Few travellers visit Algeria these days but the country’s capital – famous for its brilliant light – has a beauty that belies its recent violent history.
Isn’t is strange that a gigantic country with some of the most beautiful coastline on Earth, a luminous hinterland of mountains vast and deserts idle, crowned with the most alluring capital city I know, should be just three hours from London and almost unvisited by travellers?
We used to go: well-to-do Victorians loved wintering in Algeria. But modernity has been cruel to this great gorgeous land, and even by the standards of war-torn Africa, Algeria’s is an awful story. We associate it with the violent end of French colonialism, civil war in the 90s that cost up to 200,000 lives, and sporadic terror attacks. But this is a gross underestimation of a magical place, and a delightful and beguiling people.
With its Phoenician, Roman, Byzantine, Ottoman, Barbary pirate and French colonial heritage, Algeria has a hoard to dazzle any enthusiast of culture, architecture, literature, art, design, ornithology, botany or geography. I went, apprehensively, because I was following migrating swallows from Cape Town to Wales. At the airport, they impounded my binoculars – unwelcome because of “security”. Policemen toted Kalashnikovs. “Security!” everyone said, cheerfully. “Bon courage!”
As it turned out, I felt as safe there as anywhere in Africa, and had the pleasure of discovering a world beyond guidebooks. I made lucky decisions: with my money and my visa running out, I resolved to throw all that remained of both at Algiers – “Alger la blanche” (Algiers the white). I loved it all: the foaming purple bougainvillea; the scents of mimosa, pine, spice and coffee; the roads floating through hillsides above the great sea; the Ottoman palaces; the scent of grilling lamb in the warren of the casbah; the harbour front with its snowy colonial buildings endlessly colonnaded (the old post office looks like a palace of ice-cream; no wonder Le Corbusier was in awe of Algiers) and the rich dark cafes… I wanted never to leave.
The casbah is a Unesco world heritage site, a burnt umber miracle, sweet with the song of goldfinches. The neo-Byzantine cathedral of Notre Dame D’Afrique is remarkable: the inscription within, “Our Lady of Africa, pray for us and the muslims”, is a hopeful sentiment.
In the casbah, older cafe owners will tell you how they survived French paratroopers. (“We lived in the walls”, one said. “In the walls, you understand?”) The Great Mosque of Algiers is one of the few remaining examples of Almoravid architecture, with a 14th-century minaret. Just inland from the port, off the main street, is where most of the restaurants are. Follow your nose: mine led me to the most delicious lamb chops I have ever eaten – and as a Welshman I take chops seriously. And Algerian coffee is superb. The Martyrs’ Monument is a strange and rather awful triple-pillared concrete structure. It looks like what it is – an outraged howl of mourning raised to the sky.
All Algiers goes down to the seafront to relax: here are lovely spaces in which to meet the locals (Algerians treasure their few visitors) and to wonder at the shattered piles of fishermen’s houses below the sea wall, where people lived just above the waves.
My other good decision was to stay at the expensive but unforgettable El Djazair hotel, popularly known by its former title, the St George. The new wing is excellent. Crucially, the efficient management will fax you a confirmation of your reservation, which you will need for your visa if you go independently. (The Algerian embassy issues visas on the 21st of each month.) Once in Algeria, you are at liberty to travel where you will.
If God were to grant Algeria an overdue break, and lift her out of the grasping claws of President Bouteflika’s clique and beyond the fists of its tiny extremist minority, Algiers would be the San Francisco of the region, gateway to deserts, mountains and coasts beyond reckoning. (Reputable companies offer tours to Tamanrasset, the Touareg capital of the Sahara.) In the spring the Kabylia region, in the north-east, is said to be like paradise. The coastal town of Tipaza, west of Algiers, is so beautiful that French writer Albert Camus said it taught him the meaning of glory – love without limit.
As it is, Algeria has the clearest light I have ever seen, and she needs you – to see her, to appreciate her and, in beginning to know her, to help her out of the shadows.
• El Djazaïr Hotel (hoteleldjazair.dz) has doubles from £195. British Airways (ba.com) flies from Heathrow to Algiers from £260 return. From 2011 Explore (0844 499 0901, explore.co.uk) has a three-night Algiers & Ancient Kingdoms break (plus optional excursions to Cherchell and Tipaza), from £937 including flights, B&B and tour guide.