Australian residents, Alec and Alison, who I met on the train across the Caucasus last year, were going to travel on this trip to Algeria 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, the capital of Algeria, 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 Great Mosque, under construction. The shop fascias are written in French, but there is some Arabic signage too.
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.
Robbie leads us on a shamble, rather than a ramble, along 500 steps, through the ancient city of the deys, The labyrinth of the casbah (reconstructed by the French). climbs the steep hill behind the modern town. It is crowned by the casbah or citadel, 122 metres above the sea. Fortunately, we're going downhill.
Algiers is situated on the west side of a bay of the Mediterranean Sea. The modern part of the city is built on the level ground by the seashore and the two quays form a triangle with the casbah. The esplanade here is reminiscent of Brighton (if you squint). Past the seventeenth century whitewashed Kipouache Mosque, with its two towers, to the famous ornate post office (now a museum). The route back to the hotel takes us along the Algerian boulevard equivalent of Oxford Street. Then, 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 assistant Mohammed mop up the stragglers.
We stop for a bracing al fresco lunch, in the botanical garden, on high ground, 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.
In the west, there’s another stop to look across from the far side of town, on a clifftop terrace, surrounding the imposing Catholic basilica of Notre-Dame d'Afrique. It’s a fascinating mix of European and eastern orthodox architecture, grandly described as Byzantine revival. It features a large silver dome and mosaics.
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. And at least I can find out about what I’ve seen by reading my guide book
Dinner on our first night 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. Guide Robbie hits 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.
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. So, it's a good place to begin and end a tour in a diverse and intriguing country. In between we've been along the coast in each direction to Constantine and Oran/Tipaza and out into the Algerian Sahara.
Friday 13th isn’t the most auspicious day to travel, but it’s only a number on a human invented calendar. Isn’t it? I’m having the usual nerves about setting off on my own, not helped by the fact that my Belarusian and Ukrainian beauty therapists have told me that I will get ripped off in taxis and cheated in restaurants as soon as the locals hear me speaking English. I’ve also read that Minsk is still very much ensconced in the Soviet Era. Alexander Lukashenko (complete with bad guy moustache) has been president since 1994.
The Belavia plane certainly harks back to communist times. It’s only four seats to a row, all grey, there’s no entertainment and about twenty people on board. The stewards are grey and grim faced too. When I checked in the clerk told me that there weren’t any window seats left. I think she just couldn’t be bothered to reprint my ticket. There’s an empty seat next to me. I’ve also got an emergency exit row, though God help us if there is an emergency. I can’t understand a word of the announcements. I can catch the odd bit of English. I’m sure I heard ‘lunch’ and ‘alcoholic drinks’. Perhaps that’s just wishful thinking.
‘Lunch’ does materialise, quite quickly. Some sort of grain (barley?), tinned carrot, tinned beans, some dry lumps of chicken and a roll with the Russian equivalent of a Dairylea cheese triangle. Only the triangle is edible. Having dispensed this gourmet delight the crew retreat to the back of the plane and read the in-flight magazines.
It’s even grey out of the window. We don’t seem to be able to escape the clouds.
And when I land at the airport it’s nine degrees, raining and the welcome sign over the door is - grey.
On the up side I don't need a visa, when I arrive - as I'm staying 5 days or less. but I am interrogated about medical insurance and get away with my EU medical card. They won’t let you in without it and will make you buy at the airport.
It’s time for exploration of Europe’s least liveable city (according to Mercer’s most recent Quality of Living Rankings, based on factors including political stability, crime, currency exchange, recreational facilities, housing and climate). Temperatures in Minsk regularly fall to -25C and below in winter – but can reach as high as 35C in summer. I'm feeling reasonably warm in October. I’ve left my bank cards in the safe and I’m carrying the minimum of money (Belarusian rubles).
Previously, Minsk, the capital and largest city of Belarus, was only remarkable as the remote place where Phoebe’s scientist boyfriend went in Friends. It has mostly been reconstructed since the world wars and is by no means boring. There is the anticipated (grey) Soviet architecture lining the route from the airport, the standard tall blocks of apartments. There are also enormous Soviet government buildings with red stars galore and more recent huge brutalist grey and glass plated edifices. But the roads are eight lane boulevards and the Soviet apartments give way to affluent baroque style (think St Petersburg, but darker), giant monuments, massive domes, parks with pillared entrances and huge squares.
There are also dollops of neo classical with columned palaces and museums. Even the public toilets are embellished citadels. I’ve lost count of the number of McDonalds I’ve seen, all housed in pseudo baroque. Some of them even have turrets. It’s quiet. Quite a few of the locals around are carrying small bunches of flowers. I’m not sure if this is a Saturday tradition or it’s a special occasion.
