I thought of several distant countries to visit at Christmas time when nothing happens for two or three weeks. In the end England seemed more appealing and a short-haul or medium haul trip to somewhere warm on Boxing Day. I was resigned to going somewhere unadventurous like Malta when suddenly I thought of and immediately decided on Algeria. Looking it up I found that not only was it pretty cheap to get to but, to my disgust, Her Majesty’s Government no longer advised her subjects not to visit. Only the great south, the Sahara, was to be avoided.
For countries to be interesting they must, of course, fulfil two criteria. Getting a visa should be difficult and/ or time consuming and, when you tell people you are going there, they should warn you that you might be killed. Algeria fulfilled both these two.
I got to Heathrow early expecting few people to be flying to Algiers on Boxing Day. The queue was vast and the flight took off late because of the queue. I was told that this happens always. It seems London is home to a huge Algerian émigré community. One Algerian told me they came in large numbers as asylum seekers in the 1990s when the fighting waged between Islamists and the government. If you remember, 200,000 people died after the military stole an election the Islamists won.
Everything about Algeria was so very easy. But much easier had I found time to refresh my French. Everyone you meet in Algeria speaks French but virtually no-one English. Three people in seven days.
I rely on the kindness of strangers when I travel more than better organized travellers and I never met such hospitable people. Apart from the hospitality for which Algerians and all Arabs are famous, the paucity of foreign visitors is part of the reason.
The surprise was Algiers. I loved Algiers instantly. A run to seed, Arabic Paris. Ill lit streets like mysterious lithographs in a forgotten book. It felt, the first night, edgy but in fact I found that it is not.
Somewhere, many years ago, I read that Algiers is not interesting, but it is one of the most spell binding capitals I ever visited. 'Alger la blanche', Algiers the White, so called because of its lovely white buildings. A version of Paris as it was in 1960 but a Paris without the French. Or no, rather Marseilles. Don’t think dimly lit alleyways but Haussmann boulevards in need of paint and this is because Haussmann built them here at Napoleon III’s behest. The political point was that this was France. It’s still very pretty, still very French.
Nothing is as wonderful as the complete absence of any tourist filter mediating between visitor and visited. No guide book is in print in English. I never found a luxury hotel where I could ask advice in English and take away a little map. I walked and saw things. What seemed to be a large church turned out to be mosque, but clearly had been a church. Beautiful ochre belle époque streets in which were barbers' shops and cafes led down to the Mediterranean.
Mirabile dictu, I saw no international chains of shops. Some shopping streets are elegant, if you like that sort of thing. There is plenty of money here but nothing feels grand.
The appalling Marxist fraud Roland Barthes made a distinction between cooked and uncooked. This is a completely uncooked destination and yet plane tickets from Paris are €170 return.
I never really did my tourist duty, preferring to take long walks along the waterside, which is a working waterside. I only gave myself a week in Algeria and wish it had been three. Two and a half days were whiled away in Algiers. I made it to the Casbah where Paris becomes an Arab medina. It has two mosques, 'the Jewish mosque', which was once a synagogue, and 'the Christian mosque', which was built as a mosque, made into a cathedral and is now a mosque again. Both were closed for renovation when i was there.
The French built a handsome road through the middle for political reasons because they feared the Casbah's potential as a battlefield in a revolutionary war and this is what it became in the long terrorism campaign which is what the Algerian war was. Plenty of people on both sides were tortured and murdered in the Casbah.
My guide told me that successive governments had tried to move out people from the Casbah fearing it revolutionary tradition. At the moment people hope - how typical of our age - that there might be property boom.
I never found the Bardo Museum, which might have been closed, or the Hotel St. George from which Eisenhower and Harold Macmillan governed North Africa. But Algiers, though it is a thousand years old, does not have many sites. And this is relaxing. Camus complained about the city's absense of history. In fact it has a lot but history made after Camus spoke, in the horribly cruel war that led to independence from France.
Reader, if you are thinking of a long weekend in Paris this year think of a long weekend in Algiers instead.
[I stayed at the Hotel Samir. Looking it up on the net at Algiers airport I read some very bad reviews indeed and wondered why I had chosen it. It turned out to be an old fashioned two star 19th century hotel (in fact it has three stars). No lift, Formica floors, Spartan and right on the main street the former Rue Michelet, now the Rue Didouche Mourad. It was fine. Although Algiers has virtually no tourists it has too few hotel rooms for its fairly few business travellers. Hotels are, the net says, expensive and unimpressive. The Samir was cheap ($50 a night with breakfast), unimpressive and very central. I’d recommend it. Nearby is a reasonable restaurant that serves wine and fifteen minutes on foot down the road, flanked with pollarded trees oh so French, is the centre of the city.
I asked someone in the street who looked civilised for a restaurant and he led me on a ten minutes' walk to the Brasserie des Facultés, further down (or up) the Rue Didouche Mourad. I went back several times. It's a good restaurant, old, dark, wood-panelled and clubby, with lovely waiters, good couscous and good wine. And Gruyere and Camembert afterwards. I recommend it to you.]