Published: February 5th 2006December 28th 2005
Al salaam a'alaykum (A formal greeting in Arabic that stands for “peace be on you”),
How are y’all? I just returned from a trip to Tunisia. Nestled along the Mediterranean coast in Northern Africa, Tunisia has been a crossroads of cultures for several millennia. I didn’t know much about the country before my visit. Looking at a map, you can see that it is wedged between Libya and Algeria. Do not let the small size of it fool you as this country has a rich history dating back to ancient antiquity. The first settlers of the region were the Berber. Their days of having full ownership of the lands in Tunisia were over with the arrival of the Phoenicians to Carthage in 814 B.C. They were to become a powerhouse in the region for a few centuries until the Roman Empire came in to the picture around 200 B.C. With the fall of the Roman Empire in the 5th century A.D., the Byzantine Empire had a short lives rule of the region before the Arabs took over. Various empires ruled by Arabs were to remain in control until the mid 1800’s when Tunisia became a French protectorate. The French would
leave a heavy imprint in the land before they finally left in 1956. Since then, Tunisia has grown into one of the success stories in Africa. But, enough about the boring history lesson … here goes the scoop on my trip :).
Flying can always be an adventure in an on itself. My trans-Atlantic flight was a pleasant one. Boy do I wish I could say the same about my flight from London to Tunisia. I was seated next to this arrogant guy who was bossing the poor waitress around asking for a deluxe meal and alcoholic drinks. He was the type of person you immediately want to alienate so the other people on board do not think you’re friends with or god forbid related to. Since he sat next to me, he eventually started a talking to me. I honestly didn’t want to talk to him, but he just blurted out incoherent sentences, no doubt a result of all the alcohol he drank in the flight. Of all the silly things he said, I manage to infer that he was born in Tunisia, but now called the US home. He asked me where I was staying and so
Carpet Store, Kairouan
Kairouan is known for its weaving, especially their carpets
I mentioned a cheap hotel from my guidebook. Since he hadn’t heard of it, he went ahead and recommended two fancy 5 star hotels. We exchanged some additional words before I pretended to fall asleep. All I can say is that I’m glad it was a short flight (under 3 hours). My flight landed in Tunis, the capital of Tunisia, around 11 PM. As soon as we arrived into town, I did my best to lose the drunk. Luckily, I succeeded. I made a few phone calls to inquire for a cheap room, but all the places seemed to be fully booked. I went outside the airport and took a taxi into town. Now, I usually don’t recommend you to go with the taxi driver’s advice, but when everything else fails it’s a good backup plan. The taxi dropped me at this cheap hotel he knew. The place was dirt cheap in Tunisian standards, but the standards of the room left more to be desired. Since I was dead tired, I didn’t care! After nearly 2 days of air travel, all I wanted to do was sleep.
I awoke late in the morning, fully rested and ready to roll.
Since I was making a big circle around the country, I opted to leave the site-seeing of Tunis, the capital, for the last few days of my trip. I was dead set to head out of town today and so took a taxi to the Louage station. Tunisia has an excellent system of shared-taxis, known as Louages. They operate routes between various towns and leave as soon as they fill up. As a result, you can pretty much show up in a louage station, ask to go to a particular destination, and after a short wait find yourself on your way over there. Keep in mind that obscure - less traveled places - may have longer waits between runs.
My destination today was Kairouan, a sizeable town a few hours south of the capital. The louage drove through green fields with a few hills spiking up on the distance. It was certainly not my idea of the barren desert landscape I was expecting. About an hour into the trip, we passed a region full of grape vineyards near the town of Grombalia. The ancient town of Kairouan was once the capital of the Arab invaders. It is considered to
be the holiest place in Tunisia, perhaps Northern Africa. It is important to note that the Romans never settled in this desolated plain. It would have remained as such had it not been for the Muslim Arabs who declared it a holy place back in 671 A.D. The settlement eventually became a stronghold from where the Arabs managed to spread Islam across northern Africa.
