This feeling begins as soon as you arrive at Algiers airport. On the drive into the city centre you are likely to pass half a dozen heavily armed checkpoints and the military seems to have a barracks on every street corner. Very soon, though, the spirit of the Mediterranean appears to regain control and you feel at home in a noisy, cheerful and hospitable city. And, as in Marseilles, you can eat extremely well - especially if you are a fish fanatic. The Algerians eat plenty of seafood, and spicy shrimp and grilled rouget (red mullet) quickly became part of my daily routine. They even have their own version of bouillabaisse (fish soup).Considering how many backpackers and sun-worshippers there are on the North African coast, it is remarkable how few Westerners you bump into.
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And until recently, Algiers' most notable landmark, the Casbah - fortress - was possibly the only Unesco World Heritage Site that was off limits. Flooding, earthquakes and poverty have reduced many of the homes in the historic old quarter to rubble. In the past 40 years, its population has fallen from 60,000 to 25,000. For a while the Casbah was also considered a hotbed of militancy into which no sane outsider would risk venturing. These days, it is safe enough to enter - and plenty of people are on hand to offer their services as guides. This is probably a good idea if you want to avoid getting lost in the narrow alleyways, though wandering around without knowing your way can be fun.For centuries, foreign invaders tried to capture the Casbah and failed, but even this part of the city seems to have fallen to property developers.
Following a massive state restoration project, Algeria's growing middle classes are eager to move into the Casbah. Its inhabitants escape the worst of the traffic and get a fine sea view to boot. Better still, the ancient builders knew how to handle the climate; at the height of summer, the houses are cool and in winter they capture most of the sunlight and rising heat.Algeria has cooled right down in terms of conflict. Last year, 1.2 million foreigners visited Algeria, though most headed to the desert for treks or were travelling on business, as the high-spenders BA wants to entice. Now the government has decided to encourage tourism, especially in view of the millions spent in neighbouring Morocco and Tunisia. The man given responsibility for this is Abdelkadir Goutie - head of a promotional campaign to get Westerners interested at the Algerian Ministry of Tourism "There is no longer a security problem," he says "It's now a question of an image problem.