Friday, November 23, 2007

The Life of Brian and All That

I can picture Monty Python’s gang prancing around the battlements and towers of Monastir’s Ribat just as well, if not more so, than the Aghlabids building it in AD796. It wasn’t purely the foresight of these Arabian builders to construct this edifice during the 8th to the 11th centuries as a set for Monty Python’s ‘Life of Brian’ or even Zeffirelli’s ‘Life of Christ’ but also to counter the threats of Christian invasion from the north and east and skirmishes with the Berbers from the west and south. The Ribats, many of which were built as defensive fortresses and combined religious and military functions by assembling soldiers, mystics and even women under one roof. Monastir’s Ribat is one of the oldest and best preserved in Tunisia.

Apart from the 9th century Great Mosque, closed totally to us non Muslims as the area to which we are normally permitted, i.e. the courtyard, does not exist, Monastir is the 20th century creation of its most famous son, Habib Bourguiba. His family’s Mausoleum with its twin minarets and gilt cupolas and the marble sarcophagus of the ex president dominate the Sidi el-Mezeri cemetery. One wonders what happened to the former resting places of those buried under this Memorial’s massive footprint. The remaining tombs and marabouts, or small mausoleums, are those of various spiritual men and in particular the Sufi master after whom the cemetery is named.
Swathes of Monastir’s historic Medina were commandeered to build wide colonnaded streets, Bourguiba’s controversial Mosque and the law courts. The few narrow alleyways and sections of high wall that remain do give a taste of the former atmosphere of the place. Such was Bourguiba’s desire to modernise that he proposed to flatten Roman Carthage to make way for modern villas for the rich of Tunis. Strangely, one of his palaces is built adjoining the Roman Antonine Baths. Thankfully lack of money and, perhaps, the public will thwarted his endeavours.

Habib Bourguiba was the father of independent Tunisia and its first President having ousted the French in 1956. The constitution drafted under his auspices affirmed that Tunisia was a free, independent and sovereign state and that its political system was that of a free republic. He divorced state from religion, introduced mandatory schooling from age six to sixteen and granted equal rights to women. He also granted himself as President far reaching powers that caused much social unrest and in 1984 a general strike was called demanding an end to repression and revocation of unconstitutional laws. In 1987 Bourguiba was forced to give up his Presidency and Ben Ali gained power. Bourguiba died in 2000 and will, it seems, be remembered with fondness despite his shortcomings.

Our life here in Monastir is good. The Marina is inexpensive at £550 for five months, inclusive of electricity and water, safe and sheltered and the staff are friendly and accommodating. The one drawback is that the floor to the communal showers sometimes resembles a swimming pool where the levels were miscalculated or, more likely, disregarded during construction.
The supply of fruit and vegetables in the market is seasonal with very few imported products. The quality is questionable on occasion and a wary eye is needed when the vendor serves. Fish is excellent and varied albeit, as everywhere, expensive. The meat is ‘halal’, unhung and tough unless stored for a few days before cooking, marinated, bashed to within an inch of its life or cooked slowly in a casserole. There is, of course, no pork although the turkey or beef pâtés and salamis are sold as ‘jambon’! Nuts are plentiful, diverse and magnificent and the patisserie is artistic and very sweet. Surprisingly for people with such a sweet tooth granulated sugar is not readily available on the shelves except in cube form. Brown sugar is nonexistent. Two varieties of local strong cheese and a blue come close to matching their Italian counterparts for quality and taste.

The Tunisian produce some fine wine and so they should having been practising for 2000 years. Excellent red wines such as Chateau Saint Augustin and Vieux Magon are inexpensive at around £6 a bottle and thoroughly good quaffing wines come in at £1.50 or so. Wine, beer and spirits are readily available at supermarkets.

Eating out is inexpensive and one can expect to pay around £12 each for three courses either international or Tunisienne cuisine, inclusive of a bottle of wine, at a good restaurant and as little as £1.60 for a three course Tunisienne ‘Menu du Jour’ in a local’s restaurant.

Our favourite Tunisian foods include Harissa, a hot spicy sauce made of chilli and garlic often served with bread and olives as a starter and used extensively in Tunisian cooking. Brik, thin pastry deep fried with an egg and savoury filling, Ojja Merquez, vegetables and spicy sausage in a rich tomato and harissa sauce with a fried egg and Baklava, a sweet filo pastry made with nuts and almonds and filled with date. We also like a spicy couscous, being steamed grains of semolina served with meat, fish or chicken and lots vegetables.

