Algeria – Algiers, Cherchell & Tipaza

We kicked off our trip to Algeria in Algiers, a dazzling white washed city that we quickly grew to love. This Mediterranean city’s vibe is just cool, and we thoroughly enjoyed admiring the gorgeous architecture, getting lost in the alleyways of the legendary Casbah, chatting with friendly locals who welcomed us to Algeria with open arms, and wandering through the incredible Roman ruins of Cherchell and Tipaza (an easy day trip from Algiers). We rarely like capital cities, but have made an exception for lovely Algiers, whose edgy, cosmopolitan and friendly aura is quite alluring.

30 Sep, Thurs: We were very grateful for our spacious emergency exit row seats on the Iberia flight from Madrid to Algiers. Getting through passport control was a breeze (the helpful officer even assisted us in filling out our forms correctly, as we didn’t understand some of the French words), but we had to wait forever for our luggage. Much to our dismay, it appeared that no one was waiting for us upon our arrival, so we found some vacant seats, and figured out how to call our emergency contact number. Happily, our guide, Salim and our driver, Yousef, showed up and apologized for not being there. They had apparently been waiting at the wrong terminal. No big deal, we were happy to see them, and were quickly whisked away to our hotel, the charming Safir Hotel. The city of Algiers is extremely picturesque, and our pulse quickened at the beauty of its white washed buildings coupled with blue windows everywhere the eye could behold. We could already tell we were going to enjoy this city! Our room was located on the fourth floor (426) with views overlooking the Casbah. We had opted for the cheapest rooms available, although for a bit more we could have sprung for the sea side views which are supposedly divine. We gave Salim a partial payment for our tour (1500 Euros), with the rest payable to his counterpart, Fouad, in In Saleh. We gratefully accepted Salim’s offer of letting us rest for a few hours, before linking back up at 5 pm. Both of us crashed with the sleep of the dead, and before we knew it, the annoying alarm was signaling that we had to get up to link up with Salim in the lobby. We had expected to tour the city by foot, and were surprised to see Yousef driving the truck but we dutifully piled in. He drove us towards the Casbah, and Salim informed us that we would visit the Ketchaoua Mosque. It was undergoing renovations when we visited, but we were able to walk around it to admire the view from different angles. Friendly locals tried to speak French to us and we didn’t get the feeling that we were unwelcome or in a sketchy area of town at all. A care keeper must have been summoned, as he appeared from nowhere to unlock the door and led us in to admire the interior. An Italian company has been commissioned to work on the renovations, which are expected to be completed in two years (In-Shah Allah). We were able to get a view of the building adjacent to the mosque, the Dar Hassan Pacha, which was once Algier’s most beautiful mansion. It is still undergoing renovations itself (apparently has been since 2005) so we weren’t able to enter but just had to admire it from the outside. The care keeper talked to his buddies across the street who were sitting outside the Dar Aziza Bent El-Bey (now the National Archeology Agency), and asked if they would allow us inside for a peek. They begrudgingly agreed but absolutely insisted that Becky leave her camera by the door. We could see why once we entered. This palace is fabulous, with the most intricate and lovely inner courtyard we have seen and it would have been hard to resist not taking a photo of it. Sadly, we just have to remember it in our memories, as we were scrupulously eyed and whisked away after a few minutes. The guards outside of Dar Aziza admonished us to put away our cameras and leave the Casbah area immediately due to “criminal elements” who gathered there at dusk. They were very insistent that we leave, so we headed over towards the Place Abdel Kader, where we walked down towards the Hotel Albert 1 which is a fine example of colonial architecture, beautifully lit up at night. The square (Rue Khemisti) looking out towards the Grande Post was a nice place to get a piping hot cup of mint tea (expertly poured from up high), and we sat down to talk to Salim for a bit to get to know more about him. Dinner of merguez (spicy seasoned lamb/goat sausages) was devoured in seconds, and we were ready for bed shortly afterwards, with plans to link up for a day trip to Cherchell tomorrow.

