Discover Annaba and Constantine

…and there we were: in Algeria! I love the thrill of being in a country of which you know nothing, you have no idea what to expect and you’ve never met anyone who has ever been there. For me, this was the case with Algeria. For more info on the border crossing, read my other blog on Algeria.

Algeria is stunning. The landscapes are beautiful, the weather was great (late April and about 25-30C) and people were friendly and the streets were clean.

Annaba

Annaba (pronounce as Annaaaabaa) is about 3 hours from the Tunisian border. It’s a sea town that has a cooling sea breeze and therefore quite relaxed. My travel book described it as a ‘laid back’ city. Not sure I would describe it like this, but it’s for sure a city that has village-vibes. We stayed in the stunning hotel El Mountazah. This hotel is built in Seraidi, a small village in the hills above Annaba. If you have a chance, stay here! You’ll have beautiful sunsets over the bay, the hills and Annaba. Though at the time we were here (April 2017), they were about to close the hotel for renovations.

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There’s a funicular going up from Annaba. From the funicular in Seraidi it’s about a 10 minute walk to the hotel. In those 10 minutes you’ll have seen the entire village.

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When we arrived in the hotel, we were exhausted after a long day of travelling, and the hassle at the border. All we needed was a shower and food. But the receptionist thought differently about this. Even though she was super friendly and tried to make it as comfortable as possible for us, there was no way an unmarried couple can stay in the same room. ‘But madam, we are married’. Well, not without a marriage certificate (does anyone ever take that on holidays?) We could’ve known this in such a conservative country, and for our next trip I’ll fake a beautiful marriage certificate in a language that no one can read. There was no way to get around this, no matter how beautiful we made the story (married for 1,5 years in a beautiful castle far far away and if it helps the story, we’ll fake being pregnant as well. Good excuse for eating a lot). Apparently it’s the law in Algeria, though we didn’t hear about this in the next hotel. So the solution was that we paid for 2 rooms and the consequence was that we only stayed in this beautiful hotel for 1 night.

 

Anyway, after the shower I’d longed for all day, some chill-time at our balcony watching the sunset, it was time for food! For a vegetarian, the Northern-African countries (frankly, most countries) are a bit of a challenge. It’s all meat! So, eventually we found a lovely pizzeria at the town’s square. The owner, ready in his purple sweatpants and on Nikes, prepared us a delicious pizza (no other customers so it was ready in no time) which we finished in the blink of an eye. All we needed now was sleep!

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The next morning we went to the Basilica of Saint Augustine. What a gem! Ok, to be honest, we didn’t go in the basilica. It’s on a hilltop so we had a pretty good looks from the Ruins of Hippone; the ‘old’ basilica. The Basilica of Saint Augustine was in my book described as the modern version of the Sacre Coeur in Paris. We’d visited that a few months ago, and if you close your eyes you might see the comparison ;). Even though I didn’t see it, it’s still stunning!

We left our bags with the security at the entrance and took our time to explore the ruins, which are surprisingly well preserved. The security guard knew a lot about this place! And showed us around, just because he liked it, not to earn some extra money.

After our private tour, we went to the taxi station (within walking distance from the ruins) and took a shared taxi to Constantine, which was about 3 hours.

Constantine

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Look at this picture: fascinating how they built an entire city on a cliff, high above the Rhumel gorge, isn’t it? In Constantine they did, which results in spectacular views and sunsets. It’s also referred to as ‘city of bridges’.

Constantine is the perfect city for a stroll (when it’s not burning hot). IMG_7034Walk around the city center and you’ll always have spectacular views. Ok, I have to admit; it took us quite a while to understand the city. All these bridges can be quite confusing as well. We took as a reference point the Sidi M’Cid Bridge. Especially at night it’s quite easy to recognize this bridge, since it turns into a disco-bridge.

When you cross the Sidi M’Cid bridge, you’ll reach another lovely district of the city. This is also the area with the hospital. Really interesting to see all these ambulances having to cross the bridge (and being heavily slowed down). Go left and climb up towards the Monument of the Dead for breathtaking views. A monument that was built by the French to remember the people that died in WWI. My guide book warned me that it might be dangerous (ok, to be honest I only read that after visiting) but I guess this got a lot better over the years. There’s a lot of police around, but seems quite safe.

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When you walk down and a bit past the bridge, you will find the funicular that can take you down to the medina again. Always nice to do! The only downside is that the altitude is quite high, and so we were exhausted all the time. We therefore spend a lot of time near the bridge, but didn’t explore the entire city thoroughly (though I have the feeling that we have quite a good impression now).

