A garden to walk in and immensity to dream in – what more could he ask? A few flowers at his feet and above him the stars. ~ Victor Hugo, Les Misérables
Small cafés and eateries continue to pop up across the island of Zamalek to join the ranks of long established restaurants and lounges. Like a field of daisies in the flush of springtime they come one after another: a new bakery south of 26th of July and a cupcake shop to the north. Four new burger joints have welcomed clients in the last six months alone, along with several places that dish up quality Asian fare. While the increase in the number of new places is a) fun to try out, and b) driving up competition (thereby forcing establishments to provide better quality goods and services), there are still very few places where one can have a late morning breakfast, or just a cup of tea for that matter, in a beautiful outdoor setting that can make you fully appreciate all the beauty that remains in Cairo.
Thankfully there’s the Cairo Marriott Hotel. A lovely exception that boasts a garden fit for royalty, as well as working proletariats like yours truly.
The Marriott, located on the banks of the Nile, has been around since 1867 and boasts 977 rooms, 111 suites, 15 restaurants and a casino…if you have serious money to burn. The rooms are beautiful, though like many other hotels in Cairo the cost has risen in the last year thanks to a flailing economy and very few tourists. While this doesn’t make it an ideal spot to rest your head if you’re on a tight budget, it’s still a place worth getting excited about if you have a couple of hours to kill on a temperate fall/winter day and you’re gagging for a beautiful outdoor setting away from all the sound and fury that is Cairo these days.
Once upon a time the hotel used to be a palace. It was built at the request of Isma’il Pasha (former representative of Egypt and Sudan) to host French Empress Eugénie who visited Egypt to attend the opening of the Suez Canal. I don’t want to be cutting, but there are many things in Cairo that have fallen apart over the years: the downtown core is a grime-covered bittersweet testimony to this fact. However, the grandeur, modernity and beauty of a period long past still echoes when one steps into the marbled courtyard and settles into a garden-side seat. The hotel acts as a barrier to block out the street noise, while palm trees sway overhead and carefully trimmed hedges and bushes snake gently at every turn.
The last time I was at the Marriott I met up with some friends to discuss a couple of books we had all read (yes, it was a “book club” meeting). I didn’t eat anything as I’ve had ‘hit or miss’ experiences with the food and already ate long beforehand, but the garden menu is quite extensive and there are several gluten free (soups, eggs, fish/meat) and dairy free (eggs, salads, mezze) options available. The staff also have a good grasp of English – and a few other languages – so one can rest assured their dietary needs/intolerances will be looked after.
When breakfast came out though for two of my friends I kicked myself for eating earlier in the day. One look at their plates and I could have easily gone for some poached eggs with a side salad and some hash browns. Oh well. Malesh. Instead, I leaned back in my seat to enjoy my tea, the company and the fantastic locale. A gentle winter sun warmed my face as I breathed in air that felt just a little bit cleaner. I sat. I drank. I looked. I laughed.
I also listened – in all the spaces between – and let the whispers of a bygone era wash over me.