Algeria: A Destination for the Adventurous Traveller
Wednesday, December 12th, 2007
The People’s Democratic Republic of Algeria is located in North Africa. It has vast mountain ranges that rise in a series of ridges and plateaux to the magnificent Atlas mountains in the far south, whilst a large part of the country is Saharan desert.
The name “Algeria” is derived from the name of the city of Algiers from the Arabic word Al-jaza’ir, which translated means “the islands“ referring to the four islands which were located off the Algerian coast until becoming part of the mainland in the 16th century.
After the collapse of Numidian, Roman, Vandal, and Byzantine rule, an Islamic Berber Empire followed. Then in the 16th century the Turks invaded the country but a few centuries later, there was a French colonial campaign which led to French control from 1902. Following a guerrilla war ( 1954/62) by the National Liberation Front to oust the French forces, Algeria became an Independent State in 1962. However, over the following years there was continued violence involving Islamic fundamentalists, which descended to all out civil war. In 1999, after Abdelaziz Bouteflika was elected unopposed as President, a referendum was quickly called by the President offering an amnesty to the rebels. The Algerians responded with a 98% “yes“ vote and by the end of the year the majority of rebels had laid down their weapons. President Bouteflika is still at the helm and has been successful in bringing about an easing of tension within the country coupled with an economic recovery.
The backbone of Algeria’s economy is undoubtedly the fossil fuel sector within the country, ranking it fourteenth in petroleum reserves amounting to 11.8 billion barrels of proven oil resources and a 160 trillion cubic feet of proven natural gas reserves – the eight largest in the world!
Agriculture is also an important factor in the recovery of the economy. A substantial amount of fertile land is used for the cultivation of cereal grains with the principal crops being oats, wheat and barley. A vast amount of vegetables and fruits, especially citrus products, are exported as well as figs, dates, olives, cork and esparto grass.
The seaport city of Algiers is the capital and had been one of Arabia’s most beautiful cities but has never been the same after years of colonial indifference and abuse. However, there are some splendid Turkish palaces in the Medina area of the city and there are also some interesting museums to visit including the National Museum of Fine Arts, the Bardo Museum and the Museum of Antiquities. The metropolis also has a University of Science and Technology and the University of Algeria. There are fine mosques to admire including Sidi Abderrahman, Sidi Mohammed Sherif and the Djama Djehid, as well as an extensive National Library. Martyrs’ Monument is a striking memorial with an eternal flame in memory of the struggle for freedom and was erected in 1982 on the 20th anniversary of independence From this monument you also have the best overall views of the city.
Apart from Algiers, there are two other main cities in the country. They are the seaport of Oran with a population of approximately one million. Founded in the 8th century and first ruled by the Arabs, then the Spaniards, after which came the Turks and the French! The port was also used as a landing point for allied forces in World War II and there was also a French naval base nearby. Oran is a university city and an important port for both the export and import of goods. Places of interest for the tourists include the Municipal Museum and the 16th century Santa Cruz Fortress.
The other main city is Constantine, which has a population approaching close on 500,000 inhabitants and was originally known in ancient times as Ciria Qacentina. This has been an important city since the third and fourth centuries BC and in fact is the country’s oldest known settlement. It was the Roman provincial capital of Numidian and was destroyed in 311 AD during a civil war and it was then rebuilt by Constantine I. In the Middle Ages it was the seat of successive Muslim dynasties and then prospered under the Turks during the 18th century but was then occupied by the French during the 19th century. Constantine is also a university city and is also on the tourist trail with an interesting “Old Town“ offering a wonderful variety of locally made handicrafts, jewellery, footwear and clothes.
Set within thousands of palm trees is the “Fairy Tale city” of Timimoun with its fantastic views of distant sand dunes and an ancient salt lake. The town’s terracotta coloured architecture is very striking with its fine smooth shapes and soft lines that curve gently around many of the buildings window frames. The legendary French architect Fernand Pouillon was also responsible in the 1950s in designing and building the city’s famous hotel Gourara. This acclaimed architect always respected local design and building traditions and this was especially so with this hotel. There are two outdoor swimming pools glittering amidst the palm trees and the views from the terrace are quite stunning and at their best, with a truly romantic atmosphere during sunset. The village of Tasfaoud, located close to Timimoun, is a small oasis with a 13th century Berber castle.
For those of you interested in the history and archaeology of Algeria then make sure to visit the beautiful mountain village of Djemila where you can see the ruins of the Roman city of Cuicul whilst approximately forty kilometres to the east, Batna in the Aures mountains also has even more extensive Roman settlements.
Another historically important and well preserved old city is Tiemcen. It was founded by the Almoravid dynasty and was a prosperous and thriving town in the 13th century. Not to be missed is Assekrem, the last major town on the route to Niger which has been recommended by all travellers for its spectacular sunrise and stark beauty.
In the Souf region is El-Oued, known as “the town of a thousand domes.” They were incorporated in most properties in order to keep them pleasantly cool during the excessive summer heat. El-Oued is also famous for fine carpet making and the finished products often bear the emblem of the traditional cross of the Souf. In the old part of town the daily soukh is a fascinating place to walk around and also gives you the opportunity to have an insight into the way of life of the local people.
There are a number of UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Algeria including Tipasa, a Phoenician town, Djemila and Timgad, both Roman ruins and Al Qal’a of Beni Hammad, the first capital of the Hammadid Empire. There are also two landscapes that are World Heritage Sites, being the mountain range of Tassili n’Ajjer and the M’Zab limestone valley.
The best climatic conditions are in northern Algeria where the summers are hot but can also be on the humid side. The winters are mild with a little rain. Summer is extremely hot in the Sahara but during the night the temperature drops rapidly and it can become very cold.
Where to stay
To make your stay more enjoyable and relaxing choose the excellent 5-star Sheraton Club des Pins Resort & Towers. (The Sheraton is part of the internationally acclaimed Starwood Group). I believe it is the only 5-star beachfront hotel in Algiers and is situated on the western tip of the metropolis in the secure and beautiful Club des Pins area.
The good-sized guest-rooms and suites are tastefully designed and furnished and the service is as befits a 5-star hotel – discretely attentive! There is a business centre and to give guests the opportunity to unwind, the hotel has a fully equipped health club with a gym, indoor pool, steam and treatment rooms. For fine dining, the Sheraton offers excellent Algerian and international cuisine in its restaurants overlooking the seafront.
How to get there
There are numerous airlines from Europe and within Africa flying direct to Algiers and to other Algerian cities as well as ferry services linking Algiers and other northern cities with Marseille in France and Alicante in Spain.
For your peace of mind it is advisable to ensure that all excursions are undertaken with a fully qualified and registered Algerian guide. The Algerian tourist office or your local travel agent can arrange your programme and guide before you depart. Alternatively, your hotel can make the necessary arrangements when you are in Algeria.
To sum up, for many reasons Algeria is not a front runner in the tourist market, but for the experienced traveller who also has an adventurous streak, then I would say: “Go for it!“ It is a learning process when you get to know the history of this fascinating country and you will return all the wiser from your visit
Award Winning International Travel and Features Writer