All in all we reckon the cost of living here is dinar per pounds or, in other words less than half the price of living in Lymington. Lymington has its merits, however, not least to say its cleanliness which would be considered spotless by Tunisian standards.

There are four other British couples, a Swede and a Swiss with boats wintering in the Marina but the majority here are French. We are getting on really well with our French neighbours, Catharine and Roger and with all the others on our pontoon each one of which is a character. Each Sunday at midday we meet with about forty others, mostly French, for a BBQ. Tablecloths adorn the trestle tables, the charcoal in the industrial size BBQ roars and each couple passes around starters, salads, savouries and other dishes that they have prepared to accompany one’s individual barbecued fish or meat. Aperitifs and wine flow freely and great fun is had by all.

Meanwhile winter is approaching- it is nearly December after all- and the nighttime temperature has been as low as 6°C. The days, apart from when it is blowing old boots from the northwest which it does once a week, get up to the mid twenties and on the best of them Miggy still swims in the sea.

We very much enjoyed a visit from Jane and John, Miggy’s sister and brother in law, who stayed with us for two days. We visited Sousse together. A Louage, or shared taxi took us the 25 kilometres to Sousse for 6200TD (£2.50) for the four of us but taking six places. Each Louage seats eight but rather uncomfortably and waits until it is full before setting off. Those who prefer to be more comfortable may pay for vacant spaces. At these ridiculously low rates we do prefer comfort.

Sousse was founded by the Phoenicians in the 9th century BC and was, for a time, Hannibal’s naval base. The town was allied with Phoenician Carthage and Utica throughout the Punic wars. Despite it being the capital of the Sahel region with all the administrative, commercial and industrial functions that accompany that, a tourist centre and the third largest town in Tunisia it a remarkably fresh cosmopolitan Mediterranean air. Its vibrant historic Medina rises gently from the port and the narrow stepped alleyways host numerous craftsmen’s workshops, homes and souks. The walls of this sizeable Medina are virtually intact and house the striking 9th century Great Mosque which, together with the Ribat and the walls themselves, formed the town’s defences.
The Great Mosque was built in AD851 and modelled on that at Kairouan. Its unusual circular and domed minaret was built some two centuries later. The vast courtyard is surrounded by columns with words of the Koran inscribed in the stone friezes above. Two things strike one, the first being evidence that the floor level of the courtyard and the surrounding streets has risen by some two metres in the 1156 years since its construction. Secondly, and more poignantly, the austere prayer hall with its relatively plain mihrab or niche that points to Mecca, and its highly decorated stepped wooden minbar from which the Imam delivers his homily during Friday prayers, conveyed an air of holiness beyond that felt in any mosque we have previously visited. Perhaps this is because, unlike other mosques, we were permitted to walk right to the threshold of the doors of the prayer hall and could therefore inspect the inside with three of our five senses rather than just the one.

Lunch of couscous or kebabs and freshly squeezed orange juice at what appeared to be a local’s cafe in the Medina was excellent sitting at a table by the ancient tall Medina walls. The café was run by an Algerian and was actually a tourist place as the bill confirmed. Still it was a fun lunchtime. A walk back down the hill took us through the souks selling souvenirs or more valuable merchandise such as in the excellent precious metal and jewellery souk. It was here that we said our farewells to Jane and John who were travelling back to Tunis by train that afternoon and hence back to the UK. It has been a great pleasure to be with them and we look forward to seeing them when we return home in December.

We return to the UK on the 11th of December and stay until the 4th of January during which time we hope to see as many of you now reading this Blog as time permits. Those of you who are prepared to wake at 0630 may wish to hear Miggy’s dulcet tones on The Julian Clegg Show on BBC Radio Solent 96.1 FM.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Le Sud - day 3

