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Ice Cold in Alex

Alexandria, Egypt

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Alexandria is Eygpt's second city, stretching for twelve miles along the coast - the wealthier citizens of Cairo traditionally come here to escape the punishing summer heat as the sea moderates the climate – something you’ll appreciate as gentle Mediterranean breeze wafts you into the harbor.

Alexandria, a city steeped in history, is a fascinating blend of Arabic and Greco-Roman culture. The city was founded by Alexander the Great in 331BC because he wanted his new conquest to have a capital on the Mediterranean linking it with his European realm. The city grew rich on commerce and culture. The legendary Great Library of Alexandria – one of the seven wonders of the ancient world - was a center for research on science, philosophy and the arts and was said to contain all the knowledge available to the ancient world. The towering Pharos lighthouse (another wonder – ‘Alex’ had more than its fair share) entered service in 283BC.

But all this wealth and glory has vanished. Pagan temples, centers of learning and other buildings were burned to the ground by Christian mobs and earthquakes took care of much of the rest - including the lighthouse.

Qaitbey fortress now stands on the site of Pharos and houses a naval museum. The main feature of interest is the keep, but there are also marine artifacts on display and you'll get great views of central Alexandria across the Harbor. The catacombs of Kom al-Shuqafa should also be on everyone's itinerary. Riddled with underground passages and chambers they're a unique and elaborate Roman burial complex. The tombs date from 2AD and extend over three levels, although the deepest level is flooded and inaccessible. The upper level contains the Rotunda, a grand banqueting hall, but the showpiece is the central burial chamber on the second level. There are hundreds of chambers and sarcophagi - this is a site on a vast scale. The decoration is fabulous hotchpotch of the iconography of death. In the Greek corner you've got snake-haired Medusa ready to turn robbers to stone and a very uncomfortable-looking jackal-headed Egyptian god wearing Roman military uniform. Keeping this scary pair company are some bearded and crowned Greco-Roman serpents.

The Greco-roman museum shows how the customs and gods of the pharaohs were mingled with those of the occupying Ptolemaic Greeks and Romans. It's small but densely packed and wandering round it's possible to get a sense of the legendary city of two thousand years ago. There are stunning wall-hung mosaics, a marble head of Julius Caesar and coins depicting Cleopatra which suggest that her legendary beauty has been greatly exaggerated - either that or her Royal Minter was a poor artist. The only contemporary representation of that wonderful vanished lighthouse is also housed here.

The Royal Jewelry Museum houses a collection of personal heirlooms and valuables that belonged to the more recent playboy king Farouk, famed for his greed and excess. The gaudy glamour of the objects displayed is actually surpassed by the frivolities and follies of the palace itself. This one's a real treat for lovers of kitsch. A series of bathrooms are adorned with friezes and frescoes and there are floor to ceiling glass windows showing waltzing courtesans - a far cry from the religious art of other parts of the city.

In many respects, this is a deeply European place. The district of Anfushi is the only part of the city to have a truly oriental feel, with its narrow alleys, suqs and mosques. Look round the necropolis and the eighteenth century El-Shorbagi complex of Turkish style houses and mosques.

Time to return to the twenty-first century. The Bibliotheca Alexandria is a striking piece of architecture which pays homage to the city's ancient traditions. It houses the largest library in the Arab world and this high-tech, prestige project provides a modern echo of the capital's ancient glories. These are now being rediscovered in another sense as teams of archaeologists dive in the Eastern harbor. They've found a Royal Palace - Cleopatra's home perhaps? - possible remains of Pharos and a complete shipwreck, but the statues are what's really exciting the world's media. A company called Alexandria Dive is offering tours of the submerged sites - a unique chance to see ancient history being uncovered.

It would be a shame to miss out on Alexandria's cafe culture. Pastroudis is a local legend and was once the haunt of literary types. Trianon is another favorite offering coffee, beer and light meals amid art deco with an oriental twist.

Alexandria is the perfect city for cruisers. It's big on atmosphere but you should be able to get round the main sites in a day. The odd thing about the place is that there's so few visible remains of all the history. Somehow this leaves you feeling as if you're voyaging through a phantom city, listening to the voices of the ghosts who haunt the streets.

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