9 things I learnt about Algeria
- Algeria is the largest country in Africa by land area.
- The Atlas mountain range broadly separates the country into two zones – the Mediterranean region close to the coast and the Saharan region in the south. The majority of the population lives along the Mediterranean coast (the Tell region), which is much greener and has a milder climate.
- Despite Algeria having its local bread, the French baguette is everywhere. You’ll get unlimited amounts of this at any eatery before your meal.
- Algeria has an Amazigh (Berber) community, who make up c.25% of the population and have their own (Amazigh) language (with several dialects). This is a community that was indigenous in the North Africa region long before the arrival of Islam and the Arab communities. The two groups of people have lived side by side for several years. In recent times there have unfortunately been protests and tension – recognition of their language and culture, and greater democracy within a secular framework have been key points of discussion.
- Arabic became the official national language in 1990. The Amazigh language was granted status as a national language in 2002, and became an official language in 2016.
- The different periods of Algeria’s history roughly follow: Roman Empire, Arab-Amazigh dynasties, Ottoman rule, French rule, followed by independence.
- After the 1960s, development of oil and natural gas in the centre of the country has brought new wealth (how evenly this is distributed is another question). A third of the country’s GDP comes from the export of natural gas and petroleum.
- Tourism forms only a minute part of the service sector (unlike neighbouring Morocco). Even this has declined since the 1990s due to civil unrest.
- The first major postcolonial film production was Battle of Algiers (1960s), a factual retelling of life during the Algerian Revolution. It included many residents of Algiers who took part in the actual events.
Day 1: Driving from Algiers Airport to Béjaïa Province
After a bit of a fumble at the airport, I finally met the incredibly generous Medur*, my friend’s uncle. He drove me through the Kabiliye region – we wound through Tizi Ouzu and Yakouren where we stopped for lunch (& beers) and got to his beautiful house by the sea where all his family live in close proximity.
Medur is an amazing chef. Everything is so fresh here. He bought chicken from a chap he knew that very evening, together with some vegetables from the vendors enroute and whipped up a bouillon, delicious chicken, and his friend Mussa brought two types of couscous (first time I had seen couscous in more than one variety!). It was great to learn that Medur loved to travel too. I enjoyed hearing about his many travels to France to see his daughter and meet up with his friends, some of whom he has known for 40 years!
It was humbling to hear the stories from earlier in Medur’s life. I always love hearing people’s stories and experiences. There is so much to learn from them. I heard about the Algerian Revolution and how Medur’s dad was taken away when he was just eight years old. I couldn’t imagine how tough that must have been. It put many things in perspective for me.
On a lighter note, we laughed about his fun times in London. I even googled the Student Hall he worked at in Tottenham Court Road and we looked at some photos of what it’s like today 🙂 And he introduced me to some great Algerian wine – Koutoubia (who knew Algerian wine could be that good).
Day 2: Exploring the Mediterranean coastline in East Algeria: Aokas, Ziama and Béjaïa
After some galette (traditional everyday bread in Algeria) and a quick espresso at a cafe near Aokas, Brahim* (one of Medur’s nephews) and myself ventured east, moving through the coastal towns of Melbu and Ziama. We stopped at the fishing port where there was a small forested island in the middle of the sea (!) with a hiking path where people come for a little camping excursion in summer.
The views while driving along the sea and at Ziama’s little islet were incredible. With forested mountains behind you, small coastal towns and the cliff edge down to the azure blue of the Mediterranean, you couldn’t ask for a better backdrop. Almost as if you were in a movie.
Prochaine arrêt: Béjaïa
Formerly named ‘Bougie’ (during the French conquest of Algeria) due to the manufacture and export of wax candles in the region, this coastal province of 300,000 people is 250 km east of Algiers. Béjaïa is home to one of the largest Berber speaking populations in Algeria; the town was originally founded by Numidian Berbers. It functioned as a port in the Carthaginian and Roman eras, and became important as the gateway to Mauritania under the Roman Emperor Vespasian. The town was then part of a kingdom formed by Germanic Vandals, the Berber Hammadid dynasty (when fortifications and an impressive palace were constructed), the Almohad dynasty from Morocco, under Spanish rule (early 16th century), then taken over by the Ottomans followed by the Barbary Pirates before coming under French rule in 1833, and finally gaining independence.
Béjaïa was much larger than I expected. After a quick stroll along the Corniche, we drove up to Cap Carbon and Pic des Singes in Gouraya National Park. That was truly a treat. It put all the photos I had seen on the internet to shame. I don’t think anything can help you understand what you feel when you are there in person. You are so high up (400-600m above sea level), everything is silent, the view is unlike any other, the sea all around you, and giant cliffs dramatically drop down to the shore.
