In Alex

Twenty men hang off the sides of the train’s engine, more sitting on the roof, arms and faces hanging from the windows – this is the third-class train from Cairo to Alexandria.

In comparison, my first-class seat has air-conditioning and the windows are closed against the warm late afternoon air. Our train is watched by a man and his young son, standing in the vivid green fields, and two men bringing in their fishing nets as we cross the Nile. The train is spotted with agonizingly young naval offices, scalps still smarting from the brutally short clippings that show up childhood scars, whorls and crowns, who squeeze past the tea trolley in their spotless newly issued uniforms.

Alex’s history is written in its seafront hotels’ and cafés’ names – Omar El Khayamma, Romance, Cafe de la Paix, New Savoy, Cleopatra, Windsor Palace, Portofino, the Cecil… For sensational coffee – surely some of the best in the country – reader I urge you to visit the Brazilian café near Midan Saad Zagloul on the corniche. It could even show Melbourne how it’s done (cue to sharp intake of breath!). Also ticked off the list was Pompey’s Pillar, a 25m high pillar of red Aswan granite once part of a larger temple complex built in the 400s and is one of the few remaining true antiquities from Alex.

Embarrassingly, the last time I was in Alexandria, I managed to avoid the Alexandria Library, the modern replacement to the most famous library in antiquity. Today’s library is a round disk representing the sun – symbolizing “the flow of information from Egypt to the rest of the world,” said my guide. Sometimes you need these reminders for how influential this country has been on subsequent civilizations.

The beautiful library, with its shell of glass and stainless steel, with characters from the world’s alphabets carved into it, dominates the city’s 20km-long cornice, the promenade that runs along the Mediterranean seafront. Does it succeed in mimicking its famous predecessor? Architecturally, it’s amazing, but scholars would possibly turn in their graves at the sight of masses of schoolchildren filing through the doors. But in a country that, educationally, appears to be asleep at the wheel, that’s no bad thing…

An update: here's a piece from the Sydney Morning Herald's Sun Herald newspaper on Alex:

http://www.smh.com.au/travel/sacked-burnt-and-saved-20090129-7smr.html

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