The City, affectionately known as Alex, is a fascinating blend of the Mediterranean and Middle East. This Pearl of the Med used to be a hangout for some of the world's most famous scientists and philosophers. But by the time Napoleon arrived, it was little more than a sparsely populated fishing village. But now, Alexandria looks set to rise again says Sarah Bladen.
Considering the magnificent past of this rich city, I was a little surprised when I arrived in the diminutive Al Nozha airport. It felt like an old-fashioned, slightly shabby train station waiting room. And that was part of the beauty of it.
It was refreshingly spirited and charming. Outside, locals were animated: sometimes howling with laughter, other times squabbling with a Mediterranean passion. I quickly remembered it helps to have a loud voice in Egypt. I had been to Cairo a long time ago, but this was my first time in Egypt's second largest city, Alexandria.
It was named after Alexander the Great who discovered it around 331 BC. Back then, it was dubbed the shining pearl of the Mediterranean. It was a cultural, economic and intellectual hub. The Ptolemics built one of the tallest buildings on earth, a dazzling lighthouse called the Pharos of Alexandria. It was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. The city had (and still has) gorgeously luscious gardens and was a mini paradise for romantics– it was here that Cleopatra shared many a romantic walk with Julius Caesar.
Today, as we drove towards the Sheraton Montazah, the exuberant atmosphere of the city was immediately palpable, although there was also a feeling of faded glory. We passed several crumbling apartment blocks, but, the natural beauty of the coast line was incredible. The Corniche went on for miles and miles and the stunning view of the curling Mediterranean waves was priceless. With a healthy injection of finance, this coastline had the potential to become the next Cannes. Well almost. According to insider information, there are billion-dirham plans to refurbish and revive this city.
Taxis here are black and sunshine-coloured Ladas with furry dashboards, dangling prayer beads and slightly weather-beaten but smiling drivers. They weren't as accelerator-mad as I had expected. Alex is not as traffic congested and haphazard as Cairo; it's much slower paced and you can see why so many stressed-out Egyptians holiday here during the summer. Our friendly host, Madame Azza (or Egypt's answer to Ruby Wax as she later became known) advised us to head to the souks in the heart of the old city. After all, you can't come all the way to Egypt and not haggle.
HAGGLING IN THE SOUK
The bustling souk area is atmospheric — old men played dominos in cafes, polishers shone passerbys' shoes while local women were mostly covered in colourful headscarves — in some ways, it was a little like a big town trapped in a time warp.
As a foreigner, I felt completely safe wandering around. We headed specifically to the street known as the ‘Narrow Woman' street. Numerous jokes were made about that.
Sure enough the alleyways could just about fit an anorexic in it. Among the tourist-trap tat (glitter hairpins and obvious fake Chloe hangbags) there were some authentic gift worthy souvenirs. I came away with a rabbit furred carpet (please don't call PETA!), a couple of leather poufs, some Egyptian papyrus bookmarks (I got conned into these) and a couple of silver scarab pendants. In Ancient Egypt, the scarab beetle was the symbol of the Sun God Ra and of resurrection and eternal life.
NEW FACE OF THE CITY
That evening, exhausted from the haggling, we settled for a light meal and some shisha in one of the cafes in the new part of Downtown. This is the modern face of Alexandria, where the city's younger crowd hangs out.
The following morning, we had a leisurely and delicious breakfast of fuul (fava beans with fresh lemon juice, chopped tomato) and pita bread. It gave us an immediate protein hit and we were now ready for sight-seeing. Alex is a dreamland for those interested in ancient ruins. We checked out the Greco-Roman Amphitheatre where an Egyptian film set was in the middle of shooting a comedy. Here, there were Pharaonic ruins dating back to 365 AD, although some of the monuments were rescued from under the sea in the 1960s.
TREASURE TROVE MANIA
The Antiquities Museum inside the Library of Alexandria is also worth a visit. It was around 295 BC, a prominent scholar convinced the new pharaoh that Alexandria could rival Athens as a cultural centre by establishing a huge library and so the dream was born. However, when Julius Caesar attacked Alexandria in 48 BC, the ancient library burned down. 2000 years later, with international support, it was revived. Once more, it has become a gleaming cultural landmark that highlights the city's rich historical past. It contains fascinating rare artifacts from the Pharaonic, Greek, Roman, Coptic and Islamic eras. There is also (as I had hoped) a hall devoted to mummification.
Unfortunately, I didn't get to see the catacombs of Kom el Shoqafa, which is one of the largest Roman cemeteries full of fascinating tombs. If you are more of a thrill seeker than a museum goer, then you could always do a dive off the Antirodos Island, where Cleopatra and her lover Mark Anthony committed suicide. Dive just five metres under water and you'll discover some of the remains of Cleopatra's sunken marble palace. You can also do a boat safari to Abu – Kir where you have some Napoleonic wrecks and where fishing and water skiing can be organised.
We ate lunch at a fantastic restaurant called the Fish Market – an authentic gem that was clearly a favourite with Alexandrians. It has a fantastic view of the Med and the local catch was mouth-watering as was the fresh mango juice.
In the afternoon we wandered through the old part of the city where we spotted some stunning mosque domes and churches. We stopped off in local haunt — a cute Brazilian coffee diner where I enjoyed a blinding black coffee.
When it comes to dancing the night away, your best bet is inside one of the city's fivestar hotels. Tuesday night at the Sheraton's Aquarius disco was definitely an experience. At 12 midnight, the club was still practically empty and we were just about to leave, when suddenly some professional Russian dancers appeared. They turned out to be entertaining in a vaguely cringe-worthy sort of way. Soon afterwards, the dance floor became jam packed with locals twisting their hips to the hypnotic beats of Hani Shaker and Ruby.
Despite the fun we had, Alexandria doesn't offer too much in the way of nightlife and it's certainly not much on shopping in designer boutiques either. However, it does offer character and spirit in large amounts. A four-hour flight away, this lost ancient city makes the ideal weekend break for those wanting to escape the urban pressures of the UAE.
HOW TO GET THERE
Air Arabia offers a comfortable flight with a choice of tasty snacks and drinks. And don't be put off by Sharjah airport – all the flights are timed so that you avoid driving during the rush hours. And the best part – Air Arabia offers great value flights (starting from Dhs 199) and the earlier you book, the better the price. For bookings visit www.arabia.com
WHERE TO STAY
The Sheraton Montazah (www.sheraton.com/ montazah or call +203 5480550)
Firstly, it overlooks the lush King Farouk's Palace as well as the Mediterranean. But it's also a superb location as it's not far from the infamous Library, the restaurants, shopping and underwater discoveries. In the summer, you can enjoy exotic cocktails by the pool. Haifa and Nancy Ajram have both stayed here.
WHAT TO DO
For diving or similar water adventures contact www.alexandriadive.com. Harty Tours provide many great guided tours and excursions of the city. For more information call +203 5446932.
STATS ABOUT ALEXANDRIA
Population: 6 million
Currency: Egyptian pounds
Language: Arabic but
English is sometimes spoken and understood
Visas: These are available on arrival for most passport holders.
Source: Arabian Woman