Wish I was a sphinx

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Following on from previous posts of glamorous women hanging out with the sphinxes on London’s Embankment (here and here), here’s a fabulous publicity shot of Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman, taken to promote the movie Indiscreet (1958). Courtesy of @JohnJJohnson

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An eyewitness to the burning of Shepheard’s

Another curiosity discovered in the archives of the American University in Cairo. In an old alumni newsletter I saw a notice for the death of Claude Feninger, who was described as the last manager of the old Shepheard’s hotel. Really? I’d never heard of him. A little googling and I find that it’s more or less true and that Claude even wrote an autobiography, Sang Froid: Keeping My Cool in the International Hotel Business, much of which can be read online.

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Born in Cairo of an Egyptian father of Swiss descent and a Neapolitan mother, after completing his education Claude had to wait until the end of World War II before taking the first boat out of Alexandria. He was bound for the Ecole des Hoteliers in Lausanne, Switzerland. After a brief experience managing a small hotel in a Swiss resort town, he returned to Cairo at the age of 25 to become the ‘resident manager’ of Shepheard’s, working under general manger Antoine Foester.

You can’t trust everything Claude writes. For instance he says Shepheard’s was the first hotel built in the world, which is a ludicrous claim to make – it wasn’t even the first in Cairo. He also says that he started work on 12 October 1952, which he calls ‘the best day of my life’. Except Shepheard’s burned down on 26 January 1952. I think that’s probably a typo and was meant to be 12 October 1951. Claude knows very well when Shepheard’s burned down because he was there and he describes the day in his book.

He relates how that Saturday began with Mrs Blanche Weinberg, a long-term resident, knocking on his office door to tell him she was off to spend the day in Maadi with her daughter-in-law. Twenty minutes later there is a call from Mr Ibrahim Yehya, the minister of culture and a family friend. He says there are anti-British riots breaking out in the city and that Shepheard’s may well be targeted. Claude thanks him for the information and goes to find his boss, Antoine Foester. Foester can’t be found so Claude takes his passkey and goes through the hotel, instructing all the guests to leave what they’re doing and quickly assemble in the gardens at the back of the hotel. By noon, the streets are filled with rioters chanting, ‘Death to England. Death to the puppet Farouk’. Black smoke rises above the surrounding streets. Nubian staff are posted at the entrances to the hotel but the rioters force their way in and start fires all over the hotel. As the flames take hold, 250 guests are in the garden, terrified. They need to be evacuated and taken through the city streets to somewhere safe. Claude steps up on a chair and shouts at the rioters. ‘You’ve done your damage. Now I need some help take the guests to safety.’ He was, he says, swamped by willing volunteers.

Once the flames died down three bodies were found in the ruins. Two were looters found in the basement where the hotel kept its silver. The other was found in suite 302. It was Mrs Weinberg, who must have changed her mind about going to Maadi and returned to the hotel. Claude had never checked her room because he thought she was out for the day.

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In the picture above (click to enlarge), the streetfront terrace is at the bottom of the picture with steps in the middle leading up to the main entrance. The domed structure is the Moorish hall. To the left, beyond the burned-out Shepheard’s, is the Windsor hotel, still in business today.

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Egypt in Paris in 1900

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Two posts back I wrote on searching for Egypt in Paris this summer. The picture above is what I would have found had I done the same 118 years ago.

In 1900 Paris hosted the Exposition Universelle, a world’s fair, and its fifth such jamboree since 1855. It was intended to celebrate the coming of a new century. It introduced the world to art nouveau, and gifted the city the Grand Palais and Petit Palais, which stand beside the Seine until today. (The Eiffel Tower was the legacy of the previous 1889 Exposition). Among its other popular features were the foreign pavilions, each intended to celebrate their home nations. The Egyptian Palace was designed by French architect Marcel-Lazare Dourgnon, who, just a few years later, would win the commission for Cairo’s Egyptian Museum. It was a curious complex with a domed Mamluk madrassa in the centre flanked by two pharaonic temple facades. It was, apparently, very popular with visitors. Behind one of the pharaonic facades was a theatre with a show that featured a supposed 200 dancers. The theatre or cinema with an ancient Egyptian façade became something of a craze in the 1920s and ’30s, and I wonder if this is the protoype?

