Mike Coan in Tunisia
Tunisia, June 3, 2001
We are back on the boat, heading from Tunis back to Marseille. Not happy or sad about leaving, just heading to a new adventure. Sad to leave the warmth of the Sheraton in Hammamet. One of the nicest hotels we have ever stayed in. It is hard to find a hotel that knows how to cater to Americans and Europeans who have expectations of service and cleanliness. Plus they have two people just to play with the children of the tourists, so that the parents can sit in the sun and not be bothered. Almost everyone on staff speaks French, German and English, some even Italian. Huge rooms with terraces and TVs. This for only $55 a night. It goes up as the season progresses, which means the hotter it gets the more you pay. But who would go there when it is so hot? The French!
We left Hammamet on May 12th and the sun came out. We arrived in Sousse and by the time we had checked in and got changed, it went from sunshine to rain. We did make it to the museum and had a fantastic dinner at an Italian restaurant, the best meal we had had up to that point in Tunisia. Unfortunately, even if we had not been spoiled by the Sheraton, the 3 star hotel we stayed at in Sousse was a pit. Something we were to learn in traveling in Tunisia is that the hotel ratings, the stars, mean nothing. We had a similarly bad hotel in Tozeur that we walked out of on the advice of the local tourism office. The woman in charge could not tell us just how these stars were given out but that they had no relation to the hotels quality. We should have walked out of the one in Sousse, we did not, but left the next day for Gabes on the southern coast. We stopped in at El Jem to see the Coliseum there. Excellently preserved.
Coliseum at El Jem
In Gabes we stayed at another 3 star hotel, this one family owned. A clean room that looked out to the sea. We stayed 3 days. Partly because it was so nice and friendly and partly to get our laundry done. It took one day to find a place that had washing machines that we could run ourselves, then it was Monday and they were closed and then we did our wash on Tuesday. There are always places that wash clothes but they charge by the piece. It gets very expensive. For the price of two pairs of jeans you can wash and dry a whole load at a machine. It's just finding a machine that gets tough. Most of what we wear can be hand washed and will normally dry in the night except for the jeans. But t-shirts need to be machine washed after a while. They will not come clean without the harsh chemicals and lots of mechanical pounding. So after 3 or 4 hand washes, they need the care of the machine. As for jeans, we were discussing why we take them with us with some Spanish biker friends. With all the down sides to them, we all agreed that they are still too chic to leave behind.
But Gabes and the hotel turned out to be an interesting place to stay, tranquil and relaxing. And oddly enough, each day we were there it got warmer. We left at our normal time, 10am, to head for Matmata to see the "troglodyte" houses built into the hill sides or into the ground and also to see the hotel bar that was used in the first Star Wars movie. The "troglodyte" houses were designed to deal with the extreme heat of the area, the northern region of the Sahara desert. This should have been a clue to the fact that we were leaving too late in the day because it was like riding through an oven with blasts of hot air.
We were heading to Douz, where we had already made reservations at a hotel with three outdoor pools, an indoor hot spring pool and air conditioning in the room. But it was too hot to stay outside by the pools and the air in the room with the hot pool was stifling.
The next morning we were up early and on the road by 7:30, but even that was not early enough. As we crossed the Chott El Jerid salt marsh, we were baking. There were cafes along the road but in this kind of heat, the shade was meaningless. The hot air was everywhere and I kept thinking that I was glad I did not have an air cooled engine. We passed some Italians on BMW GS bikes and I stopped the last one to have a few words with him. He pointed to the desert and said Arizona. We all had a good laugh. Later as we entered Tozeur, our stopping point for the day, we saw a couple just heading out of town the way we came. It was now 10:30 and I just could not imagine going back through the desert at that time of day.
In Tozeur we tried to stay at the recommended Hotel Oasis but they were full. Had to be the only place in the town that was but the rest of the hotels were a little walk from the center. We stopped at the next hotel a three star that neither of us liked but thought it would be ok since they claimed to have air conditioning and frankly I was too hot to move again. As the day wore on the place looked grungier and grungier. Then I asked when we would get the air conditioning and was told there was none since it is normally not this hot. That was it. I already had a chat with the office of tourism and asked how this hotel could be rated 3 stars. They told me that the stars mean nothing and would not elaborate on just how they were given out but I expect it has to do with how much money crosses the palm. They said just walk out and find another place. Since we had not paid yet, we did just that. I was amazed they did nothing to stop us. Sue told me they checked the room, probably to see if we had stole the towels.
