BIZERTE: A picturesque old port great for aimless ambling and spending our last days in Tunisia

Our adventures in Tunisia were almost over. But we still had a couple of days before we flew home. So we went to the beachside city of Bizerte. Bizerte is the largest town on the north coast and although it’s been a major port since the Phoenicians, it has only slowly begun to accept tourism.

I love these “kitty fishermen”. I’m thinking a lot about cats lately because Tansy died a week ago. He was 16 years old and just faded away but I’m happy I took the picture of him for this blog because that was the last picture I have of him.

Bill and I strolled along this old port and then choose one of the outdoor cafes to have dinner the first night we were there. The next day we wandered through the medina or Ville Arabe (Arab Town).

We left the medina and headed back along the old port that’s surrounded by shops and cafes and dotted with fishing boats.

Boys were having a mock fight in paddle boats and girls were watching.

The French held on to Bizerte and its strategic naval base until 1963 even though Tunisia became independent in 1956. In the Ville Nouvelle (New City) there’s French architecture and modern shops like Monoprix, a French supermarket chain.

On one building you can see a faint painted sign pointing the way to an “abri-public” (bomb shelter) that dates from the Nazi occupation. The local authorities who collaborated with the Nazis painted it so French civilians could find shelter from Allied bombers.

Close by is the Place Bouchacha now the center of a vast market where locals come to find both edibles and durables.

On our last evening in Tunisia, we had dinner at “La Phenicien” , an upscale seafood restaurant that’s supposed to look like a Phoenician warship! Dinner was great. Then we walked back to our hotel along the beachfront promenade.

“Tunisia is First 2008!”

It was time to leave and our adventures in Tunisia were over. But on the flight home I couldn’t help thinking about next summer. Maybe Kenya and Tanzania? There are always more adventures ahead!

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DOUGGA: Tunisia’s most spectacular Roman ruins including a community Roman toilet!

When we were at Heathrow Airport in London, we bought a British travel guide to Tunisia with maps and a list of Tunisia’s “Top Ten Sights”. As soon as Bill saw that Dougga was number one, he knew we were going there! I found out much later but when I got there I was very happy that we went.

The high plains of northwest Tunisia were the granary of ancient Rome.

We also found the recycling big-eared dog statues, a British Commonwealth military cemetery and flocks of sheep and goats.

Dougga is one of the most magnificent Roman monuments in Africa and includes a Roman Theater that was hosting an International Festival,

the Capitol that enclosed the temple’s inner sanctum,

a mosque and…

the horseshoe-shaped Roman community toilet in the Cyclops Baths where Roman men sat and socialized with their fellow countrymen! The baths themselves are in disrepair. You can hear the buzzing of summer insects in the background.

Bill and I walked around the ruins. Everywhere men were preparing for the International Festival.

Back on the road we found fields of sunflowers, more “houses” of hay–and some nesting storks!

Now we were on our way to Bizerte, the last stop on our trip to Tunisia.

MAHDIA: A lovely, historic port city—-SFAX: Filming “The English Patient”—-MONASTIR: Filming “Life of Brian”—-SOUSSE: “The Pearl of the Sahel”

Mahdia

is set on a narrow peninsula jutting out into the Mediterranean. Although it’s still a fishing port and maintains its old world charm, it also has a Zone Touristique and is filled with European and Tunisian vacationers.

You can just see the lighthouse in the distance.

It’s surrounded by a recent Muslim cemetery.

Around the end of the peninsula are remains of Fatimid fortifications and the Borj El-Kebir, a large fortress standing on the highest point of the peninsula and built on the ruins of an earlier Fatimid structure.

Signs of tourism are everywhere.

As this dad and his child headed to the beach, we headed into the medina.

The Skifa El-Kahla is a massive fortified gate, one of Tunisia’s finest, and all that’s left of the original Fatamid city. Amid all the ancient fragments, you can see that Tunisia is dealing with the future–a dog with big floppy ears is their symbol for recycling and they’re even trying to recycle their plastic water bottles!

Sfax

is the second largest city in Tunisia where the modern and the ancient, the mercantile and the spiritual, coexist in apparent harmony. Here Tunisian life is remarkably untouched by tourism.

It was the only place in Tunisia where I saw REAL Crocs for only 8 dinars–about $7!

In the movie, “The English Patient”, the sequences of Katharine and Almásy strolling through the narrow, winding alleyways of Cairo’s Medina were filmed in the souq in Sfax. For the purpose of filming, the Tunisian city of Sfax more perfectly represented the Cairo of the 1930’s than Cairo itself. Let’s go to the amazing, authentic Sfax souq now. Just click on my YouTube videos below!

