Headed down for breakfast in the antique dining room, dark brown oak tables draped with white tablecloths with little flowers in little vases on top, creaking floorboards underneath everything. Very twee. Breakfast of breads and butter with fig jam, washed down with tea. Very fair. Checked out. Got the most battered old taxi in Cairo to the train station, arriving in disheveled style. The train station was a big mess of renovation. Scaffolding everywhere. It wasn’t like this when Michael Palin was here. I got past the scam artists at the front, and bought a ticket for 36LE to Alexandria, 1st class. Boarded, and sat down in the comfortable carriage, writing and reading and listening to music. I was glad I’d come to Cairo, and glad to escape it too!
The journey was comfortable and I arrived into a sunny, pleasant Alexandria. Touts tried to get me into a taxi as soon as I’d got out of the carriage, and several times towards the train station exit. I gave up trying to evade them eventually, and a bloke called Abdul gave me a bargained-down price of 20LE to the Egypt Hotel, where I had made no reservation. ‘What’s your carriage number?’ Abdul asked. ‘1st of 2nd class?’ I didn’t tell him. ‘Were you 1st class carriage 3?’ How did he know that? Then one of the grubby touts leaned in, something was agreed, and we set off. ‘Taxi queue number.’ Abdul explained. ‘First, second etc…’ I realised the touts work for the drivers, and the touts are the first nets in a sea where travellers, no matter how sly, are still caught. The taxi drivers just wait around next to their cars.
We headed off and I wound the passenger seat window down. The fresh, cool Mediterranean air hit me immediately, as did the sense that Alexandria was a lot more chilled, less busy, and more pleasant than its bad, moody, foul-smelling big brother Cairo. Trams ran in the streets here. I thought they only existed in Manchester, Tennoji, Hong Kong and San Francisco. I’d never have known they’d got trams in Alexandria, running alongside horse and carriage, and cars. We got down to the Corniche, the lovely area down by the Mediterranean, and into the ancient lift for the Egypt Hotel. Full. Should have reserved. But, as with all things everything happens for a reason. I walked alone down the Corniche after paying off the cabbie, and dropped into the Union Hotel, where, for 50LE, I could get a nice, clean, fresh room with a side view of the Med and a shared bathroom. Not bad, but I wanted to look at another place first, for the same reason that in any hotel I always look at another room – there’s usually something better than what is first offered. I was happy that I did. The Crillon Hotel, set on the 3rd floor of a derelict-looking building, was a find indeed. Fantastic carpets, homely and friendly. I got an amazing room bang on the Med. What a view. Great balcony. Fresh. 110LE. Bargain. It had a shared bathroom too, but it was fine. This was no dingy backpacker dive….things were clean.
Immensely cheered, but feeling dehydrated and absolutely starving, I headed out into Alexandria, this ancient city steeped in mythology, immortalised in the realms of history. Wow. I strolled around the busy but not mental streets, enjoying the wide pavements, the lack of hassle. I popped into the Taverna restaurant for a bit to eat – kebabs (kofta and something else – again). Not bad. After this, I decided to abandon any sightseeing, and embarked on a long and leisurely stroll up the Corniche. The sun was setting, giving the Mediterranean a sparkly blue colour that began to take on orangey hues, then amber, gold, copper, pink, and all the shades in between. Crowds of Alexandrians gathered on the promenade to watch the sunset, arm in arm. Rose sellers were doing a brisk business. The place exuded a delightfully peaceful and calm charm. I was enjoying watching the sunset, a deeper red than I had ever seen, while fishermen held onto their rods hopefully, as though deliberately playing a part in creating another perfect sunset scene.
I got talking to a young fisherman called Torre. Initially, I ignored him, but then accepted his invitation to sit on the wall of the promenade and share his freshly caught fish and prawn with him. He spoke very little English, but some somehow, we communicated. We talked football, perhaps the commonest unifier across cultures in the world. The EPL – what a brand. It’s endeared me to many a person in many a culture, and them to me. After a casual 20 minutes, I bid him farewell, and we headed off our separate ways. I went to La Vallee coffee shop for an average cappuccino, then to another place called Santos for a double expresso, then back to the hotel for a shower and a change. I put on jeans, a nice shirt, and a pair of good black shoes. I was going to the Centro de Portugal, an expat favourite quite a bit further down the Corniche.
I hailed a taxi, and we went off in search of it. I’d scrawled some orientation notes down in a bid to get there more easily, but we still got a bit lost down the dark streets away from the Corniche. The driver was a very nice chap though, and, through the help of several street vendors he spoke to, one of whom kindly translated my scribblings into arabic, we got there in the end after a few wrong turns and dead ends. It was very difficult to find, down a narrow street, behind an inconspicuous iron door set into a high wall. I gave the driver 20LE, and rang the bell on the wall. A shutter opened, and the door was unlocked, and it swung open with an ominous creak, though the sounds inside hinted at great cheer and merriment within. I paid an entrance fee, and entered the leafy compound and into a garden of Eden. A garden of drinking, dancing, and rowdiness. Sultry Egyptian ladies sat preening themselves and chatting away, giggling with each other. Expat men and women sat chatting around tables, drinking beer and vodka. An alfresco haven for those seeking an escape from the madness encircling. Inside a villa was a snooker table, a darts board, and upstairs a small bar and a disco, like the smallest working mens club disco I’d ever been to, and about as cool.
I got talking to a bloke called Stevie, who somehow reminded me of Stuart from my days training as teacher at TEFL International in Phuket. He was very amiable, and showed me the ropes. Buy your tickets, a little booklet of 10 vouchers cost 95LE. A beer is 2 vouchers. He invited me to join his buddies, and I did just that. He worked as a teacher at the British International School. Other people at the table were also teachers, at the same school. The headmaster of the school was here too, a jolly British chap. All friendly, chatty, welcoming expats. I also met some oil workers who spend most of their lives travelling and working offshore. Rio for a year had been their highlight so far. What a life. I talked to some Arabian beauties, and couldn’t work out if they were on the game or not. The crowd was mixed, older, and a lot of fun. This reminded me of my time in Jakarta. So welcoming. That wouldn’t happen in Singapore. Not a chance. Everyone would be too busy worrying about if they looked cool or not. I got chatting to a lass called Bex, from England, who drunkenly slurred ‘They told me that you were hot, so I should come and talk to you’. She was a lovely girl, very nice to chat to, and we got on really well. We had as good a chat as possible when one is absolutely smashed and the other disappointingly sober. I had a fantastic time all in all, playing ‘killer’ on pool table, dancing, drinking, and having much merriment. Great stuff. The Egyptian ladies were all sultry stares, and they flitted from expat to expat, giving just enough of a naughty glance so that everyone was interested. The disco had one of those glittery disco balls that I thought had gone out of fashion when Studio 54 closed down. It suddenly dawned on me that this was it. This was the main place for expats in Alex. That disco ball was all they’d be dancing under whilst they were serving their contract here, the guys trying in vain to get a ‘genuine’ Egyptian girl who’d actually put out without being married, the girls seemingly waiting feverishly for the arrival of new blood in the form of a traveller like myself, or – even better – a ship full of marines. A close-knit bunch where everyone has shagged everyone else and everyone knows everybody’s secrets. I loved it, being the outsider. Stevie showed me out to a taxi later on, and invited me to stay at his place, as Bex had done before, as they had spare rooms available. So nice and friendly. Even my taxi driver, a dead-ringer for Bin Laden, was a laughing ball of happiness and amusement. Maybe I’d been in Singapore too long and got used to the unfriendliness and pretentiousness of the big modern city…but I was mightily impressed with Alex.