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  • Wolfgang Fobo

Roman Ruins Rallye in Algeria

It may sound a bit odd, traveling to Algeria and visiting Roman ruins. Instead of the Sahara. Indeed, thinking of Algeria, I would rather think of the Sahara and the beautiful scenery over there in the deep South, However, Northern Algeria, where the Romans (and the Punic culture as well) was thriving some 2,000 years ago, still there is a lot to see of their remainders. More than I thought. And also I did not know that quite a few Saints had their home in what is now Algeria, like St.Augustin (where we in Munich believe that the Augustiner Beer is the best far and wide…).

Roman ruins in Tipasa

My personal interest in Algeria is more in country and people than in old stones, but never the less, what the Romans left behind was stunning, some places are UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the ruins were rather the means to the end: visiting the country

Annaba, a mosaic on the floor, still in good condition. Still...

We were traveling in a group tour. Guided, that is. Group of 3 we were, plus guide, plus driver. And it seems to me that we were almost the only foreign tourists. For once, it is not easy to travel to Algeria, you need an invitation to obtain a visa - although we met a single German tourist traveling alone with a rented car, which should be possible if you can persuade the General Consulate staff that issues the visa. But even we as a mini group were almost never left alone. What makes Algeria particular is that in almost all cases, when you travel overland or strolling through the ruins, you will be accompanied by police escort. Police always told us this would be for our protection, but I rather believe it was for their protection. Making sure that we do not spy around, meddling in political affairs in meeting the opposition, or put graffiti on the ruins. Algeria is the only country I have been traveling where I was under constant surveillance. Even not in North Korea or Eritrea I was escorted by police (well, they have other means…). Only in Algiers you are free to walk around without escort.

Our first police escort: 2 BMW bikes, with flashing blue lights and sirens. We felt like VIPs.

And it is embarrassing when the police stops at their territorial boundary, handing us over to the next escort, which does not show up Then you wait and wait. Once our driver was tired of waiting and left without police escort. What followed was constant ringing of his mobile phone, our driver having to explain where we were at this moment, and why we „escaped“. Most of the time however the next escort was already waiting. And they are friendly, they just have to do what they are told. And, to be fair, they make a big difference when you are caught in a traffic jam. All of a sudden you have have passed through in no time, following the police when they switch on the sirens and let the blue light flash.

Breath taking mosaics like this one, seen in Djamila, a worthy UNESCO WHS

Breakfast in Algeria is rather of the French type, a croissant and a coffee, and that only will not fill my stomach. In terms of cuisine, the French left their traces, everywhere you can buy the French baguette, heavily subsidized, some 15 Euro cents per baguette. Coffee houses in all cities, where already in the early morning the elderly and/or the unemployed linger around. Men only, women have to work….

Hotels in Algeria are quite ok, with one downside: most of hotel restaurants don’t provide beer or wine, although it is locally produced. Only in 2 towns (Constantine and Oran) we could enjoy our evening beer, quite tasty. Influence of Islam, apparently.

The Roman theatre in Guelma

As everywhere, in the cities there seems to be more openness. Whereas in the countryside you see practically no woman without a veil, in Algiers, Constantine or Oran many women seem to be less bound by tradition, being unveiled. In particular Berber women seem not to care.

The suspension bridge in Constantine, built by the French some 100 years ago

We also had 2 early morning flights, just to safe time when long distances have to be covered, like Algier to Annaba, or Algier to Oran. Even when you fly locally, security at the airport is much stricter than I was used so far. You even have to fill in a travel form and hand it over to the uniformed, to proceed.

Remainders in M'Daourouche

Because there are so few foreign tourists, we were often approached by locals and interviewed. In English, even in German, and not in French. Apparently these locals learn a foreign language and want to practice. French, although still widely spoken and written, is no longer an official language in Algeria, but Arabic and Berber. But in order to get around in Algeria, you need not speak Arabic, let alone Berber, but with French you can easily get by.

To the right public toilets. Ingenious Roman design, with dolphins as ornaments. But you would squat in public...

Roman ruins are abundant in the East of Algeria. In Algier or to the West - we traveled until Tlemcen, close to the Moroccan border - your focus is on Islamic sites or churches, some converted to a library, like the one in Oran. The relationship with Morocco is strained, borders are closed, the issue with the Saharaouis (Western Sahara) seems to be a major factor. The land border to Tunisia is open.

A cumbersome situation. The handover of one police escort to the next does not work. Because the next one does not show up. So you wait and wait...

It seemed to me that the Algerian government does not place much emphasis on the protection of old structures. Many sites - even UNESCO WHS sites - were a bit neglected or uncared of - you could theoretically walk over 2000 year old mosaics (no, we didn’t, and not only because the police escort was closely watching us). Some even had no proper road leading to the ruins. By the way, Algerians can walk around unescorted in the ruins, and if children climb onto the old artifacts, nobody cares. The danger are we foreigners.

The Kasbah in Algiers is slowly decaying

Not only the ruins are sometimes in neglect, similar situation we could observe in the Kasbah of Algiers, which slowly decays, although UNESCO WHS. The situation gets even more depressive when you see lots of garbage lying around everywhere. In comparison, the motobikes of the Algerian police are absolutely modern and sophisticated, often big expensive BMW motorbikes….

Storks nests are everywhere in Northern Algeria. Like here on the top of a minaret

What was absolutely stunning were the storks nests. Traveling overland in Northern Algeria, very green countryside, almost every large pole was occupied with a storks nest. I must have seen thousands of storks, nesting and tending their stork babies…

A highlight in Oran: the Fort Santa Cruz, erected by the Spaniards, from where you can look down to the church Notre Dame de Santa Cruz

By the way, Algerian roads are in very good condition. This is where the government seems to place emphasis. On roads. The railway gave us a rather opposite impression. In an attempt to avoid police escort and making a new experience, we took the train from Oran to Algiers. It would take some 5 1/2 hours, we were told. Our 1st class tickets provided us convenient seats, but all the windows had cracks, which inhibited our view. Stone throwers smashed the windows, we were told. Vandalism that the government seem not to be able to stop. Or to repair the window. Then, after some 2 hours in the journey, the train had to climb a mountain. Slower and slower it went, until it came to a stop. Not being able to proceed. After some time, the train rolled backward into a station, maintenance staff was busy with some work, and after 1 hour we took a second try. And in snails pace we crossed the peak of the mountain, downward slowly slowly taking up speed. Arriving 2 hours late in Algiers.

End of story. Too much police, not enough beer, but I enjoyed. Very friendly people. And even the weather did not spoil my mood (we had many rainy days). Take Algeria just the way it is. And you will have a good time.

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