Of all Algerian towns and cities, only Tlemcen boasts Moorish buildings to rival those in Morocco or Andalusia. The Romans recognised its strategic and economic importance and built a stronghold, Pomaria, here during the reign of Septimus Severus, but nothing remains of the classical town. In the 8th century Idriss I built a new town, which he called Agadir. Tlemcen grew in importance under Almoravid ruler Youssef ben Tach- fine, who moved his capital here; for centu- ries it was one of the centres of power in the Mahgreb. In the first half of the 14th century the Merinid sultan Abou Yacoub besieged the town for so long that his camp, Man- sourah, became a town in itself. During the colonial period Tlemcen held off the French for more than 10 years and always had a strong anticolonial movement. Algeria’s first independence movement was founded by a Tlemceni in 1924. Today, easy-going Tlem- cen, known as ‘the town of cherries’, is a pleasure to visit. It also has a vision: Algeria’s largest university campus is currently being built by a Chinese contractor.
The town sits beneath the wooded ridge of Lala Setti, on the edge of the rich farmland of the Henneya and Maghnia plains. It has had several centres over the centuries: the Idrissid one at Agadir, the Almoravid one at Mansourah and the Zianide one around the Mechouar. The Grand Mosque and place Emir Abdelkader are now the town’s main hub and most sights and facilities are to be found within a 20-minute walk of here. Mansourah lies to the southwest of the centre, Agadir to the northeast. Both are too far to walk.
Tlemcen’s Grand Mosque (place Emir Abdelkader; 8-11am Sat-Thu) is one of North Africa’s most important Islamic buildings. Begun by the Almoravid leader Youssef ben Tachfine around 1091, it has been substantially rebuilt several times over the centuries but retains some important early features, including the mihrab, elaborately decorated in stucco and carved stone, and a fine cupola with a mas- sive chandelier. More impressive, though, is the atmosphere of reverence that fills the building. There are 133 steps to the top of the minaret, the oldest in this part of the Magh- reb and the highest in town. To visit the mosque, you need to observe the instruction that ‘women must wear long clothes’.
PLACE EMIR ABDELKADER & PLACE MOHAMED KHEMISTI
Tlemcen revolves around these twin squares, divided by rue de l’Independence. On the south side is the old colonial-era town hall (1843), opposite is the Grand Mosque and on the west side is the 12th-century Mosque of Sidi Bel Hassan, built in 1297 by the son of the noted local ruler Yaghmorassen and dedicated to a local holy man. The squares are busy throughout the day, particularly after prayers, when the cafés are buzzing and men sit under the shade trees. Northwest of here, at the end of rue Docteur ben Zerdjeb, is the lively Kissaria, the market area.
Very little remains of the early settlement of Agadir, but the camp Youssef ben Tach- fine occupied during his siege of Agadir has now become the Mechouar (entrance on av Cdt Ferradj). A citadel was built over the camp in 1145 and has been one of the town’s centrepieces ever since. The Zianide ruler Yaghmorassen moved his residence inside the Mechouar walls in the early 14th century and a mosque was built in the 1310s. The Ottoman admiral Barbarossa used it as his stronghold in the 16th century and the French followed suit after the fall of Tlemcen, using it as a barracks and hospital. Today the Mechouar offers a place of peace inside its massive walls and across its broad esplanade. The Moorish mosque, restored in 2003. One of the central buildings houses the Chambre de l’Artisanat et des Métiers (043 263224; 8.30am-noon & 1.30-5pm Sat-Thu), where local handicrafts, including embroidered camel saddles and hand-woven covers, are on sale at fixed prices.
(rue 20 Aout; admission DA20; 8.30am-noon, 1.30-5pm Sat-Thu
Given the wealth of history, you would be forgiven for expecting the museum to be equally rich. It is not. The collection used to be housed in the mosque of Sidi Bel Has- san, on place Mohamed Khemisti, but now occupies a 1905 college building. Arranged over two floors, the collection is basic and the arrangement is confusing, with Al- moravid, Merenid and Zianid coins, brass lamps, carved stile and stucco all jumbled together. Among the treasures are 15th- century carved epitaphs from royal tombs. Also worth finding are the 1940s oil paint- ings by local artist Abdelhalim Hemeche.
About 1.6km southeast of the centre, as the crow flies, lies one of Algeria’s most beauti- ful complexes, the Mosque & Tomb of Sidi Bou- mediene (Al Ubbad; 9am-4pm Sat-Thu), restored by craftsmen from Fès in 1986. Abu Madyan Shu’ayb ibn al-Husayn al-Ansari, to give him his full name, was born near Seville around 1115 and studied with Islamic mys- tics in Morocco before settling in Bejaya on the north Algerian coast and creating his own Sufi circle. A mystic, poet and man of great integrity – he was called the Sheikh of Sheikhs and the Nurturer Abu Madyan, or Sidi Boumediene, as the Algerians call him, died in Tlemcen in 1197, on his way back to Marrakech. His tomb has become a place of pilgrimage and his cult was still suffi- ciently strong for former Algerian President Mohamed Boukharouba to have adopted the name Boumediene as his nom de guerre during the independence struggle.
