A Two-Week Journey Featuring Ancient Rock Art, the Sahara Desert, and the Tuareg Culture
The common misconception that entry into Algeria is an uphill task has been significantly challenged in 2023. Indeed, procuring a visa upon arrival has been made a realizable feat provided you have booked a tour with an agency. While this might initially appear as a complication, it reveals itself to be a blessing in disguise – tour packages are quite budget-friendly and invariably save you considerable time and effort.
My fascination with Algeria was kindled back in 2010 when I chanced upon the captivating book by renowned French ethnographer Henri Lot, titled “In Search of the Tassili n’Ajjer Frescoes“. Lot’s extensive exploration of the rock art in the Algerian Sahara during the 1930s introduced these magnificent creations to the global audience. The Ajjer Plateau proudly displays one of the world’s most expansive open-air galleries of prehistoric art, boasting over 15,000 drawings. The most ancient of these petroglyphs can be traced back to the seventh millennium BC, while the most recent ones hail from the seventh century AD.
Inspired by the vivid imagery painted in the book, I was spurred to visit Algeria and began drafting travel plans. However, securing a path to the country was not without its challenges. Algerian authorities, till this day, only issue tourist visas for those having confirmed bookings with a local agency. This policy reflects a persistent concern for independent tourists, notwithstanding the absence of military conflicts or separatist regions within the country.
History of Algeria
In the 10th century, Berber tribes laid the foundation stones of the city of Al-Jazair, translating to “the islands” in Arabic, on four coastal islands. The country ultimately took its name from its most significant city and current capital, Al-Jazair, or Algiers in English.
By the 16th century, Algiers had been absorbed into the Ottoman Empire, and the namesake city evolved into the prime base of operations for Berber pirates who made a living plundering vessels across the Mediterranean. In 1830, under the guise of avenging an insult to their consul by the local Dey (the title held by rulers in Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya), the French army launched an assault on the city. Captured within a day, Algiers was transformed into the capital of French Algeria, a status it held for the next 132 years under French rule.
France’s impact on Algeria was profound and far-reaching. The years spanning from 1885 to 1930 are often remembered as a golden era for the country. Insurrections were quelled, the economy hummed along efficiently, and thanks to advancements in healthcare, the Muslim population grew threefold — from three million in the mid-19th century to nine million by the mid-20th century. French remains the second most commonly spoken language in the country after Arabic, and the architectural influence of Paris is evident in the pristine preservation of the capital city. Algeria also boasts its own wine industry. Traditional French fare like baguettes and croissants are much more commonplace here than baklava, and the roads teem with French cars.
The landscape shifted dramatically in 1954 with the emergence of the National Liberation Front (FLN), a radical group opposed to French colonization. The same year saw the FLN initiate attacks on French establishments in Algeria, prompting France to bolster its troop presence in the country to 400,000 by 1955, meaning one in every three French soldiers was stationed in Algeria. By 1956, the FLN expanded its tactics to include urban terrorism, a development met with harsh retaliation and brutal torture by the French.
Negotiations to end the war between the National Liberation Front and France led to a referendum in which 99.7% of Algerians voted for independence. In France it was 64%. As a result, Algeria gained its independence on June 5, 1962. Photo: Gwili / Wikimedia.org
In 1959, France’s Charles de Gaulle acknowledged the right of Algerians to self-determination, a concession that drew ire from colonial supporters within France. Nonetheless, the winds of change were undeniable and the crumbling of the empire inevitable. By 1960, 17 former European colonies in Africa had attained independence. De Gaulle comprehended the unavoidable truth that Algeria was on a path towards becoming a sovereign nation. Despite this, the country remained under French protectorate, and the National Liberation Front (FLN) waged a war for independence. Casualty estimates for this conflict vary greatly depending on the source. French reports claim 18,000 fatalities, while Algerian figures fluctuate between 15,000 to a staggering 1.5 million people, a majority of whom were civilians.
The peace negotiations culminated in a referendum where an overwhelming 99.7% of Algerians voted in favor of independence. In France, the figure was 64%. On June 5, 1962, Algerian independence was formally declared. In the ensuing months, under the chilling ultimatum of “suitcase or coffin,” nearly a million Europeans vacated Algeria.
Fast forward to around 20 years ago, the end of the bloody “Black Decade” (1991-2002) was marked. This civil war claimed the lives of anywhere from 44,000 to 200,000 people according to various sources. During the wave of protests and revolutions known as the “Arab Spring,” Algeria was relatively unscathed. Fatalities were limited to five, and the protests were not extensive. In contrast, Egypt saw over 800 lives lost to the demonstrations. Libya, Yemen, and Syria descended into civil wars following the Arab Spring.
Tensions resurged in February 2019 when incumbent president, 82-year-old Bouteflika, proposed to run for a fifth term in office. Widespread protests led to a referendum that established a two-term limit for presidents in Algeria. Bouteflika withdrew his candidacy, and the turmoil in the country gradually deflated.
Approximately two decades ago, the simmering unrest in Algeria concluded, with insurgent activities and rebellions becoming stories of the past. Despite the tranquil state of affairs, the Algerian government maintains a vigilant stance, fueled by the residual effects of past conflicts. Their concern for tourist safety remains paramount, manifsting in various safety measures.
Such protective measures include mandatory military convoys in the country’s southern regions, serving as a security blanket for tourists venturing into these areas. Moreover, on arrival, travelers cannot freely exit the airport; a designated individual or party is required to receive them. These protocols, while seemingly overcautious, reflect the government’s commitment to ensuring the safety and comfort of its visitors, shielding them from even the slightest hint of danger, real or perceived.
How Algeria is organized
Nestled in the continent of Africa, Algeria is a sprawling nation, home to approximately 44 million individuals. Despite its vast population, it ranks ninth in size in the context of Africa’s overall populace of 1.4 billion. Arabic-speaking Arabs make up around 80% of Algeria’s demographic, while one in five Algerians is of Berber descent. The Berbers, also known as “Amazigh” or “noble man” in the Tamazight language, are the native inhabitants of North Africa. The term ‘Berber,’ derived from Latin, historically denoted barbarians. Presently, the Berbers constitute the second largest ethnic group without their own national state, following the Kurds. Today, Algeria’s economy is primarily dependent on the export of oil, gas, and an array of other minerals.
Post the secession of South Sudan from Sudan in 2011, Algeria emerged as the largest country in Africa and holds the tenth position globally (a tad smaller than Kazakhstan or Argentina). Essentially, Algeria can be partitioned into two geographical segments: the northern Mediterranean coast adorned with cities, and the southern Sahara Desert.
Southern Algeria can be further divided into two territories: the Tassili n’Ajjer National Park adjacent to Libya and the Hoggar Plateau towards the west. Regrettably, at the time of writing this article, land transit between these two regions is restricted for non-Algerians, a cautionary measure by local authorities. Regardless, the situation in the region remains largely peaceful. For instance, the last episode involving tourist abduction dates back to 2003. Since then, the Algerian government has ensured enhanced control, although it retains the practice of convoy travel and prohibition on the N55 road.
To commute from one desert section to another requires a flight, typically via a detour through the capital city. However, if the N55 desert route is accessible at the time of your visit, a 700-kilometer car journey would be a viable and scenic option. This drive showcases the breathtaking transformation of the landscape from the sandy stretches of Tassili to the volcanic formations of the Hoggar Plateau.
In contrast, Northern Algeria, where the majority of the population resides, is characterized by an extensive road network connecting its cities. However, local airfares are relatively affordable, making flights a convenient choice for even shorter distances. For instance, a round-trip flight from Algiers to Constantine (400 kilometers) costs 8,000 dinars (59.30$), a price comparable to booking a cab via a hotel.
