REPORT: Algeria, 2018

Old Mar 3rd, 2018, 11:28 AM
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REPORT: Algeria, 2018

ALGERIA TRIP REPORT 2018



If you are contemplating going to Algeria you'll quickly find the last Lonely Planet is from 2007 and excepting a couple of French guidebooks recent information is scant. Hence this trip report is signposted by city, and includes practical issues like taxi fare, hotel, exchange rates, etc. to make it easier for independent travellers to plan their trip on the assumption that it is easier to find information on well-known attractions and history on the Internet than the more practical nuts and bolts.

We planned on a two-week trip focusing on Algeria's northern coast, what the French called 'Algerie Utile' or green Algeria and leave red Algeria (the desert and rock paintings) for another time. I would do the first five days on my own and my fiancee would join me for the last eight days. We ended up with the following itinerary: Algiers - Tlemcen - Oran - Ghardaia - Batna - Timgad - Mausoleum of Medracen - Khenchela and Hammam Essahiline - Annaba - Constantine - Setif and Djemila and Beni Hammad Fort - Tipaza Cherchelle and Mausoleum of Mauretania - Algiers.

A quick summary of the good, bad, and ugly:

The Good
- Magnificent Roman ruins at Timgad and Djemila
- Untouched by tourism and therefore helpful and friendly inhabitants
- General low price level for hotels, entrance fees, and food
- Fast and super cheap public transport through shared taxis
- Varied landscape from desert to lush green hills, snow capped mountains to sunny coastline

The Bad
- Restaurants that go beyond greasy fast food are as rare a find as a cold martini in Riyad. We ended up eating dinners at the hotels which is highly unusual for us but there were often no other viable alternatives
- Limited choice of hotels at international three star plus standard: Except for the Sheraton in Annaba and the Marriott/ Protea in Constantine, IBIS is your best bet in most cases (though even those are a bit below the usual Accor standard)
- Because of the limited number of restaurants, modern retail and international hotels, clean bathrooms are a rarity

The Ugly
- As everywhere else in North Africa loose trash is a big problem and somehow takes away from the enjoyment of land and city scapes


Weather
Being February, weather was like winter in southern Europe - cold but not freezing. Sky was a sunny blue blaze the first week, and gentle rain most of the second week.

Transport
To get reliable information on public transport one is pretty much left to asking at the various train and bus stations though these can only ever tell you the connections from their station. There does not seem to be a central repository. Anyway, you can try your luck at sntf.dz and sogral.dz which are the national train and bus company respectively. We did most by taxi collective/ shared taxi which offers fast point to point connections with minimal waiting time to almost all points.

Arrival
20+ hours from Washington on Turkish Airlines via Istanbul, arriving 1am in Algiers. Customs and immigration was fast; have a pen ready to fill out the landing card. No need to change to Algerian Dinar in the airport as taxis take USD/EUR, just have small bills on hand. Taxi into the city center was USD15 after negotiating down from EUR20. From what I would learn in the rest of Algeria this was 3x as much as what I should pay for the 10km distance. I spent the night at City Alger Hotel, where rooms were small, clean and new, ALD8000 with breakfast.

(Posting the rest tomorrow due to the two-post daily limit ...)
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Old Mar 3rd, 2018, 11:41 AM
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Thank you for sharing about a place there is so little information about. I am looking forward to it.
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Old Mar 3rd, 2018, 11:48 PM
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DAY 1: ALGIERS TO THE WEST
I spent the morning walking along the Corniche to Place Port Said to change money. The money changers are well organized and all quote the same rate of ALD165 per USD and ALD205 per EUR. You could also try electronic or jewelry stores which sometimes quote better rates. EUR rates they know by heart, USD they have to call their forex guy before quoting you a higher spread. The best exchange rate we were getting was ALD170 per USD in Tlemcen and later in Algiers. Keep in mind that if you prepay hotels with your credit card you will get charged the official rate. So make sure to agree that you will pay in cash at the location.

I bought a train ticket at the Gare Agha Station to Oran. There were trains at 12.30 and 2.00 pm but also at other times. Second class was ALD900. The train was old but solid. After four hours along orange groves and snowcapped mountains I arrived at the French built Oran station. An ALD400 taxi ride brought me to the Taxi Collective station outside of town. A further ALD400 and two hours and I was in Tlemcen. ALD200 for a taxi from the Gare Routiere to the hotel. I checked into the IBIS which at ALD6,500 provided the usual unassuming IBIS quality.