Kairouan still has a fascinating Medina, a term used to refer to the old town centers. Its medina has remained intact to this day. The best way to explore the medina is by foot as the many narrow paths hardly offer room for cars to pass. At times, the medina echoes the mysterious and exotic feeling one conjured when thinking of Arabia. I actually find the best way to see things is to get lost and so that is what I did. To make matters simpler though, I have now looked at a map and so have reordered things to bring a better perspective of what I saw.
I started from Hotel Sabra, the place I was staying at for about $10 USD per night. It is located right across the Southern Gateway on
the Place de Martyrs. Although a bit noisy, my room was overlooking the outer walls of the medina so it did have a commanding view. I entered the medina through the southern gate and proceeded straight thru Av Habib Bourguiba. This is the only street I will name as it bisects the medina. Except for some bikes, there is hardly any vehicular traffic during the day. As such, the road is full with walkers coming and going much like they would have in centuries past. Alas, the illusion is lost when you encounter the first souvenir seller that works hard as he tries to sell you an item in several languages. Let me tell you, this touts can be quite the entrepreneurs. They will do their best to speak to you, whether it is in Arabic, French, Italian, German, Dutch, Spanish (Castellan and Catalan), Portuguese, English, Russian, Japanese, and a handful of other languages I couldn’t distinguish. I wanted to lose them so I took my first right. After a few dozen meters, I came across the lavish Zaouia (tomb) of Sidi Abid el Ghariani. This splendid building has a wonderful array of colorful tiled walls and engravings.
on, I walked towards the Mosque of the Three Doors. This mosque has an impressive façade with elaborate engraved Arabic wording on top. I wondered around for a bit and stumbled into a sandwich shop full of locals. The shop was giving off that wonderful smell that instantly grabs your attention. I hadn’t eaten since yesterday so I ventured in for a meal. I had a delicious egg sandwish with a strange sauce, served with olives and French fries. I ventured back to the main road and shortly after found myself walking into an enclosed archway with several market stalls, including shoe makers. Its arched ceiling stretched for several blocks making it a wonderful site in itself.
The Bir Barouta, a circular dome building lies in the center of the medina. You can enter it through some stairs on the side. Inside, you will find a touristy cafe on your left and an old dilapidated medieval well operated by a gloomy looking camel. It was such a sad site that I quickly left the place. I continued walking through the main street. Eventually, I crossed the medina and exited on the northern side. Across the traffic infested road and
overlooking the Place de Tunis, lies a rather interesting veggie and meat market.
On the far eastern corner of the Medina, you will find the infamous Grande Mosque with its towering tower. Sadly, the mosque closes early, 2 PM, and with my luck you can imagine that I arrived there at 2:01, just in time to have its doors closing on my face! Oh well, I’ll have to visit it tomorrow. There are two interesting ways to take from the Great Mosque, one is the thru the old narrow streets of the Medina, and the other one is along the main avenue that follows the wall of the old city. I took both on various occasions. The latter route offers an impressive glimpse of the wall and eventually leads back to Hotel Sabra.
On the west part of the Medina, outside the confines of the outer wall, lays the interesting tomb, the Zaouia Side Amor Abbada. The exterior is not too appealing, but the interior is definitely intriguing with several huge carved wooden doors, various bronze objects, and other antiques. Funny enough, all of the sites in town are charged a standard bulk rate. This was the only
place where they ask for a ticket though. I asked the attendant where I could buy it, and he replied the Great Mosque. Boy did I have to fight the urge to laugh! I asked him if I could buy an individual ticket, but he said it wasn’t possible. Seeing that I was halfway thru the exhibit, he said to just hurry up and leave before his supervisor shows up. LOL!
I headed back to the hotel and entered a nearby cafe to take refuge of the cold and of the rain. A cafe in Tunisia is only visited by men (exceptions exist in tourist zones and the capital). You can say that it’s their version of the bar. Remember that a good Muslim doesn’t drink! I ordered a tea, which ended up being a delightful mint tea with tons of sugar. It says a lot as I generally do not take sugar with my tea. Cutting through the dense smoke in the room, I headed to the back to relax for a bit in the warmth of the cafe.
