Country number: 160
Territory number: 189
When? April 2018
How? Minibus, plane, train,
Who? Group Tour
‘The French colonisation of Algeria lasted a long time: 132 years.’
Ahmed Ben Bella
Alex and Alison, who I met on the train across the Caucasus last year, were going to travel on this trip with me but their visa paperwork never arrived back from Algiers – no real explanation- and they had to rearrange their European trip. Our trip was supposed to be a party of 13, including George the English leader and Jamie from the office in England. So now we’re down to eleven as we assemble in the airport arrivals area. Except we’re not, as Sarah, from the UK, has not been allowed to enter the country. None of us have even seen her get off the plane. Mind you, we don’t know what she looks like. Again, no explanation given. There’s much speculation of course. A journalist? A spy? Something more mundane, like the date missing from the visa?
Unusually, we are all solo travellers, three men and five women (two of the ladies are American, everyone else is at least part British) plus George and Jamie. Our passports have all been re-examined and collected (my own exchange with the immigration officers was very amicable), so now we’re all waiting with trepidation to see if we are to be deported too. After an hour or so we are sent on our way. All is well. Except we are now ten. It’s like an Agatha Christie novel.
Algiers is a sprawling seaport with (unsurprisingly) a very French feel. Most of the buildings are white and curly balconied, dominated by a huge concrete Monument to the Martyrs and a soaring tower (it’s going to be the tallest minaret in the world) of a new mosque under construction. The shop fascias are written in French, but there is some Arabic signage too. We stop for a bracing al fresco lunch, in the botanical garden, next to the zoo. We can see right across town from here and a prized exhibit is the huge fig tree that featured in the Johnny Weissmuller version of Tarzan. Crocodiles of small children snake around, their teachers dancing and chanting.
This is described as an orientation tour of the city. In the west there’s another stop to look across from the far side of town, on a terrace surrounding the imposing Notre Dame cathedral. It’s a fascinating mix of European and eastern orthodox architecture, grandly described as Byzantine revival. The traffic is terrible and we’re moving at a crawl, so we’re spending more time in the bus than off it. That’s not a problem. Everyone is sleepy, due to our early start, and the bus resonates to the sound of gentle snoring. I’ve enjoyed the views, but I haven’t the slightest idea how to find my way anywhere.
Our Algerian guide, Robbie, is a dead ringer for Alan Rickman and a polyglot. He’s been to university in Plymouth, Algeria, France and Spain. He’s been at sea as an officer and has dabbled in all manner of business. So we have an extremely knowledgeable and cultured commentary, even if it is a little hard to follow at times. Also on board our bus are the driver (of course) and smiley Mohammed, a representative from the tour company in Algeria. (Mohammed tells us that is real name is Abu Bhukar, so he was known as Bob at school). That makes over one member of staff to two of us. Robbie engages in lengthy explanations about North African history, telling us that the original reason anyone was interested in conquering North Africa was because an aphrodisiac plant/Viagra act alike (ferula tangetalia or silphium) was one of the main crops. The monks frequently grew it. So much for the granary of Europe. I check up on this information and discover that according to Wikipedia silphium was a medicinal cure all and a contraceptive. In addition to his theatrically delivered and dubious historical knowledge, Robbie is brilliant on French literature. I suspect he also knows more about English literature than most of the passengers on the coach.
It’s three lane autoroutes once out of town, with very few vehicles, so what traffic there is feels the need to straddle two lanes wherever possible. Travelling east, we are traversing the Atlas Mountains. Triangular green peaks are interspersed with villages and pastureland patched with yellow rape. Flocks of sheep (somewhat perilously) take advantage of the longer grass on the verges of the road, brown cloaked shepherds watchful. several times we pass blocks of new accommodation under construction – social housing funded by oil money. Most of the building is three or four storied flat roofed in yellow, cream and brown. It’s not wildly pretty but it melds in well.