For now, the N55 road between Djanet and Tamanrasset is inaccessible to tourists, but this may change in the near future. Photo: Habib kaki / Wikimedia.org
The trip was immediately conceived to cover the southern and northern regions of the country. The itinerary was based on key points, flight schedules and a number of local features, such as the need for a convoy and the possibility of overnight stays in Assecrem.As a result, the 14-day route through Algeria looked like this: Algiers – Djanet (Tassili n’Ajjer Plateau) – Tamanrasset (Hoggar Plateau) – Jemilah – Timgad – Constantine – Algiers.Algiers. The capital, and it is not to be missed. French city with patisseries (bakeries), beautiful architecture and the second most populous agglomeration in Africa (after Cairo).Jemila and Timgad. The largest surviving structures of the Roman period in the country. Once again we admire the civic construction of the Romans and the ability to fit any city into the landscape beautifully.Constantine. A city of bridges built on the edge of a huge canyon. Terrifying (for those who are afraid of heights) and fascinating at the same time.Djanet (Tassili n’Ajjer Plateau). The opportunity to see the Sahara, not traveled by tourist caravans. High dunes, red sand, black stones, and Libya can be seen through binoculars. Along the way will be a lot of rock art from different eras.Tamanrasset (Hoggar Plateau). The only starting point to see the sunrises and sunsets from the slope of Mount Assecrem, the “End of the World” in the Tuareg view.The trip was organized by agency Fancyellow from Algiers, which helped to plan the entire route from the arrival in the capital to the flight back to Russia. Taking into account our wishes, of course. They were the only ones who agreed to organize a difficult route on a turnkey basis out of more than ten travel agencies I talked to. But still need to double-check their actions, because in one place they forgot to get a permit and had to change the route on the spot. Another agency to recommend is Azjar, the main specialists in the Djanet region are Tinariwen Tours. The guys from Fliegel Jezerniczky Expeditions helped with the Sahara itinerary, but their full organization of the tour cost significantly more than Fancyelow. We had six domestic flights in 14 days. We rented a car with a driver to visit Jemilah and Timgadah. The trips through the desert part of Tassili n’Ajjer and to the Hoggar Plateau were in a jeep tour format with overnight stays in tents.
Trips through the desert part of Tassili n’Ajjer and on the Hoggar Plateau are in the format of a jeep tour with overnight stays in tents
Algiers-Capital: French Architecture and the Old Oriental City
Algiers is the main city, port and the main point of entry into the country. The capital is located on the shore of the Gulf of Algiers, and the historic part of the city is located on a 140-meter hill. Algiers has several dominant landmarks that are visible from almost anywhere: the Monument to the Martyrs, the Aurassi Hotel and the Jamaa el-Jazair Mosque. They are convenient to navigate during your walks.
Algiers has several dominant landmarks that are visible from almost anywhere: the Monument to the Martyrs, the Aurassi Hotel and the Jamaa el-Jazair Mosque. They are convenient to navigate during your walks
99% chance that you will find yourself in the city of Algiers not without the participation of the agency that helped organize the trip to the country (it’s almost impossible to do otherwise). They usually include a tour of the capital in the program of the tour, and you should not refuse it, even if you have learned the guidebook “Longley Planet” by heart. A local guide can help you better understand why the different parts of the city are so different from each other, how to choose the right dates, and why the French are so reluctant to give visas. To be exact, they do, but you have to wait about six months, according to one of the interlocutors. One of the reasons no one talks about out loud is historical resentment. Algerians are well aware of France’s contribution to the country’s development, but they cannot forget the victims of the War of Independence.In Algiers, the old city is called “Kasbah” (“fortress” from Arabic), unlike other Arab countries, where the word “medina” is usually used, which literally means “city”. The impression of what I saw: the nicest people and cleanliness unaccustomed to Africa. By the way, the Lonely Planet guidebook highly recommends not entering this maze of streets. The weighty volume was published in 2007, when the situation in the country and the city was very far from today, and crime was indeed a frequent occurrence in this part of town. The kasbah is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
In Algiers, the old town is called “Kasbah” (“fortress” in Arabic), unlike other Arab countries, where the word “medina,” which literally means “city,” is commonly used
Algiers’ Kasbah is divided into upper and lower.The upper Kasbah is a network of streets and cul-de-sacs with old houses, internal passages, and staircases. In the morning it smells of fresh baguettes and mini pizzas (popular street food). Someone washes the carpet right in the narrow aisle, and someone hangs laundry. You don’t have to worry about getting lost: all the alleywaysKasbahs are mapped on Google Maps and OSM.The place is interesting for its identity, scenes from life and, of course, beautiful views of the city. One of the viewing platforms is on the stairs of the building. You can sit in a cafe overlooking the Mediterranean Sea and the minarets next to the Ramdan mosque, the oldest in the city. A walk around the upper Kasbah is convenient to end at the Palais dei (citadel). At the time of writing, restoration work is going on there, and you can see the citadel only from the outside.
It is convenient to end your walk around the upper Kasbah at the Palace of Deity. At the time of writing, restoration work is underway there, and it is only possible to view it from the outside. Photo: Yves Jalabert, Damouns / Damien Boilley / Wikimedia.org
As in other old cities, the Kasbah has a problem with the preservation of buildings. Sometimes old houses are demolished, but it is almost impossible to build new ones because of UNESCO restrictions. Eventually, a solution was found: a destroyed house is completely dismantled and a mini-park or a recreation area is built in its place. If several of the neighboring houses are destroyed, a small soccer field appears there.The Lower Kasbah was severely destroyed during the reconstruction of the second half of the 19th century. Walking around the Kasbah, it is worth stopping by the Mustapha Pacha Palace (Dar Mustapha Pacha). From its interiors you can see how the houses of the nobility looked like, how many rooms were there and where the guards had a rest. The museum exhibit is not very large, rather the building itself with its many passages and secret rooms is of interest.
Walking around the Kasbah, it is worth a visit to Mustafa Pasha’s palace. From its interiors you can see how the houses of the nobility looked like, how many rooms were there and where the guards rested. Photo: Meriembenhabiles / Wikimedia.org
Many palaces (Dar in Arabic means palace) were destroyed during the redevelopment of the city by the French. Those that remained are now being actively restored – the palaces of Hassan Pasha, Aziza and Souf (Dar Hassan Pacha, Dar Aziza, Dar Souf Palace). They may already be open by the time of your visit.If you want to understand how the Kasbah looked like 60 years ago, you can watch the movie “The Battle of Algiers”. It won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival. It not only shows the Kasbah, the streets of the city and everyday scenes that can still be seen today, but also well conveyed the mood of the Algerians during the struggle for independence. The film was banned in France for a long time.
In addition to the Kasbah, Algiers has many sights concentrated on Martyrs’ Square. From it you can clearly see the mosques of Jamaa el-Kebir, Jamaa el-Jedid and Jamaa Ketshawa. Photo: Ludovic Courtès / Wikimedia.org
In addition to the Kasbah, Algiers has many sights concentrated in Martyr’s Square. From it you can clearly see the mosques of Jamaa el-Kebir, Jamaa el-Jedid and Jamaa Ketshawa. Unfortunately, only Muslims are allowed in Algerian mosques (as in many Moroccan mosques, by the way). During the trip, we only managed to get into the Jamaa Abdelkader mosque in Constantine. Photos from the embankment near Martyrs’ Square with a view of the city and the bay were loved a hundred years ago.
Photos from the waterfront near Martyrs’ Square overlooking the city and the bay were loved a century ago
A five-minute walk from Martyrs’ Square is the Palais des Rais, or Bastion 23. The former residence of Mustafa Pasha is now home to the Center for Arts and Culture. If you have enough time, you can sign up for a group tour during which a film is also shown.
