Mediterranean Europe - Tunisia

Our travels around Italy were punctuated by a side-trip to Tunisia. This starts back in Palermo (Sicily), where we arrived in good time to get to the ferry office to book our passage only to told to come back the next morning two hours before the boat sailed; only then would they sell us a ticket. OK, we bought the tickets, then had to find Italian emigration. There was no office, just a milling crowd, mainly men, making a rough queue leading away from an unattended mobile van on the wharf. I joined the queue (Geoff doesn't do queues) and waited. And waited. Geoff dumped the backpacks with me and wandered away, while I waited some more. Suddenly the van window was opened, and the men all moved in unison, forming a new queue (more like a scrum) at a different angle to the van, leaving me with all our luggage, along with a few other women with attendant children, to struggle to the end of the line again. As the morning wore on the officials worked at a maddeningly slow speed to stamp passports and look up long lists on paper over and over again. More people joined the queue, most of the men flowing relentlessly around us women, but eventually I made it to the van, got through the paperwork, and we staggered up the gangway at roughly the time that the boat was due to leave. There were still dozens of people waiting at the van.

What was supposed to be an eight-hour ferry ride took all day and night, and we finally arrived a bit before midnight. Now, all the books say that Australians are issued visas at the border of Tunisia, so they don't need to get a visa beforehand. Its true, but if you arrive at the ferry port be prepared for considerable hassle. We were sent over to the immigration office, on the far side of the Port, expecting to get stamped in; not so. It took more around three hours, with harassed officials scratching their heads, consulting each other, phoning other people. Computer printers chattered. Policemen walked back and forward clutching our passports. Several times Kaye (who speaks some French) had to go into the inner sanctum and explain how long we wanted to stay in Tunisia, showing our tickets back to Italy for a fortnight hence. Everyone smiled. Nothing happened. Finally it was done, provided we paid in local currency. Luckily there was an ATM on the dock, so with a flourish the passports were handed back; we were escorted back up through the now-deserted customs hall, and disgorged out into the port town of La Goulette at about 2am.

With no guide book to Tunisia, no map, and little idea of where we were, we asked the policeman on the door about local hotels and were waved up the empty, quiet street. Eventually we found a hotel, where the receptionist kindly just gave us a key and waved us off to bed, leaving the formalities for the morning. With time to look at our hard-won visas, we saw that Kaye had six days and Geoff had seven days - so much for our discussions about tickets back to Italy. That too could wait for the morning.

The next day was Sunday. We moved into Tunis, found a hotel, and located the tourist office, where we explained our concerns about the very short-stay visas. Armed with the address of the office where extensions could be arranged, we gave up and spent the day exploring the Medina. Tunis is a lovely city, with an extensive tram system making it easy to get around. In the city centre a broad boulevard with shady pedestrian median-strip leads up to the Median, which is a rabbit-warren of little alleyways and arched streets.

On Monday we set off to sort out the visas. With help from a local Uni student we found the right tram and took public transport as far as we could before walking several kilometres in the hot sun across highways and cross-country through undeveloped tracts of scrub to the isolated visa-extension office. We didn't even get inside. At the gate a policeman asked us our business, looked at our passports, and told us we were at the wrong office. He was very helpful, and wrote out the correct address in Arabic for us to show to a taxi driver. No more trudging - we grabbed the next cab and were whisked back into the centre of town, to end up about half a block away from our hotel. More waiting, but eventually an official glanced at our passports, said "No problem" and that no extension was needed, and sent us on our way. We were unconvinced, but gave up once again and set off to enjoy Tunisia.

One of the things we particularly wanted to see were the Roman mosaics, and the Bardot Museum has a stunning collection. While it might be better to see these mosaics in situ as floors, our subsequent visits to roman ruins suggested that the conservators were correct to rescue all of the pieces they could, and that the museum ensured that these treasures would be preserved and made available for people to appreciate.

Choosing a place to see almost at random, we set off to the west, settling on Le Kef, with the prospect of stopping at Dougga on the way back to Tunis. A long bus ride dumped us at the Le Kef bus station, quite a distance from the town, but we walked up the hill and finally found a really great place to stay, right up the top of the hill, near the Kasbah. Right from the start we figured that we would only spend one night at Le Kef. It is quite a nice town, with roman ruins, an impressive Kasbah, and lovely winding alleys in the old town, but there is not enough here to merit a long stay. We walked outside the town walls to a roman cistern, but it was very neglected, and without a torch we couldn't get down to the water. A flash photo down into the inky blackness showed the steps to be covered in garbage, and dangerous for us to head down into. One of the sad things that was becoming rapidly obvious was that Tunisia is incredibly littered, not just in the towns but all through the countryside.

We caught the bus back to Dougga, got a lift up to the ruins with an agreement to be picked up later in the afternoon, and leaving our backpacks at the gate we spent several hours exploring what turned out to be an extensive and wonderful roman site. There is a fantastic theatre, temples, fountains, statues, agora, residences - all the things that made up a small roman town, including cisterns and huge water storage systems. Dougga is a designated world heritage site for good reasons.