1 Oct, Fri: Had breakfast on second floor of Safir Hotel at around 0730, which consisted of croissants, yogurt, boiled eggs, and coffee. Met up with Salim just after 8 (he took the rickety elevator up as we were walking down the marble staircase), and jumped into the Tanezrouft truck. Yousef started driving and we immediately noticed we were headed towards Constantine, not towards Tipasa and Cherchell as we had expected. When we pointed this out to Salim, he assured us that we were headed the right way but shortly afterwards, Yousef and Salim started debating over a map, and sure enough, we had to backtrack towards Tipasa (which is west of Algiers). Not really a big deal for us, as we had all day to explore. Tipasa is about 60-90 minutes from Algiers, but we decided to continue onward to Cherchell which was a further 20 km east of Tipasa. The city itself is one of the oldest in Algeria, but unlike Tipasa, the modern city has encroached all around the original ruins. We learned that Cherchell used to be named Caesarea after the Roman Emperor Caesar Augustus. In its heyday, it was one of the finest cities in the Roman world. The Arabs arrived in the 7th Century, and renamed the city Sharshal (from which the current name derives), and they built their city on top of the Roman ruins. What we could see today was interspersed throughout the city, and we first stopped at the Nouveau Musee (next to the military barracks on the main road) to get an overview from the local curator. She explained that the better museum, located at the Place des Martyrs, was actually closed today (Friday) but we were free to wander her museum to see its exhibits. No photography is allowed at all, which is a shame outside the building as the mosaics were quite well preserved but completely exposed to the elements. Afterwards, we headed to the Roman baths which are located on the road leading from the Port to the Bab El Tenes. For some weird reason, the caretaker here said we couldn’t take photos of just the ruins themselves, but as long as we were in the photo, feel free to snap away. What crazy photo rules Algeria has! Our next stop was to find the tucked away amphitheatre, which is considered to be one of the earliest, surviving Roman theatres in the world. Our last stop in Cherchell was to the Place des Martyrs, a picturesque square bounded by the impressive Mosque El Rahmane (which looks like a Greek temple but was full of devout worshippers during the call to prayer). The excellent museum sadly was closed, but we enjoyed the fine views overlooking the Port, and admired the fountain in the middle of the square, which has weathered faced of four Roman Gods. The atmosphere here was pleasant and laidback and we were shocked to realize that it was already almost 1:30 by the time we were ready to leave. We went to lunch and followed with a long siesta so that Yousef and Salim could pray. Lunch consisted of beef and bean stew served with bread, filling us up in no time. We next headed to Tipasa, where Salim understood our desire to visit The Tomb of the Christian (actually further than Tipasa in the city of Sidi Rachid), and decided to take us straight there. We had to break it gently to him that since we were already in Tipasa, we wanted to see the UNESCO world heritage ruins first, and if we had time, we’d head over to the tomb. He happily obliged, and in no time, the police were directing us to park directly in front of the main ticket booth entrance. The ruins of Tipasa did not disappoint, and we all thoroughly enjoyed our time here. Neither Yousef nor Salim had ever been here before, and the four of us trapaised happily all around the sight. Our favorite section was the Great Christian Basilica, which had fantastic views back across to the Villa of Frescoes. We spent a few hours here, and were surprised at how popular the sight is with locals and tourists alike. There were lots of Chinese tourists visiting today, as well as local families picnicking by the sea. Towards the end, we headed over to the Roman baths, which are only visible from a restaurant (aptly named “Romana”) located just outside the gated area of the ruins. Becky saw a print of the Casbah that she loved, and scooped it up for 450 Dinars (about $7) from one of the souvenir stands lining the streets. The ride back to Algiers was long and slow, with frequent police check points and much competing traffic headed back into the city. We parked at a public parking lot, and walked back towards the Safir Hotel, stopping to get photocopies of our passports (20 dinars) and dinner along the way. Everyone was tired after our long day, so we bid each other goodnight and agreed to meet at 0830 to start tomorrow’s excursions.

