Al-Ahram Weekly Online   5 - 11 August 2010
Issue No. 1010
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

The beach of legends

From the days of Alexander the Great to the Battle of Alamein, history has played out on the shores of Marsa Matrouh. Today, the North Coast city on the Mediterranean is an ideal escape for anyone who wants to travel. This Mediterranean diamond in the rough has been serenaded in songs and served as the backdrop of legendary love. Sahar El-Bahr remincised, while photographer Sherif Sonbol captured all the eye can behold

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From top: the traditional Souq Libya; Marsa Matrouh Folklore Troupe; the relics of the palace that witnessed the love story of Antony and Cleopatra; contemplating the unique beauty of Cleopatra's beach

THE CLEOPATRA Beach, located 20km west of Marsa Matrouh City, was witness to the legendary romance between the enigmatic Queen Cleopatra and her lover Mark Antony. It is the site where they fell in love and over the centuries inspired tens of poets and writers to pen masterpieces of love and despair. According to some historians, the ill-fated lovers may have spent their last hours together in Matrouh.

Cleopatra reportedly anchored her fleet in Marsa Matrouh while she headed part of her military campaign. And when Antony's soldiers betrayed him to ally with Cornellius Gallus, Antony reassembled some of his fleet in the hope of re-entering Matrouh and bring his soldier back under his leadership.

Historians also believe this is the site where Cleopatra and Antony battled Octavian, who later became Emperor Augustus. Mustafa Ibrahim, senior inspector of antiquities at the Marsa Matrouh Antiquities Authority, believes that the battle of Actuim took place in Matrouh because there are a number of sunken ships at Ras Al-Hekma, 67km east of Marsa Matrouh City. The battle took place in 31 BC between Octavian's troops and the joint forces of Antony and Cleopatra.

The Cleopatra Bath is located there, which is a beautiful engraved swimming pool in a huge rock, where fresh seawater enters from the east and exits in the west, depending on the strength of the tides. The remains of the chair where Cleopatra would sit at the centre of the bath can still be seen today.

I took a dip in the bath, and felt centuries rush over me. The atmosphere is thick with legend, and the echoing waves, the heat of the sun, the smell of the seawater transported me back in time to the days of the sensuous queen in her heyday.

Fifty metres away lies the beach which is very primitive with no amenities. There's only old Amm Attia perched on the beach, grilling corn for visitors under his makeshift tent consisting of a large sheet tied to sticks dug in the sand.

Not many know that at the top of the hill overlooking the shore lie the remains of Cleopatra's palace, two Roman wells and thousands of broken pieces of pottery scattered in the sand. Ibrahim believes that if archaeologists came digging in the vast area covering almost 47 feddans surrounding the palace ruins, they would find the remains of lodgings of Cleopatra's entourage, cemeteries for workers and a fortress. The antiquities expert complained that the Bedouins who own these lands hinder excavation projects, and refuse to accept financial compensation to sell their land.

Where to shop

SHOPS GALORE AT THE MARKET: One of the main pastimes in Marsa Matrouh City is shopping on Alexandria Street or at Libya market. The market is a covered traditional souq with goods similar to those found in Zanqet Al-Setat in Alexandria, such as cosmetics, accessories, herbs, clothes and handbags.

Previously, souq Libya was notorious for selling smuggled products, especially cosmetics from Libya, at reasonable prices. Today, it is all legal and above board. Do not pass the opportunity to buy the famous wild dried mint of Marsa Matrouh at the entrance of the souq, and be sure to bargain your way through the market.

Alexandria Street is also central to all things shopping. It includes markets for fish, vegetables and fruits, as well as numerous restaurants alongside garment shops, and others for swimming gear and water accessories.

Marsa Matrouh is renowned for its white leb (pumpkin seeds), and the best leb in town can be bought at a shop called Nasr on Alam Al-Rom Street. Don't be fooled by the numerous Nasr shops dotted around the city, this is the original one. But if you are in a hurry do not go there because of the lengthy queues and sporadic skirmishes among customers. A leb lover myself, I could only wait 20 minutes and decided that the best time to make a purchase is very early in the morning.

