I asked Adam for one thing for my 37th birthday. “I just want a nice hike.” Hiking is one of my favorite leisure activities/forms of exercise and in past posts (Spain, Jerusalem, Morocco) I’ve sought out all the spots for great walks and hikes and did them often. Unfortunately, a “nice hike,” especially one where I can go solo and listen to a podcast or a book on tape, has been hard to come by here in Algiers. There’s a kind of creepy zoo/forest in Algiers, and while it’s got some nice parts, it’s not safe for women to go to alone. There is another litter-strewn forest that overlooks the sea and we’ve done that hilly hike once, but haven’t gone back since. And while there is plenty of coastline in Algiers, it’s not particularly walkable, save for a crowded family-friendly promenade from which you get a decent view of the city of Algiers, but also views of oil tankers and cargo ships and lots and lots of construction equipment.
But Algeria is vast and so there are wonderful hikes out there, I know it. Unfortunately for us, getting “out there” (i.e. leaving the city of Algiers) requires lots of advance planning. We have to notify our embassy of our plan, receive permission from the Algerian government, and find a local guide to liaise with the local police who will accompany us on our every move. It’s not quick or easy to for us to be tourists in this vast country, but nevertheless, we persist.
So, Adam obliged in planning a birthday hike for us. He had heard that Bajaia was the place for hikes – mountainous, lush, near the sea. Bajaia is the largest town in the Kabilyie region, traditionally populated by Berber people (who have different culture and language than Arabs) and its known throughout Algeria as being a fairly liberal part of the country. I was intrigued to see if this seaside town was really the have-a-drink-by-the-Med, wear-whatever-you-want oasis I’d heard about.
We had a our usual police escort in order to drive the several hours to Bajaia and it was NOT A FUN DRIVE. I mean, I slept for some of it while Adam drove, but zooming through the streets of Algiers way too fast, trying to fit our Honda Civic into the spot our motorcycle escort just flew through and then navigating the more mountainous roads closer to Bajaia, was just not fun. We had booked a room at a hotel in the town of Tichy, which my friend tells me was the cool seaside vacation spot in the early 2000s. The hotel badly needed a facelift. The room looked filthy, but on closer inspection, I realized it was pristine, but the floor had permanent scuff marks and broken bits, the mirror was peeling, the paint was long ago yellowed, and the bedding was a gossamer sheet of sandpaper topped by a scratchy old comforter. And while yes, there was a pool and the ocean on the backside of the hotel, the front side was a busy two-lane highway so the overall effect was far from “Mediterranean escape.”
After we arrived we had a pretty good fish lunch at the hotel, and then took a stroll on the beach. Pretty views, nice water, but it was hard to look past all the trash collected in the sand.
Our original plan was to do a nice hike on this first day, but we weren’t feeling up for it on account of let’s just say we were really feeling the effects of a rousing game night we’d hosted at our house until 2:30am the previous night. We’d be staying in Bejaia/Tichy for two nights, so we figured there was still time for our outdoorsiness. For dinner on the first night, we drove into downtown Bajaia (led and followed by police, natch) and armed with a list of several restaurants recommended to us by friends. However, it was Eid, a major holiday to mark the end of Ramadan and so everything was closed. We headed back to our hotel, barely making it back in time before the dining room closed.
The next day, after at least an hour of standing in our faintly cigarette-scented hotel lobby watching Arabic TV and loosely participating in the negotiations between our guide hiking enthusiast guide Abdeslam and the local police, we set off for some site seeing. En route to Bajaia’s most notable sights, we attempted to fill up our tank, but the gas station was closed. (We’ve been operating under a precarious car situation: Our gas gauge on our Honda Civic is broken and so we don’t ever really know how much gas we have. Getting it fixed has proved difficult because the mechanic told us we have to bring in the car when it’s nearly empty, and that’s scary as we never really know how low the gas actually is). So we had to skip the gas station and we drove into the Gouraya National Park to Cap Carbon, an awesome overlook crawling with hungry-for-human-food macaques, which are often referred to as Barbary “apes,” but that is incorrect. If there’s one thing I learned while working at the National Zoo in Washington DC in my early 20s, it’s that the quickest way to tell the difference between a monkey and an ape is that almost all monkeys have tails. Except for macaques! I know this isn’t helpful, but believe me when I say that the barbary apes in the cedar forests of Algeria and Morocco are monkeys and not apes. It was especially fun to see them because apparently it’s baby monkey season and every other macaque had an adorable little baby on its front or back.
