February 23, 2008 GMT
Tunisia the Centre and North

10 Feb – 16 Feb 08

Well, three weeks into Tunisia and I still haven’t addressed the critical issue of getting a cold beer at the end of a long ride. We are pleased to report that the Tunisians make a quite acceptable local beer and at least one very drinkable red wine. The only problem is getting to drink them!

Licensing is expensive and only the up-market restaurants serve alcohol. We usually don’t eat at such places. When we do find one that is convenient and decide to treat ourselves, a couple of Celtia beers and a bottle of Magon vin rouge is just the trick. In most cases, however, the beer is cool but not cold.

Apart from the top restaurants, there are café bars in most towns. Unfortunately, these are just full of blokes and cigarette smoke. The only ladies we have seen in them have been “working”. They remind me of the working men’s pubs of the 50s when 6 o’clock closing was still in place.

The better option for us has been to buy a bottle of wine and have a couple of drinks in our room before dinner then a nightcap when we return. The only trouble with this option is finding a bottle shop! Most towns have one, but it is generally a non-descript shop in a back street and we have usually come across them by chance. In the big cities, some of the supermarkets also have a small selection. Unfortunately, we don’t have the capacity on the Elephant to carry supplies.

As we headed north from Tozeur on the edge of the Sahara, one of our objectives was to end three days of abstention in the southern towns so we arrived late into the town of Sbeitla with expectations. We selected the cheaper of the two available hotels (the only one in budget) and found the closest thing to a restaurant in town for a chicken and frittes dinner. Our hotel bar was full of smoke and pissed workmen, so I took a couple of cheap beers back to our (thankfully) warm room.

The catering arrangements notwithstanding, Sbeitla was high on our must-see list. It is the site of extensive Roman ruins with some very interesting features.

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The ruins have some of the best features of Roman towns including…

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…a grid pattern of wide streets, baths…

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…which show clearly the arrangements for under-floor heating and…

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…beautiful mosaic floors still being walked on after 2,000 years.

Like most of these sites, Sbeitla had a number of owners after its architects had been moved on. The Vandals came and, well, vandalised the place. Then the Byzantines demonstrated their comparative lack of skill as engineers and builders by rearranging the Roman stone work in most unfortunate ways. Later came the Ottomans and the Arabs, but the city had lost its lustre by then.

One interesting Byzantine feature was this…

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…colourfully decorated baptismal font. It would have made a good plunge pool on a warm day.

Moving north from Sbeitla, we were chased into the town of Le Kef by some ferociously cold and wet weather. We used the weather as an excuse for a lay day and found a nice hotel in the middle of town…

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…with heating (of sorts) and a nice sunny room. They were good enough…

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…to put out a ramp for me to get the bike into the foyer. You sure don’t get that service at home!

The weather cleared overnight and we were able to use our lay-day to see the local sites and do some “make and mend”. Le Kef had…

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…some old Roman ruins right in amongst the modern town…

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…an interesting fort overlooking the city that was built by the Byzantines and has been upgraded by each new owner up to the current Tunisian Army. Here…

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…the caretaker, who showed us around, points out the finer points of a Turkish bronze mortar. The town also had a very good folk museum with a range of Berber cultural displays. Once again, on a cold winter’s day, the caretaker filled in some time by taking us around…

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…and showing off the traditional couscous steamer…

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…and woven covers to keep the camels warm in cold weather to stop them getting grumpy; it’s true!

We also ran into some fellow travellers with whom we had crossed paths in three other locations. Trond, a Norwegian, and Ian, an American, were interested in many of the same aspects of Tunisia that fascinated us. Fortunately, the restaurant in our hotel was licensed…

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…and we had a chance to find out a little about these two very interesting fellows.

Through all of this, you should gather that we have been rubbing along pretty well with our Tunisian hosts. Big bikes like the Elephant are very uncommon in Tunisia, so we certainly get noticed wherever we go. I am surprised that Jo’s arm doesn’t fall off as she spends so much time waving to folks of all ages as we pass through the countryside.

