Chapter Fifty Five  October-December 2010

You would think the pure blue skies of Tunisia with its balmy sand-fringed Mediterranean coast and sea breezes scented with jasmine would have mesmerized us immediately. Pink flamingoes, gently rolling plains dotted with olive and citrus trees. Alas, we were the farthest from our comfort zone we had ever been, and the transition to this distinct culture felt difficult. It didn’t help that for the first three weeks the south winds from the Sahara greeted us making it unbearably hot.

Although the country is recognizably Mediterranean in character, and very much molded by a century of French colonial rule, we felt displaced. First it was the dirt: the dusty red film that coated our deck each and every morning, the trash in the streets, the crowded, smelly markets with little resemblance to the beautiful Turkish markets we had become so accustomed to. Then it was  the poverty, the somber faces and the less-than-accommodating attitudes of the marina staff, the abundance of malnourished cats hovering around each pontoon begging for food.  It all wore on us.

And we weren’t at all excited when the local butcher advertised his daily special.

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The roads were treacherous in every way.

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We struggled. And in between we washed the sails, scrubbed the decks, soaked the lines, replenished our larder, got some much needed sleep.  And relaxed.

We arrived in early October and we had five weeks to get Seraphim shipshape as we had sailing friends visiting the first week of November and we wanted everything Bristol. When they arrived we organized trips to local sights including several day trips and an overnight in the country’s capital, Tunis.

But the day after our friends arrived there was a regatta planned with local lateen-rigged fishing boats. That seemed worthwhile, so off we went.

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It was great fun and the weather cooperated beautifully.

We set off for a day trip to Kairouan.  Kairouan is the holiest city of Tunisia, being the oldest Islamic settlement, having the oldest mosque in North Africa, and the world’s oldest minaret. The first walls of the city were built towards the end of the 8th century with numerous gates supported by columns. Today’s remains date mostly from the 18th century.

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Kairouan’s medina (the old quarter of Tunisian towns and cities) has an unusually quiet rhythm with narrow residential streets whose rather simple houses are set off by grand and ornate windows, arches and shutters in blues and greens. Tight alleyways house small businesses of woodworkers, cobblers, tailors and craftsmen of all kinds.

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Kairouan is also the carpet capital of Tunisia, the craft going back hundreds of years. It is said that every young woman here learns the art of carpet making. Some of the techniques were introduced by the Turks, in particular the knotted carpets. Legend has it that the first knotted carpet to be made in Tunisia was by the daughter of the Turkish governor of Kairouan.

As luck would have it, we were in Kairouan on Wednesday, one of the days when women bring their newly completed carpets to be sold in the Souq Belaghjia. The scene is frenetic, with a row of women sitting on one side of the alley displaying their carpets and a row of merchants standing on the other. In between them runs an  auctioneer who takes bids for the carpet on offer. The whole thing is done at fever pitch and the atmosphere is electric.

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We lunched outdoors and sampled our first homemade couscous. This is Tunisia’s national dish. Even a basic couscous is spiced with harissa, a dangerously hot red pepper. We left hungry; it was lethally hot!

Of course what is also recommended is a stop at a Tunisian café to sample the chicha (pronounced sheesha) pipe, filled with low-grade tobacco. Once strictly an old man’s pastime, chichi smoking has gone through something of a renaissance of late with flavored tobaccos and honey. Apple and mint are the big sellers. It’s not considered lady-like so we didn’t indulge but the cafes are delightful to look at!

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Also on the itinerary that day was a visit to El Jem.  Here the Romans built an extraordinary coliseum. It is the single most impressive roman ruin in Africa, its affect magnified by the sheer incongruity of its sudden appearance surrounded by a huddle of small houses, a grimy town and wind-swept dirt roads leading up to it. However grimy the surroundings, the camel awaiting its master in front of it the coliseum was perfect.

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El Jem’s coliseum was once the crowning glory of the thriving market town that grew up along the lucrative trade routes during the 1st century AD. It derived its wealth from the olive oil produced in the area. The town was filled with sumptuous villas and reached its peak in the 2ND and 3rd centuries AD.

