We were on the road out of Timgad when the dust storm caught up with us. Within an hour, the plume had swept in from the west and blotted out the sun. Within two, it had washed out the horizon entirely, engulfing everything — land and sky — in the same dirty ocher hue.
To my mind, already overawed by the conceptual space of the Saharan plains a few hundred miles south, this surreal yellow twilight emphasized a couple of things about Algeria. That the country is huge, certainly, the 10th-biggest in the world by area. But also that it is obscure, hidden behind barriers both geographical and artificial.
Five days earlier, in the capital Algiers, my guide, Omar Zahafi, had started filling in the void. A 36-year-old Algiers native, with a prodigious beard and an ankle-length orange chemise covering his giant build, Omar was well acquainted with the discrepancy between his country’s size and its reputation.
“When I’ve been abroad and told people I am from Algeria, they would say, ‘Nigeria!?’ ” he said. “And I would be like, ‘You know between Morocco and Tunisia there is that big space? That’s my country!’ ”
Old Algiers, Omar explained on a crisp morning last month, was a city in two parts. The lower section, from the embanked waterfront to the boulevards, is the French quarter, once the hub of colonial power. Today, the tall white facades molder above shops old and new, the flaking stucco reliefs looking preposterous next to the brightly colored laundry draped over the balustrades. Immediately north, forming a wedge, is the original town, known as the Kasbah, a ramshackle labyrinth of alleyways, a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1992. Much of its layout dates back to its time as an Ottoman protectorate and entrepot for corsair plunder, in the centuries before a French expeditionary force landed at Sidi Ferruch in 1830.
In July, Algeria will mark 60 years since the country gained independence from colonial rule. But the wounds of that era, and the brutal, seven-year war of independence that was its coda, remain ever-present in the capital. If the city has a nucleus, it is the elevated, scimitar-wielding statue of Emir Abdelkader, who led the resistance against the original French invasion. In the heart of the Kasbah, opposite the shop of a honey merchant aswarm with bees, Omar showed me a great hole in the otherwise tightly packed buildings, tiled rooms open to the sky, the unrepaired blast area of French bombs.
Algeria had its modern preoccupations, of course. Murals of Riyad Mahrez, the country’s preeminent footballer, now enjoy similar prominence to the old iconography of revolutionary martyrs such as Ali La Pointe, who was immortalized in the 1966 film “The Battle of Algiers.” But it explained something of Algeria’s sclerosis that the shadows of that conflict remained so tangible. Tourism was a future thing, and Algeria was still dealing with its ghosts.
For people like Zahafi, whose tour company, Fancyellow, is one of only a handful of agencies catering to foreign visitors, the coronavirus pandemic had been another setback in a long campaign to awaken a sleeping giant, arguably one of the most culturally distinct places you can reach via a short flight or overnight ferry from mainland Europe. He told me that his recent overtures to a noted travel publisher to update its Algeria guidebook had been rebuffed. “They said there is no market for it,” he said.
Over the next few days, we would be testing this pessimistic appraisal with a road trip along the coastal belt, the strip of fertile, mountainous land that sustains Algeria’s agriculture, and the vast majority of its population, before tapering into the Saharan wastes that cover about 80 percent of its surface area.
It was dark when we arrived in Constantine, Algeria’s other unmissable city. Accommodating my impatience, Omar bypassed the hotel where we would spend the night and made straight for the city center. He parked next to a dimly lit footbridge, which wobbled with our passage above a Stygian chasm. The true extent of that chasm only became clear the following morning.
About 200 miles east of Algiers, Constantine, known to its Numidian founders as Cirta, is today a sprawling conurbation of more than 400,000 people. But its center still occupies the site first chosen for its impregnable location: a limestone promontory, which rises precipitously 500 to 1,000 feet above the Rhumel River.
