Log #20b Carthage and Tunis

June 26, 2001 in Log Series 20 - 29, Logs by Series, Series 20 Tunisia, The Logs

Msida Marina, Malta

June 26, 2001

Hi Folks,

We left our free mooring buoy in Sliema Creek to come over to this marina so we could get a bit of work done on Veleda, check the engine cooling water pump, and repair the stiff throttle cable before it breaks. In addition, our Mariner 10 outboard died on us and I have it in being repaired. I have not been happy with it since purchasing it last year at this time. Starting has always been a problem with it. We have never been reimbursed for warranty work done on it last fall. Our new Plastimo cooking stove is also not working properly as the oven spontaneously shuts off. The oven was the main problem before when we had to ship it back to Barcelona and then on to France. When it was returned to us in Mahon, there was no accompanying letter apologizing for the inconvenience or indicating what the problem was. We mentioned this to a local Plastimo dealer who called headquarters for us, and after three days they called back to indicate they were shipping a new one out to us. Fortunately we are not in a hurry to leave Malta, and so can wait for a week or so for it.

We don’t like being in a marina. It is not as pleasant or as central as our mooring buoy was in Sliema Creek. However, we have showers and shore power. I’ll let you know about the repairs in the next log in a couple of days. This log tells of our trip to Carthage and Tunis. I’ll send it off via an internet café in a day or so. The marina is a long way from anything. We’ll be glad to get back to our mooring buoy.

All the best,

Log #20b Carthage and Tunis

June 15, 2001

Written en route to Lampedusa, Italy
Covers the period May 27 to June 2, 2001

Carthage, the ancient city of the Phoenician North African trade empire, preceded Athens and Rome in its Mediterranean greatness, its apogee being the fifth to the first century B.C., but subsequently losing to Rome. The Phoenician empire originated in Sidon and Tyre (in present day Lebanon and Syria) making Carthage its focus after Alexander the Great captured Tyre in 332 B.C. The Carthaginian empire was a threat to Rome’s maritime and commercial supremacy with its strategic location in North Africa in the middle of the Mediterranean trade routes. At one time Carthage dominated seaports in Britain (We saw traces of Carthaginian trade in Cornwall, where tin was exchanged for Mediterranean spices, silks and pottery.), Ireland, North Africa, Spain, Sicily and Egypt. However it was ultimately defeated by Rome after the Third Punic War 149 to 146 B.C. Many Punic and Roman remains are to be found there, but now Carthage is just an affluent suburb of Tunis, albeit containing a presidential palace.

We went from Bizerte to Tunis, a distance of about 60 km, via louage, taxis and minivans that go to dedicated towns and cities. These are located near most bus or train stations, and cost a bit more than bus or train, but are faster, as they don’t leave on a schedule, but whenever they have sufficient passengers to fill the vehicle, and go non stop to whatever city is their destination. Train or bus would have cost 2.500 dinars, but the louage cost only 3 dinars for the trip to Tunis. Their driving is something else.

The trip gave us a chance to see the Tunisian countryside. This northern part of Tunisia is a fertile coastal plain with a mountain range inland. We saw small farms and large olive orchards, small herds of sheep foraging over scrub brush, tended by shepherds, almost like Biblical times, donkey drawn carts, meager roadside stalls selling fruits and vegetables, and others selling meat sliced from dripping sheep carcasses hoisted by their hind legs on crossbars.

Tunis is a big bustling North African city with contrasts of squalor and splendor side by side. Walking is a hazardous experience as the drivers are not cautious, construction sites and storefront stalls often force pedestrians onto the road, crosswalks are painted on the roads but not recognized by the drivers, and motor scooters are everywhere. We took a cab to the central part of town to a tourist office, and a rapid rail train out to Carthage, going out the narrow stretch of land that partitions a large part of Tunis Bay and the port area. The train was packed and kids opened the entrance doors while the train was going full speed. At least it provided a good breeze. Taxis buses and trains are very economical at 2 or 3 dinars per trip.

