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Souqs, Sand and Star Wars

sunny 20 °C

Having been unable to afford the preposterously overpriced tix home for a proper Xmas in the sun, and despairing at the thought of a grey, bleak Xmas day in London, I decided to spend Xmas holidays in Tunisia!

Before I left for this beautiful country, I got a lot of "Where?!?!" and "Why on earth(s)?!!!" from practically everyone I spoke to.... So firstly - where is it? Tunisia is that that sliver of a country that's wedged between Algeria (to the west) and Libya (east) and bordering the Med. It's purported to be North Africa at its easiest, and is becoming increasingly popular with the sun-seeking package tourist. Why? Well...to be perfectly honest...because it's there, I hadn't been there before and it promised a wee bit more sun and adventure than England did! Several films, including The English Patient and Star Wars (all of them I think) were filmed here, Ulysses got stoned here on lotus-flowers, and Hannibal Barca, claimed to be the "finest" military leader in history, was born here. Oh and Tunisia is also home to the delectable briq! One more bit of trivia -the word Africa, has its origins here (according to my guidebook) - apparently the Romans who conquered and occupied much of Northern Tunisia named the area after a local Berber tribe, the "Afri". As the spread of the Roman empire, the whole of present day Africa became known as Africa, and subsequently the whole continent.

After a day of R&R in Tunis, I taxied out to Tunis Carthage Int Airport to meet Denise (mum), who had flown a painful 44 hours from Sydney to get there (10 hour layovers in Heathrow are not very nice!)...only to learn that her backpack had not arrived! TunisAir promptly got on the case (or rather backpack - bad joke!) and tracked it down to Heathrow, and after a much deserved good night's sleep, we set off to explore Tunis.

Due to its geographical proximity to Europe, Tunis is an interesting Euro/Arabic hybrid: its French boulevarded ville nouvelle with its beautiful buildings and chic cafes, is juxtaposed with its labyrinthine 7th century medina; shops blaring out Western boy band lovesongs followed by the more traditional malouf (trad Tunisian music); its young women in oversized sunglasses, skinny jeans and knee-high boots walking alongside their mothers and grandmothers veiled in winter white hejabs; the comprehensive metro zipping around town on the one hand, and the odd side-saddling donkey-rider on the other. We wandered through the colourful souqs (markets) with their "tres jolie" clothes, shoes, jewellery, woodwork etc., admired the minarets and courtyards of the medina's mosques and medersas (theological seminaries) and dined on smashing food - sampling Tunisian couscous (simpler, less spicy and more legume based than that in Morocco) and our first ever briqs! Briqs are essentially deep-fried envelopes of pastry stuffed with runny eggs, coriander and sometimes cheese, potato, onion, parsley, or meat. Very addictive and heavenly!

We spent a rather non-festive Xmas day roaming about the interesting ruins of the once great city of Carthage with its temple ruins, Roman amphitheatre, cisterns, Roman theatre, Antonine baths and Sanctuary of Tophet (perhaps a sacrificial burial site). Carthage was once an important trading port, and an one point controlled much of the North African coast, as well as parts of Sicily and Malta. From here we caught the train to Sidi Bou Said, a dramatically beautiful cliff-top village of white-washed buildings, blue-shuttered windows and fuschia bougainvilleas bursting from the walls.

After a long train-journey down South in which we were constantly harassed by 15-year-old boys in their best chav-wear (poxy white tracksuits and goldie-looking chains etc.) we arrived in Tozeur, an oasis town close to the Algerian border. Here we wandered about the Ouled el-Hadef (the 14th Century old quarter) with its intricate patterned brickwork, explored the palmeraie (essentially a palm forest), fended off caleche (horse and carriages) drivers, and visited the beautiful Dar Charait palace, which has an interesting museum of Tunisian art and costume, as well as a bizarre haunted house, and Ali Baba's treasure cave - you actually had to say "Open Sesame" to enter! Tres tacky.

Next we caught a louage (share taxi) across the Chott El-Jerid, a massive salt lake to Douz, a town at the gateway to the Tunisian Sahara. We'd timed it well, as we had arrived on the last day of the Festival of the Sahara...so we taxied out to the festivities....and spend the afternoon watching marching bands, dance, camel races/fights whilst having our ears pounded by the cacophonous drummer gang seated behind us - after 3 hours of pounding and disharmonious singing we parted the festivities, though it was a couple more hours before I stopped hearing those jolly drums!