The extra hour in bed due to the clocks going back and a relatively late start refreshed us for the long journey back to Monastir. There was a lot of sightseeing still to be done on the way, however.
Our first stop, Metlaoui, is the centre of Tunisia’s profitable phosphate mining industry. Tunisia is third only to Russia and Morocco in the quantity of the mineral extracted, initially in the 19th century by underground mining but now by open faced extraction. The spoil heaps are as big as the mountains from which they come. Talk about moving mountains – it is done here!
The main reason for our visit to this place is not the Phosphates at all but a ride on the ‘Le Lezard Rouge’, a narrow gauged railway line opened in 1899 through the Seldja Gorge in the Tell Atlas mountains. The carriages with a variety of comfortable armchairs as seats are those from the Bey of Tunis’s early 20th century train that took him from his Palace in the north of Tunis to his summer residence in the South of the City. The Bey was, even during the French Protectorate, King of Tunisia, albeit a nominal ruler. By the time we boarded the train half an hour before the 1030 departure all the seats were taken. Those in the favoured armchairs must have put their towels on them at daybreak and not a German amongst them! Our fellow passengers included a newly wed young Berber couple.
The old fashioned charm of the train and the dramatic scene of the vertical sides of the Gorge and the muddy waters created by the mining cascading down the valley were exceptional.
Back on the road past Gafsa, where evidence of Berber presence in 3,500BC was discovered, the flat plains of the heartland of the Country are fertile with crops of a variety of fruits and vegetables being grown amongst and between the ever present olive groves surrounded by prickly pears.
It was fitting that we should end our tour, as we started it, with a Roman theme. Close to the modern town of Sbeitla lies the Roman site of Sufetula. Built mainly during the 2nd to 5th centuries, it became a Roman colony wherein the citizens had equal rights to those of Rome. In the 3rd century Christians settled here and most of the churches date from that period. The ruins of this large town that have been excavated to date are very well preserved despite the fact that the Arab Muslims demolished and carted away many stones to build the Great Mosque in their Islamic city of Kairouan some 150 km away.
The foremost attractions are the stunning Forum and Capital, containing temples to Juno, Jupiter and Minerva, the St Vitalis Basilica and its mosaic clad baptistery, the Great Baths with mosaic floors almost intact and the Theatre that has been extensively renovated for use today.
Amongst the other ruins the Bellator Basilica, the Vendor’s Stalls near the Capital, the Church of St Servus and the main paved streets are striking as are the remarkably intact and intricate mosaics throughout the site.
There was little time to pay a meaningful visit to Kairouan, Tunisia’s religious heart, as the light was fading and the interesting sites were closed. We did, however, witness the Muezzin’s sunset call to prayer from the minaret of the Great Mosque, the most holy of places in the Country. We will return to this City for a comprehensive tour later in the year.
During the past three days we have travelled over 1000 km to the edge of the Sahara Desert and back. We have seen the architecture and the way of life of civilisations from 3,500BC to the current day and, in the case of the Berbers, have experienced to some small degree that existence. It has been a monumental experience the memory of which will remain with us forever.

