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.
Monthly Archives: April 2018
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.
“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.
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.
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]
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]
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.
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]
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.”