After some time walking around and taking photos, we went back to our car and surprise, surprise, it wouldn’t start. This is where we learned the limits of those police escorts who follow us everywhere because apparently it is not their job to go get us gas and they would just wait in the sun while we figured out to how fill up our tank from a mountain monkey overlook in Bajaia. Luckily, Abdeslam called a friend who showed up with five liters of Algeria’s favorite export and then he jerryrigged a plastic Coke bottle into an apt siphon and voila, our banged-up, broken-down Honda fired up. To the gas station we went, because five liters of gas isn’t much!
But actually first, another windswept lookout called Pic de Signe, which actually contained zero monkeys (signe is French for monkey).
Speaking of etymology, it was in this portion of the day when Abdeslam informed us that “Bajaia” in French is Bougie, which means candle and is my second favorite French word after pamplemousse. When I learned the town is named Candle, the first thought in my capitalistic brain was “I hope there’s a wonderful candle store that sells stylishly packaged candles stamped with ‘Bajaia’ and I will buy lots of them give them out as gifts and be like ‘This is a bougie from the town of Bougie!” But alas, if there’s one thing I’ve learned from living outside of America, it’s that the brilliant money-making idea I have for a particular place does not exist and will never exist for a myriad cultural and political reasons.
Again, there was no place open to eat (Eid lasts two days) and so it was back to the hotel for another meal and a little rest, and then Abdeslam and our trusty police guides took us back into Bajaia to walk along the promenade La Brise del Mer. The sea views in Bajaia are nice, with the very blue water and mountain backdrop, but they’re also industrial-feeling as the port is a major location in the country’s booming petroleum business. Also, there’s at least one giant sugar processing factory in Bejaia. Then we walked around the town a bit, including to the walls to an old casbah, by a pretty mosque, and past historic hotels.
Our final day in Bajaia was finally our hiking day and the day where we learned that perhaps the French word were using for hike – randonnée – wasn’t descriptive enough. Our guide, Abdeslam, is a seasoned hiker and he knows what’s up. But the problem was the police who were ordered to accompany us hadn’t done this before: trail foreigners on foot on a hike in the mountains. Could we just drive up the mountain instead? Could they stay in their car and follow us? were questions that were asked. When we finally seemed to have negotiated some sort of excursion, we still had to make a stop back at the police station after a middle-aged policeman learned how many kilometers we wanted to hike. He tagged in some younger gentlemen and finally, hours later than we’d planned, we made it up to a mountain that I gathered was called Wall Mountain. And we began what was indeed a very nice hike. Was it the romantic hike in glorious nature that I’d been seeking? No, no it wasn’t. But it’s probably the best we can do here, and I was grateful to have had the exercise, the fresh air, and some beautiful views. Oh, and I’m glad to report that one of the policeman really enjoyed the hike and asked Abdelslam if he could be a part of his hiking group. Spreading the hiking gospel, one Algerian policeman at a time.
Following the several-hours-long hike, we had yet another meal in our hotel as outside restaurants were still not open. Dessert was some wonderfully sweet watermelon, some chilled white wine (that we’d brought with us) and we headed back on a rather long and predictably stressful police-led motorcade back to Algiers. (This time with several other diplomats who happened to be vacationing in Bajaia too).
I did not find Bajaia to be awash with cafes and folks sipping wine and wearing less conservative clothes. Or to have a single cute candle for sale. But it was Eid, so there’s that. But I did find the city of Candle to to be very worth the visit for the views at Cap Carbon alone, and for the lovely hike, if you have it in you to plan and execute such an adventure. (Note: These strict rules for traveling in Algeria only apply to diplomats, so Algerians and tourists, by all means, get to Bajaia, and go on a gorgeous hike!)