Algeria’s Grand Opening: A Conversation with Bill Jones
Legendary GeoEx trip leader Bill Jones recently returned from guiding an intrepid group of travelers on our new, trailblazing trip, Algeria’s Shifting Sands. I caught up with him earlier this week to hear his first impressions of this just-opening destination. Along with our conversation, we’re very pleased to publish here a portfolio of Bill’s wonderful photos, taken during the trip.
DG: Welcome back, Bill! It’s great to talk with you! Algeria fascinates me, and I’m very excited to talk with you about this trip! To begin, can you provide an overview of the itinerary?
BJ: Yes, with pleasure! One of the things that surprises people is how diverse the landscape of Algeria is, and our itinerary exemplifies this: We travel from the Mediterranean coastal cities of Algiers and Oran in the country’s north, through the stunningly beautiful and fertile Tell Atlas mountains, on to the ancient city of Constantine, which is built over an immense gorge that splits the city in two. Farther south, we head towards the Sahara and then into the heart of the desert, visiting the towns of Ghardaïa and Timimoun. So it’s really a very complete overview of this vastly varied country, which is actually the largest in Africa—another fact that surprises many people.
DG: That description makes me want to go even more! Algeria has only very recently re-opened to travelers. How were the travel conditions there? Did the country seem ready for tourism?
BJ: Algeria is a country that wants very much to develop its tourist industry and there are challenges. This is true particularly with the lack of a tourist infrastructure, especially concerning restaurants and hotels, but having said that, I want to add that everyone we met couldn’t have tried harder. Our local agents everywhere did their very best and often surprised us. One such occasion was a lunch stop on our journey from Ghardaïa to Timimoun, which was an all-day drive through the desert. We called into a small oasis town for lunch, and I had prepared the group for just an average lunch, but what the local hotel produced for us was delicious, and beautifully presented as we sat under a Bedouin tent. One couldn’t have wished for more.
DG: What was the condition of the roads and hotels?
BJ: The roads are pretty good, much better than one expects. There are excellent motorways and expressways, though travelers need to be prepared to slow down very often because there are more speed bumps than in most countries. On the other hand, this makes the roads very safe, and I’m all for that! It’s important to remember that Algeria hasn’t had much exposure to visitors over the last 20 years, so one shouldn’t expect luxurious accommodations. That said, we stayed in 5-star Marriott accommodations in Constantine, and high-standard business-type accommodations in Algiers and Oran. As we ventured farther south, the hotels were simpler but always the best available. There were some challenges—for example, if everyone was trying to have a shower at the same time, this put a strain on the availability of hot water.
DG: Sometimes bridging cultures can be challenging. What were your experiences interacting with people in Algeria?
BJ: We found the Algerians wonderfully welcoming and at the same time very curious about us. Not once did we feel any animosity against us; quite the contrary, most people were eager to engage us in conversations. French is the second language of most people there, so if one speaks a little French, that helps, though many younger people speak English too. The farther south we went, the more conservative people became. At the same time, we became more and more aware of the ethnic diversity of the country.
DG: Did you have any especially memorable encounters?
BJ: There were many, but two particularly come to mind. Our first was in the Berber village of Sedouk Oufella. This village has a long history of freedom fighters going back to the 1870s, and meeting some of the freedom fighters from the 1950s and ‘60s and hearing their stories was particularly inspiring. But not only that, the whole village, young and old, greeted us with a warmth and friendship that touched our hearts. The second was a ride into the desert on camels with the Bedouins: I think this was that special moment many had dreamt of.
DG: There are so many riches on this trip, architectural, historical, cultural, and natural. What were some of the highlights of the trip for you?
BJ: The sites of Djémila and Timgad rank among the finest former Roman towns anywhere in the former empire, and to have them almost to ourselves was a rare privilege.
The Casbah in Algiers is equally fascinating to see glimpses of its Ottoman past, and of course it was thrilling to see the many beautiful mosques, such as the Great Mosque in Tlemcen or the newer but equally magnificent mosque of Constantine. I also love the architecture in and around Ghardaïa, which inspired Corbusier and the Cubists.
