There’s a strong Moroccan influence in the northwest, which is unsurprising considering its location up against the Moroccan border. Under Roman rule the northwest was farmed intensively, and the region’s main town at the time, Pomaria (modernday Tlemcen), was a stopover along the south Mediterranean coastal road. When Arab armies swept through the region in the 7th century during their conquest of North Africa and Spain, they were merely following the Roman and pre-Roman road. A few centuries later Berber armies arrived from the west and left a lasting Moroccan influence that can still be seen in the buildings of Tlemcen. Nineteenth century French colonists, who had different priorities, recognised that the soil and location were ideal for vines and the area remains Algeria’s centre of wine production.
Algeria’s second city is a lively port with plenty of history and a lot of rhythm. Yet here, more than in Algiers, the consequences of the violence of the 1990s and the subsequent government neglect are plain to see, and every ship that sails north to Europe is watched by hundreds of people. Many of them long to make the journey to what they believe will be a better life, perhaps hoping to emulate Oran’s most famous émigré, fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent. Albert Camus, who found the city dull and dusty when he lived here in the 1940s, used it as the setting for his novel The Plague. But for all its problems, Oran is still fascinating, a city with a sense of its own history and culture, which has contributed much to the world, not least North Africa’s liveliest music movement, rai.
Humans settled around the broad sweep of the Mers el-Kebir bay 100,000 years ago, but the story of Algeria’s second city really starts when it became the port of Tlemcen Andalusian traders started using the harbour in the 10th century. Spanish soldiers conquered it in 1509 and held it intermittently until 1792. The Spanish built fortifications that remain some of the city’s most prominent landmarks today. The city was fought over by the Spaniards and Ottoman Turks throughout the 18th century and lost much of its importance in the process. Its prospects were made worse in 1790 when it was hit by an earthquake so large that tsunamis battered the Spanish coast. Oran’s fortunes revived from 1831, when French colonists began to develop the port and to build a large naval base in the harbour of Mers el-Kebir. Under French control Oran became a departement of France and one of France’s largest cities, a cosmopolitan place of whitewashed houses, broad avenues and grand civic buildings. At the outbreak of WWII the Mers el-Kebir naval base was home to a significant squadron of French battleships. When France surrendered to the Germans in 1940, British forces attacked the French fleet to stop it falling to the Germans, killing 1300 French sailors in the action. Almost half of Oran’s population left after independence.
The oldest part of town, the casbah, sits just above the old port, with its back to 400m high Djebel Murdjadjo and the Spanish-built fort of Santa Cruz. With each development the city has spread to the east and south, lining the bay. The colonial French city with its boulevards of whitewashed buildings sits above the more modern, eastern port. To the south of the French city, modern blocks spread far back into the interior. To the east the new Sheraton hotel, built on a rise overlooking the sea, serves as a useful marker. The place du 1 Novembre still serves as a focal point, while the front de mer (water front), known locally as the balcony, attracts crowds in the evening. The parallel streets of rue Mohamed Khemisti and rue Larbi ben M’hidi are the main shopping streets. Albert Camus lived at 65 rue Larbi ben M’hidi, above what is now Boutique Warda.
Most of Oran’s attractions are to be found within walking distance of eachother part of the pleasure on offer here is the scenes glimpsed as you wander.
PLACE DU 1 NOVEMBRE
Oran’s main square, the place du 1 Novem- bre, is the definitive expression of French rule in Oran. The city’s main meeting place (called place Napoleon, place d’Armes and place Maréchal Foch at various times in its history), it has a baroque theatre on one side and the town hall on the other. In the mid- dle of the square stands an obelisk topped with a Winged Victory, erected by French sculptor Dalou in 1898. The original work commemorated the French soldiers who died at the battle of Sidi-Brahim in 1845. After independence the French sculpture was replaced by busts of the Sufi saint Moulay Abdelkader. The town hall, which Camus thought pretentious, has a magnificent onyx staircase and restored painted ceilings It’s a short walk from here to the Promenade Ibn Badis, the front de mer, created in 1847 with excellent views of the port and old town.
