in Mahdia, Tunisia
02.01.2008 14 °C
Walking along Mahdia's shoreline road, heading to the point called "Cap Afrique"
In this post, Jenn breaks her silence! She was finally not too busy with all the other planning details of this trip...
Jan 23- Feb 2
Given the four hour train ride, we "splurged" ($8 each) on first class tickets to Mahdia. We appeared to have seats but discovered the reality was a free-for-all once on the train. The train was comfortable enough but we were all sitting separately and as the windows were extremely grubby, it wasn't the most scenic of rides.
When we got to Mahdia we were met by Fathi Turki, the manager for our rental flat. He was very nice and spoke enough English that we were able to muddle through on our broken French. He saw us settled in and pointed out the nearest minimarket. The weather was really beginning to act up so we made a quick trip and got enough food in to see us through dinner and breakfast the next morning. Once home, we were thrilled to batten down the hatches and avail ourselves of the collection of English DVDs. As the wind howled and construction materials flew around the neighbourhood, we snuggled in, hunkered down with -- much to Anica's delight -- Harry Potter and The Goblet of Fire.
The next morning, we headed north to the main street where we thought we might find the Magasin General. We would have more certain if we'd actually been able to print out the map Stefan -- one of the owners -- had sent us :P
Cacthing sight of the sea in the distance, we walked to the boardwalk, marvelling at the amount of foam and sand which had made it over the barriers, the waves still crashing against the rocks in the distance. It was another stormy windy day and aside from getting more provisions in, we weren't particularly interested in doing anything except getting back to the flat and hunkering down again.
That first windy day, in Mahdia. The weather was perfect after that!
With nary a internet cafe in sight, we walked until we found the supermarket. Once there, we despaired at finding it in the throes of an 80% sale which left the shelves mostly empty, bought what we could, for about a third of Canadian grocery prices, and started wandering back to the flat. On the way, we found another small minimarket, bought some eggs and harissa -- spicy chili garlic spread, which we had to convince the proprietor we really did want -- and capped everything off with a huge still-warm baguette purchased from a nearby bakery.
On Friday, we walked into the downtown area, prepared for market day. Or so we thought. We'd assumed that the usual market would simply be larger or fuller or more active. Not so. Market day in Mahdia means the market starts about a block from our flat and continues for a good fifteen minutes of walking, up and down every side street and way past the permanent market. From what we saw, you could easily furnish your whole home if needed.
We, on the other hand, were not looking to furnish a home. Instead, we bought popcorn, carrots, onions, potatoes and a dozen merguez (spicy) sausages. We marvelled at the cow heads set out in front of the butchers as proof of freshness. And the bunnies in their cages, the tiles behind the discreet barrier wall spattered with the blood of those already bought.
The Silence of the Bunnies, admired by Jenn and Anica
The batches of octopuses looked interesting but I had no clue what I would do with them or indeed, most of the other seafood on offer. And I'd already informed Rob that if our chicken came with a head and feet, it was off the menu. But only if I personally had to remove those parts :P
Walking home, we found an internet cafe... finally! but alas, we were laden with groceries and decided to come back the next day...
Saturday, we walked out to the end of the Cap D'Africa and clambered among the ruins, watching the waves drown the rocks, washing ashore hundreds of jellyfish. It was amazing and the working lighthouse and huge Muslim cemetary only added to the atmosphere.
Waves on the rocks of Cap D'Africa
Sadly, we discovered that the internet cafe was closed (despite everything else being open). Thwarted, we resigned ourselves to finding something on our day trip to Sousse on Monday.
Lo and behold though, Rob discovered it was open on Sunday. He came home from his walk to inform me that the computers were all equipped with French keyboards and indeed, that was the case. Now, if you've never used a French keyboard, you might wonder what the big deal is. Well.. we've been travelling for almost six months now and never seen anything other than QWERTY keyboards, even when they've been set to other languages. On French keyboards, each key has four functions. The first bottom left one requires you to do nothing but press the key. The top left one requires you press shift. The top right one needs the alt+grav shift pressed and the bottom right needs the right shift key. On top of that, the m is marooned by itself on the far right of the keyboard and the q is where the a usually is and everything that normally needs a shift at home doesn't and vice versa. Needless to say, this made for a very interesting and amusing time in getting even a couple of emails out.
On Monday, we decided to check out El Jem instead and leave Sousse for the following day. We followed the map Stefan gave us and wandered off in the direction indicated for the louage station. No such luck but we managed to ask a man passing by and he was extremely kind and not only showed us the station, but walked us there, got us in the right van and made sure we knew exactly how much the fare was and that the amount was for all three of us.
