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Footloose in Alexandria

Lively Egyptian City Has Mediterranean Flavor

October 05, 1986|BEVERLY BEYER and ED RABEY | Beyer and Rabey are Los Angeles travel writers.

ALEXANDRIA, Egypt — Little remains to remind us of this city's dashing founder, Alexander the Great, nor of its role as Egypt's 1,000-year capital and second-largest city of the Roman Empire when teen-age Queen Cleopatra was dallying with Caesar and Mark Antony.

Yet Alexandria's lively past somehow asserts itself in our imagination upon arrival. The seaside ambiance of Egypt's most Mediterranean city gives it a festive air and beach-resort liveliness much favored by Egyptians and Europeans on holiday.

Alexandria, along with Cairo and Port Said, form the points of a triangle describing the verdant Egyptian Delta, as rich and abundant as the Nile Valley. The city was also once a center for education, arts and the sciences and, while it never became the capital of a world empire as Alexander imagined, it served as a beacon of culture acknowledged throughout Europe and the Mediterranean.

It still has an enduring appeal and vivacity.

Here to there: Fly TWA to Cairo with a change in New York, then Egyptair for the 40-minute flight onward. Egyptair also flies to Cairo, other foreign carriers with home-country stops.

You may drive the 135 miles from Cairo on the "agricultural" road through the Delta, return via a highway on the edge of the Sahara, time about three hours.

How long/how much? Two days will do it, including some beach time, but add another if you make the 78-mile run to El Alamein. Food and lodging prices are, as in all of Egypt, moderate to inexpensive.

A few fast facts: Egypt's pound was recently worth 74 cents (U.S.), 1.35 to the dollar. Perfect weather during spring and fall, summers also pleasant but crowded with vacationers. Steer clear of raw salads and all but bottled water.

Getting settled in: Montazah Sheraton (east end of Corniche Road; $42 double) is a modern high-rise right on beach with sweeping views along coast, just outside grounds of Montazah Palace. Two restaurants, bar, pool, a buffet breakfast with endless selection of Egyptian dishes for $2, also a Western version.

Palestine (within Montazah Palace grounds; $60 double, half-pension, high season; $29 B&B low season) is a study in Islamic architecture: huge marble lobby with fountain at center, large veranda on private beach, enormous bedrooms with beautiful baths. Montazah's grounds were the site of ex-king Farouk's summer palace, the Palestine built to house visiting Arab heads of state.

Hotel Cecil (Saad Zaghloul Square; $27 B&B) has a decidedly British-era ambiance, now a bit dowdy in spots. Rather old-fashioned with cage elevator; Durrell wrote about it and Brit types headquartered here during World War II. Great central location and across road from beach.

Regional food and drink: Egyptian meals usually start with dips and salads, the latter often cooked. We enjoyed salatet hommos of chick peas, garlic, cumin and peppers, loobeyah bardah (black-eyed peas and onions) and baba ghanoug (mashed eggplant with sesame paste, lemon, garlic and olive oil), equally popular and delicious. The fool mudhammas (fava beans, black olives and herbs) is a chili-like first course always present.

Kufta (minced lamb) kebabs are served everywhere --bamia, okra between layers of lamb or beef baked with onions, garlic and tomatoes, is a variety to look for with relish. Gigantic prawns from the Red Sea or Mediterranean are grilled to perfection and marvelous Lebanese cooking has found another home here.

Moderate-cost dining: Tikka Grill (on port) struck us as the town's most beautiful dining place, from its hibiscus-lined entry to the enclosed terrace where you dine with a view of the anchored fishing fleet and 13th-Century citadel on a spit across the harbor. Lovely table settings with fresh roses, specialties of kebabs, giant prawns and skewered chicken. Huge salad bar and open grill.

San Giovanni Hotel (205 El Geish Road on Stanley Beach) has one of the best dining rooms on the coast. Grilled pigeon and excellent fillets are the pride here, very friendly folks. Rooms with sparkling baths go for $34 double overlooking the sea, $29 town side. Small, but excellent value.

Pastroudis (39 Abdel Nasser Ave.) on a rocky point of the beach has a blue and white decor, dining inside or on beachside terrace, menu leans toward the French in treatment of crevettes and other seafood.

On your own: Alexandria's Corniche stretches 22 miles, the longest on the Mediterranean, but most sights are within the city. Start with the 100-foot Pompey's Pillar, having nothing to do with the Roman general who was Caesar's nemesis but nevertheless impressive on its hill at town center.

Nearby are the Catacombs of Kom El Shokafa from the early Christian era, and within walking distance are both the Greco-Roman Museum (also heavy with Egyptian artifacts) and not far away a recently discovered Roman Amphitheater and baths.

Drive out around the Eastern Harbor for a look at the Mosque of Abul Abbas, the city's finest, the former summer palace of Ras El-Tin and Alexandria's ancient Citadel of Qayt Bey on the site of Pharos Lighthouse, built about 280 BC and one of the wonders of the ancient world.

The lure and lore of El Alamein was too much for us and we made the trek out. Alas, very little of the tanks, guns and assorted gear of this decisive battle of World War II remain, although a small museum lays out the strategy and tactics of both sides with maps, topographical models and such. The El Alamein journey makes a long day for all but the most avid desert-warfare buff.

For more information: Call the Egyptian Tourist Office at (415) 781-7676, or write (323 Geary St., San Francisco 94102) for the 80-page "Egyptian Travel Guide" with description of Alexandria.

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