In our last blog we had arrived in Algeria’s only marina, a theoretical 40 minute bus ride from the capital, Algiers. Nothing is ever simple – our planned day trip to Algiers happened to be on Eid Al Fitr, the celebration of the end of Ramadan. People were telling us there were no buses, we had to take a taxi, and having heard that old line many a time, we insisted there must be a bus. Eventually a man kindly agreed to drive the disbelieving in his car to a town where there would be a bus. Said bus was a local bus, the type where the driver grinds the gear lever each change of gear, it’s filled to the rafters, stops at every stop, and amazes every tourist who so much as looks at it. But we’re on a long adventure, it cost only 20p, and what better way to see the colour of local life! Truth be told it was quite enjoyable.
For Eid Al Fitr, children are given a gift, often here that gift being a new set of clothes. And the bus was full of locals with their children scrubbed up and smartly dressed. It really was the equivalent of the Christian Christmas. In Algiers all the shops were closed but this gave us space to walk easily and the streets were full of families. Little kids toddled round with play guns, shooting them off. Ever wanting to see the positive in things, we assumed this to be the toy of choice for this year’s Eid Al Fitr. Far better to assume that, than that they are raising children encouraging them to take up arms!
Algiers is known as the white city and has vast potential as a tourist must-see. The French have left behind a lot of wonderful French architecture. That and boulangeries and pattiseries! Combine this with mosques and monuments and there is plenty to see. All that is needed is a whole lot of repair work mainly in the form of Dulux paint to bring it all out.
We sat waiting for a bus to get to Algiers imposing monument to the martyrs who died fighting for independence from the French (referred to some as the banana skin – see picture). A man pulled up and said he’d happily take us there. Same thing on the way back with another local. We spent all day walking the streets, some grand and colonial, some seedy and dirty, stopping off for coffee or enormous ice-creams. And we caught the local bus back home – that took a lot longer.
By now we had realised our favourite stops were the fishing ports, where people were more friendly and relaxed, so we decided to head off to Cherchell the next day. The forecast was windy but we were determined. A little shame the officials hadn’t done their paperwork on our arrival and our departure was delayed by two hours meaning we had to adopt an aggressive departure, fighting wind and building waves in a shallow exit, notorious for silting, where we felt Adina’s keel bump against a fortunately sandy bottom. Our crossing to Cherchell was fast and we headed into the port. We hate windy parkings more here as we know the waiting officials who happily want to take our lines have no idea that sailing boats are not like fishing boats with big engines that just ram themselves in and Susie has become adept in French in telling them to get lines on fast and pull us in!
We were made to immediately feel welcome and were parked outside the Police and Coastguard offices. You always have to ask if it’s possible to go into town and it’s always fine after they have checked your visa. In the past visitors were escorted by armed officials but that is all now gone, but we were given a guide in the form of a policeman by the name of Salim. Dressed in civilian clothes, he showed us around town, where we could get food etc. Helpful, kind and good fun we soon warmed to him. Stick with it – there’s more to this!
The next day we were allowed into town on our own. Cherchell has numerous roman ruins and it’s surreal to be in the central square where people sit on ancient roman columns chatting away as if sat on park benches. The museum was closed but we later saw a man entering it and, sprinting over, we asked if we could please be let in. This is Algeria and of course they will do anything for you. The man was called Hakim and he showed us around some incredible roman statues and even more impressive mosaics, explaining the history. Hakim then kindly offered to show us some of the sites around town in his lunch break.
We ended up in a coffee shop, Café des Artists. Algeria is full of male dominated coffee shops that have wonderful old espresso coffee machines. Café des Artists takes my award for best coffee in Algeria! Susie has her mint tea “the de menthe” and I spoon a little sugar into a mind-numbingly strong espresso. Hakim had the next day off and offered to take us to nearby town Tipasa, full of more roman ruins. Who’s going to say no to a local tour with a very friendly and knowledge man?
The next day we met Hakim and off we went, travelling 45 minutes to Tipasa. A quick look around the port and some astonishment at the size of the tuna that had been caught before heading for the outdoor museum and ruins. Hakim paid and said the man at the entrance to the museum had asked if we were the tourists of Salim, our friendly police guard from the day before. We know there are few tourists but were a little surprised that news of our visit had reached Tipasa. 5 minutes on and Salim arrives out of breath! We never got a total explanation, bar to say he wanted us to be careful and even on his day off wanted to look after us. He remembered us saying we were thinking of heading to Tipasa and contacted Police at a check-point on the outskirts of Cherchell where we had been spotted leaving in Hakim’s car. We now find ourselves in a blind panic that we had been stupid in not telling the police we were off for the day and that a decidedly unhappy looking Hakim was now in serious trouble. Salim was staying with us for the day.
We walked around the ruins, both of us were inwardly worried about Hakim and our role in possibly getting him into trouble. But Algerians are very calm and gentle people. Hakim and Salim were soon chatting away and much to our relief were enjoying each other’s company. Come the end of the trip through these stunning ruins, all was well, and we could relax and enjoy Salim and Hakim’s fabulous company. We joked and laughed with both. They insisted on buying both of us souvenirs, going out of their way to charm Susie. Over lunch and driving back we learnt lots from them about Algeria. Salim had so much energy and had Susie talking on the phone to his mother and cousin. The day ended well. Salim, Hakim, you were too kind, we shall never forget our time in Cherchell – we wish you both well, friends forever!
We were keen to get to the city of Oran which we had heard so much about but it was three days sailing away. We overnighted in Tenes and then headed to Mostaganem. Paperwork here was more painful than anywhere and we were shocked when an immigration official calmly asked for “a present”. Whilst other parts of the African coast are renowned for this, nowhere had we encountered anything like this and it was so out of nature for Algeria. He went away empty handed. In the past people have not been allowed out of the port but we were given a plain clothed detective and a big muscular captain to accompany us for some sight-seeing and food shopping. If anybody so much as dawdled near us they were given a stern look.
And so we sailed on to Oran, our last stop. By now we were becoming jaded with all the paperwork and formalities but patience is essential.
Oran more than anywhere else was covered in some stunning French, Italian and Spanish buildings. Again in need of restoration but for the first time we saw effort being made. It’s all there – grand theatres, post offices, town halls, courts. We hired a taxi to take us up to the Santa Cruz Fort overlooking the town. Lucky be that the driver was passionate about Oran and our tour was soon extended, showing us photographs of days gone-by and even to our amazement an old Spanish bullring. We voted Oran our favourite city and it was the perfect end to our three week trip along the coast of Algeria.
To sum Algeria up, it’s certainly a place for the adventurous; it does have some stunning sights and we would have liked to have seen more of the interior. Tourism is yet to be encouraged, and the official paperwork for us was a killer. So many of the cities have a lot of beautiful old buildings that could be restored; it has so much potential. But without doubt it’s the people of Algeria that made this country for us. Some say Algerians are stern. We say that’s not true at all – a simple greeting and the ice is broken, and they will talk away. Their naturally calm nature comes through and you can see the compassion they have for each other. We were treated so well, the kindness really touched us, people just could not do enough for us, so many invites to return to this country and visit families. We have to single out Abderrahmane, Salim and Hakim for all their time and kindness. Merci beaucoup, notre chers, pour touts que vous avez faire pour nous.
Algeria will live long in our memories.
The next two weeks we travel up the coast of Morocco with an inland trip to Fes in the plan. First stop Meililla, the Spanish enclave in the west, where we will enjoy some tapas and Adina will get a good old clean!
Algeria coastguard, this is Adina, we thank you for looking out for us, standing by on channel 16.