An Algiers Walking Tour

Hi readers! I published, shamefully, just one blog post in October. Not sure what happened there, and now it’s already mid-November and we’re deep into a resurgence of COVID-19 and on the precipice of the certain plummet of our current president. I’ve been advised to keep politics off this blog, but lemme say I’m depressed about one of those things and elated about the other. It feels like the start of better, kinder, more empathic times. And yet it’s a weird time. Because like a president who refuses to leave the White House, coronavirus just won’t leave us. It’s bad in the U.S. — there have been a million new cases in the past 10 days — which blows my mind. And the cases are ticking up here in Algeria, and the government just announced stricter anti-Covid measures as including an 8pm curfew which means any evening socializing is pretty much no longer an option, which is a bummer for a night owl like myself. We don’t go into the embassy very much, but we’re still seeing our embassy and other friends a fair amount, working out, ordering from our beloved Taj Mahal once a week, and having small outdoor gatherings (like a lovely outdoor dinner party I threw for Adam a few weeks ago that ended with us using our new fire bowl in our upstairs yard.)

We’re having a good time here, but it’s true that the Algeria experience is different than what I expected, which was a once a monthly jaunt to Paris to stay with my friend Sarah, and then probably an every-six-weeks weekend trip elsewhere, like to Barcelona, Madrid, or I suppose someplace new, but I like what I like. I also pictured us driving to other Algerian cities like Oran, which I’ve heard has a great food scene, and to see the hanging bridges in Constantine, and flying down south for Sahara Desert jaunts. But with the airport pretty much shut, and the Algerian government not allowing diplomats to travel outside of Algiers, we’re pretty much confined. (I know, I know, I haven’t forgot about the delicious trip we took to Greece this summer). So we’ve been trying to get out and about in Algiers more. I’ll be blogging about some of the fun things we’ve done: How we’ve eaten delicious seafood, how we finally visited all of the Algiers museums, and more. But first: My favorite thing I’ve done recently: A guided walking tour of Algiers.

I’d met Raouf (@Raouf.Being.Moorish) a few times IRL and I follow him on Instagram. He’s one of the few Instagrammers who posts in English from Algeria. His photos are beautiful, he has a real artist’s eye for everywhere he travels to, and he’s a wealth of Algeria history. I asked if he’d do an Algiers tour for some of us embassy folks and he agreed. Whew, it was a day! We met at the beautiful St. George Hotel (aka Hotel El Djezair) and made our way to a nice garden behind the Musée des Antiquities, which features cool ducks, a few peaceful little spots with benches, and is surrounded by elegant European-style buildings. (Note: Given Algeria’s history as a former French colony, and the war it fought to win its independence, I do feel a little bad, or at least cognizant of the weight of it, when I gush at how gorgeous the French buildings are in Algiers).

I learned that Algiers was actually a testing ground of sorts for modernist architecture in the 20th century, and a good example of that is the Sacré Coeur cathedral, a Roman Catholic church built in 1956 reportedly to resemble a Bedouin tent, but it actually resembles the The Simpson’s Springfield nuclear power plant. The Sacred Heart cathedral is an imposing structure that lends Algiers a bit of a Soviet vibe. It also matches nicely with the most famous Algiers landmark, the Martyr’s Monument, pictured below with Adam. We took this photos the time we shot an Algerian version of the viral “Dreams” video, only instead of Ocean Spray cranberry juice, Adam guzzled Hamoud, the beloved Algerian version of Sprite. This video went viral here in its own right.

When we were milling around the cathedral, a dude pulled up to his office on his motorcycle and asked “Where are you guys from?” It is not a common site in Algiers to see tourists walking the streets. We told him we’re American and he said we just had to come in his store to see his Elvis paraphernalia. I was expecting a few tchotchkes but inside this man’s office was one of the largest collections of Elvis, Memphis, and Americana paraphernalia I’ve ever seen. He was so stoked to have some Americans to show off his vast collection to and we had fun posing with him and his life-size Elvis statue.

After that unexpected stop, we continued on trudging up the seriously hilly streets of Algiers and taking in some cool architecture and then stopping for some pastries.

Next, we saw a building inspired by Le Corbusier, who favored one-stop-shop types of buildings where you don’t ever really have to leave. The suuuuper mid-century looking concrete L’AeroHabitat building has one level that has a great sea breeze and also lots of shops. I would hate to never leave my apartment building, as I suspect would be the case for most people. But if you drop the elevator guy a coin, you can take the elevator up to that mid-level and get stunning views of the city.

After taking in L’immeuble Pont, which is is both a bridge and a building, but perhaps isn’t doing either well, we took cabs to the casbah. We overestimated our ability to walk in the blazing sun for many hours. Also, we had in our group a pregnant woman and a soon-to-be toddler, so cabs were the way to go.

Algiers’ Casbah is the site of lots of history – it’s where the Battle of Algiers was fought, and where its namesake movie was filmed. It’s confounding, dingy, and crumbling. Just as I was thinking, not for the first time, that I really don’t “get” the casbah — namely why does such a historic place seem like an afterthought or at least an annex to a modern day Algiers? — I noticed this sign hanging outside the the house-turned-furniture shop Le Coin de Memoire that illuminated it for me: Erosion + Indifference x Silence/Abandon = Casbah 2020.

Le Coin de Memoire itself seems to be barely standing, but if you brave the uneven stairs and lots of scrap metal laying around, the view from the top, over the casbah and to the sea, is very worth it.

Despite being run-down and having a claustrophobic feel specific to the fact that you’re so near the sea, but mostly can’t see it, it still feels like there’s a lot of life within the casbah walls and there are a lot of beautiful old windows, tiles, and little cobblestone streets. We ate lunch in what might be the only sit-down restaurant in the casbah, a tiny place specializing in sardines called Le Repere, that has a big picture window overlooking the bay.

There was so much more more to see. We hadn’t even made our way to Centre Ville (downtown) but we were so pooped after walking for four hours in the sun and so we called it a day. Still lots more to see and photograph!

Back when I was 23, living in Washington DC, and considering a taking a reporting job for a publication that covered Congress, I told my roommate Andrew that I didn’t know if I should take the job because Congress seemed so boring. “It’s only boring because you don’t know about it. Once you know more, you won’t think it’s boring,” he said. I was thinking about what he said in terms of Algiers – a city whose offerings are not obvious. Andrew was right. Congress became somewhat exciting once I knew who the players were and which congressional cafeteria had the best salad bar. And the more I learn about Algiers, the more interesting it becomes.

To exploring Algiers,

Emily

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