It’s been a while since my last post as internet connections were a bit flakey outside Algiers!
But what a trip I have had over the last week. I’ve seen the stunning view from the Chapelle de la Cruz in Oran of the Med, the vast sprawl of the city by the turquoise blue of the sea. I’ve been to the ethereal and Islamic city of Tlemcen. For the last two days I have been staying in Constantine.
To get the negatives of travelling round Algeria out of the way first, because there are negatives. The tourist infrastructure, though slowly improving, is poor. In Constantine, a city of 800,000, there are hardly any restaurants in the European sense of the word in the city centre. Sure, there are a multitude of coffee bars and cheap pizza stalls. But restaurants do not seem to be part of the culture here. I finally found one brilliant restaurant tucked away down a side street. I will be doing a write-up of this wonderful place when I publish my book, so sorry, it’s a trade secret for now! The hotels, even the French chain ones, are not of the standard we expect back home. For example, the AC has not been working for three days, nor has my TV either (it’s Ibis, by the way!). It’s also infuriating to find that museums and tourist offices – such as exist- are shut when they should be open.
But having said all that, Constantine is another example of the wonderful treasures that await the foreign visitor if you are prepared to disbelieve the nonsense written about Algeria being ‘riddled with terrorists’. The old city is built on a rocky promontory, and was last major stronghold to fall to the French in 1837. To get into it, you have a choice of bridges. But my favourite one is in the picture that goes straight into the cliff face.
The Palace of the Beys in the city is one of the most beautiful Islamic buildings I have seen and gives the Alhambra in Spain a run for its money. There was courtyard after courtyard of gardens with fountains and precious sixteenth century frescoes. Not only did it cost me 30 pence to get into, but I had the place to myself. It’s one of the tragedies in this strange but beautiful land that relatively few Algerians show an interest in the museums and treasures that are part of their culture. The charming Director of the local museum, who insisted on sitting me down in her office, lamented this was her experience too. Do go to her Museum, the Museé de Cirta. Apart from the great mosaics, on the top floor is a Fifteenth Century Astrolabe that looked to me far in advance of anything we were using in England at the time.
Constantine itself is interesting culturally too. The French were never the dominant part of the population here as they were in some of the other big cities during the colonial era. French is written everywhere on shop fronts and most street signs, but is I suspect less widely or well spoken than it was. Quite often I would speak in French, and people preferred to reply to me in English. The relationship with their former colonial masters and their language is an ambivalent one at best, and it’s not unusual to come across younger Algerians who would like to ditch French and use English.
Modern Constantine is of interest too. In 2015-16 it was the Arab City of Culture. Huge sums of money were invested in a swanky new airport, roads and a facelift for some of the colonial buildings in the city centre. There is also an impressive new suspension bridge and huge universities. It’s got a buzz about it, and is somewhere that could get on the tourist trail. But please can have something other than fast food to eat next time!