We then had some seafood and I read about an ice cream shop – “Da Ali Vou La Glace”- that had been around since the 1950s, so Brahim and I went there for some soft serve ice cream. Verdict: delicious. The architecture of Béjaïa was very different to Aokus; a window into all the previous rulers of the city. At Place du 1er Novembre (previously Place Gueydon) – the main central square in Béjaïa overlooking the harbour where you can find a film library and several cafes with terraces – you can feel the traces of Béjaïa’s French colonial past.
Finally, we made a pit stop at Cap d’Aokas – just as big grey clouds were drawing in. It looked like Aokas would have its first rainfall for the year that night (Brahim mentioned there had been very little rain so far in 2023). Hopefully a sign of good luck.
Medur was chef de cuisine again tonight. We went out to buy some fermented milk to go with couscous and grilled fish. I ate like royalty. Eternally grateful to Medur’s hospitality.
Day 3: Onwards to Timgad and Constantine
My alarm went off at 5:30am. I was restless for the preceding hour, worried that I might sleep through it. Head drooping heavy with sleep, I managed to pack up all my stuff and get ready for an early 6:30am departure with Brahim.
All my protests that I could jump on a public bus and didn’t want to bother anyone for a ride fell on deaf ears. Such was the hospitality of this kind family, that Brahim was going to drive me not only to my next stop (Constantine) but also take me on a mini detour to Timgad – a town of ancient Roman ruins. That would mean a total of 7 hours on the road with me to Constantine and a further 4 hours more for him to get back home. Overwhelmed by this kindness.
Today’s journey was different to the coastal drive yesterday. We started going further inland to reach Timgad. This involved going through 3 back-to-back tunnels. I don’t think I have spent that long (10-15 minutes) in a pitch black tunnel with no end in sight. Not one for someone who gets claustrophobic easily!
We drove through the mountains and ascended before coming down. The landscapes changed from green and tree-filled to brown and dry; from mountainous to flat, and from the sea being around the corner to just vast expanses of land. We were about to see a different side of Algeria.
One of the most unexpected sights to see in the middle of nowhere as you’re driving towards the centre of Algeria is probably Timgad. Created from nothing as a military colony by the Roman Emperor Trajan in AD100, the ruins of this square Roman town, constructed entirely of stone, still stand 2000 years later. It’s apparently a prime example of Roman urban planning in that period. After the fall of the Roman Empire, this town was forgotten and buried by the Sahara Desert. It was almost a millennium later that it was rediscovered. The perpendicular streets paved with large limestone slabs run through town. The theatre, parts of the temples, markets and baths still remain today and we were lucky enough to see it.
Final stop for the day: Constantine
Constantine is a grand spectacle – a feast for the eyes. My biggest regret – only spending half a day in this beautiful town with its incredibly friendly people.
This clifftop by Monument aux Morts was the perfect spot for sunset and a great view of the valley below – thanks to a tip from a man walking on the street with his sons, eager to help and share his knowledge 🙂
Constantine was probably the town I had the highest expectations for, having looked at some inspiring landscape photos in various advertisements. Safe to say, it exceeded expectations. Made by nature and further decorated by man, it occupies a diamond-shaped plateau roughly 650m above sea level. The Rhumel River has carved a deep circular gorge around a rock outcrop which has created a natural fortress that has been inhabited since Neolithic times. The cliffs of the gorge can vary between 4.5m and a whopping 365m apart.
In the 3rd century, it was an important town in the Numidian Kingdom (Berber Kingdom in northwest Africa), and was later taken over by the Roman Empire in the time of Julius Caesar. It was renamed for its patron, the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great (It was later ruled by the Arabs, the Turks and finally the French). It’s also Algeria’s third city with a large student population and probably has the friendliest people of any town I visited in the country. Everyone was curious as to where I came from, why I was there, and was eager to help with any directions or tips on where to go. One very kind gentleman walking home with his sons directed me to the perfect spot for sunset!
Day 4: Algiers
Photographs of Algiers – Great Mosque of Algiers in the background of one of the photos is the oldest in the city going back to 1097; Grande Poste – the main Post Office; a French-designed early 20th century Moorish building with probably the “world’s most exquisitely decorated” postbox at the entrance.
Another early morning wake up call at 3:30am rudely interrupted my slumber. This time, it was to catch a flight to Algiers. Given Algeria’s size, flights are sometimes the most convenient option to get from one place to another. It also helps that Air Algerie’s domestic prices are relatively affordable (26GBP from Constantine to Algiers).