We were recommended by the tourism office to stay at another real 3 star hotel the Ras El Ain , and it was the strangest combination of classic regional architecture on the outside and modern rooms on the inside. Regional architecture being the use of positioning and placement of bricks to make patterns. The hotel was extremely nice and had a pool that was big, clean and actually not too cold to swim in. But again the air was so hot that we used the pool only in the early morning and evening. The winds stirred up the sand into the sky at times, blocking out the sun. It was 107 degrees F and we were wondering if we could bring rain to the desert, since we brought it to almost everywhere else.
Sue and bike at hotel
I had heard of the Sirocco, the hot wind that comes off the desert carrying sand as fine as dust. It all seemed so romantic in a book or inane in a car commercial. But the reality of it is quite another thing. The winds are not just hot, more like someone has a hair blower on your skin. And it continues for days. They are also full of fine sand that stings as it hits and coats all surfaces. Even after you leave the desert the sand follows you in the air and when it rains, it rains sand as well as water.
We stayed in Tozeur two days and then had to move on. We were falling in love with the swimming pool and if we stayed any longer we might never leave. We decided to get up at 6:30am and get on the road really early heading for Sbeitla, via Kasserine. As we set out we could see the sand in the air but as we slowly climbed higher in elevation we left the desert behind and started to feel some cool air on our skin; as long as we kept moving.
We got to the hotel at Sbeitla and while this may have been the best hotel in the area, it had seen better days. The pool did exist but it was empty. The room had no fan or air conditioning but by now it seemed to cool down enough that we had only a little trouble sleeping. The real problem was that the towels and pillows reeked of cigarette smoke. How can you wash a towel and still it smells of smoke? However, the roman site was superb, with many interesting mosaics and partial buildings. In between the ruins the caretakers had planted flowers. The rebuilt Roman theater would have been perfect for giving modern plays or concerts in. In Europe they would have. And of course it rained. Lightly but our magic had not changed. We came, we saw, it rained.
Roman ruins in Tunisia
After a night in a crappy hotel, we were ready for something a better and we were not looking forward to the one described in the book in Jendouba , near Bulla-Regia. So we decided to stop at the site and then move on. The book said it was not a big site but we found it to be one of the most interesting. The Romans had built their houses into the ground to deal with the heat of the summer and the cold of the winter. Some had second floors above ground and all had mosaics. The best had been removed to the Bardo museum in Tunis, but what was left was spectacular. The only problem was that most of them are exposed to the elements, rain and dirt covered them and made it hard to see the full image. The ones that were below ground were better preserved as were the stucco walls and columns. I would have like to spend more time there and even considered staying but decided that we could come back. We wanted to continue north into the mountains and the forest I had heard about and ditch our riding gear and bags at the hotel.
We left Bulla-Regia and the started through some serious twisties. The countryside is mostly wheat, with small herds of sheep and a few cows. Shades of green and then the forest. The road climbs as it twists and then the road turns to crap. The only positive side to this is that I had to slow down and could really check out the view. Well, when I was not looking at the road as it dips and curls and falls off the side of the mountain. That is when I can see the view and the road for that matter. As we got higher we started to hit fog, fog that moved and at times disappeared only to be back as we took the next twist. Fog at times so thick that we could not see the road ahead let alone the view. Fog that was like rain. Two days from the desert and we were using our heated liners. A real change.
We got to Ain Draham and after asking about ten people, we finally found the hotel. Well worth the hunt. We had the choice of rooms since we were the only guests that night. We watched the fog move in and out of the valleys below from our balcony and of course it started to seriously rain. That night I woke to thunder and lightening. Thunder that rolled through the mountain. What a sound. In the morning the bike was covered in sand from the Sahara, dropped by the rain. Rain, why were we not surprised.
We spent three nights there using it as a base. One day we headed down to see more of Bulla-Regia and Chamtou. Without the fog, the ride was even more beautiful. If they would just repair the road! We got an additional surprise as we headed down the mountain, a pack of Harleys sitting on the side of the road. None of the broken down. They were a Harley group touring Tunisia, mostly from Germany and with the typical German organization. They not only had the whole trip planed, t-shirts made and even arranged for rentals so friends from America could join them, they had a police escort. Oh yes, and a repair truck. Not my way of traveling but I have to admit it does seem like fun to have it all laid out and preplanned. Nothing to worry about.