After recharging my batteries, I ventured out to explore once more what the medina has to offer. As
it was later in the day, I found that most of the day-trippers had left and so I was one of the few tourists staying the night. As I lost myself in the labyrinth of the old town, I found myself stopping ever so often to admire the stylish doors and facades of the houses. You can tell that the residents like to show off here as some of them could be museum pieces in and on themselves! I kid you now; I must have taken fifty pics of doors alone!
As night fell, the lights began to illuminate the Medina. Let me tell you, all of those day trippers don’t know what they missed, a spectacular beautiful array of lights that shine through the old town on every corner you take. I had to walk through the Medina a third time, taking in the sites with a different light. The bright yellow stone of the wall was beautifully lighted up along with the many white washed buildings with blue doors and windows.
As I walked the third round, I noticed the excessive number of stray cats that populate the old town. They eat off the discarded trash
from the day. Tunisia seems to have a sizeable population of street cats. As I soon was to find out, they’re everywhere! It almost reminds me to the dog situation in India. I wonder if there are the descendents of the cats revered by the ancient Egyptians. Is the overpopulation and popularity of cats linked to that ancient tradition? It wouldn’t be far fetched as Tunisia is a few hundred kilometers from Egypt. Just a thought to ponder, I guess.
I revisited the Mosque of Three Doors and stopped next door to see a couple of locals weaving with an old fashion loom. I watched in awe for several minutes at the detailed labor that went into each item they made. I ended up buying a black shoal for my mom. Kairouan is known for its weaving, especially their carpets, which are said to be among the best in Tunisia. So mark this on your map if you want to purchase a carpet in your trip.
The funny thing about jet lag is that it throws your biological clock out of wack! I went to bed at 10:30 PM, early I know. It was dark in the cold
room as I dug myself deeper and deeper into my sleeping bag. I slept a deep sleep, one where you can’t remember what you dreamed. Out of the blue, I hear voices out on the hall and the rush of water from a shower. Shit! Its light out there, I must have overslept. I jumped out of bed and the first thing I noticed was that it’s 1:15 AM. ARGH! Who takes a shower at this hour? I did my best to fall asleep, but failed miserably. An hour passed as I was lost in thought, another one followed it. Don’t you hate it when you wake up in the middle of the night and can’t fall back to sleep? Shortly after 3:00, I turned on the lights and pulled out my book, “the Ultimate Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” which has all the books under that name. If my writings on Tunisia are a bit more sarcastic then usual it’s because I’ve been reading Douglas Adam’s masterpiece. Anyways, I went on reading until about 5 AM., when my eyes were just about getting tired. Of course, being a Muslim country, and this being the holiest town in Tunisia, meant
that I was not allowed to fall asleep. Oh no, I was awoken a few minutes into my sleep by the dawn call of prayer… ARGH! Will I ever get any sleep? It took me a while longer, but right around 6 AM, I finally managed to fall asleep. Forget about getting up early today! I woke up around 8:30 AM. This time, I woke up to the tone of voices in the corridor. I look at the clock and see it’s definitely morning. Carrying a soggy face and shut-out eyes, I jumped into the shower to get ready for another day on the road. The day will turn out to be beautiful with clear skies and a bit warmer then yesterday (but still cold enough to require a sweater).
Once I was ready, I dashed out of the hotel and followed the perimeter of the wall to visit the Great Mosque, which was founded in the 7th century and was heavily remodeled in the 9th century. This mosque has a wealth of history to offer the visitor, starting with its outer walls and going deeper into its inner roots. Please keep in mind that it is closed to
non-Muslims in the afternoons and evening out of respect to the Muslims who attend to the prayers. As I entered the mosque, I saw a vast courtyard. I took a left and followed the perimeter of the mosque seeing the arched roofs, carved columns, etc. I came across the towering tower. I can picture the view from atop, overlooking the Medina and the rest of the town. Alas, I would only picture the view in my mind as the door to the stairs was locked. I made my way around the place. I suddenly came across the main prayer hall, which is facing Mecca. Oh my! Oh my! The archways gave way to massive wooden doors with elaborate carved designs. They are all beautiful, especially the central one, which boasts the most intricate carvings. You cannot enter the mosque, but you can look from outside the doors. The mosques are not lavishly decorated like a church, yet this one is covered with colorful carpets and candle lit chandeliers. The wall facing Mecca is made out of carved marble.
