Algeria is part of the region of Africa known as the Maghreb, the countries of northwest Africa. It extends from the shores of the Mediterranean Sea south to Mali and Niger. Most of the vast area is empty desert – a harsh world of rock, gravel and sand. It was May of 2012 when I got invited to speak at a conference about Synthetic Biology in Algiers, the capital city. Apart from attending the conference I went there with my wife to enjoy a one week vacation in Algeria. As a professor of chemical engineering in a well known American college, that opportunity to discover the beauty and culture of the Arab and Berber people is a welcome change from our usual packaged holiday tours in Europe and Asia. We managed to make the most of knowing the mystery of Algeria in seven days and it was all worth it!
We personally applied for our Algerian Visa at the Consulate General of Algeria in New York. A week after they granted us a tourist visa and our adventure began. It was a humid but bearable climate when we arrived in the capital city; Algiers. After my speaking conference I enjoyed the rest of my days in Algeria and explore a nation that was once colonized by France. We drove down a narrow curvy road full of small shops, women wearing headscarves, men with beards, children playing in the street, glimpses of sea breeze and behold this huge Basilica came into view, the La Basilique Notre Dame d’Afrique. The church immediately strikes my eyes, fascinating and impressive. We entered the twilight of this enormous church and I noticed the inscription over the altar asking everyone to pray to Our Lady, both Christians and Muslims. There was an area with a hundred candle offerings, and in the top left corner are various passages from the life of St. Augustine (born in Algeria). From the cool shade of the church comes the vivid light of the Algiers that has enchanted so many painters. We went down into the steps and in front of our eyes we saw the bay of Algiers and the panorama of the city. Absolutely, it is a spiritual place.
In the city of Algiers, slightly offset from the direction of the airport we found the enchanting Le Jardin d’Essai du Hamma. A huge rainforest within the city is the place teeming with tourists who were equally impressed like us. This garden is well maintained, has a wide diversity of tree species which are visibly more than a century old. A full day visit made us enjoy a clean zoo, endless shady paths, and various places to shop for souvenirs, serene ponds, family parks and fine restaurants within this park garden. Frequented by the call to prayer of the nearby minaret, this attraction is blessed to have a friendly and welcoming staff. It was interesting to walk through the aisles of this relaxing gem. A full day is not enough to discover everything this huge park has to offer. For a mix of calm and pleasure in the city, honestly it was a very good place to get away a little from the hectic life of the city center.
The next day we had a chance to admire a splendid example of Ottoman Architecture at the Le Bastion 23 – Palais des Rais. Perhaps it is one of the few among the well-preserved historical monuments in Algeria. The guide told us this authentic place was part of the Kasbah in Algiers. Its interiors were just successfully rehabilitated during the time of our visit. This palace was restored and returned to its former glory, the woodworks, tiles and ceramics are preserved behind this architectural gem. A group of buildings that was beautifully restored to give a peek of Algiers history, it is a must see! Next, we get to marvel at Moorish designs in the city center at the place called the La Grande Poste d’Alger. A big white building that is the main post office in Algiers. We bought postcards and stamps and mailed them back home on this existing remnant of the French period. From outside the edifice it is beautiful but once we got inside we were more amazed by its beauty. It is the central meeting point in Algiers.
The next day my wife and I decided for an early morning run along the grounds of the Memorial du Martyr. This symbolic statue of Algeria’s independence is an ideal esplanade where families go and kids can play safely. It resembles the three open palm tree branches which is a symbol of the Algerian shamrock. The monument also stands as the memorial of the martyrdom of the 1954-1962 revolution. This “makam Shaheed” (martyr memorial) is an honor for all the locals around here. The place also serves as a station for a cable car to get to the great gardens of Essai. There is a war museum at the base of this monument and a good view of the beautiful bay of Algiers on its deck.
Afterwards we visited the magnificent building of the Kasbah of Algiers. It is the remaining part of the old school Algeria, the most authentic witness to a long gone era. The place is impressive in terms of architectural and photo opportunity for tourists to enjoy, but the place is also obviously falling. A trusted guide helped us understand how to wander safely around the palaces in the old street. In the Kasbah, customers and traders haggle over the price of vegetables, spices, dates, black olives, cloth, pottery, and souvenirs. The Kasbah is an area of narrow alleys and street markets at the heart of old Algeria. We enjoyed sticks of bread being openly sold from a baker’s cart. Around here most locals still speak French and bake bread in the French style. A great deal of safety is required when exploring this old city. Later that day, we visited the oldest and largest mosque in the city called the Ketchaoua Mosque. It is a mosque that is a legacy of the Ottoman Turks when they colonized Algeria. Located across the Kasbah, adjacent to the main market of the old city this imposing old mosque has strong Arabic details on its interior, walls and façade.
We were able to see interesting art pieces at the Museum of Modern Art Algiers. I was immediately surprised by the whiteness of the building and its wealth of sculptures. The paintings and works of art are perfectly developed. I highly recommend it to all art lovers! From here we checked out European shopping places at the La Rue Didouche Mourad. My wife enjoyed her shopping here as there are many stores, two libraries of new and used books. It was a pleasure to stroll there from top to bottom. The shopper’s haven is a way of luxury to the prominent personalities in Algiers. It is pleasant to walk around and enjoy an ice cream or fine dining at one of its inexpensive restaurants, fast food and European bakeries. We ended our tour with a visit to a Basilica on top of a hill at Cathedrale du Sacre Coueur. It is Algeria’s symbol of gratitude to God for the protection afforded to them in the middle of bombings and dangers of war. It is a striking testimony to the unfailing hope that we have in God’s mercy. This cathedral is a wonderful architectural gem, its beauty lies on its play of light and clean lines.
It was a real pleasure to discover the streets, history, the smell, the sights, peaceful coexistence of the monotheistic religions and the mixed population of Algeria. Frankly, if I return to Africa for a tour I will still choose the country of Algeria without hesitation.