The Sahara stands out, of course. Experiencing that vast ocean of sand is an exhilaration not to be missed, and then it’s such a revelation to see that the Sahara is not all sand—there are oases, wadis, and other natural formations such as the Ghoufi gorge that are truly spectacular.
DG: On the trips I lead, there are always some places that I expect to be highlights, and they are, and then there are some real surprises that I never expected. Did you have any surprises like that?
BJ: Yes. I expected to enjoy Ghardaïa and the M’Zab Valley with its several almost independent towns, but I was little prepared for the stunningly simple architecture, and the beauty of the beige-colored buildings set against a brilliant blue sky. Equally, as an early riser, I encouraged my guests to enjoy early mornings here, listening to the call of the muezzin while observing a transporting sunrise. Finally, the people are very conservative, and listening to the local guides talk of the way of life was fascinating.
DG: Were there any exceptional culinary experiences?
BJ: We enjoyed the food, the couscous, tajine, and mechoui dishes of gently roasted lamb or chicken, some of it cooked slowly underground under hot coals. On two occasions, once in the village of Seddouk Oufella and again in Timimoun at a local home, our gracious and generous hosts gave us the opportunity to get a real taste of Algeria. I should also mention that while alcohol is not always available, the red wine, especially Koutoubia and Rias, was particularly good.
DG: Did you have any safety or Covid-related concerns on the trip?
BJ: None whatsoever, though of course we followed our Covid protocols as a group, always meticulously used our hand sanitizer, and masked where there were crowds. I have to say we always felt very comfortable. I should add that for the present time, Algeria prefers to give tourist groups police escorts on the roads. Sometimes we found this very useful, especially in some cities with heavy traffic where our escorts smoothed our way through.
DG: What would you say to travelers who are considering taking the Algeria trip?
BJ: As always, come with an open mind, and relish the unexpected (this is a pet phrase of mine but absolutely true in most cases). Expect a country just awakening from a long slumber, finding itself, understanding its rich history and trying to meet the modern challenges of an emerging nation. It’s a country with a complicated history and a fascinating ethnic mix, and with rich and unexpected rewards. As for the creature comforts of super luxury hotels, don’t expect them, and remember that once they are here, then Algeria will be a different place altogether.
DG: You also led a post-trip extension to Tunisia. How was the travel experience in Tunisia?
BJ: Eight of the original 12 guests went on to Tunisia and we loved it. In some ways Tunisia is a little more sophisticated, or should I say developed, from a tourist point of view. We stayed in some very lovely properties, including in the medina in Tunis, in the desert in the south of the country, and in the beautiful “blue” town of Sidi Bou Said.
DG: What were the highlights of the extension?
BJ: For many I think Kairouan would rank highly. Most people have not heard of this town, but it is the fourth most important in Islam and its Great Mosque and Mausoleum of Sidi Sahab are architectural masterpieces.
Other highlights would be visiting the Roman site of El Jem, home of the third biggest amphitheater built by the Romans, and of course Hannibal’s legendary Carthage and Dougga, both of which were sublime.
For three of our guests, an absolute highlight was seeing some of the sites from the film Star Wars, and the troglodyte dwellings were fascinating. On that particular day, we savored a spectrum of landscapes that included Grand Canyon-like vistas and areas where the film The English Patient was shot.
DG: What would you say to travelers who are considering adding the Tunisia extension?
BJ: Don’t even hesitate! Add the extension and even extend a day further to relax and enjoy Sidi Bou Said. To make this journey to North Africa and not take in Tunisia would be a mistake!
As for me, I can’t wait to get back to Algeria and Tunisia in September!
DG: Thank you very much, Bill. You have whetted my wanderlust all the more. I hope we can travel together someday!
* * * * *
Do you have a question for Bill Jones about his adventures? Or a favorite travel memory you’d like to share? Please add your comments below. I always love hearing from you!
* * * * *
To learn more about GeoEx’s small group journey to Algeria, contact our travel specialists at 888-570-7108.