The Road to El Oued, City of a Thousand Domes and More

Monday, May 29, 2017 | El Oued, Algeria (map)

Bachir, Baha', and Khaled, my hosts in El Oued, took me to visit the dunes that rise at the city's edge.
From Biskra, my route took me further south into the Sahara.

After leaving the palm groves ringing Biskra, my taxi turned onto a two-lane desert highway that stretched, straight as an arrow, as far as the eye could see into a desolate, sandy void. This, he told me, was the route to El Oued.

The choice of El Oued's name—meaning "the river" in Arabic—must surely have been aspirational, I mused, as we raced past scrub and dunes and not much else. But while the terrain looked to be about as dry as any other in the Sahara, that soon changed. To the left and right of the highway, vast brown expanses appeared through the rippling heat. (It was still late January, but already quite warm at midday.) Further on, the road arced toward one of the mud lakes, and I got a closer look: this was a chott, a muddy depression where the region's brackish groundwater seeps to the surface, turning hundreds of square kilometers into untraversable muck.

Biskra: You Can't Beat the Real Thing

Wednesday, May 3, 2017 | Biskra, Algeria (map)

The textured streets of Biskra's old town
"Lazem trouh l'Biskra! Wallah lazem!" You have to visit Biskra! You just have to!

Since I first came to Algeria five years ago, I seemed to hear those words all the time. But the desert oasis in question was 400km (250 miles) southeast of Algiers—not exactly a short trip.

So when the exhibition "Biskra: Visions of an Oasis" opened at the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris last September, it piqued my interest, and I began searching for a moment to break away for a Parisian vacation. But busy month after busy month kept slipping by, and soon it was January and I still hadn't budged. With the exhibition set to end in just days, I toyed with the idea of a quick weekend escape to Paris. That's when I found out I would need to take a work trip... to Biskra. I was thrilled—as if I'd just found out I would need to miss a visit to the Louvre to go meet the real-life Mona Lisa. You can't beat the real thing!