MUSÉE NATIONAL AHMED ZABANA(041 403781; 19 blvd Zabana; admission adult/student DA20/10; 8.30am-noon & 1.30-5pm Sat-Thu)
The main museum is little-visited by foreigners, but the Musée National Ahmed Zabana is one of the keys to understanding the city, al- though the collection doesn’t always live up to the grandeur of the building. A large 1st- floor room tells the local story of, the battle for independence, most moving being the list of local people executed by the French between 1954 and 1962. The extensive, ne giant lobsters and calamari and, in the base- ment among the stuffed animals, a shark, all caught in the bay. More interesting are the ancient sculptures, some good mosa- ics and terracotta portraits. The paintings are more surprising, being a mix of works by 20th-century Algerian artists, French Orientalists including Eugene Fromentin and some 18th-century studies of mythical subjects.
Much of the area around the headland over- looking the port is a military zone, but don’t let that stop you visiting the misnamed Chateau Neuf (New Castle), which is in fact the old, 14th-century fort of Merinid Sultan Abou Hassan. While some of the complex is closed, the Bey’s Palace (rue Meftah Kouider; ad- mission adult/student DA20/10; 9am-4pm Sat-Wed) is open, in spite of closed gates (you may have to shout for the guard). The massive walls were first built in the 1340s by Merinid Sultan Abou Hassan and reinforced by the Spaniards in 1509, by the Ottomans in the 1700s and the French in the 19th century. The location is perfect, above the town, port and sea, and the gateway is impressive, but there is little majesty left in the building, now dominated by the concrete shell of a stalled building project.
The bey, Mohamed el-Kebir, moved his residence into the fort after the Spaniards vacated it in 1792; he was encouraged by the fact that this was one of the few places untouched by the disastrous earthquake 1790. The main public room, the diwan, has a fireplace where the sultan’s throne once stood beneath a painted ceiling. In the inner courtyard, on the left is the room of the favourite concubine, a place of pleas- ure with elaborate stucco walls and painted ceilings, restored in 2002 and already peel- ing. The two-storey bey’s residence is now
PASHA’S MOSQUE (rue Benamara Boutkhil; visits to the mosque are possible out of prayer times.)
The Pasha’s Mosque below the western side of the Chateau Neuf, was built in 1797, as its foundation inscription attests, by ‘the great
the elevated, the respectable and useful, our master Sidi Hassan Bacha’. In better condition than the palace, it reflects in its elegance
and lightness the joy at the city’s liberation from foreign rule.
Wherever you are in the city, there’s no missing Murdjadjo, the wooded hill that dominates the skyline, and the best view of the city is from the plateau. Getting there will be considerably easier when the funicu- lar is working. Until then, taxi is the only way. The most obvious landmark is the fort of Santa Cruz, built by Spaniards in the late
16th century and closed for renovation at the time of our visit. The nearby Church of Santa Cruz was built to commemorate the end of the 1849 cholera outbreak and is the scene of festivities each Easter. Above the fort, on the plateau, stands a 15th-century marabout (monument) to Abdelkader, who died in Baghdad but is still revered here. A café serves the many visitors the site attracts.
The sea immediately around the city can be dirty, although the beach at Ain el-Turck is very popular in summer. The best beaches and the best swimming are found further west and you will need your own transport, or a friendly taxi driver, to get to them. Les Andalouses has long been one of the most popular summer beaches, and is increasingly encroached upon. You may find parts of it turned into private beach clubs (DA150 to DA350). Madagh, an idyllic double cove beyond Les Andalouses, was voted Oran’s best beach in 2006. In town the Sheraton (041 590100) welcomes nonguests to its pool for DA1500 per person.
