Day 41 Monday 14 JuneAlgeria-Tunisia
Gosh! What a relief! The sense of freedom we felt as we got close to the border, on our own for the first time since arriving in Algeria a week earlier, was slightly tempered by the fact that we knew little about the border, it was not even signposted. According to our guide book (Lonely Planet North Africa 1995, the only guidebook we could find which includes Algeria – not surprising given that the country is effectively still closed and tourism is discouraged) the main border post, and therefore, we figured, the most likely to be open, was between El Kala, Algeria, and Ain Draham, Tunisia. We followed the quiet narrow road up into cool cork forests and suddenly arrived at a barrier and a series of police and customs buildings where we spent the next hour completing forms and having documents stamped on the Algerian then the Tunisian side. Florence was given a cursory check by both customs teams and received many admiring comments instead of the searches we had expected.
The rain stopped and the sun shone as we headed down to Tabarka, a quiet seaside town just across the border. Our spirits had lifted enormously and we enjoyed the freedom of wandering around town, checking out different hotels and drinking fruit juice at a café at the marina.
Sadly the sunshine did not last long and we were soaked as we ran back to our hotel after supper!
Day 42 Tuesday 15th JuneTunisia
The hotel Mania deserves its good write-up in the cheap accommodation section of our guidebook. Painted blue and white to match the rest of the town and designed in a traditional style with rooms opening onto a pretty tiled central courtyard with pot-plants, it was the perfect simple place for us to relax for a couple of nights. We have a private loo that flushes, quite a luxury after staying in homes with at best a tap to pour water down the loo, and share a bath with no plug but a hot, if erratic, shower. As this is middle season there we are virtually the only guests and we pay only 9 Dinar each (about £4.50) for bed and a simple but good breakfast of café au lait with fresh bread, butter and quince jam eaten in the courtyard. Florence is parked opposite the front door, in front of a mosque and a hundred yards along from a police station so we are confident that she is safe.
The only drawback of being opposite a mosque is that we are woken up at 3.15am by the call to prayer – this Immam competes with the one at the mosque around the corner so they are both very loud!
The town is small and friendly with a few shops, small market, fishing port and marina. The Genoese fort that dominates the town from a rocky promontory that was connected to the mainland by a causeway built by the Romans is closed while it is converted from a military fort to a museum but the caretaker showed us around while he practised his English.
Sadly the tourist office is utterly useless: posters woefully out of date and the staff restricted by bureaucracy and lack of imagination. We were frustrated at our failure to connect to the internet using our own laptop, we did use an internet café to send a couple of urgent e-mails but it was so slow and the staff so unhelpful that we did no more than absolutely essential.
Rain threatened all afternoon, started with a vengeance at 6pm and continued all night. We sat under cover at the Restaurant Corail, the same restaurant we had eaten at yesterday and ate the 3 course menu of the day for 7 Dinar each, about £3.40.
Day 43 Wednesday 16th JuneTunisia
Greased the car, checked oil and water before leaving Tabarka for Tunis.
The pouring rain stopped as we climbed up winding roads lined with plain trees away from the cork forested mountains inland from Tabarka through pretty valleys of sunflowers and streams flanked by pink flowers. Passing little more than goat herders ambling along tracks up towards the craggy hills covered by cloud surrounding us made the bumpy and winding 170km drive so much more pleasant than the stressful driving in Algeria where the traffic was chaotic and regularly held up at police checkpoints. Even the drivers we encountered on the more major road a little further on were more patient and not as erratic as we had begun to grow accustomed to last week.
Rain continued for most of the day, it was grey and actually rather chilly. Today was the first time since leaving the UK that we tried to use the car heater to demist the windscreen, only to discover that it is not working – another thing to fix when we reach India.
Once we had negotiated the security at the impressive new British Embassy in Tunis we were greeted enthusiastically – the Deputy Head of Mission in Algiers had e-mailed to let his opposite number in Tunis to let her know that an eccentric British couple were heading her way. The Deputy Head of Mission and The Head of the Consular section were both extremely helpful and we were very pleased to meet them.