A five-minute walk from Martyrs’ Square is the Rais Palace. The former residence of Mustafa Pasha now houses the Arts and Culture Centre. Photo: Chettouh Nabil / Wikimedia.org
There is a bazaar next to Martyrs’ Square. Fruit, glass jars for pickling and mobile phone covers are on sale. It’s hard to find anything worth remembering. A three-piece suit, on the other hand, is easy. You wouldn’t call it a stereotypical bazaar from “1001 Nights”, but it does have its noisy, boisterous and colourful atmosphere. A visit to the bazaar is a good excuse to walk along blvd Larbi ben M’hidi to the main post office. The building, built in 1908, is a mixture of French and Moorish styles.
Djamaa el Djazaïr is the third largest mosque in the world (after Mecca and Medina). It can accommodate 35,000 worshippers and its minaret is 270 metres high (the tallest building in Africa).
Djamaa el Djazaïr is the third largest mosque in the world. It can accommodate 35,000 worshippers and its minaret is 270 metres high. Photo: Daoud Abismail / Unsplash.com
There are two museums in the city that are usually recommended by locals.
- The National Museum of Antiquities and Islamic Art includes an exhibition of pre-Islamic art (sculptures from the towns of Shershel and Tipaza, mosaics, utensils) and Islamic art, including that from the Maghreb. A ticket costs 150 dinars (1.11$).
- The Bardo Museum is considerably richer, both in its collection and its location. The complex is located in the former residence of a Tunisian prince exiled in Algeria. You can see Kabyle and Tuareg jewellery, the prince’s well-preserved chambers and a collection of African masks and musical instruments. A ticket costs the same 150 dinars (1.11$).
- The Monument to the Martyrs is an important site for Algerians. During the war of liberation with the French, it is estimated that up to one and a half million Algerians died.
The Monument to the Martyrs is an important site for Algerians. During the war of liberation against the French, it is estimated that up to one and a half million Algerians died. Photo: Halima Bouchouicha / Unsplash.com
It is logical to combine the Jardin d’Essai (Botanical Garden Hamma) with a visit to the Monument to the Martyrs because they are close by. The garden has been in use since the 1830s. This is where they worked on increasing yields and other agricultural tasks. Nowadays there is no scientific work, although signs indicating the laboratories and experimental rooms can still be found on the buildings. The locals use the garden as a recreational area and it is particularly popular at weekends. The first Tarzan film was shot here in 1932. In some places, remote corners of the garden resemble a real jungle with hanging vines.
The remote corners of the Ordeal Garden resemble a real jungle with hanging vines in some places. Photo: Zinebhmz / Wikimedia.org
Even those who know nothing about Algeria and its musical culture have heard at least two Algerian singers. Released back in 1996, Khaled’s hit Aicha has long been heard around the world. A year later, Cheb Mami would perform Desert Rose with Sting and gain international popularity.
The most popular food in the country is fast food (kebabs, shawarma) and snacks (falafel, hummus, fattoush).Surprisingly, seafood is not so easy to find in the seaside capital. Algerians hardly eat soups either. As in the other Maghreb countries, tagine is very popular in Algeria, both as a dish of vegetables and meat, and as a method of cooking in a special clay pot (tagine). City dwellers mostly drink strong coffee. Coca-cola is almost always served with the meal.
The most popular food in the country is fast food (kebabs, shawarma) and snacks (falafel, hummus, fattoush)
You’re unlikely to have trouble finding a café or restaurant in the capital. Rue Didouche Mourad, one of the main streets, has both cheap kebab shops and restaurants with a full range of alcoholic drinks (such as Caracoya). Dinner at the latter will cost around 4,000 dinars (29.65$) per person.For 700-800 dinars (~5.56$) you can eat kebab and wash it down with ayran in a bistro (e.g. Arabesque). Fruit and vegetable stalls are found on almost every corner.
For 700-800 dinars, you can eat kebab and drink ayran in a bistro like Arabesque
Alcohol is not sold in ordinary shops. Google Maps gave up the addresses of three or four alcoholic shops in the centre, but in their place there were only rusty shutters. When asked head-on by locals: “Where to buy alcohol?” they answer rather vaguely that there are definitely shops, but they do not remember the addresses.A brasserie was found in the capital quite by chance. It is not marked on any map, there are no windows, and a special man stands at the entrance to make sure you understand where you are going. It’s smoky inside and serves beer and spirits.
A brasserie was found in the capital quite by accident. It is not marked on any map, there are no windows, and there is a special person at the entrance who makes sure you understand where you are going
Algiers has a metro; it consists of one line with 19 stations located along the bay. The underground was opened in 2011. A ticket costs 50 dinars (0.37$). The interval between trains of four minutes seems very long. There are trams and buses, whose fleet looks quite ancient. All taxis seem to have meters, but for some reason the price is usually set in advance, before the trip.
Djemila and Timgad – ancient Roman cities
Djemila is a 1st century Roman ruin with a forum, basilica, triumphal arch and houses. Cemila is considered an example of an ancient city set in a mountainous landscape and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Until the French occupation in the 1830s, nothing was known of Djemila. Ferdinand Philippe (Duke of Orleans) ordered the Arch of Caracalla to be dismantled and transported to Paris. It was indeed dismantled, but was rebuilt three years after the Duke’s death. It was not until the early 20th century that serious excavations began.One of the temples at Djemila was built by Septimius Sever in honour of his own family. Today, locals spend their time playing the oud, a local stringed instrument, on the temple’s steps. In the ruins of the ancient city, children play football right in the thermae, running across the remains of the mosaics on the floor. In the 2nd century amphitheatre, women chat about their business.Djemila is home to the largest museum of mosaics in Algeria. The French, while excavating, hung all the mosaics on the wall, making it possible to see the whole picture. It took them 40 years. The Dionysus cycle (third hall) is considered by art connoisseurs to be one of the best examples of mosaics. Look carefully at the small details: you can often find amusing characters. There’s a good vantage point 20 metres from the museum entrance, from where you can see the panorama of Djemila.
Today, on the steps of a temple in Djemila, locals pass the time playing the oud, a local stringed instrument / Djemila is home to the largest museum of mosaics in Algeria
Timgad is another Roman town, also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is located 140 kilometres from Cemila and 40 kilometres from the nearest major town of Batna. It is one of the best preserved perpendicularly-designed towns. The ruins of Timgad are much larger than Djemila, much of the area has not been excavated – one can wander freely between the lupanarium (a public house in ancient Rome) and the forum, like a patrician.Emblazoned on the steps of the forum is the city’s motto: Venare, lavari, ludere, ridere, occ est vivere – “To hunt, to visit the thermae, to play and to laugh – that is life”. In addition to the huge thermae, the city had an impressive library.
On the steps of the forum is inscribed the city’s motto: Venare, lavari, ludere, ridere, occ est vivere – “To hunt, to visit thermae, to play and to laugh – that is life”
Because of the flat topography, it is difficult to understand the scale of the Timgad. The best vantage point is on the upper rows of the amphitheatre. From there you can see Trajan’s Arch, the remains of the temples and the market place of Sertius. Because of the very small number of tourists, the local guides are genuinely happy to see any and all people and give their best on the guided tours.
Because of the flat topography, it is difficult to understand the scale of the Timgad. The best vantage point is the upper rows of the amphitheatre
Tazoult (ten kilometres from Batna). The ruins of the Roman military base of Lambaesis can still be seen here. The largest structure is the Praetorium (the general’s headquarters), a two-storey building with a plaza visible from afar.
Ruins of the Roman military base of Lambaesis in Tazoult
Medrasen (30 kilometres from Batna) is a Numidian tomb from the 3rd century BC. It is an impressive-sized structure resembling a stone yurt. Convenient to visit on the road from Constantine to Timgad or back.