If the town hall is open at the place du 1 Novembre, walk inside to admire the onyx staircase and newly restored glass ceiling. Passing the theatre, leave the square head- ing due north, down the sloping rue Bena- mara Boutkhil. Take the first turning right, rue Meftah Kouider, following it to the left, towards a dead end. Above you are the ram- parts of the Chateau Neuf and the balcony of the Bey’s Palace ( opposite; 9am-4pm Sat- Wed). The street ends at the massive Spanish- period gateway to the fort. Inside, on the right, a modern gate leads up to the palace call out for the guards if they are not on duty and they will let you visit. The views over the city and port from here are wonderful
Retracing your steps after visiting the pal- ace, rue Benamara Boutkhil curves past the old Armes et Cycles shop and around the Pasha’s Mosque opposite to the House of Si Hassan, a tobacco trader who became Bey of Oran in 1812. The house, dating from 1700, was restored in 1900 and is closed to visitors. Continue down the slope until it reaches place Boudali Hasni, also known as place Rabah, an elegant centrepiece to the ‘lower town’, much of it built in the early 19th cen- tury and now derelict. On your left (south), pass the old Gendarmerie and head up blvd Frères Guerrab some houses off this street date back to the Spanish period. Where the boulevard veers left, continue straight uphill along a market street and follow the stalls right, onto rue Sidi Lahaouri.
Sidi el-Houari, Oran’s holy man, died here in 1439 and gave his name to the street and the district, the heart of the casbah and home, well into the 1900s, of a largely Spanish-origin population. More recently the king of rai, Cheb Khaled, was born here on 29 February 1960. The mosque of Sidi el-Houari, built in Moorish style in 1793, is up the street on the right and is a popular place of pilgrimage for Algerians, as is the saint’s tomb, south along the same street. Visits may be possible out of prayer times.
The Cathedral of St Louis was built by the French in 1839 on the site of a 1679 Spanish church, destroyed, like much of this part of the casbah, in the 1790 earthquake. The cathedral is now closed and derelict, but if you find the resident guardian you may be allowed to look around, From here, head northeast to rue Frères Dahl Youcef, then east, passing Le Corsaire (7, right)–here the street is also known as pl de la Republique–then south back to place Bou- dani Hasni, also known as place Rabah. From the square, head back to the upper town.
Festivals & Events
The Festival National de la Chanson du Rai d’Oran (www.festival-rai.over-blog.org)
is the city’s celebration of its home-grown sound. Started in 1985, it takes place in August in the Théâtre de Verdure, the outdoor arena beneath the eastern bastion of Chateau Neuf fort. The festival has long suffered from cash shortages, but the government has promised to increase its support.
Hôtel Riad (041 403850; 46 blvd Mellah Ali; s/d/tr DA400/700/1000)
A very basic option across from the train station (and mosque), for those times when the budget won’t stretch to anywhere else. Some rooms come with showers.
Hôtel Khalid (041 332628; 21 rue Marcel Cer- dan; s/d incl breakfast DA1500/1700, s/d with air-con incl breakfast DA1800/2200)
The best of several budget places along the backstreets close to the centre. More expensive rooms have streetside windows.
Grand Hôtel (041 391533; 5 place du Magreb; s/d DA2000/3000)
A reminder of the city’s glory days, the Grand is well past its prime, rooms are as tired as reception staff, but there is still plenty of atmosphere and it has a central location.
Hôtel Residence le Timgad ( 041394797; www.hoteltimgad.com; 22 blvd Emir Abdelkader;s/d incl breakfast DA3400/4150)
An extremely well run and friendly hotel in an uninspiring modern block right in the centre of town. Rooms are large, spotless, double-glazed and well appointed. The ground-floor restaurant is reliable, and the parrot in reception does a great imitation of phones ringing. It may have detailed city maps for sale. Recommended.
Hôtel Montparnasse (041 395338; 9 rue Bense- nouci Hamida; s/d DA3500/4000)
Don’t be put off by the ‘back door’ on blvd Emir Ab- delkader, this is a good, clean, central hotel with shower, fridge and TV.
Sheraton Oran (041 590100; www.sheraton.com/oran; Route des Falaises Es Seddikia; s/d incl breakfast DA13,300/18,000)
Currently the best in town, the Sheraton has a curvaceous mirrored wall containing the height of Oranese luxury (at least until the Royal is running). It’s a short drive from the centre, with fully equipped rooms and a range of restaurants.
