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Monday, 22 March 2010

To Camels from Cows: Algeria Overland - Page 2

Written by Tom Coote
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As soon as we had crossed into Algeria, it was clear that something wasn’t right. Our shared taxi was slowing down and speeding up, and staggering from side to side on the winding hillside road, like an overloaded, drunken donkey. To the side, lay a sharp, deep drop from the mountain to the surprisingly verdant valley.

The next morning we got a taxi to the Roman ruins of Hippo Regus. This is the city where St. Augustine, the influential Christian thinker, was bishop just up until its fall in 430. The driver misunderstood us and actually took us to the Basillica St. Augustine, a big colonial era church on the hill. We eventually arrived at the gates to Hippo Regus, were let in by the guards and greeted by the museum’s curator. I asked him if they had many British tourists. He said yes - they had had one only last week. The museum featured the usual mosaics and old pots but the ruins were just a field with a load of old stones and the occasional pillar.

When we finished at the ruins we headed over to the local bus station and were on our way to Constantine within minutes. After a couple of hours, we started to rise up from green pastures into rockier mountain territory towards the city at the cliff top. The few pictures we had seen of Constantine had failed to prepare To Camels from Cows: Algeria Overland, Mediterranean port city of Annaba, Hotel Saf-Saf, travel Algeria, travel Constantine,  Sidi M’Cid suspension bridge, Constantine, Saharan oasis of El-Oued, The Grand Hotel du Souf, Roman ruins of Hippo Regus, Tom Cooteus for just how spectacular it actually is. The two halves of the city cling to either side of a massive gorge and are united by a number of spectacular bridges and the newly built cable car system. The roads wind up the mountainside through tunnels carved into rock and look down over almost sheer drops to green fields far below. If Constantine existed in almost any other country than Algeria, then it would be crawling with thousands of tourists. As it is, there is virtually no tourist infrastructure.

There is remarkably little choice in hotels for a city of its size. Our first choice, the Hotel des Prince was full, its only real competitor had closed down and we didn’t want to pay for the single expensive business hotel. That left us with the two cheap hotels, just off the centrally located Plaza des Martyrs. The first we tried was also full but luckily the (not so) Grand Hotel still had a room. After checking in, we went in search of the presumably shared bathrooms. It was easy enough to find the slightly smelly squat toilets but the showers were harder to find. There was a good reason for this – they didn’t have any. There was a sink in the room and a bidet (with no water) –we would just have to improvise as best we could.

As we went out to explore, we noticed that there were more women around than in Annaba. All the cafes were still filled exclusively by men, but there were plenty of clothes shops for women and many of the younger ones went without headscarves. The atmosphere seemed less edgy than Annaba and everybody seemed friendly and welcoming.

To Camels from Cows: Algeria Overland, Mediterranean port city of Annaba, Hotel Saf-Saf, travel Algeria, travel Constantine,  Sidi M’Cid suspension bridge, Constantine, Saharan oasis of El-Oued, The Grand Hotel du Souf, Roman ruins of Hippo Regus, Tom CooteWe made our way up through the busy, narrow shopping streets towards the impressive Sidi M’Cid suspension bridge, overhanging the spectacular gorge. Apparently, this is a very fashionable place for young Algerians to commit suicide. More bored looking young men hung around, dangling their legs over the precipe. Some of the houses closest to the edge seemed to be slowly sliding into it and had clearly been abandoned, though other houses in equally precarious positions still had laundry hanging out the windows.

As we walked on to the bridge itself we were slightly taken back to see our first and only other tourists. There were maybe ten of them, all seemed to have large expensive looking cameras around their necks, and none looked under fifty. We had seen advertisements for organised tours like these – they were ridiculously expensive and included armed escorts. They neither acknowledged us or anybody else.

After taking the obligatory photos from the Sidi M’Cid Bridge we crossed over to the other side of the gorge and traipsed up to the Monument of the Dead. This seemed to be a popular area for young couples to sit together, hold hands and have a cuddle. Leaving them to it, we wandered along the edge of the gorge To Camels from Cows: Algeria Overland, Mediterranean port city of Annaba, Hotel Saf-Saf, travel Algeria, travel Constantine,  Sidi M’Cid suspension bridge, Constantine, Saharan oasis of El-Oued, The Grand Hotel du Souf, Roman ruins of Hippo Regus, Tom Cootetowards the newly built cable car. Nong Buff was approached by three schoolgirls who seemed particularly curious and friendly. After the usual questions in broken English and a quick photo together, they joined us in queuing for the cable car. It only cost a few pence and seemed to make sense as public transport in such a mountainous city. We joined an unveiled girl in the cable car. She looked more French than North African, had long curly blonde hair and wore tight fitting fashionable clothes. As we were pulled away and hung out over the abyss, she caught my eye.

“Do you think this is funny?” she said.

I began to worry that she might think I was laughing at them.

“No” she said, “do you think this is fun?”

Slightly relieved, I told her that Constantine had spectacular views and that the people were very friendly. This seemed to please her.

“I love England,” she continued.

“Oh” I said, surprised, “have you been there?”

“I love Princess Diana.”

“Eh?”

“I love the Queen. She has hair like mine.”

(Page 2 of 4)
Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012

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