While Omar went in search of a haircut, guiding duties were delegated to Billel Benguedouar, a young and polymathic Constantine local. As we walked down the Boulevard of the Abyss and onto the road that clings to the rim of the dizzying escarpment, he stopped occasionally to rummage in his backpack for archival photos depicting the same locations as they were a century ago, the road unsealed, old men in Berber robes strolling the pavements.
“You see down there?” he said, pointing across the ravine, where some fragments of a timber walkway could be seen bolted onto the opposite wall. “We call it the ‘Chemin des Touristes,’ ” or Tourist Trail. In the 1970s, when this now-abandoned cliff-face promenade still permitted visitors to explore the natural arches and balconies down in the gorge, Constantine boasted 20 hotels in its Kasbah alone.
All of that came to an end in the 1990s, when an armed Islamist insurgency sparked a vicious civil war, a period that Algerians refer to as the “Black Decade.” For years, the chemin had been left to disintegrate, as forgotten, now, as the crumbling Ottoman-era bridge a little upriver.
Billel had starry-eyed aspirations to exploit Constantine’s vertiginous surroundings, transforming it into a locus for adventure sports. “We could do bungee jumps from there,” he said, nodding toward the Sidi M’Cid suspension bridge, one of eight that remain in use, and which, for 17 years after its opening in 1912, was the highest in the world. The most spectacular of Constantine’s bridges, however, was the Passerelle, the pedestrian bridge we’d encountered the previous evening. Above it, the buildings of the old town rose flush with the pitch of the cliffs, as if they had been eroded from the very bedrock on which they stood.
In the city’s Kasbah, meanwhile, we encountered stomach-churning sights of another sort. Entering from the south, an alleyway of stalls selling sultanas, ersatz fashion and caged songbirds gave onto an arcade of butchers’ shops. Bouquets of offal dripped from hooks. Sheets of mutton fat were folded into pearlescent piles.
A little uphill, a flour mill, its whitewashed walls reverberating with the clatter of mechanical grinders, cleansed the air with the smell of spices and durum. As lunchtime approached, queues began to form outside stalls selling tomato flatbreads, a popular street food known as “khamej we bnin,” “filthy and tasty” in the local Arabic vernacular. In Constantine, where the breathtaking setting was too often blemished by the gorge’s secondary use as a gigantic litter receptacle, it seemed a fitting, if unfortunate, epithet for the whole town.
For all that appreciating the splendor of Algeria’s cities required some narrowing of the eyes, you didn’t have to go far to find history assuming a purer form.
After a couple of days in Constantine, Omar drove us about two hours south to Timgad, a small town surrounded by rolling hills, where we dropped our bags in the cavernous rooms of the new Trajan Hotel. A mere 300-foot walk from its breezy foyer, we were treading on a flagstone road laid almost two millennia earlier.
The ruins of Timgad dated back to around the 1st century, when Emperor Trajan established a town for retired veterans of Rome’s imperial army. Our visit began on a wide “cardo” — the principal north-south thoroughfare in Roman settlements — that led into a sprawling complex of villas and plazas. Along its length were remnants of a once-thriving settlement: a market square, a library, a theater with pitch-perfect acoustics. One princely latrine had stone dolphins hewed into the armrests.
By the 8th century, after repeated incursions by Berber tribes and Vandal invaders, the town was abandoned. The ebb and flow of empire, and the forbidding emptiness of the Algerian interior, meant that its treasures, in kind with archaeological sites throughout Algeria, had lain undisturbed for centuries. Timgad only became a subject of scholarly attention after 1765, when a Scottish consul, James Bruce, stumbled upon the tall columns of the capitol projecting from a dome of sand.
The drive from Algiers and Constantine had already included one outstanding Roman ruin. Djemila, meaning “the beautiful one” in Arabic, had been almost deserted when Omar and I toured its sloping site, permitting you to feel as though you were discovering its treasures — an elaborate bathhouse, a conical drinking fountain, a titanic marble torso of Jupiter hidden behind a roofless temple — for the first time.