Hôtel Royal (041 393144; www.sofitel.com;3 blvd de la Soummam)
When it reopens in 2007, the Royal will be Oran’s most elegant hotel and should live up to its name. At the time of our visit, the gilding was being applied to the ironwork.
A recent survey found that 60% of men in Oran prefer to eat breakfast in a café rather than at home and, as a result, the city is packed with cafés. Good restaurants are harder to find, and it’s harder still to find the local speciality of brannieh (a stew of lamb or beef with courgettes and chickpeas).
La Voile d’Or (62 rue Mohamed Khemisti; dishes DA400-500; lunch & dinner Sun-Thu)
A simple air-conditioned restaurant near a popular public garden, serving fresh fish dishes and alcohol.
Restaurant Cintra (041 393345; 14 blvd de la Sou- mmam; dishes DA450-1200)
An old-timer on one of the grand boulevards with an international menu of Catalan tuna, Spanish crevettes and French sole. Alcohol is served.
Le Corsaire (041 397620; 6 place de la Republique; dishes DA500-600; closed lunch Fri)
The restaurants by the Pecherie serve some of Oran’s best fish, but none match the Corsaire, its motto on y est bien en famille (you are among family here). Chose from the display and have it cooked the way you want. Paella, a speciality, is best ordered in advance. No alcohol.
Grand Café Riche (041 394797; 22 blvd Emir Abdelkader; dishes DA800-950; lunch & dinner)
The name is misleading: not a big, bustling café, but the restaurant of Hôtel Residence le Timgad. Food is standard French, the cloths are crisp white, the room curtained and service is friendly and efficient. Alco- hol is served.
There are plenty of seedy bars in town (look for the Stella signs).
Club Sevilla (5 rue Ramier) is a cut above the rest It’s a small bar with food and music till late.
Oran is the proud birthplace of rai and it won’t be long before you hear its distinctive beat. But it can be hard to track down live music, outside of the August festival. The circuit tends to shift by the season and fashion, but in high summer the clubs of Ain el Turck should all be running. Look out for Le Biarritz (where Khaled first performed), Le Chalet and El-Jawhara. L’Ambiance at the Sheraton also has live music.
The Centre Culturel Français (041 403541; www.ccf-oran.com; 112 rue Larbi ben M’hidi)
has regular screenings of French-language films. Something more macho can be found at Cinema Lynx (81 Larbi ben M’hidi; films DA69, 015 028030; www.213tv.com). A new Franco-Algerian operation with a mission to revitalise Oran’s cultural life, stages regu- lar live music events.
Rue Larbi ben M’hidi and rue Mohamed Khemisti are the city’s main shopping streets, lined with boutiques and sports shops.
Abdallah Benmansour (041 397882; 5 rue Mo- hamed Khemisti)
Benmansour is one of Alge- ria’s most respected artists; his paintings hang in the shop and are for sale. He also sells stationary and art materials.
Patisserie Algéroise (041 398759; 81 rue Larbi ben M’hidi).
The best baklava and local pastries in town are sold at this patisserie.
Getting There & Away
Es-Sénia International Airport (041511153/591031, http://www.egsaoran.com/)
is 18 km southeast of town, near Tafraoui village.
Air Algérie (041 427205, 041 427206; www.air algerie.dz; 2 blvd Emir Abdelkader; 8am-noon & 2-5pm Sat-Wed, 8am-noon Thu)
flies direct from Oran to a number of airports around Algeria includ- ing Algiers (approximately DA3720), Tind- ouf, Tamarasset (approximately DA14,200), Adrar and Annaba.
International destinations served by Air Algérie include Paris, Lyon and Marseille. Aigle Azur (x041 390940; www.aigle-azur.fr; airport) also operates a daily direct service to Paris.
There are regular sailings from Oran to Alicante (Spain; 12 hours) and Marseille (France; 11 hours). Tickets must be bought in advance from one of several agencies in town, ENTMV (041 392166; 9 blvd de la Soummam) being the biggest.
Oran has several bus stations, which can be confusing for visitors, especially since they are strung out across the city and, since the privatisation of bus services, there is no reli- able information.