Back in Tunis we had another night, deliberately going back to one of the sidewalk restaurants because we had been seduced by a half-grown stray cat who once again came and spent an evening with us, Tunisia is full of stray cats, many of them wary of people, but this one was a flirt, and she had won us over completely.

Still looking for islands to visit, we took the train south to Sfax, another wonderful town with a large Medina, a Kasbah, and an interesting fishing port, with old ships and thousands upon thousands of pots piled on the jetty, waiting for the octopus-catching season. We spent a night there, and went on to Djerba.

Although it is a very tourist-oriented place we liked Djerba immediately. We stayed in Houmt Souk, at a lovely old, converted caravanserai, its stark white walls relieved by the traditional blue doors and window frames and the green of climbing bougainvillaea. The rooms were upstairs, under a shady verandah, and meals were served down in the courtyard, near the swimming pool.

Houmt Souk boasts a small medina and souk, with lots of ceramics and handicrafts, a fortress, and numerous mosques. One day that we were there it was also home to a huge outdoor market that sold just about everything useful and practical for the local people - lots of clothes, but fruit, vegetables, livestock, household items; the list goes on.

Away from Houmt Souk there were other places to visit on the island. We did try to get in some skin-diving, but the wind was from the wrong direction, and the water was far too rough. It did, however, get us out to the "zone touristique", so we could see how the other half lived. Nowhere near as attractive as our beautiful inn.

Geoff had read something about the ghorfas (grain storage buildings) in the south of Tunisia, and figured that we could see some at Médenine, so we took a bus there - back across to the mainland, then about 50km west. Again, the lack of any local maps was a bit of a nuisance. There was no bus station where our journey terminated, so there was nothing obvious for us to re-locate the area when we wanted to get back to Djerba. It took as a while, but we sorted out the general layout of the streets, and set off to look for ghorfas, not having much of a clue where to look. For all we knew they might be kilometres away, outside of the town.

The place was bustling, crammed with people in for what was a full-on market day. Hundreds of stalls lined the roads and packed out a piece of waste-ground behind the regular shops. We wandered back and forth with nary a ghorfa in sight, and were on the point of giving up when I realised the behind the market stalls was a high, blank wall topped by barrel-vaulted roofs. The very sort of barrel-vaulted roofs that ghorfas have. We had been walking past them all the time. Pushing through the market and up a side alley we found a courtyard full of ghorfas, and beyond that, the Musée des Coutumes et des Traditions de la Ville de Médenine. We wandered around the ghorfas then went to the museum, where we were shown the exhibits then met the curator, who also had a small exhibition of old coins from all over the world. Except Australia. We chatted for quite a long time, and promised to send him some of our old coins. Three months later, when we were back in Australia and Tunisia was in turmoil, we did send the coins, but have no idea if they ever got to the museum.

We gave up on the bus and took a louage (communal taxi) back to Djerba, had another day there, and set off back north, first back to Sfax, where we felt quite at home, staying in the same hotel, with staff who remembered us. We took the train up to El Jem, where there is a fantastic coliseum, second only to that in Rome, but much much more accessible and far fewer tourists. We were able to leave our backpacks at one of the nearby restaurants and spend several hours walking around the ruins, including the tunnels underneath the stadium, before going back to the restaurant for a very late lunch, then catching a louage to Mahdia, on the coast. We stayed in a pretty little hotel with a tiled courtyard where breakfast was served. We only had an afternoon and night in Mahdia, but that gave us time to walk around the Medina and up to the fort, and to have a good look at the fishing harbour. Indeed, Mahdia was even better than we had thought it might be, and we were glad that we had chosen to go there rather than to one of the larger and better-known cities further north.

We took a louage up to Sousse to get back onto the train line, giving us an afternoon there to look at the Median, then went through Tunis direct to Bizerte, in the far north. This was probably the least interesting place we visited in Tunisia, although the flamingo-dotted waterways were good, and there was an extensive Medina. We were just about due to sail back to Italy so headed back, not to Tunis, but to the port town of La Goulette, with a day in hand to explore Carthage.

Carthage has sites over a wide area, so we decided to start with the new and move to the old. The new is represented by Sidi Bou Said, the blue and white town at the far east end of Carthage. A pretty town, high on the hill overlooking the ocean. From there we took the train back towards La Goulette, getting off at various stops to explore the widely spread ruins. There is lots to see, including a museum, an amphitheatre, the old Punic harbour, the remains of a splendid gymnasium, roman villas, and much else besides. The walk out to the amphitheatre was memorable because we caught up in the hoop-la that accompanied the President driving up the road. We were ushered off the road by the police, as all traffic was stopped and all persons on foot were removed out of sight. We sat in the woods off the side of the road under the watchful eyes of a number of police. There were countless police controlling the road, and we were kept in place until well after the great man had passed by; finally we were able to walk the remaining approximately 50metres to the amphitheatre site.

After our difficult arrival in Tunisia, and with a bit of foreboding knowing our visas weren't really kosher, we walked over to the port early. Sure enough, as soon as we presented out passports we were directed back to the same immigration office we knew so well from two weeks before. This time it wasn't so bad. It only took an hour and a little bit of money, and we had the required visa extensions that allowed us to legally leave the country.

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