The next day we took the high road from Ain Draham towards Beja through the cork forest. I do get worried when I see no one else on the road for hours. We cut down and headed for the Roman ruins at Dougga and then back up the mountain with rain in front of us. We were far enough back of it to just hit the road as it dried out.
We left Ain Draham, and its wonderful room and balcony, its wonderful dinners, and wound our way down to the north coast at Tabarka. Tabarka was suppose to be a nice town, we didn't think much of it, and the hotel, Marjane, was once again over rated. We did get a chance to wash clothes and the internet place allowed me to use their fax line to get my email since the hotel had no idea of what I was asking and frankly did not care.
After two nights we left and headed on some of the worst roads yet to Bizerte. Hotel Nador turned out to be not the best in accommodations but very friendly. That can make up for a lot. They had me park the bike in a secure compound on the side of the hotel. To show me where, this short, round waiter hopped on the back of the bike, left foot on the left passenger peg and then like mounting a horse. Since Sue never gets on the bike that way, I am not used to it and worry that the bike will go over.
We took a ride to Utica, a not too well preserved Roman site. I'm not sure where my brain was that day since I set my camera down and forgot it as we wondered off. When I remembered it, we hot footed back to where I left it but it was gone, picked up by the security person. He then showed us around and I was still not able to find any bags of gold coins but it was enriching to know that these people are so honest. The odd thing of Utica is that it use to be on the coast, but the river silted in and it is now 15 km from the Med. From there we went to Raf Raf for a lunch of fish along the beach. How is it that in a country this poor, that catches fish locally, that they charge so much. Tunisia is not a cheap tourism destination and a fish in Thailand would cost a third of what it does here.
We then went to Sidi Bou Said, a tourist destination close to Tunis. We wanted to use it as a base to go back into Tunis and get some books to read. Once again we made a bad choice of a hotel. The hotel Amilcar had seen its better days. Each wing of the hotel had elevators but only the main one worked. Which meant that you took the elevator up two flights and walked all over the place to find the stairs that took you up two more flights to the floor with your room. The room was large but empty and the bed, suppose to be a double, was narrow to the point of being very comfortable for one person. The service people were on the edge of being unfriendly and when I asked about using their fax line to send my email, they came up with the idea to send me to the post office. In a country where people speak English, as well as French, German, Italian and Arabic, it is amazing how they can't seem to understand the simple need of a direct dial phone to do email. The trip to the post office of course was useless, or would have been if not for meeting a Swiss man who could speak all the necessary languages as well as understood our computer needs. He then called back to the hotel, and in a voice that made it clear that that the hotel was not being stupid, just unhelpful, got them to agree to let us use the fax line to send email.
The only thing that did come out of our staying in Sidi Bou Said was that we did get to the ruins of Carthage, we did get our books after going up and down the streets of Tunis but even more important, we found two great restaurants in Le Krem, a little Italy area between Carthage and La Goulette. Excellent pasta at the Vagabando restaurant, (cheap) and the restaurant in the Palm Hotel, (expensive but worth it). So good that we risked missing our boat leaving Tunisia to go back there to eat lunch at the Vagabando. My motto is eat to ride, ride to eat.
We were ready to get back to the island of safety and comfort of the Sheraton at Hammamet. So a quick phone call advising them of our early arrival, two days early actually, and we were off. After arriving we had not much to do but eat, drink and decide if we should lay by the pool or the beach. Going into town on a quick forage for goodies was enough of a change.
At the end, we were still not sure if we would leave as planned. I think we had hoped that the boat would leave without us so that we could spend a few more days doing nothing. But alas we left and now head to a new adventure in the volcanic center of France. Well, the volcanoes are really old and really dead but the roads are great and the countryside is beautiful. (We have ridden past an active volcano in Mexico and they play hell on the air filters. Air filters for the GTS are about $60 each.) The roads are perfect for the GTS 1000, although the tires are now worn in strange ways. Flat, cupped and edged from a combination of too many highways in Spain and then too many bad roads in Tunisia. I have considered changing them and I know a shop in the south of France that will do it.
So we say goodbye to Tunisia and hello again to Europe. We look forward to continuing to test the Heat-troller and ourselves on new roads. And yes, we did use the heated clothing and the Heat-troller in Tunisia. That is why we have them with us; that and to expense off our trips. To paraphrase, Eternal testing is the price of freedom.
Mike Coan e-mail: m...@warmnsafe.com
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