|The Grande Poste, Algiers' central post office, anchors downtown.|
Though still a relative newcomer, I have gotten to know Algiers much better since relocating here in early June.
During the many trips I took previously, I found it impossible to get my bearings in this city, whose 6 million residents are sprawled over a series of rolling hillsides overlooking the Mediterranean. Since my move here in June, I have learned to find my way around parts of Algiers, but it remains challenging—mostly because there is hardly a straight street in the whole city. (No joke, a map of this place looks about as organized as a pile of spaghetti.)
That said, there are far less picturesque cities in which to get lost.
When the French overtook it in 1830, Algiers was a modest seaside outpost at the far western reaches of the Ottoman empire. Over 132 years of colonial rule, the French refashioned the city as a metropolis of grand proportions. Pure white buildings with colonnades and ornate façades lined broad boulevards and parks overlooking the sea. At its height, Algiers was a glowing North African reflection of Marseilles—complete with a hilltop church, Notre-Dame d'Afrique, built to mirror Marseilles' Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde. Yet a uniquely Algerian style shown through too, as French architects wove local influences into their work, creating "neo-mauresque" masterpieces like the Grande Poste, still one of downtown Algiers' most impressive buildings.
But since its heyday, Algiers has aged visibly. Today crumbled plaster, listing balconies, flaking paint, and scattered trash are common downtown. Only for French president François Hollande's visit last year did the local government bother to whitewash the molded façades along the city's main boulevards—and even then, they scrubbed no more than the very façades, leaving the buildings' sides grayed and mildewed. (Outside that exceptional episode, it's hard not to wonder if the Algerians have deliberately neglected the colonial architecture as a way of thumbing their noses at the French and reclaiming their city.) And while the French heritage remains evident all around, an unmistakable Soviet veneer also hangs over the city. This comes as much from Algeria's ominous political ambiance as from the characteristically Soviet concrete block edifices erected wherever an earlier French structure has crumbled.
Though Algiers' once-white buildings may suffer a grayer tint these days, in the midday sun they do still give off that blinding Mediterranean glow. The city's charms, however dulled, endure.
Much more to come...
|Above the port: colonial-era buildings still dominate downtown Algiers.|
|Shops and apartment buildings along Rue Didouche Mourad|
|A statue to the Emir Abdelkader, an early hero of the anti-French resistance, stands where a former statue of Napoleon once stood.|
|Place de l'Emir Abdelkader, downtown|
|Algiers is filled with pedestrian walks, including some very serious staircases, shown here.|
|Grande Poste closeup|
|Grande Poste closeup|