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Monday, February 22, 2010

Seeking the Old Alexandria

By Egyptian standards Alexandria is not an old city. Alexander the Great founded the city in 331, B.C. This Greek heritage is still visible in places. Ancient Alexandria was a center for the study of mathematics, geography and astronomy with Euclid and Ptolemy playing prominent roles. It held the world's largest library at that time.

From the earliest days, Alexandria was a seaport and retains the distinction of being Egypt's largest port today with a thriving container operation. It held one of the seven wonders of the ancient world in the form of the Lighthouse.

In more recent times. Alexandria was known for a literary community that included English novelist, E. M. Forster; Greek poet Constantine Cavafy and the British/Cosmopolitan Lawrence Durrell. The latter wrote a series of four novels set in 1930s called the Alexandria Quartet that served to memorialize "the decadent atmosphere" of this seaport. Well, with that description in the guidebook, I placed a copy of Durrell's "Justine" on order at Amazon.com and prepared to head for the writers' haunts in the downtown area. We were seeking the literary Alexandria.

Just to refresh the geography: Alexandria is located here, on the Mediterranean.

The twelve miles of Corniche along the sea is shown on this map on the left. We are interested today in the old port area - that circular area at the very lower left corner. Here is a closer look on the right.

You can see the area from the apartment. It is that strip of land on the horizon. We also have a guidebook map to point out the highlights.

We first headed out to the Hotel Cecil. This old building was the hub of activity in the 1930s and is well preserved. It hosted Winston Churchill among other luminaries.

From the Cecil, we walked South, looking for the restaurant, Pastroudis. A writer's hangout, this place had been around since the 1920s. Alas, Pastroudis is no more. So I had to settle for this photo from the world-wide-web taken by someone back in 2006 before it closed its doors.

The building is still there. But as this blogger laments, "no one thought to save it!" And it has become part of an Egyptian chain, Abou El Sid. In reality, the food is likely a lot better than Pastroudis served in its final years. And the dark wood paneling? It's still there too. The weather was perfect for lunch outside. The service was superb. So, since imagination is the key to writing fiction; just let your mind take you back to 1938 at Pastroudis.

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