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Tunis and the North
Rating: (5.0) (21 votes)

Tunis, Tunisia
November 21st, 2005


Pros : The food I have tried so far is good and cheap
Cons : None

Purchased provisions for the crossing and made my way onto the ferry. With little messing about we were soon on the open sea heading towards Tunisia. A big ship, with a handful of passengers and some rather rough seas. Not sure what to expect on arrival at the ferry port - I have to make my way across the causeway into Tunis - a ride of 10Km or so in the dark. Still, after successfully negotiating the streets of Palermo at rush hour, I'm sure its nothing I can't handle.

When retrieving my bike from the hold I bumped into another of those rare species, a cycle tourer. Victor is Swedish, in his late teens he had finished school and was in the last stages of his first long distance cycle tour - from Sweden to the ancient city of Carthage in Tunisia. How lucky is that I thought. What I was not prepared for was the unbelievably strong security presence. Sniffer dogs, machine guns, police and everyone seemed jumpy and on edge. All passengers entering were stopped and searched, luggage x-rayed - and this was having got off the boat! The bikes were stripped down - again - and forms filled in. I thought it was a bit extreme. On the way over the causeway we were flagged down by two of the other passengers who had been talking to Victor on the ferry. We chatted for 10 minutes - they had great respect for our efforts and choice of destination. Also we were informed a summit of many presidents was taking place in the city of Tunis - hence the extreme security. Everywhere we went were armed police. Entering the city we the ride up Ave Habib Bourguiba is quite dramatic. Big fountains, big road, big buildings and big of money but thankfully little traffic. This is the modern showpiece of Tunis and the site of many of the international hotels. With all the presidents arriving it was probably the cleanest it has been since it was constructed - they were literally scrubbing the pavements when we arrived. Found a hotel without much problem. Clean, central and 8 euro a night for a sizable room. Went for a wonder around to check out the surrounding facilities and managed to persuade a restaurant to stay open for a bit longer so we could tuck into a tasty chicken dish with all the trimmings.

Back at the hotel we said a toast over a glass of wine to our safe and comfortable arrival in the city of Tunis - pity the president couldn't make it to greet us.

First stop was the tourist information, dropped off some seriously toxic washing at the laundrette - paid by weight, I was tempted to ask if we could pay for the weight AFTER washing. Breakfast was filling soup called 'lablabi' served with bread. Stopped by the main market where we tried dates and they were nothing like the ones you get at Christmas. These were near transparent envelopes of nutty syrup with none of the gristly bits. Then to the Medina, the ancient walled section of the city for an in-depth explore of the twisting winding streets packed with souvenir shops, workshops, houses, Mosques and lots of screaming children. I was pleasantly surprised at how hassle free the whole place is. Being the low season I thought we would be pounced on by hordes of idle salesmen, but no. It was fun and not the slightest bit stressful as I expected it to be. Stopped off at a number of places that seemed to be closed except one, the Dar Ben Abdallah Museum which is an old house renovated in the 19th century to the latest tastes. The rooms have been restored and filled with furniture and creepy manikins dressed in period costume. We took a long walk to the Bardo Museum along a dusty road where the pavement just seemed to disappear.

The museum is undeniably a work of art. Many of the mosaics and items are displayed in a fabulous and spacious setting. Many of the visitors were VIPs from the international summit and I got the impression there were some seriously big wigs admiring the exhibits with us. In my opinion though it was more an art gallery than a museum. I found it candy for the eye and not fodder for the brain. Time was ticking and we were soon kicked out the museum. Hopped on a bus back to the town centre to pick up our washing and plan the next few days ride together around the north coast. Victor makes a very easy going cycle companion. When I asked 'Which foods don't you like', he thought for a bit and said, 'none'. Need I say more. Wondered around town soaking up the evening atmosphere and feasting on a giant bowl of soup so thick that it hardly seems fair to call it soup. One of the freshest baguettes set us up for a venture into one of the very few bars that sell alcohol. The are all seedy, but the good beer is enough to distract you from that and the other odd ball customers.

Start point: Tunis
End point: La Marsa
Via: Carthage, Sidi Bou Said
Odom(Km): 32.95
Moving(hrs.mim): 2.31
Ave(Km/h): 13.1
Total Ascent(m): 96
Max Altitude(m) 315
Max Speed(Km/h): 39.2

Packed and made an early start from Tunis. Cycled along the causeway back to the ferry port to the town of La Gouelette and with the wind behind us we soon rolled effortlessly into Carthage.

It started off as a Phoenicians city founded in 814BC and after a series of epic battles with Rome, it fell in 44BC and was symbolically levelled and rebuilt in the Roman style with forum, baths, stadium etc... and it soon became the third most important city in the Roman empire after Rome and Alexandria and home to over 300,000 people. With the decline of Rome, Carthage followed and disappeared into obscurity.

First stop was the hilltop site of the Basilica and forum, now site of the Musee National de Carthage. Inside were mosaics, statues and a reconstruction of the site. It information gave us a little bit of an insight into what went on there. Next past swarms of police and diplomatic cars to the Antonnine Baths - the usual hot, tepid and cold baths, steam and massage rooms. The striking thing about the site was the size of the complex. The foundations and parts of the structure still exist and they are big.

