After another fantastic early Christmas meal laid on by Trish, it was off across London on the rails dragging suitcases behind me to Heathrow. A pleasant overnight flight (most of which I tried to sleep through) on Egyptair and the new Cairo airport confirmed my expectations that Egypt would be similar in affluence in Turkey; however, these were quickly dashed as we (four other Kiwis & I that were going on different tours with the same company) were driven across Cairo and Giza to our hotel. There was much excitement in the van (sleep deprivation may have been a contributing factor) when we sighted the famous pyramids looming up behind the multitudes of unfinished multilevel houses (I can’t really go so far as to call them apartment blocks).
Wisely or otherwise, I had arrived in Egypt the day before I needed to and opted for a add-on day trip to Alexandria. So under-rested and underfed I joined a few other day-trippers on the small bus to the coast at 7.30 am. Climbing on the bus there was a smell of diesel pervading and the floor at the rear of the bus was very slippery – it turns out that on such a long trip (200 km) in Egypt it pays to carry a bit of extra fuel as in the recent climate one can never be guaranteed a supply and some of this had spilt. From working in various industrial and chemical plants I have a reasonably high tolerance of such odours, so it wasn’t too bad; others didn’t feel the same way so we stopped along the Desert Road (much more appropriately named than the Desert Road in New Zealand as this one runs along the eastern edge of the Sahara) for hurried cleaning – I could get some much needed sustenance.
I’d heard a bit of Alexandria from Trish whose husband spent quite a few years growing up there and her father had also been stationed there during WWII – with fascinating photos to prove it [Trish, that statue that was uncaptioned in your Dad’s album was of Mohammed Ali (not the boxer)]. So I was interested to see some of the sights of the black and white photos in real-life colour. The chaos of the traffic became apparent as we approached the city – in many hours in traffic in a city of near five million I saw one set of traffic lights and no street signs. First we had to pop down to the famous Corniche promenade to pick up a couple of South African guys that would be joining us for the day & trip back to Giza. Eventually we made it to our first sight of the day, by which time we’d had plenty of time for Hesham (our guide for the day & also the guide on the week-long tour I was on) to explain a bit about Egypt and Alexandria. The history of Alexander the Great’s brief rule and the extended rule of the Ptolemies and Cleopatras was fascinating – they’re still finding historical pieces from these eras in the Med.
Our first stop was the ancient catacombs, Kom al-Shaqafa, which were discovered believe it or not by a donkey in 1900 – it fell down the access shaft. While not nearly as big as some catacombs I’ve been in, it was interesting as there was a merging of Egyptian, Roman and Greek art. Excuse the poor quality of the surreptitiously taken photos.
A short distance from the catacombs is the well-known Pompey’s Pillar. Set on top of the old Alexandria (I don’t know why I bother qualifying that with the word old, as most everything in this country is proper old – but then I come from a country that is not even two hundred years old) acropolis is the granite pillar (a single piece forms the twenty-seven metre tall shaft ) that used to be part of a Roman temple. Here we started to see the first of many sphinxes. The slight rise of the hill gave a good view of the surrounding neighbourhood.
Following lunch by the Mediterranean (where I was so hungry I forgot the rule of not eating salad that may have been washed in tap water – my digestive system survived, mercifully) we were off to the last sight of the day – the Modern Library. On first hearing this, I was disappointed as I didn’t really come all this way to see a library. It turns out that the ancient Royal Library of Alexandria (from around third century BC) was quite the library way back when (unfortunately it burned at various points). The modern replacement was heaving with students (a university is just across the road) and despite the guide’s rather oddly accented English, the tour was interesting as the main area was an absolutely huge open-plan and tiered library. The architecture is simply stunning inside & out. It’s quite the facility and it was pleasing to see so many students spending so much time in the library – hopefully this bodes well for the country’s future.
So that was my brief visit to Alexandria, most enjoyable even if I was rather tired from the flight and hungry from not quite enough/any food during the early part of the day.