Just 1 must do in this city: watch sunset over the Sidi M’Cid bridge. Stunning! We spent quite a while here, but hardly anyone seemed to do it. Bring some food and just sit and absorb the spectacular views.

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Speaking of which: for food in Constantine there’s only one recommendation; go to Tiddis. Haha, almost every restaurant carries this name! There are a few good ones at the end of the Av. Achour Rachmani. I would recommend trying the ‘briks’.

After you’ve filled your belly, you might want to go for a drink. Well, not in Algeria. Constantine is a young town, with a large university. But this isn’t reflected in nightlife. Not much is happening here after 9pm. Though the times that we were out on the streets in the dark, we didn’t feel unsafe. If you’re craving for a drink, you can go to the hotels on the Place de la Pyramide, though it won’t be cheap. Note that you the market is here as well; right under the Place de la Pyramide. Always good to buy some fruits (and to be honest, I love markets).

In Constantine, we stayed at Hotel des princes; a really nice hotel in the city center. Not the cheapest, but worth the money.

 

For us, this was our trip to Algeria for now. We took a taxi back to Tunis after a few days. You can read more about the border crossing in my other blogs.

 

 

 

The border crossing Tunisia – Algeria

 

I had no idea how to picture Algeria. I’d been to Morocco and Tunisia, so figured it was something like that?! For some parts it was, but other parts were completely different. As not many travelers go here nowadays, I could hardly find any travel blogs and was armed with a 10-year old travel guide and some youtube videos in the back of my head. So here are my experiences; I hope others can benefit from it and be a bit better prepared.

Algeria is a big country and traveling around costs time. Think well before booking your tickets. We only wanted to go to the eastern parts (for now), which meant that it was easier to fly to Tunis and cross the border from there.

Early in the morning, we took a bus from Tunis to Annaba, which surprisingly left on time. The bus ride was approximately 9 hours (including crossing the border). That in itself was an adventure though.

You cannot get a visa for most Western passports on arrival at the border, so I’d already applied for it back home. Once at the border, we first had to leave the Tunisian side. Meaning: everyone out of the bus, going to a desk for stamps and stuff. With a lot of hassle, that worked. This border was the typical: ‘if I don’t like your face, I’m not going to let you pass’-border. I’d crossed a few borders like that before, so I thought it would be fine. I underestimated this! When they threatened to send us back (after so many hours in a warm bus and no taxis around!), I started to get slightly nervous. Luckily after a lot of hassle, high officers, etc., we received our stamps.

Then we had to get our luggage checked. We’d considered taking a bottle of wine, but I’m truly thankful we never did. Men and women were separated, the bags were opened and searched thoroughly (read: every single coin, panties, and sock passed them). We were already intimidated by how hard it was to get the right stamps, so when they, rather unfriendly, asked whether we had any cash money on it, we instantly felt it was better to ‘change’ the truth a little bit. My friend told the officer that I had all the money. But we couldn’t really communicate since he was on the men’s-section. I guessed that no one spoke English well enough and tried to overwhelm them with a friendly waterfall of quick English. Our approach worked and about 1,5 hours later (at least 1 hour delay was on us, apologies to all the bus passengers) we were on the move again: to the Algerian side. This was a lot friendlier, yet still took forever. Where it was my friend who got all the questions on the Tunisian side, it was my turn now. They wanted to know in detail where I was from and what my plans were in Algeria. That was quite easy. But the difficult part was to describe my job. Something with recruitment, refugees and helping less fortunate was too difficult. Eventually I ended up being self-employed somehow.

What made it a lot better was the light in the officer’s eyes when I understood 2 words in Arabic. Eventually after a lot of delays we were all loaded in the bus again and were really in Algeria.

Once back in the bus, a young man came in the bus to change money. Suddenly everyone had lots of money with them that the officers had never seen! Apparently me and my friend weren’t the only people performing a nice show at the checkpoint. This man offered a really good conversion rate for which you can’t change in banks nor in dodgy corners of the town’s square. So bring some cash, hide it well, and change here. Ok, I need to add that this is obviously not allowed, but happens right under everyone’s eyes so is apparently tolerated.

It seems like a lot of hassle, crossing the border in northern Tunisia, but it’s still a lot easier than flying to Algiers and then travel all the way through the country. And to be honest, when you get the occasional view like this from the bus, it’s all worth it.

