Tunisia Odyssey: Historic North
Dispatch 4 - Beja
|Teboursouk to Beja (55km, 34mi) (elev 200m) After a long gradual climb we descend into the Mejerda River valley—the breadbasket of the Roman empire. Program options: Teboursouk and Beja markets--working towns. Thibar region.|
Our tourist hotel out of the city last night was quiet, and too far from a mosque to hear the predawn call to prayer -- or we have adjusted to it. Breakfast was pleasant if not bountiful, and we took a bit more time getting ready after riding in the rain yesterday. A hoopoe called its name through our open window as we packed. Several of us brushed the dirt from our bikes and oiled the chain – ready to go.
It was a glorious morning. The sky had cleared since yesterday evening leaving scattered high clouds on the horizon. The rain cleared the air which was crisp and clean, cool but not cold – perfect biking weather. Our route took us through, then north out of Tebersouk and then up and down and up and up. The climb in the cool morning air warded off any overheating. The road was relatively new with a good surface and the incline was insistent but never steep. As a bonus, the traffic was very light and obviously local; this was not a major through road. But the icing on the cake was the view, a continuation of yesterday and then some. It proves the old adage that, "it is a prettier ride on a prettier day." A maybe it is a new adage because I just goggled the phase and came up with snake eyes--we make this stuff up as we go along. In any case, it certainly begged to be photographed.
In any case, the ride continues to pass through the small villages on the route. Green was the operative color. Green in all its spring shades and hues. Stocks nested on the high points on and near the farm buildings. Wheat was prominent, just above knee high and thick like a tall grass prairie. Other crops were evident, especially later after we had again descended and crossed the Beja River valley, but here wheat was king. As mentioned yesterday, this was the bread basket of the Roman Empire and it’s clear not much has changed since, excepting the politics.
After climbing for several kilometers we reached a low pass leading to another water drainage system. The whole way the vistas were open with only a scattering of the ubiquitous eucalyptus along the roadway leaving the view in all directions unobstructed except by other hills in the line of sight, fewer as we continued to climb, until the horizon blurred and faded into obscurity. Morning mists hung in the vales and low spots on the road and these, along with the suspiciously wet-looking dirt on the shoulder, were all that was left of yesterday’s rain.
At the pass, the road inevitably trended down into a postcard perfect patchwork quilt of green fields. Our route was clear as the road shot down the south side of the valley heading west until it arced in a lazy horseshoe around the western end of the valley and headed back up the north side toward the east. At the top, the road disappeared through another pass.
The downhill coast did not come close to compensating us for our climb and was over much too fast, but neither was the uphill as long since we only gained back what we had lost. Expecting a similar view when we reached the second pass and, in this, we were partially rewarded. This new watershed was every bit as lush and green as the last, but it did not have an obvious far terminus, but just seemed to continue on as far as one could see. At a point far distant, perhaps ten kilometers as the hoopoe flies, lay a town of some substance and it is easy to be struck with how similar this tableau is to a similar sight in rural America. At this distance one must be discerning to note the towers as minarets and not steeples, but otherwise there are no obvious clues that one is in some part of North Africa or Europe..
A more immediate difference between the views from the last pass to this one was the route we were to take. Instead of sighting our future progress through the valley, our route from this pass wound again down the southern slope to the west, but after a couple hundred yards the road cut behind a hill and it wasn't possible to discern where it emerged down the valley. Here was a puzzlement.
After stopping to take in the view, there was nothing to it but to ride the route and see where it led. The next half hour certainly ranks in the top five bicycle descents in most people's lives. It is up there with rides in the Swiss Alps and Norway among others. Did we mention the perfect riding weather and the gorgeous views, what remains is the design and engineering of the road itself. Bicyclists always feel a bit cheated when, after an arduous climb, the accompanying downhill is so steep and/or the curves are so tight that you need to ride your brakes all the way down. Besides the threat of cramping hands, catching brakes or a spill at high speeds, you just can’t enjoy the esthetics in this mode, and besides it is over too quickly. One requirement of a truly great downhill ride for me is that the road takes its time arriving at the bottom so you can coast down without much braking at speeds that enable you to enjoy your surroundings without concentrating on the bit of road directly in front of you scanning for holes or rocks or gravel or other road hazards. This road fit the bill to a T.
