that ‘Any American who is prepared to run for president should automatically by definition be disqualified from ever doing so’ – an idea whose time came and went in 2016. What Gore Vidal certainly will never be remembered for is a book he wrote in 1952 called Thieves Fall Out.

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In the early 1950s, the high-living Vidal found himself short of cash. Still only in his twenties, he had already written several serious novels but they had failed to provide any sort of decent income. So he turned to pulp fiction, knocking out a short novel of two-fisted adventure in the space of a few weeks for a $3,000 paycheque. This was Thieves Fall Out, which was published under the pseudonym of Cameron Kay and was all but ignored by the book-buying public and quickly forgotten until over 60 years later it was rediscovered and republished in the spring of 2015 by an imprint specialising in reviving lost works of pulp crime fiction. There’s good reason this book was out of print for so long: it’s bad. It’s a B-movie take on Casablanca, a tale of a young American drifter who finds himself broke in foreign lands and in order to earn some money becomes entangled with a femme fatale who entices him into a scheme to smuggle a valuable antique necklace out of the country. There’s a piano-playing, brothel-running hunchback named La Mouche and the beautiful daughter of a high-ranking Nazi as the love interest. What it doesn’t have is a topless dancer wielding a wickedly curving dagger as depicted on the cover of the 2015 reprint at the top of this post but, still, you are never quite sure whether it is meant to be a parody or not. But you will understand what makes the book fascinating to me when I tell you that the story’s setting is Egypt and, more specifically for large parts, Shepheard’s hotel.

Vidal spent two or three weeks in Egypt in spring 1948. According to his biographer, Fred Kaplan, the writer stayed at ‘El Mint Hotel’, a modest place out near the Pyramids but spent his days hanging out at Shepheard’s, where he wrote in one of the public rooms, and it shows:

Shepheard’s was a long building, several stories high, with big shuttered windows and a porch on the side street, where, at numerous tables, foreigners and rich Egyptians sat at the end of the day, watching the street and drinking aperitifs; but at this time of day the porch was deserted.

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With a show of confidence, he walked up the steps to the main door, glad to be rid at last of the beggars, who now fell into position against the terrace wall, waiting for American and European victims.

The lobby of the hotel was blissfully cool after the heat outside. Negro servants in hotel livery moved silently about the great room, carrying bags, doing errands for the guests. Though it was out of season, there were still quite a few guests here, he saw to his relief. Help would come from them, though he was not sure how.

He sauntered from the main lobby into a vast room with a high domed ceiling, like the interior of a mosque, much decorated, ornate, Turkish in style. It was cool and mysterious with dark alcoves in which people sat doing business: fat stolid Europeans and lean, red-faced British, exchanging papers, peering at small type, murmuring their deals in low voices.

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At the end of the room, to the left, was the famous bar, a wood-panelled room with an oval-shaped bar at which stood a dozen men in white suits, drinking, their feet resting on the shining brass rail.

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It’s in Shepheard’s bar that the American Pete Wells encounters the shifty Brit who introduces him to the world of antiquities smuggling.

One evening at L’Auberge des Pyramides nightclub Vidal saw King Farouk with a blonde European girl on his arm: ‘Like a mafia don, with dark glasses, he was surrounded by plainclothesmen, also in dark glasses.’ This finds its way into Thieves Fall Out (where Vidal cattily remarks that Farouk ‘looks more like a dentist than a king’), as does Luxor, which Vidal visited, and where he must have stayed at the Karnak hotel on the Corniche because he makes it the setting for a series of encounters in the book.

Vidal was always interested in politics and maybe the most interesting thing about Thieves Fall Out is that it is set against the backdrop of the 1952 Revolution. Like the recently released film The Nile Hilton Incident (which I saw again last week and which is even better on second viewing) the chaos of the revolution swarms around the final scenes of the story.

If you can overlook the clichés – Arabs are reliably ‘swarthy’ and women are prostitutes, double-crossing sirens or nightclub singers in need of rescue – then Thieves Fall Out is a breezy time-travelling trip to a more innocent Cairo, in which waking up to find you’ve been drugged and robbed by the girl you met last night, and deciding to smuggle antiquities to raise money for a ticket home is just all part of the visitor experience.

