For the last hour before our ferry docked at Tunis, we had headed towards a crescent of lights that marked out the string of towns that stretch along the coast of Tunisia. We were about 2 hours late, and getting off was very slow thanks to the poor design of the ship and the disorganized disembarking setup. It was such a relief to be off the boat, it really is my least favourite form of transport. We then had a 400 metre walk to immigration. The girl at the desk looked totally confused by our passports and eventually asked the casually dressed supervisor. He realised we needed a visa, so I was taken down to an office on the bottom floor of the terminal while Merrill remained above to mind the bags. Half way down I was passed on to another guy who led me to an office with many blokes drinking coffee and smoking. I was passed from one to another, until, I ended up in an office with a very harassed looking guy. With a mixture of my broken french, English and Arabic he told me how much the visa would be, sent someone off to bring Merrill to the office, and made numerous phone calls. It became apparent he had never had to issue a visa to an Aussie before. With lots of help from his phone friend he entered all our details on his dusty, ancient computer and printed off two very fancy colourful visa templates. We paid our 105 dinars each after he sent Merrill off to the money change place over the road. After the ritual of pasting the visa and stamps into our passport was completed, along with assurances that he was doing everything by the book, we were almost on our way. We were then passed back to the official passport stamper and we were in Tunisia after over 90 minutes. We dashed back upstairs to see if our bags were still there and they were, sitting in the middle of Immigration with not a soul in sight. A lone officer scanned our bags and we were officially there. Caught an unofficial taxi to our hotel and after a little stroll around the busy Avenue Borguiba we collapsed into bed.
Next morning had a very nice hotel breakfast before further exploring the area. Had a little stroll through the medina, but it was mostly closed, being Sunday. Bought a few things at the supermarket then caught the metro out to visit the famous Bardo museum, which is in an outer suburb and is housed in the former palace of the Bey of Tunis. The collection of antiquities are scattered across hundreds of rooms, some in part of the palace and the rest a new extension. There isn’t much logic to the arrangement but the quality of the objects is amazing. Huge Roman mosaics cover entire walls, and there are rooms of sarcophagi, pottery and statues. As well as an incredible collection of Greek art works shipwrecked off Tunisia on its way to Rome in the first century AD. One annoying thing was the staff asking for tips for showing you a part of the collection that they pretend you don’t have access to, which they have closed off by putting up a barrier or closing a door. Very unprofessional, but maybe I should give it a try at the library where I work! After a few hours we had a late lunch in a cafe across the road and opposite the house of parliament. Caught the metro back and had dinner at a restaurant on the Avenue. Very ordinary and soggy pizzas.
Next morning we caught the metro to Carthage Salambo station. First stop was the Tophet, the religious sanctuary of the Carthaginians, where they supposedly carried out human sacrifices. A few stelae and some walls are all that remain of it, set amongst date palms and bougainvillea. Realized the distances weren’t that far so decided to walk the rest of the way to all the Carthage sites. Next was the old port, which would have been a spectacular sight in its day, with a portico surrounding the whole harbour. Now it is just 2 ponds and some fallen columns. From here we could see the acropolis on Byrsa hill in the distance. Our walk took us through some lovely suburbs with pretty gardens and flowers everywhere. After a brief stop at the ruins of a Roman basilica we went up hill to Byrsa, topped by an ugly 20th century French church. The hill featured a Roman forum, and when it was built the Romans tossed the debris onto the old Carthaginian town, thus preserving it under the rubble. Many of the houses and streets survived, and from there you can see how the city continued down the hill to the port. All around the site were scattered statues, columns and stelae, so many they just lay in stacks or rows. In the distance you could also see Tunis and on a clear day perhaps the Roman amphitheatre. Back down the hill and past some ambassadors residences we visited the Roman villas, a large complex of Roman houses and palaces, with great views to the sea and the giant Borguiba mosque. The ground was full of tunnels and holes and the villas must have been huge.Our last stop was down by the sea again the Antonine baths, the largest baths in the Roman world. The pool for the baths was believed to be over 100 metres long, and the whole complex must have resembled one of the resorts that now line the Tunisian coast. All that remains now is believed to have been the lowest level of the baths with a few high columns still standing. We hopped back on the metro to the town of Sidi Bou Said, which sits on the clifftops north of Carthage. The town was very cute, with whitewashed houses with blue window frames and balconies. Stopped for a yummy snack of sugar donuts, similar to Greek loukomades, and then had coffee and watched the sunset set at a tourist trap cafe which we will forgive for the great views. You could see though why this town was popular with many famous artists and writers such as Klee and Gide to name but two. Headed back to the station in the dark, and a very crowded, slow metro home. Had dinner at the Theatre restaurant, reasonable pasta and a very attentive waiter whose every action was choreographed.
