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Phespirit goes to Tunisia
tour     March/April 2000

AROUND TUNISIA

Map of Tunisia

1 El Haouaria

The mosque of El Haouaria has a particularly tall, slim, elegant minaret which could easily be mistaken for the formative designs of a fundamentalist Tunisian space programme.

In this town, a Tunisian gentleman drives up alongside Phespirit and engages in some light banter about an alleged brother living in Highgate, reciting a London telephone number as unsolicited proof. Sadly, this is all just a prelude to bemoaning the state of his troublesome car and asking, if Phespirit has a good heart, will he give five Dinars to help with the long drive south?

Not entirely untypical.

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2 Kerkouane

Here are the remains of the only Punic settlement in the world to have escaped redevelopment by subsequent civilisations.

Unlike many of the Roman sites throughout Tunisia, there is no imposing centrepiece here, but the baths within the private houses are novel, and fans of ancient symbolism may have fun spotting the Tanit signs worked into the proto-mosaic pavement.

Nice views from the cliffs, too.

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3 Kélibia

A modern fishing harbour adjacent to a neat little marina. Overlooking these is a pretty - if somewhat remote - fortress.

All very nice but Phespirit did not stay long.

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4 Nabuel

Quite a large, modern town, capital of the Governate of Cap Bon. They are proud of their orange trees in this area and have a huge ceramic bowl of oranges at the centre of town to prove it.

Phespirit visited for the Friday market. A haggling battle for a nice lump of Haematite was soundly lost here.

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5 Hammamet

Epicentre of tourism in Tunisia. In the medina, the salesmen are not ashamed to use physical aggresion in their pitch to open the European wallet.

In addition, single white males are, without exception, hit on by the local freelance homosexuals. They are assisted by small boys who hand out jasmine flowers - a recognised marker.

Phespirit did not take the flower but was nonetheless offered l'amour twice and got his arse slapped once.

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6 Sidi Jedidi

A small village hosting a semi-traditional Berber market, well on its way to the wholesale corruption of its trade and values by a regular influx of tourists from the coast.

For the time being, though, the red-robed Berber women still ride their donkeys in from nearby settlements to barter for the weekly provisions.

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7 Port el Kantaoui

This marina is ultra-modern in comparison to most Tunisian infrastructure. Its lifeblood is the money which jaunts up the coastal road from Sousse in the bloated pockets of identikit Westerners.

Quite boring.

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8 Sousse

Third largest city in Tunisia, after Tunis and Sfax. There are miles of sandy beaches here and abouts, but Phespirit's kept to the fine old buildings within the medina.

High score for the view from the top of the ninth century ribat, across the claustrophobic rooftops to the large-looming kasbah away there in the far corner of the old city walls.

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9 Monastir

Probably a charming place with lots of good things going for it, but for Phespirit it was merely an airport in and an airport out.

Oh, not forgetting, of course, a dodgy overnight stay at the Hotel Liberty, where patrons may experience endless unlit corridors and the breakfast of infinite bread rolls .....

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10 Kairouan

Apparently this is the fourth most holy city of Islam, after Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem. And to think Phespirit had never even heard of it prior to planning this visit. There is no all-pervading sense of holiness here, though, just ordinary people getting on with their lives.

The Great Mosque of Okba ibn Nafi - founded in 671AD - is the oldest in Western Islam, so that's quite important.

A slightly more surreal concept is Zaouia Sidi Sahbi, last resting place of Abou Djama el Balaoui, friend of the prophet. He always carried about his person three hairs from the prophet's beard, so they say. What a character.

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11 El Djem

This town is all about the vast Roman amphitheatre at its heart. Dating back to about 230AD, it was the third biggest in the Roman Empire and remains the best preserved in all Africa.

Nowadays it is the first stopping off point for visitors heading South towards the desert from Monastir airport .....

..... and don't the hawkers know it.

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12 Sfax

Sfax is the only city which Phespirit has included in this review without having stopped to walk around the place; just passed on through.

It is the second city of the country, after Tunis, and is dominated by the grim, outlying phosphate industries.

Grey and unmoving.

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13 Maharès

A small village with a café.

Phespirit bought a Lion Bar and a fizzy lemon drink before slipping around the back of the building to wander through deserted scrubland, down to a barren coast.

Then back again.