The remains of the barracks are clearly visible around the area, with local boys herding goats. There is a partially preserved arch of Septimius Severus. In 1855 the French built a maximum-security prison in Tazoult, which is still in operation today.At the time of the visit none of the four sites were selling souvenirs. Only Jemile offered some crudely made replicas of Caracalla’s arch. For a leisurely stroll, it would be better to bookend a day in Djemila and a day in Timgad, Tazoult and Medrasen.
Constantine – a town on the edge of a 170-metre canyon
Alexander Dumas wrote in his diary during a visit to Constantine: “A fantastic city, something like the fictional island of Laputa from Gulliver’s Travels. The city’s incredible location makes it unique. Constantine was founded on one side of the 170-metre-high canyon of the Rummel River. It is possible to descend to the bottom of the canyon and walk along the river – there is a path there. The town will overhang above, with a thin strip of sky between the two slopes of the canyon.But if there’s a canyon, there must also be bridges over it. Bridges are an essential part of Constantine, its symbol. Even the Romans started to build bridges over the Rummel River, which are still in place today. The Sidi Msid bridge was opened in 1912. From the bridge to the bottom of the canyon is 175 metres. For 17 years Sidi Msid was the tallest bridge in the world.
The Sidi Msid bridge was opened in 1912.
The Bab el Cantra Bridge is the oldest active bridge in Constantine. The remains of an Ottoman bridge and earlier Roman fragments can be seen below Bab el Cantra. The best view of Sidi Msid Bridge is from Bab el Kantra in the evening.And a good view of Bab el Kantra will be from the Mellah Slimane footbridge. This bridge connects the railway station area with the historic part of the city. The bridge is equipped with a lift that takes passengers up Larbi bin Mhidi Street. Standing in the middle of the 125-metre bridge, you can feel it swaying.
The Mellach Slimane Bridge connects the railway station area with the historic part of the city. The bridge has a lift that takes passengers to Larbi Ben Mkhidi Street
The Sidi Rashed Viaduct was built by Paul Sejourne and was the tallest concrete bridge of its time. It is 447 metres long and has 27 arches. In 1903 Sejournet designed a similar bridge, the Adolphe Bridge in Luxembourg. The Sidi Rashed Viaduct is conveniently viewed from points near the Salah Bay Viaduct. It is the longest bridge in Constantine at 4.3 kilometres.
The Sidi Rashed Viaduct was built by Paul Sejourne and was the tallest concrete bridge of its time. It is 447 metres long and has 27 arches
The Devil’s Bridge is also on the list of bridges. This bridge is considerably less high, about ten metres. But its trick is not the height, but the view upwards from the bottom of the gorge.
Bab el-Kantra Bridge – the oldest active bridge in Constantine / View of the Devil’s Bridge from the bottom of the gorge
The Sirte Museum is interesting for several reasons. Firstly, many stone slabs with Phoenician script have been found in the city. Secondly, you’ll find many exhibits from Tiddis (a Roman ruin 30 km from Constantine). Thirdly there is a small collection of modern Algerian art.The Ahmed Bey palace, according to the people of Constantine, is superior to the palaces in the capital and is the best example of Ottoman architecture in Algeria. There’s no arguing with that: arcades decorated with murals and tiles, orange gardens with birds. The chambers of the bey’s daughter are decorated with stained glass windows, which was very unusual for the region.
The daughter’s chambers in Ahmed Bey’s palace are decorated with stained glass windows, which is very unusual for the region
In Constantine you can visit a mosque accessible to non-Muslims. Jemaa Emir Abdelkader is the tallest building in the city and the second tallest in Algeria after the capital’s Jamaa el-Jazair. The minarets are 107 metres high. Nearby is Algeria’s first Islamic University.
In Constantine you can visit a mosque accessible to non-Muslims. Jemaa Emir Abdelkader is the tallest building in the city and the second tallest in Algeria after the capital’s Jamaa el-Jazair
In front of the main post office building sits a man who uses a typewriter to retype handwritten letters. There is an ancient but working typewriter on a bottle crate. People bring him paper notes, and for money he turns them into sheets of neatly typed text. It seems like a good idea for a souvenir.In Constantine you can do a really unusual activity – speleology. There is a centuries-old hiking trail along the bottom of the canyon. The Konstantyna speleology club organises excursions there. Alongside the historic path along the Rummel riverbed, you can visit numerous caves or walk through the 1200 metre long tunnel under the town that was used during French rule. This tunnel starts at Devil’s Bridge and ends almost in the centre of town. Active club member and excellent guide Bilal is the most enthusiastic man about the city. A great storyteller, speaks English and is into photography and videography – knows lots of cool vantage points in the city.
Active member of the Constanta caving club and excellent guide Bilal is as passionate about the city as possible
Gaadet z’mane is a café in the vegetable market area where you can sample traditional dishes from Constantine. The name itself can be translated as ‘Family food of yesteryear’. The owner, blond-haired and blue-eyed Algerian Hisham Haddad, looks more like a man from the Central Russian uplands than a Maghreb.Shakshuka dfer – for starters, the “kesra”, that is, galettes or small tortillas made of semolina, salt and water, is prepared. The gravy is made of red sauce with beef or chicken and chunks of chili peppers and chickpeas. The tortillas are broken into small pieces, mixed with the sauce and the meat is added.Regular shakshuka differs from shakshuka dfer in that the kesra (galette) are thinner, like rolled dough, and are broken in large pieces.
Ordinary shakshuka differs from dfur shakshuka in that the kesra (biscuits) are thinner, like rolled dough, and break into large pieces
Felfel har is a pickled chilli pepper. It’s spicy, but the hosts carefully place a glass of water next to each guest.All meals in Algeria are served with appetizers: olives, hummus, chopped cabbage, babaganoush (mashed aubergine).Turtles Pizza is a pizzeria – a flashback to your childhood. They serve pizza with meatballs, just like Michelangelo did in the cartoon. We order a large one, and ‘Cavabanga!
Turtles Pizza is a pizzeria – a flashback to a childhood memory. It serves pizza with meatballs, just like Michelangelo did in the cartoon
Tassili n’Ajjer – rock art in the Sahara
The Tassili n’Ajjer Plateau is home to thousands of prehistoric images that have survived the ages to show us how Africa lived in the distant past. French ethnographer and explorer Henri Lot spent 16 months in the desert with a team of artists, photographers and the Tuaregs who continuously accompanied the expedition.
The Tassili n’Ajjer Plateau is home to thousands of prehistoric images that have survived the ages to show us how Africa lived in the distant past
During this time some 800 images have been examined and transferred to paper. Most of these are on the small Sefar plateau, but there are also finds from other parts of Tassili n’Ajjer. Unlike many other places where you can see prehistoric images of hunting, people or ceremonies, Tassili n’Ajjer shows life in the Sahara thousands of years ago. And the Sahara was once very different. Nowadays, all the images in Tassili n’Ajjer are divided into several historical phases:
- Images of typical African animals – giraffes, elephants, hippos, rhinos and others. These are the oldest drawings which show the inhabitants of the Sahara from the fifth millennium BC to the second millennium BC. Yes, yes, there was a climate in the Sahara at that time that allowed the animals of the Ethiopian fauna to live and develop. It is believed that during this time, people were mostly engaged in hunting and gathering.
- The appearance of domestic animals (cows, goats, sheep) indicates a transition to cattle breeding. Covering a period of about 2000 BC to 1000 BC.
- The emergence of the war chariot horse dates back to about 1000 BC to the beginning of our era.
- It may seem surprising, but the camel is the latest acquisition of the Saharan people. The climate had by then changed so much that horses could not survive in it. Images of camels did not appear until the 2nd-7th centuries AD.
Tuaregs certainly made images after the 7th century, but they are no longer considered rock art treasures. Images of people have also undergone changes. There are tiny symbolic drawings of two triangles and four sticks and drawings of round-headed people. Sometimes they are depicted in great detail during ceremonies – with masks, costumes and elaborate hairstyles.