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Christmas at Shepheard’s, 1898

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George Warrington Steevens (1869–1900) was a British journalist, the most famous war correspondent of his time. He accompanied Kitchener to Khartoum and covered the Second Boer War in South Africa. En route to the latter he spent time enough in Egypt to toss off a state of the nation study, Egypt in 1898, published by Dodd, Mead & Co of New York, 1899. A veteran of the battlefield it was unlikely he was going to have much good to say about the lah-di-dah society of his fellow Englishmen in Cairo and, sure enough, he didn’t.

He certainly did not like the company at his hotel: “Inside Shepheard’s you will find just the Bel Alp in winter quarters. All the people who live in their boxes and grand hotels, who know all lands but no languages, who have been everywhere and done nothing, looked at everything and seen nothing, read everything and know nothing – who spoil the globe by trotting on it.”

He was in residence at Shepheard’s on 25 December: “I woke this morning in the usual cage of mosquito-gauze, rang the bell, and the usual brown face under a tarbush poked itself in at the door: ‘Good Christmas, sar,’ it said. By Jove! Yes, it was Christmas Day; and looking out of window I saw, for the first time in Egypt, a true English sky, heavy and yellow. It was chilly cold too; Egypt is not near so warm as it looks. Looking down from the window, I started. Was I still asleep, or did I really see that great white bird, stork-billed, duck-footed, waddling placidly up to the back-door of Shepheard’s? And then I remembered that a tame pelican of great dignity was wont to disport himself there; but that took all the Christmas out of my mouth.”

“When I got up I found the hotel full of bouquets of roses; a few people went out later, ostensibly to church; but otherwise the wandering English made Christmas Day much like any other day. No such luck for the British residents of Cairo. It seems that when they first came here, the society of Cairo was much concerned to find that they had no day for all going round calling on each other, as Continentals do on New Year’s Day, Levantine Christians on their New Year’s Day, and Mussulmans at Bairam. On consideration, the society of Cairo decided that the British ought to have such an anniversary, and fixed on Christmas Day as the most suitable. So the ladies sit at home all the afternoon dealing out tea, and the gentlemen go round, calling on everybody else, and Egyptian friends call on everybody after the same manner; so that the whole British colony, with native auxiliaries, rotates in a body round itself all Christmas afternoon. A stranger, I was called on for no such effort; so I went out peacefully to lunch.”

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Portrait of George Warrington Steevens by John Maler Collier

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The final journey of Sir Richard Francis Burton

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I made a visit to one of London’s most unusual tombs today. No great hardship as it’s only a 30-minute walk from my own front door. It is the final resting place of the famously restless Sir Richard Francis Burton and his forbearing wife Isabel.

His was a life that is hard to summarise in just a few sentences. He was perhaps the preeminent British explorer of the Victorian age, but he was also a soldier, spy, diplomat, linguist, ethnographer, travel writer, poet, translator and bloody-minded controversialist. He claimed to have learnt Latin at the age of three and Greek at four. In adulthood he was said to be proficient in an astonishing total of 40 languages and dialects. In his university years (Oxford), he was an accomplished boxer, fencer and frequenter of brothels. He began his career as a soldier and intelligence agent in India, where he perfected the art of passing himself off as a trader from the Arab Gulf. In 1853, disguised as a pilgrim he became one of the first Europeans to visit Mecca and Medina. He next ventured into Africa in search of the forbidden fortress city of Harar. At Berbera, an ancient Somali port, his expedition was attacked by local tribesmen one of whom drove a barbed lance through Burton’s face, scarring him for life. Undeterred in 1856, he returned to Africa in search of the source of the Nile in the company of fellow explorer John Hanning Speke. Both men fell sick and both went nearly blind. In 1861, aged 39, he married Isabel Arundell, a devout Roman Catholic who was ten years his junior. She evidently exerted a calming influence because Burton not long after joined the British Foreign Office and was sent as consul successively to Fernando Po (an island of the coast of West Africa), Brazil, Damascus and finally Trieste in Italy, which is where he died in 1890.

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The caption has a Baedeker guide saying to a Murry’s handbook, ‘A bit ahead of us old boy’

Burton was in Egypt several times, notably in 1853 enroute to Mecca. In Cairo he stayed at Shepheard’s hotel, where he came to know the proprietor, this blog’s old friend Samuel Shepheard. In the introduction to later editions of his Pilgrimage to Al Medina and Mecca, Burton thanked Shepheard for helping raise money for the expedition. He was back at the hotel three years later. Perhaps he was looking for money again because when Shepheard mentioned the visit in a letter, it was with a testy, ‘Captain Burton has just come to bother me about his expedition to the interior of Africa’.