Le Sud - day 2

There was a chill over Friday night but not the cold that we had expected. This must come later in the year and early in the new year.
After an early breakfast we were on the road again heading for the nearby Chott El Jerid, the largest salt lake in North Africa at some 51,280 sq km. We stopped in the middle of the 64 kilometre causeway to look at and walk on the flat carpet of salt crystals stretching further than the eye can see and shimmering and changing colour in the sunrise from white and grey to pink and pale green.
We travelled upwards from the Chott along the mountain road with hairpin bends and Hawks soaring overhead on the thermals into the steep layered sandstone escarpments and deep gorges where scenes in ‘The English patient’ were shot and on to the village of Chebika only five miles from the Algerian border and, until as recently as the 19th century, a stopping off place on one of the two main caravan routes from the east to west coasts of Africa. I should say two villages as the original settlement was abandoned after being severely damaged during the great floods of 1969 and a new village has been built further down the escarpment. Chebika, a mountain oasis, has a picturesque spring and waterfall a short walk over the hill past the old settlement. The water from the spring feeds otherwise infertile land to produce dates, apricots, peaches, pomegranates citrus fruits, bananas and olives. Tobacco is grown in the shade of the palm trees.
To those dwelling in these parts water was, of course, more precious than oil and it was vital that each plot of land was irrigated regularly and evenly. To achieve this Chebika once had a simple timer consisting of two large jugs hung from a rope. The water poured from one into the other and, based on the time it took to fill the lower jug, the attendant would open and close sluices within the irrigation system sending water to each arable plot in turn.
There are three types of oasis, the maritime oasis, such as Gabes, the desert oasis such as Douz and the mountain oasis such as Chebika. The best dates are an even translucent brown and come from the desert and mountain oases where the air is dry. The humid air of the maritime oases produces second rate dates that have a yellow tinge to their skins.
A little way further up into the hills towards Tamerza we stopped at ‘la Grande Cascade’. In fact, there having been no rain for ages, it was a trickle into a mucky pool. The site was further spoiled by the inordinate number of stalls selling souvenirs made in china that had little to do with the attraction or, indeed, the Country as a whole. Miggy did spot frogs in the stream leading to the ‘waterfall’.
On the way back towards Tozeur and ultimately our Hotel at Nefta for lunch along the edge of the Chott El Gharsa we saw a beautiful lake surrounded by trees in the valley to our left and to our right the sea with ships upon it. We were, of course 360 kilometres from the sea and the only lakes in the vicinity were salt lakes. This was the incredible trick of the light, the curse of lost desert travellers, the mirage.
Tozeur, the capital of the Jerid region has the largest and one of the most beautiful oases in Tunisia. It is a tourist town and we spent little time here apart from in the bar of the Grand Hotel that had beautiful watercolours of Africans hung on the walls of the lobby and bar.
Just 30 km or so along the straight and undulating Roman road blown with sand lies Nefta, a holy town second only to Kairouan. It has a population of just 20,000 yet possesses 24 mosques and 90 mausoleums or Marabouts of revered Sufi clerics. If you think that’s a lot of mosques think again as in the 16th century it had over 100!
We lunched at the Bon Horizon Hotel and had a rest period during which Miggy swam in the freezing pool. We then were taken on a horse and cart ride into the oasis where the process of growing the dates was explained to us. Amazingly the seeds from the pods of one male tree can fertilise up to 200 female fruit bearing trees. Here we drank date juice; smokes date leaf ‘tobacco’ and eat fine translucent ‘Degla’ dates, the best that can be had in Tunisia.. We also bought a few boxes to take home as presents.
A visit to the oldest part of the town, Ouled eech-Cherif, revealed fascinating alleys lined with houses with fancy brick facades and hoards of laughing, screaming children excited by Miggy’s antics with the camera!
Interestingly the Romans, although travelling over the Atlas Mountains and west to the Moroccan Atlantic coast, never ventured into the African continent further south than Nefta.
The hotel is perched on a hill overlooking ‘La Corbeille, a deep palm filled gulley between it, the mausoleums or marabouts of holy men and the town and overlooking the shores of the Chott El Jerid. Sunset on the balcony, a glass of wine in hand was a fitting conclusion to an intensely interesting and enjoyable day.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Le Sud Tour - Day 1