Unlike many other places where you can see prehistoric depictions of hunting, people or ceremonies, Tassili n’Ajjer shows life in the Sahara thousands of years ago
Some tourists can’t stand it and try to take more than just sand with them. In 2004, five German tourists went missing in the desert. Fearing kidnapping by terrorists, the Algerian authorities organised an extensive search. The tourists were found on their way to Niger together with 130 drawings, which they had managed to dismantle and hoped to take out of the country. Algerian justice was merciful: three months in prison and a fine of about $300,000.
In addition to rock art, the Tassili n’Ajjer area provides an opportunity to see the incredible variety of sandstone forms that make up the Tadrart Rouge mountain range, meaning ‘Red Tadrart’.
In addition to rock art, the Tassili n’Ajjer area offers the opportunity to see the incredible variety of sandstone forms that make up the Tadrart Rouge, which means ‘Red Tadrart’. The red colour of the sand is due to its high iron content. To see the Tassili n’Ajjer plateau, you have to fly to Djanet. There are one or two flights from the capital every day, with a flight of about two hours.
The red colour of the sand is due to its high iron content
Two desert trekking options
One-week leisurely trekking
If you are only interested in rock art, it is best to contact agencies in Djanet, which conduct treks on the Sefar Plateau. Due to the complex topography and terrain, Sefar is inaccessible to jeep trekking.Typically, trekking on the Sefar Plateau and the surrounding areas (Inauanrhet, Tamrit, Tin Zumaitak, Tin Tazarift, Jabbaren, Matalen Amazar, Tin Aboteka) takes five to nine days. This option involves four to six hours of walking per day. Sometimes it is possible to arrange to ride a camel if the terrain permits. Donkeys carry your belongings, including food. This is the route Henri Loth first took, and his book describes the journey. They drank water, by the way, from puddles, sometimes shared with donkeys.Trekking will allow you to see as much of the diverse assemblage of drawings as possible. But you must understand the peculiarities and limitations of this format: you will be on a self-contained trek, albeit accompanied by experienced Tuaregs.
Jeep tour to see as much as possible
Most visitors to Tassili n’Ajjer choose another route – organised jeep tours to the southern parts of the plateau, including Tadrart Rouge. This option takes away the romance of the hiking adventure, but multiplies the number of places you get to see. Tours are usually run in Toyota vehicles ranging from 30- to 40-year-old station wagons to newer models. It all depends on the agency and the budget.
Most visitors to Tassili n’Ajjer opt for organised jeep tours to the southern parts of the plateau, including Tadrart Rouge. The tours are usually conducted in Toyota vehicles of various modifications
Local agencies usually make calculations based not on the number of places you want to see, but on the number of days of travel. Despite the sheer size of the desert, most of the itineraries take place in specific areas. This has to do with logistics, overnight points and, of course, viewpoints. We travelled for four days, which was enough time to see the main sites, encounter beautiful sunsets and sunrises and take thousands of photos.Such a trip format will require reconciliation with a number of inconveniences. And there are none to be avoided. There are no showers in the desert. For hygienic purposes you have plenty of places among the rocks. Your room is a tent. It will be very dusty. And you’d better take an old backpack, because it will lie in the back with firewood, gas cylinders and crates of food. You should also consider how to protect the equipment from dust and sand.Usual composition for jeep tours is driver, guide and cook. In our case a team of three and two tourists travelled in one pick-up truck. If there are three or more tourists, it is already two cars, and the accommodation will be a little more comfortable, but the price will also increase.
The usual composition for jeep tours is driver, guide and cook. In our case, the team of three and two tourists travelled in one pick-up truck
How a jeep tour in the desert works
Once you have decided on the number of days, it is very important to discuss all the technical details with the organiser. Remember – once you leave Djanet it will be difficult to find warm clothes and medicines or to stock up on crisps if you can’t live without them.
Tent. Who takes it – you or the agency? If it’s an agency, you’d better make sure it suits you. If there’s frost and you’re given a single layer, you won’t get a decent night’s sleep. It’s best to bring your own trusted tent.Sleeping bag. By default, guides take plenty of woolen blankets to sleep on and cover up with. But it is better to take your own sleeping bag, too.Clothes. Whatever your plans, it’s best to dress for both rest (and it can get chilly) and increased activity, when you’re sure to want to get naked. Don’t forget a torch – it’s pitch black on a moonless night in the desert.Water. Drinking water is delivered in 0.5 litre bottles. And there is technical water in tanks for washing dishes.First-aid kit. It is important to bring at least a basic first aid kit. It may be in the car, but there is no need to test it on yourself. Don’t forget sunscreen – the sun in the desert burns even the rocks.It’s best to organise your space and everyday life right away so that the essentials (camera, water, personal snacks, sunglasses) are at hand. Your bags, food, gas, water will all be in the boot of the pick-up truck, which is not instantly accessible.
It’s better to organise your space and life so that you have everything you need at your fingertips. Your bags, groceries, gas, water – it will all be in the boot of the truck, which is not instantly accessible
This is an important item worth discussing in detail. You may even request a menu for each day. If you have allergies or intolerances to any foods, be sure to inform the travel agent. Remember that the nearest town is 150-200km away, so you won’t be able to buy anything extra. The typical diet looks like this:Breakfast. Baguette with cheese and jam or pancakes with butter. Tea or coffee with waffles. Apples, oranges or tangerines. That’s it. If you’re used to a denser breakfast, grab a cold cuts (cheese, sausage) from home. Boiling water is always available, so you may take instant porridge.Snack. This is a side dish prepared in the morning (i.e. cold), e.g. rice or pasta with sausage, sausages, herbs, vegetables, olives and beans. Tea or coffee with waffles. Each person is given a tray of food and I don’t remember anyone ever finishing their meal. There is really a lot of food.Dinner. Dinner is the main meal of the Tuareg. Dinner is usually a side dish of meat (chicken), beans, olives and vegetables.
Dinner is the Tuareg people’s main meal. It is usually a side dish and meat (mostly chicken), beans, olives, vegetables
One day the cook was preparing a curious Tuareg dish for dinner. A dough is kneaded and made into a thick flatbread. The dough is put under the coals right in the sand. After a while, the cook takes it out, removes the sand and breaks it into small pieces. Everything is then mixed with the meat and gravy and stewed.
An unusual Tuareg dish – a flatbread cooked in hot sand under the coals. Photo: Giomodica / Wikimedia.org
Tea bags and ginger tea are served to the table. Both are very much a favourite. If you’re not a fan, get your usual tea bags or brews from home.Then there’s Tuareg tea. It’s regular green tea, but brewed in a small kettle over a fire. Sugar is added to the very thick brew. The tea is repeatedly poured from small steeping mugs into the brew pot so that the foam is as high as possible. The drink is incredibly invigorating and refreshing.
Tuareg tea is repeatedly poured from small steeping mugs into the brew pot so that the foam is as high as possible
What kind of physical activity will be involved? That’s up to you. If you’re not in the mood, sit by the fire or lie on a blanket, gazing at the endless lines of dunes. Ask the guides in advance if any of them play musical instruments. Often they’ll bring along guitars and djembes – then your evenings will be poetic.
If you want to see as much as possible, you’ll have to do a fair bit of walking. The guides usually know where you can get a good view of the sunset or sunrise. You can use a compass or an app such as Sun Position to see in advance where you might get a good view. It’s usually a hillside or the crest of a dune, which can be more than 100 metres high.
