Preparing for a trip to Algeria
This year, for the first time ever, both my sister, and my mum and myself all had a full-time job. So we decided to go somewhere far with a non-budget-airline. Yes, we dream big. On top of my wish-list were (or, still are): Machu Picchu, Cuba and Vietnam. However, of course the only time my sister could get off were 2 weeks in August. In August it is winter and tourist season in Machu Pucchu, hurricane season in Cuba, and rain season in Vietnam. I asked Google ‘Where do you go on holiday in August?’ – answer: ‘Europe’. But that would go against our requirement of going somewhere usually too difficult or expensive to reach. So I broadened the definition of Europe slightly, to include all countries around the Mediterranean. As it turns out, we have been to all of them except… Isreal (but I cannot due to having traveled to other countries), Libya (which is too dangerous for a family holiday lets’ be honest), Morocco and Algeria. But why fly to Morocco (cheap tickets, no visa) when you can go to Algeria (expensive tickets, ridiculous visa) right? The choice was easy.
We had to come from the UK and the Netherlands respectively, so finding matching flights was the first challenge. I decided to invest in a British Airways ticket, which would get me to Algiers directly and at a human hour. Mum and sister were slightly less fortunate, and had to go Alitalia via Italy, a day before me. Here is Lesson #1 by the way: we should not have booked return tickets. We should have flown into Algiers, and back from Oran. Algeria is a seriously big country, which we may have perhaps underestimated just slightly when we booked the flights. We had to make an unnecessary c. 10 hour road trip from Oran back to Algiers the last day of the holiday. More on that in the next blog post.
So, strangely, Algeria does not get a huge amount of tourism. (That’s not sarcasm there: it’s an insanely cool country, more people should go.) Options for accommodation ranged from very dodgy looking hostels to extremely posh five star hotels – but not really the in-between that we were going for. We tried AirBnB rather unsuccessfully and eventually settled on trying to score hotel deals via a dozen different websites. We needed to have the hotels booked for the visas you see; it is not an extremely clear requirement, but since the visa process was so complicated we were not going to risk it. Anyway, in case the visas were rejected, we rather preferred to book rooms with cancellation on them. Also, we were 3 people. You try and convince people in terrible French/Arabic that you want a room, with cancellation, for 3 people; not 2, not 4; not two separate rooms. It was a challenge, I can tell you.
Anyway we eventually succeeded. In Algiers, we booked the Lamaraz Arts Hotel for our first few days. It was not extremely central, but in a quiet neighbourhood near a subway station, so that was fine. The staff was extremely friendly, e.g. someone walked us to the underground the first time to show us the way. The airport transfer was expensive though, so it’s probably better to arrange a regular taxi. The food was also extremely expensive, so skip that. The room (which had a double bed and a double sofa bed) was super comfortable and we really enjoyed staying there. There wasn’t much for shops around the hotel, but there was a nice greengrocer, where we bought an entire watermelon one evening (what else are you going to do when you’re in a country where alcohol is a bit of a rarity?). (We stayed at Hotel Dar El Ikram for 1 night the final night at the end of the holiday, which was a lot less posh, but more central, and also with very friendly and helpful staff.) (3 single beds there!)