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14 Gabès

Quite a laidback town, this, set on the coast with enough industry here and there to pollute the shoreline, but centrally dominated by a massive date palm oasis.

In the vicinity of his hotel, Phespirit kept a keen eye on the many local kids loitering around or cruising scooters, looking like they could be trouble at any time. Paranoia?

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15 Houmt Souk

De facto capital of the island of Djerba. It has its souks, including a busy open fish auction (Office National Des Peches), but these things alone do not an interesting town make.

Time to leave.

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16 Guellala

A modest, dusty town which has built a reputation for the quality and quantity of its Djerban white clay pottery.

Phespirit loitered long enough to purchase one postcard painting of a Matmatan woman in tradition dress, plus one white and green ceramic 'Magic Camel' for his brother.

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17 Metameur

At Metameur, Phespirit wandered in and around the ghorfas (fortified granaries), pausing only to accept a glass of one dinar tea from the genial owner. Sweet, stewed to death, but drinkable.

Nearby local lads man makeshift stalls piled high with wet desert roses, freshly soaked to glint in the eye of the tourist.

These minerals are hawked the length and breadth of the country. Many clusters are absolutely enormous.

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18 Matmata

Come to Matmata to marvel at the so-called troglodyte dwellings, underground houses excavated from compacted desert sand and rock to provide the inhabitants with light, air and a balanced temperature throughout the year.

These pits are still homes to families.

Visitors are met with hospitality and stewed tea. A coin or two on departure helps feed the camel and fund a few mod cons, such as the television aeriel which Phespirit noted standing like a strange, plucked silver weed at ground level.

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19 Kebili

Another one-horse-town pitstop for café refreshment. More wide, dusty roads and guys sitting in shady doorways.

Phespirit picked up and dropped off fluids here, before heading on South into the desert.

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20 Douz

Passing South through the centre of the country, Douz is the last great oasis town one meets before entering the Sahara.

Leaving the palm-lined urban streets and heading into the desert, the roads become hemmed in by dunes with palm frond fences assembled along their upper ridges - man's attempt to slow the ever advancing sands.

The desert grows three miles a year,
It just grows, it just grows .....

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21 Zaâfrane

Time for the ubiquitous camel ride into the Sahara, to a point where no trace of modern civilisation can be seen on any horizon.

And then from nowhere, hawkers emerge with the usual assorted trinkets, accompanied by two small boys with an illegally held desert fox cub (endangered species) aimed at attracting cooing tourists. A bad business.

This aside, the hired camels are well organised for a fair trek, and this taste of the Sahara - this microscopic corner - gives a hint of its latent power. The sand here is ultra-fine, like dust.

This is no big beach.

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22 Degache

Tiny oasis town near the opposite end of the P16 route across Chott el Djerid - that vast, burning white salt lake - from Kebili.

This was Phespirit's pick up point for a four-wheel drive into the Atlas Mountains at the border with Algeria.

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23 Tozeur

Capital of the Djerid desert region; a political and commercial centre with its own international airport .....

But still there is that characteristic laidback desert outpost feel about the place. Quiet and calm in the early morning.

At the Dar Cherait Museum there is a small area given over to the favourite son of Tozeur, the beloved poet Abu al-Qasim al-Shabbi. Phespirit was disappointed, therefore, that he was unable to find any of the works of Chabbi for sale, in Tozeur or anywhere else around Tunisia, in English or in any other language.

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24 Nefta

Another allegedly important town within the Djerid region, but to Phespirit it was merely a comfortable overnight resting place at the Hotel Bel Horizon.

Phespirit shunned the hotel's hackneyed evening entertainment (musicians, camels, Bedouin tents, etc.) in favour of an early night with his Theodore Sturgeon book.

Keep the noise down, please.

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25 Chebika

A beautiful little town set in an oasis gorge which emerges from the Algerian border moutains into the vast Tunisian plains.

Little wonder that Hollywood regularly ships over here for location shoots. The "Three Kings" crew were the last visitors; before that it was "The English Patient".

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26 Tamerza

Set on low ground alongside a smooth, wide, sunbaked riverbed, Tamerza is now an abandoned shell, ruined by devastating floods which once powered down from the mountains of Algeria.

The legacy is a dusty townscape skeleton overlooked by hoards of macabre tourists jostling for a good photograph.

