It is my first trip to Egypt, and I land in Cairo, having spend a few days in Brussels and flown through the night from Rome and I still have a few hours trip to Alexandria from the airport. As soon as the wheels touch the ground, my neighbor tells me with a soft Arabic accent “Welcome to Egypt!” – before that she has been quiet the entire night.
I get my visa relatively quickly, it is a sticker that costs 25 dollars and I am good to go to pick up my bag. The adventure starts then, as the line for luggage inspection is enormous. When I finally leave the customs area and emerge on the other side, there is noone in sight, although I am expecting to see my driver. After a quick call I find out that he is outside the airport, as in Cairo, only those flying are allowed inside.
We soon are walking through the parking lot to his car. There, I try to make myself comfortable and get a bit of sleep, but I keep waking up – the honking on the streets doesn’t stop even through the night.
Why did I come to Alexandria?
Why Alexandria? A dear friend of mine, Attia, is originally from there, but currently living in Dubai, and this time, it is a lucky coincidence that I am visiting Cairo for work, and he and his family are in Alexandria, so he invites me to stay in the city for a few days and see the sights. So I arrive a couple days early, straight from my trip from Brussels, lugging enormous luggage, as I am still to continue working in Cairo afterwards and I need a lot of clothing.
After a bit of back-and-forth at the hotel reception, I finally get to my room, which they claim, they can’t find a reservation for, and I only have about two hours left to sleep before Attia picks me up. I fall asleep and the time is too short – I am barely functioning the next morning! I am hoping he might be a bit late, when I emerge five minutes before our agreed time at the breakfast area, but he is right on time, so all I grab is a quick croissant and a sip of tea.
As I exit the hotel, I am greeted by Attia, his charming wife Nashwa, their two wonderful daughters Feyrouz and Lina, a bit shy but curious son Adam and his nanny. I soon notice that our travelling party is a bit different than the others – namely, the car seems to be completely unscathed! How is that possible, when all the other cars around are covered in scratches? Turns out, this one is brand new! I am amazed that even being three days from the dealership, it doesn’t have any damage, as what I see on the streets shocks me. It is much alike Brownian movement, yet all the cars somehow end up moving in the same direction in the end.
Before the trip, Attia warns me that I will feel more comfortable wearing long sleeves and long pants. I wasn’t event planning on anything else, but nevertheless I stand out like a sore thumb – whenever my dear friends are more than meter away, I hear catcalls in my direction, some such that it doesn’t feel appropriate to write those down. Later I hear that this is common also against local women and I shouldn’t worry – while this might not be a pleasant experience, the people are mostly very hospitable and appreciate tourists for the money they bring to the economy. I feel thankful that I am here with my friends, as I worry what my experience would be like if I were here alone.
Sightseeing in Alexandria
Soon we are at the Fort Qaitbey or the Citadel, built in the 15th century at the exact location of Lighthouse of Alexandria, one of the seven wonders of the world. We will come back here later, as first we have a beautiful yacht trip planned ahead!
It does turn out that we aren’t allowed to leave the bay, as today the president of Egypt is in the city. So we spend about an hour circling the bay – watching the Bibliotheca Alexandrina from the far, the many boats around us and the city in front of us. I have seen this bay so many times in the pictures of my friends and colleagues, and heard Egyptians lovingly say “Alex”, when referring to the city! It feels like a mix of Cuban Havana and Mediterranean cities. Many houses are quite run down, and many don’t have their last floors finished. And lastly, the heat. I am here in July, the middle of the summer, and people have told me that I am crazy to go out here in the worst possible time. However, many come to escape the heat to Alexandria, as the climate is more mild here than elsewhere in North Africa or the Middle East because of the sea. Soon we seek shelter from the sun in the lower decks, drinking tea and eating the snacks I brought as gifts from Latvia.
After the yacht trip, we head to Fort Qaitbey. It was built to protect the city from the Ottoman empire incursions. When we were walking by earlier in the morning, it was almost deserted, but now it is full of visitors all around. We us through the crowds in the narrow labyrinth of passageways. The best views are not inside the Citadel, but from it! Bright blue sea, and fishermen at it.
When we emerge on the other side to take a walk in the yard, a woman wants to take pictures with me and her twin daughters. I try to have both of them sit on my lap, but they just don’t fit, so in the end, one stands next to me, one sits in my lap, and the family takes pictures happily. I am starting to get worried that this will be like India all over again, with people taking photos of me endlessly, but luckily, this is the only instance. But I am told, that most likely, the families think I am someone famous, and I do encounter similar attitudes when later visiting Cairo.
Before heading on, we enter the small sea life exhibit next to the Citadel and are ready to go! Our next stop is a tasty one! We stop on the street near an ice cream store, and a waiter runs outside to serve us, while we are still in the car. I am advised to try orange and milk ice cream, and, boy, it is amazing! I have tried many ice creams all over the world, but this truly is like nothing else I have had before, the best tasting ice cream in the world!
