Adventure in Tunisia

Tunisia Odyssey: Eden to Oasis
Bicycle Africa / Ibike Tours

Dispatch 11 - Nabuel


The day started early so we could catch the 6:30 a.m. Tunis bound train back across the country, to get a little taste of the vegetation, economy and history of the north.  Initially, the route doubles back near much of the desolate route we rode the day before. Then, gradually, the land starts to change. First, you noticed a lot of prickly pear along the tracks then more green appeared throughout the land with some wheat fields and later, olive orchards.  Initial the olive trees are very widely spaced--a signal of the dryness of the area--as we travel towards the coast the eventually start to to be slightly less spread out. You never really get to the forest stage in this part of Tunisia, unless you call the palmeraies forests.

Finally, we reached the coast and headed north for a couple more hours to near Hammamet.

We disembarked in Bir Bou Rigba, a station at the base of Cap Bon and the closest station to Hammamet.  The plan for the next two days is to cycle around the perimeter of the very verdant Cap Bon before we returned to Tunis.

On this day, hundreds of miles away from the arid south, as we started to cycle in a heavy mist, we couldn’t see very much but there was definitely a whole new set of smells: orange blossoms, jasmine, onions and the sea. Oh yes, there was still an olive trees and an olive press in every town and their characteristic pungent smell.  At most immediately you can begin see why Carthage counted on Cap Bon for its fruit and vegetable supply.

Within a few kilometers of leaving the station we entered to outskirts of seaside Hammamet, Tunisia's oldest tourism destination town -- primarily known for its beautiful fine sand beach.  Though the town dates back at least as far as the Punic and Roman eras and has a "picture perfect" restored 15th century kasbah -- it probably never looked so perfect and pristine during its working life.  The kasbah has now been converted to commercial space. Inside it is a tourist commercialism gone wild.  Just inside the door you encountered a luggage vendor followed by stall after stall after stall of goods right down the line.  In size, number of vendors and quantity of goods Hammamet's kasbah looks like it dwarfs the tourist stalls in the Tunis medina--but the selection of goods seems to be almost exactly the same.  One more distinction about Hammamet, is the vendors are some of the most aggressive in Tunisia. 

It is a caricature of mall (tourism materialism on steroids) and we quickly backed out.

There is little in this part of town to signal that you are in Tunisia, except for the names of the banks.  Upscale tourism has now engulfed the town and everything for 10 kilometers in each direction along the coast.  There are several dozen mega hotels in the area, and twice as many again medium and small hotels.  The dominant restaurant is the pizzeria.  Even though there are dozens of cafes, the quintessential institution of all Tunisia towns, the setup, clientele, dress and activity in the cafe is distinctly manicured European, not Tunisia.  Even most of the Tunisians were dress far less conservatively than we have become comfortable with in the south.  Some of the young men were dressed caricatured hip-hop hip.

More recent tourism development in Tunisia seems to have tried to keep the fortress hotels away from the pre-existing town centers -- somewhat curtailing their cultural collapse.

As Hammamet started to fill with hotels, the same process was started in the previous backwater working town of Nabuel, 15 kilometers east.  Fortunately, the Nabuel medina (old town), and souk (market) are away from the coast and the sun-and-sand palaces, so they have managed to retain some of its architectural and cultural flavor.  But Nabuel now has more than a dozen fortress hotels of its own, and the rapid urban sprawl of both towns has merge them into one strip city.  Nabuel dates back to the Roman era as well, but much of its economy and character dates back to the early 1600, when some Jewish and Muslim Moorish artisans fleeing the Spanish Inquisition land here and set-up shop.  Nabuel is known for its pottery, jewelry, stone carvers and other artisans.  There are streets lined with stone carvers, and other streets lined with jewelers. The main indicia of it former significant Jewish population is the large Jewish cemetary.

In Nabeul, the main commercial  street has been converted into a pedestrian arcade.  It doesn't seem to have hurt business because it is packed with people during the day and stays active into the night, long after the last tourist has retreated to within the walls of their hotel complex.

Cap Bon has a number of fish restaurants. It is the practice to show customers the days selection of fish on a platter. If you are fortunate, the maitre d' will personally demonstrate the squid.  If you select a fish, expect it to return to the table fully cooked, with the head on and intact.

An interesting observation made by our traveling companion Ralph, is that the numerals we use are Arabic in origin but they don't seem to match Arabic. When you see numerals in the text of a Tunisian Arabic newspaper, you see the "foreign" Arabic script (written right to left) suddenly punctuated by the very familiar numerals one through nine (written left to right) -- it is very jarring. In an addresses for instance, the street name, city and country are in Arabic, written from right to left and the building numbers are inserted, in a non-matching font, written from left to right -- just the opposite. As it happens, things aren’t always so straightforward: While our numerals are in fact derived from the Arabic numerals, they just barely resemble them now. If you look at the Arabic from Saudi Arabia for instance, you would not see our Arabic-derived numerals and the true Arabic numerals used would be written right to left just like their letters. But in Tunisia, they made the conscious decision to stick with the French numerals instead of reverting to the true Arabic because of the long French influence, so they write the numerals from left to right while they write the text right to left. All a little confusing.



If you want to spend a little more time in Tozeur, take another bike ride and take a night train, you will have time to bicycle to Metlaoui.

On one trip, perhaps because it was Friday night train, or just after Eid, the train filled-up. Even though we were traveling first class and the seats are well cushioned and tip well back, it was less than a fully restful nights sleep. I was half out of it but there seemed to be some boisterous young people and periodic hubbubs about who belonged in first class.

By bicycle, heading back to the north, the first town out of Tozeur is another El Hammam. This one has an open air hammam along the side of the road. The steaming water spewed out of the top like a geyser and then flow down trough in a square shape, that with each turn around the fountain drop enough to keep the water flowing slow and moves  Click to enlarge
further out from the center. Only men were at the waterworks during my midday visit. They were all using the outer few channels of the course where the water is the coolest. This is usually a women’s time at the hammam but they weren’t here. Perhaps they aren’t comfortable at this very public a facility.

Click to enlarge
The land between Tozeur and Metlaoui support grass and scrub brush. It seems to keep the camels content. There were a couple of groups of healthy looking camels. In the area of the camels there were also a few tradition black wool Bedouin tents -- presumably Click to enlarge the owners of the camels. And periodically there were small oases. It's not particularly visually memorable, but there is plenty of time to think.

Metlaoui’s livelihood is from phosphate mining town. The mountains behind the town give it a scenic setting but the town reflects its business. The ore trains run through town and right where the slag piles and tailings end the residential neighborhoods begin. Business must be pretty good. Stores are fully of merchandise, people are well dressed and the streets are busy.

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