If you want to get out of the city for some hours or a day, then look to the west: you don’t have to go far to find beautiful countryside, evocative ruins and sleepy villages alongside the deep blue sea. Tipaza is the must-see sight, an ancient Roman port impressive enough to be inscribed on Unesco’s list of World Heritage sites and a delightful place to wander around. Cherchell, the other side of the headland and another natural harbour, is its twin, with a particularly rich museum. Between these two towns and the capital, the coast road passes some of the better resorts around Algiers. Albert Camus wrote that Tipaza was inhabited by the gods in spring of the sun and silvered sea, blue sky and flower-covered ruins. But Tipaza isn’t just beautiful and inspiring in spring. Somehow the gods are still talking if you go in the summer, when the ruins buzz with vibrating cicadas; in autumn, when the winds blow brine off the sea; even in winter, when the weak sun brings out the honey tones of marble and sandstone.
Seventy kilometres along the coast road, Tipaza is a delight at any time.
Most settlements along the Algerian coast began as anchorage for early travellers, perhaps Phoenician, perhaps even earlier, as their primitive boats clung to the coast during a journey from Carthage or further east towards the Pillars of Hercules. There are no records of this early period nor of the Numidians who lived here in the early centuries BC, just the clues thrown up by the 5th- or 4th-century BC cemeteries. The first mention of Tipaza is by Pliny the Elder, in the 1st century, by which time it was under Roman control. It was then that the town we can visit took shape.
Tipaza’s story is shaped by the same forces and influences as other big towns in the region; it grew by strengthening its ties across the Mediterranean and reaching a peak of wealth and influence under the Severan emperors in Rome, particularly Septimus Severus (AD 193–211), a North African by birth. During this period much wealth was spent on civic projects, including an impressive enclosing wall. Like other towns along the coast, Tipaza embraced Christianity with enthusiasm in the first half of the 3rd century, a time when pagan buildings were neglected and Christian basilicas built. While neighbouring Cherchell (p106) and Icosium, the ancient settlement at Algiers, were sacked by rebel Berbers in AD 371, Tipaza’s wall 2200m long, defended by 37 towers, held, only to give way the following year to the force of the Vandals. There was a brief renaissance under Byzantine rulers, but the end was irresistible, a slow seeping away of power and people, after which many of its stones were carted away to be reused in the building of a new city, El-Djezaïr (Algiers).
Tipaza was built on a beautiful site and the ruins of this archaeological park (9am-noon & 2.30-6.30pm) roll down, through pine and other trees, to the beach, dominated by 900m Djebel Chenoua to the west.
It is best to start at the museum (021 478938/477543; www.musee-tipaza.art.dz; rue du Musée; 9am-noon & 2-5.30pm) outside the park, which has some fine funerary stele showing warriors on horseback and a mosaic of captives – the centre depicts par- ents and their son bound; around the border are heads of various Africans. Here too are finely carved sarcophagi and some exquisite 1st- to 3rd-century AD glass.
The site is divided into two, the main part being to the west of the museum. The entrance leads almost immediately to an amphitheatre, which would have been one of the main entertainment centres of the ancient town. There isn’t much left of the surrounding structure, but the oval walls of the arena still describe the area where, in the 4th and 5th centuries, gladiator fights and other popular events were held. Just beyond the amphitheatre the path leads to to the central point of the town, where the two main streets, the paved decumanus and cardo maximus, join. Follow the decumanus, to the left, and you will come to the other place of entertainment, the theatre. This is also much ruined, but the props that supported the stage are there, as is the slope that was once covered with seating blocks. North of here head straight for the sea there is an area developed by Christians. The religious complex here includes two basilica, tombs and baths, all of which can be easily identified. The grand basilica was the largest Christian building in North Africa when it was finished in the 4th century.
Return back along the shoreline, the middle of this cove was devoted to large villas and bath complexes, some of which still have mosaics on the floors. The house at the centre, on the cardo maximus, was the Villa of Frescoes, an unusually large house of 1000 sq metres built at the height of Tipa- za’s prosperity, in the 2nd century AD.
The civic buildings lie to the east of the cardo, on a promontory which formed one of the arms of the port. Beyond the remains of the ancient wall lie the forum, a 25m by
50m paved area which originally had por- ticoes on three sides and the capitol on the fourth. Little remains of this, the town’s most important temple, beyond its steps and podium. Here too are the curie (mu- nicipal assembly), where political matters were settled, and the courthouse, a basilica built at the end of the 2nd century AD.
On the east side of Tipaza, beyond the museum, the old Punic harbour is still in use, protecting the town’s boats. Further east, beyond the walls of the ancient town, the remains of two more Christian basilica stand in a cemetery that stretches from the sea and the main road.
Sleeping & Eating
Because most people visit Tipaza as a day trip, accommodation is limited and the choice is between budget and top end.
Auberge de Jeunesse (024 439752; Route de Tipaza; per person DA100)
Has a central location in town.
Corne d’Or (024 470815; s/d half board DA5050/7070)
Just beyond the town limits in the direction of Algiers, this place is an attractive domed compound with its own small harbour, but was for sale at the time of writing and barely functioning.
Complexe Touristique de Matarès (024 461822)
a large whitewashed tourist village with a fortress- like façade above a beautiful beach, and the dilapidated four-star
Hôtel de la Baie (024470822; s/d B&B DA1800/3400)
These developments remain controversial – you don’t have to be an archaeologist to recognise the historical value of the site. You can swim off the beach here.
The pedestrian street that leads from the entrance back to the main road is lined with restaurants. There is much to choose from they all serve meals of chicken and lamb and may have fresh fish. Most have shaded terraces and will serve mint tea or fresh juices.
Restaurant Massinissa (042 470216; mains DA230-600) and,
Creperie Cleopatra (076 740473; mains DA200-650) are among the better ones here.