It's time! It won't be long now before I'll be dusting off the ol' passport, packing my bags, and groggily heading to the airport at 4:00am to catch the cheapest flight I could find. This is a special trip for me because it will be my first time in Africa. However, we won't be seeing any lions or elephants this time around. We're going to Northern, Mediterranean Africa. Culturally, this part of the continent is much more closely tied to its neighbors in the Middle East, which is why a more accurate geopolitical grouping might be "MENA" (Middle East / North Africa), but I'm going to keep it simple and use this opportunity to officially kick off the Africa Index!
The trip will start in Africa at least, but we'll be jumping off to Sicily before the trip is over as well, which I'm sure will be much less challenging environment. And who is "we" on this trip? "We" is me and my dearest mother. Apparently nobody else wanted to come on this trip with her, so when she asked me about it I was like, "Um, DUH!" (Although, to be totally honest, I lobbied pretty hard for some of these North African destinations)
So let's get into the itinerary! What's the plan Stan?
[ North Africa ]
Our first stop is going to be the North African nation of Algeria. I'm pretty excited about coming here, but most people I talked prior to my departure didn't even know where it is. I like to consider myself something of a map enthusiast, so when people can't place countries as big as Algeria on the map, it bothers me. However, in light of my own glaring ignorance about Algeria, this is something I'm willing to forgive. Here's a map to get all of us up to speed...
Now that you've seen that map, you probably know about as much about Algeria as I did when I decided to come here. Seriously, what the hell even happens in this country? "Algeria" is not a name that almost ever appears in Western media, nor is it a place with any "mainstream" tourist destinations. I was surprised by how little I knew about this place, but excited to start learning. The more I read and saw of what was in store for me, the more excited I became.
Why Algeria? In short, because I'm going to be traveling here with my mother, who actually lived here in the 1970s. It's a pretty bad-ass fun fact, but it took some convincing to get her to come back. Apparently being a woman in this Islamic world was even less fun before the invention of the Internet. There are also active terror threats in play for certain, more remote regions of this country, but the Mediterranean coast should be far from harm's way. This made convincing her slightly harder.
Anyway, my mom's history with this nation made Algeria a relatively easy sell, but the real reason that I wanted to come here was to see Algiers. My mother actually lived in Oran, but she said that the only reason that she would return would be to see the Casbah of Algiers one more time. Apparently it's pretty cool. So, without further ado, let's talk about Algiers...
Algiers is the first destination of this trip, as well as the first and probably only stop in Algeria. I'll take what I can get. It is the capital city of Algeria and by far the largest, but it is also a city with a long and interesting history. Algeria was once a vital part of the Roman Empire, so many of its coastal cities have massive ruin sites, most notably the easterly city of Constantine. However, it's a different foreign invader that has defined the city Algiers: the French. The period of French colonial rule left Algiers with, what appears to be a predominantly European-feeling infrastructure. Indeed, the streets of Algiers are lined with white, Parisian-style buildings that I expect to feel entirely out of place in North Africa. The photos of this city make it look unreal. And I am PUMPED.
[ North Africa ]
Next up is Tunisia, and I have a prediction to make: Tunisia will be the next Morocco. Everybody who visits Tunis gives it glowing reviews, and says that they felt extremely safe here. It seems that, like Morocco, this is one of the few safe, tourist-ready places in all of the Arab world. I'd bet money that, in the next 10 years, Tunisia will become a "trendy" place to visit, like Morocco is now.
However, I haven't actually been here yet... so let's put a pin that for now.
Tunisia doesn't have much in the way of name recognition in the U.S., but it's actually a popular beach destination for Europeans and wealthy North Africans/Middle Easterners. Or, at least in times of political stability it is. The Tunisian Revolution in 2011 put a damper on tourism for a while, but 7 years later, travel to this country has resumed as normal, and Tunisia as a whole is MUCH better off. Like Algeria, various Western governments have published warnings on terror threats, but most of these threats are localized to remote regions of the country, in the Sahara desert to the south. I'll expand on the geopolitical baggage of this country later. For now, here's Tunisia on the map, for reference...
Whereas the plan in Algeria is to stay squarely within the confines of Algiers proper, this is not the case with Tunisia. We will fly into the capital city, Tunis, and of course spend significant time there, but it didn't take much research to discover that there are actually loads of cool things to do within a few hours' drive. The official itinerary is not yet set in stone, but there will definitely be an effort made to visit a few different sites outside of Tunis. The top 2 prospects on my list are as follows...
