Day two in Alexandria was another “you’re on your own” day. This was Christmas day and we would rather have been on our own anyway.
The 4 star we were in had an excellent buffet breakfast. Except that they served No Es Café instead of coffee. We decided to walk the cornice and see where it led us. We found a group of maybe 30 fishermen retrieving a large net.
The cornice in Alexandria is miles long. We knew from our touring the night before that there was a 4 Seasons hotel with a Starbucks waaaay down there somewhere so we walked a couple blocks inland and took the trolley.
Back in time…we knew about the Starbucks because the night before our tour took us to see the royal gardens. As we entered the gardens some officious guys in black leather bomber jackets (always a bad sign) stopped the bus. The head guy made our guide pull out all his IDs, asked questions about how many people were on board, basically got very unfriendly. We got in ok. It was already dark, so the guide was saying things like “look, palm trees” Yeah yeah yeah. But these gardens surround the Royal Palace of King Farouk, the last king of Egypt. His palace is now the Guest house for foreign potentates when they visit Alexandria.
This little excursion became memorable on the way out when the same power trippers in bomber jackets stopped the bus. One actually stood in front of it so we could not move. Our guide got out and an argument ensued. Our guard, the dude packing the semi-automatic was riding shotgun, got into the argument through the window. All the leather jacket dudes surrounded our guide, hence there was no one in front of the bus. Sorry, I did not feel like taking my camera out and asking them to say cheese. The guide jumped back on board and yelled at the driver “DUECE DUECE DUECE” which is Egyptian for “Haul Ass”. He did, and the leather jackets were running behind us yelling to the guards at the gate “STOP THEM”. We did not stop, even for the red light at the intersection outside the gate (no one in Alexandria obeys lights anyway). We were now fugitives from the black leather jacket brigade. Some people watched out the back window as we made our way back to the hotel. When pressed by the tourists what these guys wanted the guide said “entrance fees”. There is no entrance fee, so it was a sanctioned hold-up attempt.
OK Back to our free day.
Starbucks was Starbucks. It does not matter what city in the world you are in. At least they sold real coffee, not NO ES CAFÉ. The only thing we had planned for the day was another visit to the library The library has a planetarium. The two O’clock show was “The Stars of the Pharos”. Sounded good to me. We got there very early, bought our tickets (about $5 apiece) and then we went to the library museum. In the tradition of the original Alexandria Library, the new version is also striving to be a learning and cultural center. They have a modern art museum. Classic art museum, and an antiquities museum. We skipped this last one, hell the whole country is an antiquity museum.
The most interesting of the museums was the museum dedicated to Anwar Sadat. If your recent history is not clicking, Sadat signed the Camp David Accord. Still lost? Didn’t read the papers in the 70’s? The Camp David Accords were signed by Egyptian President Anwar El Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin on September 17, 1978, following twelve days of secret negotiations at Camp David. This could be called the only successful peace negotiation in the Middle East, ever. It was Jimmy Carter’s greatest achievement and has survived to the present. But Sadat did not. One of the displays is the blood stained uniform he was wearing when he was gunned down with an automatic weapon while watching a parade on a holiday. One of the vehicles in the parade had Egyptian soldiers in it. Two jumped out and ran to the dais blasting their guns and Sadat was dead. The museum has an original letter from Carter to Sadat suggesting the meets at Camp David, and many photographs of him with foreign leaders and the Pope. The funniest was Sadat and Nixon. Nixon looks like he has to pee and would rather be anywhere else.
The planetarium show was marvelous. I actually learned a lot. It cemented my resolve to return to Egypt and go to Luxor in the south. There are great temples there, and I feel an urge to see them. We will go in summer 2012, when it is warm and there is no fog.
On the way home we found a Shisha house. Shisha is the local way of saying Hookah, or hubbly-bubbly. We had delicious fruit flavored Shisha.
We returned to the hotel and werte met by Santa.