The coliseum was the third largest in the roman world, with three tiers of seating and a capacity of 30,000. Stone for construction was hauled from 30 km away and water was brought by underground aqueduct from the hills north of the town. Under the middle of the arena was an elaborate system of lifts used to hoist animals in cages using pulleys below. You can almost hear the roar of the crowds. Exploring the underground passageways where gladiators and animals alike awaited their turns is eerie but stirs the senses.

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Then we headed for the big city, Tunis, the capital of Tunisia. The new city is an orderly European grid with wrought-iron balconies, elaborate stucco and Art Deco details, cafes and patisseries bordering the boulevards. Its main boulevard, where we stayed, is prime territory for promenading and dining. But the 8th century quintessential Arab medina is the city’s historic and symbolic heart. Here you enter a tangled maze of narrow alleyways with giant wooden doors, artisans’ workshops and swarming souqs (markets). It feels cave-like when you are enclosed within the walls. There is almost nothing you can’t buy here. Jewelry, ceramics, clothing, antiques, lighting, housewares, carpets, of course. Sharon loved the couture cashmere men’s burnous (robes). John didn’t think it was quite his style.

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The Bardo Museum houses the world’s finest collection of Roman mosaics in a grand 17th century palace. The exquisite mosaics are so well preserved that you sometimes forget it isn’t modern art! The museum is under construction and 25% of the works are in storage, but we were not in the least disappointed. The mosaics are  spell-binding. Perhaps John’s favorite was of Ulysses, his wandering hero, with the look of wonder on his face, strapped to his ship’s mast so he might listen to the sirens without being lured towards them.

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But they are all gorgeous.

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Next stop: Carthage. Carthage was a great ancient city inspiring legend, poetry and envy. Built on a site of great natural beauty, the city boasted massive walls down to the waterfront and ingenuous harbors. Carthage’s source of wealth was its trade and for a while it was the dominant Mediterranean power. When the Romans finally defeated the Carthaginians, they razed the city. What remains are a series of widely spaced sites with little standing above ground level.  All this scattered among some of Tunis’ plushest villas, including that of the current president. Its grand sweeping history, the extraordinary views and a guide made it come alive for us. The guide wasn’t exactly “good,” or even literate, but we struggled through with a little imagination.

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Our last stop in Tunis was the cliff-top village of Sidi Bou Said. With cascading bougainvillea and bright red geraniums against gleaming whitewash, signature blue window grills, narrow steep cobbled streets and glimpses of the azure coast, the village is the chicest in all of Tunisia. It’s everyone’s favorite and ours, too. The distinctive cubical architecture with its studded grand doors is a combination of French and Spanish. The streets are lined with shops (like we needed another!) and charming character. What a great way to end our tour.

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We returned to the marina, did a few boat repairs, rested and awaited the arrival of our next visitors. And we got to see everything again! But we also got to walk the beach and take in the spa at their five-star hotel and have a whole different view of Tunisia. The spa features a traditional hammam, once a public bath house but now a more refined body scrub with muds, perfumes and oils. When you arrive you are given a plush robe. You lie on a hot marble slab where your skin is scrubbed. For 45 minutes! Fortunately, a “medium scrub” leaves you reeling for only a couple of  hours. (Not sure what happens when one requests the “heavy” version.)

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These are American friends we met in Turkey. While together in Turkey we spent lots of time playing Rumi Kub, the Turkish board game. So we spent evenings competing again! And visiting. And talking about our next reunion. It was wonderful.

Once again we returned to the marina, did a few boat repairs, and rested.  At a marina barbecue we made a few new acquaintances.  Several of the yachties were complaining about Tunisia, its primitive ways, the dirt and even the climate. There we were, back from our travels, raving about what we had seen, what we had experienced, and defending the people.  We reminded everyone that we were no longer in Europe, that this is Africa and we are doing ourselves a great injustice if we try to compare Tunisia to our own cultures. Tunisia, in fact, had come a long way since independence. In two short months we were singing a different tune. We are enjoying the exotic differences, the colorful influences and, finally, the cool breezes.

The stockings are hung on the portlights with care in hopes that our niece, nephew and children will soon be here. Yes, it will be Christmas in Tunisia.  And we get to do the tour all over again. Alleluia.

Merry Christmas everyone.

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