Thursday, December 23, 2010

Our tour of southern Tunisia

Paige, Steve, Salem and Moira
My daughter, brother and his partner/my best friend Moira arrived on December 11. A week later, school let out and we took off for a four-day tour of Tunisia's south. This ranks amongst the best vacations of my life. If you ever get a chance to take a similar trip, grab it!

Tunisia’s surface area is one sixth that of British Columbia. To the north and east, it has 1,300 kilometers of glorious coastline leading to soil so fertile it was known as the breadbasket of the Roman Empire.  To the west, the Atlas Mountains are high enough to get snow in the winter, even though nowhere else in the country has the thermometer ever dropped to freezing. And, of course, the south is the gateway to the vast Sahara Desert.

The Romans named the area Ifrikia province, a name that eventually applied to the whole continent. In the course of history, the country has been of strategic and economic importance to the Phoenicians, Romans, Vandals, Byzantines, Arabs, Ottoman Turks, and of course the French.

All this to say that there is an incredible richness and variety to be experienced in a small area, and my family and I did our best to profit from our chance to “do” the southern portion.

Day one. On the first day of Winter break, our driver, Salem, arrived promptly at 7 am. Having seen the first hour or so of road several times, I grabbed a pillow and went back to sleep until the first rest stop.  After that, the view whipping by was olive and almond groves. Our first stop was El Jem, a Unesco heritage site, and home of a 35,000 seat Roman amphitheatre that rivals that of Rome.

What an experience to walk beneath the surface of the floor and know that we were treading where gladiators, slaves and wild animals walked to meet their fates.

After an hour’s visit, followed by mint tea and a delightful honey-date pastry made by the café owner’s mother - his wife being “too lazy” to bake – we went to the other UNESCO heritage site in this small town, a mosaic museum. The third century Roman villa and its mosaics had been found in the sixties and painstakingly lifted indoors, leaving the ruins of the house itself intact on the site. The floor plan of the museum interior is a replica of the layout of the original villa. Those mosaics that weren’t in good enough condition to move were left in place so that visitors can experience the site in two ways. A few hundred meters down the road, another villa was found by chance in the 1990s. The Tunisian government decided to bring every piece of this villa to the museum site and to completely recreate the home using a mix of original walls and new stone taken from the ancient mines. We had the good fortune to speak to the head mosaic restorer who toured us around the project. If my explanation is too confusing, you can read about the museum at http://www.tourismtunisia.com/culture/eljem.html
Paige in front of Peacock mosaic


Catherine the Great's role mode
Then back on the road. We enjoyed an excellent fresh grilled fish lunch at El Mahres before heading further south along the coast to Gabes to visit its spice market. Here Paige got thoroughly ripped off by a trio of handsome young Tunisian men who charged her twenty dinars for a 5 dinar "henna" tattoo that didn’t last 36 hours. Steve and Moira bought spices - the right thing to do.
Gabes is famous for its dates, a fruit that I didn’t even think I liked until I came here. Now I start most days with a few. Its maritime oasis is host to an 4 square kilometre date orchard. We passed on the horse-drawn carriage tour, but at a roadside stand, we tasted palm juice, which was refreshing, sweet and delicious. It is taken from the palm tree in much the same way as sap is collected from maples.

Then on to Matmata, where I had been in November but was delighted to share with Steve, Moira and Paige. We stayed at the troglodyte hotel Diar el barbar. The cave experience was heightened by a power outage in the night. The floral velour bedspread was considerably helped by the lack of light.
View from the dining room at sunset.
Day two was a Berber village fest! In the morning, we went through an inhabited troglodyte home - a house dug into the side of a hill, often around a well-like courtyard. It was a bit embarrassing actually because the children were still asleep, but such is the life of a tourist. Here's a picture of Moira picking up some design tips for her kitchen reno.

Here is what a typical troglodyte home looks like from the outside. The circle of stones defines the central courtyard off which all the rooms are carved.
A colleague from school insisted that if we were in this area, we must look up the curator of the developing Berber museum at Tamerzet. It was great advice. The village is now deserted, but Monji Barras has spent the past twelve years restoring one of the homes and making a museum of it. We learned a ton. The Berbers dug their homes into the alternating soft and hard layers of these hills to hide from the Arabs who were invading Tunisia. Every consideration was given to secrecy and defense. Lanes were switchbacks. They dug a kilometre long tunnel to an oasis so that women could fetch water without being seen. Kitchen smoke was filtered so that it didn't give away their position. Monji was so knowledgeable, passionate, and genuine that none of us took pictures. Too bad, too, because the other thing he was was drop-dead gorgeous. A young Omar Shariff with a dash of George Cluny. I think he said some interesting stuff, too.

Then on to several other villages - Toujene (backdrop of Call of Duty 1 and 2), Oum Tamr, Medenine (site of Rommel's last engagement in Africa), Gorfas - ancient fortified granaries - Tatouine, and Ksar Hadada, and finally Douz where we spent the night. Many of these towns were used in the filming of Star Wars

So taken with this were we, that when we got home, we bought a copy of Star Wars: A New Hope in order to see it through new eyes. Good fun.

Day three was the best!!! Up, had breakfast and went directly to the dromedaries! I'll let the pictures do the talking.

Steve and Moira lead the caravan

Paige and I willingly follow

A mysterious stranger approaches on horseback...

... and carries me off!

Look, Paige, no hands!
The lone and level sands stretch far away...