Spring in Aleppo, summer in Tripoli and winter in Alexandria, went an adage I recently heard and I must here concur.
Winter in Alexandria is a treat for anyone who lives most of the year in a city like Cairo. Alexandria has a particular character during the winter months, brightened by the fact that it is not abandoned by tourists once the cold hits like other coastal cities.
Alexandria has more to offer than the sea – food and more food. And to help digest, there are various areas in the city where you can explore leisurely during slow afternoons, in addition to a relaxing spa at the Four Seasons.
To start your weekend off right, I suggest booking at the Cecil Hotel located Downtown, right in the heart of belle époque Alexandria. Views of the sea and the center square are only second to the marvelous examples of French and Italian architecture. With a good lens and a sharp eye, it’s easy to spend an entire afternoon taking great shots.
Strolling along the recently restored corniche from the starting point at Qait Bey Citadel all the way to late King Farouk’s summer retreat in Montazah is a long, but pleasant walk. The corniche stretches for 20 km and to walk it at least once is an exercise in nostalgia.
Upong reaching Montazah, head to the Salalmlik palace, the summer villa of Queen Farida. A misnomer, for the women’s quarters are referred to as a haramlik.
Now a small hotel, it is an intimate peek into the lives of the royals. Portraits hang in the reception area and a Photoshoped sign of King Farouk seated at a desk with a laptop advertises the hotel’s free Wi-Fi. Quite kitsch yet very amusing.
Have a coffee and unwind from your long walk or do some more exploring through the Montazah’s vast gardens.
Get back to the hotel for a change of clothes and then hop a short taxi ride to the Greek Club for dinner during sunset. The Greek Club is situated at the meeting point between the Alexandria port and Qait Bey’s fortress, with a long view of the corniche and its twinkling lights.
The Greek poet Cavafy made Alexandria his home and his presence is strong at the Greek Club – if not literally, of course, but by association. His home, now part museum and part Greek consulate, can be visited during the day. A must visit the next morning.
But let’s focus on dinner. Greek dishes and Alexandrian seafood are wonderfully paired and prepared; and considering setting, service and quality of food, great value for money. A few appetizers and a plate of jumbo shrimps and a drink came to a rough total of LE 200 for two. Save room for dessert.
Ask a taxi driver to take you to Azza ice cream downtown and have some milk ice cream, a flavor particular to Egypt. Part vanilla and mostly Egyptian style cream, it is very delicious. Indulge in a second scoop of gelati served as a sarookh ice cream: You’ll be served two scoops wedged between two small biscuit cones stuck together and rolled in old-fashioned butcher paper horizontally.
If food can be described as vintage, this would be labeled as such. It’s a very retro experience.
The next morning, head over to the Bibliotheca Alexandrina. Luminous dignitaries and celebrities often times visit the library’s manuscript collection and other permanent exhibits. There is also a huge slab of mosaic that is now on show. Recently excavated during the reconstruction of the Bibliotheca, it now rests on the same site that was once the ancient Alexandria Library. The mosaic inspires goose bumps of the greatest sort.
Now for a walk around the antiquities market in the Attarin area. Alexandria’s great palatial mansions and homes, most of which have been torn down or are crumbling, held great treasure troves of Louis XVI antiques and pieces from the art deco era. You can always find something to fantasize about or take home if you can haggle aggressively with the shopkeepers.
But of course, you will be hungry by this point. Head over either to Fish Market for more Alexandrian seafood caught fresh that day by fishermen whose boats dot the Qait Bey port; or stroll around the area the seafood market where fishermen auction their day’s catch. Most of Alexandria’s best seafood restaurants are there. Modest in their appearance, it’s as authentic a seafood experience as one can get in Egypt.
Go for some coffee at the famed Brazilian Coffee shop that serves the best Turkish coffee in town. People from all walks of life can be found there side by side drinking their coffee and playing tawla, and it’s a good place to catch the sunset as well.
Unwind with a Moroccan scrub treatment at the Four Seasons San Stefano. For LE 395 you can kill time between lunch and dinner. There, you will experience a little rough handling in the quest for luminous skin worthy of Cleopatra or Marc Anthony.
You will first be escorted into a large spa suite. A private plunge pool filled with scented oils preps your skin, and then you are massaged deeply to boost your body’s circulation. After a short facial treatment you are then pickled like olives in olive paste as traditional olive soap is applied to your entire body.
Fifteen minutes in the steam room followed by a shower, you are then at the mercy of the tough loofah scrub as your therapist brushes away layers of dead skin. You will marvel at the color of your skin tone, which will appear pearly and shiny, prompting your therapist to be quite pleased with herself after having scolded you for not taking better care of your skin. “But I live in Cairo is no excuse apparently.
Have dinner afterwards in Stefanos, the hotel’s Italian restaurant. Hailing from Rome, Chef Walter is an amusing and ever present character.
He will lead you through a menu which offers Italian dishes reinterpreted to be lighter and more authentic to true Italian gastronomy. I would suggest the marinated salmon in honey and balsamic vinegar for a starter along with the broiled eggplant with parmesan. Chef Walter is a maestro of flavors and they all culminate together so subtly.
But he is also very considerate. He fuses traditional Alexandrian liver with carmelized onions, a very Italian method of flavoring meat. Another highlight is the black ink tonnarelli with lobster cream and dill sauce which is so pungent the flavor rests in one’s nose.
Dessert ends the night and the entire weekend on the best of notes.
The tiramisu is of course, wonderful but so is the Napoletan cream. Between a pudding and crème brulee, it is a thick custard of sorts with nice density. The flavor is hard to pin down, is it vanilla and saffron? Would be a good assumption considering Italy’s deep rooted history with the spice.
Alexandria is not only visually rewarding or emotionally relaxing, but food in this city is reason enough to visit and explore.