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Trip Reprt to Tunisia 2012 - The North

Eleanor

1000+ Posts
This is a trip report previously published on Slow Travel for a trip to Tunisia in Spring 2012, just after the Jasmine Revolution. Because it is so long, I have written it in three parts. This covers the North of Tunisia. The Roman remains in the north are covered in a separate report, as is the south.


Introduction



Having visited all the continents except Africa, we felt a need to address this but didn’t want to go to South Africa. Equatorial Africa would be too hot for us and we weren’t wanting to watch big game. This left the north coast. We discounted Algeria, Egypt and Libya which left Morocco or Tunisia. Of the two, Tunisia seemed to have the most to offer to us with the Roman sites in the north. We borrowed or bought guide books and started to read. Having drawn up a list of ideas we went to see Audley Travel who we used for all our long trips.

They came up with a month long itinerary beginning in the north and taking us into the desert in the south. We had said we wanted to travel slowly with at least two nights in each place and time to explore by ourselves. We wanted to avoid the tourist resorts and said ‘No Star War sites’. We would have a car and driver but no guide. This suited us as I always research trips thoroughly and go prepared with maps and details of places we are visiting.

We decided to fly British Airways from Gatwick. They had an early morning flight from Gatwick which would give us an afternoon to ourselves in Tunis. The flight back was an evening one which gave us a full day before flying home. As we always have a night near the airport before and after a trip, this suited us.

The final itinerary looked like this:

Tunis - 4 nights
El Kef - 3 nights
Kairouan - 3 nights
Tamerza - 4 nights
Ksar Ghilane - 2 nights
Tataouine - 2 nights
Djerba - 2 nights
Sfax - 2 nights
Ksar Ezzit - 3 nights


We were lucky with out driver who spoke good English and had a wide knowledge of Tunisia. He soon learnt what we liked doing and took us to many places not in our itinerary, the guide books or internet.

The itinerary worked well and we enjoyed out trip. In retrospect we could have trimmed back on it.

We had allowed a day to see El Kef which we could probably have cut out. Hamman Melligue was interesting but we felt El Kef itself didn’t have a lot to offer.

We also felt we could take a night out of Tamerza by visiting Mides and Chebika after the ride on the Red Lizard train. The jury is out on Tozeur and Nefta too, which would have saved another night. The Tamerza Palace Hotel is the only tourist accommodation in Tamerza and is expensive.

The jury is very much out of Ksar Ghilane too. It did not live up to the hype. Naively perhaps, we had expected the description of “on every side there are sweeping desert dunes accentuating the impression of a remote outpost” to be accurate. It is a rather scruffy oasis full of camp resorts and tourists. The desert is beyond a hedge and fence. I think we might have regretted not spending one night in the desert but didn’t need the two nights we had asked for as there is little to do unless you want to ride a camel, go for a quod bike ride or lie by the pool.

Originally we had discounted Djerba as being too touristy for us. Information coming back from Tunisia Direct who Audley work with, said away from the east coast tourist belt the island was very peaceful and people followed a very traditional way of life. Knowing our objectives for the trip, they recommended we spend a couple of nights there. Unfortunately this information is now out of date as there is a lot of new development in Djerba and the traditional way of life was disappearing fast. It was a major disappointment and we felt our original decision had been the right one. Doing the trip again we would omit Djerba.

Ksar Ezzit had been highly recommended to us as a new style venture being an organic olive farm providing a very wide range of inclusive activities such as visits to various historical sites, guided walks, horse riding, talks on farming methods and so on. We had therefore expected to be given a list of activities to choose from. The farm no longer provides those activities, perhaps because most visitors are Tunisians and are not interested in them. It is a delightful place to drop out at the end of a long trip but anyone planning to visit needs to be very sure what is available. Access to a 4x4 car is advisable as the restaurant is about 2 miles from the accommodation. One or two nights could have been cut from this.

Highlights of the trip included
• the many Roman sites especially Ain Tounga and Gightis which get few visitors
• Roman mosaics in Bardo and El Jem Museums
• El Jem amphitheatre towering above the countryside
• the wild flowers which were at their best when we visited
• the Berber hill towns and Ksour around Tataouine
• the oasis at Chebika (once the tourists have gone home)
• the fruit and vegetable markets

Above all we will remember the warmth and welcome of the Tunisian people, their great sense of optimism after the Revolution and their will for the changes to succeed and make life better.

As the report is so long, the different places we visited can be found below.


#2 Impressions
 of the north
#3 Beware the last day of the carpet exhibition and the panoramic view
#4 Impressions of Tunis Medina
#5 Tunis Medina - Attractions
#6 Bardo Museum, Tunis
#7 Ville Nouvelle, Tunis
#8 Cap Bon Peninsula
#9 Cap Bon Penisula - Kerouane
#10 Caop Bon Peninsula - Kelibia
#11 El Kef and the Kasbah
#12 El Kef - Other attractions
#13 El Kef - The Roman Baths of Hamman Melligue
#14 Around El Kef - Ain Draham and the cork forests
#15 Kairouran
#16 & #17 Kairouran - Attractions
#18 Mahdia
#19 Monastir
#20 & #25 A day round Sfax
#26 & #27 Sfax - Museum of Popular Arts and Traditions
#28 Elles Tombs
#29 & #30 Jugurtha's Table
#31 Kesra
#32 Kesra - Museum of Traditional Patrimony
£33 Ksar Ezzit
#34 Ksar Ezzit - Activities
 
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Eleanor

1000+ Posts
Impressions of the North

Tunisia is a popular holiday destination for the Brits who head in their thousands to the holiday resorts of Hammamet, Sousse and Port El Kantaoui for the sun. A few take day excursions but many never get further than the pool in their resort. This is a shame as they miss much of what Tunisia has to offer.

The Tunisians are a delightful people. There was a great sense of optimism after the Jasmine Revolution and a great will for the changes to succeed. Most people are Muslims and, when we visited, there was a concern the more extreme Muslim groups didn’t become too powerful.

Just after the Jasmine Revolution, Government buildings were still protected by razor wire and armed guards but we saw little sign of any troubles where we went. There was still some unrest along the Libyan border and a high police presence in the south. There were also periods of unrest in the south west where there are a lot of phosphate mines and every so often the miners would go on strike, setting up road blocks and demanding better working conditions. The bush telegraph was good at warning drivers about potential danger areas to be avoided.

The tourists were slowly returning after a year with few foreign tourists. Many of the tourist areas suffered badly and hotels had shut. Carpet shops were particularly badly hit and, in Tunis and Kairouan, the salesmen tout for business. We soon learnt that every carpet shop had a panoramic view attached to it, or else it was the last day of a carpet exhibition.

The Medinas in Tunis and Kairouan are great places to explore. They are a rabbit warren of narrow streets and alleyways. Parts are still living quarters with blank walls with doorways leading to the house beyond. The only windows are at first floor level with shutters and metal grilles. Doorways are splendid, either carved wood or studded with big nails forming different shapes. The more splendid the door, the more expensive the house beyond. Inside is a courtyard with rooms off.

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Some of the very big expensive houses in Tunis are now offices and it is possible to go into the courtyards and some of the rooms. All the walls are lined with beautifully coloured tiles with carved stucco friezes and beautifully painted ceilings.

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Many houses have either a shop or workshop on the ground floor. The shops usually spill out onto the street. We saw shoemakers, tailors, metal workers...
The souks are covered alleyways full of shops. The streets are very narrow and paved with cobblestones. Stalls spread out into the streets and there is barely room to walk between them. Different souks specialise in different goods. Those near the Great Mosque sell jewellery and perfumes. Those further away sell clothes, shoes, spices, hats, tourist tat. In Tunis and Kairouan, prices are set high for tourists and it is necessary to haggle hard. However you are only expected to haggle if you do intend to buy the item. Time wasters are not popular.

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Small villages are dotted round the countryside. Traditional buildings are low, painted white with a flat roof.

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In the towns, the houses are built directly off the street and many have a small shop or workshop on the ground floor with living accommodation above. The shops sell a basic range of dry and tined goods especially pasta. Market days are lively when the streets are lined with stalls selling everything from oranges to second hand clothes with donkey carts and hand carts everywhere.

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Each village has a primary school and many may also have a senior school. Many of these are new buildings. The previous regime, whatever its faults, did invest heavily in education. 


