24 - 30 August 2000
Issue No. 496
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875|
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Sea of loveBy Ahmed Sami
"I love two things, water and fresh air..." So began the lyrics of the famous song sung by actress Leila Murad as she sat on a rock on the beach in the 1940s romantic flick Shatt Al-Gharam (Shore of love). The film was shot in Marsa Matrouh, until then a little known seaside locale northwest of Egypt. While it attained some popularity for a short period, holidaymaker flux towards its lush environs gradually decreased as snazzier resorts developed in closer proximity to the big cities.
Few people today are so bold as to venture beyond popular trends. They travel in flocks to the hotspots du jour, namely Hurghada, El-Gouna and Sharm Al-Sheikh, and shack up in five-star establishments offering all the necessary (and unnecessary) comforts. While we can easily dismiss such folk as unimaginative, it may not be entirely their fault. Only recently has there been efforts to convert the country's more distant, hideaway gems into tourist-friendly areas.
Back to Marsa Matrouh. Hardly listed as a top tourist destination, the capital of Matrouh governorate was never really considered an ideal getaway point, like the perennially appealing Alexandria or Ras El-Barr. Located some 500 kilometres from Cairo, it was always deemed too far. Not much attention was accorded to its historical significance as the site of the Wadi Magid battle between the Bedouin tribes and the British troops during World War I, wherein the former fought to defend their land from foreign encroachment. It was only after the release of the popular film Shatt Al-Gharam, that a handful of Egyptians began to head for the picturesque town to appreciate its natural merits -- "...the water and the fresh air." For practical concerns, however, it lost its appeal.
I was not among those early travellers to Matrouh but my family and I did become regulars in the early 1980s. At the time, there were very few hotels in Matrouh and camps were the only means of accommodation. To this day, the mere mention of Matrouh recalls the joys of camp life wherein travellers were left to their own devices to find amusement. No five-star animators. We had to wake up early in the morning and tidy up our tents. No housekeeping. Then we would go to a small restaurant -- the only restaurant in the camp-- to have breakfast. No room service. A few morning exercises and we were off to one of the beaches lining the Matrouh coast. I grew accustomed to that simple life, minus air-conditioning, regular sweet water and nightly entertainment.
But there is more to my memories of Matrouh than the camps. The sight of its beautiful beaches with soft white sands remains etched in my mind, along with the serenity of the translucent sea water, protected from the high seas by a series of rocks forming a natural wave breaker. Shatt Al-Gharam, Lido, Rommel, Cleopatra, Al-Obayed and Agiba (characterised by its wonderful enchanting natural caves, its mille feuilles-like rocks and clear turquoise sea water) are places that are still engraved in my memory. I also remember the only means of transportation available: the Karetta , a donkey-driven wooden cart. I did not like it much because donkeys were always in a bad state and invariably a source of traffic jams.
For 10 years, Matrouh was my only summer escape. My family and I, however, eventually decided to put an end to our sojourns there. The lack of services ranked high among our reasons.
Last week, I decided to pay a visit to my beloved city and retrace my memories. I was surprised by the drastic changes that had taken place. The Corniche has been cleaned and expanded. New platforms are established, new light posts are installed and all houses are given a new lease of life, painted in white. Cars are forbidden to drive along the Corniche (seaside promenade) from 8.00pm to 1.00am, prioritising pedestrians and cyclists. Traffic has also become smoother after the disappearance of the Karetta from most parts of Matrouh. They have been replaced by 680 new taxis for use by summer holidaymakers.
A large part of Matrouh's beaches has been developed. There are coffeeshops, bathrooms for changing clothes as well as an ambulance for emergencies. Ageeba beach provides a vast parking area for cars and buses, a coffee shop as well as new stairs that enable visitors to descend the mountain to the water.
In addition to the public beaches, there are the private ones that constitute about 10 per cent of Matrouh's beaches. They provide better services for a minimum charge of LE5.
Agiba, a special place in Matrouh where rocky mille feuilles-like mountains embrace the blue sea
Nightlife in Matrouh is rather quiet. There are no night activities like those in Alexandria, for example. There are very few things to do. There is a circus and a summer open air theatre where the Matrouh folkloric troupe performs. Most holidaymakers enjoy their time cycling or taking promenades.
In the past, Matrouh was difficult to reach. Only few buses used to go there. Today, there are three EgyptAir flights that operate from Cairo to Matrouh on a weekly basis. Moreover, West Delta as well as Super Jet buses operate several daily trips. Trains also operate from Cairo to Matrouh, but they are not air-conditioned.
The hotels in Matrouh are rated one to three stars. A double room may cost about LE150, including breakfast and taxis. Foreigners might be charged about $80.
One of the oldest and most famous hotels in Matrouh is the Beau Site that operated in 1959 with only 15 rooms. It can now accommodate 200 rooms and suites overlooking the sea.
Demitiri Madbak, the owner of the hotel and a member of the Egyptian Hotel Association of Alexandria, said that the hotel is fully booked in the summer, but he believes that Matrouh has not yet earned its spot on the international tourist map.
"Transportation to Matrouh from foreign countries is not easy. There are no charter flights from Europe and hotels here cannot afford the costs of hiring a charter flight. I believe it is still not the right time to attract tourists," added Madbak.
Andalusia village offers good apartments and chalets overlooking an artificial lake and equipped with swimming pools. It also boasts the only Aqua park in Matrouh.
For those who want to stay in apartments, there are many in Matrouh with prices ranging from LE80 to LE200 a day.
One of Matrouh's attractions is the Libya market. It was opened seven years ago offering products imported from Libya. It now sells products from all over the world, as well as reasonably priced local products. One can find everything there from herbs and cosmetics to mobile phones.
Farouk Hozien, head of the Egyptian Tourist Authority in Matrouh, said that Matrouh is endowed with various tourist attractions. The beaches and the desert carry a special charm, but the added bonus of Roman, Greek and Pharaonic antiquities attracts history buffs.
"Tourism movement is a bit slow in Matrouh. However, we got 20,000 tourists last year who spent 80,000 tourist nights, which was considered a peak and we are looking for more," said Hozien.
Before I finished my trip, I stopped by Matrouh Governor Samir Youssef to ask him about the obstacles that have hindered Matrouh from staking a claim on the tourist map, like Hurghada and Sharm El-Sheikh.
He said that Matrouh has only recently caught the government's attention and that there will be various schemes to develop the city.
"Egypt has a long-term plan to develop all the highways, and the road between Alexandria and Matrouh has been chosen to be the first target. We now have four companies working on that project and it is expected to be completed in a few months' time," said Youssef.
He added that the problem of water scarcity will be solved within two or three years. There is a new water plant in Dab'a city that will operate with a capacity of 420,000 litres daily.
"As for accessibility, I believe that the new Alamein airport, which will be finished by the private sector in the year 2002, will help in the smooth transfer of tourists to Marsa Matrouh and the northern coast. We have also a big project in Matrouh offered by an investor to make a cable car connecting the Corniche with Shatt Al- Gharam," said Youssef.
Tourist experts believe that once these projects are fully implemented, Matrouh will definitely find its place on the tourist map and attract both the European and American markets.
Clockwise from top:youngsters check out Hammamat Cleopatra; the museum of Rommel is one of the main attractions of the Mediterranean city; down by the sea...; a woman weaving a traditional carpet to be sold at the market
photos: Ayman Ibrahim