The Mediterranean resort of Marsa Matrouh is where Cleopatra VII and and her lover Mark Antony bade each other goodbye.
Marsa Matoruh is an easy seven-hour drive from Cairo. Matrouh is set in a scenic little bay with a sand and rock spit curving around its northwest side: the blue lagoon is adorned with a string of beautiful beaches and, since Cleopatra is reputed to have bathed here, it has quite a long history as a resort. However, the old-timers who still visit the Beau Site and the Hotel des Roses notwithstanding, Marsa Matrouh no longer caters to the smart set and present-day visitors have lower expectations. Many or most street and shop signs are only in Arabic, which suggests that nowadays relatively few foreigners are expected — although those that do stay will find themselves made very welcome. Be warned though — it is hard to find accommodation in summer and you will need to book ahead.
While much of the Egyptian Mediterranean coast can best be enjoyed slightly to either side of the summer season, when the crowds are elsewhere, this is nowhere more applicable than in Marsa Matoruh. The town has boomed. It is no longer a sleepy little beach resort where some of the Mediterranean’s loveliest beaches were within reach of a lazy ride in a canvas-screened donkey-carriage. The town has burgeoned under home grown Egyptian tourism and now sprawls all over the place.
Sadly, the beaches renowned for their remoteness and beauty are being taken over by resort developers. Obayyad and Cleopatra’s Beach have been sacrificed to entrepreneurial rapacity. Cleopatra’s Bath, that siren of the tourist brochures, a narrow spit of rock and sand forming the northwest arm of Matruh bay, has on its sea side attractive wave-polished limestone rocks and caves. Among them is a naturally hollowed cave where the waves pound in and the smooth interior looks for all the world like a bathhouse fit for Cleopatra. At the very end of the spit was a bunker carved in the rock and used by General Rommel.
From the Beau Site Hotel, on the inland side of the bay, it was a challenge for a strong swimmer to cross to Cleopatra’s Beach and return. The sand spit, white dunes upon a limestone foundation, sported mimosa, salt grasses, and wild flowers in the spring, a minor ecological niche not unlike America’s North Carolina coastline. The real picture, however, is now very different. There is a paved road to the end of the spit, and a thermal power station has been built at the end of it. Along the inner side of the spit are a couple of cement and plaster buildings. The sand dune over which one used to trudge to reach the happy surprise of the Cleopatra rocks has been levelled.
Marsa Matrouh was renowned for its sponge fishing, although the trade was ruined by heavy over-exploitation. Greek sponge fishers long knew the value of the crop along this coast, but it was not until 1886 that the trade was regulated by the Egyptian government and a levy applied to the catch. ‘Turkey cap’ sponges from the Marsa Matrouh beds and the ‘honeycomb’ variety from Sidi Abd al-Rahman are still highly prized.
The coastal road provided the straightest and safest route across North Africa, and was used by Greeks, Romans, Arab conquerors, and merchant and pilgrim caravans. All these travelers passed through Marsa Matruh. The Greeks named the town Ammonia, while the Romans knew it as Paraetonium, which the Arabs, in turn, corrupted to al-Baratum.
Although the Ptolemies have gone, there is still, by coincidence, a tiny pocket of Hellenic influence in Marsa Matrouh. Greek Egyptians, many from Alexandria, settled here soon after the World War I and opened small restaurants, shops, and hotels. Almost everything is still available in Marsa Matrouh, and a few years ago, when some items were hard to find in Cairo, you could often get what you had been looking for in Alexandria Street, from a jar of good olives to a decent pair of pliers.
photo: Alaa Neamatalla
Two hotels with lingering character are the Beau Site (now much enlarged and revamped) and the Hotel des Roses. The famous Lido Hotel was pulled down a few years ago. Built in 1929, it was for a time the residence of the commander of the Eighth Army, General Montgomery. After the war the Desert Rats met regularly at the Lido for reunions, and it also hosted a number of foreign dignitaries, world leaders, and stars. Rita Hayworth and Ali Khan spent their honeymoon there.
While Marsa Matrouh used to be a favourite holiday destination for foreigners and upper class Egyptians, the mass influx of holidaymakers since the beginning of the 1980s — made possible now that more people have cars — has led to a lack of privacy on the beach and has taken the gilt off the gingerbread. However, you can avoid a costly stay at a resort hotel and still enjoy the privacy of a swim by purchasing a day package of lunch and use of the private part of Cleopatra’s Beach at the San Giovanni Hotel. Local transport is provided by covered donkey-carriages driven by perky small boys, which dominate the town’s traffic during the season. Buses and trains run to Alexandria, but the train is slow and unreliable. Between June and September air, train, and bus services run from Marsa Matrouh directly to Cairo.
Apart from the hotel restaurants there is an abundance of restaurants in the town centre specialising in fish, kebab, or chicken dishes and mezze (salads). Some also serve inexpensive and traditional Greek-style food.
Jenny Jobbins is the author with Mary Megalli of Alexandria and the Egyptian Mediterranean; AUC Press; 2006.