Next day we checked out and walked to the train station a few blocks away. Bought our tickets and waited a while for the train. Ate some tasty salty bread sticks from a vendor. When the train arrived it was a real fight to get on the train as everyone fought for a seat. We looked like we had missed out but suddenly an elderly woman got up and moved down the carriage so we dived into the 2 vacant spots. Scenery was a bit drab so was glad when we arrived at Sousse station only to fall prey to a taxi driver. We had a good idea where our hotel was but he seemed to be heading the wrong way but ignored our protests and kept driving. After passing a donkey cart in a desolate looking part of town he said we were now at Riadh Hams instead of Riadh Palms, our hotel. What a clever fellow to think that we wanted somewhere in the middle of nowhere instead of a hotel! A great piece of acting followed as he demonstrated the incredible misunderstanding. So he turned around and drove 20 minutes back to our hotel. As it was a paltry $5 I decided not to get stuck into him and pay him less. Check in was a bit mystifying as well, with all sorts of add on charges ($2 per day for the necessary fridge for Mez’s medication), offers of money changing and having to wear a coloured wrist band to designate that we weren’t “all Inclusive”! Our room was nice though, with views over the pool area and out to sea. I’m not going into great detail about our beach days or our time at the resort, it was a bit cool for the pool and the beach water was warmer but very dirty. So we spent our time lazing about in the nice garden area, eating the buffet breakfast in a dining room which looks more like a factory canteen, using the wifi that is only available in the lobby or public areas or just laughing at the funny Europeans on holiday and the weird nightly show. We made 2 excursions. Our first was to the holy Islamic city of Kairouan, an hour bus ride (once we found it, with some kind local help at one of the more confusing bus stations we’ve been to) from Sousse. Started at the 1300 year old Great Mosque after getting taxi from the station which is out of town. A plain building but had a nice minaret, prayer room and an interesting water gathering courtyard. Next was the mosque with three doors, made famous in RAIDERS of the Lost Ark, and then the zaouia of a saint, which had a nice courtyard and tiles. We also visited the beys house, which is also a carpet showroom, but beautifully decorated. Had an interesting snack called a brik, which was a gooey crunchy mess of deep fried pastry enclosing an egg, potato, capers and harissa and bought some delicious baklavas from a cute cake shop. Then visited the zaouia of Sidi Sahab, a friend of Mohammed who carried some of the prophet’s hairs with him. This is the holiest place in Kairouan, one of Islam’s four holy cities. It gets very large numbers of pilgrims during festivals to see the saints tomb. The building was very plain but the tomb itself was decorated with gold and green cloth. Went back to the bus station and didn’t have to wait long for the bus back. Eating continues to be a problem, as although there were veggie options there isn’t a lot of variety. We were both expecting food like Lebanese food but this isn’t the case. It’s more French and Italian than middle eastern apart from Shawarma stalls everywhere. So it’s been pizza and pasta most nights except for one restaurant that does veggie couscous. Our next excursion was to El Jem, a little town in a very dry part of the coastal plain. We only just caught the train after spending the morning in the Medina of Sousse. A short walk brought us to the town’s most famous attraction, the Roman amphitheatre. One of the last built and also one of the biggest of the empire, it rises above the town’s single storey buildings like a movie set. You can walk all over the site for a change, even up to the very top of the 4th level for views over the whole arena which could hold over 40000 people. An awe inspiring sight, but glad there’s little evidence of the hideous entertainments that went on here. Next it was on to the museum, which has a well displayed collection of local finds from the Roman city of Thysdrus, one of the richest cities of Africa in the 5th century. Apart from the great mosaics, it has a reconstruction of a Roman House from the town which features one of the only representations of the local goddess, Africa. Quickly headed back to the station as the sky had turned black. Later on, back on the train, we passed olive groves flooded with water and strewn with large hailstones, which on the way down were brown and parched. Even the locals seemed surprised at the sight. This train was the ‘luxury’ express even though it was slower and more uncomfortable than the regular service and only stopped at an outlying station, so we needed to get a taxi back. So ends our week in Sousse, which we could have seen more of, if it wasn’t for tummy bugs and a national election.
Our next stop was going to be the town of Sfax but after further research it became apparent that it was a long way to go for very little other than visiting a town with an unusual name. Instead we opted for Monastir, a small historical town an hour away from Sousse. The Sousse metro train goes there, so it was an easy trip and we checked into the Regency hotel on the waterfront near the marina. It was a big improvement on the last hotel and even included dinner for the same price. We explored the old town the next day. Dominating the town is the ribat, a large fort with thick walls but unfortunately closed for renovations, and also the set for many scenes of Monty Pythons Life of Brian. Opposite is the great mosque, dating back to the 9th century and also closed. In the town is the medina, but with much wider streets than at Sousse. We had a good laugh at all the touts that introduce themselves by asking if we remembered them as they work in the kitchen of our hotel. Not sure what advantage this gives them, but it makes you wonder how many kitchen staff they have! We confused them by taking off our hotel wristbands so they had no idea which hotel we were staying at. We did meet one interesting fellow when visiting the Borguiba Mausoleum. He was the founding father of Tunisian independence and a native of Monastir. Bourgiba, that is. His tomb is a lavish marble piece flanked by minarets. We were approached by an elderly man in a brown suit, who not only told us of the extravagant waste that the mausoleum is, but also gave us a guided tour of the neighbouring cemetery, pointing out to us the decadence of those that use marble and tiles on their graves instead of simple bricks or stone, and filling us in on all the burial rites of Islam. Graves were judged as either ‘good’ or ‘not good’ in our friend’s book.
