Are the country's vast desert and rich culture as inspirational as ever? (Jetske)
Article Words : Philip Sweeney | 09 July

Rediscovering Algeria: a journey to the 'Gateway of the Sahara'

Algeria was once a mecca for writers and artists. A century later - after a series of wars - travellers are starting to return, but will they still be inspired?

Anywhere else, the childhood home of a world-famous literary figure would merit a sign. But this is Algiers, and visitors have to do a bit of detective work to find the birthplace of Albert Camus. The rue de Lyon, where the Nobel-prize-winning author came into the world in 1913, is now the rue Belouizdad. But it's still unmistakably a French working-class suburb, with its trees, shuttered windows and shopfronts with sunblinds.

There's no plaque on No 93; instead, it's adorned with a sticker for the Djazzy network - because Camus's old house, like half the retail premises of Algeria, is now a mobile phone shop. "Oui, c'est ici," affirmed the proprietor, smoking sociably on the pavement. "Yes, I get tourists asking after Camus, several a year..." Then, the inevitable: "Where are you from? England! You are welcome in Algeria!"

Regular visitors to north Africa should stifle any cynicism at this point. "Welcome" in Algeria is scarcely ever a tout's prelude. It is frequently a heartfelt expression of relief that the years as pariah seem to be ending. During the Black Decade of the 1990s, what little tourism Algeria had attracted evaporated as the army fought and won a vicious counter-insurgency war with Islamic fundamentalist terror, resulting in 150,000 deaths.

The biggest nation in north Africa - a treasure house of Roman ruins, deserts, mountains, and European, Arab and Berber culture - fell even further behind in the tourism stakes as Tunisia and Morocco grew more popular. In the new millennium, with the remnants of the terrorist threat confined to a handful of mountainous redoubts, a trickle of independent travellers began to return.

At the same time, the new phenomenon of pied-noir tourism - groups of Algerian French re-visiting the homes from which they'd been expelled at independence - gathered pace. What they found was a country still deeply French in feel.

The Paris of the south

In the centre of Algiers the Haussmann-style avenues, the Second Empire apartment blocks, the imposing municipal lycée where Camus studied, the art deco Hotel Aletti (now renamed Safir), the colonnaded harbour promenade - all could happily grace a French city, especially Marseille, Algiers's sister across the Mediterranean, whose gilded hilltop Notre Dame du Garde looks over the water to Algiers's own Notre Dame d'Afrique.

Far more than in Tunisia and Morocco, the French put down deep roots in Algeria, and the world of the arts was there from the start. The great Romantic painter Eugène Delacroix was part of an early diplomatic mission in 1832 - just two years after French rule was established - and a decade later, the superstar wordsmith Alexandre 'Three Musketeers' Dumas was loaned an entire government warship for a propaganda mission to popularise the new national acquisition. Dumas returned with mixed feelings (and a pet vulture), but he was followed by legions of his romantically inclined countrymen.

Today, the French may have gone but their traces provide endless fascination for retro-curious travellers. Algeria is a sort of north African Cuba, its colonial heritage left intact to moulder – not only buildings, but street furniture, shop signs and fittings, even stationery. I've eaten in restaurants still using menus dating from before 1962, the year the French were finally ousted. In the countryside faded old Renault 4s and Peugeot pick-ups are still common. If it hadn't been too dangerous they would surely have attracted as many fashion shoots as the 1950s Buicks and Chevies of Havana.

Urban decay and secret gardens

Since the turn of the century Algeria has modernised visibly. The first time I arrived at Houari Boumedienne airport, it was to the old terminal, where storks nested on the lighting towers. It was the summer holiday, and departure was a struggle through returning expatriates, with fights breaking out and suitcases bursting.

My most recent visit began with arrival at the new international terminal, with French concessions ruling the shops and acres of cool, calm marble. The drive downtown still featured a decrepit motorway, grubby beaches, massed containers and the startling sight of the gigantic cités of cheap flats, reminiscent of violent Paris neighbourhoods.

It takes a bit of imagination today to see why Algiers was once considered one of the most beautiful cities in the Mediterranean. The steep arc of white buildings around the bay is impressive, though the profusion of terraced gardens spoken of by early travellers is reduced to scraps of green or little waterfalls of foliage among the steep, winding streets.

One of the loveliest gardens belongs to the El Djazair, or the Saint Georges as most still refer to it. It's the nearest thing in Algiers to a grand old hotel - the former haunt of Gide, Kipling and Churchill - where all of political, business and media Algiers comes to chat on the terrace, refreshed by the scent of jasmine. Remarkably, almost nobody uses the garden itself. One of the country's highlights is a stroll among the swaying palms and exotic shrubbery after a delicious dinner of couscous and a bottle of Coteaux de Mascara, allowing the calm of the moonlit garden to replace the day's clamour.

But I'm also fond of Algiers's other giant hotel, the Aurassi, a megalomaniacal concrete colossus packed with 1960s Italian glass chandeliers and green-and-red leather bar fittings. Sliding back the buckled aluminium French window of a bedroom there and stepping onto the spacious balcony is like standing on a cliff: the waters of the bay sparkle while swallows perform aerobatics.

