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Report 1992: Tunisia - the North and the Roman Sites

By Eleanor from UK, Spring 2012

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Page 2 of 30: Impressions of the North

photo by MAW

Berber on donkey with fodder

Tunisia is a popular holiday destination for the British 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 is a great sense of optimism after the revolution and a great will for the changes to succeed. Most people are Muslims and there is concern that the more extreme Muslim groups don't become too powerful. In Spring 2012, Government buildings were still protected by razor wire and armed guards but we saw little sign of any troubles where we went. There is still some unrest along the Libyan border and a high police presence in the south. There are also periods of unrest in the southwest where there are a lot of phosphate mines and every so often the miners go on strike and set up road blocks demanding better working conditions. The bush telegraph is good at warning drivers about potential danger areas which are then avoided.

The tourists are slowly returning after a year with few foreign tourists. Many of the tourist areas suffered quite badly and hotels 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. 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 colored tiles with carved stucco friezes and beautifully painted ceilings.

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. The stalls spread out into the streets and there is barely room to walk between them. Different souks specialize in different goods. Those near the Great Mosque sell jewelry 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.

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

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 from the banks so we hope it isn’t another property bubble which will burst.

Construction looked decidedly iffy in places. Large rectangular bricks are used for walls and floors. These are 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.

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 realize how much color 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.

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

The olives are picked in November and taken to huge plants for processing. You can 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 prefer them to the ‘summer’ oranges which are paler in color and much sharper flavor (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.

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 and are taken back to the tent and 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 you would see small groups grazing along the road sides watched over by a member of the family.

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. I'd taken photocopies of maps of all the places we wanted to visit, made copious notes and we were happy to wander by ourselves. 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. There is a high police presence along the roads and drivers are often stopped to show their papers. Near the border with Algeria there is extra security and we were asked to take passports with us.

Petrol prices in Algeria are lower than in Tunisia and there is 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 then sold along the roadside. Everywhere you go in Tunisia you see 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.

The north of Tunisia is stuffed with Roman sites. To the Tunisians, anything old is described as 'Roman', regardless of its date. 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.

There is little in the way of facilities at any of the sites. Some sell postcards but they look dog eared and bent as if they have been there a long time. There are no shops selling guide books or gifts. Dougga did have a basic cafe. Most don't and toilets are of variable standard.

Dougga and Thuburbo Majus are easily reached from Tunis and get a lot of tourists. Bulla Regis is further but still on the 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 Souar aren’t even marked on the map. We had these to ourselves. Some like Aïn Tounga near Dougga and Gightis near Djerba have a guardian even though they get very few visitor. They are lucky to see one visitor a month.

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