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The Grand Palais, incidentally, also references Egypt in the gorgeous mosaic friezes that run under its colonnades.

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Nena and the sphinx

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What is it with sphinxes and beautiful women? Some while back I posted a photo of Sophia Loren sat in front of one of the sphinxes on London’s Embankment (here) and yesterday I find the picture above. It’s the very same sphinx but this time the lady is Nena von Schlebrügge, an American fashion model in the 1950s and 1960s, and mother of actress Uma Thurman. The shot was taken by celebrated English fashion and portrait photographer Norman Parkinson in 1963.

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Egypt in Paris

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Over the years I’ve been to a number of good exhibitions at the Institut du monde arabe in Paris and last week I went to another. Next November marks 150 years since the opening of the Suez Canal and the Institute has decided to get the celebrations started early with a show called ‘The Epic of the Suez Canal’. It begins with a room dedicated to the grand inauguration party at Port Said. The centrepiece is a large model of the town and canal with the pavilions erected for the occasion; there are further models, notably of Aigle, the ship on which guest of honour, the Empress Eugenie, sailed in the procession through the canal, lots of paintings and one of the dresses worn by Eugenie.

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The exhibition continues by detailing the canals dug in ancient times, illustrated by pharaonic loans from the Louvre, and then documents the various other schemes predating the Suez Canal, before going on to document its construction. Included are maquettes and a watercolour of the monument designed by Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi that was to have stood at the mouth of the canal, but which in a slightly amended form was eventually erected in New York Harbour (I’ve blogged about this before, here).

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It takes the story through into the 20th century with Nasser’s nationalisation of the canal, the tripartite aggression by the Israel, Britain and France, and the 1967 and ’73 wars. It ends by putting you on the bridge of a container ship sailing the length of the canal. It runs until 5 August and is well worth seeing.

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Also on this summer is an exhibition at the Quai Branly, near the Eiffel Tower, called ‘Paintings from Afar’ (Peintures des lointains). It brings together around 200 unseen works from the museum’s collection, largely drawn from the late 18th to mid 20th centuries, illustrating the Western perception of distant lands. Among the pieces on display are more depictions of the Suez Canal, as well as several paintings by Emile Bernard, including ‘Les marchands du Caire’, below. It runs until January 2019.

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If you are in Paris this summer, you could spend a whole week exploring the links between the French capital and Egypt. There are the obvious ones, like the ancient Egyptian treasures in the Louvre and the obelisk on place de la Concorde, but there is plenty more beyond. You might start by searching out the passage du Caire, a covered arcade that runs off rue St Denis, which is filled by textile and garment shops. It exits onto place du Caire where, if you look back, you see a frieze of pharaonic faces decorating the facade.

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Just around the corner are the rues Alexandrie, Abu Qir and du Nil. Opposite the west end of rue du Nil is the Libraire Petit Egypte, a fine little bookshop with a good section of all kinds of books on Egypt. From here it’s not too far to walk to place du Chatelet, where you find the Fontaine du palmier with four huge sphinxes at its base (below). You might then hope on Metro line 4 a few stops to Saint Suplice from where it’s a few minutes walk to rue de Sevres where you find the Fontaine du fellah (below), also known as the Egyptian Fountain, which was erected in 1806 commemorating Napoleon’s short-lived expedition in Egypt.

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Some of those who accompanied Napoleon on that particular campaign are now buried in Pere Lachaise cemetery, where there is no shortage of Egyptian-inspired funerary architecture (below). Personally, I prefer the Montmarte Cemetery where you find a sleek, life-sized figurine of Egyptian diva Dalida (below), which is more fashion mannequin than funerary monument. A short walk away there is also place Dalida, with a well-fondled bust of the singer.

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Finally, you shouldn’t miss the Cinema Louxor, which I have blogged about previously, here. As well as being a fabulous building, it also frequently shows Egyptian films. We’ve seen Chahine’s 1957 comedy Inta Habibi here (the main auditorium here is named for Chahine) and Le Caire confidential, and just the week before we arrived in Paris last month it was showing Sala Abou Seif’s 1956 film Shabab Imra’ah.

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That should keep you busy for a while.