Monastir

was also where many scenes of a movie were shot, this time Monty Python’s “Life of Brian”. The Ribat (a fortified Islamic monastery) doubled as Jerusalem in this movie and others. (Did you know that Bill loves movies and we always travel to wherever they were filmed on every continent? )

Summer concerts in ancient monuments were common throughout Tunisia.

Sousse

lies on the eastern coast of Tunisia, two hours from the capital, Tunis. It’s called “The Pearl of the Sahel” because of the mildness of its climate, its calm and beautiful coast and the hospitality of its people.

It also has a ribat or fortress because the Sahel, the large coastal bulge of Tunisia, has always been a battleground for other people’s wars–Hannibal and the Romans, Pompey and Julius Caesar, invading Islamic armies. The indigenous Berbers rebelled against them all. The entrance to the ribat is through a narrow arched doorway flanked by weathered columns salvaged from the ruins of the previous Roman city. Recycling, again!

But the thing I liked best about Sousse was the Celtics shirts in a little shop in the medina! (Don’t look at the Lakers shirt.)

The guys in the shop were so proud to show them off when I told them I was from Boston. In Tunisia, Boston is close to western Massachusetts and Vermont–and it is!

So tomorrow Bill and I are heading to the west coast for a couple of weeks to visit our kids. I still want to take you to Dougga and Bizerte but it will have to wait until we get back. I even have videos of walking through the magnificent Dougga Roman ruins.

So how is your summer? I’d love to hear from you!

SBEITLA: Olive groves make an ancient city wealthy—EL JEM: A Roman colosseum

Before we visit Sbeitla, which is in the middle of nowhere, let’s see some of the treasures in the Raqqada Islamic Art Museum just outside of Kairouan.

Date palms grow outside the museum and everywhere in southern Tunisia.

Inside there were lovely ceramics, gold and silver coins and jewelry, beautifully designed antique weights–and reflections of me and some windows across the room in the glass display cases!

Sbeitla was settled by the Romans in the 1st century CE on the site of a Numidian settlement. The surrounding countryside was–and still is–ideal for olive growing and the Romans built its finest temples in the 2nd century CE. When the Romans slipped into decline, it was an important Christian center in the 4th century CE . The Byzantines made it their regional capital before it was conquered by the Arabs who later abandoned it and the region returned to a nomadic lifestyle.

Rows of prickly pear cactus provide fences for the ubiquitous olive groves.

We passed trucks heaped with loads of watermelon as well as the usual honeydew melon, hay and tomatoes.

Bill teaches about this olive press at Speitla that was put right in the middle of the street because the olive industry was so important.

There were also houses, baths, and churches.

Stores lined the road to the temples.

Speitla’s highlight is the Temple of Jupiter flanked by slightly smaller temples to the deities Juno and Minerva. They give a palpable sense of what the center of a Roman city looked and felt like.

The ancient colosseum of El Jem is a dramatic and impressive sight both because of its awesome size and because, like all ruins, it’s a reminder of the inevitable fleetingness of achievement. El Jem is all you need to begin to grasp the scope of Roman civilization in Africa.

Many homes use new Roman columns as decoration.

Today there are outdoor concerts in the amphitheater of El Jem that seats 30,000 people (a little less than Fenway!). Beneath it are the arched corridors and rooms where animals, gladiators and other unfortunates were held in their last few minutes before they were thrust into the arena to provide entertainment for the masses.

Arched corridors run along every rung of the colosseum.

It was between 40 and 45 degrees Celsius (104-113 Fahrenheit) inland so even with all the impressive sights we were ready to head to the beach and Mahdia!

KAIROUAN: The holiest city in Tunisia and the fourth holiest site in the Islamic world

Driving from Carthage to Kairouan we found the remnants of a Roman aqueduct.

And then some surprise Roman ruins at Thuburbo Majus where we were the only visitors! This city had been an important trading center for the region’s agricultural produce and we saw examples of that on the highway–July melons, hay and tomatoes.

Finally we arrived at Kairouen and the Hotel Splendid. We gave our Fiat Punto a well-deserved rest.

And had a traditional couscous dinner at the Sabra Restaurant–with melon for dessert, both watermelon and honeydew melon!

The next morning we set off for the Medina that ebbs and flows to a different rhythm than modern Tunisia and feels both welcoming and secret.

The streets meandered towards the Great Mosque, North Africa’s holiest Islamic site. It ranks only behind Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem as one of the holiest cities of Islam.

Non-Muslims are not allowed inside the prayer hall but the door is left open to allow a glimpse of the interior. Traditional prayer rugs are woven mats here. The pillars are originally Roman or Byzantine, salvaged from Carthage and Sousse.

The tourist world waits just outside.