Further out the houses are set back from the road and surrounded by a plain wall with a gateway into an area around the house which is used for keeping a few animals.

The mountains can get quite a bit of snow during the winter months. In places there are what are described as ‘French’ houses. These have sloping red tiled roofs to throw off the snow.

Since the revolution there has been a relaxation of planning rules and new houses are sprouting up all over the place. Some are very large and impressive with balconies, arches, pillars… They are surrounded by a high wall and the ornateness of the gateway reflects the amount of money being spent, in some cases, a lot. Often this is borrowed by the banks so we hoped it wasn’t another property bubble which will burst.

Construction looked decidedly iffy in places. Large rectangular bricks are used for walls and floors. These hare hollow with four rows made up of three hollow spaces. These are erected quickly in a single layer with a few concrete beams to give support. The walls are then plastered and painted. Superficially they look very nice but we did wonder how solidly built they were.

We loved the north of Tunisia with the mountains. It is very green and fertile with fields of wheat waving in the sunshine. We could understand why Tunisia was regarded as the bread basket of the Roman Empire sending vast quantities of grain and olive oil to feed Rome.

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We visited in March/April after the rainy winter season and before the summer heat. This is the best time as the countryside was green with wild flowers growing everywhere. We began to realise how much colour we have lost in the countryside with modern farming methods. Later in the summer everywhere turns brown and the vegetation dies in the heat of the summer droughts.

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There are miles and miles of olive groves everywhere, planted out in regimented lines.

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Some just have wild flowers growing under the trees - yellow and white daisies, orange marigolds, red poppies, blue borage, purple mallow…. Even Michael was beginning to enthuse. Some I recognised. Some we grow as garden flowers but there were so many I couldn't put a name to.

They are cut by hand using a hand held sickle, usually by the women, and used as animal fodder. The donkey is still the vehicle of choice in many country areas.

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It always seems to be the women doing most of the work. The Tunisian men seem to spend all their time sitting talking….

In other places the olives may be underplanted with beans, peas, carrots, potatoes, wheat or water melons. Crops are planted in the winter and harvested in the spring. The broad beans were in flower in March, and some were ready for harvesting for sale in the local markets. At home mine had only just germinated. Wheat already had heads and was beginning to turn yellow when we left in the middle of April. We saw fields of onions. These are picked when they are still small, washed and tied into bundles for sale. The displays of fruit and vegetable in the markets is amazing and puts our supermarkets to shame.

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The olives are picked in November and taken to huge plants for processing. You smell these before you see them.

We saw groves of citrus trees, particularly oranges, which are harvested in January. These are large and have deeper red skins than the oranges commonly seen in supermarkets here. The skins peel more easily, more like a satsuma. The flesh is juicy and very sweet. The Tunisians refer to these as ‘winter’ oranges and much prefer them to the ‘summer’ oranges which are paler in colour and much sharper flavour (more like the oranges we buy here). Oranges are sold from stalls along the roadside as well as markets. They are very cheap and freshly squeezed orange juice is available in most hotels.

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Elsewhere there were apricot and peach orchards.

We saw nomads still living in tents who move following the grazing with their huge flocks of sheep and goats. These graze during the day watched over by a shepherd. At night, they return to their tent and the animals are kept in a pen overnight as there are still wolves around. Most people in the country keep a few goats, sheep and sometimes cows and we would see small groups grazing along the road sides watched over by a member of the family.

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We had a car and driver but didn't bother with a guide. Our driver had spent several years working in England in the 1980s, spoke good English and was very good at looking after us. We made sure he got to the Mosque for prayers. He was a great talker so we would leave him talking while we went round sites by ourselves. There were a few places where he accompanied us if he felt the locals might not be very friendly towards tourists. There are guides at many of the sites but they often have limited English and aren’t worth paying for.

Roads varied from good to potholed tracks. When we visited in 2012, there was still a high police presence along the roads and drivers are often stopped to show their papers. Near the border with Algeria there was extra security and we were asked to take passports with us.

Petrol prices in Algeria were lower than in Tunisia and there was a lot of illegal movement of petrol across the border. Trucks and lorries come back loaded with jerry cans full of petrol or diesel which are them sold along the roadside. Everywhere we went in Tunisia, we saw shelters with a pile of jerry cans containing petrol for sale. It is poured into the car using a long pipe and the sand around is saturated with petrol. It surprised us there weren't accidents. There is so much traffic in petrol that the police turn a blind eye to it and there would be major trouble if they tried to clamp down.

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The north of Tunisia is stuffed with Roman sites. We were amazed by how much is still left at many of the sites; the capitol building at Sbeïtla, the theatre at Dougga, the amphitheatre in El Jem and the underground mosaics at Bulla Regis. You can even have a hot bath in the remains of the Roman baths at Hamman Melligue near El Kef. There has been little reuse of the stones for building although pillars were recycled when building Mosques.

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Dougga and Thuburbo Majus are easily reached from Tunis and get a lot of tourists. Bulla Regis is further but still on the tourist tick list. Maktar, Sbeïtla and El Jem can be done from Kairouan as day trips. We enjoyed all of these but also found many smaller sites marked on the map which don’t get a mention in the guide books and there is little information on the web. Some like Abthugni aren’t even marked on the map. We had these to ourselves. Sites like Aïn Tounga near Dougga and Gightis near Djerba have a guardian even though they get very few visitors. They are lucky to see one visitor a month.

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Eleanor

1000+ Posts
Beware the last day of a carpet exhibition and the panoramic view

Anyone wandering in Tunis Medina is likely to come across touts advertising the last day of a carpet exhibition or a building with a panoramic view. We got caught on our first afternoon while out in the Medina by the hotel porter who spun a convincing story and took us to the government emporium which had the ‘final day’ of a display of Berber carpets. We did begin to wonder when the porter showed his card to the proprietor.

We were shown a carpet loom (not working) and shown the way to the roof top with a panoramic view. The view wasn’t that good but it was a pleasant tile lined area with benches, carpets and a cooling breeze. On the way down we were shown the ‘bed of the bey who had 4 wives’ which was a huge carved and painted wooden structure.

We were then taken into a showroom with huge piles of carpets stacked up. We were sat down and shown a selection of different carpets. There were woven Berber carpets made of wool and others made of camel hair. We were shown knotted carpets and the proprietor was at great pains to explain the significance of the number of knots. Then began a sales pitch about how important it was that carpets had the government seal of approval and they could post carpets all round the world. More and more carpets came out - mostly large squares and all colours and designs. By now the proprietor thought we had been softened up enough to begin to talk prices. We told him firmly (several times) we weren’t interested and didn’t want to buy. The message eventually got through and we were bundled out of the shop. The hotel porter wouldn’t earn much commission from us.

After that we were prepared and soon found that if approached about the ‘last day of a carpet exhibition’ we would ask if it had a panoramic view and explain we’d already done this. It was all taken in good part.

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Eleanor

1000+ Posts
Impressions of Tunis Medina - A world Heritage Site

We spent four nights in Tunis, stopping at Dar el Medina, which is an excellent place to explore the Medina. It is a small hotel with 12 rooms. We had a room on the first floor overlooking the street. It was a large room with comfortable bed with bathroom and sitting area. Steps lead down into the room from the doorway which could be dangerous if you weren’t careful. Reception staff were charming, very friendly and spoke some English. They were very keen to help and very flexible in arranging meal times to suit us. Although there are several eateries around, we ate in the restaurant every night. The restaurant staff had limited English and we learnt to arrange the evening meal with reception. Food was freshly cooked and good although the jury was out on the molokhia, a Tunis speciality. Breakfasts were simple but filling and always started with freshly squeezed orange juice followed by an egg and bread or croissants.

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The Medina is the walled old town and is a rabbit warren of narrow streets, alleyways and souks. Parts of the medina are solely residential. Other streets have small shops or workshops on the ground floor of the house. Some houses are well maintained but there are very run down areas especially in the south of the Medina. Money is being spent to begin to restore these areas.

There is little left of the Kasbah, apart from the Mosque, which was built at the highest point just outside the Medina. We were told if we got lost to keep going uphill as that would bring us back to somewhere we would recognise. Just inside the walls is the Place du Gouvernement which has the residence of the Prime Minister and the Ministry of Finance building. This area was surrounded by razor wire and there were armed guards and patrol cars.