Walking up the hill to the National Museum in Carthage provides a beautiful panorama over the Gulf of Tunis and the mountains on the far shore. The museum itself was excellent with displays in English, German, French, and Arabic of the Punic and Roman history and archeology of this ancient center of Mediterranean greatness. The mosaics, statuary, coinage, pottery and pillars bore mute testimony to the civilizations that passed through this area.

On leaving the museum we were looking at a map of the area deciding which ruin to walk to next when we were accosted by a taxi driver trying to con us into a ride to the next location, as the sites are quite spread out. After saying No, No, No, several times, he did not want to give up and switched to another offer more interesting; to take us to all the sites and deliver us back to the louage for 1800. That sounded interesting as Judy’s ankle and knees act up when climbing hills. So for 20 dinars we had our own taxi drive us around and wait for us at most of the major sites for over four hours, and return us to the opposite side of Tunis to our louage terminal. It was worth it!

We saw mostly Roman ruins as they destroyed everything Punic after their conquest. Ruins included a ruined amphitheatre; a still-used open-air hillside theatre with fantastic natural acoustics — from the ancient stage, a hand clap would reverberate around the stone tiers; the remains of a Roman town, many of the villas still possessing their pillars and ornate mosaic floors, still in their original state with vivid colours; a necropolis; and the Baths of Antoninus Pius.

The remains that intrigued us most were the Punic vieux port de guerre and port marchand (military and commercial ports). These ports were hand excavated by the Carthaginians about 400 B.C. and continued to be used by the Romans up to the third century A.D. They dominated the Gulf of Tunis and could launch military or commercial fleets for the control of this strategic central Mediterranean choke point between the eastern and western Med, and the relatively narrow stretch of water from Tunisia to Sicily and the toe of Italy. The outer commercial port was a long rectangular basin with a narrow entrance to the open water, and another narrow entrance at the opposite end, into the circular military port. Both these entrances could be easily sealed or defended. The ring-shaped military basin had a central island with a circular covered boat shed in which dozens of military long boats could be warped up on sloping ramps after dropping their hinged masts, to embark troops or supplies, not visible from the commercial basin or sea, until they emerged from their narrow opening, prepared for sea or battle.  Both basins are still visible today, as is the circular island with the remains of one of the ramps for their long boats.

We took the louage back to Bizerte, but came back to Tunis the day after next to visit the Bardo Museum and the Medina with its ancient souks. The museum was excellent with the best display of mosaics to be seen. In the Medina, the old walled city, the souks (small “hole in the wall” shops) were arranged in narrow labyrinthine covered alleyways, with wall to wall stalls, stores, shops, bars; all with their wares out on display and aggressive hustlers cajoling you to enter every establishment. However, we did get three lovely ceramic tiles for a shelf I was building at the back of our new stove for hot pots, two of the tiles with colourful hanging baskets and the third central one of a veiled Tunisian lady with intriguing green eyes.

Here again we were taken for an expensive tour through some shops and rooftop vistas by a perfume oil sales shark, and a “hands on” guided tour after hours through a museum of Tunisian traditions and crafts that charged us more than the Bardo museum. I was really turned off at the pushy, lying, deceiving, manipulations of what I call the souk mentality. We could not relax, carry on an innocent conversation with any one, trust any one, seek any  kind of information or assistance without fear that the person would try to lead us down the “garden path” into some other expensive, unwanted, manipulated situation.

Even the trip back to the louage terminal was hectic, finding our way through the old part of the city through crowded streets to the outskirts by public transport. Finally when at the louage terminal, we had to pay, rather than the 3 dinars each, 15 dinars, as at that time there were no other passengers to share the taxi for Bizerte. Then we had to pay another 3 dinars to get from the louage stop in Bizerte to a nice restaurant for a late supper. At least the supper was good, and for an economical 35 dinars for the two of us, had a good meal in a lovely restaurant before thankfully getting back to Veleda. I don’t like big cities! Bizerte was OK, but Tunis was too hectic.

More about other destinations along the coast and actually into the Sahara Desert in my next log.