Over the ancient border from Mauretania to Numidia, the Roman ruins at Djemila (Cuicul) are well worth the stop. It’s another UNESCO World Heritage Site, beautifully laid out down a hillside, framed by mountains and delightfully replete with spring flowers thrusting through the paving slabs. It’s Friday and the site bustles with Algerians in holiday mode. A pair of small boys with mournful faces sell us traditional flower wreaths that we dutifully place on our heads. There are more good quality Roman mosaics than I’ve seen anywhere before, displayed on the walls of the museum, and Robbie has a good time declaiming in the amphitheatre.
Constantine (Roman Cirta) is worth the visit to Algeria all on its own. It has a spectacular setting on a huge rocky outcrop split by a deep gorge. As the city expanded seven bridges were built to facilitate access – they vary in style and age, with a new suspension bridge having been recently added. Once we’ve clambered up countless steps the views are varied and memorable. The weather is a mix of drizzle and heavy cloud, but the mist adds to the atmosphere, as it rolls though the ravine.
There’s a colourful and atmospheric bey’s palace to view – the curator hasn’t turned up- he’s taken his daughter to hospital we’re told, so we sneak around peeping through doors. Next, another huge mosque. This one is the biggest mosque in Algeria. It’s very modern and we have to get togged up in suitable robes and scarves. We also scoot through the casbah, very much the local food shopping centre, mostly sacks of fragrant spices and copious amounts of fresh meat. Sheep’s stomach and intestines seem to be favourites, with cows and sheep’s heads also proudly on display.
The food we’ve eaten so far has been traditional North African fare, couscous, tagine, and dried fruit. It’s a bit of a trial trying to avoid tomato, which features in everything. Today, at lunch in famous cafe Tidis I’m trying not to order it, but names are misleading. Cheese tagine is minced meat with cheese and tomato, soufflé- a flan with a lot of runny cheese – and tomato, lentil soup- with tomato base. I have more luck with the brochettes. The tender calf liver is especially delicious.
Lastly, a visit to the museum. We tour the prehistoric, Phoenician and Roman artefacts at top speed. Robbie’s guiding consists mostly of ribald stories about the Roman emperors. We’re flying back to Algiers on Air Algerie. I’m not hugely enthusiastic about this idea. The Boeing 737 looks ancient and a military plane crashed here earlier this week. In addition, it’s now raining heavily and storms are forecast. Check in has already been a minefield of misinformation from Robbie about queuing and the need for passports . The Algerians so far (except in airport queues) have been very gentle, polite and respectful. There is no hassle or belligerent selling. But there aren’t many souvenir stalls to promote anyway. However, smoking is still very common here and one of the check in clerks has a lit cigarette in his mouth, beneath a ‘No Smoking’ sign.
After surviving a very bumpy and very short flight, dinner tonight is a riot. We’ve found a restaurant that serves alcohol, and gin and tonic to boot. What’s more, the sole and lamb is excellent too. Robbie has hit the whisky and Martin, one of the three guys, (who have formed a lad’s alliance –I’ve dubbed it the Northern Powerhouse), is on good form. He’s already gained an admirable reputation for awful risqué conversation and really bad puns.
Today, we’re flying on to Timimoun in the middle of the desert. The plane of the moment is a 72 seater ATR and we’re delayed for 45 minutes in the bus, waiting for two more passengers. It turns out the missing pair are Alex and Alison. Fortunately, the weather is good and it’s a fairly smooth flight, once ground control take the off the manifest, so not too much Rescue Remedy is called for. The clouds begin to part and reddish brown rocky sand with patches of rippling dunes is increasingly visible. I’m sitting next to Riva, an extremely entertaining 78 year old, who still practices equalities psychotherapy. As Martin points out, ‘There’s only one more Riva to cross.’ The flight takes two hours and we’re only half way into the largest country in Africa.
The latest FCO bulletin on Algeria:
‘Terrorists are very likely to try to carry out attacks in Algeria, including kidnappings. Terrorist attacks have focussed on the Algerian state, but attacks could be indiscriminate and include foreigners. There’s also a risk that lone actors could target foreigners. You should be vigilant at all times and take additional security precautions, especially in: towns and cities; the southern, Libyan and Tunisian border areas; rural and mountainous areas in the north; and the Sahara.
The Algerian authorities devote considerable resources to the safety of foreign visitors. In cities there’s a clear security presence, which can feel intrusive. Authorities will want to know your travel plans when travelling outside major cities and may assign police or gendarmes to protect you.’
