Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Ice Cold in Alex

It is Sunday 9 December 2007. My husband Richard and I are on the last leg of our second trip to Egypt, researching The Scribes from Alexandria. This will be one of the few books set in Alexandria of the past without Cleopatra, because my interest is Roman Alexandria. (However, Cleopatra does make a kind of cameo.)

Our tour group is given the choice of a free day or an optional day trip to Alexandria. Well, obviously, it's got to be Alexandria! Only four of us opt for the tour: me, Richard, David and Derek. David is from Edinburgh and Derek from York. They are both easy-going and our small group means we (or rather I) can dictate the places we go and the things we see. I have a checklist of things I'd love to see. Today's guide Walid looks about 18, though he must be in his mid-twenties. He drives a cerise microbus.

Alexandria Toll Gate - coming from the south (Cairo)
A 7.00am start means the road is clear. We pass the Cairo tollbooth an hour after setting out. It is yellow and made to look like a Nile temple with sculptures and hieroglyphics. Advertisements mar this attempt somewhat. After the Cairo tollbooth, the road becomes bumpier and agriculture starts to appear. After 100 kilometers and another hour we reach the Alexandria tollbooth. It is white and blue, (the colours of Greece), with imitation Greek columns and the words ALEXANDRIA in big Greek letters above it. The famous Lake Mareotis has moved, or shrunk. Our guide tells us the water is salt water from the sea. But it gives a good impression of what Alexandria's situation might have looked like. Another half hour or so brings us to the waterfront and the famous 'corniche'.

scene from Ice Cold in Alex
Michael Palin called Alexandria 'Cannes with acne'. We can see traces of its colonial beauty but it is now sadly decrepit and dusty. Still, it has a certain charm helped by perfect weather. After three days of solid rain we have struck gold with a mild blue day. We all talk about the famous scene in a 1958 film Ice Cold in Alex where John Mills and Sylvia Syms and some others have an ice cold beer in Alexandria at the end of a hot and arduous desert adventure. The last scene is famous. The four of them go into a hotel bar and order ice cold beer. For a moment they savour the anticipation and watch moisture condense on the glass. Then they drink it down. According to imdb.com trivia, John Mills was drinking real beer because ginger ale and other substitutes didn't look real enough on film. In the final cut (the 14th take) he actually was quite drunk!

The cerise microbus takes us to the site of the lighthouse first. There is a medieval fort there now. Walid doesn't know much about ancient Alexandria but I try to stay quiet and just take in the surroundings, imagining the great lighthouse rising up above us, like Ostia's only taller and covered in white marble. While we are exploring, some Egyptian girl students (early teens) ask Derek if they can take his photo. We joke afterwards that he should have asked for 'baksheesh'. (Whenever you take someone's picture here in Egypt, they expect you to pay them a tip for the privilege.)

Pompey's Pillar (so-called)
Back in Alexandria proper, the so-called 'Pillar of Pompey' was a pillar re-used by Diocletian in the third century. It may once have been part of the Serapeum, the magnificent and famous annex to the great Museum or "Library" of Alexandria. I think this hill could be the remains of the Paneum, a conical hill which was sacred to the god Pan. We know from ancient writers that you could look out over all of Alexandria from its top.

Next stop are the catacombs of Kom es-Shoqafa – "mound of shards" – which might have been the Alexandrian equivalent of Rome's Mons Testaccio. These Graeco-Romano tombs display a strange mixture of Greek, Roman and Egyptian imagery on them. We go down to a huge catacomb riddled with inner rooms, stone recesses and tunnels. There is even a massive triclinium where the family of the dead person would have a meal in his or her honour.

the "Alexandria Quartet"
Then it's on to the Graeco-Roman theatre. This is very small and I think it's more likely to be a lecture hall. We know that the famous Museum (where the Library was) had lots of famous scholars who gave public talks. Nearby are baths and a 3rd century Roman townhouse called the Villa of the Birds, on account of the pretty mosaics on the floor.

The National Museum in Alexandria is beautifully laid out, with proper lighting and dust-free cases, (unlike it's massive cousin in Cairo). It's also a manageable size. The Pharaonic gallery is downstairs, the Graeco-Roman on the ground floor and Islamic one floor up. Half an hour is long enough for us to look at our preferred sections with a quick glance at one other floor. David raves about the quality of the Pharaonic art downstairs and regrets leaving his camera in the hotel.

Alexandria's eastern harbour
We are delighted to discover that lunch is included in our tour. Our microbus takes us back to the Corniche through dusty roads and crowded traffic to a delightful restaurant called The Fish Market. It has a magnificent view over the brilliant blue sea and reminds me of Sausalito, looking out over the San Francisco Bay, or of Sydney, Australia. For the first time in a week I feel like we are on holiday. The waiter brings a delicious assortment of meze, then a choice of whole grey mullet or tomato pasta for main course.

After lunch we find a decrepit hotel from Britain's colonial period to recreate the famous moment from Ice Cold in Alex. We can't find a bar so we have to make do with a table and we drink Egyptian beer instead of Carlsberg. The hotel staff think we are crazy as Walid and I art direct the scene. (above from left to right: Caroline, Richard, Derek and David at the Windsor Palace Hotel)

the modern Library of Alexandria (in 2007)
Our final stop is the brand new Library of Alexandria. It is on the waterfront, nowhere near the original library, but that doesn't matter. It is really stunning. My favourite bit is a triangular pool at the back which reflects palm trees on the waterfront.

It's 4.30pm and the sun is low in the sky. We start back and stop for a quick 'comfort stop' on our way out of Alexandria. How glad I am that we did. The first part of the trip is quite scary. It's pitch black with no street lights and Egyptian drivers pass on either side. Our driver drives very fast. He's good, but donkey carts and pedestrians wear no lights. What if he hits one? We reach the Cairo toll booth in good time, just over two hours. However, suddenly the road is packed and we aren't moving at all.

recreating the moment from Ice Cold in Alex
This is the Mother of all Traffic Jams. I have never seen anything like it. Three lanes of highway are occupied by five lanes of honking cars, trucks, taxis, cars, minivans and tankers. For most of the trip we are at a standstill or moving at a crawl. Our driver goes on the bumpy shoulder of the highway, when he can move, but another pickup truck is even further to the right on the sandbank. Richard, Derek and David give him the nickname 'Sandbank Sam'.

After an hour or two we see people walking on the dark side of the road. They are easily overtaking us. Trapped by two lanes of traffic on either side, I try not to think about what would happen if I suddenly needed the toilet. I wonder if this is divine punishment for the torture I inflicted on Flavia in The Beggar of Volubilis. I wouldn't be surprised to see a woman giving birth by the side of the road. People are certainly doing other things there. Finally, finally the hotel is in sight. We were hoping to be back by 7.30pm. It is now nearly 10.00pm. It has taken us nearly five hours to get back. I will never complain about London traffic again.

The other members of our group spot us and run out of the hotel restaurant to greet us. They have moved to a big table so that we can join them. None of the four of us feel like eating but we all order beers and for us this is really an Ice Cold in Alex moment. Never has a tall cold beer tasted so good.

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