Streets in the Medina are narrow and there are few cars. You do need to watch out for motor cyclists, particularly in the residential streets, who have little regard for road safety or life and limb. We tried to find out if there were restrictions to take a car into the Medina but didn’t get a clear answer. We were dropped off in the Place de la Kasbah and met by the hotel porter who wheeled our luggage to Dar El Medina, our hotel which was about five minutes walk.

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The souks are covered areas of shops. They are narrow, covered streets with shops opening directly onto the street and many spill out into the street. These are busy and noisy areas with shop keepers encouraging you to stop and look. All was good humoured and usually all that was required was a shake of the head and ‘Non’. There were, however, touts out advertising the last day of a carpet exhibition in a building with a panoramic view.

The souks are centred round the Great Mosque in the centre of the Medina. Traditionally each specialised in selling one kind of goods. They were venues for trading and financial transactions. The merchants did not live here. There is a strict hierarchy with the ‘clean professions’ nearest the Great Mosque, selling religious books, perfumes, carpets, jewellery, linens. Messier and noisier professions like dyeing and metal working were further away. This distinction is now being lost as many different stalls are appearing.

The souks are narrow and the stalls spill out into the alleyways making them even narrower.

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Rue Jemaa Zitounia is lined with tourist stalls particularly near Place de la Victoire and stall holders can be quite persistent in encouraging you to look and buy. Prices tend to be high, so there is a need to haggle hard. The northern area of the Medina is largely free of tourists, well maintained and shops are geared to the needs of local residents. This is the best area to wander.

We had built time into out itinerary to allow us to wander in the Medina by ourselves. We also had half a day with a guide round the Medina and visited some of the souks with him. This was useful as it gave us chance to ask questions and lean about some of the things we saw.

We visited the Grand Souk des Chechia to see the traditional hats being made. These start as a huge floppy hand knitted hat which is boiled for half a day to shrink and felt it. It is dyed, usually red, and then put over a wooden mould and ironed into shape.

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Souk el Attarine specialises in perfumes and was heady with the scents of the different perfumes. You can have a perfume made up to your own specification and this includes Chanel No 5. Many stalls sell the beautifully made Khestru baskets which are given by the groom to his fiancee. They are made of carved wood covered with silver. They are padded and contain everything the bride needs to beautify herself including gloves and a pillow used when painting hands with henna.

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The herb market sells all sorts of medicinal herbs and magic potions. Even though there is a good health service in Tunisia many people , especially the poor, still prefer the traditional medicines. There were long queues of people waiting to be seen.

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In the residential areas, streets are narrow and cobbled. In places the streets have an archway over the street which helps support the buildings. These may have wooden rafters or else brick vaulted ceilings. Some have living quarters over the archway. Smaller streets lead off the main streets.

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Houses open directly onto the street. They have a doorway in the centre of the wall. Windows are restricted to the first floor and often have a decorative grille over them. The doors are made of wood and the size and decoration of the doorway reflects status of dwelling. In the more important houses the doorway has double doors with a smaller door known as a Khoukha. Doors are often decorated with large black nails with symbolic or geometric designs and carved stone surrounds. Some doors have several door knockers, reflecting the number of people living in the house. Men, women and children had different knockers with different sounds

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A vestibule (skifa) leads from the doorway. In larger houses this had an entrance porch (driba) with a seat for receiving guests or customers.

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There may be a second hallway used by the household for housework or craft activities. Beyond is the courtyard paved with stone or marble with a central fountain. This provides lighting and ventilation. The proportions and degree of decoration reflect the wealth of the owner. The earliest buildings had panted walls. Later this was replaced with colourful glazed tiles. With a frieze of carved stucco above.

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Some of the larger houses like Dar Lasram and Dar Hussein how house offices and the courtyards are open to the public during office hours. Dar Lasram is well worth visiting as it is possible to wander round some of the rooms.

The Tunisian males love to sit and talk and there are many cafes scattered through the Medina where they meet and share a hooka pipe. We sometimes wonder whether they did any work. Women are not encouraged to socialise outside the house.
 

Eleanor

1000+ Posts
Tunis Medina - Attractions.

We spent a morning with a guide hitting the high spots of the Medina. Top of the list was the Great Mosque. This is also known as the Zitouna Mosque as it stands on the site of the olive tree where Hassan Ibn Nooman first taught the Koran. The first mosque on the site was built in the C7th but rebuilt in the C9th using two hundred columns salvaged from the ruins of Carthage for the Prayer Hall. The courtyard is C14th, the entrance portico to the south C17th, the arches around the courtyard C18th and the minaret is C19th.

It is in a cramped site in the middle of the Medina surrounded by souks. From the outside little is visible apart from the massive blank walls. The best view of the Minaret is from rue Sidi Ben Arous. Gateways lead from the Souks into the Mosque. There is no ceremonial wash area as the men wash before coming to the Mosque.

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Non Muslims are not allowed to enter the Mosque. By the main gate is a small ticket desk and non Muslims are only allowed into one side of the courtyard where there is a wooden fence stopping you from going further. It is surrounded on three sides by simple arcades with the Prayer Hall is on the fourth side.

The University based in the Mosque was one of the greatest in the world with students coming to study from across the Muslim world. The library still contains one of the world’s greatest collections of Arabic literature. Tradition had it that each teacher had his own column where he sat with his students around him. It was a place of higher education until the 1950s when the Universities took over and theological students moved elsewhere

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We could see the covers of the water tanks which collected and stored drinking water for Tunis. There was a sundial with carved stone next to it. There is a reasonable view across the courtyard to the C9th prayer hall which had its doors open but was too far away to see into.

This was the first Mosque we went into in Tunisia and we were frustrated that we could see so little of it. If you are intending to visit Kairouan where you have access to the courtyard, then give this one a miss.

Tourbet el Bey is a large sandstone building with green tiled domes and was the burial place of the reigning princes of the dynasty Husseinite who ruled Tunisia from 1705 to 1957. The different rooms contain the tombs of their wives as well as some ministers and faithful servants.

The entrance hall is very attractive as it is covered with tiles with bird patterns.

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There is a small ticket desk, but they have no information about the mausoleum and do not sell post cards. This leads into the main courtyard with an orange tree and lined with rooms containing the tombs. The rooms were often more impressive than the tombs with brightly coloured, patterned tiles and carved white stucco ceilings.

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The graves are covered with marble boxes. Some are simple boxes with a marble slab at each end with a poetry description mourning the death of the deceased. The tombs of the princes have a column with either a turban or fez on top. Each had the date of death in the Muslim calendar on the pillar. The tombs of the royal princesses were separated from other tombs by a wooden screened area. In the room housing the oldest tombs there are smaller tombs belonging to children and in one corner a wooden tomb housing a Sidi (revered holy person). The rooms with the later tombs were congested with tombs crammed in to fill every available space.

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I had seen pictures of this on the internet before we visited but felt the reality didn’t live up to the images we’d seen. This applied to many of the other tombs and Zaouias we visited. If you are only planning to see one, this is possibly the best.


Several of the houses or palaces belonging to wealthy merchants or government officials have been restored and are now used as offices. Several of these are open for visitors. Entry is free and it does give you chance to see what is inside the plain wall facing the street.

The best one to visit is Dar Lasram in the north east part of the Medina. It is one of most lavish palaces in the Medina, being built in the C18th by a rich landowner and high ranking officer whose family provided the Beys with scribes. It is now the offices of Association de Sauvegarde de la Medina, who oversee medina conservation and anyone can go in during office hours. There is just a small plate outside the building, with no mention of opening times.

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The doorway leads into a black and white painted entrance hallway.

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Rooms off this have beautifully tiled walls and painted wooden ceilings.

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There is a huge central courtyard with marble pillars robbed from Roman sites and a carved white stucco frieze above. Opposite is a large T shaped room with tiled walls, carved stucco frieze and painted wood ceiling which had chairs and tables is now used as a lecture area.

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Steps lead up to the first floor with more tiled rooms

Dar Othman is in the south west corner of the Medina near Tourbet el Bey and Dar Ben Abdallah Museum. Dar Othman is one of oldest palaces in Medina dating from the C16th. We got lost trying to find it and after going round in circles were eventually taken to it by a kindly local who didn’t expect a tip. Like all the houses in the medina, it is a plain building outside with a decorated doorway.

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Entry is into a passageway with decorative tiles and carved stucco above.