Guides usually know which points offer good views of the sunset or sunrise. This doesn’t prevent you from checking in advance with a compass or an app like Sun Position to see where a good vantage point will be
Order of the day
No matter how many days are on your programme, the schedule will be about the same. If you want to meet the sunrise on the dune, you need to wake up early. In January the sun rises around 6:30 am. Departure from the overnight stay is usually between 8:30 and 9:00 am. Lunch is served around 12 noon. Often the lunch spot is close to some sort of panoramic point. While the team rattles the pots, you can take interesting pictures. Cooking and lunch itself takes about an hour and a half. Usually you’ll arrive at the campsite around 5pm to set up camp. That’s when you’ll be able to find your ideal spot to capture the sunset and get the right shot of the golden dunes. Dinner is usually ready around 7-8 pm.
The guides know the places that everyone likes, or whose photos are available online and tourists have already asked to stay at them. But your personal preferences may be different. Feel free to ask for stops whenever you feel like it. The guides don’t care how many times you stop or how much you walk around an unimpressive looking rock. If it is important for you to photograph the sunrise, you should coordinate your overnight stop with the guides so that there is a good point to photograph it nearby.
If photographing the sunrise is important to you, you should coordinate your overnight location with the guides so that there is a good vantage point nearby
What to see in the desert
The itinerary thread is subject to change, but it’s likely to include at least some of the following:The Weeping Cow (La Vache qui Pleure). This Neolithic sand monolith is near the airport at Tagharghart. The cows carved into the rock are probably waiting for water to drink. A tear from one of the cows’ eyes has given rise to all sorts of speculation and interpretations. On the sarcophagus of Cavite (wife of Mentuhotep II, 11th dynasty) there is also a weeping cow.
The cows carved into the rock are probably waiting for water to drink. A tear from the eye of one of the cows has given rise to all sorts of speculation and interpretations
Erg Admer. One of the closest erg (the name of the sand massifs in Arabic) to Djanet, just 20 minutes away. Classic views of lines of sand disappearing over the horizon. The sand at Erg Edmer is almost white. It’s a great place for sunset encounters.
Erg Edmer is one of the closest ergs (the name of the sand massifs in Arabic) to Djanet, just 20 minutes away
Tin Merzouga. An area with some of the highest red dunes. Merzouga is likely to be the overnight destination.
Tin Merzuga – an area with some of the highest red dunes
Hedgehog, or Ekanasaï (Ekanasaï). A memorable form of weathering. Reminds some of a hedgehog, some of a pig.
The hedgehog, or Ekanasai, is a memorable form of weathering. Reminds some of a hedgehog, some of a pig
Moul Naga. The area gets its name from the rock, shaped like a camel. It often becomes a place to spend the night. The sand changes colour at sunset from yellow to brown to gold.
In the Moul Naga area, the sand changes colour at sunset from yellow to brown to gold
Cathedral. A huge twin archway near Moul Naga.
The cathedral – a huge twin arch near Moul Naga
Ouan Zaouatan. Another point comprising dunes to the east and a valley with small but numerous rocky plateaus to the west. A good place to capture both sunrise and sunset.
Ouan Zaouatan is another point, comprising dunes to the east and a valley with small but numerous rocky plateaus to the west
Tamanrasset. The capital of the Tuareg people and the main staging ground for emigrants
The only reason to visit the town of Tamanrasset is to start any trails on the Hoggar Plateau. The N55 road between Djanet and Tamanrasset is inaccessible to tourists. This creates some logistical difficulties. In order to cover 700 kilometres, there have to be at least two flights – from Djanet to Algiers and on to Tamanrasset. This is not always possible in one day.The flight from Algiers to Tamanrasset takes about two hours. Our luggage showed up on the belt an hour and a half after landing. Don’t worry, you won’t make a difference anyway. While the rare tourists (in our case we were the only apparent tourists on the flight) wait for their luggage, a security officer may come up with questions about the purpose of the visit and the itinerary. After a while, the officer may come up again with the same questions. Don’t worry – he might just be bored.We were escorted to the hotel by two SUVs with military personnel. By the way, it was night and completely deserted outside. It’s hard to know who we were being protected from. In January 2023 there was no free exit from the airport to the city and an armed convoy to the hotel was required. In early February 2023, there was news of a relaxed regime and official recognition of tourism in the southern regions of Algeria by the government. The convoy may soon become unnecessary.Tamanrasset lies on the Trans-Saharan route from Africa to Europe. A veritable hub for illegal immigrants who need to get to the capital Algiers and get across the sea by any means necessary. Most of the emigrants are from Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso (according to the guide). They are separated from the sea by about 1500 km of stony desert that has to be crossed. Transporting emigrants to the capital is a very important part of the city’s unofficial economy. This is probably the main reason for the overabundance of car repair shops in Tamanrasset.Often migrants from the south are forced to take with them what they can sell on the way and provide themselves with cash. Numerous shops in Tamanrasset are littered with items from West Africa: cult objects, masks, amulets, statuettes, weapons, musical instruments, clothing and even furniture. Some of these artefacts must have travelled long distances from a remote village in the interior of Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire or Benin to a junk shop in Tamanrasset.
Numerous shops in Tamanrasset are littered with items from West Africa that migrants bring with them for sale: cult objects, masks, amulets, statuettes, weapons, musical instruments, clothing and even furniture
Tamanrasset is considered the Tuareg capital of Algeria and the centre of crafts. The most famous of these is silverwork. The town is home to a number of shops offering crafts ranging from rings and pendants to decorative blades and engraved camel saddles. According to the traders, the jewellery is made of silver or nickel. A small pendant made of nickel would cost 500 dinars (3.71$). Ornaments in silver cost around 5,000-6,000 ((37.06–44.48$). You can buy traditional clothes, tagelmusts and leather goods in addition to jewellery.
The Tuaregs – who are they?
Tuareg guides are usually able to speak good English and can be asked about the everyday life, culture and politics of the country. Another benefit of accompanying them is a lot of insider information. They may have been born in independent Algeria, but they can tell you a lot about their parents’ lives. Who, unlike their children, lived in tents in the desert under roughly the conditions described by Henri Loth in his 1944 book, The Tuaregs of Hoggar. The institution of amenokal (king), for example, has survived to this day, albeit with modifications.
Hoggar’s Touareg – this man guards one of the unfinished camps along the road to Assekrema. Every few days he gets a visit from the military
Culture. The Tuareg Confederation is made up of many tribes, many of which trace their history back to their ancestor Ti-n-Hinan, from around the 4th century. The Tuaregs are matrilineal, i.e., descent and inheritance is through the mother’s line and polygamy is highly discouraged. Each tribe has its own leader, whose symbol is a tobol (drum). Although they have converted to Islam, Tuaregs still place small stones on dangerous paths to placate spirits. Education for girls is compulsory and for boys it’s all about being strong. After all, before the French colonialism Tuaregs were engaged in guarding caravans but more often in robbing them. Open robbery was a reason for pride. But stealing something from food storerooms, for example, was considered an incredible sin.The Tuaregs wore a tagelmust, a piece of indigo cotton about 3 to 15 meters long, with which the Tuareg men covered their heads, most of their faces and their necks. It protects you not only from sand and wind but also from evil spirits. If you can buy a headscarf before your trip starts, such as in Djanet, you’ll appreciate its practicality.
The Tuareg Confederation is made up of many tribes, many of which trace their history back to their ancestor Ti-n-Hinan, from around the 4th century. Photo: Garrondo / Wikimedia.org
Music. The Tuaregs have their own musical style, desert blues, with intricate rhythms, electric guitars and love lyrics. This music was born on the border of Algeria, Mali and Niger and could be the best soundtrack for a trip through the desert part of Algeria. The most famous desert blues bands are Tamikrest, Etran Finatawa band, Terakaft. And the guys from Tinariwen have even won a Grammy.