I took my time back to the hotel, walking thru the Medina. I took a different route that took me thru
more impressive doors. I eventually reached the archway full of shops. A door leading to a courtyard revealed a veggie and fish market filled with interesting characters.
I left Kairouan on a louage headed south East. The landscape turned quire semi-arid. It was a similar environment to North Central Mexico, except you are brought back to reality when you see a pack of camels and the many planted olive trees, which are popular in this region. It wasn’t a direct louage, so I had to change vehicles at three different villages. The first two, I can’t remember or pronounce, but the third one is Souassi, which I immediately took as Sousse, which is a famous coastal resort town that I had no plans on seeing. I did want to stop on a Mediterranean town on my way south so I decided to stop on the lovely town of Mahdia. There are three areas in this town. You have the Hotel Zone full of resorts and the like, you have the new town (where many of the residents live), and then you have the Medina. The latter one is situated in a narrow peninsula that cuts out into the Mediterranean
Sea. Thus, the picturesque Medina is the heart of Mahdia, and the place to stay the night in if you want to avoid the resort crowds. I really recommend Hotel El Jazira, on the left, near the coast, as you enter the Medina via the Gate (Skifa el Kahla). This hotel is clean, comfortable, and comes with the added luxury of electric heaters for the cold winter nights!
I dropped my bags and rushed out to check out the Great Mosque. Unfortunately, it was already closed by the time I found it. So I went for a walk through the local clothes market on the road behind and surrounding the mosque. The guidebook advice was to make a loop as you follow the coastal road around the Medina (peninsula). I passed the scenic Café Sidi Salem, which is built on a cliff. It is an excellent place to catch the sunset over the Mediterranean and the Great Mosque.
Next, I visited the impressive fort Bordj el Kebir. Although it lacks in architectural aesthetics and creativity, the fort does provide you with an impressive aerial view of the Medina, the Mediterranean Sea, the old cemetery, and the ancient port.
Seeing all the beautiful sites from above propelled me to visit them first hand. I walked down to the rocky coast thru the old Muslim cemetery The tide was low so I could walk through the sharp rocks to reach the derelict remnants of the wall, which are nothing more then small segments smaller then a small house. I continued north coming across the ancient port. It is quite small in today’s standards, but at its height it served as the access point for small ships. I imagine its short narrow entrance being protected by a massive gate cutting into the wall, neither of which remains to this day. Further on, you come to the tip of the peninsula, where you will find the light house. I jumped back to the coastal road, passing several locals fishing from the shore. From time to time, I caught eye of a fishing vessel as it sailed close to the shore.
I made it back to the hotel and decided to explore the inside of the Medina. The roads are certainly wider here so the breeze from the sea passes through the old town. The architecture is infused with both Arabic and
Mediterranean styles. The walls of the traditional dwellings are white-washed, while the doors and the windows are light blue. At the center of the Medina, closer to the main gate, I came across the picturesque Plaza de Cairo, a pleasant plaza with shady trees and a very Mediterranean feel. The plaza overlooks an interesting mosque with several intricately decorated walls and doors. The plaza is covered with chairs and tables from a cafe, making it a delightful place to stop for coffee or Tunisian mint tea. The day was coming to an end, so I went continued on my exploration of town. I caught the sunset at Cafe Side Salem, drinking a delicious freshly squeezed orange juice. As I relaxed in the comforts of this cafe, the Great Mosque and the Medina were silhouetted against the spectacular sunset.
After a good night sleep, I took an early louage to El Djem, which in roman times was known as Thysdrus. En route, the scenery was dotted with row after row of olive trees. Thysdrus (El Djem) was founded in ancient Punic times, but it wasn’t until the second century that it flourished under Roman rule. The highlight of this town,
and one of the highlights of North Africa, is the majestic Roman amphitheater, which was/is the third largest amphitheater built by the Roman Empire (largest in Africa). Let me tell you, the site is magnificent! As you walk down the side road from the market, your jaw will drop at the sheer size of it. My tummy was calling though so I stopped at a restaurant overlooking the Amphitheater for breakfast. This certainly tops my list of best places to have breakfast in the planet. I took my time eating a delicious sandwish as I was admiring the fine contour of the mighty amphitheater located right in front of me!
