Life & StyleTravel

Off the beaten track

Traditional boat builders, fish and Napoleon all make up for a great trip.

When it comes to leisure, Egyptians tend to travel in a pack. If you need proof of this, try getting space at one of the more sought-after destinations on the north coast during the peak summer months. You’ll probably find that finding a suitable spot requires more wasta, cash, or both, than would be required to secure a full-ride package to Harvard. 
On the flip side of this comes a tremendous opportunity. If you’re willing to buck the trend, and set off on your own, seeking out more inventive and off-season itineraries, you may well be rewarded by delightful, secluded and affordable travel adventures. 
I set off on one such adventure helping out a friend at the tail end of a year spent documenting the world’s remaining traditional wooden boat building communities. Her objective in Egypt was the flat-bottomed sailboats, wider and shallower than the felucca, used to fish on Egypt’s inland lakes. We were told that Damietta, at the eastern most exit of the Nile into the Mediterranean Sea, was a good place to begin our quest. 
Combining this with a temptation to ramble through the Delta, we set off north from Cairo along the Alexandria agricultural road. Leaving Cairo a world away within a half hour, this journey was far from the truck-infested nightmare I had been warned about by sedentary friends in Cairo, but was rather a delightful journey into the traditional heartland of Egyptian society. We avoided the main road through Tanta, and instead took another excellent road along the Damietta branch of the Nile through Mansoura, where you can still see in the faces of ordinary folk their Crusader or Napoleonic French ancestry. 
Moving along at a steady pace the entire way, we arrived on the outskirts of Damietta less than three hours after leaving Cairo, making the journey a pleasant alternative to a stress-inducing trip along the Alexandria desert road. While trash filled canals, and the spreading concrete of Delta cities may have been disappointing, far greater was our sense of wonder inspired by the mighty agricultural engine of the Nile, and its accompanying network of canals. Even the most jaded traveler cannot fail to be impressed by this mighty river on the last stretch of its epic journey out of the Ugandan and Ethiopian highlands. In spite of our best efforts to sully this mighty river with the control and filth of modernization, it still carries an epic punch. 
On the advice of seasoned Egypt traveler Mary Megalli (co-author along with Jenny Jobbins of A Travelers’ Guide to Alexandria and the Egyptian Mediterranean, a helpful partner to anyone wishing to undertake off-the-beaten-track adventures around the north coast), we set up our base in Ras al-Barr. Ras al-Barr sits on an improbably glorious location, on a narrow triangular spit of land between the Nile and the sea. Seriously off-season, the town was quiet, but not deserted. We found excellent accommodation at the Beau Rivage, at the northern end of the river corniche, with wonderful balconies overlooking the traditional fishing fleets as they set off to try their luck in a stormy Mediterranean. Sleepy though it was, we were assured that when the season gets going in June, you can hardly find space to walk until things quiet down again in September. 
Ras al-Barr has a glorious past as one of the most sought after summer destinations of Egypt’s rich and famous, and there is lots of old charm about the place. Om Kolthoum had a beautiful summer home here, in the traditional style of reed walls that were collapsed at the end of each season, and Gamal Mubarak and his wife remain frequent visitors, Khadiga’s family being from this area. Even in the off season, we found an excellent selection of fish, kofta and sweets in the souq area and along the long boardwalk promenade along the river. 
The Damietta area is famous for its boat builders. Across the harbor from Ras al-Barr, a massive boat-building operation is underway in Esbet al-Burg, and the river at Ras al-Barr is full for as far as the eye can sea with the characteristic blue-painted sea-going fishing boats that set off from here to fish the Mediterranean waters. One morning while we were there was the first day of the fishing season, and the corniche was brimming with eager workers trying to get a place on the vast flotilla of boats setting off into the sea. 
Damietta is also known as a furniture-making center, and the loud, gold-encrusted, amply stuffed, French-inflected style of furniture popular in much of Egypt is everywhere on display. The region is less known, perhaps, for one of the world’s premier collections of ancient American cars, rivaling Cuba and Syria in the number of sixty-year-old beauties still plying the streets. At the northern tip of Esbet al-Burg, we arrived at a roundabout where literally every car we could see was vintage American, mostly Chryslers, Dodges and Plymouths. They weren’t pretty, and were being held together by ample doses of wire and ingenuity, but they still rolled on, comprising the majority of the local taxi fleet. 
The story of our journey was largely the story of the bodies of water we passed: the river, the canals, the sea, but also the inland lakes. Damietta is nestled between two of the most impressive of Egypt’s inland lakes, Borollus and Manzala. Manzala, to the east, is one of the major stops of migratory birds, and in Borollus, to the west along the new highway toward Alexandria that will soon make moving around this region simple, we came across one of the last areas where the traditional boats of Egypt are still being built, with much the same technology as has been used for hundreds, if not thousands of years. 
At Burg, on a narrow spit of land between Borollus and the sea, we came across a colorful line of these boats, their multi-colored masts stretching like Buddhist prayer flags along the beach. We headed out onto the lake with one of the traditional fishermen still working these waters, as did his father and grandfather before him. But the challenges facing these communities was everywhere on display. Boats stand idle, and fish stocks are declining, suffering from declining quality of water due to agricultural run-off, over-fishing, and the appropriation of lake space for aquaculture. Motorboats are jostling with their more traditional sail counterparts at the area boatyard. Our guide’s son wants nothing to do with the aquatic way of life, making him the first of his line in at least four generations not to earn his living off of the fish in Lake Borollus. 

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