We also made a day trip to Mahdia, the capital of the Fatimid dynasty of rulers whose works can be seen from their native Egypt through to Siciliy and Damascus. It’s hard to believe though that this tiny peninsula was once a capital and was viciously fought over by the Spanish, French, Norman, Goths, Turks and Arabs. All that remains now is a small medina, a cemetery and a Turkish fort. The fort gave us great views over the bay and town and had an interesting display about the Fatimids. We wandered through some pretty streets and bought some yummy, warm, crunchy bread from an old fashioned bakers before heading back to Monastir. The rest of our time was spent beside the pool; watching the goings on of the cute young hotel entertainment team as they kept the French tourists occupied and their brat children out of their parents way; and eating too much at the buffets. While there the weather continued to cool down and the wind was very strong.
Next stop was another resort town, Hammamet, which took us 3 trains and 3 taxis to get to, despite it being only about 60km away. Much deader than Sousse or Monastir and even though we “splashed out” on a room at the Radisson (which cost us the same as most other places we have stayed at!), it was a bit isolated. Very nice hotel though. Did very little here other than relaxing by the pool and a walk into the town of Hammamet which had a very touristy medina but not much else. Once again the beach was nice but the water filthy and also very choppy, so didn’t go in. Anyway it was a relaxing time and our room was very nicely decorated and it had full satellite tv including movies in English.
Caught the train back to Tunis after a 2 hour wait at Bir Bouregba station and surprisingly it was empty, unlike all our other trains. Walked back to the Tiba hotel and had dinner at the Theatre cafe. Woke up next morning to rain but still ventured into the Medina for a look around. The weather had dampened the spirits of the stall holders and most of them couldn’t be bothered calling out to us. Started at the mosque which we couldn’t go into, sadly, as it’s one of the oldest in North Africa. Headed to the south of the medina past some nice old gates, cafes, mosques, minarets and palaces. Eventually ending up in the bustling market area. As usual lots of fresh vegetables that never seem to make it into the restaurants and a row of bakeries and cheese stalls selling the traditional Tunisian rubber cheese. Bought some cheese, fruit and bread for lunch in our room. All very cheap. Dinner yet again at the Theatre restaurant but indoors this time as the weather got colder and wetter.
Next morning it was even colder but the rain held off so we could continue our exploration of old Tunis. This time we headed to the north end which was the old Jewish and Maltese quarters and home to some interesting buildings, such as palaces and a saints tomb.An old guide offered to show us around and after 30 minutes of showing us things we had already seen and a few other buildings he demanded a ridiculous tip and left us in a sulk because we didn’t give him what he wanted. He even pulled out his wallet to emphasise pay time. So sad when this happens, he was demanding $20-30 for doing very little and all the time making out he was doing it out of love for his heritage. Anyway it was now shopping time so got to do some serious haggling. Bought a miniature Tunisian doorway, got him down from 45 to 15 dinars and Merrill bought some scarves, again from 45 down to about 17 dinars. Merrill also bought some jewellery which the rather amusing guy tried to charge 160 dinars ($100) but finally settled on 35, which was probably more in his favour but they did seem to be real silver. But it was still a big comedown and in all cases we only shifted 5 dinars! Would be fun if you could haggle more in Australia. Stopped off for lunch at a cafeteria type of place then back to our room to get organised for our departure the next day. Ventured out into the freezing wet weather for dinner at yes, the Theatre Cafe. What’s the point going elsewhere as the veggie options were the same everywhere and it was too wet to try to different find something else. And the food and atmosphere were great at this buzzing place.
Next day it was off to Tunis airport which was a nice building and very busy. And so ends our journey to countries of the Mediterranean, forced to head for tropical climes by stupid visas and cold weather. Enjoyed our time in Tunisia, some very worthwhile sights but let down by poor transport and uninspiring food. The country itself should be doing better than it is. It has good agricultural land, lots of interest for independent travellers and more easy going people than in other parts of the region.They need to get away from the package tourist scene and there’s no reason why the country shouldn’t be as prosperous as European countries. Probably 3 weeks was too much, the limited transport options didn’t really make it worth going to places like Sfax and Djerba, or the desert for that matter, as we had originally planned. One thing they really need to tackle is the rubbish everywhere. I haven’t seen such filth and litter since India and most of it was just ordinary litter. We saw numerous people tossing rubbish on the ground. All the beaches had filthy water full of plastic bags, paper etc. Unlike India the rubbish problem could be easily tackled with a bit of responsibility and community pride.