Al-Ahram Weekly Online   12 - 18 July 2012
Issue No. 1106
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

A seaside voyage

Riham Adel dreams of adventure and royalty

Click to view caption
A spectacular view of Al-Montaza Palace

The recent Africa Europe Challenge event in Alexandria celebrating the arrival of the 94-year-old sailing ship Astrid promoted cultural exchange between the two continents. The Astrid trip launched from Malta on 25 May, which marks Africa Day, and will sail circumnavigate Africa over the course of one year under the banner Africa Europe Challenge (AEC) ê" a major cooperation programme between the two continents.

The Astrid will sail through the Suez Canal, Red Sea, Indian Ocean, Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean ê" some 13,000 miles around Africa ê" and will dock in 16 countries for cultural exchange and to promote the following year's 2013- 2014 trip that will be a yacht race. Next year, the AEC international fleet will be circumnavigating the African continent with the Dutch tall ship Astrid in a clockwise direction in 15 legs for an entire year.

The project's main objective aims to develop a new form of cooperation between the African Union and the European Union, based on equality, cooperation, common interests and geared towards establishing closer ties between the people of the two continents. The project has targeted sports and culture as politically free mediators for realising this, which is why main components of the programme are linked to a yacht race circumnavigating Africa.

Astrid arrived at its first stop Alexandria on 5 June and later sailed on through the Suez Canal to Port Said, then Hurghada through the Red Sea, and then left Egyptian waters for her next stop in the Seychelles. While in Alexandria, a news conference was held to mark and promote the AEC voyage.

At a news conference at the historic El-Salamlek Hotel located in the exquisite Montazah Gardens of Alexandria, Hungary's Ambassador to Cairo Peter Kveck began by welcoming participants and said his country has always had good and developing relationship not only with Egypt, but with other countries in Africa. The event was also attended by Commander in Chief of the Egyptian Navy Admiral Mohab Mamish, who is also a member of the Supreme Council of Armed Forces, Chairman of the Egyptian Tourist Authority Amr El-Ezabi, as well as Alexandria Governor Osama El-Fouly.

Jozsef Gal, one of the project organisers who sailed around the world twice, and Peter Kondricz, the project manager, said they were glad that the historic city of Alexandria was chosen to be Astrid's first stop. They also noted that this humanitarian project has many political, cultural, touristic and economic goals.

The Astrid's Captain Pieter De Kam is a veteran sailor and his tan tells of many years of sun on the high seas. "It is an honour to be a part of this project that aims to deepen the relationship between Europe and Africa," De Kam told Al-Ahram Weekly. "If we can make life in Africa a little bit better through this project, then we are very happy."

He has 11 passengers aboard his ship for the trip and teaches trainees how to sail such a large ship on different oceans and seas. "Of course it is dangerous, but this is the real adventure of sailing," De Kam declared, which is the logo printed on his shirt. "Adventure is the business of navigators."

"Navigator Columbus sailed with a ship very similar to Astrid," explained the captain who loves the ship that came under his command seven years ago. "She is a beautiful and unique lady."

One of the main objectives of AEC is to create a new network that would promote tourism in both continents, and invite countries to the Africa-Europe Challenge 2013-2014. AEC Business Forum events will be organised during the promotional year in four countries (Egypt, South Africa, Morocco and the Canary Islands). Meanwhile, other promotion events took place in Europe in April, 2012, to attract European businesses and create awareness about AEC.

The project aims to achieve its objectives through the Yacht Rally that will kick-off on 25 May, 2013, in Malta and trace this year's sailing route Africa. Yachts will dock about ten days in each port where different programmes and festivals will be organised.

Kondricz began with the Arabic greeting "Al-Salam Aleikom" and went on to express his pleasure and love for Egypt in Arabic, which struck a good chord with his audience. He explained that private and rented yachts will participate in the rally and can choose to take part in the entire race or just some legs in three racing categories ê" racing, cruising and open. Meanwhile, up to 15 national teams are expected to enter the race. Moreover, participants will have an opportunity to take part in yacht training during the ocean legs of the race, as well as training on how to handle sailing ships and experience the life of sailors in the past.