Anyway, let me not get ahead of myself. Obviously we succeeded in getting to Algeria, but the road was difficult. We had to separately get visas in the UK and the Netherlands. The Algerian Embassy in the Netherlands is in the Hague, where we do not live, so mum and sister had to make use of an agency. The Algerian Embassy in London is in Acton Town (?!) where I do not live. However, I decided to journey down there one morning. All my documents in order: address in Algeria, letter from employer, application form, specific pass photos, and so forth. I waited for them to open (I was early because I still wanted to get to work on time as well); and then… they rejected my application on the spot because I tried to make it too soon! It counts 90 days (I think) from the day it is stamped; so turning up in May for a holiday in August was not ok. They refused to put a different start date. Since it was an Expedition, and took Time, and cost Money, I opted to mail them my 2nd attempt. This time I was successful. The whole process probably cost me over a hundred pounds, so do take that into account when budgeting for your travels…
Day 1 in Algiers: The Archaeological Museum
Day one we decided to take it easy: just see how the subway system works, maybe visit a museum, have a nice lunch, perhaps stop for a glass of wine, wander around the centre a little, and have an early night. Best laid plans…
So, the Algiers Metro is awesome. It looked very new and modern (I believe it only opened in 2011; and it is the 2nd capital in North Africa to even have a metro system). We were never as squished on there as on the London tube, and tickets were of course very cheap. We could not quite work out how to buy tickets from the machine, but we were able to do so in person at the counter (in French or Arabic; mainly French; mum speaks excellent French). We felt a bit looked-at that first morning on the metro, because there were zero other foreigners there, let alone very blonde foreigners. We got used to it eventually however and I think we felt more out of place rather than people actually staring at us. We opted to cover our knees/ankles and shoulders at all times in the city centre which seemed a very suitable clothing choice. We certainly did not feel like we needed to cover our hair, or arms. It was very warm (around the 40 degrees mark) so I mainly layered with scarves.
We got off the metro and asked for directions for the museum (old school, I know). This proved extremely ineffective, and the beginning of a very long search. We walked along a highway (by accident) for a while, and then finally found the ‘Parc de la Liberté’, where we climbed some insane stairs to what we thought was the museum. It was not quite; at the top of the stairs were an Islamic art museum and a Roman mosaic museum. We were under the impression there would also be a more general history museum, so we kept going with the intention to return after lunch. Oh dear, lunch. Since Algeria does not have so much tourism it turns out that it also does not have a lot of restaurants. Well, it does: fast food restaurants, mainly pizza. When the locals cannot be bothered to cook at home, or celebrate a child’s birthday, that’s when they might go out – and get pizza. We struggled so badly the entire 2 weeks in Algeria to find what we thought of as restaurants. On this fateful first day, we eventually settled for a classics sandwich with chips. I remember eating these in Tunisia and they are surprisingly delightful. This was accompanied by an Algerian coke, because, ah yes, alcohol is also definitely not served in most places. We were not too surprised by that one though, just a little disappointed.
Full and very sober we continued our search for the museum. The locals seemed to have no idea what we were looking for, not in English, French or Arabic (and yes we can ask for a history museum in Arabic). Not even the police understood really. Eventually we kind if found it just by being lucky? But man, did we walk a lot. Up hill. Remember, we are Dutch; that means it is double the effort for us. As it turned out the Bardo Museum (nothing like the one in Madrid, mind) is housed in a lovely old madrassa and shows some reconstructions of the old Casbah; it also does have a little bit of Algerian (pre-historic) history, but not loads. Good thing we came across the Roman mosaic museum earlier! Of course there were not so many other visitors; two Algerian families I think; so walking around was very peaceful.
Day 2 in Algiers: The Casbah
Confident using the metro now, we set off to Tafourah, thinking that between there and Place des Martyrs we would be able to find an ATM. (More on this below) Anyway, we reached our actual goal (the Casbah) around lunchtime. Desperate for a real restaurant by this point (it’s holiday, we want to sit on a terrace, and drink wine) we just asked a couple different people in the street where to eat. Someone has to know the secret right? Eventually we were directed to a place that was maybe just about an upgrade from a kebab shop – which as it turns out, is the classiest you will find in Algiers, after the take-away pizza places of course. We were ushered upstairs with the women and, yes, fortunately, finally, presented with a random selection of great vegetarian-ish food. There were some green olives in tomato sauce, among other things. It definitely goes in our top 5 meals in Algeria. It is impossible to find on Google of course, but this was on those little side-streets between Port Said garden and Place des Martyrs. Perhaps showing someone the photo will help, if you want to go looking for it?
