The well-kept secrets of Algeria
ALGIERS - The 1990s were terrifying years for most Algerians. Barely a family was not touched by the violence. Official estimates are that more than 100,000 people were killed but the general assumption that most Algerians will recount nearly doubles that.
Time does help to heal. When January 2011 came and the Tunisian revolution began, followed by political unrest in Egypt, Libya, Syria, Yemen, Bahrain and elsewhere, Algeria kept the situation under control despite initial stirrings. Aside from a few tepid protests in the first weeks, the political activity that was spreading from neighbouring Tunisia was almost nil in Algeria.
“We no longer have the stomach for these political challenges,” says Hassan, an Algerian friend I met with in Algiers. “We had our -‘Ayamat al irhab’-, he said, using the Arabic Algerian reference for “the dark days” of Algeria 1990s.
Stories were told about bodies lying along the street in the morning as people left for work, a frightening reminder of how perilous the day ahead may be. People saw the bodies that were gathered up during the night, not daring to ask how these bodies came to be but more concerned about whether they would be able to go to work or school, return home at night and not be among the next day’s body count.
“It was that gruesome,” says Sofiene. “If any side in the conflict wanted to deliver a reminder message to instil fear, this was a near daily occurrence.”
Algeria has been relatively quiet for more than a decade, something all Algerians welcome. This also slowly opened doors for the intrepid and adventurous traveller.
With the abundance of oil and natural gas, tourism has not been on the “to do list” of the government, not even at the Ministry of Tourism. However, for one who wants to discover the relatively unexplored, or an aficionado of Roman and Numidian archaeological sites, Algeria is a treasure trove of nearly undisturbed ruins waiting to be enjoyed.
As with Roman ruins through much of the southern Mediterranean, these ancient Roman cities primarily lie along the northern coast regions of Algeria. Thus, wonderful seaside vistas, combined with the verdant and abundant mountain range that crosses from west to eastern Algeria, beautiful scenery is never far from view.
Roman cities, such as Djemila, Timgad, Cherchell and Tipasa are well-preserved, having spared the elements of modern urban settings such as Athens or Rome, that have had corrosive effect on ruins in these cities.
Algeria has been making great progress in building a modern highway system that provides the choice of getting from site to site quickly or the option of taking secondary roads through farming regions and small towns where the purity and non-commercial side of Algeria can be enjoyed. In addition to the wealth of Algeria’s Roman sites, the country’s diversity of cultures that resided in Algeria through independence in the 1960s — Spanish, French, Jewish, Italian and more — can be found not only in the architecture of cities such as Algiers, Tlemcen, Oran and Constantine, but also in the cuisine of Algeria, the music and Algeria’s rather successful production of wine. Thus, enjoying a diverse offering of cuisine in Algeria can make any evening dinner something to look forward to. I have enjoyed some of my most delectable combinations of seafood paella and red wine while dining in Constantine.
In Algiers, I have twice visited a small restaurant that is a carnivore’s delight and is as unique as any restaurant one can find in New York or Paris. On a small street near the city’s Art-Deco post office, 04, Rue Khaled Khaldoune, one goes through what appears to be a nondescript entry, there is a winding staircase that leads to the second floor that was filled with guests. Algerians and foreigners, male and female, found this small restaurant with fewer than 15 chairs set around the perimeter of a counter. On the other side of the counter are the cooks in white chef’s coats, taking orders for salads or grilled meat and chicken, prepared to taste. Beer and wine flow freely and each dish is prepared individually. Very reasonably priced, it seemed to still be a secret, known only to a few. The Restaurant Le Tyrolien is a treat.
Security in Algeria is still an issue and warnings maintained by many countries’ embassies have kept Algeria off the radar of most travellers. Even today, one cannot travel too much of the south, where concerns about terrorism from Mali, Libya and Sudan require the permission and guidance of an Algerian-based tour company. Visas are required for travel by most Westerners and the visa process has not been a beneficiary of efficiency. Security concerns are still strong and it is very clear that Algeria makes security an issue of top priority.
Tourism infrastructure is still lagging in much of the country and due to the fact that most high-end hotels have been built to cater to oil and natural gas industries, the more upscale hotels tend to be higher priced than comparable hotels in neighbouring countries such as Tunisia and Morocco.
However, hospitality is not lacking. We experienced a small hotel in the town of Batna, some 45 minutes from the Roman garrison town of Lambaesis. The small hotel had a dining room where every place setting was graced with flowers and creatively folded napkins, home-cooked meals and a proprietor who was welcoming guests with smiles and greetings throughout the day.
Algiers, which in itself deserves two days to explore not only the Kasbah, which is slowly going through renovations to repair crumbling infrastructure, but several museums in Algiers are well worth visiting. The Bardo Museum and the Antiquities Museum offer well-displayed holdings of Algeria’s ancient history, but perhaps the biggest surprise was the Beaux Arts Museum. There, amid beautiful gardens, one can find the refinements of the European arts collected during the French period, which are displayed like a fine arts museum in Europe or America, not the expected if one thinks of Algeria’s “dark days”.
Taking a drive out of the downtown into the Hydra district, home to many foreign embassies, affluent Algerians and expats is also a drive into a greenery that makes the views of Algiers all the more enjoyable.
For the traveller who is not restricted by budget, staying at the St George Hotel, known today as the El Djezair, is to stay amid history. The walls are graced with photos of celebrities who have visited the St George over the decades, as well as to US Army General Dwight Eisenhower, who made this oasis of greenery his base during World War II. While discount airlines, charters and mass tourists are not likely to be descending anytime soon, for the discerning traveller who wants to be ahead of the trend, Algeria has much to offer and a sense of serenity and welcome that make it a most enjoyable country to explore.