So far, we’ve avoided any security convoys. There’s been a heavy police presence in the cities, but apparently this is because the gendarmerie are busy with important football matches. Robbie deems this a good thing. He says they slow everything up and the bus is often required to wait for ages at changeover points. However, they are ready for us at the airport and escort us the five minutes’ drive into town. Disappointingly, they are aboard a Nissan 4WD. I was hoping for an open top truck and muscly men with AK47s perched on the back. They have demanded to know all our plans and will be with us tomorrow when we go into the desert. Though we are allowed to go into town on our own.
Today’s walking tour is more than a little chaotic. We trail after Robbie who keeps losing his way, exclaiming that things have moved since his last visit and blaming his confusion on the heat. It’s a typical oasis town in that there are gates, fortresses and stockades with pointy crenellations and plenty of date palms. But it’s very different from those in the UAE, for example, in that the walls (except for the newest constructions) are made of red mud. This area was once part of the Sudan. Most of the sand strewn streets are eerily quiet. We’re unsure why, until we come across all the women gathered under one awning dressed in their most gorgeous finery. There’s a wedding taking place. Unsurprisingly, the villagers are not keen for us to participate. The darker skinned peoples of this isolated desert outpost are far more reserved than their coastal cousins and very few are keen to be photographed. One little boy runs away, terrified, at the sight of a camera. So we decamp to the main street, where there are some photogenic beehive shaped structures and a little market. The large hive shapes, known as marabouts, are saints’ tombs, liberally sprinkled across the desert. There are a lot of holy men. Some of the tombs in town, like the walls, are fake, built purely for aesthetic reasons. Our hotel is wonderfully located with views across the palmerie to the sandstone formations and dunes of the Grand Erg Occidental (Western Sand Sea). It’s an excellent place to watch the sun go down.
Today, we are once more way down the police priority list. We have been instructed to venture out on our own and take one of the hotel employees with us. Robbie is ecstatic, but I’m less sure. I don’t think, ‘We haven’t needed them so far’, quite cuts it. Briham, the designated escort, looks the part in his flowing white djellaba, (clothing here is much more traditional than that worn up north) but he isn’t armed. At least it’s an opportunity for too many Life of Briham jokes, with Middle Eastern type scenery as props. And we aren’t going to be able to rely on the dynamic duo who are our leaders either. George has a nose bleed and looks fetching with cotton wool stuffed up his nostrils. Jamie has turned his finger septic by picking at a splinter. Martin’s theory is that this all a ploy to enable them to plunder the pristine first aid kit. (At this point I should say that they are actually both very good at their jobs and they take all the ribbing in good part). In addition, Robbie has produced a very battered straw hat from his bag and proceeded to try and unflatten it, restoring it to some of its (very ancient) former glory. I’m wondering if we should have left it in the museum. But it suits him.
Our drive takes us, precariously (it’s not really bus country) along some very narrow tracks past abandoned villages and mud fortresses (ksars). There are also more stretches of social housing. The accommodation is free, but unsurprisingly the Algerians are very not keen to take up residence. Most of the people in work in Algeria are hired by the government and there isn’t much employment available round here. There are also caves, an irrigation system, a handicraft shop and an imagined view of the sebkha (salt lake), as the access track is 4WD country only. Thankfully, we can see it from the hotel instead.
Some of the village roads are closed, as the wedding is still going on when we wander out for dinner. The bridegroom is processing around on a panoplied horse, his expression changing in succession from sheepish to proud and back again. His friends also take turns riding his steed and bearing the ceremonial gun and sword that accompany him. It’s fellow traveller Wendy’s birthday today and Mohammed has obtained a fancy cake. Though he has to be really strongly persuaded before he will remove the numerals he has added, to celebrate her exact age. The bridegroom is posing on an island in the pond behind our outdoor table now and he lets off a gunshot to add to the air of excitement (and confusion).