The Tuaregs have their own musical style – “desert blues” with intricate rhythms, electric guitars and love lyrics. Photo: Magharebia / Wikimedia.org
A state of their own. The Tuaregs tried for many years to create a state of Azawad with its capital in Mali’s Tombouctou. The future state was to include northern Mali, southeastern Algeria, parts of Niger, Burkina Faso and Libya. The hostilities took place mainly on Malian territory. The conflict was partially resolved by 2015, when an armistice agreement was signed between the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad and the Malian government.
The Tuaregs tried for years to create the state of Azawad with its capital in Mali’s Tombouctou, but eventually abandoned the idea of an independent state, preferring cultural, economic and political autonomy to secession from Mali. Photo: Magharebia / Wikimedia.org
The Hoggar Plateau – the route to the “End of the World
The Hoggar Plateau is made up of piles of volcanic rocks of varying shapes, a rather unfriendly rocky desert. Even the names sound eerie: Atakor, Akachaker, Akar-Akar. By the way, in Tamashek (Tuareg language), if a word begins with the letter A, it is masculine and if it begins with the letter T, it is feminine (e.g. shawl tagelmust). One of the most important places on the plateau are the remains of the basalt vent of the volcano Assekrem, which the Tuaregs consider the “Edge of Peace”.
One of the most important sites on the plateau is the remains of the basalt vent of Assekrem volcano, considered by the Tuaregs as the ‘Edge of Peace’.
It is not possible to leave Tamanrasset without an escort (current as of January 2023). The convoy is a free public service and is difficult to control or influence in any way. Even if you very clearly arrange to leave Tamanrasset at eight in the morning, the convoy may arrive at ten. There is no point in quarrelling as this will only delay your departure. Guides or an agency in this situation can’t make a meaningful difference either. An overnight stay in Assekrem is not possible on all days and must be arranged with the military in advance, according to the agency.The road from Tamanrasset to Assecrem takes about five hours over rocks and incredible dust. On the way we were accompanied by three jeeps with 12 military personnel. It is hard to say whether the threats are realistic such that an entire squad of soldiers had to be involved. The soldiers did not get in the way or interfere in any way; often they drove off considerably ahead or fell behind.
The drive from Tamanrasset to Assekrem takes about five hours over rocks and incredible dust. On the way we were accompanied by three jeeps with 12 military personnel
Tamanrasset is situated on a relative plain at an altitude of 1,300 metres. The altitude at which the Assekrem shelter is located reaches 2,600 metres. The yellow-sandy landscape of Tamanrasset is replaced by a sullen, stony grey-black landscape.An overnight shelter is situated on the slope of Assekrem. French missionary and Trappist monk Charles de Foucault built a Catholic hermitage atop Assecrem Hill in 1911 for a secluded life. He lived there for five years until he was kidnapped and killed by rebels. The Roman Catholic Church canonised de Foucault in 2022. Now there was an Italian and a Frenchman. Their activities cannot be called strictly religious – they supervise the hermitage and other buildings and lead small excursions. You can’t stay in the hermitage for the night; there is a camp for tourists (Refuge de l’Assekrem) some 150 metres down the slope.The camp is a stone barn with mattresses on a concrete floor and a poorly closed iron door. The kitchen is on the other side of the building, but there is no furniture, just a hearth for cooking. A small generator is used for lighting, but there is electricity only in the bulb socket, there are no sockets.
It is not possible to spend the night in the Catholic hermitage; there is a tourist camp 150 metres downhill. The camp is a stone shed with mattresses on a concrete floor and a poorly closed iron door
There is also a seasonal restaurant on the same site, which is used as a place to sleep overnight. But there are no beds there anyway, everyone sleeps on mattresses on the floor. On the day we visited Assekrem there was quite a large group of local tourists there, and they occupied it completely.There is a good trail from the campsite to the top of Assekrem, and there is also a road. The canonical view is directly from Father de Foucault’s hermitage. Some confusion about the names is worth mentioning here. The view from the top of Assekrem is usually known for the peaks in a southeasterly direction. But these peaks have their own names: Tizouag, Tidiamaine and As Saouinan.
A canonical view of the Hoggar Plateau directly from Father de Foucault’s hermitage
What else to see
In preparation for the trip, I noted for myself other attractions in Algeria. But for various reasons, they didn’t make it into the final itinerary. Two weeks is too short for such a big country.
Oran. The largest city in the country after the capital. Yves Saint Laurent’s hometown. Camus used the description of the city as the setting for his novel The Plague. Oran has the Bey Palace and several historical museums.
Oran is the largest city in the country after the capital. Yves Saint Laurent’s hometown. Camus used the description of the city as the setting for his novel The Plague. Photo: Bakinounas / Wikimedia.org
Tlemcen. The town, called the ‘jewel of the Maghreb’ for its abundance of monuments from different eras, from Berber to French. Among the key attractions are the Tlemcen Cathedral Mosque, the Meshuar (Abdalwadid Palace) and the Sidi Belhassen Mosque.
Tlemcen is called the “jewel of the Maghreb” for its wealth of monuments from Berber to French eras. Photo: Lionel.viroulaud / Flikr.com
Annaba. The town where St Augustine was bishop until his death. One of the centres of Christianity before the city fell to the Vandals in the 5th century. The ruins of Hippo Regia and Roman villas have been preserved in the town. Annaba also offers beach holidays.Ghardaia. Situated in the Mzab oasis, the town of Ghardaia has retained its medieval features with its red and white earthen buildings. The large mosque resembles a fortress with a pyramidal minaret. Ghardaia is the main date-growing area and one of the centres of carpet weaving.
Located in the Mzab oasis, the town of Gardaia has retained its medieval features with its red and white earthen buildings. Photo: Mido art / Unsplash.com
Tipaza. A small town located 80 kilometres from the capital, so it’s possible to visit in one day. Tipaza has ruins for every taste: Numidian, Phoenician, Berber, Roman, Byzantine. The town is also famous for its beaches. In his work The Marriage Feast in Tipaza, Albert Camus described the town as follows: “the gods dwell in Tipaza in spring, and the gods speak the language of the sun and the smell of wormwood…”.Cherchell. This quiet little town is situated ten kilometres from Tipaza. There are remains of a Phoenician temple, an amphitheatre, baths and a forum.
Map of the sights
Before we dive in, here’s the highlight of this guide – a comprehensive Google Map pinpointing all the attractions, eateries, and points of interest.
What to bring home
The general observation is that the locals are totally uninterested in selling something to a newcomer. You will not find people pushing their tongues at a market in the capital or at a bazaar in Tamanrasset.On the other hand, tourists are few and far between, and Algerians simply have nothing to offer except dates. If you decide to bring dates, you can buy them at the bazaar in the capital or in other cities. The best dates are called sun dates by the sellers, showing that the sun shines through the date. One kilo will cost around 750 dinars (5.56$), although dates are also sold for 200 dinars (1.48$). Good dates will be on a branch, so they retain their freshness longer.The Kabylians are a Berber group of people who live in northern Algeria. Apart from Zidane, Mbappe and Benzema, we all know at least one other Kabyle – actor Samy Naceri, the same driver Daniel from the film Taxi. Despite their Islamic faith, Kabila women wear traditional brightly coloured dresses, very far from the strict Muslim abaya. This attire usually consists of a dress with long (rarely short) sleeves, a wide braided belt and a half-skirt that is worn on top. The sleeves and hem of the dress are always richly embroidered with geometric patterns. The dress itself can be either monochrome (black, white, yellow, green) or patterned. Kabyle women in traditional dresses do not cover their heads with a headscarf. Such dresses would make a good gift for women.
Despite their Islamic faith, Kabyle women wear traditional brightly coloured dresses, a far cry from the strict Muslim abaya
The national currency is the dinar. You can arrive in Algeria with either dollars or euros. Do not hurry to change money at the airport. Most likely you will be met by a travel agent and you won’t need cash.