We kicked off and were soon coasting at a respectable speed. When we reached the last point we could see from the pass, the road revealed the next few twists and turns, but no more. This was to continue for most of the steeper section. Only occasionally could you look out down the valley and glimpse a segment of road before it disappeared as you rounded the next turn. The road was constructed so that you swooped down it. The curves were generally broad enough that you could take them with only the slightest of brake pressure though a couple were tight enough to slow to a more moderate speed. In general though, any braking was more to prolong the wonderful descent than because of a survival instinct need. A few stops were for valiant attempts to capture the experience on camera – a futile gesture to be sure.
On the climb and this descent there was a surprising absence of the goats, sheep, and cows we’ve seen all along our route often grazing under the watchful eye of a shepherd and his dogs along the grassy areas too steep for cultivation. We don't have a solid explanation for the absence other than to note that, for these higher segments of the road, we saw many fewer houses, barns or buildings of any kind. About a third of the way down, we did pass a large farm house with beehives across the road and two dogs lying in wait. Even at the 20+ mph speeds, one dog still came close to catching at least every other one of us. Fortunately, we weren’t riding uphill on this section.
As we proceeded down, it eventually became obvious our route would take us through yonder village as seen from above. In thinking back, it's still surprised how the contours could hide so much roadway when our eventual destination was in view. In comparing notes later, we all decided that this downhill run overly compensated us for the climb to reach this final pass. We must certainly have spent most of the altitude we gained on yesterday’s ride to Tebersouk.
As we neared the town we passed six or more large donkey-pulled wagons chockfull of the same green plant. Our best guess is that it was some type of fodder for the animals. It was a large leafed plant certainly not hay or straw so there is still room to wonder what it was. It was also surprised, as it has been several times on this trip, to see young men in their twenties driving some of the carts or, in other instances, herding goats. From our time seeing young populations in the cities and older populations in the rural town cafes, you expect older men to be doing these traditional jobs with the young men taking more upscale jobs and/or fleeing to the city. This does not seem to be happening, at least not as precipitously here as it is in other places. Evidently Tunisia’s population is increasing at a somewhat manageable rate and although unemployment is high by U.S. standards, it is not manifesting itself as dangerously high. There are many young people trying to emigrate to France and other places, but evidently many others are making the best of the situation at home and accepting work in agriculture.
The town is Thibar. From 1870-1976 it was home to the White Fathers, purveyors of Thibar wine. Vineyards have now been replaced with olive trees. There is also a Thibar Commonwealth War Cemetery (off the road next to Catholic cemetery). It again reflected the history of the allies North Africa campaign in this area, with the concentration of deaths in December, 1942, and early April, 1943. It contain grave markers for about 100 British soldiers.
After Thibar the descent continued almost as long again into the Beja River Valley. The agriculture was a little more diversified than we had see higher on the mountain. Stocks returned to the landscape, nesting on high points.
About two kilometers from the town at the bottom of the valley, a car started following one of the riders closely. He made sure to ride as far to the right as was practical, but it persisted. After about a kilometer, it pulled alongside briefly but then backed off again. It wasn’t clear what the driver was driver was about. In the next town the plan was to proceeded through it and then stop at the far end if the car was still there. It wasn’t. What was that about?
The cyclist continued on until he was about five kilometers from Beja, our destination for the night, and then pulled off the road to stretch his back and read a bit under the shade of a eucalyptus rather than wait in town for the others. When the next to showed up they were being followed by the same car who had briefly tailed the first.
It turns out it is a friendly guy who is working for some government security agency in the area and decided to follow us to protect us somehow. But, Tunisia has a significant undercover police network, usually assigned to keeping tabs on insurrection and criminal activity, so it can be a little unnerving to have their attention focused on you. He had in fact used his car to cut off a dog who started out to chase the second two cyclist. He indicated that he wanted to make sure we had the best experience possible in Tunisia. After finishing the break and resuming to ride, our personal security detachment followed the group to the turnoff to the hotel. This last section was a two-lane highway with wide lanes, but a little heavier traffic. Because traffic on the highway could easily get around us but was obstructed by our security man tailing us at bike-speed, it is hard to say whether he was in fact more of a help or a hazard in the way he performed his role -- there were no dogs to be seen in the area.
At the turnoff for the road into the town center our custody was transferred to waiting local uniform office for the last leg to the hotel. They even knew what hotel we were going to, which at the time was perplexing because we didn't know how they had gotten that information -- which for our own security reasons we don't publicize widely. One of the group members who was a ways ahead later told us he also had a police escort to the hotel, hence their knowledge of our destination.