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You are only allowed into the small courtyard with palm trees and plants. This is lined with an arcade of slender columns supporting round arches with black and white marble decoration round the arches. Again the pictures on google look better than the actuality. We were disappointing and felt it was not worth the effort we had put in to finding it.


Dar Hussein is near both the Great Mosque and Place du Gouvernement and belonged to a senior government official and was later the seat of the French Military Command. It was built in the C18th on the site of a C12th house. This is an interesting area to explore. It is very quiet with few visitors and there are a lot of very old buildings. Again you are only allowed into the courtyard which is covered with a glazed glass roof. There was a sign in one corner pointing to ‘cafe’ but we were stopped from going any further. Perhaps this is just for the use of people working for the National Institute of Arts and Archaeology.


The courtyard is splendid with a wooden first floor balcony which was painted green and brown and had white ribs underneath to support it. Again there were decorative tiles around the walls with carved white stucco above.

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Near by is Dar el Haddad which houses the National Heritage Institute but was firmly shut.
 

Eleanor

1000+ Posts
Bardo Museum, Tunis

There had been a major extension and refurbishment project at the Bardo Museum and when we visited in March 2012, the new extension was still closed and several rooms in the old section were closed or bare of exhibits.

This is a popular site and receives a lot of tourists. Large groups going round with a loud voiced guide can be a problem so it may be necessary to adjust your route to avoid these.

The museum originally occupied the Bey’s Palace which is a large and splendid building. The new extension will at least double the size of the museum.

We went through a side entry into the palace and were greeted by a huge mosaic on the wall of a chariot being pulled by leopards.

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The floors were covered with mosaics, mainly with geometric designs. Many of the ground floor rooms were still being refurbished and were empty. There is a large and beautiful C6th baptistry from near Kelibia with a mosaic surround and basin.

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A tomb has the remains of a mosaic inside it and on the walls are examples of mosaic covers from tombs. The inscription on the tomb gave information about the person buried.

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Walls have complete mosaics or fragments of mosaics. In the stairwell to the first floor is a large mosaic made up of a series of small squares showing animals, grapes, birds, vegetables and a gaming table. This style of mosaic is called ‘Xenia’ which means gifts of hospitality. It was designed to impress and show off how much wealth the family had as they were able to afford all these things.

A spiral marble staircase led to rooms on the first floor which have more mosaics on the walls as well as a few Roman heads and statues. There is a lovely mosaic of Oedipus tied to the mast of his ship to prevent him being entranced by the song of the sirens

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There are mosaics showing fish and fishing scenes. In one, a ship is being attacked by pirates and as soon as men fall into the sea they are turned into dolphins.

The mosaics are beautiful and we were intrigued by the use of slightly different colours of tesserae to give a 3D effect.

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Eleanor

1000+ Posts
Ville Nouvelle, Tunis - a morning spent exploring the New Town

The New Town was built by the French on an area of drained land to the east of the Medina. It has a very different feel with wider streets lined with tall white colonial style buildings and a lot of traffic.

Rue Jemaa Zitounia one of the most popular tourist routes through the Medina ends at Place de la Victoire which is a huge open square surrounded by tall buildings. It is full of people and displays of goods spread out on the pavement. The remains of Bab el Bhar one of the original gateways into the Medina now stand in splendid isolation in the centre of the square.

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Av de France leads into Ville Nouvelle from Place de La Victoire. Beyond is Av Habib Bourguiba, with trees and splendid white buildings. It is a very busy dual carriage way with a narrow central reservation and two rows of cars and tram lines. We took our life in our hands as we crossed the busy road and then discovered traffic goes round you. It is lined with trees and large splendid white buildings. There was still razor wire and an armed police presence around the French Embassy.

Rue de Charles de Gaulle off Av de France is narrower and lined with modern shops with good displays selling fashions, shoes etc.

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The Post Office is in a large splendid building. Inside is a large hall with counters on one side. Opposite is a small table with a man giving out numbered tickets. You collect a ticket and then sit until called to a counter. We eventually found the post box tucked away in a corner. Postal vans and post boxes in Tunisia are yellow which confused us at first. Postcards posted here took nearly three weeks to arrive.

The Central Market is in a huge building on Av Charles de Gaulle surrounded by a high wall with entrances into the different parts of the market. There is a large central square with fruit and vegetable stalls with side corridors selling fish, meat, bread and spices and flowers along each of the different sides. It was fairly quiet when we arrived and several of the stalls were not in use. Some had fruit and vegetables piled in heaps. Others had beautifully presented displays of carrots, beetroot, onions, artichokes and herbs all tied into small bunches. There were red and green cabbages, huge cauliflowers and segments of bright orange gourd. There were big displays of oranges and strawberries and bananas hanging up. Some stalls just sold dates, either loose or still attached to the stems and sold in bundles. A stall sold different types of olives and capers, another pasta, pulses and dried spices loose from big sacks.

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There was no sign of refrigeration in the butchers’ stalls. They sold assorted animal parts including cows feet, sheep’s heads, tripe and other innards. You didn’t want to look too closely.

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The cheese stalls had big piles of grated cheese, emmental, edam and gouda style cheeses as well as soft curd cheeses. These were sold as soft flat rounds with a pattern on them.

The fish stalls had beautifully arranged displays of fish, carefully piled up with their tails bent up. There was herring, massive tuna, octopus, squid, cuttle fish and many different varieties we didn’t recognise.

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Next on the list was the Roman Catholic Cathedral of St Vincent de Paul on Av Habib Bourguiba. It is a large building with two towers and a central dome. It is a modern building built with a mixture of styles, including Moorish revival, Gothic revival, and Neo-Byzantine.

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It is fairly plain inside and is disliked by Lonely Planet and Rough Guide. I can’t say we particularly liked the architecture but it is an interesting building and there is plenty to admire. The nave is massive with three aisles separated by columns with round topped arches. Above is a narrow walkway with small balconies and a central cupola. There is a small screened side chapel for private prayer.

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The arches in the choir area are more decorated. The dome is painted and has pictures of the Martyrs of Arbitina painted in the arches below. There is a free standing altar with a carving of the Madonna of Carthage and Christ Child behind. A walkway round the back of the choir is decorated with mosaics of the saints on the walls and a cage containing a descending spiral staircase. There are a few statues in the church and stations of the cross on the walls. There is a confessional but no pulpit. There is a small decorative C19th reliquary of King Louis IX of France.

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We then went to find the Greek Orthodox cathedral on the street behind the Roman Catholic Cathedral. There is nothing about this in the guide books and we had seen it marked on a map of Tunis. It is set back off the road in its own grounds behind a locked gate. We don’t think it gets many visitors. A woman in the office next to the cathedral saw us and came to unlock the gate.

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It is a large pleasant building with the impression of a lot of space inside. The walls are painted white with pale golden wood carvings around the walls. The tops of the windows and arches are decorated by a narrow painted frieze in reds and whites. There is a pale gold wooden balcony around three sides of the nave and pale wood rows of seats round the side walls with red cushions. There are similar chairs for the dignitaries in front of the iconostasis. Above are glass chandeliers.

The iconostasis is a darker wood and has two paintings on either side of the central door with the all seeing Eye of God above. There is a small icon on a small display stand in the nave with flowers round it. There is a larger icon of S George, Virgin and child and other saints on the the walls.

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We liked the building and it was well worth finding.


All in all a good morning. Central Market was great fun, but then we enjoy food markets. The Roman Catholic Cathedral is definitely different and the Greek Orthodox Cathedral is a hidden gem.
 

Eleanor

1000+ Posts
Cap Bon Peninsula

We spent a day round Cap Bon Peninsula from Tunis, going clockwise starting from Aïn el Atrous round to Kelibia and then cutting across through the mountains back to Tunis, missing the major tourist resort of Hammamet.

The roads out of Tunis were busy as the previous day had been a holiday. It is very built up to Solman with some big new houses. Beyond we began to get into agricultural land. In mid March it was very lush and green with lots of wild flowers. In places the soil was sandy with heathland vegetation. Wild jasmine grows on these areas, scenting the air.

