Well, here we are in the home stretch for my Tunisian adventures – my recent day trips to the Egyptian countryside have been stacking up in the meantime, but we’ll get there in due course.
When I first arrived in Tunisia a university friend who happened to be researching tourism in the country suggested we rent a car and drive around some of the northern cities in the country, generally only reachable by the countries system of louageshared taxis. As we discussed it over the next few days, it seemed clear that a car would give us a great deal more freedom without costing too much more than public transport. After a few phone calls and a mad dash to get my passport and driver’s license copied we were ready to go.
I offered to drive for the trip, given that I’ve driven in the Middle East on a few prior occasions and I know how to drive a manual transmission car. Our first destination was close by: the coastal city of Bizerte, one of the main theaters of operation for the Tunisia Campaign’s endgame in WWII, and where some 600 Tunisians were killed in 1961 when the Tunisian government attempted to remove lingering French colonial troops by force. Driving to Bizerte was easy enough, as a multi-lane expressway connects the city to the capital of Tunis, speeding us along past rolling hills that alternated gold and light green, occasionally dotted with wind turbines. Once over the bridge that spans the port-city’s major canal, we parked on the side of a busy street and headed for the nearby marina, filled with colorful fishing boats. A quick walk took us through the city’s medinaand then around the outer edge of the marina, before circling back to where our car was waiting. Given that much was closed for Ramadan and we had more interesting destinations up ahead, we decided to head out of the city fairly quickly, although this did require a few wrong turns and several consultations of our guide book’s map.
The next segment of our journey was a different beast entirely. Headed for the semi-hidden, hidden “best-in-Tunisia” beach of Cap Serrat, we turned off a road that had already diminished to a two-lane track and set off into across an increasingly deserted landscape. From here on out, the asphalt path was dotted with potholes, rocks, washed-out sections of road and extensive patches of repair – apparently installing massive square drains underneath the path to avoid the washed-out sections we had seen earlier. Driving was a constant stop-and-go-affair, trying to dodge the larger potholes in order to avoid taxing our sedan’s suspension more than it could bear. As tall hills covered in farmland rose and fell around us, we eventually entered slightly more mountainous territory, where the road’s rock-strewn shoulders were replaced by wandering livestock and the occasional child nearly throwing himself in front of the car trying to sell us something or other.
After navigating solely by the squat concrete mile-markers along the road, we eventually turned off a promising roundabout and entered the track to Cap Serrat, swinging out past a massive reservoir dam and coming in full view of the Mediterranean Sea. After dodging a few more cows, swerving to avoid the occasional SUV, and briefly getting stuck in the sand of the beach itself, we managed to park the car and head out to what is truly one of the more beautiful (and relaxing) beaches I have visited during my time in the Middle East. A spur of rock jutting out form a neighboring mountain deflects the waves entering the cove, leading to gentler swells that washing along the gently curving shoreline, filled with Tunisians on holiday, either swimming, sitting under umbrellas, or buried up to their straw-hat-covered heads in the sand. Even the animals seemed to be enjoying themselves on their trip to the seaside.
Our trip to the next port-city, Tabarqa, was largely uneventful. The path was now surrounded by forests as we traveled through more mountainous territory, occasionally passing through something that approximated a small village. Given that we had no road map, my navigator was ever on the lookout for some sign to reassure us that we were going in the right direction. In the more rural areas along the path, famers wait by the side of the road, fresh produce and jars of honey hanging form tree branches for any passing motorist interested in stocking up – eventually we pulled over and bought a few caramel-golden jars before reaching Tabarqa.
You’ll know you’re near Tabarqa when you see a massive statue of a saxophone – the city is the site of Tunisia’s annual summer Jazz festival, although performances were cancelled in light of recent political unrest and Salafi protests. Tabarqa itself is a small but relaxing town – the now-familiar colored fishing vessels, would-be pirate ships, and party boats fill the marina, while a small mountainous peninsula houses a small fortress that doubles as the town’s lighthouse. We wandered the city waiting for Iftar, trying to find a place with an affordable seafood meal. One of our party had intended to return by bus from Tabarqa, but as (bad) luck would have it no buses were running at that hour of the night, so we simply took him along with us to our next destination, despite the offer of the town’s police chief (or so he claimed) to put us up in an apartment until our friend could catch a bus.