Locals recommend changing money in the square in front of the National Algiers Theatre (Ali Boumendjel metro station), where money changers congregate in Port Said Square. The exchange takes place right in front of the gendarmerie, so you don’t have to worry about security. If it’s a lot of money, you can exchange it in a cafe (like Tantonville’s) so you don’t have to hand it around in the street. And after a successful transaction, you can have a coffee in the luxurious interiors. Shops don’t accept dollars or euros, but the market does.
If the amount to be exchanged is large, you can take the moneychanger to a cafe (like Tantonville’s) to avoid waving money around in the street. After a successful transaction, you can have a coffee in the luxurious interiors
In the bazaar and small shops, prices can be written very peculiarly. For example, 35,000 dinars (259.45$) for one kilo of dates. How do you understand it? 35 dinars is (0.26$) and its too little, cheaper than a cup of tea. And 35,000 is unbelievably expensive.For some unknown reason there is some liberty in writing the price tags. The real price of the dates was 350 dinars (2.59$). Three counters later, the price tag might have said 35 or 3.5. Nothing is known about the recent denomination in Algeria. Be careful and always check the price.
Language and communication
The Maghreb dialect of Arabic is spoken in Algeria. But if you know a few dozen Arabic words, you’ll get a kick out of the locals. For instance, the well-known “habibi” (translated as “dear”) may be reserved for men. However, you may avoid addressing unfamiliar women or girls.
As in other Arab countries, social distance in Algeria is less than in Europe or Russia, and even strangers may be hugged or patted on the shoulder.
In Algeria, they speak a Maghreb dialect of Arabic. But if you know at least a couple of dozen Arabic words, you can count on increased favour with the locals. Photo: Amine GHRABI / Flikr.com
The second most important language in Algeria is French. It is spoken even in the most remote village. You can talk politics in the capital city or discuss the latest news with the Tuaregs around a campfire in the desert. Menus in restaurants and sidewalk cafes are likely to be in Arabic and French. Outside the capital, on the other hand, you may not understand even the basic words in English.In the southern areas (Djanet and Tamanrasset), Tuaregs mainly speak Tamashek; in Constantine, Kabyle’s Takbaylit is spoken. Both languages are written in the form of tifinag signs. Tifinag signs are found among the rock carvings on the Tassili n’Ajjer plateau. According to the Tuaregs, in the past there was no unified writing system: one could write from left to right, from right to left, from upside down or from above. This caused some difficulty in reading. Now the public use of tifinag has been standardised: one writes from left to right.
Algeria is an overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim country. If you come to Algeria outside Ramadan, there are few restrictions: no pork, no alcohol, no gambling. During Ramadan itself everything is stricter.
The country’s capital does not resemble a “city with a thousand minarets” – even if the muezzin’s calls are heard, they are not as polyphonic and all-embracing as in Cairo, Fez or Baghdad. But sometimes religion has a quite concrete effect on the actions of those arriving in Algeria. For example, on arrival on a domestic flight from Algiers to Tamanrasset, a uniformed officer wearing Customs looked for alcohol, cigarettes, traces of pornography and banned literature in our hand luggage. There is no official ban on bringing alcohol or cigarettes into the city, as confirmed by locals. But the officer assured us that these items are subject to seizure on arrival in Tamanrasset.
Your foreign ministry has something to say about this: The threat of terrorism persists in Algeria. Foreigners travelling on roads in many parts of Algeria are at risk of being attacked by terrorist groups. Travel to the south-eastern provinces of Tamanrasset, Djanet and Illizi is not recommended. In case of emergency they can only be carried out with the permission of the authorities and accompanied by armed guards.It must be said that there have been reasons for such statements, but in the past. For example, in February 2003 32 people from Germany and Switzerland were kidnapped in different parts of south-east Algeria. They were released three months later, but one tourist still died. In 2001, five tourists were shot dead in the town of Geralda, also in the south. Because of the active assistance of Russian military experts to the Algerian government forces, attacks on personnel occurred in the 1990s and early 2000s.
Algeria has officially allowed visits to its southern regions since February 2023. Photo: Albert Backer / Wikimedia.org
Until recently, it was highly undesirable to indicate the southern regions of Algeria as planned for a visit when submitting documents to the consulate. But starting January 2023, it has been officially allowed to visit the southern regions of the country. In this way the Algerian government shows the world that it is now a safe part of the country.But don’t think that once you have obtained a visa the Algerian security forces will forget about you. As you will often have to interact with people in uniform during the trip, you have to be prepared for long delays. Trying to speed up the process or arguing is pointless, you can only drag things out and make life more difficult for yourself.
Photos: Dan Sloan / Wikimedia.org
Transport in the country
Visiting the southern regions (Djanet and Tamanrasset) will require local airlines. There are two airlines in the country, Air Algeria and TAL (Tassili Airlines), which operate all domestic flights.
On domestic flights, there are some features that seem unusual:
- The lounges are covered with “No Smoking” signs, but everyone smokes. Even standing next to the sign.
- Control of hand luggage by weight or size is conditional. Only if you try to lug a frankly enormous bag through the cabin will it raise questions.
- Each time you take a domestic flight, foreigners fill in a special form specifying passport details, flight direction and hotel name. The completed form is given to the officer before leaving the lounge.
- In addition to the usual airport procedure you have to go through the final check before boarding the plane.
- There is an ordinary table by the gangway, on which you must place your hand luggage. An officer will look inside or gently crumple it up. Or maybe do nothing at all.
- Actual seating in the cabin may not match the seats on the ticket, especially on short flights.
- It is difficult to understand the catering system on board. On the Algiers-Djanet flight, for example, sandwiches and a drinks were provided. But on the flight from Tamanrasset to Illizi, four desserts and a juice were served. There are no hot drinks on domestic flights.
Four desserts and a juice… Mmm, ok.
In addition to air travel, Algeria has a fairly extensive rail network in the north of the country. If the photos of the rolling stock are to be believed, these are normal trains. The Seat61 website has detailed descriptions of destinations and advice on how to buy tickets.
How to get there
There are several flights a day from Istanbul, a dozen French cities and several big cities – Rome, Lisbon, Madrid, London and Brussels. There are also ferries to Algeria from Marseille.Despite the huge land border, it is almost impossible to use it for tourism purposes.
- Tunisia. The only stable functioning land border crossing. From Tunisia, one can also take a ferry to Algeria.
- Libya. The crossing from Djanet to Libya’s Ghat is open. But first you have to somehow get into Libya, where there is a war. In Djanet, many Tuaregs have relatives in Libyan Ghat and speak of a stable situation in this oasis.
- Niger. A single crossing is in operation. But without an escort from either side you will not be allowed through.
- Mali. Second longest border. Often closed due to the unstable situation.
- Morocco. The biggest (about 1500 km) border, but it is closed due to very strained relations between the two countries.
- Mauritania and Western Sahara. The borders are closed for security reasons.
When to go
The season to visit the desert area is from November to March: temperatures will be mild and skies clear. In April and May, there is a chance of dust storms. In summer, even on the coast, it can be hotter than hell, and in desert Tassili n’Ajjer, ‘hotter than hell’. Winter is good with pleasant weather both in the desert and on the coast.
Apart from the season, one should also take into account the specific points of the route. For example, the capital is right on the coast. The likelihood of rainfall from November to January is maximum (up to 150 mm). Djanet is at an altitude of around 1,000 metres and there is almost no rainfall throughout the year. In January the temperature was around 5-6 degrees Celsius in the morning and around 12-15 degrees Celsius during the day. There are even frosts. Assekrem is at an altitude of 2,600 metres and can be quite cold and windy in winter, but in summer it will be 30-degree heat.
The season for visiting the desert part of Algeria is from November to March: temperatures will be mild and skies will be clear