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Tahrir as it might have been

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I’ve recently being doing some work in the American University in Cairo archives, which is where I found the above drawing (click to enlarge). It was in a folder of miscellaneous documents relating to the AUC buildings on Tahrir Square. It shows an alternative reality for a Tahrir Square that might have been. On it are some recognizable landmarks, notably the Egyptian Museum, and the blocks labeled Semiramis Hotel and AUC, while the block labeled ‘Municipality’ corresponds to the Mugamma, Cairo’s hated administrative fortress. What is labeled ‘Parliament’ was at the time the plan was made (it is dated 14 June 1950) the Qasr el-Nil barracks, evacuated by the British Army in 1947 and torn down in 1951–52 to be replaced by the Nile Hilton. (Another document in the AUC archive, dated 1948, refers to a plan to replace the barracks with Cairo’s answer to New York’s Central Park.) None of the other structures shown on the plan – the Arab Museum, Broadcasting House, National Library, Cultural Museum, Premier’s House – were ever built. The drawing is titled ‘View of Proposed Development’ and it is signed JS Badeau – John Badeau was then president of AUC. Why would the president of the American University be replanning Cairo’s central square? Was this ever a serious plan or was it just a bit of presidential doodling? There is nothing else in the archive’s folder relating to the plan and it is a mystery. I’d love to know more.

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Once Metropolitan, now Cosmopolitan

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The Cosmopolitan, scaffolding free, May 2018

Tucked away off Kasr al-Nil Street in Downtown Cairo, the Cosmopolitan has always been an overlooked hotel. It has never featured large on the tourist map, so it has usually been blessedly free of large groups. It boasts a fantastic central location but its amenities have always been limited (and well worn), which meant its rates have been competitive. Instead it has attracted an intriguingly assorted clientele, the sorts of people who are too old for the backpacker joints of Talaat Harb but aren’t prepared to fork out for air-con luxuries of the likes of the Hilton and Sheraton. It’s a place where you would find businessmen from the fringes of Europe, journalists and visiting academics – as well as locals happy to take advantage of the cheap beer in the Kings Bar. Or at least that used to be the case, before the Cosmopolitan closed for restoration last year as part of the larger-scale project to beautify and revitalise the whole Bourse area. Recently the scaffolding that has been wrapped around its façade for many months came down. However, word is that work on the interior is far from complete as the hotel’s owners – EGOTH, the state body in charge of most of Egypt’s hotels – is looking for a tenant to complete the refurb and manage the hotel. I wonder when they do find that outfit if they will decide to retain the hotel’s name. After all, it has changed twice before.

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The Metropolitan, as it was, some time soon after 1929

The Cosmpolitan began life as the Grosvenor Hotel, back in the early 1920s. In 1929, the building’s lease was purchased by Egypt’s premier hotelier Charles Baehler, who did his own refurb and reopened the place in May 1929, renaming the hotel the Metropolitan. Baehler was the chairman of Egyptian Hotels Ltd, which already owned almost every grand hotel in Cairo but there were not as many big spenders around as there had been (and there would be even less when the Great Depression kicked in towards the end of 1929) and the company wanted a smaller hotel with cheaper rooms to cater for the new breed of traveller of more modest means. At some point – and the Cosmopolitan was rarely mentioned in travelogues or the press, so accounting for its precise history is difficult – the hotel underwent another change of name to its current one of the Cosmopolitan.

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It is impressive that it has survived at all when so many other Cairo hotels haven’t. I’m intrigued to see who comes in to run it and whether they can continue to attract a suitably global and eclectic clientele to justify the hotel’s present name.

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Graphics from Groppi

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Groppi’s cafe and patisserie on Midan Talaat Harb in Cairo is currently shrouded in scaffolding and dustsheets as it undergoes extensive renovation (and boy did it need it). While we wait to see what the contractors deliver, here’s reminder of how classy the joint once was courtesy of a beautifully designed promotional map of the kind the business used to give away in its heyday.

