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 following colonisation in the nineteenth century.
Algeria has the third most important economy in the Middle East and North Africa, but many of its people are poor. The national rate of poverty in Algeria is reported as 23 percent.
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.’
This is all entirely accurate. We have an armed guard most of the time in the desert. but no hint of trouble anywhere. The Algerians so far (except in airport queues) have been very gentle, polite and respectful. There is no hassle or belligerent selling. But there are very few tourists and not many souvenir stalls to promote anyway.
On board our bus heading out of Algiers are Algerian Guide Robbie, 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, counting English leaders George and Jamie.
Robbie engages in lengthy explanations about North African history. He tells 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 bright 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. This is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, beautifully laid out down a hillside. It's framed by mountains and delightfully replete with spring flowers thrusting through the paving slabs. And, 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, which we dutifully place on our heads. There are more good quality Roman mosaics than I’ve seen anywhere before. The best are 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, Emir Abdelkader Mosque. This one is the biggest mosque in Algeria (until they've finished the new one in Algiers). 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. It's 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 in Algeria. 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. Then another plane out into the Sahara.
Another plane to Oran. There’s a premier league football team from Algeria travelling on this one. Suitably track suited, they are accompanied by some wives, headscarved and decorously attired and another loud group of females, lashings of makeup up, dyed 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. He treats him with particular disdain (excellent crevettes). There’s more interesting service 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 even 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.
Oran is the second largest city in Algeria, and we're off to explore. 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 café 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. This 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. We visit the crumbling, but charming (aesthetically at least - there is a large harem area) bey’s palace. 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. It's surmounted, at 400 metres, by Santa Cruz Fort, one of the three forts in Oran. This one wa sbuilt by the Spaniards
There's a small chapel, known as the Chapel of Santa Cruz, close by. it's been refurbished with a tower, which has a huge statue of the Virgin Mary, 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. 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. Here, 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.
Tipasa, as the city was then called, was first a Punic trading-post, turned into a military base by the Roman emperor Claudius. It was his springboard for the conquest of the kingdoms of Mauretania. The city grew under Emperor Septimus Severus (who was born in Leptis Magna.) Tipasa was then destroyed by the Vandals in 430 CE, reconstructed by the Byzantines one century later and finally, reduced to ruins by Umayyad forces in the seventh century.
The ruins are therefore a remarkable and battered mix of Numidian, Punic and Roman temples and monuments, overrun with Algerians on their weekend break. 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 here, 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, just outside Tipaza is ostensibly the burial site of the last king and queen of Mauretania. No-one has ever found their remains, but grave robbers have been suggested. The Royal Mausoleum of Mauretania was built in 3BC, on a hill some 250 metres above sea level. The elements, and possibly vandalism, have reduced the height to 33 metres from an original 44. The square base was decorated with 60 Ionic columns but the capitals have be removed. More theft?
It is well worth the additional stop off. Then, 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 almost vertical 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.
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