When we stop, young fellows come over to look at the numbers on the speedo. I don’t have the heart to tell them how optimistic they are with our entire luggage fitted. The guys always ask how big the motor is and the answer of 1150 leaves them with a stunned look on their faces. With our riding suits, helmets, incomprehensible language, GPS and communications setup, we might as well be space travellers in some remote villages.

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A request for some advice on the best hotels in a certain town can end up with a 1 hour travelogue on Tunisia.

At the same time that people are very friendly and helpful, the Tunisians are also some of the most demonstrative people we have come across. Any two Tunisian friends having a chat over coffee are like 6 of our taciturn countrymen lining up for a fist fight! Until you get used to it, it seems like everyone is arguing with everyone else all the time. And that is just the women!

In Le Kef, I needed to do some repairs to our helmet wiring sets. We have worn out a set each because of the constant flexing of the cable where it exits the helmet. I went to a little hardware store and explained the problem to the owner with a little engineering drawing and a few words of French. He and his assistant went to work finding parts that I might adapt to my needs and after 30 minutes and several revised drawings assembled the selection of bits I would need.

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When I asked him how much, he handed me the parts and said there was no charge and “welcome to Tunisia”. Once again, we are propelled on our way by the kindness of strangers.

North from Le Kef, with our newly repaired helmets, we set out to visit two important Roman sites in a single day so that we could find decent accommodation on the north coast. The site at Dougga was nestled into the hills near the modern town of Teboursouk. Like most of these settlements, the Roman inhabitants were replaced by a succession of others who mis-treated the original design in one way or another. Apparently, local farming folk had been living among the ruins up until the mid-1950s when they were resettled nearby.

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The ruins were extensive but of particular note were some of the remaining mosaics, like this…

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…or this…

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As always, I loved the plumbing best. This…

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…12 seat public latrine was a hoot, as was this…

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…wash basin that looked exactly like the one in our hotel room (this may explain something).

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This manhole cover in the street looked as though it would still perform its intended function.

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This photo of Jo in the orchestra pit of the theatre demonstrates how, if you were bored by the performance, you could still keep an eye on the slaves in the fields beyond! The Romans catered for everyone.

The site’s capitol also shows an excellent example of the type of construction used by the Romans in North Africa…

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…where sturdy corner and reinforcing stones are used with rubble infill. It still looks solid.

We didn’t linger too long at Dougga as we had heard that Bulla Regia was worth a longer visit. We had a bit of lunch in the car park then scarpered over the hills and on to Bulla Regia with the weather closing in again.

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The Bulla Regia site did not look too exciting at first glance. We noted the Roamin’ sheep of course (sorry Nick I couldn’t help it), but it wasn’t until we walked over the ruins that we found the secret.

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The villas at BR were built with the living quarters below ground level to avoid the heat. These were classic Roman villas, with a central courtyard, but just sunk into the earth.

The bathrooms, latrines and kitchens (all the smelly bits) were above ground with the bedrooms and living areas below.

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This very well preserved two-seater karzi would have allowed the man and woman of the house to sort out the day’s priorities while sorting out the morning’s priority.

This was also the site of the best mosaics we have seen outside the museums. The detail in some of them was bright and fresh and, seeing them on the floors where they were laid, gives an eerie feeling. Some, like this…

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…were a little damaged, while others had almost complete detail like this…

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…or this…

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…or this…

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…or this cheeky number…

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…or this.

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By the time we got away from BR the bad weather had caught up and the rain had started. We headed up into the hills and through the cloud base, passed the old French hill-station of Ain Draham, with the rain chasing us down onto the coastal plain and into the town of Tabarka and a warm dry room.

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Our road trip around Tunisia was over. We still had some business to complete, but it will be hard to top Bulla Regia. Our next objective is to take a few days rest to plan our departure and transit through Italy. There will be much to do. The Elephant needs a service, our high-tech stove needs some spare parts…………………

Posted by Mike Hannan at February 23, 2008 10:10 AM GMT

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