Algiers: A step back in time that hints at the future
Philip Sweeney glimpses the Algerian capital’s former beauty emerging from its turbulent past
Saturday 31 August 2013
Algiers is one of North Africa’s most intriguing capitals. Happily, security assessments are relatively upbeat and long -overdue redevelopment is beginning to show results.
Cheating slightly with two non-pedestrian short-cuts, this walk takes in a swathe of architecture and emblematic sites – a crash course in Algiers’ turbulent history.
Start with an overview. The huge raw concrete structure soaring into the sky east of the centre, the Maqam Echadid, Martyrs’ Monument, is the city’s most striking edifice. Erected in 1982 to commemorate Algerian resistance fighters over the centuries, it is reminiscent of a 100-metre banana skin crossed with Oscar Niemeyer’s Cathedral of Brasilia. It’s equipped with smart Presidential Guard sentries and two underground museums (algeriantourism.com/musees.php; closed Friday and Saturday). They illustrate the struggle against the French which culminated in the nation achieving independence 50 years ago last year. Exhibits include the guillotine from the nearby Barberousse Prison, where the French detained prisoners during the vicious insurgency.
The view from the esplanade shows why the steep amphitheatre of white buildings and foliage around the curvaceous sweep of the bay inspired the reputation of Algiers as one of the greatest beauties of the Mediterranean, a reputation that will require Herculean renovation to regain.
Just below the monument, take the first short-cut, a ride on the cable car down the wooded hillside to the stop by the elegant 1930s Beaux Arts Museum (www.musee-beauxarts.dz). When it reopens after renovation, possibly next year, it will offer an even lovelier view from its terrace. Cross the road to the massive rear gates of the 1830s Jardin d’Essai (jardindessai.com), one of the world’s great botanical gardens, long derelict but now triumphantly renewed.
Crossing the gardens to emerge from the front entrance, turn left along the rue Hassiba ben Bouali, past a heavily fortified gas company building, and you come to the modern cream marble Sofitel (00 213 21 685210; sofitel.com; doubles from €250). It is the swishest hotel in town, though less characterful than the old colonial Hotel St George (which is now known as the El-Djazair; 00 213 21 60 37 07; chaineeldjazair.com; doubles from €200) or the vast, brutalist El Aurassi (el-aurassi.com). Overlooking the Jardin d’Essai, the Sofitel’s café terrace is a cool and peaceful spot for refreshment. Its El Mordjane restaurant is one of the best for sophisticated local cuisine.
Five minutes inland from the hotel, across a large bare concourse running along the side of the botanical garden, you’ll find the Jardin d’Essai station of the new Metro. Africa’s second underground train network (the first was in Cairo) opened in 2011 and is a beacon of modernity. It’s spanking clean, often half-empty and reassuringly well policed.
Five stops west, at the Grande Poste terminus, you emerge in downtown Algiers opposite the beautiful neo-Mauresque Grande Poste (main post office). You are just below the Palais du Gouvernement, from whose balcony General Charles de Gaulle famously proclaimed unending French rule, while secretly preparing to cut and run.
West along the busy shopping street rue Larbi Ben M’Hidi, formerly the rue d’Isly, the French townscape has hardly changed, though the old Galeries de France department store is now the Museum of Modern Art (00 213 21 71 72 52; mama-dz.com).
After 10 minutes’ brisk window shopping, you arrive at the statue-adorned Place de l’Emir Abdelkader, formerly Place Bugeaud. Landmarks here include the Milk Bar – scene of an infamous 1950s terrorist bombing – finally in the process of changing its original façade; and the Tiers Monde bookshop (00 213 21 71 57 72), a revolutionary Foyles.
Turning right, enter the rue Hocine Assalah in front of the opulent Moorish-style City Hall. Then go past the 1930s Hotel Es Safir (00 213 21 73 50 40; doubles from €70), a grand colonial rival to the St George and a possible snack stop.
Immediately behind the hotel is the splendid colonnaded harbour-front Boulevard Zighout Youssef, adorned with ceramic portraits of Ali la Pointe and other heroes of the 1957 Battle of Algiers. It leads west past the Place Port Said This square is the location of the National Theatre and the terrace of the Café Tantonville (00 213 21 74 86 61), the chic 1950s meeting place for actors and writers, from Camus to Sartre.
Another 10 minutes along Boulevard Zighout Youssef brings you to the bustling Place des Martyrs. Here, the walk terminates with several alternative finales. A left turn takes you into the maze-like lower reaches of the Casbah. It is semi-ruined but still one of the most fascinating Ottoman walled precincts of the Mediterranean (watch Pépé le Moko to imagine it in its pre-war heyday). Most of its old Moorish cafés have disappeared, but the picturesque Café Malakoff, on rue de Bab el Oued, is an interesting stop for lovers of the chaabi music of Algiers.
Alternatively, turn right past the 17th-century Djamaa el Djedid mosque. This takes you to the first Turkish governor’s palace, now containing an arts centre known as Bastion 23 (23 rue Amara Rachid; 00 213 21 73 45 78). Continue below the arched waterfront boulevard and on to the port, with its noisy covered fish market and lines of cars queuing for the ferry terminal to Marseille. The whole ensemble is as seething, dirty and authentic as a historic Mediterranean port should be.
The authorities are encouraging a return of nightlife to the city centre, restoring a number of derelict cinemas, while a couple of dozen small café terraces in the vicinity of the Boulevard Khemisti/Grande Poste are being refurbished and ordered to stay open until midnight this summer. Try A La Bonne Heure (00 21 552 281118) on Place Audin, with its new foliage-bordered terrace. Any initiative which alleviates the gloom of nocturnal Algiers is welcome.
The Foreign Office (fco.gov.uk) warns: “there may be an increased risk of anti-western sentiment linked to the possibility of military action in Syria. Keep up to date with developments, be vigilant and avoid any protests or demonstrations.”
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