Alexandria, 2009

Visitors had to pay 6LE to enter the Montazah Gardens but as our hotel was in the garden grounds, we could enjoy it for free. The area had been used by royal families in the past as a summer retreat. Our hotel used to be one of the palaces, built in an Austrian style by Abbas Hilmy Pasha for his Austro-Hungarian mistress.

When we walked in, everyone looked shocked. We reckoned it was either our backpacks or the early arrival. As the hotel was not within walking distance of the city centre, we spent the rest of the day relaxing and walking around the gardens, which we discovered was popular among young couples looking for some quiet time. We did not see many people on the beach.

Window cleaners and mannequins

On Day 2 we took a taxi to the Bibliotheca Alexandria. Instead of paying the admission charge, we decided to admire it from the outside. I watched the window cleaners at work. The angled windows reminded me a little of the Esplanade arts centre in Singapore. B was intrigued with the analemmatic sundial.

Walking towards the central area, we passed some clothing shops. The thing that struck me was how sickly the mannequins looked, as if they'd just left the hospital. I don't know why I found that significant.

Lunch was at Athineos, one of the cafes carried over from a more intellectually active era. It was empty when we got there. Whatever nostalgia we were supposed to experience had been lost to neglect.

True hospitality

Our ultimate destination was Fort Qaitbey, where the Lighthouse of Alexandria - one of the seven ancient wonders - once stood. As we walked, people kept coming up to us to say hi or welcome. One old man invited us into his shop for coffee. (We declined.) There was none of the hassling found in Cairo and Luxor.

On the way towards Midan Tahrir, we stopped at a Brazilian Coffee Store, established 1929, around the Attarine area. As B wanted to find out whether the Americano was made with the Brazilian beans instead of Nescafe, we got into a clumsy conversation with the barista. This necessitated the employment of our full vocabulary of Arabic words, not all of them relevant:

  • aiwa (yes)
  • la (no)
  • shukran (thank you)
  • momtaz (excellent)

We made a fool of ourselves. This had the effect of breaking the ice, although it wasn't at all necessary since everyone was so friendly to start with.

Local life

At Fort Qaitbey, we sat with the locals and watched men fish while waiting for the sun to set. As we were heading back to the city centre, it began to rain, briefly. A group of girls walked past us, smiling and saying something. B thought it sounded like "love your hairdo". Two young men said, as they overtook us, "Welcome to Alex."

The rain stopped just before darkness fell. I tried taking pictures of the orange and purple sky. An old man stood observing. I showed him a playback and he slowly patted me on the shoulder. That was the best welcome I had received during our 17 days in Egypt.

After some foul Eskandria, falafel, humus and omelette at Mohamed Ahmed, we found another, bigger, Brazilian Coffee Store along Saad Zaghloul. We took our coffees to sip by the window, watching locals pass along an alley off a busy shopping street, smiling and waving back to them as they greeted us.

Inside the taxi that we took back to the hotel, it was all fancy lights and thumping Arabic dance music. I sort of liked the music. I said to the driver, "Your taxi is cool." As if on cue, he turned the music up several notches, started driving faster and took out the last cigarette from his packet one-handed, lit it and began to smoke.

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