Algeria is one of those places that you really don’t know much about. It kind of has a mystery to it. You know it’s one of those big North African countries but you never hear much about it and certainly if you hear anything at all; it’s probably negative. Algeria was the last stop on my current African adventure and a country that had been elusive to me in the past. Not even two years ago I dealt with a complete fiasco with the Algerian Embassy in Washington and was in fact denied a visa for no reason. So going in, that was really all I had to go on and that was a terrible experience. Luckily for me, I did go and discovered that Algeria has a ton to offer and while I may not be moving there, it surely was a nice and as it turned out, exciting place to spend a few days.
After arriving via a long 36 hour, multiple country connection at the relatively modern airport outside Algiers, my Uncle and I hopped a cab to our hotel on the other side of the city. Driving through Algiers was really good at the outset for me personally because I still had some lingering bitterness toward the country for what happened with my visa the last time. I was treated very rudely and there was no consideration for what they said they would do with regards to my visa. However, the sight of the picturesque mountainside Mediterranean city quickly put my mind at ease and made me excited to go exploring.
We checked into the beautiful Sheraton Club Des Pins resort on the west side of Algiers. We had a great room with a full walkout balcony that overlooked the beach and the Mediterranean Sea (view above). It was pretty awesome and made for a nice way to wake up and go to sleep listening to the waves crashing on the beach.
I then arranged for a driver and car to take us all around the city for the day. We really lucked out when we got a very nice driver who spoke excellent English. My French sucks (albeit enough to get by) and speaking French actually makes my head hurt so I was thrilled and relieved that I didn’t have to; and I don’t speak any Arabic except for hello and thank you!
Driving out to the Independence Monument, we stopped at several points along the way to admire the incredible views the city of Algiers affords. Its mountain location and natural harbor gives stunning views and makes you really think you’re on a gorgeous Mediterranean Island and not on the African continent in Algeria. I kept getting confused where I was…although I’d soon be reminded.
We arrived at the monument and our driver starts telling us about the history of the main square and the monument being a gift from the Canadians. Although when I asked him about his thoughts on the Libya situation he refused to answer and started talking faster and more about the monument!
We then took a few photos, some stranger than others! As you can see above, there were the two most random guys dressed up as cartoon characters, Super Mario and Mickey Mouse, hanging out by the monument so we had to get a picture with them. Then we headed to the National Museum (2 below).
Museums with me are hit or miss. I always give them a fair shake but some are obviously better than others. I didn’t really know much about the history of Algeria so I was intrigued and the guide seemed very knowledgeable. The building itself by the way was gorgeous on the inside where you weren’t allowed to take photos. It was apparently built by the Chinese in less than a year.
Many buildings in Algiers and throughout Africa as a whole are built and/or financed by the Chinese. It is their way of moving westward and south and extending their large diaspora. The Chinese are no doubt going to be the most influential players on the African continent in a few years if they aren’t already. Any country you go to, you see and hear about their influence and their money and labor being given out for infrastructure. But it doesn’t come free. It’s a quiet movement but I am telling you, while it won’t be colonization like what the French had, it will be financial and eventually population colonization as many Chinese move to these countries to live and work. This also, lessens the population within mainland China proper although minimally.
Anyway, the museum was pretty awesome I must say. On the ground floor they had many exhibits on the modern history of Algeria; the current and previous President. The modern history of Algeria basically started in the early 1960’s when they gained independence from France. I was surprised to see that a main ally of Algeria was Cuba and Fidel Castro. There were several pictures of him up in the museum and there is also a massive Cuban Embassy in town. You don’t see too many of those around the world, especially in Africa.
On the second and third floor there are many old relics from the days or wars past. There were tons of exhibits about how they fought ambush style while living underground against the French and other enemies. The most interesting thing to me in the whole museum detailed something I had never actually heard about. I was shocked about this and still am to be honest.
Apparently the French tested nuclear weapons in the South of Algeria in the 1960’s. That aside, the most shocking thing about it was that they essentially tied Algerian people to posts to see what the effect of the bomb and its radiation would have on them. Essentially the French used Algerians like lab rats for the purposes of science…or not. As gross and barbaric as it is, I guess I shouldn’t be too surprised. Governments have done some vial things over the years but I was particularly moved by the exhibit and the details of French abuses toward the Algerian people.
As we left the museum it was a beautiful day. The sun was shining, the sky was pretty clear and we were walking back to the car parked up by the monument up a small hill. As we walked, I noticed a fire in the street and a lot of people around it. I couldn’t figure out what was on fire and why the cops were just standing around. So we rushed over, above and behind where dozens of cops were standing and tried to see what was up. I took one picture (below) and then something crazy happened.
