x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Cleopatra's city by the sea

A weekend guide to Alexandria Once the seat of ancient Egypt's throne, this port city with a cosmopolitan feel is undergoing a process of urban renewal.

Fort Qaitbay on the western end of the Corniche is a 15th-century citadel built on the ruins of Alexandria's lighthouse, which was once one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.
Fort Qaitbay on the western end of the Corniche is a 15th-century citadel built on the ruins of Alexandria's lighthouse, which was once one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.

Once the seat of ancient Egypt's throne, Alexandria, this port city with a cosmopolitan feel is undergoing a process of urban renewal.

Alexandria - a thriving cosmopolitan city that was the setting of Cleopatra and Antony's passionate affair; where Euclid developed his theories of geometry; a home to Pharaohs; the site of the Lighthouse of Alexandria, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World - has lost most of its glorious past to the Mediterranean Sea. And yet despite having few surviving antiquities, Alexandria strides forward; a unique mix of European charm, Egyptian tradition and ancient remains and it is a city with a culture and trends all its own. A major trade port in the early 19th century, Alexandria was once home to large populations of Greeks, Italians and French. When Egypt nationalised the Suez Canal in 1952, however, most of the foreigners were expelled or left. However years of stirring cultures together has created an Alexandria today that retains a jovial Mediterranean atmosphere mixed with the worn splendour and busy streets that are a trademark of Egyptian cities. The city is undergoing a process of urban renewal and is re-creating past landmarks as modern day wonders: the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, which opened in 2002, has enough shelf space for eight million books. The five-star Four Seasons hotel opened in 2007 at the site of Egypt's once glorious San Stefano Hotel, and a feasibility study for building the world's first underwater museum, which will be located in the harbour in front of the library, is underway. With a smattering of galleries, cinemas, and the Alexandria Opera House, the city does its best to keep up with Cairo's cultural offerings, and has hosted experimental theatre, conferences, festivals and performances by international artists. The Roman amphitheatre, in Kom el Dikka, hosts performances of Arabic music in July and August. The city's faded charm, street-side cafes, winding alleyways and layers of history pressed against each other offer a unique opportunity to enjoy a weekend getaway in a ramshackle mix of eras and cultures.

While much of Alexandria's Greco-Roman history is buried under the sea or beneath modern buildings, some sites remain from its epic past. Visit Pompey's Pillar in the Karmouz neighbourhood; at 27m high, it's the tallest ancient monument in Alexandria. The catacombs of Kom Ash Shuqqafa, built in the first century, offer passageways to an impressive Roman burial site. A complex network of tombs, Kom Ash Shuqqafa integrates motifs from Roman, Grecan and Egyptian architecture. Stop at the Fort Qaitbay on the western end of the Corniche and spend some time people-watching as Egyptian families gather by the sea. Leave the past behind and walk the grounds of the Montazah palace, the former summer residence of the Egyptian royal family. Take a tour of the contemporary Bibliotheca Alexandrina, which boasts characters from every writing form known to man carved into its exterior walls, as well as galleries, a planetarium and a theatre. Your time may be equally well-spent wandering the narrow streets of downtown Alexandria, soaking up 19th-century European architecture, strolling the bustling Corniche, or snacking at one of the patisseries in Saad Zhaghoul. For excellent antique shopping, browse your way through the Attarin Market, which features many antiques left behind when Europeans fled in the 1950s. Alternatively, visit the Souq al Saida which specialises in old furniture from a similar period. If you're interested in history, the new National Museum of Alexandria gives a glimpse of the city, from ancient to modern. Visit the Alexandria Contemporary Arts Forum for galleries showing works of modern art by local artists, or catch a lecture or film screening at the Goethe Institute.

