Tunisia Odyssey: Historic North
Dispatch 5 - Tabarka
|Beja to Tabarka (80km, 50mi) (elev 5m) Wind down the fertile valley of the Beja and Serser Rivers. Program options: Coastal dunes, cork-oak, Mediterranean coast, Spanish/Corsair/Genoa castle, basilica|
|Breakfast was a simple
fare at the hotel. We tweaked some spokes to true a wheel, loaded up and were off. The sky
was overcast with a low cloud layer and a medium fog hugged the ground
especially when we reached the outskirts of town near the river.
The route was again rural, but more populated than yesterday’s. We passed under an impressive railway bridge that arched its way across our road and the small river alongside. Even shrouded by fog, most of us found this to be a photo-op.
This last twenty kilometers into Nefza were as nearly perfect riding as one could desire.
Most of us had already seen a plethora of storks and together we saw at least a plethora and a half . Generally they were at their nests atop platforms that graced most of the power cable towers along the valley. Many were feeding their young and we saw a few swooping from their nests to drop to the river conveniently located just below to re-provision their gullets with frogs, crayfish, and minnows. These storks have it made. Life was good.
A little later, our new police escort pulled up; two guys who told us they were with security and we exchanged greetings. They followed us discretely into Nefza.
At Nefza we regrouped. As we entered town a policeman on a motorcycle came towards us, made a U-turn and led us through town. We acceptingly took advantage of the escort through the very crowded market area and then pulled up at a small café for thé and café au lait. It made a nice break in our day. Our escort probably felt like they were herding cats because there wasn't any communications between us about when we would start and stop. Lacking an entourage the police circled back, park, chatted among themselves (as did we) and waited for us. By this time it was clear that the police were keeping tabs on us as we traveled from place to place. Oh, well. And no, we didn't press our luck by trying to photograph them.
The rest of the ride as we headed to the sea at Tabarka was pleasant though not as spectacular as the long valley ride into Nefza. Along the way, we passed a lake, farms, vegetated sand dunes, large chicken farms and lots of cork oak trees that had been stripped long ago. We saw no fresh cuts. Also, the last few miles the odors from some spring blossoms, possibly jasmine, were sweet and strong adding to our biking enjoyment. We stopped briefly at another commonwealth cemetery and then rolled into Tabarka. Five hundred Commonwealth soldiers are buried here. The US First Army was stalled near here on their eastern advance in December, 1942. All American casualties from the war are interned at the one US cemetery at Carthage.
Accommodations for the night were a very nice hotel for us with all the amenities and a roof top patio with an unobstructed 180 degree view of the island, marina, beach and coastline. The hotel staff didn't bat an eyelash at the bikes and they were stored on the ground floor in a hallway.
Tabarka is a delightful seaside town that seems about to lose its “quaint” status as it is increasingly being discovered by tourista. The tourists aren't there in large numbers in April because the sea is still too cold from the winter. But, it has miles of beach which are increasing being lined with hotels, pizzerias, curio shops, cafes, travel agents and a the other indicia of a tourism Mecca. The annual July Jazz Festival with headliners from Europe and America, which plays at several venues in town, is also certain to draw a crowd for its week long run. This moderately sized central town area already has a disproportional number of restaurants for a town its size. In the background, high end vacation housing is already beginning to climb up the surrounding hills. Our guide also commented on how single mindedly Tabarka has reinvented itself for mass international tourism since he started coming here two decades ago. In the process it has regressively moved from quaint to ordinary.
Tabarka’s location is certainly magic. It lies on a wide, protected bay with an island at the mouth for further protection, though Tabarka Island is really now a peninsula as the intervening strait has long since been filled in. The causeway to the island also serves as one side of the marina the moors fishing boats, a bit of the Tunisian Navy, visiting yacht and a growing fleet of "pirate ship" for tourist excursions. Atop the island stands an old Genoese fort with an interesting history, more on that in just a bit.
Tabarka itself was originally a minor Phoenician port (8th C BC Thabraka - "Shady Place). It came into its own during Roman times (2nd C BC) exporting Chemtou marble. Many of the big cats, captured in the extension of the Atlas mountains, that run parallel to the coast just south of here, that were used for brutal entertainment in Rome’s Coliseum, also left from this port. There are a few Roman era ruins in town and on the hillside, the French Basilica is built over the Roman cistern (19th C). In the 7th C it was attacked and destroyed by the Arab fleet. The local scene got livelier again in the 15th C when the Barbarossa brothers (Corsairs) took over from the then ruling Spanish and set up shop here. It seems that the Barbarossa's lost their lease when they traded the island as ransom for their buddy Dragut to a Genoa family in the 1544. The Genoese built the castle (and the French built causeway.) In keeping with the theme of impermanence, the Genoans were expelled by Ottoman Bey Ali Pasha in 1741. The next major shift in landlords was when the French colonized Tunisia a little over a century later. During the French tenior the major event seems to have been the exile to Tabarka of Habib Bourguiba (1952) at the Hotel Les Mimosas and Hotel de France. This is commemorated by a statue of Bourguiba in the central roundpoint.
A short walk to the west along a seaside promenade are the distinctly shaped Les Aiguilles (the Needles) after which our hotel is named. These jagged slivers of rock jut out of the Mediterranean in a small group on the west side of the bay providing a popular photo op. A nice walkway continues to a suburb of Tabarka on a point further west. While on the boardwalk we were greeted by a man who showed me his “official” permit to sell pink coral that grows offshore here. He then showed me a side bag full of pink coral jewelry. The coral is endangered, and it is illegal to bring into the U.S.
Our supper at the hotel this evening was normal Tunisian cuisine, but one side dish was worth remarking on. They served a cooked carrot and caper dish that was the best carrot dish I’ve ever eaten. The capers were not as strong as those I’ve used in the States and the combination of tastes was magic, like little explosions of flavor as you chewed.
Before I sign off, it is worth noting how the cafes seem to have men (never women) sitting at the sidewalk tables just about any time of day with all seats facing the street like little chevrons with the table at the locus. But as afternoon progresses, the café tables fill and for several ours the ritual is fully realized. Greetings are very important with much hugging and hand shaking all around when a new person arrives. It reminds me of the ritualized hand clasping, grasping, and shaking that is constantly evolving within our youth culture and which is often satirized. But here, the ritual is in earnest and you violate it at your peril. For instance, you should never just ask a shopkeeper for something. You first greet him, exchange pleasantries, and then submit your request. I have witnessed some put downs or subtle reminders of common courtesy on the trip when someone forgets the greeting. We have all speculated on what the women are doing when all the men are at the cafes. I suspect they have their own rituals behind closed doors.
Another thing worth mentioning is the number of Publitel and "taxi phone" shops that grace the streets of small towns as well as big cities. These are places where one can place a phone call. The suspicion is there are so many because few people have/had private phones in their homes. However, with the number of cell phones we have been seeing, the Publitel business is can't be long for this world. It looks like this will be another instance of a country leapfrogging ahead with technology. Instead of wiring homes with landline phone connections, cell phones will make it unnecessary and impractical.
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