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Thursday, 30 March 2017

Alexandria: A Mediterranean jewel in the winter

Nothing compares to a fresh sea breeze mixing with the smell of rain on a typical March day in Alexandria

Mariam Mecky , Tuesday 28 Feb 2017
Cornich
The view from above of the corniche of the Mediterranean coastal city of Alexandria. (Photo: Mariam Mecky)
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As a Cairene whose memory of Alexandria lies mostly in its packed sea and picturesque corniche, I tend to forget there is a lot more to this storied coastal city.

In late January, I visited the city on a work trip, thinking it would follow the usual routine: go back and forth for the meetings and nothing else.

But this short trip was far from it; it was like a gasp of air amid my hectic schedule.

Alexandria is a great hub for leisure and work, particularly in winter when the rush of summer tourists has passed.  

A sea breeze, sense of tranquillity, good food, great coffee and above all the city's extraordinary history, made the trip nothing short of great.

This is my personal account of a refreshing trip and a few suggestions for a winter or spring trip to Egypt's second capital.

Upon arrival, I found myself passing by the famous Alexandrian Brazilian coffee place, which is for coffee addicts — the likes of my colleagues and me — heaven on earth.

Yes, you heard correctly, a Brazilian coffee place in Alexandria is one of the most popular spots to get the fix, for locals and tourists alike. I had heard about it from my Cairene friends, but didn't get the hype, until I stopped in on the way to my first meeting. The shop can be found near Raml station, and opens conveniently at 7am.

Coffee place
The Brazilian Coffee place near Raml station. (Photo: Mariam Mecky)

The smell of its freshly brewed coffee was incredibly hard to resist. I even got it as a souvenir for my foreign colleagues, coffee addicts all. Fancy some hazelnut espresso or caramel Turkish coffee, or simply a Colombian dark roast? Here you go. 

Alexandria’s cosmopolitan nature and rich history strike you at every step here, another thing I truly admired about the city.

Just wandering along the corniche or taking in the city’s architecture was enjoyable on its own.

Built by Alexander the Great in 331 BC, the city encompasses a number of historical buildings from different eras, including the Greek and Roman.

During the Hellenistic period, Alexandria was home to a lighthouse ranked among the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World as well as a storied library. After the lighthouse was destroyed by a series of earthquakes between the late 900s and 1300 AD, the Citadel of Qaitbay was built on its ruins in the 1480s. Today, the library is reincarnated in the disc-shaped, ultramodern Bibliotheca Alexandria.

Originally constructed in the 3rd century BC, and later destroyed, the Library of Alexandria was reborn in October 2002 to reclaim the mantle of its ancient namesake as a major library and cultural centre.

It is both a commemoration of the Library of Alexandria that was lost to antiquity, and an attempt to rekindle something of the brilliance that this earlier centre of study represented, a description on the Bibliotheca's website reads.

The Bibliotheca is an integrated cultural complex, with a major library, museums, exhibition areas, educational centres and an international conference centre.

Bibliotheca Alexandrina
Bibliotheca Alexandrina (Photo: Reuters)

Citadel of Qaitbay

Situated at the entrance of the eastern harbour, the 15th-century defensive fortress overlooks the Mediterranean Sea coast. The Fort was built by Circassian Mameluke Sultan Al-Ashraf Sayf al-Din Qa'it Bay.

The remains of the lighthouse can be seen in the construction of the citadel. In its day, the lighthouse stood an astonishing 125 metres in height with approximately three hundred rooms at the bottom that housed workers.

The fort — one of the oldest defence structures on the Mediterranean Sea — is now a museum. The area outside is packed with vendors and often crowded in daytime.

Qaitbay Citadel
File photo of Qaitbay Citadel. (Photo courtesy of social media)

Horse-drawn carriage

I've never been tempted by horse carriages to be honest, but being with a group of foreigners eager to try it, I decided to give it a go. Turns out it's a lot of fun! Riding in a carriage down the ever-popular Corniche, while the sea breeze stuns your face as you hear or even sing the popular song by Lebanon's Fairouz “Shat Esskendria,”(Shore of Alexandria) is quite an experience.