The taf taf (street car) only operates in the evening from its terminal in front of Al-Forsan Hotel, giving visitors a rounded tour along the Corniche. It is a delightful experience, especially when fellow holidaymakers break out in song to express their joy.

If you decide to take a taxi, do not pay more than LE5 to go anywhere inside the city.

SAHARA ART EXPO FOR HANDICRAFTS: The unique Sahara Art Expo shop for handicrafts is located at the Beau Site Hotel. The small shop is owned by an enthusiastic young man called Khaled Nassar who is interested in all things authentic. Nassar is fond of touring the desert to collect original handmade pieces from the homes of the Bedouins and items that are going out of style. He travels all over Egypt, visiting Aswan, Nubia, Marsa Matrouh, Siwa and Arish.

He opened his shop in 1995 to sell his collection of handmade masterpieces, including traditional dresses, bridal dresses, shawls, silver accessories, rugs, pottery and belts. He also sells embroidered leather shoes made by Abdel-Malek, 85, the only artisan in the district who makes this type of shoes.

Nassar has several rare pieces that are not for sale, such as al-makhala (kohl container) of a Siwa bride; old silver accessories made by a renowned artisan named Mekawy who died 60 years ago; buttons from the uniforms of World War II British soldiers; pottery with the official seal of the British Army; and the remains of petrified fish and shells dating back some 40 millions years. Nassar believes these pieces are priceless mementos that should not be on the market.

Laid back nights

NIGHTLIFE in Marsa Matrouh is rather quiet. Do not go there expecting the noise and extravagance of Sharm El-Sheikh, Hurghada or even Alexandria. Marsa Matrouh is still a destination for middle class Egyptian holidaymakers, thus nightlife has a very subdued local taste. There are open-air cinemas everywhere, for LE10 a ticket, and all show Arabic movies only. The most crowded and lively part of the city is at the end of the Corniche next to Al-Forsan Hotel where there is an amusement park, circus, theatre with traditional magician and clown, a vast shopping tent, cafés and restaurants.

The Folklore Dance Troupe perform a 90-minute show daily at the open-air Beach Theatre on the Corniche at 10pm for LE3. The troupe is famous nationwide and worldwide for being strong contenders at dance competitions over the past 13 years. According to Hamad Khaled Shoeib, head of the Cultural Places in Marsa Matrouh, the performers depict Bedouin traditions and lifestyle in their dances, especially ones on their way out. These include old traditions of marriage, sheep shearing and wool spinning -- a material central in Bedouin daily life.

Where to eat

MOST hotels in Marsa Matrouh have à la carte restaurants, and only the Beau Site and Negresco serve open buffet breakfasts and dinners. It costs LE70 for breakfast at Beau Site and LE136 for dinner; Negresco's prices are LE50 and LE125, respectively. Be sure to eat as much fish as you can during your stay; fish here is especially delectable, even better than in Alexandria.

Hammou Al-Temsah and Gaber Abu Shaqfa are the best fish restaurants in town and are reasonably priced. They are both located in downtown Marsa Matrouh on Alexandria Street, where Kamuna is also located. Kamuna has the best choices for non-fish eaters, serving a variety of salads, meats, entrees and sandwiches.

The only authentic Bedouin restaurant in Marsa Matrouh is Ko Ko Al-Arabi, also on Alexandria Street opposite Hammou Al-Temsah. The design of the restaurant is a fusion of oriental and Bedouin styles, with most seating low on the ground with short tables. The restaurant's clientele are generally Bedouins or Libyans in traditional costume who are accustomed to floor seating.

Ko Ko Al-Arabi's signature dishes include red rice and lamb, kabset lahma (yellow rice and lamb), macarona garya (pasta and lamb) and Tunisian couscous with vegetables, lamb and tomato sauce. For dessert, Ko Ko Al-Arabi serves al-mafrouka made from dates, butter and wheat. All meals usually conclude with zarda, a cup of red tea with fresh mint, but you can also choose green tea with mint.

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