DAY 2: TLEMCEN
Tlemcen is a wonderful little town. Half French, half Moroccan with distinctive Moorish architecture. Started with the Grand Mosque. A walk to the Sidi Boumidiene complex which looks like it has been transplanted straight out of Fez. The 13th century Massurah ruins (a city that was started by an invading army) are impressive and evocative. The Mechuar is wonderfully renovated and the pool within the palace complex looks like a humbler Alhambra.

Tlemcen provides a 2.30am night bus to Ghardaia. I opted for a taxi collective back to Oran. Checked into the IBIS Oran on the cliffs above the city for ALD8,000. Taxis in Oran are metered. At night sadly, they disappear and the scalpers take over the trade and prices quadruple.


DAY 3: ORAN
You can imagine Oran like a provincial French city where not a single Euro has been invested in the housing stock in 50 years and every inhabitant has just one goal: To get on a boat and leave. The motto of the city is probably "Last one out turn off the lights." Having said that the Gare Routiere is new and has replaced the previous four bus stations. The town hall and Opera is newly renovated and there are "faded Havana" type photo motifs aplenty.

If you are pressed for time Oran might be one of the destinations you can skip. Buses leave Oran to Ghardaia at 5.30 am/10.30 am/ 1.30 pm/ 3 pm/ 6 pm. The cost is ALD1,500. You can only buy on the day of departure.


DAY 4: GHARDAIA
The M'Zap Valley is the center of Berber culture, the original inhabitants of Algeria. As in Morocco there is general mistrust and grievances between the Arab and Berber communities which is responsible for a constant and overwhelming police presence to prevent clashes.

M'Zap is famed for its five villages perched on the cliffs and hills surrounding the valley, with Ghardaia being the administrative center. I arrived in Ghardaia at 4.40 am. I walked three kilometers to Beni Isguen and through the town center. Then up the hill behind the Ottoman tower to take in the sunrise. Back to the main road and took a bus to El Atteuf to look at the 700 year old small, simple oblong white mosque of Sidi Brahim that inspired LeCorbusier. A bit hard to find from the bus drop off point but someone was kind enough to drive me there. A walk through the town. Back to Ghardaia. Walk up the hill to the Grand Mosque. After that I walked to Melika to wander through the town, see the main square and the cemetery. After that, back up the hill above Ghardaia to take in the fading sun.

I had read in a lot of trip reports that people spent two nights in Ghardaia. In the end the M'Zap Valley cities are small, cramped hilltop towns without much that capture the eye other than the few Sahara type mud brick pyramid minarets. I was pretty much done after half a day and had about five hours to spare before my second night bus in a row to Batna. There is only one bus and no shared taxi. It leaves at 8.30 pm.

The bus to Batna broke down in the middle of the desert. After four hours we were loaded on a bus to Biskra that passed by. From Biskra to Batna we had to buy new tickets. Chances of getting back our money: Zero. But then again the bus was only ALD1,300. The Batna to Timgad bus takes about one hour and costs ALD200. You get dropped off at the entrance gates.


DAY 5: TIMGAD
Timgad is one of the highlights of the trip. Snowy Aures mountains in the background. A beautifully preserved grid pattern. Hills around the site to take in the topography. The Trajan's arch, the capitol and the theater form a perfect triangle to spend hours and contemplate the perfect Roman city planning. Have your camera warmed up and your memory card empty!

I walked a kilometer outside the city to catch a bus or shared taxi or pretty much any ride to Khenchela. From there I hitched a ride for the 3km to the Hammam Essahiline. The Hammam is a 2000-year-old still functioning Roman bath, one of two (I know) still functioning on its existing fundaments and pools (the other one is Hammam Mellegue near El Kef in Tunisia which was also an unforgettable experience). Sadly, the Hammam was closed Thursday and Sundays but the guard at least let me take a look inside and take photos. It was clear for me I had to come back the next day!

I went to the Gare Routiere and took a bus bound back to Batna which took an unexpectedly long 3 hours. The bus left at 6.30 pm and was the last bus to Batna of the day. I checked into the Resident Yasmin in Batna which was ALD4,000 and the highest rated on Trip Advisor. The owner was friendly and the hotel perfectly adequate.


