‘Please accept coffee without payment. You are visitors.’ So said the manager of the retro-chic little Café Auber in downtown Algiers, where we’d paused on a stroll down to the harbour after Christmas. We’d considered the city just a stop on our way into the Sahara. Instead it proved a revelation.
Were you to arrive at Algiers on one of the regular overnight ferries from Marseille, you would be greeted by a waterfront of magnificent, ornate, turn-of-the-19th-centurymansion blocks: Parisian-style, cream and white, embroidered with palm trees. Built in the grand French style, the old city rising up the hillside behind remains astonishingly true to its history, though it’s more than half a century since France quit her former possession after the bloodiest war of liberation in modern history. Narrow streets and long flights of granite steps thread between five- and six-storey residential edifices whose stucco facades proclaim variously the Gallic confidence of the 1880s, early 20th-century modernism, or the stylish curves of the 1930s. Do the stray cats padding through this living relic of another age, another culture, know their provenance?
Venture up those unending steps or down through the dark alleys, the traffic-choked streets and busy cafés, and your first impressions become laced with a thrilling sense of gentle decay. The cats thrive on overflowing bins, and the inheritors of this once-imperial city, its modern and overwhelmingly Arab Algerian population, jostle, promenade, tarry or hurry about their business. New Algiers sprawls unmemorably for miles, but old Algiers is not dying, just fraying somewhat at the seams – and now some impressive repair and restoration is under way. As one of the city’s still-uncommon European tourists, you will be entirely safe, frequently lost, often guided, and always noticed.