The short stretch of 400 metres to the Roman villas, Victor got a puncture - the second in 4000Km. I didn't realise at the time, but we were metres away from the Presidential palace. I chatted to the friendly police man who was given a dressing down by his superior and kindly asked us to move the repair job out of sight from the road which we did without complaint as they carry pistols. Puncture fixed we set off to the site of a number of villas just across the road, one in particular had been rebuilt. Great views over the bay. Then past more police and army back to the presidents palace. We decided not to drop is it would inconvenience all the other people who had prearranged months in advance. More cycling north following the coast took us to Sidi Bou Said, a charming village of blue and white houses - Mediterranean style. Got to the top of the high street and Victor got his third puncture in 4000Km. Time was ticking and police were everywhere so we agreed it would be better to stay in a hotel. After much searching we booked into Pension Predi and Victor carried out his repairs. Feeling despondent, I had to persuade him not go home straight after reaching his goal of Carthage, but to continue the adventure along the coast and then south to the Sahara.

Start point: La Marsa
End point: Bizerte
Via: Bizerte
Odom(Km): 79.63
Moving(hrs.mim): 5.30
Ave(Km/h): 14.5
Total Ascent(m): 359
Max Altitude(m) 88
Max Speed(Km/h): 47.0

Much to Victors dismay, I was up bright and early for 6.00am. Packed and started cooking breakfast. On the road we passed through the flag ship hotel zone and the place was filled with army, police and men in suites with funny ear pieces. Every so often a cavalcade of flashy cars would speed passed with hazard lights flashing and speeding as to cause more danger to occupants than any possible car jacking.

There was a final road block after Gammarth and everything seemed normal again. Everywhere we go there are pictures of the president smiling and waving. What is disturbing is that these pictures have not just been put up for the duration of the international assembly, they are a permanent feature. Every business has one behind the counter. I haven't asked how this rule is enforced.

After the hotel zone the road is flat, well made and skirts around a giant lake situated to the north east of Tunis city. There are sweeping view to the surrounding countryside - mostly ploughed fields of mud. The housing is made of shacks and farm animals wander around. Saw a chariot being pulled at no great speed by a donkey. Passed through some large towns and were harassed on occasions by wild dogs and even more wild boys. With so many days off as holiday, they have become troublesome. The road quality deteriorated due to the rain and we ended up going down some roads covered in a thin layer of mud. Navigated back to the sealed road to rejoin the busy Tunis to Bizerte main road.

On arrival in Bizerte my first priority was refuelling with a packed baguette. Victor exclamed he wasn't hungry and felt a bit sick. I suggested a sugary drink and he washed it down with the odd mouthful of baguette. We agreed to meet up after I had toured the town. Firstly I took pictures of the old port and then wandered around the Kasbah, a walled town containing lots of anonymous looking houses crammed into unfeasibly narrow streets. Climbed a near by hill next to the outdoor theatre for views over the town. Two container ships were being towed along the canal and under the bridge that we crossed - titled very much in its 'up' position.

Back to retrieve Victor and find a place for the night. The hotel we eventually found was 6TD a night - that’s 2.25p per person, per night for a clean and friendly place to rest.

Start point: Nefza
End point: Ain Draham
Via: Tabarka
Odom(Km): 65.21
Moving(hrs.mim): 4.53
Ave(Km/h): 13.3
Total Ascent(m): 919
Max Altitude(m) 628
Max Speed(Km/h): 40.5

I am indeed enjoying this country. It is not a difficult place to travel in. The food I have tried so far is good and cheap - around 1 Euro for something in a 'stand up' with as much bread as you can eat (within reason). Restaurants are about twice that. Portions are better than anywhere else I have been. The hotels we have stayed in are cheap and have 'character' and 'characters'.
Victor is suffering - a combination of food, water and bad luck. He has decided to travel back home from the last town in Tunisia on the Tunisia / Algeria border - Tabarka.

There was more traffic on the roads than yesterday, but in comparison to any western European town its still a laughably small amount of traffic. Victor battled on and just after 13.00 we arrived in Tabarka without the police escort that followed us for most of the way. I organised transport for him and the bike back to Tunis and waved farewell. Although I have no shortage of people to talk to, a travel companion is something I have missed and Victors mild manor, thoughtfulness and laid back attitude to any situation make him the perfect travel companion.

Toured Tabarka quickly and ate lunch slowly. As I am on the coast next to the Algerian border and about to follow it south, this is my last chance to see the sea. What else could I order, but the grilled fish. "Is it caught locally", I asked. "Of course", he replied. I said, "In England, the restaurants catch their fish in the freezer". That tickled him.

After a quick tour around this small and pleasant town I continued out past a huge cork processing plant. Trucks laden with chunks of the stuff are to be seen going in and out.

The road south climbs gently but steadily upwards and on a corner of the road I looked down on a set of neat terraces filled with cork trees. That’s a good camp spot I thought. I also have goat meat with my spaghetti tonight.

Back on the road