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Report 1992: Tunisia - the North and the Roman Sites

By Eleanor from UK, Spring 2012

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Page 12 of 30: Mahdia - a Delightful Small Town Ignored by the Package Tourist

photo by MAW

Fishing harbour

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 harbor. This is large with a lot of small fishing boats (falouka) moored up and a few larger fishing vessels. 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.

The market hall is across the road from the harbor. 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 colors 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.

We walked to Skifa El Kahla, which was the original 10thC 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.

Next to the gateway is a small archaeology museum and mosaic fountain, which was not working.

A long arched passageway leads though the gate and is lined with stalls selling mainly tourist stuff. 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 is no attempt by the stall holders to pressurize 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...

Further down is the Great Mosque surrounded by high golden stone walls but no minaret. Guide books said this was closed to non-Muslims but the door was open so we went in. Entry was 1TD each. The mosque was founded in 9thC but completely reconstructed 1960-70s apart from the monumental portal leading to the courtyard which retains its 9thC 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. 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 9thC building. In the north corner of the courtyard are the remains of the cisterns which collected and stored water from the roof.

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.

Entry to the fort is through the gateway which has a small ticket office. (5TD +1TD photo permit.) This leads into a long corridor with smaller vaults off it and into a big courtyard. The commandants quarters were above the gateway. 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.

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

The area had experience bad flooding during storms earlier in the year and a lot of construction work was going on along Bd Cap Africa on the north side of peninsula, placing large boulders along the shore to protect against further storms.

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.

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