Around Algiers: Getting to Know 'La Ville Blanche'

Wednesday, October 16, 2013 | Algiers, Algeria

The Grande Poste, Algiers' central post office, anchors downtown.
The country Algeria and its capital, Algiers, sound quite similar in English, but are in fact exactly the same word (الجزائر) in Arabic. Yet while every citizen of Algeria is an "Algérien", the residents of Algiers distinguish themselves with a special term—they are the "Algérois". And theirs is indeed a special city.

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


Anonymous said...

Hello Andrew! This is Michael Schuler. I've had some recent communication with your mother and she shared some information about your adventures. I've enjoyed reading your blog and the pictures of Algiers. Wonderful memories of you as a student and young man! Even more impressive to read about your interests and travels. Look forward to learning more. Michael ps. I'm presently living in Montana and the head of a small Montessori school here. Loving both the school and Montana! Take care, Andrew!

Andrew G. Farrand said...

Mr. Schuler, great to hear from you! Thanks to you and many others, a good education has allowed me to go far and see many exciting things in this world -- I consider myself very lucky! I am glad to be able to share my experiences here, and it is to always a pleasure to hear when someone appreciates them. Thank you for your kind words, and I'm very glad to hear that you are doing well. All the best and please do keep in touch! -AF

Anonymous said...

Hello Andrew, this is Aicha algerian architect who lives abroad. i read all your articles and enjoy all your pictures. I always love to read what an outsider has to say about algeria, specially a smart person as yourself. I know you are still discovering the country, but the governement is in the process of renovating all the colonial buildings in algeries. it is in progress and you can actually see the beautiful renovated ones.
I have one request to ask you as you get to know more algerians and your blog get to be read by more algerians, never let that stop you from saying what you really think about the country. we all know that algeria is in big troubles and a little honnesty can only be good for it. So Keep snapping and commenting.

Andrew G. Farrand said...

Aicha, thank you so much for your message! It is always a pleasure to hear from a reader, and especially from an Algerian who appreciates my reflections on the country. I will certainly continue to share my impressions, and hope you will continue to share your feedback! Best wishes.

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