My favorite mausoleum is the Zaouia of Sidi Sahab, nicknamed “The Barber’s Mosque”, which is home to the tomb of a companion of the Prophet. He was known as the barber because he always carried three hairs from the Prophet’s beard with him. The decorations of ceramic panels and stucco sculpture display a mixture of Andalusian and Turkish influences. Local people visit to pay their respects, ask for blessings, socialize and pray.

August Macke visited Tunisia with Paul Klee in 1914 and was also impressed by the North African light and architecture. Macke painted this picture of Kairouan. He tragically died in action during World War I the following year.

Let’s go to the Raqqada Islamic Art Musuem just 9 km south of Kairouan and then venture out into the austere steppes to the Roman ruins of Sbeitla and El Jem before heading back to the coast!

SIDI BOU SAID: Where Paul Klee discovered the rainbow—CARTHAGE: Fragments of an ancient city

“Southern (Tunisian) Gardens”, 1919, by Paul Klee

“Sidi Bou Said Pictures”, 2008, by Kathryn Darrow

Do you see the connection between the painting and the pictures? I think I do. Paul Klee certainly did. He was interested in color both empirically and emotionally but his trip to Tunisia was a turning point where he discovered the intensity of color and the southern light. In Tunisia he discovered color as a rainbow. Now I get it.

Here’s another painting of Tunisia by Paul Klee, “Red and Yellow Houses in Tunis”, 1914. Why didn’t he paint the blue and white houses that are so pervasive? One art critic has a theory about this.

So now on to Carthage!

So here’s our air-conditioned Fiat Punto Classic and its driver, Bill, who drove us around the ruins of the once great ancient city of Carthage that is now scattered over a large area in an exclusive suburb of Tunis. Remember how Carthage was established by the Phoenecians and first destroyed and then rebuilt by Rome? Here’s what it looked like then.

After the Roman Empire fell, the Vandals and Byzantines both ruled Carthage and then there was the Arab conquest and arrival of Islam, followed by the Ottoman Turks and the French Protectorate until 1956, not to mention that in 1943 it was the site for World War II battles where the Allies (British and American) lost more than 15,000 men. There’s a US War Cemetery near Carthage and Commonwealth Cemeteries throughout Tunisia.

The surviving ruins are mostly Roman. Here’s what it looks like now.

This is Byrsa Hill with amazing views to the Tunis Gulf and the ancient Punic (Phoenecian) port far below.

Housed in the former French cathedral seminary is the Musee de Carthage.

There were the usual amphora and pottery and sculpture.

But the highlight was two magnificent 4th century BCE Punic (Phoenecian) sarcophagi of a reclining man and woman.

A short drive to the east were the refined Roman villas.

Further down the road were the Antonine Baths with the sea on one side and the security wall of the President’s house on the other. You can see the red Tunisian flag.

A short drive away is the chilling Sanctuary of Tophet.

In 1921 French archaeologists uncovered a sacrificial site and burial ground where it’s believed Cathaginian children were sacrificed to the deities Baal Hammon and Tanit.

On that somber note we headed back to our car and our hotel.

The next day we headed inland to Kairouan–the fourth holiest site in Islam!

TUNIS: The laid back capital of Tunisia with two distinct hearts

Tunis is the largest city in Tunisia and the epicenter of political, cultural and social life. The city combines the European-style Ville Nouvelle with a vibrant, atmospheric old town.

The Ville Nouvelle (New City), created by French colonials in the 19th century, is an orderly European grid with palm-lined boulevards edged by shops, cafes, restaurants and ATMs.

(CLICK ON “MORE PHOTOS” TO SEE THE VILLE NOUVELLE SET.)

President Ben Ali’s picture is everywhere. He won his fourth five-year term in 2004 with over 95% of the vote. The main opposition withdrew before the election saying that participation would have given the proceedings the semblance of democracy.

Founded by the Arabs in the 8th century, the medina or old city is the city’s historic and symbolic heart. When you enter the souq the tangled maze of narrow streets all eventually lead to the Zaytouna (Great) Mosque with recycled columns from Roman Carthage.

(CLICK ON “MORE PHOTOS” TO SEE THE MEDINA SET.)

Once the medina WAS Tunis. Now to go from the new town into the souqs, which are organized into different commercial areas, is to step into another world. It features Tunisia’s signature studded doors, mosques and medersas (schools for the study of the Quran), museums, mausoleums, monuments and palaces.

After resting from our flights and walking around the Ville Nouvelle and Medina, Bill and I were ready to see the sights around Tunis–Carthage, Sidi Bou Said and the Bardo Museum.

Let’s visit those places next.

If you have any questions, just leave a comment and I’ll be happy to answer them!