11.06.2010 - 15.06.2010 30 °C
Despite being sad to leave Siwa, my heart gave a little jump of excitement at the thought of seeing the sea again. We left the oasis early in the morning of 11 June and drove through flat, rocky, boring desert (the only thing alleviating the nothingness was the odd camel herd) before hitting the coast.
I had driven this coast in the opposite direction the year before when I travelled from Cairo to Casablanca and was excited to have the opportunity to visit El Alamein again – the haunting Commonwealth War Cemetery - see my blog entry from last year http://skyewilson.travellerspoint.com/5/ for photos.
We got to Alexandria in the late afternoon and were absolutely starving, having not eaten during the day, so decided on an early meal at one of Wahid’s favourite places – Shaban, a locals fish restaurant in a back alley. We were not disappointed. It seemed that the restaurant took up most of the block with tables along the footpath and a couple of small rooms with tables as well. The joint was packed. We chose the fish we wanted from a trough of fresh seafood; this was cooked in a kitchen and bought to us in all its glory. My particular favourite was the Dover Sole. What a treat! We were like pigs in poo.
We made our way back to the wonderful Colonia hotel, which is set right on the cornice, overlooking the ocean. I danced a little jig of excitement as I walked into my room with its huge windows open to catch the sea breeze.
We got a couple of takeaway drinks then set ourselves up in Andrew and Lu’s room with the French doors ajar and watched and listened to the people of Alex promenade the cornice.
12 JUNE - Alexandria
We had the day free to explore Alex – it’s a picturesque city, spread along the Mediterranean Sea and is wonderfully evocative, with its trams, cafes and slight air of decay. The second largest city and the main port of Egypt, Alexandria was built by the Greek architect Dinocrates in 331BC under the orders of Alexander the Great. The city, immortalising Alexander's name, quickly flourished into a prominent cultural, intellectual, political and economic metropolis.
It was the renowned capital of the Ptolemies and was the site of the Pharos (lighthouse). One of the seven wonders of the ancient world, it acted as a beacon, guiding sailors away from this notoriously treacherous stretch of coast-land. It was along these shores that history took a tragic turn at the time of Cleopatra, Julius Caesar, Mark Antony and Octavian.
After the successive Roman, Arab and Ottoman rule the city became a modern Arab/European city in the 1800’s when thousands of Greek, Italian, French, British and Jewish settlers arrived in the city. At one stage in the 1940s the city had a population of 300,000 of which 40% were foreigners. The 1952 revolution spelt the end for Alexandria’s decadent cosmopolitan ways. Almost all the 120,000 foreigners that made the city what it was, fled, many minus their properties and businesses.
Since that time the character of the city has changed almost completely. The city is now home to around 6 million Egyptians but still retains that nostalgic, historical feel with its crumbling buildings, vibrant cafes, excellent seafood restaurants and stunning Med waterfront.
I had been to Alex before but there were a couple of things I still wanted to see – first stop was the catacombs of Kom Ash-Shuqqafa, the largest Roman burial site in Egypt. I wasn't allowed to take photos inside so look it up on the web if you want to check it out.
The other thing I’d missed on the previous visit was the modern Bibliotheca Alexandria, inspired by the original great library of Alexandria, the greatest literary institution of all time, and built to hold over 8 million books. I spent a good couple of hours exploring the exhibitions and books. There was a clean cut, young guy following me around for a while – he gave me the creeps so I politely but firmly got rid of him. I told Wahid about him later and he told me a story about someone who fitted the description who had taken a couple of American tourists to a restaurant he strongly recommended. They went along with him and ate without seeing a menu with prices - the bill came to E£600! And here I was thinking I’d been swindled on the ride from Cairo airport. This was the worst rip off case I heard of but they paid the bill even though they kind of knew they were being ripped off. It was only later that reality set in and they realized the extent of the swindle that they got angry and went back to the restaurant. Too late, she cried. Anyway, the Library was wonderful and I spent a lovely few hours having a good look around.
I walked back to the hotel slowly, taking in the sites and smells of the decaying city.
This material is used for tents but also by construction workers to cover scaffolding.
I met up with the guys back at the hotel and we decided to head back to Shaban for our last dinner together. Unfortunately Shaban is more of a lunch place and there wasn’t the choice of fish left. We thought we’d check out the flash Fish Market restaurant and caught local transportation (a mini-van which picks up people going in the same direction – price depends on how near or far you’re going but never costs over £1. Cheap!) Getting there we decided that it was exactly the same seafood for four times the price – all you’re paying for is the view – so we went back to Shabans. And while it wasn’t as good as the previous day (they didn’t have Dover Sole) we had a lovely meal.
Andrew and Lu had packed up their stuff and given me a couple of things – one of them being a bar of Sard Wonder Soap which, I’ll have you know, is biodegradable and quite perfect for backpacking – you can use it to wash your clothes, cutlery, anything really.
Drinks were in my room tonight and we watched the first World Cup Soccer match – an event which would be with me throughout the Middle East, a soccer mad part of the world.