After recharging my batteries, I entered the archeological marvel. Walking along the arched entrance, I followed a series of stairs to the top. On all the levels, I took my time to admire the architecture, which boasts gigantic arches. From one side, these lead to the town, where you can peek out (careful though, you don’t want to fall down). If your ego needs a boost, you can raise your hands and pretend you are Hadrian addressing the crown below. He was the mighty leader that transformed this sleepy
Inside view of Amphitheater, El Djem
The Arab invaders blew open a sizeable portion of the amphitheater to prevent future uprisings from taking it as shelter. You can see the opening on this picture (North West).
town into a prosperous city.
Climbing the hundreds of stairs, you reach the top level, allowing a spectacular view of the inside of the compound. There are a few historical points worth pointing out for you. First, notice the huge blocks of rock used in the construction. It’s amazing! Even more so when you consider that the nearest quarry is 30 km away! Yikes, how on earth did they bring them here?
Second, long after North Africa fell into the hands of the Arabs and converted to Islam, a Berber princess by the name of Kahena used this site as a fort. Legend has it that there were secret tunnels connecting to the sea. As the Arab invaded, she used them to carry supplies. She couldn’t held the mighty invaders for long though so when the Arabs conquered the town, they blew open a sizeable portion of the amphitheater to prevent future uprisings from taking it as shelter. You can see the opening on the left (North West). Don’t worry; it is but a small gap.
Third, over the centuries, the locals have used blocks from the site as building materials. Here is where most of the
damage took place, extending along the north side of the amphitheater. This portion has been heavily restored by the modern authorities. They covered that run down side with concrete bleachers that are actually used from time to time, especially during the music festival that falls in either July or August. Luckily, enough of the south, southeast, east, southwest, and west survive to leave you breathless!
The last thing worth mentioning is the arena below, which is connected by tunnels where the gladiators and wild beasts would have entered the stage. This must have been a grotesque event as it often culminated with death! I walked down the stairs towards the arena. Unbeknown to me, I took some obscure dark stairs leading to a subterraneous tunnel that spans the entire length of the arena. A massive metal floor cage allows a bit of light to fall inside, yet there are numerous dark corners. As I walked across it, I got a bit of goose bumps as I could picture a brave gladiator walking down the same steps leading to his eminent doom.
I left the tunnel on the other side of the arena. As I entered the arena, I
was soon able to enjoy a 360 degree view of the amphitheater. I proceeded to climb up the bleachers to catch a view of the other side. There are many original arches, similar in style to those I had seen and climbed up to on the other side.
As I walked out of the complex, I followed the signs to the archeological museum. It is set in a modern building near the roman villa named Afrika. Across it are the remains of two smaller amphitheaters that preceded the bigger one. Anyway, the museum is a must see attraction in an on itself as it houses a sizeable collection of Roman Mosaics with a wide range of motifs ranging from persons to tigers devouring their pray. The colorful mosaics offer an interesting look into the past. To save space, these are plastered on the walls. Originally, though, they adorned the floors of ancient Roman villas, bathes, and other lavish buildings. In order to get an idea on how they originally looked, visit the Roman Villa of Afrika next door. There are a handful of mosaics that have been restored and left in their original location. Notice though, how dirty these
can get as there not contained in a sealed museum environment.
I took a bus south towards Matmata. The final destination of the bus was Djerba, so I took it as far as Gabes. The scenery was dotted with olive plantations, some of which extended as far as the eye can see. The ride was long, but comfortable as I was on a less crowded bus. I entered the desert soon after Sfax. Mind you, this was not the sand dunes one imagines when they utter the word Sahara. Instead, it was a rocky desert. It was certainly a desert though. I feel asleep around this time. I awoke to a stopped bus. Luckily, I managed to figure out we had arrived to Gabes a minute before the bus was set to depart. Phew! I got off the bus and changed to a louage headed to New Matmata. From there, I took another louage to old Matmata. Here is where the route gets interested as they desert plains gave way to hills. Traditionally, the Berber communities along here built troglodyte dwellings, which are underground homes designed to offer protection from the elements (hot summers, cold winters). Sounds like Cooper
Pedy, Australia, eh? Not quite as the land is softer and easier to dig and mold.
