Getting from Constantine to Oran was a little bit problematic: we had booked a flight – which, with Air Algerie, you can only pay in cash, in person – but when we turned up to the airline office in Oran, we were informed our flight was cancelled. When we inquired about the next flight, we were told it would depart after eid, and in fact after our flight back home from Algiers; in other words, there were no other flights. We went to see about trains, but then found out a) the trains are also frequently cancelled and b) they go via Algiers. We asked about busses; these also go via Algiers. Finally, we opted for another road-trip. It would cost the same as our flights (being a c. 10 to 14 hour drive for the poor driver) and take about three times as long, but it would be faster than the bus, and, crucially, depart at a much better time than the bus. It (unsurprisingly) took a while to convince anyone to do this trip with us, but we managed in the end. We prepared a road-trip playlist, and counted minarets and stork-nests along the way.
Day 1: Bespoke Walking Tour of Oran
So I looked up a handful of interesting things to see in Oran and then my sister made it into a handy walking tour on her phone. We took a taxi down to the train station, as our starting point. It is a beautiful, typical North African style building, and we had a little wander around and tried to take some photos without worrying any of the guards too much. We then headed down the street, admiring the slowly decaying colonial architecture along the way. It was similar to Algiers, but also different; it is difficult to explain.
One of the first buildings on our route was the Cathédrale du Sacré-Cœur. This used to be a catholic church, but then got turned into a (architecturally very impressive) library in the 1980s. It must be such a nice place to come and work. Also, it is surrounded by (second hand) bookshops! I tried very hard to find a book on Berber (I would like to learn to read the script properly) but without luck.
Next, we headed for the Abdullah bin Salem mosque, which was formerly the Great Synagogue of Oran. We almost missed it, because the imposing facade is actually difficult to see when you are walking on the same side of the street. They were not super keen on us visiting, but eventually someone decided we were allowed to go up the stairs and view the mosque from above; possibly the best view anyway? From there, we walked down to the town square (Place Premier November 1954), with its impressive French-built regional theatre. It was very closed when we stood outside it, but it is possible to discern the words ‘Comédie’, ‘Opéra’ and ‘Tragédie’ on the building’s exterior.
Desperate for a restaurant and unable to find one, as usual, we settled at a classic fast-food pizza place next to the theatre. Someone has to give me some tips about where to eat next time I go to Algeria. From there, we walked down the street to the Hassan Pasha mosque. This was built at the end of the 18th century to commemorate the expulsion of the Spanish, so a little older than most buildings, but it looks even more ancient than that in person. It was likewise, very closed and impossible to enter. This is a shame really because it looked fascinating from the outside. Next, we went back up the hill to the Palais du Bey (yes, every big city in Algeria has one of these, and the non-distinct naming is somewhat confusing). It was the least restored of the palaces we visited; in fact, I am sure it is in danger of collapsing. Paint was peeling off; roofs, walls and floors had holes in them; and windows were missing. This gave the buildings a kind of unaltered, ancient, beauty however. There was an (international) school party (graduation ceremony / talent show?) going on in the pavilion, to which we were warmly invited. However, we had to get on with our walking tour, because we were meeting our friends Zohra and Farouk later on.
There was one more stop we really wanted to make in central Oran: the souq. We walked all the way back across the square, down the high street, and to the market (I think locally known as Marche Medina Jedida; but we struggled when asking for directions). We tried to buy the classic Algerian curtains there, but unfortunately someone snapped up the ones we’d selected and proceeded to buy all the fabric the merchant had for curtains for their entire new house. Ah well. This was a super busy outdoor market and I wish we could have spent some more time there, but we had to get back to the hotel. Getting a taxi was a disaster, but some bizarre coincidence meant that we spotted a Dutch car in the evening traffic?! We could not help but wave, which meant they could not help but stop. The Algerian-Dutch family very kindly offered us a lift to the hotel, as surprised to meet us as we were to meet them. What even?