Away to the right is the Monument to the Martyrs of the Liberation, a sort of vast concrete banana skin perched on the hillside overlooking the old French Botanic Garden. To the left, a steep slope of densely packed flat-roofed white houses tumbles down to the Place des Martyrs and its mosque, beside the fishing jetty. This honeycomb of white houses is the Casbah, the oldest part of the city, built mainly by Algeria's 18th-century rulers, the Ottoman Turks.

 

The Casbah's fascination owes a lot to its cinematic career, notably the 1937 classic Pépé le Moko - a rougher, darker Casablanca - and The Battle of Algiers, the brilliant 1966 account of the crushing of the Algerian uprising and the death of guerrilla hero Ali La Pointe. In the 1990s another Battle of Algiers was played out in the Casbah between the Algerian military and the terrorists of the GIA (Groupements Islamiques Armés), with the same rooftop gun battles and alleyway throat-cuttings.

This area has only just ceased to be too dangerous to visit. My guide, a young museum curator, brought along his fiancée, who was nervously fascinated by this forbidden labyrinth. We parked by the old fort at the top - the infamous French Barberousse Prison, where the guillotine clacked at dawn throughout the 1950s to the sound of massed ululations of defiance from the Casbah dwellers. We looked at the inscription on the Bir Djebah fountain, in memory of five executed resisters, and then plunged on down the narrow alleyways. Collapsed houses and burst water mains testified to decades of neglect and earthquake damage.

“You see this?” said the museum man, pointing to piles of rubbish. "All recent - the Casbah was kept spotless before 1962: we had rubbish collections with donkeys."

The Dar Khedaoudj El Amin - the tall, sombre Ottoman palace now housing the Museum of Popular Arts & Traditions - was empty, the custodian playing a cassette of traditional chaabi music to while away the time. Moving on, we knocked on a door and were invited into a spacious galleried courtyard interior, where women cooked on landings and readied tubs of washing to hang out on the roof. "Come here - look," said a grandmother, taking me into a dark curtained chamber and pointing to a cavity above a bed. "This was a secret refuge during the war - Ali La Pointe himself used to hide here."

Ruins ancient and modern

Both French and Turks are relatively recent occupiers of Algeria, and the country's Roman ruins rival Libya's in tourist-free magnificence. About 60km west of the capital, the Roman port of Tipaza is one of the finest examples. Camus loved Tipaza, and found a sort of Mediterranean sensuality perfectly expressed in the site.

I followed the same route the young Camus would have taken on his weekend trips, along the N11 coast road through fields of wheat, olives and vines that sloped down to cliffs, reed-bordered coves and an azure sea. Rows of battered plane trees lined the highway, as in southern France, and palm-shaded drives led off to old colonial farmhouses.

What would elsewhere have been coach-besieged tourist attractions here lay empty. The Royal Mausoleum of Mauretania, a great grass-topped stone burial mound overlooking the Mitidja plain, was deserted. Police from the 30-strong anti-terrorist brigade stationed beside the mausoleum came out for a curious glance. Tipasa itself, its rolling acres of columns and massive-slabbed streets, quays and Roman fish-drying factories, amphitheatres and basilica, contained just one party of school children. The important collection of mosaics and statuary in the museum was visitor-less.

Celebrity in the sands

That haunting sense of isolation is never more keenly felt than in Algeria's other star attraction - its desert. Vastly bigger and more varied than either Tunisia's or Morocco's, the Algerian Sahara begins a mere 320km south of Algiers. Biskra, the 'Gateway of the Sahara', lies beside the great palm plantations that produce the most succulent dates in the country.

Today it feels a million miles from Europe, but a century ago Biskra was receiving pioneering flights from Nice, bringing the rich winter clientele from the Côte d’Azur. The Empress Eugenie and Oscar Wilde rubbed shoulders in the casino, André Gide set his celebrated novel L'Immoraliste there, and the composer Bartok studied Biskra's music. The old spa hotels of Biskra have almost all closed - only the Victoria lingers on, a tramp-like (but very cheap) shadow of its former self.

But out in the desert there are signs of revival - as I discovered when my visit coincided with a festival of Saharan tourism. A cacophony of rifle shots, shrieking pipes, thudding horse-hooves and grunting camels got the show underway. Touareg nomads from the south sat by their low brown tents displaying wedding accoutrements, silver daggers and stuffed gazelles, and pouring little glasses of tea. Three lean, reserved men showed me their lean, reserved Saluki hunting dog.

"What does he hunt?" I asked.

"Hare, rabbit, gazelles..." came the reply. There was a slight pause: "Where are you from? England? You are welcome in Algeria!"

Even greater welcomes awaited. In Beni Isguen we bid for household bric-a-brac in a beautiful marketplace lined by houses that could have been colour-coordinated by Armani: beige, cream, dusty ochre and faded coffee. At the zaouia (Islamic school) of Sidi Okbar, the most private areas were opened excitedly for our infidel gaze. And at a camel race in the desert, crowds of cheering youths mobbed our bus as if we were a star football team.

With no empresses or Oscar Wildes in evidence, it seemed that even the lowliest of Western visitors to Algeria could acquire celebrity status. "You know," I was told by a Biskra English teacher whose students were acting as volunteer interpreters at the festival, "it's literally a dream for them to speak to a real English person."

For the first time in decades, visitors can make those dreams come true.