The sidi’s tomb is down steps on the left as you enter the complex. The tomb is a simple affair, Boumediene on the right, Sidi Abdelsam el-Tonsi on the left. The tiled antechamber houses a worn, marble well, its water believed to bring blessings from the sidi. Beside the tomb, a doorway leads to the Dar es-Soltane. Abou el-Hassan, the Merinid ruler of Fès, refused to live in Man- sourah, so had this residence constructed beside the saint’s tomb. The rooms are ruined – a little carved stucco remains in some corners, enough to suggest vanished grandeur but there is no mistaking the beauty of the site and the wonderful views over the plain.
Across the way stands the mosque, built by Abou el-Hassan in 1328. The building is both grand and beautiful. A stairway leads to a massive entrance porch and, through massive bronze-clad cedar doors, to the mosque, an open-sided, rectangular prayer space, beautifully proportioned and finely decorated in tiles and carved stucco.
A madrassa (Quranic school) was built above the mosque by Abou el-Hassan in 1347. The courtyard is elegant but undecorated, surrounded by 25 cells for students. It was here, soon after it was finished, that the great Arab scholar Ibn Khaldun gave classes. If the gates of the mosque or medersa are locked, look for the guide, Habri Belattar, who runs the last stall on the right as you approach the complex.
Just under 3km from the Mechouar, Man- sourah the victorious never lived up to its name. It started as the camp where Merinid sultan Abou Yacoub settled his army in 1299, when he besieged Tlemcen. The siege lasted eight years, during which the camp became a residence, complete with palace and mosque. Just as the city was about to fall, the sultan was murdered by one of his slaves and the Merinids retreated. Remains of the 12m-high walls that protected the camp stretch across the olive groves far into the distance. The main sight here, though, is the remains of the massive mosque, rebuilt by Sultan Abou el-Hassan
of Fès when he came to besiege Tlemcen in 1335. The prayer hall measures 60m by
55m, but most impressive is the 40m mina- ret, a twin of the Tour Hassan in Rabat and the Giralda in Seville, its inner side having fallen leaving it a vulnerable and evoca- tive shell. The site is open at all times. The lions you might hear roaring as you visit are across the road in the Mansourah Zoo, closed at the time of writing.
Hôtel Majestic (043 262546; place Cheikh Ibrahimi; s/d without bathroom DA400/800)
The welcome is fresher than the rooms in this central budget hotel, where the only washing facilities are a washbasin or the nearby public baths.
Hôtel El-Mansour (043 265678; place des Fedayyines; s/d/tr without bathroom DA450/650/950)
The Mansour is run by a very attentive patron, who calls himself a ‘sleep trader’ and keeps the best budget hotel in town, perhaps even
the region. It is secure, as well. Most rooms are arranged around a courtyard, those on the upper floor being brighter, the few that look into a corridor being darker but having less mosque noise. There are no fans, so it can be hot in summer, but there are showers on the ground floor and a sweet- water well in the courtyard.
Hôtel Agadir (043 271962; 19 rue Khedim Ali; s/d/ tr incl breakfast DA1600/2400/3000)
A modern hotel beside the bus station, a short walk from the centre. Rooms have showers and TV, but no fans or air-con.
Hôtel les Zianides (043 277221; 12 rue Khedim Ali; s/d B&B DA3000/5000)
The red-brick Zianides, designed by celebrity French architect Fernand Pouillon, was Tlemcen’s pride and joy when it opened in 1973. But the state-owned hotel has been neglected, rooms are shabby and dire cooking is served in a restaurant where waiters chase cockroaches. The pool sits in a mature garden.
Tlemcen doesn’t have much to offer by way of culinary delights the tourist office only recommends a place kilometres out of town. So, with the restaurant of Les Zianides to be avoided, the best food is going to be simple. There are plenty of pizza places and bakeries in and around place Emir Abdelkader.
Restaurant Agadir (043 271962; 19 rue Khedim Ali; dishes DA300-600)
Situated in the hotel of the same name, this restaurant serves a good couscous dinner, though check ahead, because it sometimes closes if the hotel is empty.