It’s a stunning drive northwest to Taghit, through desert that turns all shades of yellow and gilt. There are perfect flat topped mesas, amazing huge dunes and more red mud ksars. Today, we are travelling in convoy, police front and back and I can now see why Robbie thinks our escort is a nuisance. Not only do we have to hang around at district boundaries while they change over, we also have to make our coffee stop at ‘my cousin’s café’ instead of the planned stop in the one town we traverse, despite Robbie’s vociferous remonstrations. The word ‘dickheads’ echoes down the bus. But at least AK47s have been flourished.
Beni El Abbas, our oasis lunch stop, is described in the itinerary as ‘The White City’, but its arched colonnades and casbah are perplexingly, yellow ochre, with cinnamon shading. ‘Well’, frowns Robbie. ‘I think it was white when I came ten days ago. They’ve redecorated’. It brings a whole new meaning to go out and paint the town, but not quite red in this case. We tour a tiny hospital hermitage (four monks, five nuns) founded by Charles de Foucault and a ramshackle museum stuffed with all manner of paraphernalia, documenting local history through the ages. From here, we skirt the Grand Erg Occidental with tantalising glimpses of dunes until, we reach the western most tip at Taghit.
I follow a camel track (hoof prints in the sand) up a steep and stony hillside past a lone marabout (they are cuboid with domes aloft in this region). On top of the mountain I’m king of the world for a short time, gazing out over the sand sea, where the gold barchan crescents overlap into the rock of the hamada. There are whoops echoing from far down below, where more intrepid folk are teetering over the dunes in quad bikes – wadi bashing. Other hardy souls are climbing the track to the top of the granddaddy dune, which towers 120 metres behind the village. Martin has pointed out that it’s a shame there isn’t a Terry in the group. Then we would have ‘Terry and Dune’. Doh! The dune with the village, fortress and casbah spilling down the hill in front, would be impossibly picturesque, if it weren’t for the satellite mast placed strategically in the backdrop.
There’s a premier league football team travelling on our plane to Oran. Suitably track suited, they are accompanied by some wives, headscarved and decorously attired and another loud group of females, lashings of makeup up, died hair and the tightest of jeans. Mohammed describes them as ‘ladies of the night’. One of the more sophisticated of their number has disappeared into the cockpit. I assume she’s in the jump seat… the pilot executes what can only be describes as a handbrake turn before taking off, rapidly, the plane at an angle to the runway.
Robbie has an engagement elsewhere tomorrow, so is handing over to other guides in Oran. Student Remy is introduced and gives an introductory explanation about this important French, Spanish and Ottoman influenced city. This deteriorates into the battle of the guides, as Robbie interrupts to tell us ‘the most important facts’. Poor Remy has more to contend with at dinner, where a surly but efficient garcon does his best superior, cynical curled upper lip act in our bustling French restaurant and treats him with particular disdain (excellent crevettes). There’s more to contend with at breakfast, when a high handed waitress just waves me away with a brusque ‘Sit Down’ and brings me a tray of things I don’t want to eat.
Remy has been replaced by Islam today. Islam in his turn was a replacement for someone else who is ill and Islam is suffering from toothache. Moreover, his English isn’t up to scratch (not much call for it here, there are very few tourists he says) so Mohammed translates. Our route seems designed for maximum frustration. We drive past the Place du Premiere Novembre 1954 and are taken to wander on the promenade above the port. The streets are very narrow and twisty and navigation demands all the driver’s skill. There are several stops, while other vehicles manoeuvre or drivers are found in order to clear their cars from the route. Walking would be a much better option, but nevertheless we pile back on the bus, drive into the centre, disembark and follow Islam for some time, before viewing the balcony of Albert Camus’ house. The guide says he lived there for 15 days (there isn’t a plaque), with his second wife and moved out because he didn’t like Oran. (The itinerary promotes Oran by saying that Camus wrote a novel based on the city. It doesn’t tell you it was ‘The Plague’.) The cafe where he wrote has been promised, but no, it no longer exists. We are deluged with many friendly ‘bonjours’ and the odd more hostile ‘This is a Moslem country,’ as we retrace our steps to the ornate concrete cathedral, which is now a library, and annoyingly close to our hotel. Birds flutter through the rafters, as George notes poetically, ‘‘Pigeon shite all over the place’.
