Alexandria - Mediterranean festivities
Trip Start Jun 29, 2005
235Trip End Nov 30, 2009
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Alexander the Great liked the area so much he founded the city in 332BC and soon after it was the greatest trade and academic centre in the known world. Now a shadow of its former self, it's still a very pleasant place to be and I can see why one of my favourite authors, Jon Courtenay-Grimwood, based some of his alternate-reality novels here.
So it becomes another example of not trusting too much in your guidebook. Lonely Planet describes "the reality of modern-day Alexandria" as "a grubby compress of apartment blocks jostling at the seafront" and that "first-time visitors can't help but be disappointed". I don't know what that particular author was smoking when they wrote that but I do agree with their eventual qualifier - that "to judge Alexandria on first appearances is to sell it short." I thoroughly enjoyed my time here and will be happy to spend more time here if and when possible.
Alexandria is a real waterfront city - stretching for kilometres around a wide, circular harbour and continuing along beaches and bays surrounding it - only sprawling for only a few miles inland. I agree it is a little grubby, but the relaxed attitude and more cosmopolitan feel make up for this tenfold compared to the chaotic bustle of Cairo. The women are markedly more attractive, traffic lights actually control the road circus, it's much cheaper than the capital and there's a Mediterranean freshness that can't be bought anywhere in inland Egypt.
Fishing and boat-building a big here and generally R&R of Alexandrians is spent somewhere on the waterfront. People from Cairo flood here during the summer to escape the repressive heat, and even at the end of winter you can spend hours wandering the Corniche or sitting in a cafe watching a mix of Mercedes Benz's, local mini buses and the occasional donkey trailer cruise by.
With the addition of both British and French influences here, architecture in the city is a definite highlight. Yes there's a bunch of newer, dodgier apartment blocks mixed throughout (complete with washing and bedclothes hanging from the balconies) but this aspect alone is worth studying if you visit. Start with the hotels and government buildings around the central waterfront squares.
The strange building on the headland attracted me though, so I headed west along the waterfront to Fort Qaitbey - Quitbay's Citadel.
Built over three years to 1480 on the foundations of the Pharos Lighthouse and from rock quarried from its ruins, this is a beautiful white-stone castle that could have given Escher a few ideas. Containing everything a bey could require (including stables, a prison, a mosque, water cisterns and naturally a complex network of outer and inner defensive systems), it was built to last and even withstood a blasting by the British in 1882.
Now it's completely open to the public so you can climb up into the towers, admire some of the frescoes and wander along the inner and outer walls which provide great views of the city. The construction and restoration is superb and there's even a bizarre little marine museum housed in the western wall (only real attraction is the giant skeleton of a seaborne dinosaur, so don't worry if you miss it).
Back out on the promenade leading to the fort there is plenty going on. Cats wait patiently for fishermen to dole out some bait or offcuts from a catch, and in general there's a festive atmosphere as the locals enjoy the sun. I skidded across the concrete blocks to get a good picture of the fort and met some cute local girls who immediately professed their undying love for me. Unfortunately their potential suitors seemed offended so thought it best to leave them to it.
The mosques around town are also worth a look in, especially those situated amidst tall swaying palms in the centre of town. Still, I think we've had enough mosques for the time being so onwards and eastwards to the Bibliothec.
This is an awesome piece of architecture that I would have missed if a local hadn't mentioned it to me in passing conversation - it's so new that my guide didn't even mention it.
In ancient times Alexandria was the home of the world's greatest library, containing more that 500,000 volumes from all known lands. Much of this was lost to fire and earthquake apparently, but the new Alexandria Library intends to restore this past glory and the building that will house it is pretty impressive indeed.
I don't know who designed it but they deserve a medal. Tasteful and inspiring, it sits well on the eastern promontory overlooking the Med. I didn't go in as time was pressing (diving in 2 hours!) but the externals were enough for me.
As seen in a documentary many moons ago, I wanted to see some of the subterranean sights around town. These are fresh water cisterns built in ancient times to supply water to the citizenry. Deep and complex in construction, they were built all over town and were very successful in delivery the goods. I'm not sure if they're still used to supplement the current water supply.
Either way, despite finding an access point in one of the central squares it was forbidden for me to go down into them, so I had to settle for sticking my arm through the grill and taking a few shots from the surface. Looks pretty interesting huh? Probably pretty dangerous too so being verboten might have been for the best...
My final site visit before heading to the deep was the Roman Amphitheatre. The complex was constructed between the first and fourth centuries AD and contained not only the amphitheatre but public baths and a villa of some sort. The whole bunch were buried after the fall of the Roman Empire and only rediscovered in the 1960s when developers moved on the site.
It's a cute little place and you can get underneath to where the actors changed (clothes and exits) which was a different angle, but I liked the big and completely intact marble baths the most. They built 'em solid back then!
Night-time in town is also a festive atmosphere, with markets in the streets behind the waterfront a big drawcard each night. Clothes in piles on rugs and every form of knick-knack in stalls manned by enthusiastic vendors. Backgammon and dominos in street cafes is the main form of entertainment for the blokes not being dragged from stall to stall. Quite European in a very Egyptian way.
One final thing I should mention about this conservative society is the prevalence of lingerie shops, displaying some very racy night and underwear right on the street. Many women wear the complete body coverings that are expected by convention but what's underneath is up to the imagination when you see some of the items on display! Oo la la!
And I have heard that the groom's family buys a lot of underwear for the bride when there's a marriage which is pretty bizarre, but hey, who am I to argue about such traditions. Maybe some female readers would care to comment?
On that note, time to sign out.
Next entry -> searching for Atlantis off the Alexandrian coast
Old Egyptian Proverb
On old Alexandrian told me this one:
"The cars and pedestrians are friends - they both walk the same streets."
Despite much better traffic conditions there's still a lot of people limping around here which indicates that the friendship is pretty one-sided.