Sunday, November 21, 2004


Originally written for The Cutting Edge Magazine in 1999. There's another piece I did on Cairo somewhere in the archives. Since that Colin Farrel movie "Alexander" is getting so much hype, I'm jumping on the bandwagon and reprinting this here.

Alexandria is fascinating when you notice the dynamics between the old ways and modern days. One of the first things you’ll notice is that the people are proud to be Alexandrians, as well as Egyptians. Their claim to fame, after all, is that the conqueror/warrior Alexander the Great founded their city.

It is a city of great historical substance. The architecture of most buildings reflects the cultural and religious influences of their people. Even the newer buildings are erected in the traditional architectural style. But if you look closely, you will see that they are not as “backward” as the dusty roads, veiled women and old buildings make them out to be. Atop almost every apartment building is a satellite dish. Most women wear chunky wedge-heeled club shoes with the curve-concealing jellabiyahs.

Situated beside the Mediterranean sea, Alexandria (or Alex as the locals call it) is the country’s summer capital for reasons made obvious by the innumerable public beaches that line the coast. So bring swimwear and your spf number of choice. (In fact, even if you don’t intend to take a dip bring protection from the sun anyway. Egypt as a whole is a very hot country.)

The best thing to do is to lodge at the hotels found within Montazah Park. Inside the park are two of the King’s palaces, his wives’ palace and, of course, hotels that give you access to private stretches of yellow sand and an indigo ocean. One I would recommend is the Helnan Palestine Hotel... their ice cream? Divine!

Sunbathing and strolling through the park grounds is not all that Alex has to offer. There are several locations that might interest a traveler curious about the city’s past.
There is the Gold Museum. Inside are the jewels and other adornments of the royal families of the modern centuries. It’s almost enough to give you gold fever. Then you notice the guards standing at each doorway, holding their automatic weapons and you think twice about your sudden urge to be dripping in diamonds.

If you want to travel further back in time, head on over to the Graeco-Roman Museum. (Except on Fridays... um... because they’re closed.) Massive marble carvings and statues of Greek and Egyptian gods reach for the high sunlit ceiling. On either side, there is an impressive collection of mummies, terra-cotta figurines, bronze artifacts and other odds and ends that were found in archeological digs. Little white cards at the base of each display case briefly describes what you are looking at, the date of excavation and the estimated period of make.
You may also want to check out the Catacombs of Kom El Shuqafa (shoo-kah-fa). It’s a lot of fun to walk down the stairs they’ve carved alongside the outer walls of the underground catacombs. Just remember that who walks down, must walk all the way back up.

Another recommended tourist-y spot is the Citadel. Built right beside the water, the former stronghold is now open to the public. The fortress still contains the military residences (minus the militia), the armory, a mosque and a museum.
For most of these sites there is an entrance fee, an extra fee to bring in a still camera and yet another fee for a video-cam. Personally, I think the small fee to bring in the still camera is worth paying for all the places but only the Gold Museum and the Graeco-Roman Museum merit a video-cam. For the most part, these places open at 10 am and close at 4 pm. Check with your hotel to be certain.
Another thing that the hotels can do for you is arrange for a driver to take you around for the whole day. This is really convenient as there is no need to hail a cab every time you want to go somewhere else. It is also the safer way to go as the drivers – although not hotel employees – are well known by the bell captains and can be trusted. Fees can range from 100-130 L.E. for about 5 hours plus tips. The driver will more often than not also give you a talking tour while he takes you around, pointing out other interesting sights. It is only polite to listen even if you can barely understand him. They try very hard to make the tourist as welcome as possible and it’s the least you can do. Don't be one of those ugly tourists that give the rest of your country a bad name.
A coastal city of historical worth, Alexandria is a city better experienced than read.

Getting there: From Manila, Singapore Airlines has almost daily flights to Egypt via Dubai. Check with your travel agent for a more detailed flight schedule. Once in Cairo International Airport – the only entry point via air into Egypt – rent a cab for the two hour drive to Alexandria (about $75). There are several taxi services lined up outside the Customs area.


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