Next, a bustling street market to wander, before we board the bus and drive in crawling traffic along the promenade (again) in traffic to Cafe Bonbon for a drink. Then back along the promenade to Place du Premiere Novembre, where we stop this time to view statues and the opera house. Then along the promenade again in the other direction, to end up round the corner from the coffee café, for lunch in a self-service restaurant. Honestly, you couldn’t make it up.
In the afternoon, we drive up Santa Cruz Mountain which overlooks the commercial port, the fishing quay and the military harbour, in the next bay. The domed church at the summit is barricaded off for renovation and the fortress is closed. (No-one has brought the key.) Cloud rolls in to obscure the city panorama below. Back in the city (just up from the promenade) we visit the crumbling, but charming (aesthetically at least – there is a large harem area) bey’s palace. Then we return to our hotel, via Place du Premiere Novembre, of course.
We’re completing our circuit of Algeria by catching the train to Bilida, where we’re to visit more Roman ruins at Tipaza, before returning to Algiers on our bus, which is racing to meet us, with our luggage. We’re in first class and the carriages (like the generally well maintained roads) continue the French legacy. We’ve even got USB ports and power sockets. The ride is a little bumpy, and there’s some frenetic overuse of the whistle, but the view out of the windows is increasingly scenic and flower bedecked, as we hug the rolling speckled green foothills of the Atlas Mountains.
The ruins of the city founded by Septimus Severus are a remarkable and battered mix of Numidian, Punic and Roman temples and monuments, overrun with Algerians on their weekend break, but their setting by the water, is idyllic. The sea breeze wafts over the site and the views across the bay are stunning. Robbie has cried off again today; he’s sick. Except that George has just seen him in Tipaza with his wife, and possibly another group of tourists. Meanwhile, in his absence, we’ve had an erudite and enjoyably coherent explanation from a retired archaeologist we’ve borrowed for the afternoon.
The huge stone block mausoleum, ostensibly the burial site of the last king and queen of Mauretania, is well worth the additional stop off, before we join the long queue of traffic heading back to Algiers. Groups of bikers weave in and out of the cars, hoodies rather than helmets, showing off with wheelies and by lying flat on their saddles. Crazy stuff. When they get bored with this they pull over on the hard shoulder, for a cigarette, or a chat with their mates.
Robbie is back as our guide today. The explanation for his disappearance is as detailed as the one we were given about Sarah’s refused entry to the country. So we have a shamble, rather than a ramble, down 500 steps, through the labyrinth of the casbah (reconstructed by the French), past the port (the esplanade here is reminiscent of Brighton if you squint) and the seventeenth century whitewashed Kipouache mosque, to the famous ornate post office (now museum). The route back to the hotel takes us along the Algerian boulevard equivalent of Oxford Street, through various vibrant squares and by the renovated Milk Bar, notorious for being bombed twice by terrorists. Robbie ambles along in front talking mainly to himself, while George and Mohammed mop up the stragglers. I’m still not sure I have the slightest idea where anything is. But at least I can find out about what I’ve seen by reading my guide book. Robbie’s notion of a suitable restaurant for our final meal is a sleazy smoke filled bistro, with scantily dressed women. We escape to buy ice creams, balancing our cartons of ice bubble, as we make our way back to the hotel down the illuminated streets. It’s a lively city, with a shabby chic charm and a good place to end a tour in a diverse and intriguing country.
The word Algeria comes from the Arabic name for Algiers, which means island- El Djazeira.
Algeria is the largest country by area in Africa. Before 2011, when South Sudan became independent, Sudan was the largest.
The Sahara Desert covers 80 per cent of Algeria.
Algeria has a long history of invasion. It has been subject to rule by the Phoenicians, Romans, Arabs, Ottomans and French over many years. Over a million Algerians were killed in the fight for independence from France in 1962.
The official languages of Algeria are literary Arabic and Tamazight (Berber). French is a semi-official language and the currency is the Algerian dinar.
The renowned Algerian novelist, Albert Camus, played as goalkeeper in the football team for the University of Algiers, which may therefore be the world’s only university to have had a Nobel Prize-winning goalkeeper in its team.
To see more of my photos of Algeria, visit this page.