A traveller's guide to Algeria

Last month Pete Miers, our in-house Middle East and North Africa expert, sang the praises of Algeria, a new destination for Peregrine in 2014. Here, Pete gives us the grand tour of the country he believes holds so much promise for travellers in the coming years.

Algiers ranks among the world's most spectacular cities. Situated on hills curving around a broad Mediterranean bay, its five-storey avenues offer a stunning welcome to the unsuspecting, newly-arrived visitor. Some might describe its whitewashed-with-shutters facade as Montmartre-on-the-Med: with street after grand street of colonial buildings in various states, from freshly-renovated to advanced decay, Algiers exudes a beguiling ambience.

The historic Casbah of Algiers is at the core of the city, one of the few quarters remaining from Ottoman times – the French demolished virtually everything else to build their own city from a clean slate. Although it is largely run-down and in some places verging on collapse, a walk around the labyrinthine streets of the Casbah is rewarding and memorable, with steep stairways like narrow canyons abutting tottering buildings. Amidst the heart of the Casbah are mosques, mausoleums and elegant Ottoman palaces with magnificent courtyards which today house museums that attest the beauty of Islamic architecture.

Perched high on a hilltop overlooking the city is the Notre Dame d’Afrique, a striking yet sombre cathedral that remains as an elegy to French imperialism and wasted endeavour. Its captivating interior emanates a peaceful ambience yet it is achingly sad as a memorial. Its dominant position affords breathtaking views across the city to the east.

Constantine | Photo courtesy of Pete Miers  Approaching

Constantine from Djemila does not prepare you for the astonishing beauty the city holds in store. The French writer Alexandre Dumas aptly described Constantine as something like a “flying island”. Established in pre-Roman times, the city was defensively located on a dramatic rocky outcrop high above the Oued Rhumel gorge, a natural fortress surrounded by sheer 100-metre high cliffs. Modern Constantine has grown far beyond its original fortifications - it is now Algeria’s third-largest city – requiring French engineers to construct a series of spectacular bridges to link the old city with the new city across the gorge. Crossing these bridges – especially the disconcertingly wobbly yet probably perfectly safe Mellah Slimane walk-bridge – not to mention the view of the sheer drop below - is a feature of any visit to Constantine. Encounter an Orientalist fantasy in the casbah with its bustling, narrow streets lined with shops and market stalls, sudden staircases, shafts of sunlight piercing the shadows, a whiff of incense and the aroma of lamb skewers over hot coals.

Ghardaia | Photo courtesy of Pete Miers 

Ghardaia is the principle town of the pentapolis of the M’zab Valley, the others being Melika, Bou Noura, El Attuef and Beni Isguen. These towns have a distinctive, unique appearance as they were established between the 11th and 13th centuries as a refuge for the Ibadi community who had fled there from persecution in the north. Perched atop a hill for defensive purposes, each town has a mosque at its summit and the appearance of a jumble of pastel squares tumbling in all directions downhill.

Each town is characterised by a warren of narrow lanes and a market square at the foot of the hill. While the towns are intriguing to explore, there are some rules to observe. The Ibadis (also known as Mozabites), are a very conservative Muslim sect and while visitors are welcome, photography – particularly of Ibadi women in their distinctive, ‘one-eye’ shroud – is frowned upon, if not forbidden. A local guide is required to escort visitors around each town. They are happy for you to take photos but you must ask first to be sure your subject is appropriate.

Taghit | Photo courtesy of Pete Miers 

On the fringe of the Sahara’s Grand Erg Oriental are a series of evocative desert towns, none more so than Taghit (pronounced ‘Tahreet’). Taghit announces itself in spectacular fashion as you approach and behold the ruined, mud-brick old town clinging to rocks overlooking an oasis of palm trees, an enchanting foreground set against a backdrop of huge sand dunes. There’s not much to the town of Taghit itself apart from the aforementioned old city, oasis and dunes.

That should be more than enough to make up for what its adjoining modern settlement lacks in traditional Saharan architecture, markets and desert characters. But there are plenty of walks exploring the surrounding landscape of dunes and craggy bluffs, and some enticing whitewashed mausoleums – it’s one of the more photogenic towns in a photogenic country. About ten kilometres along a gorgeous road that skirts between the dunes on one side and a long escarpment on the other, is an outdoor gallery of ancient rock carvings.

Depictions of long-gone species such as ostriches and antelopes attest to the lush, temporate environment the Sahara used to be thousands of years ago, while the more recent subject matter reflects a greater reliance on cattle as the locals became desert herdsmen as the pastures dried out and aridity crept in. Sadly, much of the work has been disfigured by modern graffiti and here and there is evidence of carvings having been cut away from the rock, but there is still enough here to see and for the remote location to make the visit well worthwhile.

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