The fame in town is the scenery and the unique underground architecture. Scenes of Star Wars and Indiana Jones (Raiders of the Lost Ark) where shot here. The most famous landmark is Hotel Sidi Driss, which was the setting of the Lars Family homestead located in the imaginary planet of Tatooine (Star Wars, Episode 4, the first movie). You can actually spend the night in this hotel now in days. I opted to spend my first night at the newer and more traditional Hotel Marhala so I could get a different vibe. I took a small room in the troglodyte style hotel. It was literally a small hole on the wall with two basic beds and an old wooden door. Quite a unique place!
I walked down to town several times for dinner and a late tea at a café. Although it got dark after I got here, I can still notice the lack of lights as many locals still live underground. Even though it was New Years Eve, I walked back to Hotel Marhala planning to call it a night early.
Tunisia is dotted with cafes similar to this. Although they are quite smoky, they do provide shelter from the elements during the cold winter season. Plus, the coffee and tea are delicious!
I read a bit, but had to leave the confines of my warm sleeping back to take care of a call of nature. It sucks when you’re in a hotel with shared toilets as you have to walk out of the room, and in this case down some stairs, before reaching the restrooms. In a “Hitchhiker Guide of the Galaxy” moment, I went down the steps, which seemed to hang out of the wall and into the floor. As I headed towards the restroom, two Berber locals from Matmata ushered me into a room that seemed to be build into the wall immediately below my room. They had just finished a meal, but had two open bottles of wine. I knew my plans of having a quite, early night, were gone. Who would have known that a call to nature would turn into one of the most surreal New Years ever? The two locals, Mustafa and Monastir, invited me in to their fest. They shared their wine as we talked in broken Italian. I don’t speak Italian, but can understand it a bit as it’s similar to Spanish. As soon as we had finished the wine, I went across the
courtyard to the bar to get us a couple of more bottles of Tunisian wine, which were bottles of the same sweat fruity rose wine. A few of the hotel employees joined us later on in the evening. We ended up celebrating the New Years singing Arabic songs.
I changed hotels today to take in the vibe of the Hotel Sidi Driss, an equivalent to Mecca for Star War fans. Relics from the filming of the original movie set still shine through as flocks of tourists visit this place each day. The hotel rooms are comfortably set on the other side of the multiple sectioned compounds. The architecture of this troglodyte dwelling is similar to yesterday’s hotel, being a hole carved down into the ground, about 15 meters wide and 10 meters deep whereupon the rooms will be died into the walls. The walls are painted white. Therefore, you are sleeping in a hole in the wall!
After taking a tour of the hotel and taking dozens of shots of the bar scene, I headed to the louage station to grab one towards new Matmata. I asked the driver to drop me off just past Tijma, a town
about five or six kilometers away, at the intersection with the road to El Haddej. In front of me where three or four camels with their owners who were offering camel rides around the area. After a bit of bargaining, I had gotten myself a camel ride to El Haddej via the desert. The area I took was dotted with rocky hills colored in a brown-yellowish-reddish hue, which makes one feel as if you are traveling on another world. I climbed on top of the dromedary, a one hump camel, and we were soon on our way. I was guided by a local that was wearing the typical brown tunic with a hood. Had he been three feet tall and bearing a rodent-like appearance, I could have easily confused him with for a Jawas, a junk collector that plies the deserts of the imaginary planet of Tatooine. The otherworldly scenery he took me through was interrupted by the occasional palm tree, olive tree, and almond tree. As we went up and down the many hills, I half expected to see a banthas, a beast of burden that roams the desert of Tatooine (Star Wars).
After an hour, we arrived
to the small old village of El Haddej. Residents here use the same building techniques as Matmata so you can also see the underground dwellings here. The added advantage of this place is that you get to see the troglodyte dwellings in a less touristy setting. The first dwelling I visited was inhabited by a family. The old lady the house was grinding grain with a medieval looking stone grinder. As expected, she was in a room dug into the ground. Afterwards, I walked to the olive-press, where the locals used to make olive oil using an old fashion rock mill that was once turned by a camel. Across it, I entered into what appeared to be another house dwelling that actually turned out to be a granary housing chickens, lambs, etc.