Restaurant Familiale (blvd Gouar Hocine; meals DA300-400)
On a row of several simple res- taurants, this place serves excellent meals of harira thick meat, lentil & chickpea soup and rotisserie chicken with vegetables, in- side or out on the covered terrace. Recom- mended. Near Bab Sidi Boumediene
Restaurant Coupole (4 rue 1 Novembre; meals DA300)
Across the road from Hôtel Moderne, the Coupole isn’t quite up to Familiale’s standards, but the simple meals are reliable and the service is friendly.
As well as general shopping in the Kissaria and crafts in the Chambre de l’Artisanat et des Métiers (043 263224; inside the Mechouar; 8.30am- noon & 1.30-5pm Sat-Thu), Tlemcen is noted for its textiles. You can find good-quality bur- nouses along rue Merabet Mohamed, which runs east of Pl Emir Abdelkader.
Farouk Stam-bouli (043 264783; 8 place Cdt Ferradj) is a long-established merchant who has a range of top-quality, hand-woven rugs and blankets.
Getting There & Away
Aeroport Messali el-Hadj is 21km out of town, near the village of Zenata. Air Algérie (x043 264518; www.airalgerie.dz; rue du Docteur Damardji Tedjini) flies direct from Tlemcen to Algiers (from DA4558, one hour).
There are regular departures during the day from the station beside Hôtel Aga- dir on blvd Ghezlaoui Abdeslam to Oran (DA150, five hours), Sidi Bel Abbes (DA80, two hours) and towns en route to Algiers (DA600, 12 hours). Safar Mabrouk Coaches runs an express service to Algiers leaving at
6pm (DA700, 10 hours).
Taxis collectifs leave from beside the bus station. The main destinations are Oran (DA250, three hours), Sidi Bel Abbes (DA180, two hours) and Algiers (DA1100, nine to 10 hours)
Since the Oran–Casablanca express was cancelled following the closure of the Mo- roccan border, the only service running out of Tlemcen station is the 7.30am for Oran.
The centre of Tlemcen is easy to walk around, though there are taxis if you get tired. Camionettes (local buses) are unlikely to be of use getting to Mansourah or Sidi Boumediene unless you are leaving from the station. Taxis can be flagged down in the street or call Taxi ben Ali (043 203148/49). There is no bus to the airport, but a taxi should cost around DA100.
POST & TELEPHONE
As elsewhere in Algeria, you don’t have to walk far to find a taxiphone booth. Main post office (av Colonel Lotfi) Sells stamps and also phonecards for public phones.
Office de Tourisme (043 263456; 17 rue Cdt Ferradj), run by the very helpful M Boubakar, has maps, information and a library (mostly French). Some information is also available online at www.tlemcen-dz.com.
ONAT (043 271660; 15 rue de l’Independence)
Zenata Voyages (043 277090; www.zenatavoyages.com; 11 rue Cdt Mokhtar) Offers domestic and interntional travel facilities.
Algeria’s westernmost port sits in a well protected bay, some 70km from Tlemcen (DA150 in taxis collectifs). The road is busy with halabiyah, the so-called ‘milk run’ of vehicles, from trucks to small cars, smuggling cheap Algerian petrol to the Moroccan border. The Romans called Ghazaouet Ad Fratres (the Two Brothers), after the twin 25m rocks that rise out of the water at the mouth of the harbour. Under the French the port was known as Nemours, after the French aristocrat who governed here, and had a reputation for the quality anchovies and sardines canned in its factory. The centre still has a French feel, with its covered market (1938) and the central church, now a library (1931). The Pecherie, at the east end of the port, is a good place to walk and watch the fish being landed off boats as well as locals trying their luck with rod and line.
The best swimming is found away from the port. There’s a fashionable beach 10km east where, it is said, even the rich like to go. There is also good swimming west, at Marsa ben M’hidi, a 2km stretch of fine sand that is cut through by the Moroccan border. To get there you’ll need a car. Some people hitch with the petrol smugglers.
Sleeping & Eating
Hôtel Ziri (043 323025; www.hotel-ziri.com) Ghazaouet’s only viable hotel. Perched on the rocks on the eastern end of town, its 34 rooms all have bathrooms and sea view balconies.
There are several cheap places to eat near the market in the centre of town, a few minutes from the church, but the best food in town is served at Le Dauphin (closed for refurbishment at the time of writing) in the Pecherie, where the local catch is served grilled or fried. Fish is also on offer at the more basic Etoile de Mer, in a nearby shack.
Getting There & Away
The Spanish ferry company Trasmediterránea (www.trasmediterranea.es) operates a ferry service between Ghazaouet and Almeria in Spain. Inland there is an irregular bus service to Tlemcen (DA140, one hour and 40 minutes). Taxis collectifs make the journey for DA200 a seat. Otherwise, a private taxi for the day will cost around DA1200.