In Travel Podcast Episode 19 I visit Egypt where I spent a week travelling with a friend who lives in Alexandria. I took a walking tour of the city where many of the houses are crumbling away and where we bumped into a wedding procession hooting horns and letting off fireworks. We drove west to the popular holiday resort of Marsa Matrouh and turned south-west to the desert oasis of Siwa near the Libyan border. I found Siwa to be a truly magical place and we explored the old mud brick fortress of the Shali, visited the ancient tombs at Gebel al-Mawta or the Mountain of the dead and watched the sun set over the lake at Fatnas island.
On my first day in Alexandria, I drove along the corniche that stretches along the coastline, past the Alexandria library which surprised me for being a modern building, not ancient as I had imagined. My new friend Gordon, an Englishman who lives in Alexandria took me on a walking tour of the old Italian, French and Greek neighbourhoods. The impression is of buildings that are peeling and run down, as the rents are fixed and the tenancy can be handed down the generations so the landlords have no incentive to renovate their properties.
We wandered through the souks where we found a street for every different thing you might want to buy, such as the stationary street and the party decoration street . Gordon told me that the Alexandrians celebrate all the festivals for each different religion, but they can only start decorating 2 weeks before. We walked through the fruit market where strawberries were in season & the fresh figs would soon be available in June and finished in the jewellery quarter where although most shops were shut I still managed to treat myself to a necklace.
The next day, we drove westwards out of Alexandria along the coast road past a succession of holiday developments, each closely built in a different architectural style with only the occasional break through which you could glimpse the sea. These are popular with Egyptian families although they are only used in the summer months although I preferred it when the developments petered out and we were just driving through the desert. We passed El Alamein, the site of the famous World War 2 tank battles, passing the Italian, German & British war cemeteries. We arrived after a few hours at Marsa Matrouh where everyone in Alexandria comes for their summer holidays with a lot of apartments and hotels. We noticed a few military checkpoints, partly because of the recent revolution and partly because Libya has claims on this part of Egypt so it is treated as a military zone.
We stayed at the Beau Rivage hotel on the edge of town, with views over the beautifully landscaped gardens and over the pool and towards the sea. We enjoyed relaxing on the sun loungers on the beach and took a dip in the intensely turquoise sea – but after a while we felt everything was a bit too perfect so we took a walk beyond the hotel walls and found a bit of normal Egyptian life outside the hotel compound. We came across a man fishing and another with his children making a small fire of brushwood on the beach where he was brewing up some tea and showed us a small fish that he was keeping alive in a rock pool and was planning to cook later.
That evening we decided to drive into town for dinner to look for a good fish restaurant as the Alexandrians take great pride in their fresh fish. Our Egyptian friend, Said, inspected all the fish that were on display on ice and we chose what we wanted and then it was weighed and we paid for the weight. We were asked how we liked it cooked – grilled, fried or with a sauce and of course we over-ordered a huge spread of giant prawns, octopus and fish served with meze and salads. After dinner I was getting internet withdrawal symptoms and we found an internet cafe which was filled with men watching football and smoking the shisha pipes. I puzzled over the problem of logging on to the Wifi since the password was in Arabic script, but luckily a Libyan medical student came to our rescue and managed to copy the password from his phone onto my laptop to log in. Meanwhile we drank hibiscus tea and a creamy desert topped with fruit and coconut.
The next day we drove on to Siwa about 3 hours south west of Marsa Matrouh, through the gritty desert landscape with the odd military base and a cafe half way in the middle of nowhere. Suddenly the rocky outcrops that surround Siwa rose out of the desert and we saw the lake ahead of us (and it’s not a mirage!). The oasis is based on underground springs that keep the oasis green and enable date palms and olive trees to grow. We stayed at the lovely Siwa Safari Gardens Hotel – an oasis within the oasis with a spring-fed pool in the middle of the garden and our rooms in the 2 story buildings around the garden.
The traditional buildings in Siwa are made out of rock salt and mud clay and the Siwa people are keen to preserve their culture and the tranquil atmosphere with sustainable tourism. Since it was not long after the revolution and the Libyan crisis was still going on, there were not many tourists although we felt very safe in Siwa.
We visited the Temple of the Oracle, with mud wall construction and the remains of the stone built temple at the top with amazing views towards the lake and over the city. Then we stopped at Cleopatra’s spring which is a large round pool with clear green water with the bubbles coming to the surface, reminding me of the Roman springs at Bath near where I live. We sat and had some lemon grass tea in a cafe next to the Cleopatra’s spring and we were offered a small fruit the size of a cherry but with the flavour of an apple. The date palms and olives are the main cash crops in Siwa- vegetables can also grow here but they are sold locally as they would cost too much to transport.
We visited the Siwa House, a museum of Siwa culture, where the curator told us the story behind the wedding dresses worn by the Siwa women. The dress worn for the wedding night is made of embroidered green silk, although many of the women now wear western style wedding dresses. The creamy white silk dress with embroidery like the rays of a sun is worn on the third day after the wedding when the bride’s relatives come to visit her, although her mother does not visit her until the seventh day when she wears a black silk dress with embroidery and mother of pearl buttons for decoration. The mother of pearl buttons were brought on the caravans by traders who would exchange wool, carpets and wheat in exchange for dates and olive oil. The dyes used to colour the silk fabric and the embroidery thread are made from dates – the traditional colours of Siwa are only green, yellow, orange, red and black – each colour is produced from the dates at different stages in their ripening. The trousers and shawls are also made from natural silk embroidered with the coloured threads.
When the female relatives of the bride visit her after the wedding they are offered part of the heart of the palm as a special treat, but the mother of the bride receives a whole palm heart decorated with fruit and sweets. This is considered a great sign of hospitality as the palm is considered a valuable plant due to the dates it produces. From the age of 10 to 13 when they get engaged the young girls start to embroider their wedding dresses helped by their mothers and their aunts. The parents will arrange the marriage for their children, choosing the husband based on the knowledge of the families rather than financial considerations. The hair of the women in Siwa is braided in different styles depending on whether the woman is single or married. The unmarried girls will have many braids on each side of their heads while the married women have 9 braids which cross over the forehead.
We also visited Gebel al Mawta or the Mountain of the Dead, the ancient burial place of Siwa. We climbed to the top of the mound and looked down on all the rock hewn tombs below, some of which can be viewed with a guide and are painted inside. You can hear the wind blowing at the top and from there I got a great panorama over the oasis, looking across to the ancient fortress town of the Shali.
That evening we drove to Fatnas island to see the sunset setting over the lake although in recent years the lake level has dropped so it is more like a salt marsh. Sitting in rattan chairs we sipped sweet mint tea and looked across the lake to the eco-lodge where Prince Charles and Camilla stayed when they were in Siwa. We chatted to the man who owned this land and had set up the tea kiosk as a business – he is a storyteller who had travelled all over the Middle East including a performance for the Queen of Jordan. In the darkness we drank our tea under the date palms as we watched the sun go down.
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