Budget Downtown has a bevy of delightful budget hotels, including the Union Hotel and the Hotel Crillon, only a few blocks from each other on the Corniche. Once past the dark and dingy entrance, the New Capry Hotel, set off of Saad Zhaghoul Square, offers breezy and bright rooms with private balconies and newly remodelled bathrooms. The cost of a double room without a bathroom starts at US$21 (Dh77), with breakfast included. The New Capry provides lodgers with an in-house restaurant, private and public balconies, pool table, and a library. New Capry Hotel, El Menaa el Sharkeya St, Raml Station (002 03 480 9310). Mid-range A few so-called heritage hotels are housed in converted palaces and renovated buildings of Italian and Greek architecture. The Windsor Palace Hotel, built in 1905 and recently remodelled, sits squarely in the centre of town on the Corniche overlooking the eastern Harbour. While its history may not be as storied as the nearby Hotel Sofitel Cecil, which is known as a literary landmark and has hosted Agatha Christie, W Somerset Maugham and Lawrence Durrell, the Windsor Palace has rooms with private balconies and elegant plaster cornicing which set it apart from other offerings. The lobby's painted ceilings and frescos display the Windsor's fine attention to detail without feeling studied. Enjoy an inclusive breakfast while sitting outside at the restaurant overlooking the eastern Harbour. The hotel has 71 rooms with the price of a double with bathroom starting at $100 (Dh 367). The Windsor Palace Hotel, El Shohada St, Raml Station (002 03 480 8700; www.paradiseinnegypt.com/Home/windsor). Luxury Opened in 2007, the Four Seasons is built at the site of the legendary San Stefano Hotel. Located in the San Stefano district, and built within a luxury residential community, the five-star hotel has 118 rooms, nine restaurants, pool-terraced rooms, a squash court, a shopping mall complex and infinity pool. The hotel's interior was designed by the French designer, Pierre Yves Rochon, and blends classic French elegance with influences from other parts of the Mediterranean. The two-story spa and fitness centre is understated in its design but commendably stylish. The price of a double room starts from $631 (Dh 2,222), including breakfast. Four Seasons, El Guish Road, San Stefano, (002 03 581 8000; www.fourseasons.com/alexandria).

Breakfast Foul is a staple dish for most Egyptians, and Mohammed Ahmed, near the Raml Station, is famous for the local twist on the Egyptian classic, Foul iskanderia (Alexandria foul). Alexandria foul adds chopped tomato, onion, red pepper powder and olive oil to the traditional dish. Mohammed Ahmed's has been a mainstay of Alexandrian breakfasts for 25 years. The restaurant offers a variety of foul options, such as foul with fried egg, tahini or corn oil. A plate of foul iskanderia is less than $0.20 (Dh0.5) at this restaurant that attracts people from different classes and all walks of life. Lunch Seaside Alexandria is full of fish-market restaurants, but Balbaa Village on Malik Hefni Street has a reputation for delectable seafood and the finest grilled meat in town. Few restaurants do kibbe - a snack of spiced, minced meat - better. A second branch has opened near Zahran mall in Smouha that offers a more upscale decor. Balbaa Village is typically packed with families sharing plates of kofta and kebab for $7 per kilo (Dh24). Dinner While there are few old restaurants that remain from Alexandria's heyday as an international hub, some, such as Santa Lucia and Elite, have managed to survive. However, the Greek Club, the second-floor restaurant next to the Qaitbay Fort, offers an unbeatable panoramic view of the harbour and Bibliotheca Alexandrina. With a mix of Greek and Egyptian classic dishes, such as grilled fish for $5 (Dh20) per kilo and a variety of inspired mezze at about $2 (Dh6), the food more than makes up for the unimaginative interior and the balcony seating area is a lovely place to linger over a meal while enjoying the amazing view.

Air Arabia (www.airarabia.com) offers daily flights to Alexandria from the airline's hub in Sharjah with return fares starting from $318 (Dh1,169) including taxes.

The Alexandrian Quartet by Lawrence Durrell is a series of novels set in Alexandria before the Second World War. Another classic work by an Alexandrian transplant is Alexandria: A History and a Guide, by EM Forster. The book is a seminal example of travel writing and an exploration into the history of the city. Spending his life in Alexandria, Constantine Cavafy's poems explore Greek figures of the ancient world and Michael Haag's Alexandria: City of Memory looks at the social and political history of the city through the lens of those who have lived there, from home-grown Alexandrians to expatriates. mdetrie@thenational.ae