In our opinion, The Residence, Tunis, one of “The Leading Hotels of the World”, firmly deserves its reputation as the top hotel in Tunis and quite probably in Tunisia. We feel really lucky to have been offered the opportunity to stay at such a luxurious hotel. The Thallasso Spa in particular is absolutely stunning – floating in the warm-salt water pool was just what we needed after so many stressful days spent sitting in the car recently.
Day 44 Thursday 17th JuneTunisia
The gale was still blowing when we woke, the storm had lasted most of the night and it was still chilly and grey. Not surprising then, that the hotel staff thought it most odd when we announced that we wished to swim in the outdoor pool. Despite the gusting winds, grey skies and heavy rain it was good to swim a few lengths – to counteract the obvious effects of sitting in a car for several hours most days if there is an opportunity to swim in the sea, as in Tabarka (also in the rain), or in a pool we try to make the most of it.
The first stretch of road was a toll motorway then we turned off onto straight rural roads through small villages and flat empty countryside. Before we got too far we checked the tyres and air filter – with the help of Aled, our fix-it man in Vera, Spain, Tim had put a new air filter in but it is a little too shallow so we need to find a way of stopping it riding up, it’s not a problem at the moment but it’s good to check it.
By the time we reached Kairouan at about 3.30pm the weather had warmed up to a pleasant 25 degrees.
Kairouan, founded in the latter part of the 7th Century, is the fifth largest but the most important town spiritually in Tunisia. The Great Mosque, the oldest and largest in North Africa, was built originally in 670AD and is the place where Islam first took hold in the region. Because of this it ranks behind only Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem as Islam’s holiest places. Non-Muslims can only enter through one of the eight gates into the central marbled courtyard, where rainwater collects and filters through ornate drainage points into cisterns below, and can go no further than the door to the prayer room. We didn’t pay to go in nor did we pay to take photos as Tim did some filming while Joanne found out all about the place from the man at the desk who agreed that we had seen almost everything anyway.
Originally a fort, a place of worship and a place of learning and influence, the central square was reminiscent of Oxford colleges, though they do not have marble columns pinched from Roman sites nor tiles from Baghdad.
The Medina was interesting too; small within ancient walls the streets were open and reasonably quiet. The stallholders tried to get our attention, inevitably, but were friendly and did not hassle anywhere near as much as the young “guides” who were very irritating.
It was probably a good job that the superb hotel built inside the walls of the kasbah (fort) that we had been sent to was fully booked as even the discounted price that the President of the local Red Crescent would have negotiated would have been well beyond our budget. Having checked out all the available accommodation (including the “International Youth Hostel” recommended by the Tourist Office which is actually a stadium and not a hostel at all – yet again, a really knowledgeable Tourist Office) the restaurateur of the Restaurant Sabra, where we ate a good value meal (doigts de Fatima and brick au thon followed by spicy lamb couscous, melon then mint tea for £4 each), was so taken by our adventure that he took us to the Hotel Tunisia next door where we were given a discounted rate of 30 Dinars. (This worked out to about £15 for b&b for two of us in a nice ensuite room with balcony and ceiling fan – much better than all the other hotels we had seen and for a relatively good price).
Day 45 Friday 18th JuneTunisia
The President of the local committee of the Red Crescent, of which there are eleven in Tunisia, welcomed us to his private cardiology clinic and over a cup of coffee explained that because the state health service is so capable the Red Crescent has a minor role in Tunisia. Many of the staff are volunteers and provide food and clothing where necessary, run first-aid courses for organisations such as taxi-drivers, and are ready to organise aid in a disaster.
After successfully greasing the car (it might sound odd but it has proved difficult to find a garage that will jack up the car to ensure that the grease goes in correctly) and topping up our grease gun we set off South West towards the oasis town of Tozeur.
True desert buffs might scoff but driving along a straight road through miles and miles of flat sand was amazing. The mountains rising up in the hazy distance gradually dropped away as the sea of palm trees appeared. Tozeur is seen as “accessible desert” so there were many tourists in coaches and 4x4s staying at the hotels in the “tourist zone” on the edge of town and shopping at the little shops selling carpets and soft toy camels.