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We drove through groves of olive and citrus fruit. In places the land under the olives had been ploughed and was being used to grow potatoes or broad beans. Fields of onions were being picked as they began to swell, washed and tied in bundles to sell. We watched hand ploughing uses horses. Roads are lined with eucalyptus trees which give some shade. Sheep, goats and cows graze the edges of the roads or in fields watched over by a shepherd. Many still use a donkey for transport. Along one stretch of road people were selling jars of honey on plastic crates watched over by someone sitting in the verge. Everywhere there were oranges for sale - either in small crates along the road or from larger stalls.

Older men were wearing the traditional hat called the Chechia and a large baggy woollen coat a bit like an oversized dressing gown.

The road climbed up the side of Jebel Korbous past the hot springs at Aïn el Atrous, which was very busy with a bus load of Tunisians sitting with their feet in the hot water and one brave soul bathing. We could smell the hydrogen sulphide in the water. There are assorted stalls selling tourist tat and a cafe.

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Korbous is tucked into the base of cliffs with a large massage centre at the start of the town. There are a few small shops and a large restaurant at the end of the road.

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The road beyond to Aïn Oktar is no longer used after a series of land slides. It was too hazy for views across to Sidi Bou Said.

We stopped to see a local market in a small village. The road was lined with fruit and vegetable stalls. There were a lot of oranges (sold by weight with 1kg for 2TD - about 80p) onions, bunches of carrots, white radish, globe artichokes, fennel etc. There were cages of hens for sale and also a small fish stall. There were stalls selling dates, dried pulses and herbs. Further down were clothes and shoes.

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The road cuts inland across fairly sandy soil with scrubby vegetation to El Haouaria, a large town with many shops. We drove to the end of the road, clambered over the rocks to the point and declined lunch in a fairly expensive fish restaurant (where the fish was brought to you in a basket for you to choose what you wanted).

Cont....
 

Eleanor

1000+ Posts
Cap Bon continued - Kerouane, the only surviving remains of a Punic town

Kerouane is reached down a side road, and is a lovely site at the end of the road. The entrance is in a new building with ticket office and shop selling a few post cards. There is an information board and map of the site.

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The museum is in a separate building and is excellent. It is built round a courtyard with display rooms off. There is a model of the site and displays of pottery, jewellery and small carved animals found around the site.

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A pathway with a carefully tended garden leads to the ruins which overlook the sea.


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There has been a settlement here since the C8th BC and it was a major Punic site controlled by Carthage between 4th-2nd BC. It seems to have been the home of an urban elite of merchants and craftsmen. Numerous pottery workshops and kilns have been found as well as jewellery making, stone carving and glass making. It was a major manufacturing centre for ‘Tyrian purple’ which was made from a from a shellfish called Murex. These were collected and left to rot in large pits dug in the ground.

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The site was abandoned in C2nd BC after the fall of Carthage, never re-occupied and covered by blown sand. It is the only example of a Punic settlement to have survived untouched and is a World Heritage Site.

It is a large site and a lot is still unexcavated. A fenced off route leads round the ruins and there are a few information boards. However many of these are worn and the writing is hard to decipher.

The walls stand about 2’ high in places. The buildings are arranged along streets. They were fairly narrow with a drain between the buildings.

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Some still have the remains of floors (red with bits of white pottery) and we could see the remains of wall plaster in places. Each building had a private bath, recognisable by the red cement lining.

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There were lots of wild flowers growing around the site and among the houses. It is a delightful place which we had to ourselves and we could easily have spent a lot longer there. There is also nice view along the coast with waves breaking on the shore.

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Eleanor

1000+ Posts
Cap Bon continued - Kelibia and its fortress

Next stop was Kelibia, which is a very large settlement of low white houses and a lot of shops. It has a large fishing harbour and a lot of large houses belonging to wealthy businessmen.

The settlement dates back to Punic times when it was an important trading post. The town is dominated by the fortress. The present building is C16th on the remains of a C6th building. All that is left of this are the ruins of a lighthouse which is now a metrological station.

The fortress is still surrounded by crenellated walls standing to their full height. A road leads up to the entrance with a small parking area and ticket office.

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Entry is through a barbican to the main gateway which has slots for what could have been a portcullis and holes in the walls for the beams across the inside of the gateway.

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Inside steps lead up to the walkway round the walls with nice views of the town and surrounding areas.

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The inside was very overgrown with vegetation, especially big yellow daisies and asphodel.

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There is a small house inside the ruins with hens running round and the remains of arched storage sheds. There are the ruins of a Byzantine chapel as well as a small building with a meteorological station.

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We took the central route back to Tunis across the hills. It is a pleasant rural run with little traffic, across countryside with open fields. There are few field boundaries or trees and a few scattered farm buildings. People were busy at work in the fields harvesting onions.

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Dropping down the north side of the hills we ran into the olive and orange groves again. We passed a huge wholesale depot distributing oranges, There were trucks piled up with crates of oranges.

From Salima we picked up the Tunis road. It had been a good day.
 

Eleanor

1000+ Posts
El Kef and the Kasbah

El Kef is an important regional centre surrounded by a large grain and cattle raising area. Few tourists go or stop there. We had chosen the area as it is convenient for visiting Dougga and Chemtou. We also wanted to visit Ain Drahmen which is Tunisia’s only ‘hill station’. To the south, Jurgurtha’s Table and Haïdra make a good day out.

We stopped at Dar Chennoufi, a delightful old house set in the countryside surrounded by olive, almond and orange trees as well as fields of wheat and onions and about 10 minute drive from the centre of El Kef. It is built round a central courtyard. We had a huge room with a large double bed set in an alcove at the far end and separated from the rest of the room by curtains. With the decorative tile work above the bed, it really did feel as if we were sleeping in the Bey’s bed. Dinners were home cooked Tunisian food and excellent. Breakfasts were ample and filling with freshly squeezed orange juice, and a choice of breads croissants and sweet items as well as eggs.

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The old town of El Kef with the Kasbah, is perched high above the new town on the flank of Jebel Dyr mountain which rises dramatically above the plain.

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It has a long history as the area has been settled since neolithic times. The Carthaginians established a town here to protect the western fringe of their empire. It was annexed by the Romans, raided by the Vandals and captured by the Arabs in the C7th. The Ottomans arrived in the C16th and rebuilt the fortifications. It was the first town to be occupied by the French in 1881 and was the provisional capital of Tunisia during WW2.

Traffic in El Kef can be chaotic around Place de l’Independance and Av Habib Bourguiba, particularly at lunchtime. Away from here and up to the Kasbah is a lot quieter. This is built on a strategic site at the top of the hill. The wall from which originally surrounded the old town can be seen running up the hill behind the Kasbah to the Presidential Palace.

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The wall was demolished to build this for President Bourguiba and it occupies a prime spot in El Kef surrounded by large grounds. It is rarely used now.

There is limited parking on the side of the road leading to the kasbah This is actually made up of two forts. The Grand Fort was originally built by the Byzantines in the C6th and was reinforced by the Turks in the C16th.

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To the south west of it is the Petit Fort which was added later and, in 2012, was closed and in poor condition. There had been talk of turning the stables into a cafe and the fort into a hotel.

Entry is through a large wooden gateway. On one side is a grassy bank with cannons and the wall of the Kasbah on the other side. The remains of the Petit Fort are ahead.

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The road climbs past the remains of the prison block to the Grand Fort, which has been restored.

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The Grand Fort has two entries. The older one on the right is smaller and crosses a drawbridge with a right angle turn through a barbican into the fort.

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To the left is a larger entrance made by the French which gave easier entrance directly into the courtyard. Above the entrance were the Governor’s quarters.

The courtyard is a large open square lined with rooms which served as barracks and the garrison for the army. There are large bastions at the corners and a walkway round the top.

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This has good views down on the 6thC Basillica (shut for lunch) and C17th Zaouia and Mosque of Sisi Bou Makhlouf (closed for restoration). Further along the ramparts there are views across the town to the remains of the Roman baths and cisterns.

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Eleanor

1000+ Posts
El Kef continued - Other attractions

The Roman Baths occupy a massive site but the lay out is very confusing as the site was later used as a church.

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There is the remains of a mosaic floor covering.

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One wall is lined with tomb stones. These had a jug carved on one side and an olive press on the other. There are the remains of a large hexagonal pool surrounded by arches which is filled with dirty water and litter. The site was partially excavated but in 2012 was getting very overgrown with vegetation.

The Roman Cisterns are across the road and are massive covering an area of 40x42m. They still have their ventilation covers on top and contain water.