13 JUNE – Cairo
Happy birthday Hel!
Our train left Alex at around 10am for the three hour trip back to Cairo. We travelled through the fertile Nile Delta passing farmers tending their small plot crops. Wahid had organized for Mohammed to pick us up from the station, drop Wahid and me at Capsis (where I was staying the night) and take Andrew and Lu straight on to the airport. We said our farewells and I dumped my stuff in my room. It was nice to be back at the Capsis where I know all the reception staff, porters, etc and they’re all happy to see me again. They’re like my little Cairo family!
I had big plans for the afternoon in Cairo and took the underground to the Egyptian Museum where I spent a good few hours transfixed by one of the most significant collections of antiquities in the world. I paid extra to visit the mummy room which was absolutely worth it (if you’re not creeped out by withered corpses that still have hair, nails, etc). The Tutankhamen Galleries were incredible with the solid gold death mask as centerpiece.
There are over 100,000 relics in the museum and it would take days and days to see everything so I just visited those that received a mention in the Lonely Planet (a guide costs approx £100 per hour but, from what I heard, is absolutely worth it). One place which I missed and only heard about afterwards was the room with the mummified pets – apparently there are alligators, monkeys, dogs, cats, etc. From what I understand it was a real highlight. There is no photography allowed in the museum and cameras must be left at the entrance – there were some beautiful statues in the grounds around the museum and the gardens were a lovely respite after the non-airconditioned interior.
After that I took the metro to Coptic Cairo (or Old Cairo) - once known as Babylon. Some Egyptologists believe that there was a settlement at Old Cairo since 6th century BC. Later, the Romans built a fortress here and some of the walls still exist today. After the Romans, it became a Christian stronghold, with as many as 20 churches built within a small area. There are only five remaining today. The earliest Mosque ever built in Egypt is alongside the Christian monuments. In addition, after the fall of Jerusalem in about 70 AD, the area also saw an influx of Jewish worshippers and this is where the oldest synagogue in Cairo is located. Christianity, Islam and Judaism are all represented in this quiet section of Old Cairo.
I visited the Hanging Church (The Church of the Virgin Mary), built into the walls of an ancient Roman fortress. It is possibly the oldest Christian church in Egypt, dating to around the 4th Century. Next was the Monastery and Church of St. George where there have been a church on this spot since the 10th century. The Church of St. Sergius (Abu Serga) was next and legend has it that it is built atop one of the sites where the Holy Family rested on their flight from Herod. Walking on I passed the Ben Ezra Synagogue, which is Egypt's oldest and dates to the 9th Century, before coming to St. Barbara, named for the young girl who was martyred for trying to convert her father to Christianity, with the peaceful Greek Orthodox cemetery.
I also took the time to wander around the streets surrounding Coptic Cairo. The rubbish was absolutely disguting - as was the case in many parts of Egypt.
It was early evening when I jumped into a cab and made my way to Islamic Cairo with its frenetic backstreets and the great bazaar, Khan el-Khalili, which is a labyrinth of narrow streets and passageways and considered to be one of the biggest bazaars in the world.
I grabbed a quick bite from a street vendor and ate while I wandered around (and got lost) in the labyrinth, passing hundreds of shops and getting haggled and hassled every step of the way. The original bazaar dates back to 1382 as a stop for travelling merchants from all over the world. There are crafts in gold, silver, brass, leather, glassware and stones.
I was truly exhausted by the time I got back to Capsis and fell asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow.
14 & 15 JUNE – Cairo
After a quick brekky at Capsis I checked out and jumped in a cab to Kings Hotel – the poor cabby had absolutely no idea where he was going and we went round and round in circles but I was in no rush and he had the best intentions of getting me there, apologizing profusely in Arabic when he stopped to ask yet another person where on earth Kings Hotel was.
I was too early to get my room straight away so I sat in reception and had a lovely skype call with all the Kebbell family. Even had a little chat to Maggsie who looked quietly disconcerted that her mistress’s voice was coming out of a flat black object.
I had a wander around the area which was a lovely leafy suburb which felt like it was more affluent – there was certainly none of the craziness of downtown. A local market selling fresh produce was a block away and I bought some supplies and chatted to the locals.
I spent the afternoon uploading photos and getting my diary up to date. Watched a world cup game at the rooftop bar with a beer (only one – I was a bit shocked at the prices in this hotel which were a lot higher than anywhere else I’d seen in Egypt plus 10% tax plus 12% service charge…)
15 JUNE – Cairo
If there is any day on this entire trip that I would suggest that you don’t read it is probably today. It wasn’t that today was a bad day, as such, but I just spent the whole day on wifi getting my blog up to speed. It was just one of those days.
The group meeting was at 6pm and I met my new fellow travelers for the trip from Cairo to Istanbul but I'll introduce them tomorrow on a new blog.
I was still in the process of getting photos uploaded (very time consuming) so I didn’t go out to dinner with the guys – stayed in and got my stuff done.