2 Oct, Sat: Despite the extra thirty minutes we had this morning, we were still running late, and opted to depart the Safir Hotel immediately after breakfast without stopping by our room afterwards. Salim arrived shortly after our agreed meeting time, and we started walking towards the Casbah, about half a kilometer from the hotel. After reading all the warnings in the guide books about the criminal element lurking in the Casbah, we decided to use our small point and shoot camera to avoid any potential problems of walking around with big SLRs. It was an ominous sign to start the day. The very first photo Becky took, of a typical white Algiers building with blue shutters and picturesque facial statues adorning the exterior, immediately got the attention of an alert police officer who came running over to make a big deal. Salim tried being reasonable, and was explaining that the mere exterior of a building did not warrant the confiscation of a camera, but the officer became bull headed and insistent, digging his heels in harder the more Salim tried reasoning with him. Even the police officer’s assistant shrugged off the incident, telling his friend to let it go. It was not meant to be, and the words between Salim and the officer escalated. Finally, he demanded to see Salim’s guide credentials, which he pocketed as retaliation for not being able to get Becky’s camera. Lucky for us, Yousef intervened with a calm air of reason, and walked about with Salim’s credentials and a stern warning not to take similar pictures in the future. When we tried to find out exactly what made that particular building off limits, Salim just shrugged and said it was completely the whim of a crazy police officer! Such was the tone of the day, and we wondered what the Casbah would have in store for us if the rest of Algiers was so camera-shy. It was a bad way to start our morning off, as it made us slightly paranoid about taking photos for the rest of the day as we didn’t know what was considered safe to take photos of unless we asked. We reached the Casbah through a narrow alleyway that led through a market area selling typical wares. Immediately, it was evident what a Godsend having a guide (in this case, Yousef as he had spent some time living in Algiers) who was familiar with the layout and surrounding area, as we would have gotten lost in mere seconds with the mazelike alleyways and steep staircases all leading up towards the abandoned Citadelle. Since it was still fairly early in the morning (0830) when we started wandering though the Casbah, many of the mosques we attempted to visit were closed. We happened upon the Sidi M’hamed Cherif mosque (closed), and stopped to speak with a friendly furniture maker. He was so impressed after Becky asked if she could take his portrait in Arabic, that he sent his son to show us around the Casbah area (a tour that would end up lasting several hours)…such is the kindness of complete strangers in amazing Algeria! The guidebooks had made us completely paranoid about our safety in the Casbah area (muggings around every corner, and pickpockets galore!), but everywhere we went we found really friendly people who were quite welcoming and polite. We never felt uncomfortable at any time, and wondered if we were living in blissful ignorance or if the atmosphere in the legendary Casbah had been hyped over time over several high profile incidences. Our Casbah guide took us to Sidi Ramdane Mosque, which was closed for renovations. We passed by many ornate doorways in the Casbah, and had to sidestep the numerous stray kittens that call this area of Algiers home. Several of the two story houses of the Casbah had old, exposed wooden beams supporting the protruding second floor, and it made for lots of picturesque photos. Surprisingly, there were quite a few public courtyard style parks nestled away in the Casbah (we presumed that the parks used to be the foundation of an old house that has since been torn down), and they were filled with colorful time murals depicting old city scenes, and park benches to while away the time. Some friendly boys playing soccer happily obliged our photo request, beckoning Robby to sit next to the ringleader who shoved his companions to make room. Making our way downhill, we walked over to the picturesque building of Cette Medersa, built in 1904 in honor of Mr. Chaumie, Algeria’s first doctor. We were allowed to take photos outside the building, but were unable to record the intricate details of the interior, which were quite mesmerizing, like something out of 1001 Arabian Nights. From the outside, it appears to be a white mosque, but we were told it has never been used as one. Across the street from Cette Medersa, a post office serviced the Casbah residents, with a decorative interior. Our Casbah guide got us into a wedding hall, which is rented by Algerians who can afford and want a posh wedding. Too bad we couldn’t take photos inside, but we could easily visualize a typical wedding party that takes place inside the beautifully designed building. Next on our tour was a visit to the Mosque Sidi Abderrahmane, where we were allowed to take photos of the exterior. We waited near the graves in the courtyard, while Yousef went in to pray. Our next destination was the Palais des Rais, which supposedly had excellent views of Bab El Oued and the lighthouse. On our way there, we saw a statue of an Algerian General standing in the middle of a small square. Little did we know that flanking one side of the square was the Algerian Police Headquarters, and mere minutes after snapping photos, a plainclothes policeman politely asked to see Becky’s camera. Sure enough, the orange building housing Algeria’s police was in full view, so he asked her to delete the compromising photo, as it was strictly prohibited. He was very kind in insisting that we go back and focus on a tight shot of the statue, in which case it would be allowed. Since he was so pleasant, we had zero problems complying with his reasonable demands, and