It’s another grey, drizzly day; the rain is helpful though. I’ve read that you’re not supposed to take photographs of any government buildings, the station or (especially) the KGB building, but there’s no policemen on duty to tut at me, delete my photos or even cart me off to prison. And, in my defence, I didn’t know it was the KGB building when I framed the photo. Independence Square is one of the biggest squares in Europe and also home to the National Assembly of Belarus and Minsk City Hall. It used to be known as Lenin Square, the main venue for parades and demonstrations.
Overall, Minsk feels more Russian than Russia. There’s also a Lenin Street (and a Lenin statue), a Karl Marx street, a GUM department store, a Gorky Park (and the KGB). Everyone speaks in Russian. There are very few signs in English and some saying they can speak Belarusian if necessary. It’s almost a given that I will get lost, and I do, but not too badly.
Belarus only really emerged as a nation in the twentieth century, when the Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR) became a founding constituent republic of the Soviet Union in 1922. After the Polish-Soviet War, Belarus lost almost half of its territory to Poland, although some of this was reintegrated after the Soviet invasion of Poland, Almost 40 % of residents of the Soviet Republic of Belarus (between two and three million) were killed during the Second World War – a higher proportion than any other territory. It was occupied by the Nazis between 1941 and 1944, during which time most of its 290 cities were destroyed and its Jewish population wiped out. It wasn’t until 1971 that the republic’s population returned to pre-war levels. Then in 1986 it bore the brunt of the fallout from the Chernobyl disaster. Belarus became an independent sovereign nation in 1991.
I’m fitting in as my blonde hair is straight today and I clearly look like a local, as people keep wandering up and chatting to me. I hope I’m smiling in the right places. There are a few groups of Belarusian tourists but there don’t seem to be any other Europeans. I’m the lone diner in the hotel restaurant, where I retreat in the end, cold and damp. I’m sampling draniki, the national dish, which is stuffed potato pancakes. They come with a huge dollop of cream alongside. And vodka. The average citizen of Belarus consumes more alcohol than anywhere else in the world according to the Internet, but it says this about several countries, all in the ex U.S.S.R.
At night, many of the buildings are illuminated in gaudy pinks and blues; there is a fiery torch surrounded by a circlet and the national library is an enormous glittering disco ball. I can see where Kim Jong-un got his ideas for renovating Pyongyang. The military hats here would also give the Koreans a run for their money - they have enormous brims.
Just time for a perambulate down through the cathedrals and city halls of the ‘Old Town’, along the river. The cathedral service is being broadcast in the square through speakers. It’s peacefully inviting and there’s a stream of well bundled up locals (mainly female) through the main door. It’s packed inside.
I have a chauffeur driven car to the airport. The effect is rather spoiled by the driver’s beanie. In daylight, I get a better look at the outskirts of the city. It’s grandiose, even to the edges. Beyond that is deciduous forest, like the parks, enlivened by gorgeous autumn colour. In the city, the golden yellow contrasts effectively with the marble facades, though it’s not quite New England, it’s missing the rosy red and orange hues. I seem to have escaped the worst aspects of the least liveable city in Europe. All I’ve seen is quiet, calm efficiency. The plane takes off early again. Ukraine next.
When we reach Spain, on our Douro cruise, via a lengthy spectacular gorge, there is an extended day trip to Salamanca. (It's 50 miles from the Portuguese border). This is another university city, lying on several hills by the Tormes River. The University of Salamanca, which was founded in 1218, claims to be the third oldest western university, but boasts that it was the first to be given such status by the Pope, Alexander IV.
The history of Salamanca goes back to pre- Roman times. It was captured by Hannibal, rose to prominence as a hub in the Roman province of Lusitania, and then became a constant battlefield between Christian and Muslim forces, which did little for its population. It developed again, from the twelfth century onwards, as part of the Kingdom of Leon, and then Castile too, and with the growth of the University. The area is also famous for another significant battle - Wellington defeated the Napoleonic forces at Salamanca in 1812.
The architecture of Salamanca is ornate sandstone and there's a spire at the end of every street. These are narrow, leading inexorably to the main square, the Plaza Major, a haven of Baroque design. In 1988, the old city was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. There are two cathedrals, the smaller old and the new. They're connected and you wind your way through, climbing up for views if you're so inclined.
The university buildings on their own are worth the trip. The intricate carvings are described as 'plateresque style'. Tourists are challenged to find the ‘frog on a skull’, above the main entrance, though no-one can explain his purpose. I'm not very good at spotting it and take a close up of the wrong skull. There are more carvings to admire on the Casa de las Conchas. This Gothic style, once knight's palace ( Rodrigo Arias de Maldonado) is covered with over 300 shell carvings. There are more places, some now used as civic offices.
A little further from the centre are the Museum of Art Nouveau and Deco (suitably modelled on the exterior), The Dominican Convent of St Stephen and more churches. There are also numerous pavement cafes and jamon bars.
Although there are plenty of marshals it takes a long time to round everyone up at the end of the day. One lady is totally lost and a couple confess that they didn't go in the cathedral because they couldn't find the entrance. I notice that they found one of the cafes and drank wine all afternoon, without any problem.
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