2018 Primetime Emmy
& James Beard Award Winner

Let’s Drink to the Oldest Elevator in Egypt

Photo by: Gaynor Barton

Let’s Drink to the Oldest Elevator in Egypt

Wine in Cairo

Some people come to The Windsor just for the elevator. It’s the oldest in Egypt. A brass sign, in French, tells guests to ask the concierge for help. The staff helped secure the door, camouflaged as a rusty grill. This calmed me, slightly. But as we set off, the whole thing lolled and wheezed, like a cranky great aunt.

The whole hotel, founded in 1893, looks like this. You exit the elevator into a large, dim room with dusty posters on the wall. They show an Egypt of free drinking and short skirts. There is a wooden floor, the color of dark chocolate. Converted wine barrels serve as chairs. Lamps with fussy upturned shades provide most of the light: the Cairo streets below are blocked by thick curtains. As I arrived, the barman flapped a dozy hand and ignored my request for a menu.

I didn’t mind. Even when it isn’t Ramadan, Cairo can keep you thirsty. There are few bars, and most are like this one: tatty and sad. Tipplers prefer ordering alcohol delivered straight to their apartments. It gets dropped off in black plastic bags by shy men in motorcycle helmets. At least drinking at The Windsor has pedigree. Winston Churchill stayed here, and it used to be the British officers’ mess. Then, they probably imported claret. I settled for the local wine. The white was fine. The red wasn’t: it grated, like drinking egg shells. The whisky was even worse.

This is understandable. Egypt’s drinking culture barely holds on. Bars sometimes refuse to serve people with Muslim identity cards, even if they are not practicing. Shops selling beer are sometimes attacked. Egypt’s Christians are banned from buying alcohol during Ramadan. Not that most of them would ever drink in public anyway. In January, a Christian had his throat sliced for selling liquor in Alexandria.

The barman finally decided to pay attention. He claimed he had served beers to the British, before Nasser’s coup in 1952. His white hair and curved back made him seem old enough, like everything else at The Windsor.

Anyway, he was too old to understand credit: when I tried to pay by card, he howled, in dialect and English. “I can’t do this!” He could, really, but would need to pay tax. He recoiled behind the counter and ignored me as I left. Outside, I glanced at the elevator, but decided to walk instead.

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