We proceeded to the Ketchaoua mosque to find that you cannot enter (?) so, finally, it was time to do some shopping. The suq had lots of amazing stalls, and we bought lots of amazing things. For a place with exactly zero foreign tourists it was very manageable; people were friendly and they hardly tried to over-charge us. We then picked some stairs to wander up, and found where the vegetable stalls and Eid sheep were; and also fireworks stalls? We did not venture too far up the maze of stairs, because it looked more like private apartments, and we did not have a guide to show us interesting historical bits and bops. I normally hate having a guide (both mum and I have worked as tour guides so we prefer to do our own research) but I reckon if I were to change anything about our holiday, or make a recommendation to others, it would be to go explore the Casbah with a local.
Exhausted, we tried and failed to find somewhere to have dinner, so settled on gathering some bits and pieces from several small supermarkets, and obtained the world’s largest watermelon from a friendly greengrocer next to the hotel. We tried very awkwardly to cut it with mum’s pocket knife in the hotel and basically turned the bathtub into a murder scene – but it was delicious. We also got little bread pastry things from the bakery, to have for breakfast the next morning. There’s some colonial French influence still scattered around the place, among which patisseries and creperies.
Day 3 in Algiers: The Palaces
We got up early to travel back down to Place des Martyrs, for some final sightseeing before our flight to Annaba. We tried the Ketchaoua mosque again – still closed – and moved on to study the archaeological remains in the middle of the square (inside the brand new subway station is also an exhibition about the excavation, with a lot more information). What is still sort of visible, if you press your face against the fence, are the remains of an early Christian basilica, with some surviving mosaics; and bits of an Ottoman suq, the metal quarter, with forges and furnaces.
We made our way across the square, wanting to run from the scorching sunlight but also too warm to actually run, and walked up to the rather unimpressive outside walls of the Palais des Raïs (or Bastion 23). This is quite normal for these old, grand houses: unpretentious on the outside, the inside was what it was all about. The Palais des Raïs complex consists of 3 palaces several other villas and houses, with construction ranging from the 16th to the 18th century. Mustapha Pacha (governor of Algiers) used it as a residence, following by the French military, the American consulate, a school, and also a library, until it became the museum and art gallery it is today. The Ottoman/Moorish style intricate courtyard architecture is typical of elite North African buildings for this time, and definitely what I imagined seeing when I booked a holiday to Algeria.
We adventured back to the airport using a local taxi rather than the hotel transfer, which we found was much, much cheaper. This is also when we finally, finally, finally, found a working ATM.
Postscript: ATMs in Algeria
The World Wide Web had already informed us that it is not easy to use ATMs in Algeria. It recommended conducting your travels cash-only. Fun-fact: like the Iraqi dinar, you cannot exchange Algerian dinar outside Algeria; you cannot bring them into the country, you cannot bring them out, etc. So, I asked the friendly exchange-office person in Heathrow airport whether I should bring USD, GBP or EUR. They said GBP would be fine; which was great, because that’s the currency I had on me. They were wrong. I am not completely sure about USD, but we found that EUR were by far the preferred currency to exchange in Algeria. Except, we did not set off the 2 weeks with EUR for 3 people, so we needed to get more, somehow. Side-note: the only time I used GBP, was on my very last day, haggling for a rug outside Tipasa.
Oooh it was so difficult. We tried every bank under the sun, going from one recommendation to another. We tried the post-office, we tried fancy hotels. We eventually exchanged some of our initial EUR at a random travel agency near Place des Martyrs (at a stellar exchange rate, I have to add) and crossed our fingers it was not fake money? We journeyed all the way down to the Sofitel at the Jardin d’Essai (ATM was empty / did not work). It was the only place we’d found the whole week that served alcohol, so instead we spent our last money on some expensive beers. Only on the way to the airport did we spot one of the recommended banks that we had not tried yet and had the taxi driver make a pit stop. I tried to take a picture of my sister as she did a little dance of joy but an angry security guard shouted at me to put away my camera. Anyway, mission complete. For Algiers anyway. This saga will continue…