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Back from Algeria to Tunisia

On the way back from Constantine to Tunis, we took a shared taxi, which was a lot quicker than the bus. Shared taxis leave from Annaba and Constantine and just leave when the car is full. Please note that this is officially illegal (again, sorry). We were stopped on the way by a tough-looking police officer. It was quite obvious that he’d stopped us to earn a little extra money. But when he, super unfriendly, said: ‘Hulanda, how much did you pay the driver for this trip?’ I was slightly uncomfortable. Luckily he didn’t speak much English and left me alone. We were stopped a few times and every time they had to check our luggage. There’s a lot of smuggling between Algeria and Tunisia, so I understood it. But after the fourth time of opening my bag, I wished I’d put some interesting underwear on top, just to make them really uncomfortable and let us go (I dare you to do this! I’m sure you’ll have an interesting trip ;)).

Our taxi driver seemed to have invested in contacts at the border crossing, because this went a lot quicker than the first time. On the Algerian-side my passport had to pass a few hands of high officers, but this seemed to be more of a formality. On the Tunisian side we were met by friendly officers who gave me the list of old soccer players that you always hear when you’re travelling and then welcomed me to Tunisia. We were only stopped once on the way, but in Tunisia it helps to show your blonde hair. So I always make sure they’ve seen me, and off you go again!

Considering to cross like this?

I’ve never flown into Algeria, so I have no comparison. But if you just keep in mind from the start of the trip that you’ll spend most of the day travelling, it’s not that bad. It’s part of the experience. Though make sure you have your visa sorted!

I’ve heard they recently opened a railway connection between Algiers and Tunis. It’s supposed to only take 8 hours. I don’t know how comfortable it is and whether it’s really only 8 hours, but it sounds interesting. Next time….

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Algeria?!

I had lovely reactions when I told people that I was going on holidays to Algeria. From ‘let me check google maps in which part of the world that is’ to ‘did you search the country that scores the worst on the list of your Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ and ‘why do you only travel the weird countries?’. I have to admit that I always choose countries that hardly anyone goes to. Just because I don’t find much adventure in going to a holiday destination where I can speak Dutch and find half of the Netherlands.

Safety

But I’m not ignorant either. We knew it was a risk to go to Algeria. It was a week before their elections, there were violent protests and a few high terrorist leaders had been caught a few days before we arrived. Information you don’t tell your parents before your trip, huh. I wouldn’t recommend taking your security information from blogs like this. Make sure you inform yourself well before you go!

For Algeria, we found it quite hard to be informed. Not much is published on these matters in Algeria. Not on official news sites (for example, there were only 10 foreign journalists allowed in the country to report the elections). There’s a little bit of information on Facebook, but you’ll have to speak French or Arabic to understand it. And even that was limited. At the time we were there, the south was definitely a no-go area. The mountainous part between the eastern border (with Tunisia) wasn’t great either, but we took that risk (though never wandered around or hiked, which is too bad, because it looks amazing).

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So yes, it was a risk. But to be honest; I never felt unsafe during our trip. We used public transportation all the time (you’re not allowed to take a car across the border that’s not yours). I received a lot of looks from people because of my blonde hair. But no one that approached me or treated me badly (though my friend was always next to me. I’m pretty sure that makes a big difference). And you need to be sensitive. Don’t go out late on the streets.

Would I recommend going to Algeria? Yes, definitely! I would love to go back and discover the Western part. But be informed and alert about what you do and where you go.

Clothing

It took 3 hours in the bus from the border to Annaba. During those hours, I kept hoping women would be less conservatively dressed when we would approach a major town. But that wasn’t really the case. The most important question for every woman who’s packing her bag; what to wear?!

Well, I was kind of prepared with somewhat conservative outfits, but I hoped I could wear a t-shirt. I think you can, but you’ll be the only one and therefore you won’t show much respect. Just cover your arms. You don’t want to be that disrespectful. I didn’t cover my head, but the majority of the Algerian women does. Though I never had the feeling that that was expected from me.

Also, when you have a choice; I wouldn’t recommend going here mid-summer, unless you love melting. But don’t let this put you off, because you’re be missing out if you’re not visiting Algeria for a reason like this.

Accommodation

Hmm, accommodation is quite a thing in Algeria. There are hotels, but rather expensive and difficult to find on internet. There are also places on Airbnb of course and a few couchsurfers, but since we weren’t sure on the security situation, we stayed in hotels. Please note that if you’re not married and travelling together, you need a marriage certificate. Not in every hotel, but you better have something.

The hotels that we stayed at though, were definitely worth the money!

Read my other blogs on Annaba and Constantine and on how to cross the border with Tunisia.

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