x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Alexandria: a modern wonder

This Egyptian city merits a visit for its new cultural revival.

Why Alexandria?

Although better known for its cycles of decline, Egypt's seaside second city remains a seductive and lively metropolis. Founded by Alexander the Great in 331 BCE, its two most famous monuments and wonders of the ancient world - the Pharos lighthouse, and Ptolemy's library - were both destroyed in antiquity. But modern Alexandrians are proud witnesses of their city's cultural revival, evidenced by the construction of the Bibliotheca Alexendrina (a new complex of libraries, galleries, and cultural research centres), luxury hotels and contemporary art spaces, and the renovation of jewellery-box mansions and theatres. Archaeologists, meanwhile, have been busy excavating ruins beneath the waves in the ancient harbour, which is slated to become the world's first underwater museum.

True, high rises overwhelm a gritty skyline and many colonial-era buildings stand neglected. But Alexandria's unique melancholy is also one of its attractions and has ever been tempered by sophistication, civility (Egyptians across all faiths condemned the December 31 bombing of the Two Saints Coptic church), charm and, especially in summer, a seaside joie de vivre.

A comfortable bed

You'll want to be on the seafront. Opened in 2008, the Four Seasons Alexandria at San Stefano has the best service and amenities in the city, including a spa. The hotel is part of a modern condominium and shopping mall complex, but the interior esprit is more old-world chic than nouveau riche (www.fourseasons.com; 00 20 3581 8000). Double rooms cost from US$470 (Dh1,725), including taxes. Of the handful of restored colonial hotels west of Saad Zaghloul Square (the heart of the old downtown), the Sofitel Cecil Hotel (www.sofitel.com; 00 20 3487 7173) has the most convenient location. Double rooms cost from $134 (Dh492), including taxes.

Find your feet

An early morning (before seven to avoid car fumes) jog or sunset walk along the Corniche from the neo-Islamic towers on Stanley Bridge to the Mamluke-era Qait Bey Fort is your best introduction to the city's layered architectural heritage. Otherwise, taxis are an inexpensive and efficient way to get around; a ride of a few minutes should cost no more than five Egyptian pounds (Dh3), while an hour's hire, including waiting time, should not exceed the equivalent of 60 Egyptian pounds (Dh38) on the meter.

The city's Greco-Roman ruins are not as impressive nor as overwhelming as the famous antiquities of Cairo, Luxor and Aswan, but they are all easily visited in a single morning and are seldom crowded. The most interesting and picturesque are Pompey's Pillar (actually built in honour of Emperor Diocletian), the second-century catacombs of Ash-Shuqqafa and a small Roman amphitheatre. Visit the restored Alexandria National Museum for an historical overview.

Meet the locals

It's worth visiting the Bibliotheca Alexandrina (www.bibalex.gov.eg), which in 2002 replaced the Great Alexandria Library burnt in 47 BCE. Not only does the arresting structure resemble a cross between a computer chip and an astrolabe, it serves as a cultural beacon for Egyptians of all classes, religions and ages. In addition to books in all the Mediterranean Basin languages, the facility encompasses art galleries, a planetarium, a children's science museum, a library for the blind and seven research institutes.

Book a table

Fresh seafood and autumn quail are Alexandrian specialties. Abou Ashraf International Seafood (00 20 3481 6597; 28 Safar Basha Street) is one of the city's cult locations for grilled shrimp, butterflied catches of the day, and bouri bi ghada, a small batter-fried specialty. A fish meal, for two selected from the iced display case, costs $10 to $14 (Dh37 to Dh55) per person.

When the weather is balmy, reserve a terrace table at the restaurant of Alexandria's Greek Club (00 20 3480 2690), just behind Qait Bey Fort overlooking a yacht club. Seafood and Greek and Egyptian salads crowd the menu, but it's really the breeze and the view that is incomparable; a multi-course meal followed by mint tea costs about $18 (Dh65) per person. Mohammed Ahmed (00 20 3483 3576), at 17 Shakor Pasha Street near the Ramle train station, is one of the most famous places in Egypt to eat taamiya (mashed chickpeas fried with garlic and fresh cilantro) and foul, stewed mashed fava beans, served here in 15 different combinations of spices. A plate of taamiya with fresh bread and salads, served at plastic tables, costs just five Egyptian pounds (Dh 3).

Shopper's paradise

The sale of anything more than 100 years old is officially forbidden in Egypt, but there are still treasures to be excavated in the dozens of antique shops dominating Alexandria's Attarine souq. You may find pastel portraits of King Farouk, pre-revolutionary photos, fake pharoanic antiques, paraphernalia from the Second World War and assorted colonial detritus. Mahmoud Moussa Antiques at 4 El Knessa Angelina Street, usually has a well-edited selection (00 20 3392 6665).

What to avoid

Group tours in big buses. The city is easy to negotiate without a guide and every corner presents opportunities for memorable detours from a planned itinerary.

Don't miss

Two small but fascinating museums are located near the Four Seasons hotel. Alexandrian Mahmoud Said (1897-1964), an aristocrat who trained as a lawyer began painting Rousseau-like scenes of rural Egyptian life in his fifties. Two of his works sold at auction in Dubai last year for more than $2.4 million (Dh8.81m) each, setting a record for the work of any contemporary Arab artist. His mansion at 6 Mohammed Said Street, now the Mahmoud Said Museum (00 20 3582 1688; closed on Monday), displays some of his belongings and 40 of his paintings as well as pieces by other artists.

In a nearby palace, the Royal Jewellery Museum (it reopened last April after five years of restoration) showcases jewels, medals and precious objects belonging to members of the Mohammed Ali dynasty; look for King Farouk's solid silver squash racket.