Ibn Battuta on leaving Algiers said
we went on together through the Mitija and the Mountain of Oaks and so reached the town of Bejaia.
The Mitija still exists – it is an extremely fertile area encompassing the region immediately south-west and south-east of Algiers. Along the roadside lichen-encrusted stone gateways and driveways lined with palms or poplars, lead to grand, old (abandoned) French farmhouses set among vineyards and orchards.
Turning south to the Kabylie, we too crossed Ibn B’s ‘Mountain of Oaks’. Reminiscent of the interior of Corsica, the Kabylie is full of little red-roofed villages dotted over steep densely-green hillsides of cork oak, cedar and olive trees. En route to the coastal city of Bejaia we made a deviation to visit the village of Ait-Yenni which is known for its silver jewelry worked either with coral, which came from al-Kala near the Tunisian border, or enameled blue, green and yellow. Jewelry traditionally formed part of a bride’s dowry and you can still find old pieces in the form of pendants, necklaces, earrings, belts, rings and bracelets. One such shop is Marouf Chabane who, as tradition dictates, learned the trade from his father.
A typical seafront apartment building with the now ubiquitous satellite dish - with those white metal mushrooms winging CNN and Al-Jazeerah to everyone, it is curious to think that they can get both sides of the story, Americans usually only get one
Leaving Ait Yenni we drove on switchback mountain roads through the Petite Kabylie to Bejaia. Once again Ibn Battuta says nothing about the town except to relate a story concerning the veniality of the governor and to say that he fell ill but determined to press on. Known as Vaga by the Phoenicians and Saldae by the Romans, Bejaia was under Hafsid control from Tunis when Ibn B arrived. There is little left of its illustrious past except for the city the French built which is like a tiny version of Algiers. A balustrade forming one side of a large tree-shaded square looks out to sea and over a corniche flanked by white and blue painted buildings. Like Algiers, Bejaia is ringed by hills, and at the northern end of town lies Cap Carbon which offers fabulous views over the Mediterranean and a delightful sheltered cove watched over by a lighthouse. A path leads all the way down to the sea. This is the pristine part of the city – on the other side lies the port full of tankers and container ships since Bejaia is now the terminus of an oil pipeline, and a refinery.
En route to the recently built Hotel Zephyr which is in the new part of town, we came across a giant screen which had been erected in a square where hundreds, perhaps thousands, of locals were watching the World Cup – if music is a great unifier, so too is football which is avidly followed and played here.
The next day we set out for the next city on Ibn B’s itinerary, the city of Constantine. Constantine should be a lovely city – it has a unique location astride the Gorges de Rhumel, has a history dating back more then 2500 years and still has some lovely old Ottoman and French architecture. However the gorge is full of trash, the square, of which one end looks out over a vast panorama north-west, stinks due to men who pee against the balustrade, and the Monument to the Fallen with its winged Victory figure (the original is in the local museum) was disfigured in the1960s and has not only not been repaired but is now surrounded by discarded black plastic bags of trash. This mess was so obvious because Algeria is a remarkably clean country – there is little or no litter along the roads and highways and most large cities are relatively litter-free. In a country which has just come out of a war, I did not expect to see signs regularly placed along roadsides exhorting the citizenry to keep the countryside clean by placing trash in receptacles provided. So what has gone wrong with Constantine?