The Bay of Algiers, abandoned by tourists during the civil war, is on the mend and back on the map. Chris Bockman finds the spirit of the Mediterranean in the heart of the Maghreb

Arrivederci Genoa, bonjour Hassi Messaoud. British Airways has ditched its link from London to the hometown of Christopher Columbus, on the grounds of chronic unprofitability. The airline hopes the rate of return will be more impressive on its new route from Gatwick to this Algerian oil city, which begins next week.

Arrivederci Genoa, bonjour Hassi Messaoud. British Airways has ditched its link from London to the hometown of Christopher Columbus, on the grounds of chronic unprofitability. The airline hopes the rate of return will be more impressive on its new route from Gatwick to this Algerian oil city, which begins next week.

BA does not expect to see many, or indeed any, holidaymakers on the new route: it is aimed squarely at high-spending oil executives. But at least the troubled land of Algeria is getting a little more attention and anything that persuades more independent travellers to visit this fascinating North African country has to be worthwhile.

Algiers, the handsome if chaotic capital, reminds me intensely of a northern Mediterranean port: not Genoa, but Marseilles. Nearly 20 years ago when I was student backpacking around southern France, I arrived late at night at the Gare St Charles in Marseilles, for an early-morning connection to Nice. More or less evicted from the station by police with nasty-looking Alsatians, I did a tour by night of Marseilles. What I saw were once-glorious Mediterranean homes and seafront hotels in a decrepit state and handsome avenues strewn with litter; there was a general feeling of energy mixed with menace.

In so many ways, Algiers resembles Marseilles a generation ago. Both great cities spread into high hills overlooking the Mediterranean. White façades gleam in the early summer sun. Both have an international outlook with active industrial ports. And the two cities have left their marks on each other.

French colonial architecture dominates Algiers' now-shabby waterfront, while 150,000 Algerians have made Marseilles their home. One visitor described the two cities as "twin bay windows facing each other across a blue expanse - out of sight, but not out of mind". Residents of Algiers regard themselves as Mediterranean people, on the Rive Gauche of the sea that unites Europe and Africa. In the 1950s, the Bay of Algiers was a retreat for Europe's emerging jet set. You can understand why when you see the views of the almost perfect crescent of glittering blue sea around which the city is built. Today, though, industry has taken over much of the waterfront. The formerly smart shopping arcades are rundown and grimy and traffic along the promenade drowns out the sound of the sea.

But the local people are in better heart than they have been in years. The country has just emerged from a decade-long civil war between the state security services and Islamist militants, in which 150,000 people were killed, some of them in the frequent bombings in Algiers.

Algerians say often that their country is the most democratic in the Arab world, yet the city still resembles an armed camp at times. This feeling begins as soon as you arrive at Algiers airport. On the drive into the city centre you are likely to pass half a dozen heavily armed checkpoints and the military seems to have a barracks on every street corner. Very soon, though, the spirit of the Mediterranean appears to regain control and you feel at home in a noisy, cheerful and hospitable city. And, as in Marseilles, you can eat extremely well - especially if you are a fish fanatic. The Algerians eat plenty of seafood, and spicy shrimp and grilled rouget (red mullet) quickly became part of my daily routine. They even have their own version of bouillabaisse (fish soup).

Considering how many backpackers and sun-worshippers there are on the North African coast, it is remarkable how few Westerners you bump into. Four years ago there were barely any tourists; it was simply considered too dangerous. And until recently, Algiers' most notable landmark, the Casbah - fortress - was possibly the only Unesco World Heritage Site that was off limits. Flooding, earthquakes and poverty have reduced many of the homes in the historic old quarter to rubble. In the past 40 years, its population has fallen from 60,000 to 25,000. For a while the Casbah was also considered a hotbed of militancy into which no sane outsider would risk venturing. These days, it is safe enough to enter - and plenty of people are on hand to offer their services as guides. This is probably a good idea if you want to avoid getting lost in the narrow alleyways, though wandering around without knowing your way can be fun.

For centuries, foreign invaders tried to capture the Casbah and failed, but even this part of the city seems to have fallen to property developers. Following a massive state restoration project, Algeria's growing middle classes are eager to move into the Casbah. Its inhabitants escape the worst of the traffic and get a fine sea view to boot. Better still, the ancient builders knew how to handle the climate; at the height of summer, the houses are cool and in winter they capture most of the sunlight and rising heat.

Algeria has cooled right down in terms of conflict. Last year, 1.2 million foreigners visited Algeria, though most headed to the desert for treks or were travelling on business, as the high-spenders BA wants to entice. Now the government has decided to encourage tourism, especially in view of the millions spent in neighbouring Morocco and Tunisia. The man given responsibility for this is Abdelkadir Goutie - head of a promotional campaign to get Westerners interested at the Algerian Ministry of Tourism. "There is no longer a security problem," he says. "It's now a question of an image problem. We have to put in place the infrastructure and then entice European tourists."

Decades of neglect are going to take some time to overcome. In this highly centralised country, nearly all the hotels are state-controlled tower blocks - unlikely to attract couples or backpackers. Things are changing, however, and small, clean and privately-run hotels are slowly being established. Indeed, the sheer number of builders and scaffolding around the Casbah reminded me of parts of south-west France a few years ago - when low-cost airlines sparked a fresh boom in once dying or derelict villages. A now-peaceful Algiers deserves the same sort of revival - and the traveller deserves the Algiers experience.

Give me the facts

Getting There

Gatwick to Algiers, British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com); Heathrow to Algiers, Air Algerie (020-7487 5903; www.airalgerie.dz); easy connections are available in Paris on Air France (0870 142 4343; www.airfrance.com).

Official Advice

The Foreign Office (0870 606 0290; www.fco.gov.uk) advises against travel to the south-eastern provinces of Tamanrasset, Djanet and Illizi. Road travellers in northern Algeria are also at risk. Attacks by insurgents still possible.

Red Tape

Algerian Consulate, London SW7 provides visas; £28 single entry (020-7589 6885; www.consalglond.u-net.com). More information can be obtained from the Algerian Embassy (020-7221 7800; http://-algeria.embassyhomepage.com)

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