I parted ways with the guide and walk down the road back to Tijma. God knows my butt could use the change after that camel ride! It took me back through a different route so I managed to see a bit more of the unique scenery of this area. I was a few cars on this route so it’s possible to hitchhike for those too lazy to
At Tijma, I visited a few more underground dwellings, but only from the outside. There are a couple of observations worth noting. First, one has to be very careful when walking across the desert on this region for one careless step can lead you to a 10 meter fall, ouch! Luckily, I was fortunate not to fall into any of these underground dwellings. Second, one does have to wonder on the lack of privacy as any bystanders can walk and see into the beautiful courtyard and their beautiful homes. Third, the reason behind this method of architecture is that the underground rooms keep things cool during the summer and warm during the cold winter nights.
I hitched a ride on a lorry back to Matmata. After recharging my batteries over lunch, I took a bus to visit the town of Tamezret. The scenery was a bit less spectacular then the one to El Haddej, though it’s still worthwhile. The town though is not to be missed! It is set on top of a hill whereupon the berbers have built their stone homes above ground in a network of multiple levels. These have actually raised the height
of the hills by several stories. All of the houses fit into each other like a jigsaw puzzle wit a few alleyways cutting up into the hill. The locals have even constructed old rudimentary central heating passageways that are fed by the warm heat and smoke given off by their stoves. I visited a local dwelling, owned by a Christian Berber family. It was decorated with traditional motifs giving it a museum feel (hence why it’s called a museum). The owner explained how the Christian trinity influenced the architecture in this town. These can be seen by many representations, including three crosses carved on top of their doors. These motifs were also prevalent in the textiles. He proceeded to show me to the top of the hill, where there is a tea shop. I bought an almond tea and sipped away. Before he left, he showed me two hilltop villages in the distance built in the same fashion. Together, all three villages are a larger representation of the Christian trinity. As it was getting late in the afternoon, I got a bus back to Matmata as scheduled.
It is advisable, for those fortunate souls who get to sleep in
a traditional underground troglodyte dwelling, to pick a room in the bottom of a deep courtyard perched deep into the ground of its wall. As it is, these rooms have an uncanny way of regulating the temperature. In this winter night, I actually pulled out a sweat inside my sleeping bag as it was uncannily warm inside this quarter.
I woke up early the next morning, packed my bags, and hit the road. I took a louage down into the plains of the rocky desert to New Matmata, which was no doubt built down in the plains. From there, I caught another louage to Gabes, the only oasis town with a sea front in Tunisia. I opted to skip it and so found myself in a third louage heading south to Tataouine. This is a good place to base yourself as you can explore several interesting villages.
After taking care of some business, which in traveler’s lingo entails a hot shower, attending to laundry, and getting a bed; I took off around 12:30 on a pick-up truck shared taxi to the village of Ksar Ouled Soltane. The ride there took me through impressive rocky desert scenery dotted with
the occasional village. The pickup truck was really slow so I got a good view! The call to fame of this place is the impressive Ksour, a fortress-like granary of sort typically used in the deep south of Tunisia. This one in particular is one of the best preserved in the region. The Berber locals built gourfas to store grain. These small units were built one on top of another in a circular pattern. Thus, after time they formed a massive wall-like circular compound, which were three or four stories tall. The gourfas are built with a mix of rock and mud. A layer of mud covers the outer wall as well as the inside. At times, they have an eerie resemblance to the architecture found in a Pueblo Indian village of North America. The Ksour though is out in the open and you will actually spot the outer wall as you drive into town. Once I got a feel of the site, I took a stroll around the town to take in the vistas of the rocky desert plains with a few dotted hills. I took a car shared taxi back to Tataouine.
