Despite having used Constantine as our base for several nights we had not really explored the town so today was devoted to getting to grips with this amazing place. Although I opened this blog with the statement that academics are not rock stars I certainly felt like one today as we had a police detail escorting us around. Rock and roll. I can honestly say that at no point during my time in Algeria have I felt the need for a police escort but they were awfully useful when it came to bypassing traffic jams and avoiding delays at checkpoints – but that is simply the impatient desire of a traveller rather than a necessity. And Constantine was no different. It has a Mediterranean relaxed charm about it that reminded me of Alexandria. Trying to shop with armed police had its own charm too and they were extremely nice about helping us to navigate our way around the Medina so not a bad thing.
The market was just as I had hoped. The hustle and bustle is amplified by the narrowness of the streets and the stalls spill out of the shops so weaving your way between displays of nuts, batteries, fruit and veg and spices became something of computer game animation.
Then we hit the meat section. I don’t know why this section of a market always gives me a thrill but it does. I have been to markets in Cairo, Tripoli, Khartoum and Tunis and the meat section never fails to delight me. To use an atrocious pun, this section of the market always feels raw. There is something so basic about the sight of meat and in these markets there is no comfort of cellophane. I say “comfort” but actually I am more comfortable buying meat here than in most places. The advertising is fresh and to the point. You know what you are getting here.
The other thing I love is that all parts of the animal are available for purchase – the full array of spleens, gizzards and ball sacs. Squeamish about eating offal I may be, but for some reason the artistic, organic forms of entrails, tripe and kidneys are utterly pleasing. Moving through the market whist trying to photograph the local colour tests the patience of our security detail but there are so many colours and unfamiliar sights that I apologise but carry on.
We get taken to the Palace of the last Ottoman Bey which dominates a pretty square and beyond the fortress-like thick walls and barred windows is a tranquil world of flower-filled courtyards and tile covered porticos. We are taken on a tour of the reception rooms, the administrative offices, the residential quarters and the harem. There are beautiful frescos in dusty colours adorning every wall and the sense of calm floods over you.
Back outside in the harsh light we grab a coffee and then set out on foot to see the geological feature that defines Constantine: the gorge. The River Rhumel looks like a tiny, babbling brook only because the torrent is dwarfed by the majestic enormity of the gorge that slices through the town. In order to appreciate the gorge our guide takes us down a staircase that opens out onto a pedestrian suspension bridge that straddles the ravine. Fine. Well, fine until you step onto it. Precarious is an understatement. It bounces, shakes and wobbles with every footstep. I know London claims the wobbly Millennium bridge but Constantine takes that bridge and raises it. Quite literally. This bridge soars above the crevasse and has the feel of an Indiana Jones film set. Gingerly at first, we set out across the bridge and soon the view above the ravine makes the rather unsettling means to get there fade away. It is deliriously dramatic and beautiful.
There is another suspension bridge, Sidi M’Cid, that carries traffic across the gorge at its highest point. It is to there we head next and thankfully find that this bridge is solid and stable and the view is even more astounding. Far below are the vestiges of an earlier bridge, a more cautious bridging point where the gorge is at its narrowest. The engineering feat of suspension bridges suddenly become apparent.
Since this is written in retrospect I must add here that a Twitter conversation led to the exchange of an image for information and a truly generous Oxford lecturer sent me a passage from a World War Two classicist who had served at the fortress, depicted above, in Constantine. Where else does talk of toilets and Virgil marry so well?
We continue our exploration and end up at the victory arch on a promontory with a vast vista across the plain below across to the distant mountains. It’s a fabulous sight and soaking it all up becomes a matter of urgency. It is a little like the pull-focus moment in the film Jaws; the realisation dawns that I have precious few hours left of this trip and my hunger to see and experience more of this fabulous country, its heritage and its peoples hits me.