One of the highlights of the trip was meeting our friends Zohra and Farouk again. The ones who had picked us up a week earlier in Annaba and invited us for dinner. Well, we took them up on it. It turns out they did not quite live in Oran but a good half our drive outside the city. Perhaps some would declare us mad, three Dutch ladies travelling by themselves, but we rolled with it. They prepared a huge, classic Algerian dinner for us, by far the best we ate for the entire holiday. There was cous cous, tagine, mint tea, everything. And then they gave us gifts as well. We had come hopelessly empty handed (always bring gifts for new friends when you travel, always) so I truly hope they manage to get a visa to Holland some day so that we can repay at least a fraction of their hospitality.
Day 2: Trip to Tlemcen
We are unable to go anywhere without looking for the archaeology, so when I looked up heritage sites near Oran, Tlemcen popped up. We negotiated a driver, set out a route, and drove off early the next morning. This hotel actually included breakfast, but it was rather underwhelming; I would have preferred the road-croissant really. Tlemcen is now a huge modern city (we were there on a Friday though so it was very quiet!), but it was of course also inhabited by the Romans centuries ago, and then became an important centre for Christianity. However, that is not what this region is most known for; it is its post-Arab conquest history. In the 8th-9th century Tlemcen was its own Berber Kingdom, the Kingdom of Banu Ifran; then it was taken over by the Almovarids in the 11th century followed by the Almohads in the 13th century, then the Ziyannid sultants until the 16th century, and finally the Ottomans.
Notable sites inside the city boundary are ancient walls and beautiful 12th-13th century mosques with unique square minarets. Our driver almost certainly took us to the ‘wrong’ ones (i.e. not ‘the great mosque’ etc.) but that does not take away from the interesting architecture in general. Actually, this and this are really good posts written by other bloggers, which also feature photos taken inside buildings such as mosques and the palace; something we did not succeed in doing. As with our road-trip to Lambaesis, it would have probably been beneficial to befriend a local and/or prepare our trip slightly better, because whenever we asked anyone for directions we were answered with confused looks.
Anyway, the major landmark of the town is hard to miss: the 38 m high Minaret of Mansura. This fortress/mosque was built at the beginning of the 14th century in typical Moorish style. Only three sides of the minaret, a huge square courtyard, and the ramparts still remain today. It was decorated with colourful tiles, some of which still remain; and it used to have onyx columns (now in museums elsewhere). This interesting French blog post claims there is a Tlemcen version of the Daedalus & Icarus story: a Jewish and a Muslim mason designed and built the minaret, but once it was finished, the Sultan demanded the Jew convert to Islam, because it would be an insult to the Prophet for someone of another religion to cross this new sacred space. The Jew asked for time to think about it, and for paper to be sent up. He then created wings, and flew away from the minaret. However, he was carried away on the winds into unknown regions and plummeted to his death.
The second half of our trip took place in the area surrounding Tlemcen. In the mountains, it is possible to find the hugely popular (with locals) El-Ourit Waterfalls. If you have ever been to Iceland or Croatia this is probably underwhelming, but we had not explored a lot of Algerian nature, so that made it a pleasant stop for lunch. Some insane people were jumping into the blue, rocky, water, and we observed with shocked fascination. We then drove up to the Beni Add Caves. These were most recently used by the Mujahideen as a refuge during the National Liberation War; but once aware of this passage, the colonial army blocked the way. Understandably, this did an enormous amount of damage to the c. 65,000 year old cave system. Many of the stalagmites and stalagtites are broken (also deliberately, to be sold) and the remaining mineral sculptures stained black. The cave system is around 700 m deep, and the visitor trail (less deep) is very chilly. They are by no means the most beautiful caves I have ever visited, but I have to say it was a huge surprise to find something like this in Algeria. Our driver was so impressed, he did not only opt to visit the caves with us, he also bought us a special souvenir from the little stalls outside to take home.
