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Tripping Around Tunisia


By Liz Tosoni

Not long ago, in a log called “The Joy of the Side Trip,” I wrote that one of the many benefits of sailing to foreign destinations is traveling inland to see the sights at your leisure, “Cruising is about passage-making and landing and for so many sailors, ‘the being there’ is just as important as the ‘getting there.’” Well, here we were Tunisia, North Africa, a compact country only slightly larger than Florida, or about half the size of Italy, with a world of sights to be seen.
There was a good tour being offered that included a driver/guide and covered 1,300 kmilometers of the country in two days and three nights, but Tom and I thought that would be too rushed and too confining and besides, we always prefer going at our own pace. We discovered that there’s a railway network throughout the country and if there isn’t a train, there are louages (shared taxis) to be had, making it easy and cheap to get around. We bought “Carte Bleue” train tickets at 42 dinar (US$30) per person allowing indefinite first-class train travel for one week, and away we went, leaving Feel Free safely tied up in Cap Monastir Marina next to neighbors Rick and Bonnie aboard Aisling I, from Halifax.

Bonnie and Rick of AyslingI kindly kept an eye on Feel Free when we went on our road trip.
  Interesting what Paul Theroux in his book, The Pillars of Hercules (1995) said: “Tunisia is another Mediterranean island surrounded on one side by water, and on the other by pariah states: fanatic Libya on the southeast, blood-drenched Algeria on the west, and the blue Mediterranean on its long irregular coast, scalloped by gulfs and bays.”

Where to start though? We learned that for a small country, Tunisia has an amazing array of geographical diversity with pure desert in the south, including many isolated oasis towns, shady oak and cork forests in the north, weird salt flats or seasonal lakes known as chotts in the center and between these extremes, lush citrus plantations, huge fields of olive trees, table-top mountains and green rolling hills. “I’ve always wanted to see the Sahara. We’ve come all this way and here’s our chance,” said Tom. I quickly agreed, so that was that.
The first day of the trip, we arrived in Douz, a town on the edge of a sea of sand that is the Great Eastern Erg, the northernmost reaches of the Sahara. To get there, we first stopped in Tozeur where the architecture, like the lives of the people, is largely traditional. Many of the buildings are made of handmade bricks the color of ocher, some protruding in ornate geometrical patterns on the walls. Their shapes and motifs are repeated on local carpets and shawls.

We learned that this traditional decorative technique we saw on the brickwork of Tozeur is also practiced in Iran. Just outside the town of Douz, Tom finally gets to walk on the Sahara.

After Tozeur, there was a louage to Kebili and then another to Douz. Our shared taxi zoomed over a smooth causeway through miles of what appeared to be a giant skating rink, but in fact it was an enormous flat field of salt crystals. The road runs through the chott, which shows up on the map as a lake but is actually dry for nine or 10 months of the year. Our journey continued among forests of date palms, then an ocean of sand, pock marked by clumps of green vegetation.

Monsieur, madame, voulez-vous a camel ride?

Douz is an amiable kind of place calling itself “the gateway to the Sahara” but still very much a tourist town. It doesn’t matter who you meet, you’re always viewed as a customer.

We wanted to get off the beaten path, get away from the vendors and touts, see a bit of the real Tunisia. So we set off by louage for the town of El Faouar, home of the Ghrib who, until recently, were a nomadic people, breeding camels, goats, and sheep. We read that they have partly abandoned their nomadic lifestyle but many continue to live in the traditional way.

It must have been blowing 25 knots when we arrived, the fine desert sand like baby powder filling not only the air, but every orifice it could settle into – ears, nostrils, hair, even mouths if you opened too wide. A filmy layer covered our faces and necks. Now we understand why these folks enshroud themselves in full body Aladdin style garments! We, in our western wear, were the only impractical ones in this surreal world. 

In the desert towns like El Faouar, the people are covered head to toe for protection from the sand. En route, the wind picked up. Looking out the windows, it could’ve been a snow storm in the prairies if you didn’t know you were in the desert!

El Faouar is a small town with a simple square, the usual assortment of shops, humble houses, some poor, some modern, a few goats and sheep wandering about, and curious kids. We were determined to have a good wander and look around so we headed into the whirlwind of sand. “Allo, arretez!” someone was shouting to us. Turning around we saw a man running our way. “Ou allez-vous?” (Where are you going?) he asked. Luckily, our school French was coming in handy. We told him that we were going for a walk. He told us we shouldn’t. “Le vent est tres fort. (The wind is very strong.) C’est dangereux pour vous.”  OK, OK, we get the message. He suggested we at least head away from the wind and so we did. “Bonne chance!” he said as we changed direction. He must have thought the two westerners out for a promenade were a bit nuts!

Then we came across some kids with a pup. Wait a minute, that’s not a dog. What is it? The boys came closer with their pet and sure enough, it was a fox, a desert fox. We learned that they had found it abandoned and would release it when it got older.

These boys found this little desert fox abandoned and plan to release it when it’s older.

One thing led to another and we started meeting other members of the extended family. Then, we were invited into the house of the boys’ young aunt and uncle. They proudly showed us a bedroom filled with gifts of carpets, clothing and brassware on display. It turns out that they are about to be married and their wedding ceremony will take place in one week’s time. We had heard that weddings in Tunisia are extraordinarily public celebrations with pipes and drums and feasting and dancing going on for days. Our young friends told us (a little French, a little English, a little sign language, you know) about the “Danse de la Chevalure” in which the women remove all their jewelry and head coverings and parade before the assembled men and musicians. To the beat of the music and the encouragement of the crowds, each dancer whirls her long hair round her head faster and faster. Over several hours the women gradually drop out and the dance ends when only one is left on the floor. We later found out that this is one of the few places where the dance is still authentically performed.

We gave each of them a Canadian pin as a wedding gift (that’s all we had with us) and then there was the invitation for tea, then came out freshly made French fries and French bread, and talk, talk talk, then the invitation to stay the night and of course, the wedding. Quelle domage (too bad) it was one week later! The wonderful Tunisian hospitality is alive and well indeed and we were sorry not to be able to enjoy their company longer than we could.

After El Faouar, we started making our way back north. I was intrigued by what I’d read about the pit dwellings of Matmata and it wasn’t too far away so that was our next stop. Unfortunately, since Hollywood found Matmata and used it as the setting for Star Wars in 1977, it is very much a tourist town, but is fascinating anyway. Five thousand people live in the subterranean troglodyte dwellings consisting of a courtyard dug straight down into the soft sandstone with rooms excavated into the surrounding walls.

With the virtual absence of above ground buildings, Matmata looks deserted as you approach. Closer inspection reveals the underground ‘craters’ that still house five thousand people.

With the virtual absence of above ground buildings, Matmata looks deserted as you approach. Closer inspection reveals the underground ‘craters’ that still house five thousand people.

The leisurely but long train ride to the capital city of Tunis to see the world famous mosaic museum, the rubble of ancient Carthage and the quaint seaside town of Sidi Bou Said marked the end of our little road trip. Luckily, the food poisoning both Tom and I picked up in Tunis didn’t hit us until back on board Feel Free! Now we are healed, enjoying our own food, happily at anchor on the north coast of Tunisia, slowly making our way west. We are “on the road again”, the watery road that is, viewing the world not through the windows of a train or a louage, but through Feel Free’s windows.

Now we are back on board Feel Free, sailing along the beautiful and verdant north coast of Tunisia, slowly heading west.