We had our Christmas dinner there. With my dinner I had a bloody Mary. It was nowhere as good as Joan’s Bloody Mary’s at the Cosmic Crab. If you are ever in Bocas Del Toro, Panama, they are the #1 attraction in the whole town.
Mary Ann challenged my writing skills. She said that if I could describe this Christmas dinner experience at all, she would finally give me credit for my talents. Well let me try. The restaurant was all decorated for Christmas . Sleigh bells, Christmas tree bulbs. Lights. They had a Flamenco Guitar player plucking along. They had a fog machine, and even a bubble machine. Everyone had their own Santa hat to wear.
They had a set menu, here it is. OOPS sorry, I cannot figure out how to make my scanner work. The instructions are in 18 languages, and I am not going to figure it out just now. Let me just tell you about it.
It is printed on fake papyrus paper. It starts off with the words HRISTMAS SET MENU. Maybe they did not have spell checkers back when they used papyrus. It describes a 5 course meal, each an adventure in gastronomical spelling.
Smoked salmon in Pineapple boat, duet of white and yellow lump eggs, cocktail sauce
Zucchini and Eggplant Pontage Scented Saffron
Roasted Turkey medallions farced, with chestnut sauce served with seasonal vegetables and potato chateau
Chocolate passion mouse laced with cinnamon and berry sauce
Trio of cheese platter with grapes, and salty crackers served like coffee or tea and Christmas cookies.
OK OK maybe I should have put that up on Facebook. I apologize. But we had a great time sitting there listening to Flamenco music with bubbles floating over the artificial smoke and wondering what lump eggs were, laughing at the creative use of language.
Our Trip Home
Just before dinner we ran into someone from our group. She asked what flight we were on going home. We told her the 3 a.m. flight “No your not” she said. That flight had been cancelled due to fog, and we would be leaving at 10 a.m. Cool with us, we got to sleep longer. Then after dinner she found us again and said the 10 a.m. flight was postponed until 12:30. I was not really worried, but Air Arabia has but two flights a day out of Alexandria to Sharjah, the 3 and the 10. If both were cancelled, what would getting on a flight at 12:30 be like?
The last official act of our tour was “Transfer to Alexandria Airport”. At least it was not in THIS bus.
When we got to the airport, for some reason the gendarmes would not allow the bus to pull up to the terminal. Our guide told the driver to hop the curb. We got half way to the terminal before we were stopped cold. We had to get out about 200 yards from the entrance and carry our bags ourselves. 2500 years of learning how to deal with tourists does not seem to apply to anyone flying. Inside the airport was pure madhouse zany craziness. Our group hung together like lost children, which in effect we were. There was one little sign that said Air Arabia. It did not look like the ticket desk, but it was. Everyone else was pushing and shoving and cutting in line. One of our group took it upon himself to be our hero. He collected all of our passports and pushed and shoved his own way to the counter. He made it clear that we were all members of an Air Arabia sponsored tour, and we all had to get back to work in Sharjah, and he would not accept any nonsense. He managed it! We all had boarding passes and checked baggage.
The flight home, being daylight, was beautiful. The Red Sea, Mt. Sinai were all clear. We got into beautiful Sharjah Airport and home 15 minutes later.
Impressions of Egypt.
I shall return. Only because I did not see Luxor or the Valley of the Kings. I feel like I must. One person I met in our group asked me “If Cairo did not have the Pyramids, would anyone come here?” he asked me that right outside the Egyptian museum. I could not quite agree with him that the pyramids were all there were of interest and I’ll repeat the words of Alexander the Great, Marc Anthony, Napoleon, and Jerry Garcia once again, “oh maaan”. They make the traffic and the overall dingy grey of the city well worth the visit. If you get the chance to go, just do it. I will take this opportunity to thank my wife for the experience, a bucket list item crossed off.
Thanks for reading. Tell a friend, and PLEASE leave a comment.
With apologies to Al Stewart. If you remember his wonderful song, Year of the Cat, hum along while you read my terribly improvised lyrics.