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Below the baths is Ras El Ain which can be reached using the path down the side of Sidi Ahmed Gharib Mosque. There is a mosaic and a lion’s head fountain which is dry but should flow into a bowl. A spring runs down a channel fed from another piped water source.

Being a Monday, the Regional Museum of Popular Arts and Traditions, a short distance from the Kasbah in the former Zaouia of Sidi Ali ben Aissa was shut. The Al-Ghriba Synagogue was also closed and although we knocked loudly on the door, there was no answer.

We did however manage to get into the ruins of the Church of St Peter, Dar el-Kous. This is C4th and in 2012 was being restored, although there did seem to be a lot of sitting and not much work being done. Our arrival was a good excuse to down tools and watch us.

It is unsigned and the frontage on the street is very plain.

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Wooden doors led into a roofed porch area with the walls of the church beyond which still stand to nearly their full height.

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They are made up of rows of massive blocks which supported the arched roof with smaller blocks between them.


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At the east end is a beautiful brick arched apse.

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There are the remains of pillar bases lying around and the remains of a large carved tombstone. Doors lead to the outside of the south wall. Above the doorway is a carved cross with palm tree and dates.

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The outside walls are made of huge stone blocks with plain borders and stippled inside. This was a delightful place and worth finding.

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On the whole e were disappointed by El Kef and it didn’t live up to our expectations. The old town is fairly unexciting to explore and is mainly residential with shops collected on the main shopping streets. In 2012, the Roam bath area was very run down but more recent pictures look as if the area has been tidied up.

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Eleanor

1000+ Posts
El Kef continued - The Roman baths of Hamman Mellegue

We drove out to Hamman Mellegue, a few miles to the west of El Kef. It is a lovely run along a ridge with Aleppo pines with rosemary and juniper.

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The road drops steeply down the hillside with very dry soil and little vegetation to a river valley cut by a large fast flowing river from Algeria and Hamman Mellegue. We drove past a small farm house with small children playing outside, who were intrigued by the arrival of foreign visitors.

Hamman Mellleque was the site of a Roman bath house. It doesn’t feature in the guide books and there is little information on the web. It is a popular spot with the locals.

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The Roman remains are close to the river and there is still a working hamman for men and women next to them.

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Entry is into a changing area. Beyond is a room with a deep pool full of hot water. It was quite busy when we visited. We were assured the water was changed twice a day.

Beyond is a typical domed Berber building which is a small guest house for people visiting the hamman. The water is supposed to be good for rheumatism and arthritis. There is a nice short walk downstream along a track to a huge cliff face cut by the river. There has been differential erosion of the strata with the bands of harder rock standing out clearly. There was a lot of drying silt left on the river bed as the water level dropped after the winter rains. There were men fishing in the river. It is a delightful place and worth visiting if you are in the area.
 

Eleanor

1000+ Posts
Around El Kef - Aïn Draham and the cork forests

We had wanted to visit Aïn Draham as it is described as Tunisia’s only hill station at 800m in the Khroumitie Mountains.

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The French tried to create a small Alpine village away from the heat of the plains. There can be considerable falls of snow in the winter so the houses have sloping red tiled roofs to throw off the snow. This style is still referred to as ‘French’ housing.

We were terribly disappointed by Aïn Draham which is now a huge sprawling settlement on both sides of the valley with a mix of typical Tunisian houses with flat roofs and ‘French’ houses. There is a small craft area at the top of the hill selling pots made out of cork and other crafty items. They were uninspiring both in looks and quality.

Overall, we felt Ain Draham wasn’t a particularly attractive place and not one we wanted to spend time wandering.

We did the ‘scenic’ detour between Aïn Draham and Bulla Regia which took us through the cork forests and Ben M’Tir.

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The guide books refer to this as ‘spectacular’ and it was certainly a good run and more than made up for the disappointment of Aïn Draham.

A narrow road winds up through the cork oak woodlands with huge bushes of white heather which were in flower in late March. There are quite deep valleys carved into the mountains. There were quite a few subsistence farms particularly between Aïn Draham and Ben M’Tir, dependent on cutting cork and keeping animals. Ben M’Tir is a small settlement of red tiled houses which was built in the 1950s by the French to house workers constructing a dam. Once completed, the houses were handed over to the locals. The lake is a popular beauty spot with the Tunisians and there are a lot of new and very large houses being built in the area.

Cork oak trees have a thick, rugged bark which can be several inches thick. It can be cut every 9 to 12 years to produce cork.This doesn’t harm the tree and a new layer of cork forms.

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The trees can live from 150-250 years and the first cut is when the trees are about 25 years old. Most woodland contain trees of various ages.

The trees are owned by the government and locals get a permit to cut the bark. Newly cut trees have deep red brown trunks which gradually fade as the new bark is formed.

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Strips of bark are taken to depots where they are bought and then stored in long rows to dry for 2-3years before being processed as corks, insulation for fridges etc.

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Eleanor

1000+ Posts
Kairouan

We spent 3 nights in Kairouan stopping at the Kasbah Hotel, which has been turned into a very nice hotel with a lot of style. We were given a large, comfortable room with a balcony overlooking the courtyard with a swimming pool. Evening meals and breakfast were self service buffets. There was a good range of choice of salads and hot food (all labeled) in the evening with the usual selection of Tunisian cakes and biscuits with blancmange and flans. There was plenty of choice at breakfast with a selection of cold meats and cheese with a variety of breads and cakes as well as omelettes to order. It is an excellent base to explore the Medina. The only downside is that it close to a small mosque and the first call to morning prayers starts at 4.45am.

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The city was founded by Okba ibn Nafi, a companion of Mohamed in 671AD. He halted here with his army and found a golden cup on the ground which he had lost in the Holy Well in Mecca. Picking up the cup, water sprang from the ground and he believed this was connected to the Holy well at Mecca.

The city stands isolated in a depression and was a reasonably secure and central base for the new rulers, between the seaborne threats of the Mediterranean and the mountainous homes of rebellious Berbers.

In the C8th the city developed as a centre of Islamic learning and laid down the basis for Islamic law. Infidels needed a permit to enter the city. It is the spiritual and religious capital of Tunisia and the fourth most important pilgrimage centre after Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem.

In the C9th it was the base of local Aghlabid dynasty who were responsible for the building of the basins to the north west of the city. After their fall it had a long complicated history (see Footprint Tunisia for all the details….) It is now a centre of traditional carpet manufacture and tourists are likely to be subjected to the hard sell if they go near the carpet shops.

We spent a day around the Medina and tourist attractions.

The Medina is one of the best preserved in Tunisia and streets are broader than elsewhere. It was used in “Raiders of the Lost Ark” to double as Cairo. We could visualise Magnus wandering around and wanting to know if any one spoke English, ancient Greek….

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It is surrounded by impregnable walls 7km long with monumental gates.

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The original walls built in 762AD were repeatedly destroyed and rebuilt. They are reinforced with twenty round towers and four gateways. The best preserved section of the walls is around Bab Tunis and Bab ech-Chouhada.
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Outside one of the gates are two giant anchors, made by a C19th blacksmith, Sidi Amor Abbada, who claimed to be a Holy Man with supernatural powers. He believed the anchors came from Noah's Ark on Mount Ararat and would safely anchor Kairouran to the earth.

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Inside the walls are a maze of streets full of shops and workshops producing copper pots, leatherwork, carpets, perfumes, clothes, jewellery, hats...

Av 7 Novembre (Av Ali Belhouane) is the main route through Medina between Bab Tunis and Bab ech-Chouhada. It is a wide street lined with shops and stalls spilling out onto the pavement selling everything from Alegua baskets, incense, clothes, crockery, carpets.

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There are a lot of mosques and some splendid gateways. Watch out for people wanting to show you the Mosque and carpet shop. (Be warned, Zaouia Sidi el Ghariana is not in the place marked on some maps which is a carpet shop.)

Cont....
 

Eleanor

1000+ Posts
Kairouran continued - Attractions

We began the morning at the APPC ticket office at the Aghlabid Pools to buy a joint ticket for all the Kairouan attractions. There is a small gift shop by entrance and Tunisian cafe on first floor with staff outside exhorting everyone to go inside. It is a steep climb up the stairs to the top of the building for views over the pools. The stairs are fairly narrow and not pleasant if going the opposite way to a bus load of people so try and time your visit first thing in the morning before the coaches arrive. From the top there are views down onto four of the Pools. There is no access to the pools from here. The only entrance is by the western gate, next to the children’s play area/funfair with a small train, dodgem cars, cafes etc.