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A beer drinker’s guide to central Alexandria

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Many years ago an elderly friend of mine presented me with a faded photocopy of a typewritten article entitled ‘A beer drinker’s guide to Alexandria’. She’d been about to go to Egypt and somebody had given the article to her but, in the event, she never went and the article was filed away for possible future use. I got to know this lady because we both drank in the same pub in Soho, London, and when she learned of my interest in Egypt she dug out the article and gave it to me. She couldn’t tell me anything about where it came from but it is signed ‘Ian Simm’ and dated July 1983. My friend worked at the British Council so she wonders if Ian Simm was perhaps someone who worked at the Council too. Rereading his article recently it struck me how different the Alexandria he describes is to the city of 2018. Much of what he describes has disappeared and the character of the city has changed irrevocably. At the time he wrote, family institutions like the café-patisserie Delices served beer – that is inconceivable now. The Alexandria he walks around is far closer to the city of Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet than it is to the Alexandria of today. But then, of course it is – Simms wrote his piece only 23 years after the publication of the Quartet and it’s now 35 years since he typed up his beer-drinking itinerary.

Anyway, here is the piece in full with my notes in square brackets. (Many thanks to my friend and long-time resident of Alexandria Colin Clement for his expert input.) The beer memorabilia images come courtesy of the website Photorientalist, maintained by photographer and former Cairo resident Norbert Schiller.

 

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“Conventional guidebook wisdom has it that there is nothing to see in central Alexandria; and then exhorts the serious tourist to conjure up visions of past glory. Standing on the humdrum intersection where Horreya Avenue meets the Rue Nebi Daniel it is difficult to see yourself at the hub of a Greco-Roman universe, and I have always preferred to seek out remnants of Alexandria’s more recent past – the background to the writings of Lawrence Durrell, Evelyn Waugh and Naguib Mahfouz.

Since soon after I arrived in Cairo I have been traveling to Alexandria regularly for periods of two or three days. Often at a loose end in the late afternoon or evening, I began wandering round the city, observing buildings, shops and people. In the process I happened a number of more or lass pleasant places to drink beer. Subsequently, I discovered that I had been following the advice of EM Forster: in his Alexandria: A History and a Guide, recently reissued, he says ‘the best way to see a city is to walk about quite aimlessly’. He doesn’t actually add ‘stopping for the occasional Stella’ but I am sure it is in the correct spirit that I offer this brief itinerary.

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We start at the Cecil Hotel – where else? It is still the landmark of the city centre which all taxi drivers know, and there are still remnants of the atmosphere in which Durrell’s Nessim met Justine in the lounge. The bar, though still a social institution, has been ‘improved’ and its kitsch is now that of the late 70s [it is now the charmless and often empty Monty Bar – ED]; but the tea lounge is pure 1930s, with its friezes of nymphs, enormous mirrors, potted plants and faded pictures. For those with patience and tolerance of idiosyncracy, the Cecil is still a pleasant place to stay. [I would say this holds true in 2018 – ED]

Turn left along the Corniche out of the Cecil, past the Windsor Palace Hotel – another 1930s remnant with a huge an faded lounge, but alas, no bar. The Corniche was built up only in the early ’30s and its neo-troisieme empire style of architecture is an Alexandrian trademark: Louis Farouk in concrete.

There are from this point a number of variants on the walk. Those with exercise in mind should continue along the Corniche to the huge and ornate 18th-century mosque of Abu el Abbas. Go round the back of the mosque and return almost the way you came but inland. Walking as nearly as possible in a straight line will take you through the city centre’s main market, a fascinating mélange of sight, sound and smell. You will eventually emerge into a square containing a number of incongruous glass and concrete piles, among them the new Hotel Alex. This has two bars, but is recommended only to those dying of thirst.

A left turn here will bring you in a short distance to the centerpiece of Mohamed Ali’s ‘new’ Alexandria, now called Midan el Tahrir. The less energetic may reach this point by turning off the Corniche at the massive war memorial. The building on this corner is a fine example of the architectural confectioner’s art.

In Midan el Tahrir are an equestrian statue of Mohamed Ali, admired by Forster, and St Mark’s Anglican Church, a real oddity in neo-Moorish Gothic. A little past St Mark’s on the left is the Rue de l’Ancienne Bourse.

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The dedicated drinker will reach this street at the other end as it is the second one after that on which the Windsor Palace stands. The dedicated walker enters it from Midan el Tahrir. Either will wish to leave it in the middle. From the Corniche, we reach first the Cafeteria Nationale Grande, a cavernous baladi café which also sells beer. [It stopped selling beer a long time ago – ED] It is one of the few establishments in this guide in which a reasonably adventurous and accompanied female might still feel uncomfortable. Continue across the tramlines and a little further on the Liverpool Bar is on your right.