Like in many other big cities, the contrasts in Algiers can be quite stark. Wide French-boulevards are a nod to French rule not that long ago, which coexist with Socialist-era buildings and the Islamic heart of the city – the Casbah. Many French colonial urban planners (Algeria was under French rule from 1830 to 1962) saw their task as remodelling Algerian cities to reflect features of those in France – which probably explains a lot of what you see. Algiers is known as Alger la Blanche (“Algiers the White”) for its snow-white buildings and avenues.
Jardin d’Essai – botanical gardens by the bay (DA100 entry, 9am-5pm) going back to the French Occupation; avenues of palms and exotic trees.
Martyr’s Memorial – opened on the 20th anniversary of independence, consisting of three palms, three Islamic turrets and a six metre dome – dedicated to those killed in the Algerian War of Independence.
The Casbah is the historic, traditional, ancient and Islamic heart of the city and dates back to the 17th century. It’s an entirely different universe. Located on a steep hillside with narrow maze-like streets, it’s easy to lose your way in a matter of minutes. Apparently it’s also one of the more risky parts of the city to be wandering around as a solo tourist, particularly at night (nothing happened to me, but I was in my hotel after sunset). The slightly dilapidated and abandoned vibes of the Casbah are quite a contrast with other neighbourhoods in the city. It has a deep and painful past; it saw some of the bloodiest fighting during the Battle of Algiers.
Ketchaoua Mosque – a building with a painful history. Built during the Ottoman era in the 17th century, it was converted into a Cathedral during French rule (this transition was a dark moment in its history with hundreds of people being killed). It was reconverted back to a mosque post-independence in 1962.
My time in Algeria passed by all too quickly. While I was eagerly looking forward to seeing its sites – like the city of bridges in Constantine, or the Roman ruins in Timgad, I was blown away by how beautiful its Mediterranean coastline is. It can give Croatia and Greece a run for their money 😉 But the memories I will always keep with me are those of the warmth, generosity and hospitality of its people, particularly Medur* and his family.
#AdminInfo – Transport
- Taxi application for Algiers: Yassir. I however had terrible luck with it when trying to order a taxi from the Casbah to the airport
- Sogral is Algeria’s leading bus transport provider, with their head office in Algiers. Their email address for any queries is: [email protected]. TimbuBus helps compare prices for Sogral SPA bus routes. Looking here, there appear to be buses departing every 15-30 minutes from Algiers to Bejaia
- Getting from Constantine to Algiers – the quickest and easiest way was to fly. Air Algerie had 4 daily departures (0600, 0800, 1310, 2025), taking 1hr, costing 26GBP, bookable online. There was no big price increase closer to the date (as you would expect with standard airline revenue management systems), but flights typically sell out 3-5 days before departure – so don’t leave it too late. I couldn’t buy directly on the Air Algerie website without a local payment method, but I bought it instead on a 3rd party/aggregator website and everything worked fine.
#AdminInfo – Accommodation
- Remes Hotel in Constantine for 26GBP/night – about 1h10 min walk from the centre, or a 15 minute bus ride. Beware, buses don’t operate later into the night, you’ll have to take a taxi. Remes Hotel includes breakfast, and free cancellation.
- Casbah Hotel Afrik in Algiers (located in the Casbah) for 24GBP/night – very friendly, clean rooms and bathroom, free cancellation, wifi and breakfast included, and a little living area with free and unlimited tea/coffee/water and snacks throughout the day.
#AdminInfo – General
- Currency: Bring USD/EUR, change little at the airport, change the rest at street exchangers for the best rate. Ideally ask someone you know, they can point you in the best direction. Do not rely on ATMs (only airports and big hotels accept international cards and they may not work too).
- Photography: Do not take photos of sensitive buildings and be prepared to show your camera and photos to the police.
- Security: Always have your passport and a plan of where you are staying, in case you are stopped by the police who ask you questions (in general I didn’t feel intimidated at all by them, and felt reassured by their presence. In fact on my last day when the taxi app failed royally, and none of the taxis were stopping for me on the road, it was the police who flagged a taxi down, spoke to the driver, and helped me get to the airport on time.
- Petrol is cheap (but taxis are not necessarily so!)
- Visas – UK passport holders need a visa to enter Algeria. You can either send your documents by post to the Algerian Consulate in West London or drop it off in person (good news – they are open on Saturdays). No appointment is required. Visa fees (pretty steep at 85GBP) must be paid in cash. Follow the list of all documents requested (and yes you need to take a photocopy of every single page in your passport, even if it is blank!). You typically can return in a week’s time to pick it up. Note that visas are valid for only 3 months from the date of issue, so don’t apply too far in advance.