Adventure in Tunisia  
 

Tunisia Odyssey: Eden to Oasis
Bicycle Africa / Ibike Tours

 
 

Dispatch 3 - Medenine

 
 

Click to enlarge Leaving our Houmt Souq hotel we wound our way through the souq.  Merchants were filtering in to open their shops and the occasional child heading to school passed by. Once on the open road, with a strong tail wind, we coasted for twenty kilometers to the ferry (it is not always so good). The route is predominantly rural, with the occasional trading center.  Given the time of day, we passed many children on the way to school.  Even though they generally shuffled along and a student pace, they tended to get more energized when they saw our group.  Generally this manifested itself in a lots of greetings and giggles.

The direct route to Medenine and Gafsa, is via the ferry from Ajim to Djoff. Ajim dates back to Roman times, but is better known in modern times as the location for several Star War scenes, including Anchorhead, Mos Eisley, Ben Kenobi's house and the cantina.  It appears that the sites have since been consumed by suburban sprawl.

One of the nice benefits of arriving at the ferry by bicycle is you get to go to the head of the line.

Hundreds of thousands of olive trees – almost continuous for thirty miles -- are the theme of the day. There is no demarcation between farms, but we were told that the farmers know which tree belongs to whom. A friend in Medenine says some of the farmers have 15 trees and some have 5,000. A tree can produce 8 to 16 liters of oil per year, depending upon its age, the weather and its care. When you figure the number of olive trees in Tunisia (and they are planting more), with the number of olive trees in Spain, Italy, Greece and other countries around the Mediterranean, you have to wonder who is using all of that olive oil.

Beyond the ferry the landscape is pretty similar to other coastal regions in the southeast -- pretty flat -- so once you have passed you ten thousandth olive trees, it is good territory to practice a paceline (bicycling single-file in close formation to share the duties of breaking the wind).

The paceline broke up for a stop at Giktis, primarily a Roman era town/port -- now a ruin.  There is a Roman-Punic necropolis dating back to the third and second century BC, and a Byzantine church, which is post-Roman, indicating that the site must have been inhabited in post-Roman times.  But the many archeological features: The baths, market and temples to gods are of Roman origins.  Archeologists estimate that the town had a population of 15,000.  The site is not excavated enough or too much of the infrastructure, such as roads, is gone to vividly imagine Romans moving about, going to market, carrying on business, encountering friends on the street, children playing, or the other activities of an active town, but the baths, capitol and market alone provide a peek into their lives.

Medenine is at least a couple hundred years old because it has a ksar (plural is ksour), which were popular from the 15th to the 19th century.  A ksar is a fortified group of ghofars (long barrel vaulted rooms for storing grains, olives, beans and other commodities, that are usually stacked 2 to 5 high and walled).  Usually a family would have one ghofar for its goods.  In times of trouble the village could take up residence in the ksar to protect themselves and their belonging from roving bands of thives.  This ksar is now renovated and entirely devoted to the storing (and selling) of tourism curios. 

Medenine; fortunes got its big boost when the French selected it as their headquarters for administering the southern region. It still has a very impressive group of white-washed administrative building, which are now used by the current government.  Otherwise, it is a pretty undistinguished working town with relatively low-rise building, without architectural distinction. It is the main regional market center, with several weekly markets -- separate days for food and animals.  The markets serve to add a bit of color, character, texture, energy and hubbub to their immediate vicinity.

Addendum

An alternative way off of Djerba Island, is by a five km (3 mile) long causeway said to have been originally built by the Romans in about 200 CE. Fishermen anchor their boats off the causeway. As you cycle along you can watch a few mending their nets and preparing to go out to work.

Go south and you will get to Zarzis, and go west and you will reach Medenine.

In terms of tourism, Zarzis is still a backwater, but like everywhere  in the country with a beach to offer, new hotels are sprouting up along the coast each year. For Tunisians Zarzis is a working town. There are fishing boats along the coast. The is a military base on the edge of town. It is an administrative center so there is a full range of government offices and a commercial sector and number of mosques to match. Click to enlarge
Midway to Medenine, on the route from Zarzis, there is a depression. In the depression is a salt lake, where there is an active operation to collect the salt. And beyond the lake the rows of olive trees start again -- stretching to the horizon.

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