We had the feeling of ‘pioneers’ as we lugged our kitbag and backpack to meet our transport at 0630 for our three day tour of ‘Le Sud’, the Sahara Desert and places in between. However, rather than a caravan of camels, we had chosen a Toyota Landcruiser 4x4 to take us there. Our companions were a German speaking Swiss couple and their daughter, Gabriella. Thankfully Gabriella spoke English and was able to translate between us and her parents who had virtually no English. Our driver, Maher, was fluent in both English and German and spoke his commentaries in both languages. Aisha, a young Tunisian girl in her first year of training as a tour guide came along as an observer but spent a lot of the time asleep!
Our first stop on this tour of discovery was El Jem, a former Punic town that became a Roman colony in the mid 3rd century and one of the richest towns in Roman Africa. Driving along the typically straight road towards the town a magnificent amphitheatre, built over the eight years from 230 – 238AD and seating over 30,000 people, stands high and imposing above the town. Its remains are remarkably intact even though the town was sacked by the Turks and the Arabs with many of the stones being removed to build mosques elsewhere.
It was interesting to discover the difference between an Amphitheatre that was used purely for pageantry and spectacles involving the gruesome sport of throwing slaves to wild animals or Gladiators battling with those animals and a Coliseum, such as the one in Rome, that had the additional feature of the ability of being filled with water and thus stage mock water borne battles and pageants.
The landscape of the flat coastal plain was uninspiring and the towns and villages were litter strewn and dirty and comprised in the main seemingly unfinished and drab or dilapidated shops, workshops and houses arranged haphazardly with little hint of a town plan. Olives grow in abundance and are of great importance to Tunisia’s economy, production here being exceeded only by that in Spain and Italy. The olive trees are more widely spaced than those in other countries, the spaces in between being, soil permitting, sometimes cultivated with other crops.
As we approached Sfax, almond and fig trees grow in the increasingly infertile soil as well as the perpetual olive groves. Sfax is Tunisia’s intensely industrialised second city, and one well bypassed by the traveller. It is the major port for the export of Phosphates and refinery of crude oil from Tunisia’s desert and offshore fields.
There were sculptures on a fishing theme clearly made by local amateur artists from flotsam and jetsam on the road into the tiny fishing village of Mahres on the coast between Sfax and Gabes. Opposite the cafe where we had drinks we admired the sculpture of an old man hewn out of an old tree trunk.
The sea is very shallow along this coast for as great a distance offshore as to preclude us sailing there. The beaches were being combed by many picking shellfish like the Chinese cocklers in Morecombe Bay, Lancashire. Offshore we could see fishermen from Arab dhows casting their nets over the brown waters of the shallows.
On the roadside between Mahres and Gabes Libyan diesel was being sold in plastic containers having been purchased over the border in Libya some 200 kilometres distant where it is very much cheaper than in Tunisia. This trade is illegal but overlooked, the quantities not being significant. I wonder!
Gabes is a maritime oasis and the centre for the production of henna, a dye made from ground privet leaves used for traditional Berber hand, feet and face painting to protect from evil spirits. Perhaps the privet found in England will do the same!
During the climb from Gabes towards Matmata into the hills of the Jebel Dahar the terrain becomes increasingly barren with rock strewn sand and sandstone slopes interspersed with the odd palm tree and scrub. This veritable lunar landscape was the location for the filming of the ‘Star Wars’ and ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’.
This is the north eastern extent of the land of the non Arab Berber tribes, former nomads and, with evidence of their existence discovered from 3,500BC, the oldest indigenous North African people who even today inhabit the region across the Sahara desert, the Atlas Mountains and into Morocco. They are a pale skinned blue eyed people who, despite having embraced Islam, have maintained their ethnic and linguistic identity. Integration with the Arab population is jeopardising this identity however.
In this part of Southern Tunisia the Berbers lived as Troglodytes. The underground rooms of their homes dug into the sandstone from a central open courtyard maintain a constant temperature of 17°C day and night winter, and summer. The tradition goes back thousands of years but the houses the like of which we saw at Matmata date from the 19th century. In fact the house that we visited was the first opened to the public and the one where the matriarch, who died earlier this year, is featured in our guide book. The photograph of her in the guide is that which hangs on the wall of one of the bedrooms. We had a splendid traditional tomato soup, ‘brik’ (thin deep fried crispy pastry filled with a fried egg) and tender, tasty goat ‘couscous’ (steamed semolina grains served with meat or fish and vegetables in a tomato sauce) lunch at another, larger of these houses now occupied as a hotel. Talking of traditional Tunisian dishes I must mention ‘Harissa’; a paste made with red chilli and garlic often served with olive oil, olives and bread as a starter. It can be ferociously hot!
The terrain got sandier as we drove south to Douz, the gateway to the Sahara and once there on the fringe of the Grand oriental Erg with nothing but sand dunes and oases to the south and west of us for many hundreds of miles we once again felt the pioneering spirit when, garbed in traditional Berber dress, we sailed a ‘ship of the desert’. They say that take off and landings are the tricky bits but we prevailed without mishap and enjoyed the experience immensely. The camel is a noble beast whose upturned nose makes it appear snooty and whose long eyelashes give it a certain allure as well as keeping the sand out of its eyes! The camel will drink a hundred and thirty litres of water in one sitting and this, stored in its hump, will last it for up to fourteen days before needing to drink again.
The camels drink at Oases once used as a haven for caravans and lost travellers. Today they are a vital lifeline for those who live in this extreme environment. Oases grow up around wells, natural springs and ground water and consist of fertile land shaded by date palms. Some oases, such as Gabes and Nefta have grown into towns. Some natural springs are running dry and a new source of water has been found from Artesian wells sunk over 3,500 feet below the earth’s surface. Water millions of years old forces itself to the surface under its own pressure and delivers at 70°C at the top of concrete towers where it falls and cools, is gathered in pools and distributed through irrigation channels and pipes to the palm groves and watering pools.
Our hotel for the first night of our trip was the three star ‘Les Dunes de Neftaoua’ surrounded by the palm trees of the small oasis of Bechri. Miggy was delighted to swim in the pool where the top foot of water that was warm came directly from the nearby artesian well whereas the water below was freezing. A 20m high tower had been built by the pool the view from which over the oasis was splendid.
It was a long day having travelled nearly 500 kilometres, having seen a myriad of sights or, indeed, ways of life and having tried a few of them.