DAY 6: MAUSOLEUM OF MEDRACEN & HAMMAM ESSAHILINE

The Mausoleum of Medracen is a 2400 year old Nubian tomb prettily situated in a valley landscape.

Took a taxi to the Taxi Collective station, followed by a shared taxi to El Madher and from there a another short taxi ride to the mausoleum site. Back to the taxi collective station in Batna and a shard taxi to Khenchela and the Hammam Essalihine. A fantastic one-hour soak in the round open air thermal pool like people have done for 2000 years. After that a friendly truck driver I met at the bath gave me a lift to the Gare Routiere where I took a ALD700, four-hour shared taxi ride to Annaba.

Checked in at the Sheraton. Brand new. For the quality of food, room, and service the ALD18,000 price is laughable. Wonderful staff, fantastic views over the old town, and one of the best run hotels in North Africa. Treat yourself if you can. My fiancée had already arrived an hour before me. They had upgraded us to a top floor suite with Valentines flowers and cakes and fruits, a delightful surprise.


DAY 7: ANNABA
We walked down the main drag, Blvd de la Revolution, admiring the crumbling French facades. Taxi to the Hippo Regius (Hippone). ALD200 per person for museum and ruins. The museum has a couple rooms of mosaics and statuary, including an expressive bust of Emperor Vespasian.

The ruins are quite atmospheric, spread over a lush setting overgrown with wildflowers. Fantastic flooded forum with inscription of "Claudius Africanus" shining through the water. The hilltop 19th century colonial Cathedral of St Augustine looks down on the remains of the nearly two millennia old cathedral in which St Augustine taught the new Christian faith.


DAY 8: TRANSFER ANNABA TO CONSTANTINE
After another elaborate breakfast buffet at the Sheraton, ALD500 per person shared taxi ride to Constantine. Marriott's African business hotel brand Protea has just opened a hotel in February 2018. Highly recommended. One of the highest service standards in North Africa.
goldbaer is offline  
Old Mar 4th, 2018, 06:12 AM
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Wow, thanks for the detailed report on a place that gets virtually no coverage here! Sooner you than me with the night buses, though.

Was the hammam available to women as well as men?

Looking forward to more.
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Old Mar 4th, 2018, 12:41 PM
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This is an absolute fantastic trip report. Ditto to the fact that we hardly hear about this country, so this is a treat. Any pics?
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Old Mar 5th, 2018, 09:59 AM
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Thanks both

Yes, there is a women's section in the Hammam. I was not able to see it (for obvious reasons). My hunch is that it would be a modern construction not one based on Roman foundations like the male section (but I am speculating). If you just want to see the male facility for architectural reasons you could come on Thursdays and Sundays and ask the guard to let you in. I would not be surprised that if you offer a "fee" you might be able to try out the pool by yourself (??)
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Old Mar 5th, 2018, 10:15 AM
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DAY 9: CONSTANTINE
Walked through Constantine, the city astride a deep and dramatic ravine spanned by seven bridges. The nicest views are from the Victory Arch at the start of the gorge. The Grand Mosque unremarkable facade blends into the street but inside contains Corinthian capitals from Hippo Regius. The Ahmed Bey Palace is recently restored with orange tree courtyards and room after room of Ottoman tiles. Opposite the palace is Oxygen cafe, a clean place to pause for lunch or coffee. Another spot is the Salon de The on Ave Aouati Mostafa shortly before Place de 1ier Novembre. Also don't miss the marzipan flavored Constantine pastries.

Two hour drive by shared taxi to Setif. Checked into the IBIS, conveniently located opposite the Archaeological museum. Park Mall nearby includes a large Uno hypermarket.


DAY 10: CITADEL OF BENI HAMMAD
As a daytrip from Setif, took a taxi collective to M'Sila and from there the same taxi offered to take us to Beni Hammad and back to M'Sila. Total price including an hour at various sites ALD1,600.

The citadel, lake palace and El Manar palace are wonderfully located in an arid mountainous landscape very different from Setif. I would strongly recommend taking a look at the model in the Archeological Museum in Setif before visiting (which of course we did not do). The minaret of the citadel mosque is really the stand out sight.