A foggy morning from a Bogart movie
In country where they turn back time
You go strolling with a crowd of expat tourists
Without a care for the grime
Cats are everywhere underfoot
they are everywhere that you look
On all the streets and in all the restaurants
It is the town of the cats.
OK line by line now.
The morning fog in Egypt is impressive. In both Cairo and Alexandria you feel like you are swimming in a bowl of mushroom soup from dawn ‘til 10.
A Bogart movie? Yeah. You expect to see Bogie around every corner. Especially in Alexandria. The entire town could be used as a movie set for any film set in the 30’s or 40’s. You would not even need to replace the street cars.
A country where they turn back time should be an obvious reference. Egypt makes a living on the fact that everywhere you go you are immersed in 5000 years of history. Alexandria history is really only 2300 years old. Alexander the great settled in what was not much more than a fishing village in 323 B.C.
Without a care for the grime might be a bit over the top, but I needed something to rhyme with time. Actually the city is pretty litter free. The locals pay for garbage clean-up crews when they pay their electric bill, and the streets are free of plastic bottles and the like. But it is a decaying city. It is a grey city. Like Cairo, it is not a beautiful city. It is set on a wonderful harbor and if someone were to tear it down and start over, it could be very beautiful. But 2000 years of unplanned development have created an unattractive façade.
Now, the cats. They are everywhere you go in Alexandria. They travel in packs, prides, herds and gangs. There is at least one cat for every souvenir vendor, and THAT says a lot.
The cats are not mangy or skinny. They do not look underfed or abused. They appear to be neighborhood cats that are encouraged to stay close and catch mice. I am not sure if they are venerated like the sacred cows in Hindi-land. They do not beg for food or attention, they are just everywhere you go in the town of the cats.
Back to the travel blog.
We left Cairo with our tour group of fifteen expats, all Americans from the UAE. It was a foggy morning. We were looking forward to seeing something on the trip, but it was impossible to see more than 100 feet or so. We were lucky however. That morning, in southern Egypt a convoy of American Tourists in bigger busses had a terrible accident. One of the busses sideswiped an 18 wheeler pulled over to the side of the highway because he could not see anything in the fog. 12 Americans died, something like 20 injured in the one bus. There were 4 or 5 busses all travelling together. Our bus pulled over for an hour because of the fog. We counted 9 accidents between Cairo and Alexandria. All seemingly fog related. Traffic in Egypt, for or no fog is miserable. There seem to be no rules, except that your horn must work. They test them all the time to be sure they do.
I will digress here a bit. The Egyptians have had their share of violence against tourists. The law is now that any time 10 or more tourists are travelling together they must have an armed escort. Ours was a nice guy who carried a semi-automatic in the back of his belt, under his suit coat. It bulged and was obvious. I’ll mention him again in part 4 of this trip.
Half way to Alexandria we finally got to a rest stop. It could have been a rest stop in Kansas in many ways. Exhausted travelers stumbling to the coffee shops and WCs. Cheap souvenirs all made in China. There was however a woman making fresh flat bread.
I was hoping that our first stop in Alexandria would be a restaurant for lunch. I do not believe I was alone in that desire. This is when you begin to wish you had a private guide. If we did I would have just said FOOOD.
Our first stop turned out to be the burial site of the first tourists in Egypt, the Greeks.
The catacombs of Alexandria were yet another place where you were not allowed to take photos. Sure, they sold post cards of the catacombs. Like I said, the Egyptians have gotten good at this tourist business thing.
These catacombs were weird. The guide kept calling them unique. In a way they were. The reliefs carved into the walls were a vivid combination of Greek and Egyptian motifs. Obviously Greek heads wearing Egyptian style clothes. Maybe they just went native. He said that the catacombs were discovered by a donkey. The donkey just happened to fall into a 200 foot deep hole that was the center of the structure. This happened in 1920 or so. They found the tombs. They found jars filled with ashes, but they did not find any bones. Pardon me, but there should be some bones I said. The guide told me that they did not know how to mummify bodies, although he had just pointed out a relief of the god of mummies doing his thing on a body. It bothered me that there were no bones. I have been in catacombs with Inca bones. He could not explain it to me well enough and got tired of me asking.