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The pools were built in the C9th by the Aghlabids and were restored in 1969. Unlike other major towns of the time that lay on or near rivers, or near abundant sources of water, the supply of drinking water in Kairouan was a source of constant concern. Water was brought by an aqueduct from Djebel Cherichera, 36km away. 16 pools were built to store water which entered a smaller settling basin before flowing into the larger pools. The ensured that even during times of drought, fields around Kairouan could supply enough grain and water for the town. Unfortunately the pools were also a major health risk as breeding grounds for mosquitos.

Inside the Medina, our first stop was Zaouia Sidi el Ghariana. This is the burial place of a C13th saint. It was built in the C14th and has been recently restored.

A tiled entrance leads into a courtyard with tiled walls with white carved stucco above. There is a painted wood ceiling under first floor balcony. We couldn’t shake off a ‘guide’ with dodgy English who began to explain about the local medersa (Muslim school) and took us into a room with the tomb behind wooden railings, covered with a green cloth. He pointed to a stone in the floor and said another saint was buried there and then put out his hand for payment. I said I had no money. Michael only had a small coin (worth about 8p) eft from buying bread. He showed this to the guide who regarded it as beneath his dignity to accept.

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Just down the road is what is described as the ‘House of the Bey’ which is now a carpet shop.

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The Bey had four wives and the house had 70 rooms. We were shown round the shop while our driver disappeared to have a cup of tea and talk to the rest of the staff. Through the doorway is the Summer Music room with a highly decorated wood painted ceiling, set out with small chairs and tables for tea.

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Beyond is the smaller, snugger winter music room with an attractive painted cupola above. There is a balcony above where the musicians played.

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Beyond this is the central courtyard with more tiles and painted ceilings with the rooms of the four wives above.

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Apparently the Bey would sleep with each in turn but had Fridays off.

Carpets of all sizes and patterns hang from the walls. Beyond is the grand reception room.

A woman was sitting on the floor at a loom knotting a traditional carpet. Working in blocks across the carpet, she took a few strands at a time and knotted the wool round them and cut it off. Each family makes the same design of carpet and learns the designs by heart. Weavers usually work 2-3 hours a day at home and a carpet can take 2-3 months to make. The best wool carpets can have up to 90,000 knots per sqm. Silk carpets have 250,000 and are very expensive.

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We were shown examples of Kalim carpets which are ‘embroidered’ and are patterned on both sides. These are a lot thinner and used as general purpose rugs. This was a fascinating place to visit, apart from the hard sell. We were shown examples of 2x1m carpets for 240TD, ‘only £110’ and told they would cost at least £300 to buy in UK. We said we were not interested and were promptly shown the door.


We then headed to the Mosque of the Three Doors which is closed to non Muslims but on the tourist itinerary because it has an elaborate facade with three doorways topped by a frieze with kufic (early Arabic) script and flora reliefs. Men used one door, women another and children the third. This is in the area of the weavers. We could hear the clack of the looms and went into one workshop to watch blankets being woven.

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Next stop was Bir Barouta, in a domed building in the centre of the Medina which looks a bit like a Mosque. It was built to surround the Holy Well of Okba ibn Nafi. A blindfolded camel decorated with scarves by women wanting a baby, plods round turning a large wooden wheel used to raise the water. He is controlled by man hitting a stick on the floor to give instructions, stop, start. A second smaller wheel with jugs is used to pour water into cups for tourists to drink, for an obligatory tip. We were the only people there and it wasn’t as tacky as I feared. There is little space and would be unpleasant if busy.

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Eleanor

1000+ Posts
Kairouran Attractions continued....

Next was the Great Mosque. Most tourists visit this first after the Aghlabid Pools so it was fairly quiet when we arrived. It is the oldest, largest and most important mosque in the country, being founded in 671AD by Okba ibn Nafi and rebuilt in the C9th. It is surrounded by a huge wall with no windows and few doorways.
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There is a small ticket desk with a room behind containing the library. It leads to the massive courtyard surrounded by covered arcade which provides shade. The Minaret is at one end and the Prayer Hall at the other.

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A central drain in the courtyard collects water in underground cisterns.

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There are several wells covered with stone slabs which have deep groves made from ropes pulling up water.

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Wooden steps take tourist up to admire the sundial on a marble column which indicated the times of prayers.

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The arcade outside the Prayer Hall is wider and the roof is supported by marble pillars, all different, and recycled from Roman sites.

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They support two rows of brick arches with a small cupola in the middle. Very decorative doorways made of palm trees open into the Prayer Hall. Non Muslims are not allowed in although the central doorway is left open so they can see in. Rows of green and red marble pillars support the roof hung with large chandeliers. Rugs are laid out on the floor and round the base of the pillars. At the far end is the mihrab tiled with the original C9th tiles with the wooden minibar beside it. Wooden panels on the left screen off the women’s area who use a separate doorway.

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Outside the Great Mosque is Ouled Farhane Cemetery.

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Our final stop was Zaouia Sidi Sahbi. This is the burial place of Abou Djama el Balaoui, one of Mohammed’s companions. He always carried three hairs from Prophet’s beard and was called the ‘Barber’. The original tomb was C7th but most of building is C17th, when accommodation for pilgrims, a medersa and mosque were added.

From the outside it is a very plain brick building with the top of the minaret peeping out above the walls and a white painted mausoleum at one end.

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A doorway leads into a large courtyard with decorative tiles and carved white stucco and minaret in one corner.

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A small doorway in the corner by the minaret leads into a passageway with a tiled vestibule and more carved stucco. At the far end is a small room with carved stucco and a small cupola with small pieces of coloured glass. In the sunlight these cast coloured patterns on the walls. This leads into a smaller courtyard with pillars, tiles and stucco.

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Round it are rooms where male children are brought to be circumcised. The tomb is on the opposite wall and only muslims allowed in. We peered through doorway to see the tomb covered with green cloth.

A wooden doorway leads into the Court of the Medersa which is lined with small study rooms and a Prayer Hall on one side. Next to it, the tiled entrance hall had niches below a tiled shelf for shoes.

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Eleanor

1000+ Posts
Mahdia - A delightful small town ignored by the package tourist

We visited Mahdia from Kairouan. It is a fairly long and boring drive through unattractive flat, poor infertile land with low scrubby vegetation which floods during the winter months.

Mahdia is a large and very pleasant settlement, which is very clean and tidy with well kept houses. We drove along Av Ferhat Hached on the south side of the peninsula and our first stop was by the modern fishing harbour. This is large with a lot of small fishing boats (falouka) moored up and a few larger fishing vessels.

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They fish during the night, returning in the morning. There are several old traditional wooden vessels with sails and rigging which are no longer used for fishing but do day trips round the bay for tourists, including lunch. They have very high prows and a large cabin at the stern with a flat back. Some have very decorative carving. Others are rigged up to look like pirate ships.

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The market hall is across the road from the harbour. There are a few stalls selling fruit and vegetables and a large and noisy fish market with stall holders calling out their wares. There are all sorts, sizes, shapes and colours of fish. Some are beautifully displayed in piles with heads and tails bent upwards. Others are sold from plastic crates. We saw tuna (huge) mackerel, sardines, long eel shaped fish and something called a ‘pig’ fish because it eats everything.

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We walked to Skifa El Kahla, which was the original C10th gateway leading into town and was rebuilt after being blown up by the Spanish in 1554. Originally the tip of the peninsula was cut off by a massive wall. This was the capital of the Fatamid dynasty and the rest of the population lived outside. Entry to the peninsula was controlled at the gateway. The walls were 10m thick and had huge iron grilles which could be lowered to deny access to city.

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A long arched passageway leads though the gate and is lined with stalls selling mainly tourist stuff.

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Rue Obeid Allah el-Mandi leading from the gateway is a wide and pleasant street lined with well maintained white buildings with shops beneath and some very ornate wooden balconies. There is a wide range of shops with a few selling tourist items. Unlike Tunis and Kairouan there was no attempt by the stall holders to pressurise tourists into buying.

We walked past Mustapha Hamza Mosque with its octagonal brick minaret and Place du Caire, which is a very pleasant square with trees and cafes full of men sitting drinking coffee. The Tunisian males do a lot of sitting, drinking and talking. We wondered if they ever did any work…

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Further down is the Great Mosque surrounded by high golden stone walls but no minaret.