Louages are shared taxis. Consisting of Peugeot vans, they take eight passengers and the driver and only leave for their destination when full or when the existing passengers agree to split the full fare between them. Both times, our louages had their full number of passengers within minutes and we were off. For the three of us, we got to El Jem and back for under $10.
The louage to El Jem took 40 minutes and was quite a pleasant ride. When we got there, we were dropped off at the Louage station and made our way to the amphitheatre. The amphitheatre is the largest of its kind in Africa and third in size to the Colosseum but much better preserved. It is huge and in its heyday, seated 30000 spectators.
El Jem's Roman amphitheatre
The accompanying museum (included on the same ticket but a good walk down the main street) was equally fascinating -- at least for us, since we have yet to weary of Roman monuments. Anica was getting a little tired of mosaics but we thought them not overwhelming in number and were thrilled to see the "reconstituted" Roman villa behind the museum, especially as most of the sites we have seen so far have been lacking in any evidence of residences.
Two hours later, we decided we'd exhausted El Jem and we grabbed another louage back home. "Sousse?" one driver asked us as we entered the station (little more than a large square parking lot full of similar-looking vans). "Non, Mahdia," we replied. "Ici!" another driver cried, waving us over to his van. One gentleman was already inside and two minutes later, another three and a woman joined us and we were off.
The day following our trip to El Jem, we made another day-trip, this one to Sousse. Sousse turned out to be a lovely town, much larger than Mahdia. We walked along the waterfront, checked out the Olive Museum, had lunch at a local cafe -- our first meal out in almost a week -- and walked through the Medina. Our "let's walk along the walls" adventurous spirit was cut short by our running into the red light district at the north-eastern corner. Prostitutes hanging out of houses with their breasts half-bared and dancing naked in their foyers hoping to entice men in? Who knew you could find all that in a Muslim country? Well, we would have if we'd /really/ looked at our Rough Guide since printed across that section of the map in bold caps was RED LIGHT. Oops :P
Our last stop was the Ribat where we climbed the walls and tower and marvelled at the views and the blueness of the water and sky. Absolutely gorgeous.
The tower at Sousse's Ribat, which we climbed up
We headed home fairly early, made dinner and watched another one of the DVDs so thoughtfully supplied by the apartment's owners.
Wednesday saw our sunniest and warmest day in Tunisia yet with temperatures that likely hit 18C. We walked from our apartment in town out along the beach to the very end of the touristic zone, laughing as we went at the few brave souls who dared to stick themselves in the water or try and tan on the beach. Having reached the end, we wandered through one of the busiest-looking hotels hoping for a spot of lunch but none was to be had. We considered grabbing a taxi and then decided to at least walk back to the boardwalk. Good thing we did. Right at the edge, we spotted a restaurant called Romantica which proclaimed itself a pizzeria. The windows were tinted so we couldn't see in but we watched one man go in and another come out and that was enough to convince us there might be food to be had. And was there! We'd stumbled on one of the best-kept secrets in Mahdia, a hoppingly busy restaurant with cheap, amazing food and nary a tourist -- except us -- in sight. Yum!
Thursday saw another day trip, this one to Monastir by train. We walked along the beach, climbed out onto the rocks, toured the medina, took photos of the Ribat (very similar to the one in Sousse), confirmed our Monday flight at the Tunisair office, grabbed some groceries at the Monoprix, bemoaned Mahdia's lack of a Monoprix, walked around the Marina and had lunch, not at the Marina, but at the medina. Same menus, /much/ cheaper prices.
Once again, we headed home fairly early, arriving back in Mahdia at 3 pm. We walked up to our neighbourhood boulangerie and bought a baguette and some pastries, Anica did some homework, we made dinner and watched King Kong.
Friday was spent doing laundry (which we dried via an unusual combination of outside laundry line and inside radiators). All in all, we ate out three times during our 10 nights in Mahdia and cooked for ourselves otherwise. After /months/ of restaurants, with the exception of some time in Goa, home-cooked meals seemed like a real luxury.
A few days ago we took the train to Mahdia, a small; Tunisian city, where we had a flat booked for ten days. Its worked out nicely, especially since it was a bit of a gamble, being so far off the beaten path. For starters, we were met at the train station by the apartment manager, a man by the name of Fathi Turki. We had prepared for this in advance by calling him Fluffy Turkey amongst ourselves, thus getting it out of our system.
