Egypt: On the edge of Africa

By Peter Calder

Wrapped up against Egypt's cold - yes, cold, Peter Calder travels off-season and off the beaten track.

Fort Qaitbey, built around 1480, is on the site of - and made with some of the rubble of - the Pharos lighthouse, which was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Photo / Peter Calder
Fort Qaitbey, built around 1480, is on the site of - and made with some of the rubble of - the Pharos lighthouse, which was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Photo / Peter Calder

Ali wants my beanie. I'm not sure that I want to give it to him but he's offering to exchange a "genuine Egyptian hat" for it.

He catches the momentary hesitation in my eyes and senses that the deal is almost done.

"Let's look at your hat," I say. He produces from his bag one of the close-fitting skull caps popular among Muslim men.

"It's silk and cotton," he enthuses. For a moment I wonder if I'm taking advantage of him, since my beanie is about 140 per cent acrylic.

But then I see the little "Made in Indonesia" tag inside his genuine Egyptian hat and I feel better. He puts mine on, looking very pleased with himself. I put his on. It looks like a thimble on a basketball.

"It looks great," Ali says. "Thanks."

I open my mouth to object but think better of it. I pull the genuine Indonesian hat over my ears and wonder if it will keep out the cold.

Being cold in Egypt wasn't exactly what I had in mind. Fearful of the hammering heat, I had timed my visit for their winter, pushing aside the anxiety that I would be trampled by legions of Germans fleeing the snow at home.

It turned out that it was cold in the daytime and freezing at night, particularly in northern Egypt (which they call lower Egypt because the points of the compass are nowhere near as significant as the direction in which the Nile flows). Quite a few of the locals were wearing scarves and some had woollen gloves, which I rather thought was overdoing it.

But not once in sunburned North Africa in January did I feel warm enough to get about in shirtsleeves. And when the folks in points south heard I was heading for Alexandria, they looked at me like I was a polar explorer.

When I got off the train that had traversed the rich lands of the Nile delta from Cairo in less than three hours, I saw what they meant. The sun glistened off the waters in the perfect curve of the harbour, but there was no warmth in it.

The fishermen on the waterfront were warmly clad and the beaches were as empty as the train that had carried me north as Egyptians and foreigners holidayed in the south.

But it's good to go somewhere when everyone else is staying away. And, as the place where Africa brushes against Europe, Alexandria has a special charm.

Founded by Alexander the Great (he's buried there but no one is quite sure where) it's where Cleopatra committed suicide by suckling a snake after her affair with Mark Antony. It was, since antiquity, a major port linking Asia and Europe and in the first half of the 20th century, it was a popular haunt of English and European (particularly Jewish) artists and intellectuals.

In the new millennium, it's fair to say, much of its glory has faded but if you narrow your eyes its past seems to come into focus.

There are patisseries here and good coffee shops, although the Cafe de la Paix, a dusty facsimile of a Parisian Left Bank institution, sells Coke and stale cheese sandwiches only _ no coffee, much less a glass of wine.

The people, too, seem more European than Egyptian. The shopkeepers and stallholders don't hustle passing trade and I had to work hard to hail a taxi rather than fight off the dozen taxi drivers hailing me.

If it looks a little tatty up close, Alexandria looks wonderful from a distance. At the western end of the horseshoe-shaped waterfront drive called the Corniche, I climbed the stairs to the tower of the magic-looking Fort Qaitbey, a 15th-century construction built on the ruins of - and using some of the stones of - the Ptolemaic-era Pharos lighthouse that was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.

In the foreground, colourful fishing boats bobbed at anchor. At the other end of the bay, the magnificent sloping disc of the Alexandrian Library, inspired by its pre-Christian namesake long-since destroyed, reared from the shoreline, a striking symbol of the city's determination to reinvent itself.

To the north, the empty Mediterranean was a sunlit haze. Africa stretched to the south, endless and mysterious.

NEED TO KNOW

The quickest way to Egypt is with Emirates, which flies to Dubai daily from Auckland and daily from Christchurch, with connections to ALexandria and Cairo.

- Herald on Sunday

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