Alexandira, pearl of the mediterranean
Trip Start Sep 29, 2012
27Trip End Jul 01, 2013
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Alexandria - 23rd-25th October
It's the holidays and we decide to jump on a train for a spontaneous jaunt to Alexandria. By coincidence two friends both have contacts from different Universities in England, also arabic students on a year abroad, who it turns out have met in Alex and are living down the road from eachother. Thanks to their hospitality, the holiday will set us back the price of a return train ticket: about £7.
Having heard mixed stories of seatless jouneys straddling goats and chickens and painfully slow trains doing the journey of 2hours 30mins in 6, we wait for the catch whilst we settle ourselves into an airconditioned carriage with more leg room than any First Great Western
The rising sun casts pinky light over the fields as we fly by workers stooping to tend the fields, donkeys kicking up dust as they pull their carts down the lanes, palm trees laden with deep red dates, brickabrack houses, villagers wading in the shallows of the river and sooty buses and mopeds on the roads.
A few hours later we pull into Alexandria on the northern coast, 2nd largest city in Egypt and forever spitting up the remains of ancient egyptian, roman and greek ruins, this city has a totally different feel to Cairo - positively european. The city's buzz feeds off the life on the long Corniche stretching along a coastline that looks across to Greece. Everything moves at a slower pace here and we spend a long afternoon ambling the corniche, watching the sun set and fishermen at work, and being stopped for photos with various inquisitive bystanders
After dark, Alexandria friends Kat and Rosie take us to a trendy egyptian hub where new films are screened and young writers to watch out for talk about their books. We sit out in the street talking over sheesha and turkish coffee, as various students aquaintances of our hosts come and go.
We stay in an the incredible flat Rosie and friends from Leeds uni have found themselves. Owned by a rich coptic family, the ENORMOUS one floor palace is almost groaning under the weight of heavy mahogony coffee tables, thick rugs, about 10 sofas and enough lace for a good few dowry chests, and seems to recede back and back the further you venture into it.
In the morning, I lean out of the window to appreciate how much fresher the air is here on the coast, absent mindedly watching some builders setting to work on building the floor level with us on an apartment block opposite, balancing precariously wearing just shorts and sandals on their makeshift wooden scaffolding.
The day's sights are hard to get your head around. The crumbled remains strewn around the city are not only at odds with the arab chaos surorunding them, but are a conflict of cultural and historical periods in themselves. Descending into the ancient catacombes, the artwork on the walls is at once roman in style, influenced by the greeks, but depicting ancient egyptians gods, and painted on the tombs of christians. To add to the cultural confusion, Arthur and I are trapped in the depths of the dark labrynth of tombs, balancing on a plank above a black drop into a tomb filled with water, by a stampede of eager italian, japanese and spanish coach parties, and are almost catapulted into a flooded vault full of bones
Despite being the second largest city in Egypt, Alex manages to feel like a seaside town, and entirely unforseen we bump into various members of our group from Cairo, who've spontaneously jumped on trains to join us.
We fill the rest of the day with a visit to the city fort jutting out into the sea, a barefooted 5 aside game for the guys with a crowd of locals, and a peep into an incredible mosque when Khalil and Adnan go to pray, the 3 girls of our company tripping over the spectacular tent-like garbs we're given to wear, and me being corrected for causing offense more times during the 10 minutes I spend inside than not: fringe showing beneath my wizzard's hood, crossing my legs on a bench rather than soles to the ground... I'm too absent minded to be a muslim I must conclude. On demand, we each pay up our baksheesh, and cross elegant inner courtyards and atriums to enjoy the beauty of the place from the outside.
We watch sunset from a rooftop hotel before fish restaurant experience Mark 2. Much the same vast spread as the last infamous fish fiasco, but this time for the grand total of -ahem- £1.80 each. That's more like it.
Next morning I throw wide the shutters of our bedroom to see the builders chinking and clanking away on the tower block opposite
One roman ampitheatre, coffee at Kat's and a peculiar ice cream later, we say our farewells to Alex and head back to the station. Our journey is timed perfectly to watch sunset from the train as we pull out of Alex and away from the sea. Night falls and from my window, every now and then I see whole fields lit up blazing orange, billowing smoke in the blackness from piles of maize set to burn by farmers. We eventually chugg back into Cairo ramases station and as soon as the train doors open, are rammed back into our seats by a huge crowd from the platform, so eager to get on the train they've apparently forgotten the necessary procedure of letting passengers alight before the new load get on. It takes a furious, bellowing conductor for the excitable mass of Cairenes to bundle themselves - baskets, boxes, wildstock and all - off the train again so we can finally alight. Must be back Cairo.
(Lovely pictures courtesy of Megan Powell)