I was expecting Cairo Airport to be mental, but it wasn’t. Customs was quick, baggage arrived promptly and in one piece and the terminal was pretty much empty. It’s amazing how much order a varied security situation can bring to a potential target! We soon found out that the utter and complete mentalness exists but is kept away from the airport.
We flew from Tunis to Cairo on Egyptair, finding business class tickets for slightly less than the cost of economy (always worth a look) and enjoyed a comfortable experience, though one lacking any booze. The cabins are a bit dated so it’s a bit like flying in the 80s without the smoking section.
We decided to pre book transport from the airport, to avoid the scrum and potential to get ripped-off that can ruin arrival in a new country (Alex City Tours, US$55 from airport to Alexandria, 270km away), and were met by the exceptionally calm Mohamed.
Then we hit the highway. J and I have been on roads in Vietnam, India, Sao Paulo and numerous other places considered to be ‘a little bit crazy’ but Cairo takes the prize by a long shot. Lanes are irrelevant and vehicles will go between other vehicles as long as they have one or two millimetres to spare, and I mean that literally. I also say vehicles in the broadest sense as every kind of transportation is on the road: cars, trucks, combivans (the local form of public transport), motorbikes, tuk-tuks driven by men aged 10 and up, donkey carts and camels. Whilst you don’t get animals on the ‘motorways’, you do get people. On 8 lane highways, that fits at least 10 lanes of traffic, there are mothers with their kids walking along the fast lane, people crossing, people waiting for buses, people atop overladen trucks, and people just milling around. Seatbelts, crash helmets, brake lights, headlights at night, crossing areas and rules are luxuries that few bother with. I really don’t know how any motorcycle rider is alive or how any car isn’t a collection of dents. We felt a sense of accomplishment every time we got out of a car in one piece and we witnessed every type of insane behaviour imaginable. Challenge me! I was glad that Mohamed stayed exceptionally calm and seemed to remain above the lunacy.
We arrived at our Airbnb, down a dirty backstreet a couple blocks back from Alexandria’s Corniche, just before 9pm, where we were met by our host and shown around what turned out to be a very comfortable apartment that was most definitely decorated by a man. A man with very odd tastes and with a taste for those rather odd figurines you find in clearance shops (couples waltzing, jazz musicians, sailors etc). Additionally, what it lacked in windows it make up from in lights, all on separate switches, leading to an going-to-bed routine that seemed to last an hour or so.
The area we were in wasn’t exactly the hub for international hotels; it was full of small pressing shops, food places, coffee shops and dirt streets that saw few tourists. A bit intimidating to start with but we very quickly relaxed.
We had a tour on day one, visiting the Roman Amphitheatre, the catacombs and the modern Library. For Egypt, these sites are all rather modern, dating back to approximately 600 BC, or about 2002 in the case of the library, though that was carrying the flag for the original, ancient library of Alexandria.
Both old sites were worth a visit: interesting, plenty to see and of significance, if a little unloved and lacking in information (we were glad we had a guide). There is plenty of security at these places and we came across the Egyptian ‘noise arch’ for the first time. These are security arches that you have to go through. They tend to beep and flash red lights as you pass, but this leads to no action whatsoever. Their only function seems to be to produce noise and we have encountered similar ones at every site around Egypt.
The library is a truly world class building and reminded us of the opera house. Other than state of the art studying facilities, there are exhibition rooms and we loved the collection of maps, paintings then photographs that mapped the growth of the city from about 1500. In the early 19th century, it seemed that Alexander was like an organised and pristine European city. Then we (the Brits) came, bombarded it a couple of times, then occupied it. It seemed to go downhill from there.
Independently, we visited the handsome Citadel and the rather ordinary Stanley Bay Bridge (it’s just a bridge……) explored the town and found interesting places to drink. The Cecil Hotel is a colonial lump in the centre of town that both Monty and Churchill stayed in during WWII. It completely lacks atmosphere but has beer. The Spitfire Bar is down a backstreet and is covered in dusty pictures, flags, business cards, clutter and more dust, all bathed in red light. It sells cheaper beer and has a little more atmosphere, so whilst in most cities in the world it would be best avoided, as it’s in Alexandria it is worth a visit.
We found a couple of good places to eat and our favourite was a small, busy shop at the end of our dirt road that sold kebab sandwiches and falafels. Every word in the place was in Arabic but we were looked after by one of the staff who spoke good English and enjoyed fresh, tasty and healthy (it didn’t lead us to spend the night on the loo) food, for less than AU$1.
Not many tourists visit Alexandria as the Ancient Egyptians didn’t leave a huge impression there, the big sides are Greek and Roman but if you have the time, it is worth a couple of days.
We left Alexandria for Cairo, again with Alex city tours, via El Alamein and Wādī Al Natrun.
The first is famous for the battle in WWII where an Allied force (Brits, Australians, Kiwis, South Africans, French and Indians) inflicted the first defeat on Rommel. It is worth a visit from Alex if you are into that kind of thing, has a reasonable museum containing halls for all the major parties involved (to get the benefit from a visit, a battlefield tour is probably best as it is a great story of terrain, logistics and coordination), and a beautifully maintained Commonwealth War Cemetery. The latter is a poignant reminder of what happens when our leaders take us into war: young men and women kill each other in far off places. It is also an oasis of order and calm in a rather chaotic environment, I would have liked to visit the German memorial too, but time was against us.
Wādī Al Natrun is home to a number of Coptic Christian monasteries, complete with a significant amount of security. Some of the buildings date back to 400AD and the monks who showed us about are lovely. The buildings are a little bit scruffy but the monks say they want to invest in helping the community, not living in spic and span buildings. I like that approach. Again, worth a visit but only if you are passing.
Then it was on to Giza and the Pyramids.