Agence Castor, off the 2nd blvd Peripherieque, is a relatively new bus station serving northwest Algeria, including Mostaganem (DA80), Mascara (DA90) and Chlef (DA90).
The Gare Routiere el-Hemri (Blvd Colonel Lotfi), formerly known as SNTV, was the central bus station until bus services were privatised. Destinations include Algiers (DA470, eight hours), Tindouf (DA2100, 14 hours), Con- stantine (DA900, 14 hours), Setif (DA700,12 hours), Ouargla (DA900, 12 hours), Ghardaia (DA700, 10 hours) and other distant places. There is no phone service, but M Boumazair of Amin Voyages (070 122926) at the station can provide information.
Buses leave the Yaghmourassen station (rue Yaghmourassen) for Tlemcen (DA200) and the west. Transport Veolia (021 498024) runs a day and night Oran Algiers service from here (day/night DA720/820, eight hours).
Taxis leave round the clock from the car park beside Stade 19 Juin (av des Martyrs de la Revo- lution) for Algiers (DA900, six hours) and from 4am to 8pm to Constantine (DA1600, 12 hours) and eastern Algeria.
Standard taxis collectifs (shared taxis) destinations from the USTO station (off rue Djemila, near Clinque Nekkache) include Biskra (DA120),
Ghardaia (DA1100) and Msila (DA900).
The train station (041 401502, 041 361788; blvd Mellah Ali)
is a 10-minute walk from the centre. The service to Morocco stopped when the border closed, but there is a daily service to Sidi Bel Abbes at 4.10pm (one hour, 20 minutes), to Ain Temouchent (one hour) and Tlemcen at 1.30pm, Relizane at
3.45pm (1½ hours) and Algiers at 7.45am (1st/2nd class with 15% reduction on return fares, DA990/705, 4½ hours). There is no left-luggage facility.
TO/FROM THE AIRPORT
EGSA, the airport operators, runs a bus service from the airport to outside a phar- macy on blvd Maatra Mohamed Habib, opposite the town hall. It officially oper- ates from 7am to 7pm, but may not con- nect with flights. A taxi may cost up to DA500.
Most places inside Oran are within walking distance, the exception being Santa Cruz and Djebel Murdjadjo, which can only be reached by taxi. Regular buses for Ain el-Turck (DA20) and the beaches to the west leave during the day from rue Benamara Boutkhil, just off place 1 Novembre.
Taxis are easy to find (out of rush hour) and cheap enough: few trips in town will cost more than DA200. Make sure the meter is working or that you have fixed, in your mind at least, what the journey is worth. There are taxis collectifs to Ain el-Turck during the day (DA50), but at night a private taxi is your only option (at least DA200)
Centre Culturel Français (CCF; 041 403541; www.ccf-oran.com; 112 rue Larbi ben M’hidi; 9am-noon & 1.30-8pm Sun-Thu) The CCF is particularly active, with a library, a selection of French newspapers and magazines, and regular performances of music and theatre. It also shows films each Monday and Thursday.
Instituto Cervantes (041 409730; 22 rue Médécin Belhoucine; 9am-1pm & 1.30-4.30pm Sat-Wed) Proof of Spain’s continuing influence in Oran, the Instituto holds Spanish courses, has a library and organises music, literary and theatrical events.
Ambulance (041 403131)
Civil Hospital (041 343311, 343316; 76 blvd Benzerdjeb)
Association Bel Horizon (061 210714; www.oran-belhorizon.com) A local organisation promoting the city’s history and culture. It publishes books and CD-ROMs about the city.
Office de Tourisme (06 395130; 4 rue Mohamed Khemisti) Has some city maps (though not necessarily of Oran) and basic tourist information.
ONAT (298210, 393106; 10 blvd Emir Abdelkader) This state-run organisation runs tours and can arrange both domestic and international plane tickets
Touring Voyages Algérie (041 598078; wwwouringvoyagesalgerie.dz; 5 blvd de la Soummam)
Zenata Voyages (041 391227; www.zenatavoyages.com; 24 Blvd Tripoli) Offer a similar service to ONAT.