Let’s play a game. What do you get when you mix Destiny’s Child’s Bootylicious with Aphex Twin’s Windowlicker? No, not a Channel 5 post-watershed movie or a character from 50 Shades of Grey. No, you would have no other than the President of Algeria: Abdelaziz Bouteflika. Ladies and gentleman, please remove your hats and take a bow:
So, my next major trip has taken me to the land of Bouteflika: a charming chap who has ruthlessly ruled Algeria for over 15 years (despite some health complications). And well, why not? Sure, the name Bouteflika may be a misnomer – there was very little ‘booty’ (good riddance!) and there was no flicking or clicking (I don’t know what that means either) – but Algeria was as intriguing as the President’s name.
After all, in a region blighted by terror, it is fairly stable. In fact, it arguably suffered from the whole fundamentalist Islamist uprising shindig before that was even a thing, so it managed to somewhat get its house in order whilst so many others were being burnt to the ground. And, well, I also knew next to nothing about Algeria other than the Battle of Algiers (and by that, I mean the movie). So when a putative work trip landed me with a visa, and I discovered that a friend-of-a-friend (and a friend-of-that-friend-of-a-friend) – who I can now call my actual friends – were visiting at the same time that I planned to take a vacation, I thought to myself: why not?
And why not indeed. Yes, by the end of the trip I would have rather eaten my own intestine than another kebab comprised of unnamed and suspect meet, and yes, some of the Algerian ‘friends’ I met seemed to want to indulge in a bit of Booteflicking (more on that later), but ladies and gentlemen, may I present to you what Algeria did have:
So if I may.
Algiers was like an ageing chandelier in a house that was once grandiose but is now tired and dated. It had some magnificent boulevards and the architecture in the city centre had a sense of prestige and pomposity about it. A perfect place to drink tea and to enter Algeria but always feeling like it was lacking joie de vivre, you could not help but feel that it had its time of greatness and is now waiting patiently for an Algerian renaissance.
It felt safe, and everyone was friendly (which is analogous to the rest of the country we visited), and merited an amble. The only sinister aspect arose from the fact that, to my dismay, we did not manage to Rock the Casbah – that is, freely walk around the narrow maze of streets known as the Kasbah, which have now become immortalised through the aforementioned Battle of Algiers and song by The Clash – as everyone whom we asked for directions warned us that would essentially be raped and pillaged on the spot if we walked down the wrong street. Whether there was truth in this or just a degree of precaution over the only tourists visiting the country (apart from, supposedly, the Chinese, who we were told were actually convicts sent to Algeria as some form of perverse punishment for unspeakable crimes), we will never know. But our wanderings did take us to a beautiful cemetery for Algerian nobles, and it offered an easy start to the trip.
Moreover, if it’s your thing, there are a range of ancient ruins along the coast of Algeria, many of which can be visited as part of an easy day trip from Algiers. We chose Tipaza – I’m not sure why – which contains ruins from the Byzantine, Roman and Pheonician eras. It also contained the Royal Mausoleum of Mauretania which is supposedly where Queen Cleopatra (Selene the second) is buried, and may or may not have been a set feature in 2001: Space Odyssey.
After Algiers and Tipaza, we ventured East by train and visited another city on the northern plains: Constantine. Structurally and architecturally, as a city, it did not really make sense. The main city seems to be have been built on an isolated mountain, meaning that it can only be readily accessed through a series of brides scattered throughout the city. But my God – and I will probably never say this again – but what bridges these were. Just look at this:
The city was small enough to visit in a day, but it has a positive and bristling atmosphere, with the market (nestled in between what seemed to be a crevice in the mountain), teeming with activity.
Following Constantine, we took an overnight bus to the M’zab Valley in central Algeria. There, we visited the region of Ghardaia, which is actually one of five towns/cities that now form a conurbation. It was amazing to see. A dusty outpost with little immediately around it, we felt like we were not in an extension of France anymore.
Our planned activities during our first day were thwarted by the fact that it was a Friday and the cities came to a standstill as they enjoyed their day of rest. Never to fear, for nearby was Mohamed – a fascinating chap who invited us into his home for lunch. Whilst the girls doted over one of Mohamed’s grandchildren and I played Fifa with one of his sons, he entertained us with stories of his first wife. Here is a picture of Mohamed holding a calendar emblazoning a photograph of his first wife, who also happens to live in Vienna:
The following day we visited some of the cities in the area. It was quaint and beautiful, taking in mosques and the Mozabites – a small subsect of Islam only practiced in this area, which requires all married women to cover themselves in a white sheet tightly pulled over their faces such that only one eye is visible.
After Ghardaia, we went to the even more remote area of Timimoun. It was once supposedly bustling with tourists, but, as with the rest of Algeria, it seems to have been affected by the civil war in the nineties and noughties. The town itself contained some interesting architecture, quite like what I would expect to see in Mali (which perhaps is not surprising given that, relatively speaking, it is much close to the Malian border).
But the main draw of Timimoun is its proximity to the dunes of the Sahara: mighty voluptuous stretches of sand, cascading past the horizon. We toured the area over two days (escorted by the police who ended up requiring our guide’s support when their 4×4 became trapped in the sand), visiting the dunes, caves, old castles and what were some strange sand formations creating almost sand-encrusted flower patterns known as the Rose des Sables.
Oran and Tclemsen
Our last two destinations took up back to the northern coast.
Tclemsen is a small city with a great mosque, an interesting Kasbah (which we did safely visit), an ancient restored palace (Palais El Mechouar) and the most barbaric zoo in the history of humankind.
Oran – the setting of Albert Camus’s The Plague – was a tale of two cities. During the day, the Mediterranean Sea glistened from mouth of the city, and parts of the city had a similar sense of faded grandeur to Algiers. Once the sun set, however, there was a foreboding undercurrent of angst; dimly lit streets, loud music, and a multitude of men (with nearly no women in sight). The view from Fort Santa Cruz, overlooking the city, was beautiful and made it worthwhile destination for visiting in its own right. Two days sufficed, however.
And that’s that
Or is it? Well, as with all these things, the above only scratches the surface. I have not listed the hospitality offered towards us, in each Algerian city, from people we had only just met. Sure, some of this hospitality was slightly misplaced – like our friend in Ghardaia who insisted that we tried on and posed in his judge’s robe (seemingly because he studied law at university), or the discernible waiter in Oran who kept on passing us cryptic messages about his clientele. But it seemed to always be rooted in a genuine desire to help and befriend passing strangers.
For a country which does not feature on the tourist map (indeed, the last English language guide book for Algeria was published in 2008), it is astonishing how beautiful it was and easy to travel around.
Au revoir and maʿ al-salāmah.
The full set of photos can be found here.