There's a Mediterranean getaway for under a tenner, writes Belinda Jackson.
WHAT Train travel from Cairo to Alexandria, Egypt.
HOW MUCH First class: $9, second class: $5 on the el-torbini (meaning express), which takes about 2 1/4 hours.
WHY DO IT It's the cheapest way to see Egypt from the ground, travelling through Cairo, across the Nile Delta and up to the Mediterranean coast.
Fancy a Mediterranean getaway for $9? That's the cost of a first-class ticket from hustling, bustling Cairo to the seaside city of Alexandria. Even though it has a population of 6million, making it Egypt's second largest city, Alex, Cairo locals say, is a sleepy backwater.
With its 17 kilometres of seaside promenade, gracious European-style cafes, excellent Roman, Greek and Pharaonic ruins, the new Alexandria library and a 14th-century fort plonked on the site of one of the seven wonders of the ancient world (the lighthouse at Pharos), there's plenty to keep you busy for much more than a weekend.
There are three types of train operating between Cairo and Alexandria: turbo, express and ordinary. The superfast, non-stop so-called "French", "Spanish" or torbini trains (French and Spanish refer to the countries where the trains were built or overhauled), have air-conditioned first and second classes and a refreshments service. The express services also have good first and second class services but are a bit slower. The total cheapo, the all-stops ordinary trains, have no first class, air-con in second class only on request, and third-class is considered a no-go zone for even the tightest foreigners.
If you can't get a first-class ticket, second class is perfectly suitable, with airline-style seats, a food and beverage service, and big, though heavily finger-printed, windows which don't open, so photos are out of the picture. Large luggage is locked away in a compartment at the end of each carriage by a porter, who unlocks it as you pull into your destination.
The tea man walks the aisles through the trains, offering tea, instant coffee, pastries and water. Amazingly, he remembers everything you had, and presents the bill just before you pull in to the station. This is no paper cup misery: tea comes in a glass with a metal spoon and even a saucer lined with a napkin to steady it against the knocks and bangs of the train, which is for the most part very smooth.
There are a few downsides, of course. "The bathroom is a disaster," reports Ashfan matter-of-factly as he drops back down into his seat beside me. Essentials for the trip: a packet of tissues, which cost a pound (20 cents) at the little platform kiosks. Lemon scented, naturally. Other must-haves include small change for tipping and snacks and an expectation of some delays, particularly on busy Thursdays, when everyone's clearing the city for the weekend.
Travelling from Cairo, try for a seat on the left-hand side of the train, which runs alongside the canals and small tracks for a never-ending parade of fields, people on foot, horse and cart, motorbikes and pushbikes. The occasional tractor is far outweighed by the sight of man and beast ploughing the furrow.
FREE STUFF Travelling by train gives a chance to chat with the locals on a more equitable basis than, "Welcome to my country, would you like to ride a camel?." English-speaking Egyptians will happily trade seats to sit beside you and share the addresses of their favourite cafes. Women tend to sit beside other women, so it's a great opportunity for solo female travellers to get an insight into the lives of their Egyptian counterparts.
BONUS Getting off the train, tip the luggage man a few pounds and he'll lift the luggage off for you - no doubt into the waiting arms of a porter who will trot out the station with you. This is not a bad thing, as the platforms at Alexandria are connected by pedestrian subways, which means plenty of stairs. The locals tip porters just a few pounds, but they'll try for 10 pounds from tourists. Porters are also great if you're not sure which train you're getting on. Check they've got an official porter's badge, and they'll ask for your ticket and whisk you off onto the correct train and carriage. Worth every pound.
DETAILS Check train timetables at http://www.egyptrail.gov.eg. It's best to buy a ticket at least a day beforehand, and you can buy tickets only from the station from which the train departs. Alexandria trains depart from Ramses Station, in northern Cairo.