he told us to enjoy the rest of our day in Algiers. Immediately in front of the Palais des Rais is a horse fountain, which cooled us off as the wind blew moist droplets onto our bodies…today sure was a scorcher and we were glad that we had slathered on sunscreen early this morning. The Palais des Rais Bastion 23 is not to be missed, as several waterfront buildings dating from as early as 1750 have been perfectly restored to represent an Ottoman style palace complex. Photos are allowed here and we happily snapped away at the intricate patios and ceiling work. At one point, Robby took a photo of one of the inner courtyards and was told by a guard that it was not allowed for some reason. Salim debated with him and told him that the ticket officer at the main entrance had told us that photos were no issue, but he lost that battle. However, a few minutes later we saw that a French group was posing together for a photo in the inner courtyard, which was allowed. Apparently all photos are OK as long as someone is in the photo, but you aren’t allowed to take a picture of just the patio itself…go figure! Algeria sure has some crazy photo rules that seem to defy all rhyme or reason or depend on the security guard’s mood on a particular day! We went back down, posed in a photo of the same area that we were originally told was off limits, and sure enough, it was suddenly all OK. As promised, the Palais des Rais does offer fine views out towards the lighthouse as well as towards Bab El Oued. After spending some time admiring the gorgeous, historical buildings here, we headed over to the Place des Martyrs, where we admired the Djemma El Djedid (Mosque of the Fisherman) as well as the Djemma El-Kebir (Grand Mosque) before negotiating a taxi ride out to Notre Dame de Afrique. The Notre Dame d’Afrique is a Byzantine inspired church that sits high above the plateau of Bouzareah, and it has been well restored. The view back towards Algiers looked really nice, but we thought that coming here for sunset would be best for the lighting and photographs. Lunch was next on the agenda, and boy was it an adventurous outing! Becky ordered something familiar (spaghetti), while Robby decided to try the dish that Yousef was slurping away at (he claims it looks like a meat stew dish). Sure enough, a bowlful of animal intestines soon appeared, and after a single bite, Robby turned a bit green and asked for spaghetti instead! It was bloody hot in the restaurant (the fan was not operational), so we ate quickly and headed over to a street side café (opposite the Safir Hotel) where we sipped on mint tea and coffee under a shady umbrella, waiting for the midday heat to dissipate a bit. After our mini break, we headed over to Place Abdel Kader on Rue D’Isley where throngs of locals were cooling off with ice-cream. While we wanted to join them, we had the post office on our mind, as we had been told the interior is not to be missed. On our way there, we heard a loud commotion from Rue Khemisti (a large park area in front of the Grande Post), and to our surprise, saw that a dance-off competition was happening in front of a sizeable crowd…very cool! The Grande Post lives up to its reputation of a fabulous interior, with an elaborate Islamic style décor that wowed us. Without doubt, it is the most beautiful post office in the world! From that extreme, we walked onwards towards the Bardo Museum and saw the other extreme, quite possibly the ugliest church in the world (Sacre Coeur), which was apparently designed to represent a wigwam? Next we passed by the Parc de la Liberte (Freedom Park), and made our way towards the Bardo Museum which sadly was closed for renovations. We had been walking all day, and Salim’s feet must have been tired, especially since he was wearing dress shoes. Once we mentioned we were interested in checking out the waterfront for sunset, he quickly did a mental calculation of how much further that would be and hired a taxi for the ride back towards Place des Martyrs. We first head over towards the corniche near the Palais de Rais but the views were to be desired, so we wandered past a small kiddie amusement park where the corniche spread out, and there were phenomenal views of the coastal hill leading up towards Notre Dame d’Afrique. Too bad the sun’s light was working against us! This definitely would have been the place to come for early morning views of the corniche, instead of sunset. Nevertheless, we ordered some mint tea from a street vendor, and then backtracked towards the port area (past Place des Martyrs) where we had phenomenal views of the gorgeous Algier’s waterfront buildings, stopping on Che Guevara street to check out the colorful fishing boats, and the long stretch of buildings and street lamps along the picturesque street. We were craving for shawarmas for dinner after seeing the meat sizzle on the spit earlier in the day, but were unable to find a restaurant that served it in the popular restaurant district. Salim promised he’d find us some in Setif, and placated us with chicken instead. The Sofia Hotel was jamming when we returned after dinner (private wedding party) and we wondered how late we’d be kept up all night with the loud commotion. Surprisingly, we weren’t able to hear a thing from our fourth floor room, where we were able to finally relax after an incredibly busy day in gorgeous Algiers. We love this city!

3 Oct, Sun: The wind was howling and slamming unsecured windows all morning at the Safir Hotel. We were just waiting to hear the sound of smashing glass, but somehow despite the mayhem, the windows remained intact. Our plan was to be on the road by 8 am, so we got up early to pack and have a leisurely breakfast before linking up with Salim. He surprised us by wearing western clothes for the first time since we had met him, with Yousef following suit as well. The drive from Algiers to Setif was smooth, traversing well paved roads and competing against maniacal drivers.

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