Many years later, long after Samuel Shepheard had exchanged Cairo for the life of a wealthy landowner back in his native England – and had died there in 1866 – Burton was back at his former hotel. It was 1877 and he was off in search of gold and other valuable metals in the Arabian peninsula. In his account of the expedition, The Gold Mines of Midian, he writes, ‘I cannot pass Sam Shepheard’s old home without a few words upon the subject of its first owner, a remarkable man in many points’. He praises Shepheard for his independence of mind and manner, noting that he once threw a prince out of the hotel because he ‘would not behave like a gentleman’. According to his biographer, Sam was also independently minded when it came to Burton, who he considered a poseur.

On his death, Isabel tried to have Richard Burton buried in the hallowed precincts of Westminster Abbey. The problem was Burton’s later years had been spent in large part translating international erotica, including the Kama Sutra and The Perfumed Garden. His greatest work was a major new 16-volume translation of The Book of the Thousand and One Nights, in which he played up the sexual content. As a consequence, the establishment considered Burton far too rakish for the Abbey. (This can’t have come as a surprise to Isabel, who was also very uncomfortable with some of her husband’s enthusiasms, so much so that on his death she burned all his manuscripts, notes and diaries.)

Instead, she had him buried in the graveyard of St Mary Magdalen in the then-village of Mortlake, west of London, in what was then one of the city’s few Catholic cemeteries. She designed the tomb herself, which is in the form of an elaborate desert tent, based on one the couple had made for themselves when they lived in Damascus. She joined him in the tomb when her time came in 1896.

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These days the tomb can be visited – though not many do – in a small, unassuming but beautifully tended churchyard beside the railway tracks, not far from Mortlake station. This is how it looked today – thanks to a recent restoration it’s in magnificent condition.

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It is about 12-foot square and 12-foot high, with sloping sides, skilfully carved from sandstone to represent the folds of canvas. In addition to a Christian crucifix, there is also a frieze of gold-painted Islamic crescents running around all four sides. Around the back is ladder so visitors can climb up and peer into the interior of the tomb through a glass panel – which is there supposedly because Richard Burton didn’t like the dark. You can see the two caskets, an iron one on the right containing him and one of mahogany on the left containing her. The walls are festooned with camel bells, which were once wired up to ring when anybody entered the tomb, although the door has since been sealed up to prevent against vandalism.

It’s a fittingly eccentric tomb for a very unconventional couple.

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Dora dines in Cairo

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A pingback linking to this site alerted me to a fascinating post over at the Sydney Living Museums website. It concerns a new book containing correspondence between Dora Sheller and her son Leslie Walford, one of the leading figures in Australian interior design until his death in 2012. In 1929 Dora Walford, a glamorous Sydney socialite, set off on a honeymoon voyage to England, stopping off in Cairo from late December 1929 until the first week of January 1930. She was well-heeled enough to stay at the top hotels, notably Mena House and Shepheard’s. The photo below is Dora on the steps to the tea gardens at Mena House.

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Dora spent Christmas at Shepheard’s and kept hold of the printed and tassel-corded menu for the Christmas Eve dinner at Shepheard’s Grill, with a beautiful cover showing a masqued ball in full swing.

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The Sydney Living Museums post helpfully translates the belt-busting menu:

Blinis with caviar
Tomato soup (served in a cup)
Lobster thermidor
Quail in puff pastry (named for the writer George Sand)
Chicken breast in a rich cream sauce ‘Russian style’
Indian salad (lettuce, cress; a dressing of red wine, vinegar, spices)
Mandarin sorbet with Chantilly cream;
‘Chocolate shoes’ – a novelty chocolate biscuit shaped like a shoe
Chocolate Yule log

A few days later Dora dined at the Mena House and, again, she kept the menu.

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In English:

Consommé garnished with finely diced carrot, turnip, green beans, truffle &c;
Turbot with a tomato sauce
Roast premium cut of lamb cooked with sage
Asparagus
Bresse chicken in a very rich casserole sauce
Ice cream bombe
Fruit basket
Coffee

After getting through all that, you’d imagine Dora wouldn’t have to eat again until she reached England. However there was a trip into the desert – which may have just been across the road to the Pyramids – for which the Mena House provided a picnic that was transported on its own trolley, as seen in the photograph below, which shows Dora’s husband Eric Sheller and son Leslie.

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All these items come from the Caroline Simpson Library & Research Collection, Sydney Living Museums. You can read more here.

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