|Under sunny skies, the swimming pool at Bou Saada's Hotel Kerdada looks far more inviting.|
After six hours dodging reckless truckers along the rain-soaked two-lane highway from Algiers, past mile after mile of dreary fields and depressingly rundown one-horse towns, that was my reaction when we finally pulled the car to a stop in our destination: Bou Saada.
With Nina's parents visiting from Germany, we had been seeking a new destination for a weekend outing, and chose to visit this little oasis town so many friends in Algiers had raved about. But instead of a desert paradise, we found a drab cement-block town that—at least at first view—closely resembled the colorless truck stops we had passed along the way.
In Arabic, Bou Saada translates roughly to "Pleasantville." One of several Algerian towns billed as "the gateway to the desert", it sits inland from the Mediterranean, where the fringes of Algeria's northern highlands yield to the vast Sahara. But the drive had provided yet another hard reminder of Algeria's most constant
geographic feature: its size. This place is huge! A peek at the map reminded me just how small a portion of Algeria's vast expanse we had managed to traverse in our six-hour slog. (Look at your left hand: if that shape represents Algeria, we had just moved from the tip of the middle finger to its first knuckle.)
As interminable as it had felt, the drive hadn't allowed us to escape the October rains we had hoped to leave behind in Algiers. Bou Saada, too, was draped in an unflattering gray pall. The sheep clustered on its outskirts stood soggy and unmoving, the half-built cement structures of the city held little charm, and locals in thick wool qchabiya cloaks trudged about morosely, as if resigned to the ceaseless drizzle.
Visit Bou Saada, they said. It's a paradise, they said. Harumph!
We checked into the Hotel Kerdada, a basic establishment renovated at some point since its origins as a desert rest station for French colonists seeking respite from the northern coast's humidity. (Sepia photos in the lobby attested to this history.)
What to do in Bou Saada in the rain? Read a lot. When you're sick of reading, swim in the frigid pool, because hell, you drove all this way. Walk around the block. Try to find something, anything, worth buying at the handicraft market. Visit the museum of resident Orientalist painter Étienne Dinet, nod politely and flee. Try the local specialties, rich chekhchoukha and fiery sfiti—not bad at all. Scrounge up a veteran guide to lead a tour of the local sights—mostly unremarkable. But just outside town, on a bluff overlooking the highway, the Sahara reveals some treasures: fossilized wood fragments all around, evidence of this barren land's history as a lush forest; fossilized shells, proof of even earlier eons spent under a vast sea; and elegant rock carvings of bison and other grazers, chipped into the cliff in Neolithic times.
On our final day in Bou Saada, the sun emerged at last. Taking advantage of the early light, I wandered through the town's palmeraie, following dirt tracks between the wobbly mud-brick walls ringing fields of brilliant green vegetables, fruit trees, and date palms. Later, over breakfast on the hotel's terrace, the sun's warmth drew out the beauty of the gardens, which began to resemble the Eden our friends back in Algiers had described. At last, the pool look genuinely inviting.
Thanks in part to the rain, Bou Saada had proved to be a shabbier, more typically mediocre version of the paradise I had envisioned, but hey, you can't control the weather. Besides, enjoying domestic travel in Algeria, I am learning, is all about finding the small pockets of beauty (often natural) amid the less appealing surroundings (often man-made). Expect to see me back at the Hotel Kerdada's pool someday, in sunnier times.
A selection of my Rolleicord photos from Bou Saada: