24 Hours in Constantine
Bridging the gap between old and new, Constantine is Algeria’s most beguiling city
If the French had colonised JRR Tolkien’s Middle-earth, Gondor would look a little like Constantine – Algeria’s third largest city. Driving towards the city, Constantine rises up from the country’s rolling north-eastern plateau – its visual impact almost futuristic thanks to the fantasy-like suspension bridges that connect its two cliff faces across a jagged, verdant gorge.Indeed, the winding, historic streets of Constantine may not, at first glance, appear to offer much more inspiration than their startling beauty and old-fashioned charm. But scratch the surface and it’s easy to see why the city has recently been crowned the Capital of Arab Culture for 2015.
All over town, civic boosters are underway to assert this authoritative new title – a more deserved moniker than the city’s current, somewhat lazy nickname: ‘city of bridges’. Construction companies are working around the clock to whip up new hotels and a range of formal cultural venues that Constantine currently lacks, from a 3,000 capacity performance hall to an exhibition centre, urban library, art history museum and, of course, another bridge.
Although the above will no doubt inject a layer of contemporary brio into the city’s daily patina, change does not come quickly for ancient Constantine. For the time being, the city is in no hurry to shed the skin of its sleepy town reputation and old-world cachet. Much of its current charm is to be enjoyed at a leisurely pace – preferably through a cup of qahwa with the Constantinians that bring the city to life.
But that doesn’t mean that Constantine doesn’t have anything new to offer. On the contrary, 24 hours in the city is time well spent and, romantic vistas aside, with its rich regional cuisine – don’t leave without trying a plate of chakchouka – unexpected Modernist masterpieces, lively new music venues and speedy public transport, Constantine has much more to offer than those in Algiers would dare to admit.
8:00am – Jawziat Cirta-Elbey
Jawzia – a smooth, silky honey-based nougat studded with nuts – is Constantine’s regional specialty and one which its residents will proudly (and persistently) tell you to sample over the following 24 hours. Similar blocks of halwa may be a familiar sight on the counters of delis all over the Middle East, but not even confectioners in Algiers would dare lay claim to jawzia.
Although, today, it can be found and enjoyed all over its native city, jawzia is as much about nostalgia as it is about snacking. Established in 1932, Jawziat Cirta-Elbey is one of the oldest producers still in operation, and its premises – something of a museum – is therefore one of the best places in town to sample it. So popular is Jawziat Cirta-Elbey’s recipe that they shift around 11 kilograms per day and have even opened up a second point of sale in Algiers’ trendy Telemly neighbourhood.
11:00am – Téléphérique
‘If I take a taxi, it can take me up to an hour to get to work with the traffic. The téléphérique takes me 10 minutes,’ says Salaheddine, a passenger on one of Constantine’s cable cars. Despite the fact that there are already eight bridges spanning the ravine that divides Constantine in two, the city launched a cable car network in June 2008. With the capacity to carry 2,400 people per hour, the cable car allows Constantinians a speedy journey from A to B.
‘It’s integral to the city and not a tourist attraction at all. For the majority of the population, it’s a way to get to work from one side of the city to the other, and for cheap,’ says Kassia Benyahia, a principal conductor on the line.
For visitors, however, the 20 dinar ride offers killer views of the city. From Emir Abdelkader station on the city’s eastern side, an eight minute journey takes passengers over the red tiled rooftops of the Faubourg neighbourhood before launching over the rocky gorge to offer dramatic views of the Rhumel river, the Sidi M’Cid and Sidi Rached bridges that cross it, and the mountains beyond.
2:00pm – Mentouri Constantine University
Mentouri Constantine University, atop the Aïn El Bey plateau on the outskirts of the city, is a big pull for students and, for visitors to the city, a refreshing flair of architectural modernism amidst the colonial French fancies of Centre Ville. Designed by Brazilian master Oscar Niemeyer, the campus is seen nationwide as an emblem of Algeria’s leap into modernity – its signature 19 storey administrative tower can be found on the back of every 2,000 dinar note in the country.
The campus can be reached via the city’s brand new tramway, which glides to the doorstep of Niemeyer’s flowing, sensual structures. An enormous plaza forms the heart of the site, binding the different faculties together. Its immensity strikes a jarring balance of both harmony with the surrounding landscape and a stripped-down, almost disorientating contrast to the city’s winding streets.