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Guide books said this was closed to non-Muslims but the door was open so we went in. The mosque was founded in C9th but completely reconstructed in the 1960-70s apart from the monumental portal leading to courtyard which retains its C9th stonework and has lovely red arches. The rest still looks very new and modern. Inside the gateway is a huge courtyard surrounded by arches and the Prayer Hall on the opposite wall.

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The large wooden doors into Prayer Hall were open and we could see the columns supporting the roof with a huge chandelier, floor covered with carpets and wooden Minibar which is part of the original C9th building.

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In the north corner of the courtyard are the remains of the cisterns which collected and stored water from the roof.

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Towards the end of the peninsula is Borj el Kebir with the remains of the Punic settlement beside it and overgrown with yellow daisies. The Borj is surrounded by a massive cemetery full of white tombstones which spread round the tip of the peninsula.

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Entry to the fort is through the gateway which has a small ticket office. This leads into a long corridor with smaller vaults off it and into a big courtyard. The commandants quarters were above the gateway.

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There is a walkway round the top of walls which give good views down onto the small Fatimid port which is a small square area with two small channels to the open sea. There are the remains of the towers on either side of each entrance which had chains suspended between to control entry into port. There are also fragments of the defensive wall to the south.

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The small lighthouse at the tip of the peninsula is operated by the military.

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The Zone Touristique spreads further along the coast to the north and is lined with large, very splendid hotels and large apartment blocks to rent. It is a pleasant area with roads lined with palm trees and a narrow stretch of beach which is kept clean with seaweed and rubbish (mainly plastic bottle tops) collected and dumped in a narrow strip along the top of the beach under the wall.


We liked Mahdia and could easily have spent longer here. It would be a nice pace to drop out away from the mass market tourism.
 

Eleanor

1000+ Posts
Monastir - The Ribat and Bourguiba’s Mausoleum

After visiting Mahdia, we spent the afternoon at Monastir as we wanted to visit the Ribat. Not only is it one of the best preserved in Tunisia it was also used to as a film set for the ‘Life of Brian’.

Driving up the coast from Mahdia, the town is dominated by the pale golden walls of the Ribat which glow in the sunshine.

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The original fortifications date from 796AD and were built as part of the coastal look out system to defend the Muslim coastline against incursions from the Christian north. It is one of the oldest and largest of the military structures built by the Arabs in North Africa. It was reinforced and surrounded by an additional wall in the C9th & C11th.

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The ticket office is in the foot of one of the towers.

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This leads to a corridor flanked by former guardrooms which now house display panels in French and Arabic. Beyond is a massive courtyard with the smaller courtyard of the women’s ribat beyond. A very tall lookout tower (Nador) in one corner has a very narrow and steep spiral staircase winding anticlockwise to the top.

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Passing people on the staircase is difficult and there is little space at the top. The views from the top make it worth the effort. The 360˚ vista includes the Great Mosque with ruins in front, marina, and cemetery with Bourguiba’s mausoleum.

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A series of steps and ramps lead to the top of walls with a walkway and more views.

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There is a small museum in what was Prayer Hall. The information is mainly in Arabic with a little French. There are carved stone steles, glassware, pottery, coins, old sundial, pages from the Koran, old textiles…

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President Bourguiba is held in great respect and love by the Tunisia people and his mausoleum is a bit of a pilgrimage place for them. Monastir was his birthplace. Bourguiba’s Mausoleum is an impressive building built in 1963 and dominates Sidi el-Mezeri cemetery.

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A ceremonial walkway leads to the tomb. At the start of is the Tomb of an Unknown Soldier, a symbolic grave for all Tunisians who fought for the freedom of Tunisia. The walkway is impressive with a decorative pavement with lamp posts and trees. It is a pity about the stalls selling footballs, balloons and tatty children’s toys and the horse drawn wagons touting for business.

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The entrance to the mausoleum is marked by marked by two tall gold topped pillars and the pattern on the walkway changes. It is an imposing building set on an arcaded courtyard with a golden dome above Bourguiba’s tomb and smaller green domes on either side over the tombs of family members.

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We used the side door into building and visited the tombs of family members first. These are simple marble slabs set in the floor with inscriptions on the wall above. There are two exhibition rooms about Bourguiba with information and old photographs. A larger room behind the tomb contains his office furniture and some personal effects.

The tomb is a massive marble structure in the centre of a large circular room with two storeys above with walkways round. His white painted chair is in front of the tomb and there is a massive chandelier hanging above it. It is very impressive.

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We didn’t have time to see anything else of Monastir. What we did see we weren’t over impressed by. The drive out of the town on the way back to Kairouan was very scruffy with a lot of rubbish dumped round the edge of the town. Tunisia doesn’t seem to have discovered recycling and rubbish disposal was a major problem. It seems to be solved by dumping the rubbish along the side of the road and occasionally trying to burn it. Polythene blows everywhere.

It was an interesting afternoon and we enjoyed the Ribat. Given the choice again we would spend time in Mahdia rather than Monastir.
 

Eleanor

1000+ Posts
A day round Sfax Medina - Few tourists and no hassle to buy

Sfax is the second largest town in Tunis and the traffic is scary and traffic rules don’t seem to exist. There is a free for all at junctions and roundabouts and no one pays much heed to the few traffic lights. Motor bikes thread their way through the traffic. Everyone is jostling to be first.


We spent two nights at Hotel Borj Dhiafra, a very stylish hotel in the outskirts of Sfax surrounded by high rise housing. The room was excellent with a large comfortable bed. Meals were generous, well cooked and reasonably priced. There was plenty of choice on the menu. Service was attentive and quick.

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We spent a day exploring the Medina, one of the best preserved and most authentic Medina’s in Tunisia and surroubnded by impressive walls.

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Apart from a few tourist stalls around Bab Diwan, it is still a working medina where people live and work. It gets very few tourists. This means it is hassle free compared with Tunis and Kairouan.

Large areas of the New Town were destroyed by bombing during the Second World War. The area outside Bab Diwan and the Medina walls is a pleasant open grassy area with palm trees.

There are three large modern gateways through the walls at Bab Diwan which still have heavy wooden doors which can be closed at night. The walls are made of stone and stand to original height with crenellated tops. There are stalls selling a wide variety of bread in the passageway through the walls, a good place to buy lunch.

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Immediately inside the gateway is Alouzin Mosque with a tall narrow minaret and decorated doorways and windows.

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We walked down rue Borj el Nar which is a narrow paved street running parallel to the walls. It has a central drain way and is lined with houses with plain whitewashed walls and doorways leading to upper floors. We missed the alleyway leading to Borj Ennar and were stopped by a very insistent but very nice Tunisian woman with no French who was insistent we go no further. (We think we may have been heading into the red light district.) She took us back to show us where to go and made sure we went in the right direction. There was a small sign on the wall and the instructions in Lonely Planet are accurate.

There is not a lot to see in Borj Ennar, a small C17th tower built at the corner of the walls to protect the south east corner of the Medina. Beacons used to be lit on here for signalling.

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It is now the headquarters of the Association de Sauvegarde de la Medina. We went into the office and asked for a map of the Medina. After much rustling in a drawer, one was produced which marked a tourist route. (This is the route described in Lonely Planet. We found the Rough Guide map the easiest to follow.) There are small signs on the walls pointing out the route.

We headed to Dar Jeliouli through the residential area of narrow streets. Many houses have small workshops on the ground floor with shoe makers, tailors and also barbers shops. There was some work being done by the men but also a lot of sitting and talking. Many of the houses are looking run down. Some are derelict and a few are being restored.

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We continued to follow the tourist route past more workshops and souks (mainly selling clothes and shoes) to the large market outside the Medina walls.

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There is a very large fish hall at back with men shouting their wares. There was the usual selection of fish including a lot of octopus and squid.

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The butchers area had insides hanging up as well as skinned sheep’s and cow’s heads.

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We were glad to be back in the fruit and vegetable area with piles of peas, artichokes, onions, carrots, cabbages, herbs, oranges, lemons, strawberries… A few stalls sell fried pulses and ingredients for henna and incense.

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Back inside the walls we walked along rue des Forgerons with a knife sharpener and other small workshops making cooking pots.

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Cont...
 

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