The Liverpool Bar must have made its fortune in the Second World War; certainly it isn’t making one now as customers seem few and far between. There is a slightly alarming case of stuffed tropical fish and coral near the door, but the proprietors are friendly and speak quite good English. This bar is keeping rather unpredictable hours and never seems to be open in the early evening. [The Liverpool closed its doors for the last time back in the 1980s – ED]

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Further inland on the other side of the street is the Spitfire Bar, obviously another Word War Two creation. It is now often frequented by expansive Germans, which is reflected in the décor. If you can stand the rather garish environment the Spitfire is a pleasant enough place, although it has gone somewhat to seed, particularly in the back room. [Still going, still appealingly seedy – ED]

Continue inland across the small square where the Ancienne Bourse once stood. It has been replaced by one of those unpleasant modern buildings which one is forbidden to photograph, and sees no reason to ever want to. A little further up the street to the left is the Union Restaurant. This is another of Alexandria’s classic institutions: Waugh’s Guy Crouchback would dine here on quails and Forster, writing in 1919, says it is ‘frequented by the British’. Now it seems to be scarcely frequented by anybody, but it is a large restaurant with an ancient and dignified maitre, and a long and very acceptable cooked menu. The walls are covered in Churchillesque paintings. [The Union closed a long time ago – ED]

Return to the square and turn right, back towards the main shopping centre along the road which becomes the main Avenue Saad Zaghloul. Immediately on the right is Frigieri’s, possibly the best general hardware store in Egypt. Then comes Sofianopoulo’s coffee emporium: look inside at the flamboyant torch-bearing statues and the fine coffee-grinding machinery. [Still going strong – ED]

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Sofianopoulo’s is on the corner of the Rue Adib, along which turn right. Walk nearly to the top of the narrow street, trying not to be overborne by the architecture on the left, and you will find the Cap d’Or bar on your right. The Cap d’Or must have a strong claim to be the finest drinking place in Egypt. It is reminiscent of a Brussels’ café, and a most relaxing place to sit, particularly in the early evening. Later it sometimes gets crowded. If you arrive at the right time, your beer will be accompanied by a fine assortment of mezze at no extra charge. Look around at the glass-fronted cupboard displaying a wide range of wines and spirits, the advertisements for beers never sold here, and the photograph of Um Kalthum. The food is recommended too. [Still in business – ED]

When you can tear yourself away from the Cap d’Or, continue to the end of the Rue Adib, and turn left into the Rue Salah Salem (formerly, and still commonly, called Rue Sherif Pasha). Some 150 metres on the right is the sadly diminished but still fine frontage of Youssouffian’s jewellers. Further on to the left are two buildings belonging to the National bank of Egypt. The second, formerly the Banco di Roma, is a remarkable pastiche of Florentine Renaissance.

At the end of the street, turn left into Horreya Avenue. [Had the author turned right he would have found the Havana, easily Alexandria’s best bar until it closed in the early 2000s – ED] Opposite is the former Mohamed Ali club. Soon we come to that hub of the universe where Alexander’s tomb once stood – now the intersection with the Rue Nebi Daniel. At this point, provided it is daylight, the best plan is to turn right, not along the Rue Nebi Daniel itself, but on the slip road beyond which climbs parallel with it for a short distance and then veers left. At night, better to continue along Horreya until you reach Pastroudis. On the back road there is a good view of the excavations of Kom el Dik behind the Roman Theatre. Among other ruins, an extensive baths complex can be seen, and the area is the only place where some real impression of the splendour of Roman Alexandria is visible.