Given how long it takes to get to the site (7 hours roundtrip) I would recommend skipping this without own transport at your disposal (unless you are a hardcore fan of 11th century Algerian architecture).

On the way to change money "dans la rue" I quickly surveyed Setif's Byzantine town walls erected after the reconquest from the Vandals. There are a few fundaments from the Roman town left but too faint to really get excited about.


DAY 11: SETIF & DJEMILA
The highlight of Setif and what makes it a must on the Algeria circuit are the mosaics in the Archaeological Museum. In terms of detail and execution I would rank the Triumph of Dionysus as highly as any of the mosaics in the Bardo in Tunis or the museums in Gaziantep and Hatay. It is hard to spend a better hour than looking at this mosaic and the Birth of Venus next to it.

A 1.5 hour taxi collective to El Eulema, then a bus connection to Djemila.

I will not rave about Djemila in detail but in terms of size, remaining detail, and verdant hilly setting, Djemila ranks as the absolute highlight of an Algeria trip. The museum on site is stuffed to the roof (literally) with fine mosaics from the site. The baths are some of the best preserved. The capitol contains the remains of a Jupiter bust. Even in icy pouring rain it was hard to suppress our enthusiasm. Soaked through, after the visit we warmed up by the gas burner at the teahouse outside of the site entrance. We had missed the last bus at 5 pm so hitched a ride back with one of the locals going to Setif. Breathtaking winding mountain road at sunset that was a wonderful finish to the day.


DAY 12: ALGIER
We took a taxi collective to Alger (ALD800 pp) and an unlicensed taxi back to the City Hotel Alger. We had negotiated a rate of ALD10,000 per night including breakfast.

We walked along the Corniche to the end, and up into the steep, labyrinthine Casbah to get (controlled) lost. Super atmospheric – a must see. Just don't 'rock the Casbah' after dark.

A very good dinner at Le Tyrolean. The chef showed us the cuts of meat he had that day. We ended up with grilled veal chop and lamb noisettes, potato mash, a big salad, local peppers and cheese. Simple and delicious.


DAY 13: TIPAZA
Tipaza is Rome's coastal city, wonderfully located on the shore 1.5 hours from Algiers. The sun was out, setting off the site against the deep blue of the Mediterranean.

We got there by bus from the regional bus station next to Gare Agha. Returned at 4 pm to the Tipaza bus station to get back to Algiers, but after two hours of waiting realised there is no bus back. Luckily two Algerian men we met at the bus station had the same problem and we pooled for a taxi back to Algiers (ALD2000 for the whole taxi). On the return you can pass by the Mausoleum of Mauretania which is next to the highway. Sadly, we had no time to stop as it was our last evening together.

Dinner at Le Bearnais. Overall decent experience and finally tried Algerian wine.


DAY 14: CHERCHELL
My fiancé left for her flight in the morning. My flight wasn’t until 2am so I had time for another daytrip. Took yesterday’s same bus to Tipaza, this time all the way to Cherchell. The old museum is under renovation but the parts that are open reveal well-presented sculptures. The new museum is probably the saddest museum I ever visited - a debilitated 1970s concrete bunker with leaking roofs everywhere but some actually quite inspiring mosaics in the garden (they have suffered from weather erosion but are still charming and more abstract in execution than what you see in other parts of Algeria). This time, I am at the bus station at 3.30 pm but again no bus back to Algiers and again a shared taxi. This time at ALD700 per person. Again, I am unable to stop at the Mausoleum of Mauretania. In order to visit it seems best to take a taxi from Tipaza to the Mausoleum and back. It also clearly makes sense to start early in the morning, take the bus to Cherchell. Do the sites and museums, take a bus to Tipaza, a taxi ride to the Mausoleum and be back in Tipaza at 3 pm for the last bus back to Algiers.

Back in Algiers a few hours walking through the city and saying good bye to Algeria.

All in all, a good experience and an underrated destination.

Now only one remaining white whale in North Africa: Libya!
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Old Mar 5th, 2018, 11:15 AM
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Sounds like a great trip! How was the language situation? Do you speak Arabic? Was French more useful than English?
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Old Mar 5th, 2018, 11:37 AM
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Will you please share pictures with us?
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