Side-story: We asked the driver if he knew where we could buy a little Algerian rug, and he answered, with what we hoped he would ‘yes I have a friend who sells them’. He proceeded to drive us to a shop belonging to a very friendly artist who served us tea and cakes, and showed his beautiful collection of geometric tile work. Somewhere rug had translated into tiles? There was no way we could carry something like that in our suitcases, even if we had wanted to, so with very sincere apologies we went on our way back to Oran.
Day 3: Tipasa
Sadly, the holiday had to come to an end at some point. There was one final site we had to see, so we arranged one last, long, road-trip, from Oran, to Tipasa, back to Algiers. Tipasa was a Punic trading post turned Roman military colony. During Punic times, it was an important trading hub for Carthage. It also has a Necropolis which is thought to be one of the oldest and largest (surviving) from the Punic period. Roman Tipasa was built on three hills, overlooking the sparkling bright blue water of the Mediterranean Sea. Because there is now a modern city there (Tipaza!) it is actually quite difficult to visit all sections of the archaeological remains; and I am pretty sure we missed a couple. After some searching, we started at what we believed was the main entrance. There are trees growing in this area, creating a very different experience from the more common hill-side or desert-like scenario. Among the tree-roots were bits of houses, a nymphaeum, two temples, and two theatres. We then crossed a sandy patch of forest and emerged at a Christian basilica, with some beautiful although very patchy surviving mosaics in its floors – and a breathtaking view over the rest of the site. It is in fact possible to arrange a boat trip, leaving from the site itself, to view the city (and I think some caves) from the sea. In the warm Mediterranean sun this did actually look appealing, albeit a tad touristy. We did not have time however. Let me know if you ever try it!
Outside the site were some very rare souvenir shops, selling typical Algerian items such as… rugs! Ah tourist trap or no, we had failed this objective for two weeks straight, so I picked a shop and begun negotiations. We were in a rush, so I did not have time to study what was new or old, hand-made or factory-produced, etc. I guess haggling is a game by itself, regardless of the product. I talked the man down to half the asking price, and then managed to get myself a bigger ‘discount’ by offering to pay in pounds on the local exchange rate (rather than the bank exchange rate, which is almost double). Do you follow? I don’t know whether this rug is even typically Algerian or made in Algeria, but it was certainly bought in Algeria via Algerian methods, so I am pleased. Also, it matches my apartment’s curtains. Good thing I traveled with a lot of space in my luggage!
We had to hurry away from beautiful Tipasa, as we had one more stop to make. The Mausoleum of Mauritania. This is a huge monument, which is impossible to enter and can only be viewed from the outside. Much like the pyramids however, I doubt there is actually that much inside; and it would certainly be cramped and dark. I saw someone on Youtube saying the other day that they do not want to visit the pyramids because they do not want to go inside. That would be doing it wrong anyway. These things are best viewed from the outside (and the inside to be studied by professional archaeologist, undamaged by tourist’s footsteps). (The Royal Tombs in the Valley of the Kings is a totally different story.) So anyway, we just walked around the tomb, and enjoyed the view from the top of the hill. The tomb is meant to be where Berber King Juba and Queen Cleopatra Selene are buried, but no remains have thus far been found, so it could just be a good legend. Question then is, who else would be buried in this enormous tomb? At the very least their family? Or perhaps it is a memorial to them. In French the tomb has been named ‘Tombeau de la Chrétienne’ (the tomb of the Christian woman) because there is a cross-like shape on it; in Arabic it is known as the tomb of the Roman woman.
And that’s it really. We completed our drive back to Algiers, checked into a hotel in the centre (Dar el Ikram; very cheap and no-frills, but also very friendly staff) (and ironically it was near the museum we spent hours looking for on our first day there) and had one final dinner, with a final glass of expensive wine. Oh wait, one more thing: mum & sister had a flight much later than mine the next day, so they went to the souq one final time – and bought me my much-wanted and looked for Algerian curtains! My life is complete.