Adventure in Tunisia  

Tunisia Odyssey: Eden to Oasis
Bicycle Africa / Ibike Tours

Dispatch 12 - El Haouaria

Click to enlarge Click to enlarge By the time we left Nabuel it was a bright sunshine; the greens of the trees were lush, the blue of the sea was an intense turquoise and earth of the farm lands was a rich reddish brown.  It is a stark contrast to our starting location the day before, and for the days before that.

We amused ourselves with day with little side-visits to stone cutters, tile factories and a marble cutting mill. The marble cutters had rock from both Tunisia and Italy.

We passed citrus groves, grape vines, and many freshly plowed fields. Several times we saw men walking disc plows behind horses though we also saw several tractors on the road. Beside the road were thick hedge of healthy prickly pear up to ten feet tall and stretching all along the road. The ubiquitous eucalyptus, century plants, and numberless wildflowers also stood out. We found the source of the fragrant smell that greeted us coming into Nabeul yesterday as jasmine. The ice plant, a standard landscaping groundcover in moderately warm climates, was also much in evidence, though not as plump and healthy as it sometimes is. Along with this new vegetation, we heard many new bird songs mixed with a couple that we had heard in the south.

There is a fascinating spring between Nabuel and Korba with a well beaten path and four spigots.  It seems that most all the locals stop, whether they come by car, motor bike or horse cart.  People will fill multiple gerry cans.  Clearly more than they need for the immediate journey.  The water must be special but I wasn't able to learn why.  I can vouch that the water taste very clear.

The farms and markets along the ways showed a great variety of fruits and vegetable – notably plump strawberries, citrus groves and acres of thriving vineyards. Even on the farms, but especially in the towns the area is clearly more cosmopolitans – women are wearing leggings or tight blue jeans. There is a flavor of Italy in the numerous pizzerias and rural architecture. A few older farm house have steep peaked red tile roofs.  Modern residential architecture tends to be large and quite eclectic.

Somehow a rain squall sneaked in around noon so we had to take refuge under and eave in a village for fifteen minutes. But mostly it was near perfect cycling: good roads, not to many cars or heavy trucks, flat, pleasant temperatures, a light tail breeze and gorgeous scenery.

Kelibia is generally similar to dozens of others in Tunisia, except for the fort that sits on a sandstone butte above the harbor. It is said to sit on 6th century A.D. Byzantine foundation, the Spanish did last set of walls more than ten century later and it was largely rebuilt and restored by Tunisians in 1993-96.

Saturday afternoon at the old Spanish fort was the place to be for some. Only the tourists seemed to be going inside. The real points of interest for the locals was the perimeter path at the base of the ramparts: lovers walking hand-in-hand, groups of young men hauling cases of beer around and groups of young women watching the boys. It is a very different culture from everything else we saw in the towns and fields in the south. Also, a few families seemed to have come for a picnic and the view (it was clear enough today to see a mountain on one of the islands belonging to Italy.)

At the base of the hill there are a series of Roman ruins, primarily houses (1,900 years old).  Several buildings have been excavated and you can still make out the floor plan of a villa with a central courtyard surrounded by rooms. Some still had their ornate tile floors intact.  They are amazing to us, but they seem to attract little positive attention from the locals.  The first site had some decent mosaic floors amid broken down walls, but nothing kept them from being further defaced or damaged.  Some of the ancient wells had been used by the locals as trash receptacles and the whole site was a mess. The beautiful wildflowers partially made up for the trash.

After lunch, the next stop of the day was at seaside Kerkouane, a 4th century BC Carthaginian town. The experts estimate that its population was about 2,500. There is no evidence of government building so the guess is that it was a relatively well off working town, perhaps leaning towards artisans center and fishing. The evidence points towards stone masons, iron-makers, glass-blowers, sculptors, and fishermen.  Many of the floors are done in an early mosaic style called opus signium, with pink colored cement floor made from crushed terracotta embedded with flecks of glass and marble. (Later, the art of mosaics would be further developed in Tunisia and export around the Mediterranean.)

Kerkouane seems to have been abandoned after the first Punis War, when the Romans arrived, but not sacked. The walls have now been reconstructed up to about a half meter high. You can look across the entire village and get an idea of the floor plans. More intriguing to me than the overall layout of the village is the particulars of the "plumbing" in the houses. Many houses seemed to have wells centrally located within their walls. Very convenient to the well would be the bathroom, with a sit-in red and white tile tub for washing. Throughout the houses and village there were well laid out channels in the floors and bigger ditches under streets for drainage.

After Kerkouane it was mostly a lot of very beautiful cycling past multicolored farm land. As we neared the end of Cap Bon we passed a large compression plant for the gas pipeline that runs from southern Tunisia, to here and then under the Mediterranean Sea to Italy.

At the tip of Cap Bon is El Haouaria which is known for its falconry and as an ancient rock quarry with yellow sandstone.  It was used by the Carthaginians and Romans as a source of raw material for construction, that were floated from here to the distant building site.

At the tip of the peninsula it is still somewhat of a backwater, but it now has three hotels and a couple small restaurants, and new roads make it an easy day-drive from Tunis.  The big event of the year is the annual falcon festival.  In the mean time, it is a pretty sleepy backwater town.

Addendum:

If you take the overnight train, you emerge in Bir Bou Rigba a little after four in the morning. No one is in a mood to move quickly so by the time you reset-up the bikes and changed back into cycling clothes it will be a little after five and you'll see the first light of morning.

There is not much open so you can take advantage of the cool air and quiet roads to bicycle to Nabuel.

By the time you arrive it is easy to find breakfast in the sidewalk seating area of a café in the town center. The menu included chocolate croissants, fresh squeezed orange juice and espresso.

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