Port of Alexandria
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As Justin Pollard and Howard Reid note in their recent must-read book, The Rise and Fall of Alexandria: Birthplace of the Modern Mind, "Alexandria was the greatest mental crucible the world has ever known, the place where ideas originating in obscure antiquity were forged into intellectual constructs that far outlasted the city itself. If the Renaissance was the 'rebirth' of learning that led to our modern world, then Alexandria was its original birthplace. Our politics may be modeled on Greek prototypes, our public architecture on Roman antecedents, but in our minds we are all the children of Alexandria."
Founded by Alexander the Great in 332 B.C., Alexandria today is a bustling, modern city (though calmer than frenetic Cairo, about three hours away) with sadly little to show of its incredible ancient roots. However, with a population of roughly four million, it is an important commercial and cultural center blissfully situated on the Mediterranean coast. It's no coincidence that Alexandria is known as "The Pearl of the Mediterranean."
Almost 90 percent of Alexandrians are Sunni Muslims. Listen up for the spellbinding calls to prayer that resonate across town from the city's minarets five times a day. Cafes and shops will suddenly empty as men make their way toward their prayer rugs. One mosque of note: Abu Abbas al-Mursi, on Sharia Fransa, just a block from the seafront boulevard called Corniche, is a striking example of Islamic architecture that draws thousands of worshipers for the noon prayer on Fridays.
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Where You're Docked
Ships dock right at the passenger marine terminal, home to all manner of souvenir stands as well as a queue of bright blue taxis. The port itself is pretty buttoned down and you'll need your passport to exit. Egypt does require a visa, which is handled in advance onboard.
There's nothing here to hang around for.
A taxi ride from the port to Corniche, the city's waterfront boulevard, costs 10 euros. That translates into about one euro per minute. (The euro, currently equivalent to $1.29 U.S., tends to be the shipboard currency in the region.) You can walk the same distance in 30 - 40 minutes. Editor's tip: Whether it's a cab or a horse and buggy, it's almost predictable that the quoted price will somehow skew upward by the end of your journey. Live with it.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
The local currency is the Egyptian pound. The current exchange rate is one pound to 17.5 cents U.S. (though we recommend you visit www.xe.com for up-to-the-minute exchange rates.) However, there's absolutely no need to convert your dollars or euros to Egyptian currency because the locals prefer our hard cash. It's a good idea to carry some small denominations, dollar bills or euro coins. Credit cards are widely accepted in finer shops and restaurants.
Egyptians speak Arabic. Don't count on hearing much English spoken, but the better restaurants typically offer menus in English.
Food and Drink
Look no farther than the Fish Market, a lovely restaurant on Corniche with sweeping views of Eastern Harbour. Select your own seafood -- red snapper, gray mullet, threadfin fish, silver bream, lobster, sole, shrimp or clams -- and the chef will grill, fry or steam it for you. Prices noted are per kilogram. Lunch is served with an array of exceptional salads and appetizers, including hummus with tahina, baba ganoush, tahina with green peppers and spices, a green salad and potato salad. To complete the package, a fantastic traditional bread, made of plain and wholemeal flour, is baked in a kiln right on the restaurant floor. Another plus: Unlike most restaurants, this one serves wine. Fish Market is considered one of Alexandria's most upscale eateries, yet lunch for two with a half-bottle of an Egyptian Pinot Blanc can cost as little as $15. That tells you something about the local economy. Open noon to 2 a.m.
If seafood doesn't whet your appetite, don't lose heart. The Fish Market complex includes Tikka Grill, which specializes in grilled meats; a cafe and a French patisserie.
Souvenir shops are big on camel toys, pyramid paper weights, fabrics, alabaster, religious icons, spices, tobacco and water pipes that are a feature of local coffee houses. Bartering for lower prices is expected at souvenir stands and street bazaars. For more serious shopping, explore the two main commercial streets, Sharia Saad Zaghloul and Sharia Safiyya Zaghloul, located near the historic Cecil Hotel. Across from the hotel, you'll find Omar Effendi, a popular linen shop. (Because it is a government-sponsored store, it only accepts Egyptian pounds. There's a currency exchange at the Cecil.)