Acclimatizing in Northern Tunisia

As we circled the roundabout for the second time, the policewoman could not help but smile and wave us over to the side of the Route National. We had lost our way, obviously. On the other hand, maybe our rather extraordinary car piqued her interest. ‘Hello! Francais?’ she smiled, casually waving the mainly agricultural traffic, donkey-drawn carts and honking old lorries past us. In my best high school French I responded: ‘Non, nous sont Hollandaise.’ A classic mistake, answering in French, as this opened the proverbial floodgates. Within seconds, we were not only lost, we had also lost track of her well-meant chatter.

The northern areas of Tunisia, roughly between the peninsula of Cap Bon and the Algerian border, are made up out of green, rolling hills. Rich agricultural ground and sweeping meadows interspersed with small villages would nearly make you forget this is North Africa, and not the Massif Central of France. We had decided not to take the new toll road to Ishkuel National Park from Tunis, as the secondary roads are well maintained throughout Tunisia (though sometimes lacking in good directional signs…). There is tranquility to be found, driving around in this wintery, wet season, when temperatures fluctuate around 15C during the day, dropping to 5C or less at night. Not really weather for camping and trying out our new roof tent.

Ishkuel National Park is a Unesco World Heritage Site, and is, due to its unique ecology as an inland sea, a safe haven for thousands of migratory birds, a herd of buffaloes and, controversially, birds of prey (you would think the migrating birds would know better). It’s high mountain rising up out of the flat plain, partially surrounded by the crescent-shaped lake is strangely enough compared to Ayers Rock by some people… we didn’t see any similarity. It is most certainly a remarkable sight though, crossing the last hills to view the park with racing rainclouds in the distance. We have lovingly dubbed the northern areas of Tunisia ‘Land of a Thousand Rainbows.’

‘Uhm, can we help you?’ The hotels on the northern coasts are clearly not expecting tourists during these winter months, though this time of year certainly warrants a visit. Not only to avoid the hordes of local and European tourists, the hassling souvenir shopkeepers are either so shocked to see visitors they forget to react or are just asleep in front of their stalls. This leaves the independent traveler room to browse the markets and talk with strangers uninterrupted, and enjoy the easy, genuine smiles of the Tunisians. While on the road, do not forget to try the local combination of butchers stall and rest stop: order fresh lamb-chops, pay for them, walk to the cook and see them barbecued to perfection before your eyes. Especially nice with some rosemary, a pinch of ground black pepper and fresh homemade fries!

Heading south from Tunis towards Sousse, El Jem and Kairouan the landscape changes dramatically: gone are the green fields, replaced by kilometer upon kilometer of olive orchard upon arid ground. This region depends more upon the seasonal sunbathing European tourists than agriculture. A young man working the olive trees, who approached us with freshly boiled eggs and tea as we had stopped to cook breakfast, explained this: ‘We all return from our summer jobs as cooks and waiters, to help out our families. There is just not enough work in winter when all the resort hotels are empty.’ The bleak coastline, though in possession of beautiful beaches, was indeed devoid of tourists. Resort upon resort hotel, with many new ones under construction and the occasional French pensioner wandering around, had us aching for some real culture.

The Medina of Sousse provides the visitor with many opportunities to dream away… if you get the chance! The constant prodding to buy some chintzy piece of rubbish (we are not really impressed by plastic camels) easily gets on your nerves. Maybe being in Tunisia in the low season has its disadvantages too, but the only thing to do is just accept it. No matter how much it infringes upon your principles, it is impossible to talk to everyone that approaches you in a (seemingly) friendly fashion. After the first time you have accepted the friendly offer of tea from a shopkeeper, who miraculously has a brother/uncle/nephew in whatever city you come from, only to have him turn disappointed and angry when you explain you don’t need ‘real Tuareg silver’, you should know better. These annoyances aside, the Medina does really have an authentic atmosphere. As soon as you wander off the main shopping street, you will find artisans plying their trade, mysterious dark hallways leading to forbidden courtyards and the enticing smell of whatever wonderful dishes are prepared inside. The smiles turn friendly, there are kids playing in the streets and old men sitting on shaded verandas easily return your nod of greeting. In their eyes, you are different from the sunburned hordes, as you got this far through the mazelike streets without getting lost! This area is where you will find the best bread (French baguettes!), sweet pastries and hearty snacks. There is even a milkman, serving the matrons door-to-door from a beautiful copper pitcher, after knocking on the ancient, wonderfully carved and studded bright blue doors, set in whitewashed walls. Whether you get lost in the backstreets or in dreams of times long past, this World Heritage Site is well worth a visit.

