We’re in Tunisia, which seems to have a pretty minimal connection with the Internet. Ray had a hard time reserving hotels online, and there doesn’t seem to be anyplace in the little suburb where we’re staying where we can get connected. In downtown Tunis, there are several Internet cafes, but their connections are slow and intermittent. Fortunately we’re able to switch the keyboard layouts from French or Arabic to English (U.S.). So this long posting will just record everything that happens until we get a chance to tell you about it, which might have been awhile.
When we last posted, it was Saturday night in Palermo, just before driving out of town to what someone thought was the best restaurant in Sicily. Indeed, it was very nice. We each got the “tasting menu” (four appetizers, an entree, and dessert) and a bottle of wine. All of that on top of lunch, when we split a spleen & cheese sandwich (a specialty of Sicily or perhaps Palermo) and an octopus salad was too much. So we’re trying to control ourselves from now on. The night before we went to a place our hotel recommended close by — a delightful little pizzeria where despite its humbleness, it had such unfamiliar but delicious items as pasta with pistachio and shrimp.
Sunday we toured the Palazzo in the Sicilian parliament building, with its ornate chapel and series of “royal apartment” rooms with various decor, and then drove west out of town towards Trapani. At some point I got tired of driving on the freeway, and at the exit where I got off to get on the “little road”, we stumbled on an archaeological site, Segesta. This had a large Doric temple that had never been finished, and an amphitheater high on the hill with a spectacular view of the bay west of Palermo and its seaside towns, and the freeway viaduct we’d just driven over. Italians seldom locate freeways on the ground — they are usually a succession of bridges/viaducts and tunnels, to ensure safety when driving at 200 kph.
Later we arrived in Trapani and found our little bed & breakfast. For a small town, I was surprised that the traffic was as dense and chaotic as it had been in Palermo. Presumably it was because the America’s Cup race was happening there in the next few days and the town was packed. We drove out of town again for dinner, this time up to the hilltop ancient town of Erice which was similar in size and approach to Mont St. Michel — you park your car at the edge and walk around on the little old streets.
Monday we boarded the ferry to Tunis. It was an 8-hour crossing scheduled to leave at 11 — it actually left just before 12. The weather was beautiful and the water was completely calm, so I just sat around and read and Ray wrote postcards. There were lots of little islands off Sicily and again off Tunisia, and tons of boat traffic the whole way as well. We cleared customs around 8:30, and were attacked as usual by the taxi touts. Instead of a taxi, we ended up in some guy’s dad’s truck — the dad was pretty clueless when it came to finding our hotel, but we eventually got there.
The hotel is in the little seaside resort of Sidi Bou Said, known for its white and blue architecture, attracting tour buses full of people just to walk around the neighborhood and buy trinkets. It’s called Hotel Sidi Abou Fares and has really nice little rooms with bright multicolored tile and a barrel-shaped brick roof. There’s lots of hot water and the staff are very friendly. Unfortunately, the rooms have only one outlet, and you pretty much need that for the fan, so it’s hard to charge the computer, the cameras, the cell phone, and the GPS.
Tuesday we made the mistake of taking our laundry to get done. They wanted $30 to wash and dry a load of wash, and we were stupid or desperate enough to pay it. They’re the only place in town, and they charged us for two loads which was way excessive. So if you ever go to Sidi Bou Said, you’ve been warned — “Netraf Pressing” will rip you off. It’s a reminder to do laundry in the sink every night before it piles up.
Meanwhile, we went to the Bardo Museum, Tunisia’s national museum. There are lots and lots of Byzantine mosaics and Roman and even a few Phoenician statues, from Carthage and many other ancient sites. A few rooms displayed a bunch of fancy furnishings — the story told by the museum is that some rich guy in Rome was equipping his home around the 1st century BC entirely from Greece. The furniture and art were on a boat which went off course in a storm in the straits of Messina and sank just off the Tunisian coast. It was discovered in 1958. They don’t say how they knew this. A GPS log wouldn’t last this long. Just think what we will know of modern civilization in 4000 AD from the containers of IKEA furniture that wash overboard in contemporary storms.
Wednesday we hit two UNESCO World Heritage Sites: Carthage and the Tunis medina. There’s not much left at Carthage — the Romans destroyed most of it, Caesar rebuilt it, and the Vandals wrecked it again in the 5th century. Also, Carthage is now a tony suburb of Tunis (the President lives there, for example) and a whole lot of stuff is just in people’s backyards. When it rains hard, the populace goes to places of exposed dirt to pick up 2 millenium year old coins. A museum shows a few shards that got left, and some excavations have unearthed a few foundations, including an amphitheater and a large public baths next to the sea.
The Tunis medina is your typical maze of twisty little passages although a bit more comprehensible than many. The paths between the entrances and the main mosque are jampacked with people walking by little stores selling stuff they don’t need. Other paths are more relaxed and navigable. We explored a little mausoleum, and a palace which houses the Association to Preserve the Medina. On their wall they have a floor plan of the medina showing every wall in every house in the whole place — it’s about 20 feet by 8 feet.
The guidebook tells you it’s dangerous to walk in the medina at night. It also tells you it has some of Tunis’ swankiest restaurants. With trepidation, we went to one of them. Apparently it was well-founded — after dinner the restaurant offered to take us to the edge of the medina in a golf cart, which we happily accepted. Instead of waiting up to 40 minutes for a train back to the hotel, we took a taxi.
Thursday we went to the airport, rented a Fiat Uno with air conditioning, and headed west to Dougga, a large Roman city which had allegedly been buried for several centuries, so that much of it was very well preserved. There was a small theatre, a “capitol” with several intact columns, large cisterns for a water system, two public bath complexes, and hundreds of sites of houses and shops. A new excavation revealed a horse stable for a wealthy citizen. One road through the site was part of a system of Roman roads leading from Libya to Morocco. The roads had clean-outs for the drain system every 6 meters or so. There was a large house reportedly used as a brothel, and a fascinating communal latrine with openings in a horseshoe-shaped bench, which our guide said was used simultaneously by men and women, shielding themselves with their togas.
It’s been cloudy all day, which is too bad as the afternoon light at Dougga is supposed to be very pretty on acocunt of the yellow stone that the entire city is built of. It’s also too bad because there is an eclipse coming up. Five Australians were in the courtyard of the Sidi Bou Fares this morning, plotting lines on their map of Tunisia which did not exactly agree with Ray’s lines, which is curious. They are planning to see the eclipse from the Northern Edge. That is an advanced fetish. Yahoo weather says that Tozeur will be sunny up to Monday, after today. Too soon to tell.
Thursday night we arrived in Le Kef, a little town on a small mountain close to the Algerian border, with a large Kasbah ruin on the top. There are very friendly people here, including someone who led us a couple of blocks to the local Internet cafe, where we are posting this.
Those of you who are familiar with the last scene in Suddenly Last Summer will have no trouble relating to travel in the less touristed parts of Tunisia. That’s one of the nice things about eclipses, they take you to places where people aren’t totally jaded. The people who weren’t jaded this morning were about five dozen school children from the school next door to the Hotel Residence Venus, In case you weren’t awakened by the mullah announcing he could distinguish a white thread from a black, the Tunisian National Anthem at 8 AM would have done. Anyway, it seems that the cultural point of reference for California tourists with beards is an entity called Serifanta or Sadifanta or some syllables like that; everyone agreed at the top of their lungs that that is who we looked like/what we were; and they all have pictures on their cell phones to prove it now. I have some photos of them, too. I think that is a good way to wake up in the morning as we were tired from eating too much harissa too late last night.