As it was still early,
I took a louage to see the ton of Chenini. Wow! What a ride. The driver thought he was a F1 driver and was cruising at over 120 km per hour up and down the hilly rocky desert. The sheer force of gravity came rushing down like a rollercoaster as he sped thru. The small hills soon gave way to an impressive set of peaks and plateaus created by millennia of erosion. The late afternoon sun brought up an orange color to the area. We soon arrived to Chenini, a town built up in a hillcrest. The site is phenomenal. I walked along the zigzag path through several houses that are still lived in. These are built with stones that are easily spotted. The tiny doors are made of old wood and iron. It really gives you a feel of the area, taking you back to medieval times. Halfway up, I stopped next to three local and got myself some tea. It wasn’t a shop at all, just a guy with a kettle and a fire going. Nevertheless, it had the character most cafes will pay dearly to imitate, rather poorly of course. After a while, I continued up to
the top, which is mostly derelict shape. Nevertheless, the ruins are fabulous. There are ample opportunities to admire the scenery around Chenini. As I made my way down, I was baffled by the approaching mob of campervans, 25 in total, bringing in an even larger mob of Italian tourists. How such a large group will travel together puzzles me. It was the same group I saw yesterday in Tamezret. I’m just glad I had the ruins to myself before they showed up. I found myself waiting for the louage back to town at the bottom of the hill. A local, whose name I can’t recall, began chatting with me in English. We talked about all sorts of matters: Tunisia, football, North American politics, European politics, Mexico, etc. It was a good way to pass time before the louage came. The guy told me about the two interesting rock formations in Chenini. At one end you have the head, which I called the Sphinx of Chenini for it resembles the one in Egypt. At the other end of town, heading back to Tataouine, you have the camel rock.
I haven’t mention Tunisian food much so here is what I had
tonight to give you an idea. I started with a soup of tomato with meat, grain of some kind (buckwheat I think), oregano, and other spices. This and all meals were accompanied with a basket full of sliced French baguette (bread). The main course was lamb meat with a side of French fries, a salad, and a delicious green chilly pepper (not too spicy). I also ordered a side-dish of piquant, which is a red sauce that is served next to several olives bathed in olive oil. Make sure you give it a try even if you don’t like the spicy things as it’s free everywhere in Tunisia and as I say it’s loaded with olives! The red spicy piquant sauce was rather tasteful today (probably the best I had in Tunisia)!
What a night! Hotel Hamza is a lovely place, but you cannot count on the A/C and heater to work. After asking the attendant for help, he unscrewed the electrical wiring on the machine and after playing with the wires he got the archaic machine to work. How on earth he did it without being electrocuted, I don’t know. The device was working like a charm. It
was until 3 AM, when a loud bang woke me up from my sound sleep. Yikes! For a second I though someone had detonated a bomb nearby. Wait, this is Tataouine, a small town of little importance in the chain of things in Tunisia. Plus, I wasn’t on a fancy hotel either. As I looked around, I noticed the heater was not emitting any noise. The strange thing is that the units of the nearby rooms were clearly working as I could hear their loud noise. Mine must have died. I tried to go back to sleep to no veil. After an hour or so, right when I was about to fall asleep again, the darn thing came back to life and startled me. I jumped from my bed, relieved to see it was working again. What do you guess happened next? Well, the machine blew up again! Thus, the vicious cycle repeated itself over and over again. Since the attendant had bypassed the on/off switch, I had to endure this for hours. It must have been around 5:30 AM (right after the morning call of prayer) when I at last fell back to sleep. I went into a pleasant
deep sleep. When I awoke, it was 9:30 AM. All right then, I overslept :). No worries though as I had no set schedule! So, the moral of this long side-story is simple, bring some ear plugs when you visit Tunisia, or any other Arab country for that matter!
After breakfast and a shower, I gather my bag and headed to the bus station. I took a louage back to Gabes. On board was an Italian couple. We talked a bit about our travels in Tunisia, including the crappy heaters in Hotel Hamza :). Our louage passed the caravan of Italian campervans just when I was telling the two about them!
I said goodbye to the Italian couple as they were headed to Matmata. After a cheap lunch, I took a louage to Douz, located in the edge of the sand-dune desert of the Sahara. This is a good time to stop for now. I will continue where I left out in my next update.
M'asselema (goodbye in Arabic),
There are more photos below