What we hadn't counted on was arriving in gale-force winds! We really battened down the hatches, and luckily they were sturdy wooden shutters with metal bars to lock them closed on the inside, because it didn't let up until the next day. Everything that could bang or rattle outside, did, for the whole night. And there's of junk to rattle. Mahdia seems like many of the places we've been in the developing world: you can't tell what's being built versus what's being torn down. Rubble and rebar. Some lots looked like they've just been bombed, and some buildings look permanently unfinished. Even our building, as nice as it is, with its cutely-named flats (Le Mimosa is ours), still has unfinished upper floors.
Mostly we have holed up in the flat, devouring the English-language DVDs and novels they have here. Weve done our own shopping and cooking; there are plenty of convenience stores, patisseries, boulangeries, etc. in the neighborhood. To add local flavour, we bought a fresh tub of harissa, baguettes every day (carried home in my bare hand of course, not in a shopping bag), and some merguez sausages that Jenn cooked up on the stove.
Our nearest living neighbours are the sheep grazing in the empty lot next door. There's a horse tethered in another empty lot down the street. Another time chickens crossed the road in front of our house. Why? A common sight are the horse-carts: flat-bedded carts with huge shock absorbers, rolling down the street on their oversize wheels.
Although the standard greeting here is is in Arabic (Salam), there is just as much French, so we are still working hard to communicate. It's either make youself understood in French, or give up, because practically no-one speaks English.
Friday was market day, and that was quite a sight. The downtown streets of Mahdia are lined with vendors, as if the town becomes a giant flea market once a week. We preferred the regular market, with its produce hall, its seafood hall (octopus seemed to feature prominently), and its butchers (who like to advertise the freshness of their beef by displaying the heads of the cows on the countertops). There was also a cage full of cute, plump bunnies hopping around. But what happened behind the brick half wall? Anyway, our supermarkets in North America like to disguise the process for the most part. It would take a lot of imagination to picture the living origin of our pre-packaged meat.
Saturday we walked out to the lighthouse point. Mahdia is on a pennisula, tapering where a lighthouse stands, surrounded by a Muslim cemetary, and the barely-detectable ruins of a Mamluk fort. It's about a three kilometre walk, and on the way we examined the hundreds of jellyfish washed up on the beach and in tide-pools.
Back in town, we passed again through the "Skifa," a long, vaulted gate that was once the only entrance into the Medina. Although its legendary defenses are long gone, its an impressively medieval and atmopheric landmark.
We set out today to find the "louage" station, and get a ride to El Jem. A "louage" is a very common way to get around in Tunisia; it's basically a mini-van operating as a shared taxi. When eight passengers seeking a common destination have gathered, off they go. Naturally, this informal arrangement made our scheduled, Canadian selves pretty nervous
It couldn't have worked out better, however. We didn't even have a map to the louage station (depot? meeting point?), but I asked the first guy we saw on the street where it was, and he took us there, found out the price, wrote it on his hand to show us, and explained what to do). All in French, but still, very clear. More random kindness, with profuse "mercis" from us.
We were waiting not even two minutes, when the minivan had filled up, and, unceremoniously, the driver hopped in, and off we went!
El Jem is a small town, and to this day its "skyline" is dominated by the Roman coliseum built in the 3rd century. Anica couldn't wait to climb up her seventh Roman amphitheatre. This one was special due to its size alone: it once held 30,000 spectators. Only Rome's is bigger, and the facade at El Jem is in better condition. You walk through the vaulted corridors that were once the entrance and exitways, so much like a modern football stadium. The original seating is mostly eroded away (and/or was carried away). The unexpected treat was getting to go under the arena to the cells and corridors where the gladiators and animals were kept.
A section of El Jem's amphitheatre, taken from the inside
Sousse today, another town on the Sahel Pennisula. We got there by commuter train, an easy process on the way down, although much busier on the way back. Sousse has a very well-preserved Medina; the wall is intact almost the whole way around. We set out, in fact, to explore simply by walking around the whole of the wall on the inside. It started out well, with the road heading steeply uphill, away from the harbour. Great views looking back. As we walked past another gateway, however, we entered what we quickly determined was the red light district. We thought we could just pass through it, but as it got more and more Amsterdam-ish, people starting motioning to us that we should turn around and go back. One "worker" started to walk alongside us, chatting me up. I didn't get to practice my bargaining skills, however. Anica had a few questions about what was going on, but took it all in stride, of course. Jenn and I were surprised, perhaps naively, that such prostituion would be so obvious in a Muslim country. But it is the oldest profession, and the Medina is very old!
We got a great view of the whole Medina, well away from the red light district, from the top of the Ribat. A ribat is a garrison, where the soldiers are scholars if peacetime allows. We peered through the slats at the gateway where boiling oil could be poured down on invaders, or metal grills dropped to trap only slightly less welcome guests. This ribat goes back to the 8th century and looks it, despite the fact it's been rebuilt so many times. The tower we climbed had a narrow, stone staircase.
