Cycling the Delta: From Cairo to Alexandria
After finding out I had a long weekend due to a public holiday, I rushed to find a friend willing to join me on a journey I had wanted to do for a long time. I had often brought this idea up at cafes and bars, but was met with scepticism and bemusement more often than not. The idea was to cycle from Cairo to Alexandria via Tanta, taking a scenic cross-country route away from the highways, and instead through rural mud tracks and beside tributaries of the Nile. Luckily, my neighbour was keen and we were soon off on the trip.
I was excited at the prospect, but also wary of stories I had heard about people bicycle-touring in Egypt. Egypt is not known as a classic cycle tourism destination and often is reviewed quite badly in this regard. However, like many things in Egypt, maybe there's a particular way of doing it, and there's a lot of great adventures to be had off the beaten track.
We set out of Cairo early in the morning through Imbaba and followed a canal out to the Al-Qanatir Dam. Escaping Cairo took a surprisingly long time and there was no scenic route out of the city, so we snaked through tightly packed highrises and heavily fly-tipped roads. While the start of the journey did not give us much hope of what was to come, once we hit Al-Qanatir Dam, we began coming across the Egypt we were hoping for.
The Al-Qanatir Dam was the first of many fascinating sights and buildings we came across on the way. Beautiful old mosques, rustic farmhouses, impressive steel bridges, and old Ismai'l-era projects were to be found through the countryside and Nile-side cities on the route.
The Egyptian countryside we cycled through seemed like a world away from Cairo's concrete jungle. We trundled along beside the Nile through dust roads, passing through the occasional city. The Delta was refreshingly green and was scenic throughout. Stopping for a coffee or drink of water in villages along the way, we were met with incredible curiosity and kindness.
As the sun began to come down, we arrived at Tanta and checked into our hotel. Although we were exhausted, we couldn't resist exploring the centre of the city. Tanta was beyond our expectations and we kept running into things to see, eat, and do.
We visited the impressive Ahmad Al-Badawi Mosque which houses the tomb of the mosque's namesake. The large mosque's exterior is beautiful, but inside the mosque is really fascinating, especially Al-Badawi's tomb continually surrounded by people paying their respects. Ahmad Al-Badawi was the founder of the Badawiyyah order of Sufi Islam who lived in Tanta in the 1200s. Still today he is revered as one of Egypt's, if not Egypt's greatest saint, and the Mawlid of Al-Sayyid Ahmad al-Badawi, a festival celebrating his birth, attracts three million visitors every year.
We also tried Tanta's famous chickpea-based sweets, for which Tanta is famous for. Friends and family from Cairo demanded I bring the famous sweets back for them, hungry for childhood memories.
A night wasn't long enough to really explore Tanta, but it's somewhere firmly on my list of places to revisit. Additionally, the Museum of Tanta recently reopened after being closed for a period of 18 years. Another reason to revisit, maybe this time on the train though.
With a long day ahead, we headed out at first light after a few hours of sleep, and headed straight towards Kafr El-Zayat before cutting straight across to Alexandria. We briefly took a main road, similar to the routes I had seen other cyclists take when going across Egypt. Long stretches on a busy highway with trucks passing within inches from us were terrifying and we were eager to take side-roads at the earliest opportunity. Thankfully, we soon found an alternative route and followed a beautiful canal-side path all the way to Alexandria.
My idea of Egypt is very Cairo-centred, but this trip through lesser-known cities like Banha, Isnit, Mit Ghamr, Damanhour, and Kafr Al-Dawar, helped open my eyes. Each of these cities were are all great, many of them centred around beautiful corniches along the Nile. I didn't get the impression that these were places left behind or in the shadow of Cairo, they existed in their own right with their own perks.
Coming to the end of the trip, I was impressed by how beautiful the Egyptian countryside is and the amount it has to offer. However, the Egyptian countryside in the Delta and along the Nile is pretty inaccessible, unless you are happy to turn up in random towns and villages. Unfortunately, despite a few exceptions, there's nowhere really set-up for city-dwelling Egyptians to get out and explore some green countryside. Hopefully, places to facilitate this will spring up in the future, but until then, cycle-touring may be one of the only ways.
After a long hot day, we reached the coast and its cooling breeze. As end-destinations go, the last stretch beside the Mediterranean on the corniche leading on to the centre of Alexandria, is hard to beat. The corniche showcases beautiful seafront buildings and led us perfectly to our hotels.
Finally at the end of our trip, in honour of the 1958 classic film entitled Ice Cold in Alex, we had a cold beer having reached Alexandria celebrating the end of our short trip.
Cycling in Egypt is not well facilitated for in all respects, be that cycling in Cairo day-to-day or cycle-touring the country. Also, main roads are unbearably busy while sideroads are often too bumpy for a mountain bike. However, I still believe cycle touring in Egypt has some potential, and it is something I will do again many times for sure. Once a culture of cycling begins to remerge in Egypt, and cross-country routes established, Egypt will be an exciting destination for cycle-tourists. Working towards this end, we have seen the very beginnings of a cycle infrastructure being created and Egyptians have begun advocating for cycling. Within every city, new cycling clubs have popped up to try and promote cycling as a mode of transportation and as a sport. There is even a cross-country tour group called The NS Crossing which organises bicycle tours across Egypt, something which I'd love to join in with one time. Cycling has a long way to come in Egypt, but hopefully, through the efforts of numerous Egyptians throughout the country, Egypt will rediscover the bicycle and become a great place to explore by bike.