[If you continue east you will reach on the highway you will reach Jebel Munchar, where in 238 BC, Hamicar defeated an army of mercenaries, and the picturesque Qued Zarga area. Oued Zarga means “Blue River”, but it gets into the history books because of a September 1881 rebellion where 11 European railroad worker were burned alive. Apparently the locals had a grievance. It is also the site of a Commonwealth War Cemetery, where 239 British and Indian soldiers rest in peace.]
Our guide said he periodically has had similar surveillance experiences on past trips in Tunisia but wasn’t 100% sure what their motives were: watching the activities of foreigners or watching the activities of locals towards foreigners. When they had tried to engage the escorts in conversation they were very closed lipped -- the man today was the most engaging that he had encountered. The guide said that on balance, the surveillance if pretty open so they tend to assume the latter. Tunisia has had a couple problems in the past and they have a huge economic interest in protecting their reputation as a safe and friendly destination for tourist, which also supports the latter argument.
A bit of a strange experience for the day, but all the guys was very friendly.
In the 6th C BC what is now Beja, was a Carthaginian outpost. From the 6-4th C BC it was a Numidian agricultural center. In 109 BC Roman citizens, many probably of Numidian ancestry, massacred the Roman garrison during Jugurthine War (an up rising of Numidian Berber under Jugurtha against Roman occupation.) It was called Vaga during the Roman Period. For the next couple of centuries life and commerce continued under the rule of whoever was in power down on the coast. The in 430 AD the Vandals arrived and sacked the place, along with a lot of northern Tunisia. By 600 AD the style of governance was a bit more positive, if not secure, when the Byzantine ruler fortified the town. Unfortunately, this was sufficient to stop the Moslems from sacking the town in the 9th-11th C -- presumably more than once.
After we dropped our stuff and had showers, we took a walk through town including the local market -- our security shadow seemed to be gone. Just down the street, the old French church at the center of town has a minaret and has been transformed into a mosque and youth center. In the koubba to the west of the church is the tomb of Sidi Abu Arbaa, koubba. Like most similar towns in Tunisia, Beja also had a noticeable Jewish population until the late 1970's. The synagogues have also now all been converted to other uses. The honey pastries stacked a foot high behind glass are so sweet that’ll make your teeth hurt and are specialties of the area. The market also provided sights not usually seen in the U.S.: raw, skinned sheep heads to be used in a dish where you eat the brains with a spoon, a bull carcass hung so the vacated abdominal cavity faced outward with the testicles hanging inside, and a café catering to the hookah crowd with many customers puffing on elaborate water pipes (called sheeshas here) -- think back to the caterpillar in the picture book of Alice in Wonderland. Just off main street is the Grand Mosque (terracotta brick minaret, mirab) and Zaouia el Adbel Kader (fish scale dome) (emir of Algeria? And resistance leader to colonial rule?). Leaving the market, we all took pictures of the tomb of a famous holy man or marabout, Sidi Boutef Faha, for whom none of the locals we queried knew anything about, but the mosque was photogenic. We had one more stop at another meticulously kept Commonwealth Cemetery marking more sacrifices of WW II. Of the 394 graves many dated from December, 1942 and January 1943. From the inscriptions you could tell that these were the advance teams; air corps, paratroopers and reconnaissance. There was another concentration from the renewed offensive in March. The Commonwealth Cemetery was adjacent to an overgrown Catholic cemetery abandoned some time after the French colonial days.
Before returning to the hotel, we had a little adventure and cultural lesson on a mission to chased down some bicycle wheel spokes. This journey led us all over town again. We stopped to ask a likely vendor where we might find spokes (la rayon in French) and he sent as our guide a seven-year-old boy who weaved through the streets for quite some time before depositing us on the doorstep of a bicycle shop. Upon comparing my spoke with his stock, the proprietor came up empty, but gave us directions to another possible source. This led to another multi-block walk and to an unlikely shop. The vendor asked how many we wanted and upon learning we wanted ten, called to a youth who jumped onto a motorbike and was off. Ten minutes later he returned with the ten spokes for a dinar (less than a US dollar). Such are how things are done in Tunisia.
On the way back to the hotel, our guide was asked about the cones of paper with Arabic writing I have seen in the gutters or sidewalks of most towns we’ve visited. He said the paper is scrap school paper or newspaper folded into a cone to hold nuts or candies or dates bought from street vendors. Another mystery solved.
The crucial task for the afternoon taken care of, we check-out the supermarket -- chocolate may have been the only item on the shopping list but we checked out every isle just the same.
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