That Timgad seemed the more magical place may have owed something to the time of day. With no officials patrolling the cardo, and no other tourists around, we lingered in the forum, deploying half-remembered Latin to decipher its engraved dedications, right up to dusk, when the sandstone of the columns and wall footings flared umber in the low sun.
No less extraordinary were the artifacts in the adjacent museum. One mosaic, depicting wide-hipped naked women cavorting with chimerical monsters, was composed of tessera a few millimeters wide, a level of intricacy seldom seen outside of Rome. Dozens of terra-cotta oil lamps, each with its own individual motif, were arrayed in glass cabinets.
The cost of entry to the entire site was 130 dinars, less than $1. You would struggle to find any archaeological marvel where the ratio of cost to reward is so extreme.
As Omar drove us out of Timgad, the road was engulfed by the same eerie weather phenomenon that would go on to dye the skies of Western Europe an apocalyptic orange. By the time we returned to Algiers, rain clouds coming off the Mediterranean had laundered the skies.
Dust-blown and tired, we repaired to the Hamma Test Garden, a botanical garden founded in 1832 that is now a relaxing, if timeworn, sanctuary from the capital’s traffic and bustle. At a cafe, over short coffees, I watched an overbearing clown in star-spangled dungarees making balloon animals for unnerved children.
I couldn’t pretend that Algeria didn’t have shortcomings as a travel destination. Hotels felt tired — even, somehow, the ones that were new. Crossing busy roads required an act of will. Agents of the state, customs and police both, seemed suspicious of tourists and cameras, as if confused as to why anyone would want to come here without some nefarious ulterior motive.
But this nettlesome attitude found little echo in the population at large. There is zero hassle. The homogenizing forces of Western culture remain in abeyance. The food — kebabs, fragrant bowls of couscous, and sizzling platters of chakhchoukha, a vegetable stew mixed with shreds of flatbread — was wonderful. In the restaurants, as elsewhere, spontaneous exclamations of, “Welcome to Algeria,” were common.
In truth, a week along the coastal belt does little more than scratch the surface of that “big space” between Morocco and Tunisia. Farther south, across a seemingly endless expanse of plain, plateau and dune, there are oasis towns springing from sand oceans and tracts of desert topography to make a Star Wars location scout weep for joy.
“I had no idea this was here,” I said to Omar, happy in the shade of the garden’s splaying fig trees. It was a sentiment that the travel industry would do well to heed.
Wismayer is a writer based in London. His website is henry-wismayer.com. Find him on Twitter: @henrywismayer.
If You Go
Where to stay
4 Rue Mikideche Mouloud, Algiers
A serviceable if slightly timeworn hotel in the heart of central Algiers. Double rooms from about $60 per night.
1 Rue des Ruines Romaines, Timgad
A new hotel with spacious rooms near the entrance to the Timgad archaeological site. Double rooms from about $56 per night.
Where to eat
Khayma el Houra
Off Emir Abdelkader Place, Algiers
This unassuming traditional restaurant, hidden in an arcade behind the famous Milk Bar, serves the best chakhchoukha we enjoyed in Algeria. Mains from about $10.
58 Rue Larbi Ben M’hidi, Constantine
A delightfully kitschy restaurant in Constantine above the Passerelle footbridge, with superlative views over the ravine. Mains from about $10.
What to do
Fancyellow Travel Services
11 Coop. El Ilme Djnan Achabou, Dely Brahim, Algiers
This Algiers-based tour company arranged every aspect of our trip, including transfers, accommodation and the invitation letter necessary for obtaining a tourist visa. A six-day, five-night tour, incorporating Algiers, Constantine and the Roman ruins of Timgad and Djemila, about $700 per person.
Potential travelers should take local and national public health directives regarding the pandemic into consideration before planning any trips. Travel health notice information can be found on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s interactive map showing travel recommendations by destination and the CDC’s travel health notice webpage.