After the 200 foot climb in and out of these catacombs, I was ready for FOOD. I tried to gather support from the other tourists, but the guide had a plan, sort of.
Our next stop was some Roman ruins, primarily a Roman Amphitheatre. I asked him if this was Alexandria’s version of Urban Renewal. He had no clue what I was asking and he got a bit nervous when some of the tourists laughed at the question. He started to explain how these ruins were unearthed during a construction project. When I said “no donkey eh” he actually laughed. I think he was starting to like me, even though every time we passed a decent looking restaurant, I groaned FOOOD.
The amphitheatre was very cool. I do not know if this is true in all amphitheatres, but if you stand in a certain place on what would be the stage, and speak towards the seats, your voice is echoed right back at ya. It does not happen anywhere else you stand, nor can anyone not right there on the exact spot hear the echo. I went first and cried out “Friends, Romans Countrymen.” The echo was astounding. I have to figure out if this is a normal feature for Roman amphitheatres or a quirky thing.
There was an outdoor museum here which displayed statues found underwater in the Alexandria harbor.
We still had two more stops to make before he would let us eat. The first was yet another citadel. Sorry, but I have been in enough forts in the Middle East already, so I stood by the sea, admired the view and pined for FOOOD.
The last stop he had in mind for us was yet another Mosque. I have seen many of these as well. In Egypt, mosques are open to non-Muslims all the time. I’m not sure why. This mosque was just right for Alexandria. Mosques take great pride in their carpet. This carpet was worn down like something in a welfare office, and it was dirty. But it WAS a tourist mosque, with souvenir hawkers and even beggars outside. I have never seen either of those at any other mosque.
OK, everyone was saying FOOOD at this point. Does he take us to a typical Egyptian restaurant? Nope. Pizza Hut. No one cared. The salad bar looked like it got hit by a tornado in minutes. There was no one else in the joint and the crew was having a lazy afternoon, then 15 hungry infidels invaded. Anyway, we got fed.
Then the highlight of the entire Alexandria experience. The Library.
The original library in Alexandria was one of the 7 wonders of the ancient world. It was a center of knowledge as much as a repository of books. Under royal decree it was to obtain a copy of every book published worldwide. It sent out buyers to all the known cities. Whenever a ship pulled into Alexandria harbor, the library took whatever books it did not already have. Some people say they just borrowed them and returned copies to the ships. However they acquired their volumes, they were the largest library in the world. Until Caesar. He started a fire in the harbor, and it spread and burned down the library and all but some books spirited out by the librarians. These were papyrus volumes of importance to Egypt, and from what I understand, they still exist in the rare book collection.
The library has gone through more than a few changes until 8 years ago when the new library was opened. It is a magnificent building. Situated a cross the street from the University of Alexandria it is well used. It is generously equipped with computers and such. Many governments in the world contributed to the rebuilding and equipping of this library, including USAID and Microsoft.
Our group took a tour, but we did not join them. I had a very special tour guide. Mary Ann is a professional librarian, and she was in Nirvana. We walked up to a rack of books. She laughed and said “Dewey”, I got what she meant. This library uses the Dewey Decimal categorizing system, instead of the Library of Congress system. She pointed out a few other things that only a librarian would notice. I spend a lot of time in Mary Ann’s library at AUS. It is as noisy as a bus station. This library was dead silent. People in study groups or doing independent research, and respecting the tradition of silence in a library, it was wonderful.
OK the next post is day two in Alexandria. It was our free day. We went back to the library, watched a show in the library planetarium about the Stars of the Pharaohs, rode a trolley across town, watched fisherman in the harbor and had chaotic trip home.
Thanks for reading. Tell a friend. PLEASE make a comment.