Atlas North: A Tour through Portugal, Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria
A single day trip to Algeria, visiting the Tipaza Ruins and the capital Algiers with stops at Port de BouHaroun, Notre Dame d’Afrique, the Casbah, the Great Mosque of Algiers, the Ketchaoua Mosque, the Grand Post Office, Le Jardin d’Essai du Hamma, and the Monument des Martyrs.
With just a day to explore Algeria, I had to be efficient with my time.
Arriving in Algiers airport, I had one of the most ridiculous experiences at immigration. First the officer went painstakingly through the immigration form and my passport. Meanwhile people were flying through the line next to me. Finally after he checked every detail, he brought me to his supervisor to have him question me in English.
The supervisor questioned me.
Are you here on business?
– No, tourism.
– No, tourism! I have a tourist visa!
Did a tour company organized your trip?
How long are you staying?
– Two days.
Two days? He asked incredulously.
– Is that too much to too little?
Too little! Welcome to Algeria! He laughed and waved me in.
Was it so hard to believe a tourist would come alone to this country? Well, I’ve arrived in country 64!
From the airport I took the Hilton shuttle to the hotel along with two other passengers, both here on business. A young Tunisian woman from HP was there to train staff and a Swedish man from Siemens was heading home from a trip to the desert.
They had one thing in common, they made sure they would be out of the country before the election took place, in two days. Luckily I would leave the day before the election as well, though not planned. There’s a chance of violence and uprising in the city due to the results so everyone is getting out.
At the Hilton Algiers, I checked in and relaxed for the evening. Hanging out in the Executive Lounge, I organized my tour for tomorrow while sipping on some local beer.
The next morning after a quick breakfast, I checked out and left my bag at the concierge before finding my driver waiting for me outside in his black Renault. His name was Mourad and he spoke French. He seemed very interested in showing me the wonderful sites of his country and convinced me to visit the ruins in Tipaza. The comprehensive tour would cost me 8,000 dinars (~US$100).
As he drove out of the city I noticed that he had OCD. He constantly adjusted his seatbelt and would randomly touch this air freshener which was uncomfortably close to my leg. Every time he went for it, I was sure he was going to grab my knee.
The site was about 66 km from the city so it took us about an hour with traffic. Besides the numerous police and military checkpoints, the drive was pleasant and offered a view of the Mediterranean from the highway.
This UNESCO world heritage site started as a Punic trading port, before the Romans turned it into a military city. Set right on the cliff overlooking the turquoise waters of the sea, the ruins were very picturesque.
Mourad joined me for the tour. At the entrance is the amphitheater which was tiny compared to the one in El Djem or even Tunis. Walking further, we came across a group of cliffside dwellings. There were many well preserved arches, a guard tower, aqueducts, a temple, and a theater. The site was only partially excavated with many areas still buried under foliage. People walked freely over the original mosaics, destroying them more than the elements.
There weren’t many people around either. Besides one group of European tourists, it was mostly families or couples enjoying the seaside and having picnics. They seemed to treat it more as a public park than a heritage site.
Fortunately there were some guards at the site. One even explained what some of the ruins were.
We drove towards Algiers on the coastal road stopping at the police checkpoints at every intersection.
Port de BouHaroun
We stopped at this small fishing port for lunch. We feasted on grilled sardines with a bottle of local soda. It was surprisingly fresh and tasty.
Arriving into the capital and largest city in Algeria, I noticed the prominence of white buildings. This is why it is referred to as “Alger la Blanche” (Algiers the White). The roads were very crowded and full of traffic which can be partially attributed to the national guard checking vehicles especially as the election is coming up.
We made a round of the important sights around the city.
Notre Dame d’Afrique
This cathedral was opened in 1872 but has been converted into a mosque, though the crosses on the roof and original architecture remains. Located on the top of the hill, the views over the city were excellent.
The old district on the hillside holds many 17th and 18th century structures. We parked in a parking garage and went for a stroll. I was told to leave my camera in the trunk of the car so it would not be stolen.
Great Mosque of Algiers
On the way we passed Djamaa al-Kebir, the oldest mosque in Algiers which is also one of the few remaining examples of Almoravid (Berber) architecture.
Mourad knew I was looking for my country shirt, so he led me down the alleyways to find a sports shop. Amazingly we could not find a souvenir shop that sold T-shirts. We found a store that had a football shirt with the words “Algeria” on it. Close enough.
The district was quite crowded with small stalls selling clothing and household items. It was definitely uncomfortable to walk around as everyone seems to stare at you. My guide told me not to take ANY pictures because someone may think that I am taking a picture of “their woman”. So I had to be careful with my timing.
The Ketchaoua Mosque
This structure from 1612 originally was a mosque turned cathedral turned mosque again. Unfortunately it was undergoing renovation.
We saw some traditional Algerian houses and The Palace built in 1791 which the French took over and hosted Napoleon Bonaparte. The interior included a beautiful courtyard with tiled walls and even had a hammam downstairs. Unfortunately it was closing so we couldn’t stay very long.
Before leaving the city center, we drove by the Grand Post Office built in 1910.
Le Jardin d’Essai du Hamma
Set on the edge of town on over 80 hectares, this garden was established in 1832.
We parked and I explored the gardens myself. When entering a guard asked me to buy a ticket. I walked to the booth and when I tried to buy a ticket, they asked if it was just me. I replied yes. Then they just waved me in… weird.
The entire group of police officers at the entrance of the park broke out in laughter and gave me the thumbs up when they saw my country shirt of Algeria.
There was a small zoo near the entrance. When I walked up to the ticket booth, the lady again waved me in. I’m not sure why I was getting a free pass. It was a strange feeling to wander a zoo in the middle of Algiers. Surprisingly there were many animals like tigers, bears, lions, foxes, birds, etc.
Then I explored the gardens both the English and French garden. Apparently the first Tarzan film was filmed here. The park was very peaceful and a welcome change from the chaotic city.
Monument des Martyrs
Our last stop was Maqam Echahid, a memorial for Algeria soldiers killed during the war of independence. This concrete tripod is designed to look like three palms protecting the eternal flame in its center. Opened in 1982 it marks the 20th anniversary of Algeria’s independence.
The views from the top of the hill were great and showed a different vantage point over the city. The military guard didn’t seem to want anyone to come close, so I took some pictures and went on my way.
On the way back we saw the construction projects undertaking by Chinese. The driver said there were many many Chinese here. I saw some on the street.
Back at the hotel I paid and thanked Mourad for a great tour. Then I had dinner at the hotel while getting some work done.
Sitting in the Executive Lounge and people watching was interesting. There were many Europeans, but also Chinese, Americans and other random nationalities.
After dinner I caught my airport shuttle at 11 pm to catch my flight out. See you next time Algeria! Off to Dusseldorf!