After bidding the seated statue of Habib Borguiba at the town’s center goodbye, we were off to the mountain town of Ain Dirahim, where visiting hunters from continental Europe once stayed in well-decorated lodges by night and hunted wild boar by day. After our constant joking about just how bad the roads were seemingly hit a plateau, we dissolved into nervous laughter again when we ran into an unexpected dead end not far out from Tabarqa – first the headlights picked up a sign that read “Road Cut Off”, than our high beams bounced off what looked for all the world like a solid wall of dirt – a rockslide had completely blocked the road ahead with a 12-foot high wall of rubble. Thankfully, there was an alternate road to Ain Dirahim. Of course, this entailed an hour-long drive up a winding, narrow, inclined, two-lane mountain road, with a somewhat unstable rock face on the right and a sheer drop into inky darkness on the right, which was probably not the best thing in the world for my nerves. Finally, we arrived amidst the white walls and terracotta roofs of the village in the dead of night, finding our way to the town’s youth hostel by the tried and true method of asking a bunch of guys in cafes until somebody points us in the right direction.
We got an early start the next morning, driving around to see a bit of the town and take some photographs before descending back down to the plains of the interior en route to a set of Roman ruins – Bela Regia and Dougga. The pavement quality had improved to the point where I just had to watch for the occasional washed-out road patch instead of dodging all over the road just to advance. Everybody else in the car was asleep by the time we arrived at Bela Regia, formerly an important Roman farming community still used (in part) as grazing ground by nearby famers, whatever the Tunisian antiquities folks might think. As has been noted previously, Tunisian tourism development has not focused all that much on the country’s ruins and antiquities – walk around Bela Regia and you’ll find metal stands that look as if they should hold information placards, but instead stand as empty steel skeletons amidst the crumbling rock.
The site is noted for its Roman houses, built almost entirely underground to escape the Tunisian heat, with well-preserved mosaics as a result. Given the humidity of the Tunisian climate, wealth Romans couldn’t get away with simply covering the walls and floors with colorful frescoes – the paint would simply deteriorate far too quickly. Instead, they splurged on colorful mosaics, importing colored stones from all over the Empire to create remarkably life-like images of daily life and legendary tales. You won’t see many of these works of art in their natural environment, though, given that most of them have been removed to the Bardo Museum in Tunis – here you can see one of the most striking extant examples still in Bella Regia.
From here we went mountain climbing again, back up into the hills to reach the Roman city of Dougga, a UNESCO world heritage site and apparently the best-preserved Roman city in North Africa. After the Romans took over the earlier settlement on the same location, that developed the city extensively, building numerous temples, a circus for horse and chariot races, an impressive theater and an imposing Capitol and attendant Forum. Unfortunately, without a guide or a Doctorate in North African Archeology of the Roman period the site remains somewhat incomprehensible – even with a guide book it can be hard to link up the fairly impressive names with the somewhat nondescript rubble-lined stone floors. If nothing else, the view was stunning regardless of the persistent summer haze. Eventually, though, the heat drove us back to the tourist cafe and then to the car, for a slow(er) drive down a two-lane country road until I grew tired of trying to overtake over-laden trucks and cut over towards the country’s expressway.
I stayed around in Tunisia for a few more days, meeting up with people, taking a look at the artwork of the Bardo museum, and souvenir-hunting, but here I think the story comes to an end. I greatly enjoyed my time in Tunisia, even if I never quite managed to sleep enough. I wish I could find a place in Cairo to get maqroudh, but I suppose that should make it absolutely certain I will return at some point. Stay tuned for literary sketches of the Egyptian countryside, whenever I can find the time to sit in front of the computer again.