We did not spot any camel butchers in town but on the way there we saw several shops selling camel meat, usually with toy camels outside or camels painted on the wall – one even had a camel stood outside with a camel head hanging next to it, ugh!
The manager at the Residence Hotel in Tunis had kindly arranged a nights free accommodation for us at the Palmyre Hotel which has a pool and good views across the oasis and the infinite desert beyond. We were the only guests at first but an Italian coach party arrived in the evening. We ate a two-course meal of tomato salad, brick with egg and tuna then kefta and an odd form of tajine at a small restaurant in town for £5 between us.
Day 46 Saturday 19th JuneTunisia
Today is the hottest we have experienced so far - 32 in the shade, much hotter in the sun without the breeze through the car. Florence is reasonably warm but fine as long as we keep going at a steady pace so the air flowing through the engine keeps it cool. Unfortunately, the inverter we use to power the laptop in the car does not like the heat and switches off frequently so we have to stick it out of the window every now and then to cool off! We might try and find a cable that runs directly from the cigarette lighter to the laptop rather than powering it through the inverter from the cigarette lighter.
The first half of our journey took us across a dried up salt lake – a dead straight road into a shimmering mirage with nothing but flat salty sand stretching out either side. Eventually the sand sprouted a few tufty plants and mountains became visible in the distance before we arrived in another oasis of date palm trees sheltering banana and fig trees and hiding a small town.
Though there were several signs warning us of camels crossing the only one we saw, sadly, was a baby one tied up outside a butchers shop!
We visited the surgery of the President of the Committee of the Gabes Red Crescent and Dr Said introduced us to a volunteer, a teacher who is about our age, who showed us their building where they run courses for taxi-drivers, school-children and other groups. Despite being all volunteers the Red Crescent in the region of Gabes are very active, particularly in education and first aid – they had just finished running a first aid course at a local primary school and are involved in a road safety campaign. They also have a ‘studio flat’ with bedrooms, sitting room, kitchen and bathroom which they kindly invited us to stay in; on several occasions in the last few weeks we would have gratefully accepted but this is our last night in Tunisia and we had decided that to stay at Matmata in a Troglodyte hotel.
After a chat over lunch and an exchange of badges and stickers we were shown the road to the mountain Berber village of Matmata.
The Berber waiter at our restaurant in Gabes had made a reservation for us at the most well-known troglodyte hotel in Matmata, the Hotel Sidi Driss, but that did not make the staff any less off-hand; we questioned the 14 Dinar price and agreed a rate instead of 10Dr each for bed and breakfast and were shown to our room. The loos and showers were shared but the water was hot and each of the 15 or so bedrooms cut into the rock off central courtyards dug down into the earth had about 8 beds. Because the season has not got going yet each of the 4 couples staying there had a room – we were pleased to be visiting now, though hot outside, even in the evening, it was cool inside the rooms but if each room were full in July it would probably be rather less pleasant.
As well as being the biggest, and apparently best, of the three troglodyte hotels, the hotel Sidi Driss still trades on its fame as being the place where Star Wars was filmed 28 years ago and much of the set still remains in the bar area. Though interesting to see the set and some of the area, it is a shame that, probably because the tourists keep on coming by the busload, the staff remain at best disinterested and the atmosphere is far from friendly. We had no idea which of the five or so men hanging around the place was responsible for what, if anything; doubted the chap who demanded money for the ‘parking’ and offered to wake us up in the morning if we told him which room we were in; and were rather concerned when someone tried to open the door to our room at 3.15 in the morning. Luckily, Tim’s ‘intruder alarm’ (bottles and metal flask) woke us and deterred our unwelcome visitor.
It is a shame that the people had such a bad attitude because the area was fascinating – sandstone hills surrounded the rocky ground out of which were cut crater holes with rooms emanating off into the sides. It was like a moonscape but with little white domed mosques and some random brick houses dotted around above ground.