As we settled into our hotel at Marsa Matrouh I mused on what makes the perfect stay in this holiday resort town, that’s super-popular with Egyptians but not so well known among the Brits.
We checked in for one night to the Beau Rivage Hotel and the view from the window might have featured on a postcard, overlooking the perfectly manicured lawns and pink bougainvillea towards the pool and the sea beyond. The white sandy beach was a crescent shape, enclosed at each end by the walls of the hotel, with rows of sun loungers and thatched umbrellas. The sea was clear and an intense shade of turquoise, the sun just warm enough for me to soak up like a sponge after the chilly English spring weather.
But this hotel which would normally be packed with wealthy Europeans in high season was practically deserted, unless you counted the workmen scattering bits of wood around the pool area and the distant beat of Egyptian music at the pool side. The view was certainly idyllic but there was something a little too perfect about this manicured and enclosed heaven. And the extortionate cost of the wifi made me wonder if I had a big invisible label pinned to me saying ‘Rich European Tourist’.
Perhaps there was real life happening just beyond the hotel walls, and so I ventured with my friend onto the stretch of beach just outside the hotel grounds. Here we came across a local man with his fishing rod rigged up on the rocks, and another setting a fire with some driftwood, surrounded by his young children. He smiled showing a set of brown stained teeth as we stopped to chat and showed us the little fish that he’d already caught, that he was keeping swimming in a shallow rock pool, to eat later. He invited us to sit and have some of the tea that he was brewing up in the little metal teapot.
Later that evening, we drove into town and checked out the best fish restaurant that our friend from Alexandria could find. Alexandrians are fish connoisseurs, and love their fish restaurants, and so our friend insisted on inspecting the counter of fish on ice, picking out the freshest fish, giant prawns and octopus for us to eat. The fish feast arrived, seasoned and grilled accompanied by the usual round of meze and salads, but we’d over ordered and could barely finish it all.
After the meal, feeling wifi withdrawal symptoms, I enquired whether we might finish our meal with a coffee in any nearby cafe that happened to have wifi. So we drove around the block to find what looked like an ice cream parlour with pink and purple plastic chairs that had transformed into an all male coffee bar with not a woman in sight. Nevertheless we were made welcome and sat down in the corner on a group of traditional wood and brocade sofas, surrounded by men smoking their Shisha pipes, with football playing on the TV screen above our heads.
The next problem to overcome was to access the wifi as the password only seemed to work in Arabic script. If you’ve ever come across this problem when travelling in the Middle East I’d be interested to know how you got around it. We scratched our heads and finally asked the advice of the young man sitting next to us with a laptop, who turned out to be a Libyan medical student who had come across the border from Bengazi with his family a couple of weeks before. He came up with the solution of using his mobile as a data card, changing the name of one of his photos to the password we required, plugging it into my laptop and doing a copy and paste of the password into the login box. Ingenious or what!
I spent a happy hour catching up on my e-mails while drinking hibiscus tea and eating a desert called Sah-lah – a kind of white blancmange with dessicated coconut, dried fruit and bananas on top. Finally my battery ran low and that was the end of the internet connection – just as well or I might have been there all night.
I learned today that a perfect holiday at Marsa Matrouh is not just the turquoise sea and manicured gardens, but making friends with the real people beyond the hotel walls.
PS Don’t think I didn’t enjoy the lovely surroundings at Beau Rivage and when I mentioned the expensive wifi to the manager at breakfast he instantly offered me it for free.
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