Sidi Bou Said
See the photos below that look like the Greek Islands? Those were taken in Sidi Bou Said. It's a beach community less than an hour from Tunis. Historically, it has been a home to famous Tunisian and foreign artists alike. These artists include Aleister Crowley, Paul Klee, Gustave-Henri Jossot, Yahia Turki, Brahim Dhahak, and Ammar Farhat. Most of those names will probably be unfamiliar, but the point is that this place isn't just pretty. It has some cool history too.
Carthage is an ancient city that was originally founded as part of the Phoenician Empire. However, it would eventually become the capital of one of the largest and longest lasting empires in the history of the Mediterranean region: the Carthaginian Republic. Carthage fell to Rome in the 3rd Punic War, later becoming an important city in the Roman Empire as well. Today it's one of North Africa's most notable ruin sites. It's not far from Tunis, so we'll probably come here as well.
[ Part of Italy ]
Last but not least, we have Sicilia!
Here's a fun fact: I'm half Italian, and most of my Italian blood is Sicilian. Yes, yes, yes, I know—most Sicilians would consider themselves to be very separate from mainland Italy. Sicily is its own thing, and even has its own language. Blah blah blah. The point is, I have heritage here. These are my people.
If you are unfamiliar with Sicily, here's a map to set the scene. It's the biggest island in the Mediterranean!
I've always wanted to come to Sicily. It's been on my list of places to go for as long as I've kept a list, and now it's finally happening. We will fly to Sicily from Tunis, and use trains and buses to get around for the remainder of our time on the island. We will only have about a week to explore, so we've fleshed out a bare-bones itinerary that will enable us to see the major cities and make a few excursions out into wine country. The basic outline of how we will spend our time in Sicily is as follows...
On the far-eastern side of the island, Catania is the "Second City" of Sicily. This will be our point of entry into Sicily. Flights from North Africa to here are very cheap because Sicily is only 96 miles away from the coast of Africa. Much the same as the divide between Cuba and Florida, this narrow straight of water separates entirely different worlds, but the flight will be very short. Catania sits in the shadow of Mount Etna, which is a very active volcano. It has had minor eruptions off and on continuously throughout the 20th and 21st centuries, with its most recent activity in 2015. You can climb this volcano, but our focus will be more on enjoying the city of Catania and all the amazing food, culture, and wine that go along with it. After watching Bourdain's visit to Catania, I'm very excited to take early morning walks through the fish market here.
We plan on paying a short visit to Syracuse. To my Americans out there—no—not Syracuse, New York. This is the Syracuse of ancient Roman Empire. However, the history of Syracuse actually dates back much further, to ancient Greece. It's a name that you'll hear pop up in Greek lore, alongside characters like Zeus, Hades, and Jupiter. I'm most excited to explore the island of Ortygia, which you will see in the middle picture of the bottom row below. This island is the historic center of Syracuse, and my camera and I are about to go on a photography rampage there. Syracuse is only a few hours south of Catania.
Last, Palermo. Sitting in Sicily's northwest corner, Palermo is the largest city on the island, and will ultimately be our point of departure. We'll spend a few days exploring Catania and Syracuse before hopping over to the western side of the island. As far as Europe goes, Sicily is pretty off-the-beaten path, but don't let its obscurity fool you. Palermo is not some sleepy island town. It's actually a fairly big city. In fact, it's Italy's 5th largest city behind Rome, Milan, Turin, and Naples. A few days probably won't be enough time to take it all in, but I'm going to try!
Getting Ready To Depart
Moving forward, we have a few issues to address, the most glaring of which is securing Algerian visas. You can expect a post explaining exactly how to do this once I figure it out. In the meantime, I've been on the phone with the Algerian consulate in New York City a few times. It won't be the most difficult visa I've gotten—that title definitely belongs to Burma—but it's up there.
Another concern is that we're taking this trip in January, which is the dead of winter. It probably won't be below freezing, but it definitely won't be warm. I'm expecting mid-40s to mid-60s (Fahrenheit), but there is a remote possibility of snow, particularly in Algiers. This will make packing a little more complicated.
Also, thanks to a very extended layover, we may or may not be visiting one additional country on this trip. However, for the time being, all I'm going to show you is this tiny likeness of their flag as a hint: 🇲🇹
Well, don't worry. All will be revealed in time. But right now, it's time for me to catch a flight. See ya on the other side!