Looking for a change of scenery, we headed some 60 kilometers south to the El Jem, to immerse in the former glory of the third biggest Roman Amphitheater in the world. The sheer majesty of this well-preserved colossus was our first taste of the antiquity pre-dating the invasions of the Vandals, the Greek, the Ottomans, the Colonials and off course the various Axis and Allied powers of the Second World War. It is easy to imagine a day at the games here, the gamy smell of lions slaughtering gazelles and gladiators slaughtering each other, to the encouraging roar of the opulent Roman masses. Walking up the enclosed staircases to the tops of the southern stands, we were at first annoyed by what we considered graffiti: names carelessly carved onto the limestone building blocks. Closer inspection revealed a history in itself: Jack Wilson made the oldest inscription we could find (and read), dated 1811. The Arabian inscriptions, most of them followed by the sign of a curved dagger, looked even older. Early explorers or wealthy tourists? Roving bandits or conquering armies?

From El Jem it is a short drive to Kairouan, another Medina and World Heritage Site. This town stands out through its Grand Mosque, its many Koran schools and its Ottoman water cisterns. Being slightly fed up with Tunisian entrepreneurs, vying for attention, our mood quickly turned foul when we were greeted at the city gate by a non-descript man on a moped. ‘Grand Mosque, Grand Mosque, follow me please! Welcome welcome!’ ‘Carpets?’, and off he drove. Pointedly we turned the car around to drive the opposite direction trying to find the city centre. At the next roundabout, we noted to our surprise that he had started following us, and a friend had joined him who immediately tried his luck. Not wanting to end up with a string of mopeds on our tail, we decided to loose them! Racing through the streets of Kairouan, taking lefts and rights in quick succession, we finally thought we had lost them, only to find ourselves in front of a carpet shop right across from the Grand Mosque! And, not surprisingly, our two newfound friends. Immediately approached by the carpet seller, I think our body language made it clear we were not in the mood for ‘Special offer for you my friend! Where you from?’ The moped riders subsequently joined in by bickering with the carpet seller who of them two should receive the commission for bringing us to the carpet shop! Realizing that there just is no way we could deal with this behavior at the end of a long day, we decided to go to a hotel and get some sleep. Maybe if we would show up early the next day they would be sleepy…

Kairouan, viewed from the outside of the city, would probably win a prize in the competition for most nondescript town of Tunisia. Only when you enter one of the old city gates to the heart of the Medina, will you realize it is more than it appears to be. Our visit coincided with carpet souq day, when the regional women auction their handmade carpets to local shopkeepers and wholesale retailers. While first getting some not so friendly looks, soon the carpet buyers realized we were not bidding nor for a cheap deal. Bidding resumed in all its cacophony, with the husbands of the selling women handling the money and making the deals, but not without approving nods of their wives…

The rain in the northern regions at first forced us to bypass the World Heritage sites of Kerkuane, Cartage and the Medina of Tunis. When the weather cleared up, we decided to return. Kerkuane is a wonderfully preserved and restored Punic settlement, radiating history. Not only does the site have some amazing archeological findings stored in its museum, it is also easy to spend some hours just wandering around the ruins, imagining how life must have been here. The choice of location for this early settlement was most definitely due to its views of the Mediterranean and its mild climate. The villas were build so the inhabitants could conveniently enjoy their private baths while staring at the sea, surrounded by mosaic and columns. Kerkuane might not be as grand a setting as famous Cartage, but has a certain peace and quiet that will make you enjoy it more intensely.

What can we say about Cartage that has not been written about before? The remains of Cartage spread out over several square kilometers, across a residential area. Honestly, the ruins came across as slightly lackluster. Maybe it was our perception that made the site the least interesting of Tunisia, or maybe it is just too much surrounded by modern buildings to get that feeling of historical significance, that certain ‘je ne sais quoi’, when you feel immersed in history. The Medina of Tunis, only 15 kilometers away, is a stark contrast to the sterile, organized tourist industry that is modern Cartage. Go to the Medina, but be patient and bring a good dose of humor. Patience will allow you deal with the discomfort of being stared at as a dollar bill on legs, and humor to break the ice. As your harasser eventually runs out of practiced phrases in your mother tongue, something marvelous happens: a genuine smile and ‘Welcome to Tunis!’ Grab that moment to get to know some local people, that is our advice.

One World Heritage Site remained to be seen: the old Roman settlement of Thugga. Driving south-west towards the Algerian border, the landscape is again flat and fertile interspersed with green and rolling hills. On perfect roads the kilometers flew by, as we followed the routes used in the past by trading caravans. This rich former trading city, defensive bastion and beautiful getaway for rich Romans stole our hearts. Or maybe we finally opened up to the exhilaration of new horizons? I am not sure if I can put words to the rich feeling, the freedom, the utter joy we experienced that day, cruising towards Thugga and witnessing its uniqueness.

The first two weeks of our World Heritage Cruise were like driving on a roundabout, round and round, not knowing which exit to take. We needed to drive away from civilization, towards Thugga and the south, to realize that sometimes you need to stand still and reflect upon your experiences. This was supposed to be a cruise, not a race! With this in mind we allowed the landscape to change once again, heading south towards warm weather and the desert.