Horse Carriage
A horse carriage in front of Qaitbay Citadel. (Photo: Mariam Mecky)

Dine with a view

In Alexandria, a seafood meal is a must! These are two great places to try; both offer a lovely view of the sea and harbour.

Greek Club

Overlooking the eastern harbour of Alexandria, just past Qaitbay Citadel, the Greek Club offers fresh food with a Greek touch. It has an outdoor area facing the harbour as well as an indoor area. The view here is incredible. 

Greek Club
The outdoor terrace of the Greek Club. (Photo Courtesy of Trip Advisor)

Zephere Sea Food

Located on the corniche, Zephere Sea Food restaurant boasts a nice, relatively inexpensive menu and comes recommended by the locals.

Places to stay

Paradise Inn Le Metrople Hotel

Built in the late 18th century with classical decor, this authentic hotel has a magnificent view of the Mediterranean Sea. The inn is a two-minute walk from the sandy beaches and Alexandria National Museum’s history exhibits, and 1.5 km from the Bibliotheca Alexandria.

A standard room costs EGP 800 including breakfast, USD 50 per night.

Paradise Inn Le Metrople
Paradise Inn Le Metrople Hotel view. (Photo Courtesy of Paradise Inn Le Metrople Hotel)

Steigenberger Cecil Hotel

For a beautiful hotel on the beach shore, there is the Cecil recently acquired by Steigenberger. Located in the heart of Alexandria, this hotel features an elegant setting influenced by the architecture and interior design of early modernism. With a beautiful restaurant overlooking corniche, Cecil is quite an authentic place to stay in.

A standard room including breakfast costs on average EGP 1200, up to USD 80 per night.

Cecil
The front of Steigenberger Cecil Hotel. (Photo Courtesy of Steigenberger Cecil Hotel)

Sheraton Montazah

One minute walk from the beach and from Montazah Palace, Sheraton Montazah has a great view of the Mediterranean.

A standard room including breakfast costs EGP 1,100, USD 70.

Sheraton
A view of the Montazeh palace from Sheraton Montazah hotel. (Photo Courtesy of Sheraton Montazah)

Montaza Palace, established in 1892 by Khedive Abbas II from the Muhammad Ali Dynasty, was used as a hunting lodge and residence.

In 1932, the larger Al-Haramlik Palace and royal gardens were added to Montaza's grounds by King Fouad I, to be used as a summer palace.

Facing the sea, the palaces were designed with an amalgamation of Turkish and Italian styles.

The palace was recently used by former president Hosni Mubarak, who was ousted by the 25 January revolution in 2011. The beautiful parks are open to the public. During daytime, the grounds provide lovely walking, but get quite packed on public holidays and weekends. The palace area also has a number of restaurants and cafes.

In the winter, Alexandria’s weather averages a high of 17 degree Celsius and low of 10 degree Celsius from November to February — a mild winter compared to many countries. Average rainfall is also common in Alexandria during December and January.

In the spring, the Mediterranean city reaches an average high of 23 degree Celsius and low of 14 degrees, while in Summer, temperatures average 31 degrees high and 21 low.

Alexandria is perfect for a short getaway in the winter, great for conventions with a variety of activity—all in all a bustling city you're bound to enjoy.

For more on Alexandria, its landmarks, hotels and restaurants, check this comprehensive story on the coastal city.

To learn more about the city’s rich heritage, the Description of Alexandria Documentation Studies (DOA) project is a great resource. There is also a Cultural Heritage Map of Alexandria which documents the cultural and architectural heritage of Alexandria, produced by the DOA in collaboration with the Swedish Institute Alexandria.

As a foreign colleague told me as we walked along the corniche: “You have such a beautiful country.” 

 

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