The students of the university have appropriated Niemeyer’s design features, affectionately naming them after the stationery they use in class every day. ‘We call the auditorium “the book”, the pools in the plaza “inkwells” and the entrances to the buildings “pencil sharpeners”,’ says Ramzy Arafa, a student of linguistics, who sits in La Rotonde café – the sole hangout on campus, dubbed ‘the compass’.
We call the entrances to the buildings “pencil sharpeners”
For visitors, a cup of coffee and a homemade tartelette au limon at La Rotonde is a good way to sample Niemeyer’s utopian architecture in action – professors and students gather inside the circular glass shell to write assignments while the bustle of campus carries on around them.
Despite building the campus over forty years ago, Niemeyer’s workforce is still keeping tabs on it. ‘Three years ago, Niemeyer’s team came with video equipment to check up on the building. When they got back to Brazil and showed Niemeyer the footage, he wasn’t happy that the trees we had planted were obstructing his architecture. He wrote a letter to [President] Bouteflika himself demanding they were removed. Next thing we knew, we were pulling them up,’ says Ferkous Embacek, the university’s vice rector.
4:00pm – Centre Culturel Français de Constantine
‘We’re the only venue in town to offer a regular programme of cultural events,’ says Youssama Chabane, the cultural director of Centre Culturel Français de Constantine. Located on La Place de la Pyramide, one of the city’s busiest junctions, the institute is tucked away behind the leafy barrier of its landscaped gardens.
Indeed, Constantine is home to many impressive historical museums, but Chabane is the city’s main driving force in coordinating contemporary cultural events: ‘We try to offer at least two to three per week,’ he explains. Already confirmed for the spring are theatre shows, public conferences, classical music recitals and independent film screenings. Most notably, Chabane recently organised Constantine’s only fashion week, giving local fashion designers the chance to showcase with their Parisian peers. A 24 hour visit to the city might not collide with one of CCF’s events but, says Chabane, ‘the building is open to everyone throughout the day.’
Occupying a renovated townhouse, the CCF is perhaps one of the best preserved examples of colonial architecture in the city. Inside, bright airy rooms function as exhibition spaces and contemporary artwork hangs among the building’s original wainscot and mahogany panels. Most recently, French graphic artist Jacques Ferrandez’s comic-book retelling of Albert Camus’ ‘The Outsider’ was shown – a good incarnation of the institute’s bilateral mission.
The linchpin of the centre is its well-stocked library, and taking a couple of hours to regroup inside its calm, clean sanctuary is one of the city’s small pleasures. The catalogue is stocked with over 35,000 books and – for those who don’t read French – there is a selection of daily newspapers and magazines to digest, access to WiFi and a catalogue of over 800 DVDs, which out-of-towners can watch on one of the library’s iMacs.
8:00pm – Club 25
‘It’s the most switched on place in Constantine,’ says Yahya Habchi about Club 25, a new music venue in which he sits drinking a freshly pressed orange juice and frequents nearly every night. ‘It’s one of the first places in town to invest in creating a cultural ambience – and hopefully the start of a larger movement.’
It’s one of the first places in town to invest in creating a cultural ambience – and hopefully the start of a larger movement
Open for just over two months, Club 25 is located down a quiet side street of the city’s Bellevue neighbourhood – a strategic move by owner Bilel Djileh to furnish the space with a homely, more intimate atmosphere. Inside, the décor is modern and simple, with dark wooden tables arranged around a small performance stage, and a menu offering organic classics.
Prior to the opening of Club 25, musicians in Constantine had few platforms – other than the streets – to be heard. Now, local bands have a formal venue and a lively audience to play to. ‘Every weekend, we have local bands playing indie rock, gnawa and malouf – the traditional music of Constantine. Last Thursday, we had three guys come in who sang a couple of droll songs they had written themselves about their life here. The audience loved them,’ says Djileh.
The ‘25’ of the venue’s name is a nod to Constantine’s administrative number and an indication of Djileh’s commitment to the city. Though the programme is currently centred on music, Djileh is also trying to branch out into poetry and live art.
This article appears in the issue44Buy Now