Travel: Between the desert and the deep blue sea

On the edge of the Sahara, where the Nile meets the Med, lies Alexandria, a modern metropolis still in thrall to its literary past, writes Martin Buckley
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The Independent Travel
In Bombay I used to know an old English poet who had been marooned by life. He slept by night in the slums around Crawford Market, and wandered by day in the streets around the Museum, with his possessions - mostly reams of poems - bundled up in plastic bags. Geoffrey Hann's life as an artist and servant of Empire had taken him by stages from the Levant, to Cambridge, to India. But the place where it had begun seemed to have made his exotic journey almost inevitable. For Geoffrey had been born in Alexandria.

The city is so swathed in legend and so achingly literary that any visit here becomes in part a journey into your own imagination. At first sight there seems to be little that's essentially Alexandrian. Expecting to see remnants of Alexander the Great's capital, you stare at buildings that might be in Athens or Naples - the shoe shops, burger bars and Benettons of a city that longs to be modern. But, for British visitors tempted by the new flights that began from Gatwick this month, the pleasures of Alex are more decadent and perverse - the satisfactions of faded grandeur, nostalgia and decay.

If you want to wallow in literary Alexandria (and can afford it), you'll stay at the Cecil Hotel. You may come reeling from the horror of Shepheard's Hotel in Cairo (evoked in The English Patient in all its colonial glory, but now a multi-storey box), in which case the Cecil will restore some of your faith in truth and beauty. They all came to the Cecil - Churchill, Coward, Forster, Durrell, Maugham; here Durrell's fictional heroine Justine made her first big entrance, clad "in a sheath of silver drops". Despite being "modernised" (and renamed the Pullman Cecil), the hotel has retained a discreet charm and a sense of pride in its occidental roots. ("Would you like some milk tea with English cake, sir?" asked a waiter.) It stands at the midpoint of the semicircular Corniche, with views of the blue Mediterranean and bobbing fishing boats, and the butter-coloured Qaytbay Fort.

This 15th-century defence is in effect the stump of that wonder of the world, the Pharos lighthouse, which towered 400 feet over the harbour, lighting the gateway from Greece to Egypt. It was raised in 300BC and levelled by an earthquake around AD1300; they built the fort from the rubble.

Alexandria lies at the north-western corner of the Nile Delta, caught between desert, verdure and sea. There is plenty of ancient history buried among the 19th-century and Art Deco piles that make up so much of its crumbling fabric. The Corniche once featured a pair of Pharaonic "Cleopatra's Needles", but to see one of these today you'll have to travel to London's Victoria Embankment. Pompey's Pillar, however, offers some compensation: a column 72ft high, cut from a single chunk of pink granite. Around it lie fragments of Cleopatra's great library, for 400 years the most learned location on earth, and destroyed, it is worth remembering, not by "them" but by "us" - a Christian mob, attacking "paganism".

Looking at the small clutter of cisterns and sphinxes around the Pillar, I found it extraordinary to think that it is all that remains of a vast Ptolemaic acropolis. The site of worship and study is now one of Alexandria's gloomiest slums.

A tout approached me. He was toothless and unshaven, wore a torn anorak, and had a few tourist trinkets draped over him. He had a desperate look, and did not so much ask as order me to follow him. Some distance into the warren of buildings I found my tongue and told him I would not go any further. He silently shrugged, and strode off. And I wandered on through the narrow streets, with their domestic refuse and dangling clothes-lines.

With a little help, I found my way to the catacombs. These subterranean tombs span the whole history of Alexandria, eliding religions and architectural styles into a jumble of mummies, medusas and Egyptian gods dressed as Roman legionnaires. Back towards the seafront, I reached the Roman odeon, a neat mini-Colosseum with marble seating and some patches of mosaic flooring. It was once surrounded by a pleasure garden dedicated to the god Pan, and given over to the pursuit of earthly delights - the same delights, no doubt, that drew literary Europeans in the Thirties and Forties.

European colonialists gave Alexandria a lift after it had lain dormant for a millennium, making it a centre of trade and intrigue. When they were sent packing by the Egyptian president Nasser after the Suez crisis, the city lost its louche cosmopolitanism. To recapture it today, wander through the decaying streets, and pause at a tea shop to enjoy a hubble- bubble pipe; or you might sit in a mirrored patisserie, with the works of the Greek poet Cavafy propped up next to your croissant. Cavafy's house is now a small museum, but in the Thirties there was a brothel on the ground floor. "Where could I live better?" Cavafy asked. "Below, the brothel caters for the flesh. And there is the church which forgives sin. And there is the hospital where we die." In fact, as a homosexual, he did not make use of the brothel, preferring to pick up boys in the cafes behind the Cecil.

In the bookshops of Alexandria you'll find Durrell, Cavafy, Forster; but you won't find Geoffrey Hann. In Bombay, I used to ask him if he thought he'd ever see Alexandria - or England - again. "No," he said. But that didn't stop him dreaming. In one of his last poems, "Nearly Over", he wrote: "I who am rootless as desert air/Could I put down an archaeological root in Cleopatra's city,/Cavafy's Too - Alexandria?/It is fitting that in the Coarseness of time/I should exit where I entered/In my case just a closing of the sand."

A town called Alex

How to fly there

British Mediterranean Airways flies three times each week from Gatwick to Alexandria, on behalf of British Airways. The telephone sales team (on 0345 222111) does not appear to be entirely aware of the new flights, so you may have to insist that they check under the airport code, AEX. If you book by Monday, you qualify for a World Offer fare of pounds 312.90 return, including tax.

Who to ask

The Egyptian State Tourist Office is at Third Floor, Egyptian House, 170 Piccadilly, London W1V 9DD (0171-493 5282). British citizens require a visa, issued by the Visa Section of the Consulate-General, at 2 Lowndes Street, London SW1X 9ET (0171-235 9777). You need a passport, a photograph and pounds 15.

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