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27 Metlaoui

From Metlaoui, Phespirit takes the Red Lizard (a brown train, formerly the royal conveyance) through the Seldja Gorges on a there-and-back trip to admire the sandstone cliff scenery.

And spectacular it is, too.

On his overcrowded carriage, Phespirit took to hanging from the side of the rear footplate. No problem until gushing water from a burst line-side waterpipe drenches him from head to foot.

The German chap standing next to Phespirit remarks:
"It is refreshing, ja?"

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28 Gafsa

Biggish town, the last of the arid, sand-blown type stopped at during Phespirit's journey back up to the north of the country.

Here Phespirit was charged one and a half dinars for a bottle of water at an Esso garage - a fair price, multiplied by three.

That is all there is to be said for Gafsa.

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29 Sbeïtla

Site of the ancient Roman town of Sufetula, estimated to have been built as long ago as 3BC. Today's extensive ruins give a fair idea of the scale, layout and character of the original settlement.

The remains of the Capitol score bonus points for having the three traditional temples (those dedicated to Jupiter, Juno and Minerva) still intact and in a reasonable state of repair. This can only be seen at Sbeïtla and one other site, in Spain, apparently.

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30 Dougga

Pick of the Roman ruins in Tunisia, built high on a weathered, grey, rocky outcrop in an open, lush, green landscape. The setting put Phespirit in mind of the tors of Dartmoor.

Many of the original construction/design features can still be appreciated: the powerful accoustics of the open theatre, the engraved floor of the Square of the Winds, the lone temple in the Capitol, the intricacies of the Licinian Baths. All clever stuff.

And if that is not enough, there also stands a Numido-Punic mausoleum on the outskirts of town, dating from 3-2BC.

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31 Tunis

A modern, cosmopolitan, well-appointed capital city. Here the women of Islam are permitted to dispense with their traditional costumes and don police uniforms.

In the medina, Phespirit was pounced on by some opportunist local guy, swept away from the courtyard in front of the Great Mosque, around the narrow streets and up to the top of a nearby carpet shop for a better view across the city and haggling.

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32 Carthage

Little remains of this once mighty city founded in 814BC, which fought Rome for Mediterranean supremacy in three Punic Wars, which was destroyed in 146BC, rebuilt by the Romans in 44BC, seized by the Vandals in 439AD, and then reconquered by the Byzantines in 533AD.

It was all down hill after that.

Nowadays there are prominent Roman remains by the coast, next door to the modern Presidential Palace - here tourists are keenly monitored by heavily armed guards - and a cemetery for ritually sacrificed children (allegedly), known as The Tophet.

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33 Sidi Bou Saïd

This once quaint hilltop village, all whitewash and blue, cobbles and birdcages, is now just a heaving mass of sweaty tourists.

Only in the cool backstreets does a semblance of calm prevail.

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34 Korbous

Here Phespirit stopped at a hillside hot spring, Aïn Atrous, where naturally heated water is channelled a short distance through a grey brick conduit, down over mineral encrustred rocks and into the steaming sea.

Phespirit could run his hand through this water, but any prolonged submersion would have removed the flesh.

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  1. El Haouaria
  2. Kerkouane
  3. Kélibia
  4. Nabuel
  5. Hammamet
  6. Sidi Jedidi
  7. Port el Kantaoui
  8. Sousse
  9. Monastir
  10. Kairouan
  11. El Djem
  12. Sfax
  13. Maharès
  14. Gabès
  15. Houmt Souk
  16. Guellala
  17. Metameur
  18. Matmata
  19. Kebili
  20. Douz
  21. Zaâfrane
  22. Degache
  23. Tozeur
  24. Nefta
  25. Chebika
  26. Tamerza
  27. Metlaoui
  28. Gafsa
  29. Sbeïtla
  30. Dougga
  31. Tunis
  32. Carthage
  33. Sidi Bou Saïd
  34. Korbous
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El Haouaria Kerkouane Kélibia Nabuel Hammamet Sidi Jedidi Port el Kantaoui Sousse Monastir Kairouan El Djem Sfax Maharès Gabès Houmt Souk Guellala Metameur Matmata Kebili Douz Zaâfrane Degache Tozeur Nefta Chebika Tamerza Metlaoui Gafsa Sbeïtla Dougga Tunis Carthage Sidi Bou Saïd Korbous