We walked out the beach today to the "zone touristique." Once we entered the zone, would we be allowed to leave again and live like locals?
It was a great day for a walk along the shore. It was 16 degrees celsius and sunny, warm enough that a few of the dedicated sun-worshippers at the sparsely-populated resorts (it's about as off-season as you can get) were out. Nobody was braving the water, though.
Best stretch of beach in Tunisia?
We ignored the resort food, and stumbled upon a local restaurant on the way back. It was packed, we had great food, and the bill only came to about ten dollars Canadian.
By commuter train again, we visisted Monastir today. We had a nice lunch, got some errands done, and otherwise it was "same same." Beautiful clear waters, a ribat, a medina, a marina, a grand mosque,etc. The highlight was climbing on the unusual rock formations that stick out from the shore. Anica's loving her camera these days, especially the video function. She made a video out on those rocks that could make anyone seasick!
From out on the rocks, looking back to shore and Monastir's Ribat
Hung out in Mahdia, took train back to Tunis, went back to Sidi Bou Said for another visit. Different hotel this time in Tunis...much cheaper, but still okay.
Today we went on a very exciting, but long train ride to Mahdia. We were in first class, one down from comfort class and one up from economy/second class. I read, and watched a movie and listened to music on the i-pod. When we got to Mahdia train staion we saw Fluffy Turkey! (His real name is Fathi Turki). When we saw our kitchen and two bedrooms and bathroom, we went out in the take-you-off-your-feet-wind! It lasted for 16 hours! Even by the next day...
"The Search for a supermarket?! And a very windy day"
...the wind was strong. Just as strong as yesterday's. But we decided we had to do/get groceries. We went on a very long (not really though) walk to that road. We even sqa waves coming over the sea gate/barrier and sea foam. We finally saw the market, got groceries, went home, had lunch, watched Stardust, had dinner, G.N.
Today we went to the market. The big market was spread all over the road! We got popcorn, sausiges, and veggies. After the big, huge, humonges market, we went through the gateway to Mahdia!! Then we walked home, played Polly cars for a bit, had dinner, watched Mrs. Doubtfire, G.N.
Today we went on a walk. We saw a lighthouse, big waves (huge) ruins and humonges tide pools. We also saw lots of Jellyfish! The posainus kind. We also climbed a sea gate, walked through a Muslim cemetary, went home, had dinner, G.N.
"El Jem Day: the world's biggest amaphitre if you x out Rome's!"
Today we saw a kittcat get squashed. It was very sad. Then we saw the big louage staion. We got in a long but exciting ride to El Jem. (Gravol taken, luckily). When we got there and got out El Jem reminded me of India. No cows walking around the street or beggars or hockers, but lots of dust. We walked down to El Jems amphitheatre. History: "The extraordinary amphitheatre at El Jem, midway between Sousse and Sfax is the single most impressive Roman monument in Africa, its effect---" Sorry, my hands hurting got to stop! We walkedd up lots of steps to get to the top/ Then we went to this great arcalogical mueseam with mosiacs and its own ruins! But they were small. Took a louage back, went home, had dinner. G.N.
Today we went to Sousse. I did not like Sousse that much/ The train ride there was boring. But that's all, I guss! When we where walking to the olive mueseam there was a not-used train track that you could walk on! Also a preatty local beach. When we got to the olive museam we saw diagrams and real olives and chickens (!) We also tried olive oil plain and rosemary olive oil. Then we had lunch at this art cafe. "It seemed local." Then we walked along the inside wall of the medina, till we got to a sex area and turned back. I got a fake cobra (P.S. Sherry, I am not going to scare you with it in Ireland because it moves!) Then went on a stopped train ride back, had a very yummy dinner, G.N.
Today we walked down to the preatty, clear-watered beach. The waves and water were preatty, very clear. The walk down to the beach was long and hot. By the time we got down to the end of the (pretty nice) zone touristic, it was almost lunch time so found this place called Romantica, and me and Dad shared a half-chicken with...fries, 3 salads, rice, and bread. Dizaster! All that food, but good food... Walked back, rested, had dinner, G.N.
Today we started out the nice day by going on a stinky train. IT was very stinky only after we stopped at a staion. When we arivved at the been-before Monastir train staion; we saw a Monoprix supermarket and got grocires to take back. Then since Dad had brought the postcards we sent them and walked down to the most clearest water beach I'd ever seen! Then walked up really neat rocks, and walked down to the big boats docked at the marina. Went to a very yummy restraunt (name not remembered), went home, played, had dinner, G.N.