Further north from Opera are the grounds of the Zamalek club, open only to members, the sly and the persistent. But my favourite garden in these parts is the Aquarium Garden Grotto. The grotto is a fantastical place, whose aquarium has long since dried up, leaving its friendly bridge to curve over nothing more than a tiled hole in the ground.
The centrepiece of the garden (in Arabic, a hadeeqa) is an artificial hill, which soars (if one uses one’s imagination) above the grime of the city. Better still, is the grotto that has been carved out of the plastic hill. But the main attraction for the lovers who gather here is the shade provided by tall palms, on the grass beneath which they can hold hands, talk and pick at lunch.
Not so peaceful is the corner devoted to the young of Zamalek. A collection of recreational furniture clamours for their attention and their squeals and screams carry far beyond the high fences.
For the Khedival sum of two Egyptian pounds, you can gain entry to a more tranquil hadeeqa a little further along the Corniche el-Nil. Here the palms trees block out Cairo’s hot and high-rise buildings, while fountains thrum out a cooling rhythm amid carefully-tended beds, where marble cobras rear up with impotent anger at the flowers.
That extra guinea buys me something else, too. Benches: nice, wooden benches, scattered around the gardens, as you would hope. The Aquarium Garden Grotto is all very whimsical, but its benches are arranged in a circular sort of formation, so that the two sexes can eyeball each another. It’s a little confrontational for my liking.
Another bonus of this hadeeqa is its coffee shop. Before I get a chance to sit down properly, an urgent waiter in a bow tie is upon me. After we share the necessarily florid greetings, he reveals his purpose:
“You sit down; you drink. Coffee, tea, orange…”
“Ah – no, thank you,” I say, politely.
“Yes – you drink. Coffee, tea, orange…”
“Ah – yes, very kind – but no, thank you.”
“Yes, yes. This – ” he (rather improbably) indicates the bench – “coffee shop. You drink.”
As far as I could see, this was a bench. “But I’ve already paid to come in here!”
“Yes for – ” and he mimes the act of walking with his index and middle fingers.
“No – that’s ridiculous!”
“Yes – you must drink!”
Besides the fact that I’m not thirsty, I am footsore and I don’t want to give up my comfortable bench. I look around, somewhat desperately, for some help breaking this rather awkward impasse. But no one is watching us. Everyone else in the garden seems to be in a couple, arm-in-arm on the benches, gazing into each other’s eyes… Oh – there’s the answer!
“But the other people,” I say, triumphantly, “they don’t have drinks!”
And it’s true: arm-in-arm, none have the threatened tea, coffee, orange (which, in any case, strikes me as a slightly distasteful combination).
“Yes they have!” he says, with unlikely optimism.
“No! Look – no one has a drink.”
Suddenly, the waiter smiles and gives me a high-five, walking away, laughing.
If you know how to stand your ground, Egypt is a fun place. Now, having won that round, I think I will just have a little walk around, after all.
I walked there in January 2009. I wonder what it would feel like now.