Bibliotheca Alexandrina and Montaza palace gardens
Our next stop is the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, built in 2002 in honor of the famous library of Alexandria that was built 285 BC and was one of the most important building in the ancient world. The new library not only has a vast book collection, it also has a museum and multimedia halls, as well as reading areas. The famous book bench is also located right there! Surprisingly, one of the first people I see in the library, has a laptop with a sticker “Latvia 100”, but I don’t dare to interrupt him and ask how did he get it! I wish I had!
Next we head to Montaza palace gardens. Because of the traffic jams it takes us more than an hour. We drive over the beautiful Stanley bridge, talk politics and travel, and right at the sunset reach the Montaza palace gardens. The palace itself is off limits for visitors, but the are is full of people, many are here with professional photographers, taking pictures! Unfortunately, as we start walking towards the very end of the trail, the park is being closed – sunset means close! So we have to turn around.
It gets dark and it is time to eat. “Do you wish to try something special?” I am asked by the family. Last time we met in Dubai, I had a wonderful Egyptian meal – molokhia, sausages, the super viscous mango juice and salad with watermelon and peppermint. Today, I am destined to try another national dish – pigeon.
Many Middle Eastern cultures have a tradition of eating pigeons. In Egypt, houses tend to have small pigeon homes on the roof, and I am told that every evening the owner of the pigeons calls them back home and feeds them, but during the day, the roam around freely. At this point I realize, that I am probably about to try one of those free roaming birds of the city.
When my bird arrives, filled with rice, I am surprised to see how little meat there is. It feels like a frog would have more! While I try to get it down, Nashwa sees right through me and says we should get something that I will actually enjoy. So we get some peppermint tea, hummus, and a local dessert – om ali – pieces of bread mixed with pistachios, coconut flakes, raisings and sugar, covered in milk and topped with cinnamon, and then baked in the oven until golden brown. As I have filled up with hummus and bread til my eyes, I barely eat a few pieces, but at least I have tried it!
The temples and the catacombs of Alexandria
On the next day I am up early to sample the tasty breakfast. So many sweet buns, and local and international dishes! I feel more and more like in Havana, as I see similarities in the run down grandeur of the place and surroundings.
The first stop of the day is the Pompeii Pilar. Mistakenly called in the name of Pompeii, this Corinthian column was built around 298 AD, and it is located in the Serapeum, the temple dedicated to Serapis, of which unfortunately very little is left. It is believed to have been closed during the imperator Constantine times. Under the temple, the catacombs still remain. I am, however, more surprised by what I see on the streets – the old Ziguli cars, well known in Soviet Union, tuk-tuks like in India, and cafes looking to be on the verge of collapse filled with men watching the street with a cup of coffee. Now my Mediterranean Havana gets a flavor of New Delhi. The more I observe the traffic, the more I am convinced I wouldn’t be able to cross the street on my own here! I thought I had seen the worst traffic of my life in India, but no, this is worse.
Next we head to Kom el Shoqafa catacombs, called one of the seven medieval wonders of the world. This necropolis consists of several Alexandrian burials, statues and archeological objects, but it is mot interesting that you can observe the mix of Egyptian, Roman and Greek cultures. For example, the statues are in Egyptian style, however, wearing Roman clothing. Unfortunately, no pictures are allowed here, so we only observe the surroundings.
This necropolis was used until the 4th century, and rediscovered in 1900, when a donkey fell into one of the shafts. The translation of the catacomb means the mound of shards, because of the many broken vessels found here. The visitors of the burial place used to bring food and wine inside, but then didn’t want to bring the plates back up, so would leave them there.
The Jewelry Museum
Before heading to the last sightseeing place, the Jewelry Museum, we stop at cafe Delices to have some cakes and rest a bit. The place is packed, and we only get a table after waiting!
Royal Jewelry Museum, where the former princess Fatima Al Zahra lived, now is a museum. It was closed for a while during the uprising in Egypt as it has over ten thousand artifacts, but now has been reopened to visitors again, and about a thousand of those are visible. It is an important insight into the times when Egypt was a monarchy. Prince medallions, princess cosmetic boxes, and fantastic queen bracelets and necklaces are on display. Seeing them I come to a realization that many modern jewelry items from famous brands look suspiciously like these ones.
Heading off to Cairo
Before it is time for me to return to Cairo, we have a wonderful meal at a seaside restaurant. I am not a big fan of seafood, as I only eat fish, but even I agree the food is delicious here – we try prawns, snails and many various types of wish, all tasty and fresh!
Just before the driver comes to pick me up, I have a quick visit to the house of my friends. We have a cup of tea and I get a present – a whole box of sweets from Angelina’s! My visit to Alexandria is filled of warm memories of the family who greeted me here, showing in two days the best sights of Alexandria! Just 6 months later, we all went together on another trip – taking a magnificent cruise on the Nile. Hopefully, Attia, Nashwa and the kids will visit Latvia some day to see the best my country has to offer!