We joined up with some fellow Antipodeans in Douz to 4WD into the Sahara....when we set out from Douz, it was, unbelievably, raining and really quite cold...as we began traversing the erg (sand sea), it got colder and wetter still......even the camels had gone into hibernation! We continued across the orange-hued ocean to Ksar Ghillane, an ancient Roman fort that lies near to a hot-spring fed oasis and palmeraie, where we camped for the night, before bumping our way North East to the Ksour. The Ksour is a spectacular stoney landscape with hill-top fortresses separated by sweeping valleys...we stopped to explore: Guermessa, a beautiful but abandoned berber village with breathtaking views across the valleys; Ksar Haddada, a cavernous village which featured in Star Wars; Ksar Hallouf, with its cavernous ghorfas - long vaulted rooms that once stored grains but are sometimes used as houses; and the troglodyte homes of Matmata - these are essentially underground pit homes which stay warm in the winter and cool in the Summer.

3 louages and a boat brought us to Jerba, an island famed as the "Land of the Lotus-Eaters", where Ulysses stopped on his odyssey and is said to have become intoxicated after devouring copious lotus flowers. Jerba was one of the first Arab settlements in Tunisia and has housed many of the Mediterranean's most notorious pirates over the years. We stayed at a funduq in Houmt Souq, the island's main town. A funduq was set up originally as a lodging house for travelling merchants, where the downstairs area had stalls for the camels and sheep, whilst the upper levels were used to house the merchants. Houmt Souq itself, is a charming town of white-washed buildings, courtyards and labyrinthine streets. The souqs are full of clayware, handicrafts, jewellery, clothing, sheesha (water pipes) and carpets, and the vendors are tireless in their efforts to sell their wares to the hapless traveller. On Jerba we walked up to the Borj Ghazi Mustapha (fort) with its charming views over the Med, wandered about the souqs, and hired dodgy gearless bicycles to cycle out to see the flock of flamingoes that wade off the Zone Touristique, in the island's north. We also rode a little into the island's interior in search of the oasis of Cedghiane, with its pomegranate, citrus and olive groves, and its menzels, traditional domed stone houses. We spent NYE in Houmt Souq, though as in Marrakech last year, it was a complete non-event (everyone was at home feasting on their Bon Annee gateaux).

Like Ulysses, we had trouble leaving Jerba, though less to do with our being intoxicated, and more to do with our difficulties in getting a louage ride north. As most of the louages arriving at the taxi park in Houmt Souq were only marked in Arabic, it was difficult for us to figure out which taxi to make a run for, and as there was fierce competition for rides that morning, noone was particularly helpful...we missed two louages because we weren't feisty enough, so by the time louage 3 came around, we, like the locals, fought for our seats and were thankfully successful!

After the quick hop to Gabes, and a train north, we arrived at Sousse, our base for the next few days. Sousse is close to El-Jem, which is home to the 3rd largest Colosseum in the world, and once had a capacity for 30 000 people. El-Jem's colosseum is actually a couple hundred years older than the one in Rome, and similarly was used for gladiatorial battles. The next day we bussed out to Kairouan, Islam's fourth most holy city (after Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem). Kairouan is a beautiful city with its blue, green and white toned medina and its exquisitely ornate mosques. Being Tunisia's most sacred city, it was more conservative that elsewhere we'd been - the women were typically dressed in their winter white hejab which they held together by biting the headscarf in their mouths. It was also here where we saw a seemingly endless flow of sheep being shepherded through town by their master or by truck....little did they know what was in store for them. As part of the Eid al-Adha, the Feast of Sacrifice (which commemorates Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son), every Muslim family is expected to slaughter a lamb. Eid al-Adha co-incides with the Hajj, the pilgrimmage to Mecca, the place where Abraham laid the Kaaba (sacred stone). Because of Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son, he is believed by Muslims to be the first true believer in Allah, and therefore is the most important Islamic figure.

From Kairouan we journeyed back to Sousse and then on to Tunis for a last wander about the medina, and a visit to the Bardo museum, a museum which houses a collection of mosaics that once decorated Roman Africa's posh villas. Then we had one last meal of couscous, briqs and lablabi, a tradtional soup, before jetting back to London in the wee hours of the morning - Lufthansa have a dodgy 0355hrs flight out of Tunis!!

Belinda

Posted by Backpasher 05:51 Archived in Tunisia Tagged backpacking

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