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This road emerges into a parking area opposite Pastroudis (if you want to see more of the excavations, turn right and look through the gate further up the hill). Pastroudis is our third Alexandria institution, the place where Durrell’s characters come to converse over their arak. A genuine Greek café, where you can sit on the pavement and watch the world go by, it also has an interior saloon and bar, a restaurant and a cake shop. Gateaux are recommended according to the time of the day, but I advise against asking for ‘cake’. Even unaccompanied females can feel at home in Pastroudis. [It is now the restaurant Abu el Sid – ED]

From here there are two possible routes to the last group of drinking emporia, and to the Cecil. The obvious way is to turn right along Horreya and left at the first traffic lights. Immediately you pass on your left the Alexandria (formerly Syrian) Club, which is worth a visit if you know a member. [It still exists and is still strictly members and guests – ED] Unlike those of Cairo, the clubs of Alexandria, or some of them at least, still serve alcohol. Next comes the Santa Lucia restaurant, an establishment of mixed standards with a bar open only to diners. [Still around but no bar – ED] Opposite is the Elite, which doesn’t encourage the non-eating drinker. [Recently refurbished and reopened, not sure if sells beer or not – ED] Further down past the crossroads and on the left is the Billiards Palace which is said to have the eponymous tables in a back room but which does not serve beer. [Disappeared in the late 1980s – ED] At the next crossroads you emerge opposite the Trianon.

An alternative route to this point is to cross Horreya outside Pastroudis, turn left and take the second road on the right. This street contains the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate, which bears a celebratory plaque in three languages marking an act of architectural vandalism in the 1970s. Near here is said to be a place identifying the building where the poet Constantine Cavafy lived, but I have never been able to find it. Continue down the road to its end, turn left and first right past Mohamed Ahmed’s celebrated ful restaurant [still going, alhamdulillah – ED], and you will eventually come out across the road from the Trianon.

The Trianon is primarily a tearoom of epic proportions, formerly a place of high fashion, but from the cake shop area at the inshore end of the building one enters a fine and unexpected bar. Unfortunately, it closes rather early in the evenings, but its oriental art deco murals deserve detailed attention at an earlier hour. [The Trianon survives but the bar hasn’t been open since the 1980s – ED]

Left from there is the Metropole Hotel, another ’30s foundation, but its ground floor is rather ruined by restoration. It has a small, quiet bar with some fine wooden paneling. The staircase and first floor better recall past glories, and the first floor loos are about the most sanitary of the whole tour. Further on is Delices, another teashop with a bar, but this one rather lacks character. [Delices survives, but the bar is long gone – ED]

Turning in the other direction – east ­ from the Triannon, you are swiftly into the seething mass of humanity which is Ramleh train station. On the right hand side of the street is the Taverna Dhiamandakis (in English it says only ‘Taverna Greek Restaurant’), which is a good place for cheap light means – and, of course, a beer. The qualification for being a waiter here is to be Greek and less than five feet tall. [Now a pizza/fiteer joint, not Greek and no beer – ED]

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Opposite, beyond the trams, there are some remarkable mosaics at the top story of the building which houses Olympic Airways. In the narrow street leading to the sea beside the new Omar el Khayyam restaurant is Denis seafood restaurant) for ‘Fishes and Crevettes’) which is highly recommended. Indeed, there is a school of thought with which I have much sympathy which holds that the only real reason to visit Alexandria at all is to eat half a kilo of shrimp at Denis. [Now closed – ED]

Returning along the tramlines across Midan Saad Zaghloul towards the Cecil, those with stamina will wish to seek out our last watering hole: George’s Bar. George’s is not easy to find. It is located in the back street immediately inland of the trams about 100 metres beyond the Cecil side of the Midan Saad Zaghloul, just behind the Restaurant Ramses. George’s achieves the curious feat of looking much seedier than it actually is – part of the difficulty of finding it is that you can hardly read the sign any more. In fact, the proprietor is friendly, the mezze are wholesome, and the beer is cheap. For those who like that sort of thing, George’s is decorated with a remarkable collection of heart-shaped mirrors. Nearby is a building whose architecture is startling even in these surroundings; it bears the legend ‘Bombay Castle’ which I suppose explains everything. [George’s, needless to say, is no more – ED]

From here it is only a short stagger back to the Cecil. I should regard it was unwise to attempt to do justice to all the establishments in this guide in a single outing; better to split the route into two or three parts. Doubtless this is not by any means a complete guide to the places of interest in central Alexandria, and I should be delighted to hear of any places omitted that deserve investigation for a future edition.”

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Vogue in Egypt in 1992

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I’m currently preparing a long, wordy post on Alexandria, so until then here’s a beautiful shot of German model Tatjana Patitz at Fishawi’s in Khan al-Khalili, part of a Vogue fashion shoot that took place in Egypt in 1992.

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