Cultural festivals and tourism programs will be arranged in cooperation with the national tourism authorities of the 15 African host countries. There will also be a special economic programme for the business community in African and European countries to create a new business network, Africa-Europe Challenge Business Forum (AECBF), to build new economic bonds between the two continents.

In 2012, the AECBF will be held at two locations with the support and co-organisation of the Hungarian Investment and Trade Agency (HITA), giving European participants an opportunity to travel to specific venues within the framework of the "business tourism programme" that is organised by AEC partner travel agencies.

Another AEC programme targets aid and education for children will be launched under the name Future without Distance, offering an opportunity for students to follow the fleet as it travels around Africa and continuously maintain interactive contact with race participants. Schools will be able to connect with sister schools and organise competitions through workshops.

Meanwhile, the scientific research programme assesses the biological and chemical state of oceans and the oceanic environment, which could provide useful and important information for African countries, as well as understanding the Earth's global processes. The Gdll Szent Istvn Hungarian University is implementing an international marine biology research programme, built on close cooperation with AEC, throughout the duration of the race circumnavigating Africa.

The Astrid that was built in 1918 in Scheveningen, the Netherlands, as a cargo ship and traded in the Baltic until the mid-1970s. A big fire destroyed the ship and she was found off the English coast in 1984. Although the damage was immense her strong body survived and two British ex-naval officers repaired and saved Astrid. Since then, she has been used as a sail training ship for young people.

In 1998 Astrid returned to her homeland, Holland, and was fully restored and equipped as a luxury sailing ship.

The king's summer retreat

The venue for the Africa Europe Challenge (AEC) news conference was a throwback to bygone days that have maintained their charm, especially when you look across the water and see a century-old ship sailing in what was once called King Farouk's natural swimming pool. The Victorian bridge in the background creates nostalgia for an era when the King sipped afternoon tea on his private island yonder.

At the end of the AEC news event, as everyone headed to the reception party at Qatr El-Nada garden, I was curious to find out more about my surroundings. El-Salamlek Hotel was once part of the royal palace that was King Farouk's favourite summer retreat and operated as a hospital during WWI. The hall where guests and journalists gathered for the AEC conference was once the King's office, with stunning architecture and design.

This room is the only one at El-Salamlek palace that was not renovated, which is remarkable since the wallpaper looked as vibrant as it might have the first day it was applied. Impressive marble columns line the walls and the middle of the hall, and portraits of the royal family are dotted around the palace. I got a quick tour of the building, where I saw and was allowed to touch King Farouk's telephone and mobile tobacco table with his original pipes resting on it.

Amal El-Barbari, a tour guide who is fond of Alexandria and the royal family, told Al-Ahram Weekly that El-Salamlek was built in 1892 on a hill 16m high along with the 350-acre El-Montazah gardens. "While studying in Vienna, Khedive Abbas Helmi was inspired by its forests and Austrian architecture to build El-Salamlek Palace and El-Montazah gardens," El-Barbari explained. The palace was designed by the Greek architect Demitri Fabricious and was used as a hunting lodge for the khedive and his Austrian wife and their guests

El Salamlek consists of 20 rooms and attached is a cinema theatre that was built especially for the princesses.  It is believed that there is an underground passage between El-Salamlek and El-Haramlek to deliver food from the kitchen ê" a separate building ê" to the palace. El-Barbari explained that the statues of the lions in the gardens symbolised the hidden powers of the ruling Mohammed Ali family.

El-Haramlek was built in 1927 under King Fouad's reign by Italian architect Virotchi. "The floral design of El-Haramlek is derived from the Genoa Palace, with different statues on each side and the kitchen located outside the palace," she said. A capital 'F' is engraved on the walls, which is the initial of Queen Firyal, King Fouad's mother, and was considered a lucky letter for the family.

El-Haramlek consists of 50 rooms and there is a pergola in the gardens that housed the music ensemble that played music to wake up the king in the morning. Fouad's son Farouk later built the Victorian bridge or Lovers Bridge and the lighthouse as a miniature of Alexandria's ancient lighthouse. He also built the tea island at the end of the bridge which became the venue of choice for afternoon tea and political banter.

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