Out of nowhere the crowd of people by the fire that I just realized were protesters started throwing rocks at the cops. Then suddenly they started running at the cops and throwing rocks and bottles, sticks-whatever they had. The cops started moving back, apparently not prepared for this protest and the potential for violence. Our driver was freaking out and started yelling at us to run back to the car. We were mesmerized by the protests amidst all of what is and has happened in North Africa in recent weeks, so we wanted to watch what happened and we were elevated anyway so didn’t feel immediate danger.
Then the protesters started chasing the cops up the hill and toward us. It all happened so fast, it’s hard to describe. All of sudden there were rocks hurled in our directions, not at us directly but we were clearly caught in the crossfire and we had to run back toward the protesters to get to the car that the driver was already waiting at and screaming at us. A big rock landed about 10 feet from me and I started sprinting for the car. I was trying to find my uncle who was also running a little behind me. As we finally made the car and was about to pull away, a protester came up to the car and the driver started cursing at him in Arabic and he moved aside. I believe he told him that we were American tourists.
Then as we pulled out a cop started hollering at the driver and asked him to stop. The driver, again in Arabic, basically told him to fuck off and almost ran him over getting out of there down the hill on the other side of the monument. He then was yelling at all cars headed up the hill that there was violence and a protest and to turn around. It all happened so fast; it was really surreal and unexpected.
As far as I was concerned, since we were both OK and because of the current events in this part of the world, it was one of the coolest things I’d ever experienced and I couldn’t believe our luck. My Uncle felt the same way although the driver did not and basically refused to even acknowledge that it happened. He only muttered things to himself in Arabic. Again, it’s hard to explain what a rush it was to be there for that.
We had no idea what was happening until it was happening and then it was really pretty scary for a few seconds. Looking back now, it was again awesome but at the same time, I am glad I don’t live there because that kind of thing can and does happen often in Algeria and the unpopular government, while still with a stronghold, is vulnerable.
I was surprised, well actually not surprised at all that there was no media coverage on CNN or on any outlets I looked at. We didn’t see any media trucks, cameras or anything at the scene, not that we looked too hard as we ran. It seemed to just be an impromptu thing that escalated…but who knows.
After the protest, we were all juiced up on adrenaline and the guide just kept telling us about buildings and history and it was kind of funny although we didn’t hear anything he said! Luckily we still had a few cool places to see as we were paying for the whole day.
We saw several more great views from different angles. We drove by the Kasbah which is not nearly as nice as Kasbah’s in neighboring capitals like Tunis. We saw the fish markets and the port (above) where you catch the ferry to Marseille and a lovely cathedral (2 above) with killer views of the city. The best thing we saw the rest of the day though was the old 16th century palace (below).
Palaces like this are common in the Middle East and North Africa. Adorned with mosaics and open air ceilings, to wash out the house, this particular palace was made of 23 houses right on the beach in central Algiers. We walked the chasm of rooms and corridors to see how they lived, slept and bathed 400-500 years ago. It was a great way to spend 45 minutes or so. The guide seemed to take great pride in the palace as a remnant of the great Algerian legacy of the past. It made it fun for us.
As for food, we ate each night in the small village right near the hotel which was located 10km or so outside the city in a wealthy suburban area. We ate at two places called Crystal, which specializes in French style meat; and La Piazza, for pizza and pasta. Both were marginally good but good enough and better than eating in the hotel as always. The best thing was each restaurant had satellite TV so we could watch the Champions League matches. Well I could because my Uncle doesn’t like soccer. After dinner in town, dessert is a big deal and there are “glaces” places all over. So we made sure to indulge.
As you can see from the pictures and by the tone of my story, we really enjoyed our time in Algeria and it really is pretty. It is an extremely pleasant place to be. It is very modern and has great infrastructure. I was going to say it risks being a little on the boring side but then the protest happened so that threw that word out the window! I imagine that in a month or so when the weather gets really warm, the beach gets good. There certainly is a nice stretch of sand along the coast and the Club Des Pins area is very nice and has many hotels.
It will be interesting to see if anything ever does come about with the protesters or with the government. I doubt it, there doesn’t seem to be the same support there is in Libya or was in Egypt. But who knows, it’s a volatile region which I am happy that I visited again. So all is all, while we didn’t get to include Libya in the trip, we got a sense of what it may be like inside and I do hope to get there soon.
I am now safely back home in New York now and up in the middle of the night with timing issues!