Tunis: home of Hannibal then sown with salt
Trip Start Jun 29, 2005
235Trip End Nov 30, 2009
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Fortunately a film crew was ahead of me in the line so when they were called ahead I latched on and followed. That got me inside the pillbox and I wasn't going to get pushed back out. Some amount of pleading, whimpering (not quite) and putting on a hang-dog expression later, they added me to the list and stamped the passport. Ten minutes to spare. Now all I had to do was run a kilometre (with backpack) to the other end of the port and get on the boat.
I made it with literally one minute to spare. This is Italy so obviously it didn't leave on time but that's not the point. Come to think of it, I don't know what the point really is but rest assured it was a mission.
The ten hour boat ride was quite pleasant despite being accompanied by a boatload of beady-eyed travelling companions. Large lumps of rock jutted out of deep blue Mediterranean waters as the ferry plowed by. We made it to Tunis as the sun set a fiery crimson on the horizon and then the next mission started - Tunisian immigration and customs without a visa (and not seaking much French).
Bags searched, questions asked, laptops recorded and eventually a very pretty visa with my picture on it issued after about two hours. The reception hall was pretty well deserted by then and I was undoubtedly glad to get out. Then the taxi mission - no I don't want to pay 20 euros for a 10km ride mate, I'll pay you 8 (considering it is almost 11pm by now). I worked out later that the driver was the only Catholic (1 in 100 here) on the rank and therefore drunk. Just drive dude - I don't want to hear that you've already had 6 beers tonight.
At least the last customs guy said a friendly 'Welcome to Tunisia!'
From there everything improved immensely. Nice sleep in a flashy 3 star hotel and then into the World Heritage-listed Medina to find the hostel the next day, which I promptly moved to. The souk around it was bursting with colour through windy cobblestone lanes that ooze character compared to the larger, more orderly versions you find in Syria and Turkey. Beyond that there is some amazing arciform architecture - very much focused on domes as well as the often studded and always beautifully painted doorways.
Outside the medina the French influences come to the fore but always with an eastern flavour. I'm glad it's only the start of summer here as most buildings are a light colour, so the harsh glare of the African sun bounces off them resulting in a furnace. Wide boulevards intersect the city and avenues and roads named after great cities or men (Paris, Rome, Charles de Gaulle, Hannibal, Crete etc) complete the orderly grid.
After doing some chores the first sights sought out were within the medina. I buzzed the great mosque and ended up being escorted to a rooftop for a panoramic view and to check out some of the tiled palaces constructed for the king's wives way back then. I took some snaps but since I told the guy straight out that I wasn't going to pay backsheesh he didn't get any at the end. Tried though - asked for 10 dinar (about 6 euros) - sorry mate, I don't understand...
After checking out the most unusual offerings in the souq - the frilled and lacy wedding baskets that the groom must fill with goodies for his bride on the big day - I made it inside the mosque. Pretty bland actually and, unlike those in middle-eastern countries, non-muslims are restricted to an outer viewing platform. Not worth the 2 dinar to get in.
Apart from the grand government buildings around the Place du Government, the rest of the walking tour around the medina didn't inspire as it was very difficult to see the older buildings from the narrow, partially covered laneways. And after seeing the Big Ben-like clocktower in the more modern part of town I'd seen just about all the sights of Tunis centrale. On to the main show - Carthage.
Carthage lies maybe 8km from Tunis along the TGM (light rail) line. It was the capital of the Carthaginian empire which was founded by the Phoenicians around 800BC and whose power was greatest in the Mediterranean around 500BC. These guys had ambitious expansion plans, coveting and occupying southern Spain, Sicily, Corsica, Sardinia and the Italian peninsula at one time or another - the latter being their downfall in the end. More on that later.
The highlight for me was to see the remains of the ancient port, from which countless excursions were launched over the centuries and which I'd read about in a number of historical novels. The circular harbour was covered to provide protection for their massive fleet of warships and it is generally believed to be one of the finest military installations of ancient times. The artist's conception above shows what it was believed to look like and the other shows how it looks now. There isn't much left obviously but the tyography of the place is little unchanged from 2,500 years ago. Serious design work there.
Hoping to get some more information on the place, I headed into the National Oceanographic Museum that sits nearby. There was one or two information boards on the Carthaginian period but little else, so I focused on the live, stuffed, dried and pickled marine wildlife that they've accumulated since French colonial times. The pond of turtles outside were entertaining and there are some giant whale skeletons that are pretty impressive when you pondered them. I'd never seen a vulture before so the stuffed version was also of interest, but this stuff wasn't really what I came for so onwards and up the ancient Byrsa hill I went.
The Acropolis set on the hill was the centre of the metropolis over various habitations (Punic, Roman, Byzantine etc). In the 18th century a massive cathedral was built here for some reason, and within its grounds is housed the National Archaelogical Museum - a fine collection of mainly Roman artefacts from around the area.- many from the late period of the empire when design was at its most detailed and flamboyant. Unfortunately, as the Romans razed Carthage to its foundations and wiped it from the map after the third Punic War in 146BC, there is only a handful of Carthaginian relics to be seen.
However the Roman remains are great. Some of the largest and most colourful frescoes I've seen and a variety of unusual marble statues, panels and sarcophagii. Upstairs it goes into minute detail about building materials, daily life and the process of excavation amongst other things which is also pretty interesting. Proud of their North African heritage, the artist's conception found here shows how the whole place would have looked before the Romans lost thier patience and sowed Carthage with salt. Fyi, a century later Julius Ceasar decided it would be a good idea to re-establish Carthage as the capital of the African province. Augustus agreed and from 29BC it was re-inhabited, although the cultural high point was in the late 3rd century AD - hence all the groovy stuff dug up here.
From the museum it was on towards the sea and the Roman Theatre and Odeon. If you're visiting, don't bother - the Theatre is poorly reconstructed and there's little of the Odeon that isn't foundations or gated off. Just down the road on the foreshore is the Parc Archaeologique which is much better value - under a couple of forlorn columns there are the remain of the Antonine Baths, an impressive maze of arches that were the basement of one of the largest baths of the Roman empire. Further up the hill is a tiny 6th century underground funerary chapel which is well worth the half-minute it takes to stick your head into.
Which left the newer village of Sidi Bou Said to go see. As explained to me by a fellow traveller at the hostel when it was realised that I'm not toting a guidebook, Bou Said is the archetypal coastal Tunisian village and a must see around Tunis. Despite the hordes I was glad I went up there - it's a very cute place, similar to villages of the Greek islands visited a couple of months back. Explosions of bouganvillea frame blue doorways and shuttered windows, all backed by stark white-washed walls. Orderly cobbles and the occasional cactus complete a dainty picture.
It was a long day and since I hadn't had a beer for a long while I was glad to find The Source - a non-descript, hole in the wall bar that served up some remarkably palatable suds to soothe my sweaty, flustered brow. Had a couple and a chat to some locals, as well as some gnarly nuts that seemed very waterlogged but ended up being fresh almonds (only in May and June here - I'll have mine dried in future please). To top it all off I finished the day with a fiery kebab. What more could I ask for? Not having to get up at 5am tomorrow to get to the Star Wars hotel, that's what!
Oh well, that's the sacrifice that technotrekker makes for YOU dear reader. 'Boo hoo - you're breaking my heart', I can hear you all say. Let's just say that if you read the next entry, you can show your appreciation by buying me a beer someday ;-)
Over and out for now.
Next entry -> Matmata and the Star Wars hotel
Old Rossian Proverb
Never take a tour if you're the only tourist in town.
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