Here is the North African coastline along the Gulf of Tunis as seen from the cliffside seaside village of Sidi Bou Said. In the days of Carthage the pagan God Baal was worshipped in a sanctuary atop the larger mountain Djebel Bou Kornein – the “two-horned hill” in Arabic.
I have never been to Greece, but I felt like I was there in Sidi Bou Said. This was the most pleasant place we visited in Tunisia. A riot of vegetation tumbled down the cliff toward the shimmering Mediterranean. The streets are finely cobbled, the restaurants elegant, and the walls perfectly whitewashed. Here you’ll see as many women as men. You’ll also see couples holding hands. It’s a long way from the deeply conservative, seemingly all-male, offensively hot south of the country.
The most intoxicating place is the haunting and labrynthine old medina of Tunis. You can avoid getting lost if you stay on the main paths. But what fun are ancient twisting streets if you don’t get lost in them? Pick a side street and start walking. You won’t truly feel like you’ve travelled far from home until you think you’ve tresspassed in someone else’s neighborhood and you don’t know how to get out.
This is the view across the street from our hotel in Tunis. The name of that tower, the Hotel Africa, seems wrong somehow. Is Africa really this prosperous? Well, yes, at least one part of it is.
Here is my wife Shelly at breakfast on the terrace of the Hotel Carlton where we stayed for three nights. The street below is the Avenue Habib Bourguiba, named after Tunisia’s own Kemal Ataturk. The ancient medina is only a few blocks away.
150 miles down the coast is the smaller city of Sousse. Like Tunis, it is a relatively liberal and cosmopolitan place. A lot of tourists from Europe visit Sousse. Most go to the beach. I preferred the medina, which is what you see in this picture from above.
And here is a photo of the inside of the medina. The medieval wall you see on the left was built when the Arabs conquered Tunisia.
I was tempted to use up an entire memory stick on my digital camera taking pictures only of doors. Even the poorest Tunisians have a nicer door than the one on our house. We really do need to upgrade.
Here is a picture of me on the medieval wall at the top of the Sousse medina. The Mediterranean keeps this place cool, at least when compared to the Sahara.
This ribat is inside the medina. It, too, is medieval as you can see by the look of it. Its purpose was purely military. Ribats like this one were closely spaced along the North Africa coast and were built to watch out for Crusaders. When ships were spotted a signal fire was lighted at the top of the tower. This set off a chain of signal fires along the coast from one ribat to the next. Tolkien geeks will remember seeing something a lot like this, only on mountain tops instead of along the sea, in The Return of the King.
Here is where you’ll find most of the tourists in Tunisia. The beach is pleasant enough, if rather ordinary. The beach looks and feels more like Miami than the Middle East. Even so, the Pacific in our Oregon is far too cold for swimming, so we couldn’t resist spending one day in the sea. No regrets.
You don’t have to venture very far inland before Tunisia changes dramatically. 50 miles from the sea and it no longer looks like Mediterranean civilization. For one thing, mosques are made of mud instead of marble.
You know you’re far from home when you see buildings that look like this one. I don’t know how to “read” this, and that’s exactly what I’m looking for when I travel.
Exotic as the interior is, you can still find places that look familiar and “Western.” The temperature was more than 100 degrees when I took this courtyard photo, but somehow the architecture made me feel cooler. I suspect it may have been designed for that purpose.
Before I went to Tunisia I didn’t know how to tell a Berber from an Arab. I knew the Berbers were in North Africa first and that they have their own traditions. But I wouldn’t have been able to tell on sight what was Berber and what was Arab. So let me help you out and give you an example of the difference in style. This is a picture of an Arab bar. (Yes, this is a real bar. They do drink booze in Tunisia.)
And this is a picture of a Berber bar in the same town of Matmata. This place was tunneled into the ground. The Berbers went underground more than a 1000 years ago to escape the infernal heat of the Sahara. You would, too, if you didn’t have central air. You would tunnel into the walls with your hands if you had to. Trust me. It’s f-ing hot there in July. But these “troglodyte” houses are a cool 75 degrees at midday.
The Arab bar is more formally “nice,” but the Berber place was a lot more fun to hang out in.
Here is where we slept in Matmata, at the Hotel Sidi Driss. This place won an award for the world’s “loopiest hotel.” This was also where part of Star Wars was filmed. This was where George Lucas filmed Luke Skywalker’s homeworld of Tatooine.
This is what it looks like when you drive into the Sahara. The sky is as white as the background of my Web site in this picture, even though it was a perfectly clear day.
The desert isn’t all a sea of sand. (If it were there would be no roads.) Most of it is scrub and gravel plain bisected by mountain ranges and rock. All of it is hotter than Hell. I just can’t say it enough. That place is hot, the hottest place on the Earth during the summer.
Some of the Sahara looks like this. This is the Chott el Jerrid. Don’t try walking across it. It’s a dried-out ancient sea bed, cracked by heat and encrusted with salt. If you do walk out there you had better cover your face. A hat isn’t good enough. Sunlight bounces off the surface and will burn you from below.
I took this photo after a ten minute walk from our hotel in Douz. The dunes there are low and white. They manage to be pretty without being spectacular.
The dunes around Ksar Ghilane are spectacular. We paid a guy a handsome sum to drive us deep into the desert and hook us up with another guy who took us into the dunes on camels. It was a physically brutal experience in the blistering heat of July, but we got to sleep outside that night and Shelly thanked me for dragging her out there. How could anyone take a look at this view and wish they were anywhere else?