Thursday, 28 March 2013

last nights in tunisia

All the cheap decent hotels in Tunis are booked up because the World Social Forum is meeting here this week.  Unfortunately Slim and Faten can't host us as they have other guests but then Slim contacts us to say he has an empty house he's waiting to rent out, so come and stay there instead.  We jump at the chance - we want to see them before we leave.  We arrange to meet Slim and wait for him on a street corner in a newish suburb of modern appartment buildings.  We're not certain of being in the right place and the locals probably think the same.   A woman stops to ask if we need any help.  We ask if we can use her mobile to phone Slim and she not only obliges but tells him exactly where we are.  There are no street names we can see.
home for a couple of nights in Tunis

Slim suggests we go straight out to meet his other couch-surfers and a friend who also has a visitor - he laughingly refers to us as the International Brigade - and leads us to an old hotel at the seafront that is heaving with diners and drinkers in several patios and dining areas.  It seems a world away from the Tunisia we have been seeing.  He generously  treats us all to drinks and answers some of our questions about his country.

a night out in Tunis
One thing that intrigued us about him was his huge Facebook following - he has over 5000 friends. The principal reason for this seems to be that he began posting things when the Arab Spring began and attracted followers.  He describes himself as apolitical but would probably get involved in politics if only his Arabic was better.  (Slim had most of his education in French and for work uses French most of the time.)  He appears to remain optimistic about his country's future but knows that there is still a long way to go for this nascent democracy.  Our fingers remain crossed for them.

We are taking a night ferry back to Palermo from Tunis and at the port meet Ryan , a young Aussie who we had alredy met at the hotel in Mahdia.  As the evening progresses and our departure gets delayed we also get to chat with a German traveller and a French couple on recumbent bicycles.  After immigration and customs we have to wait with them on the quayside with the car passengers whilst the ferry is loaded up with freight in a frenzy of activity.  A man checks our passports and boarding passes.  We wait another hour.  Then two other men approach and ask for our passports again.  We can finally board.  As we push up the ramp onto the cardeck two more men ask to see our passports.  We growl at them.  Up in the passenger lounge we lay out some cushions on the floor and join the other passengers who are already fast asleep.  Tomorrow we will be back in Palermo and we're looking forward to getting back on the bikes.
"passports? again??" with Sylvie & Serge on the dock

Tuesday, 26 March 2013

mellow Mahdia

We are very happy to be back in Mahdia and at the Medina Hotel.  The old gentleman who runs the place is a master of mime - and makes me think he has had some French schooling.  What else would explain that Jacques Tati expressionism, (last seen by us at Chantal and Jacques' in Eccica on Corsica)?  He's a tad deaf, sneezes loud enough to shake the walls, but he has the hotel almost perfect.  There's a peaceful roof terrace where we can relax and sunbathe, and it's fairly quiet.  A steady trickle of tourists come and go.
the old Fatimid harbour

When we first came here the nightwatchman, who has a broad smile and a prominent gold tooth, recommended a restaurant to us in the evening.  We asked him was it normal price or tourist price? He paused, told us the food was good, but we should discuss the price before eating. So we went and checked it out - a little place on the seafront with a TV and pink neon lighting for ambience.  The food is good and the young man we speak to is very nice and friendly and the price is normal.   There's a big printed menu on the wall but it's ignored - we have to ask each night what they have. Lots of young guys come to eat here and seem to keep some sort of tab in a book at the till.  Back in the kitchen a couple of women are working fast to produce the food.  We return every evening.  On our second stint back in Mahdia we go back there but there's a different guy serving the food.  He speaks more English and has a bit of sales pitch when we ask what they have to eat.  And the price has doubled.  No, no, we explain, we want to pay the same price as before. He smiles and says there will be soup and salad and a little something on the side as well.  And we say yes, yes we know all this but the price was three fifty, not seven.  We are obviously keen customers but not agreeable ones.  He looks bemused.  Okay, sit down, no worries, he says, but he seems a little grumpy with us.  What he doesn't realise is that we're not there just for one night like other tourists.  We return every night.  Maybe this is a real insult to him, although really it's a compliment to the cooks.  He says things like "Have a good evening" through gritted teeth.  We say "A demain" and he mutters "insh'allah" with almost a groan. 

Friday is market day in Mahdia.  The open area between the old medina and the new town and all the radiating streets are taken up with stalls and mats covered in stuff.  Shoes, clothes, kitchenware, hardware, ceramics, glassware, diy tools, electrical items, replacement chargers and remote controls.  It seems endless.  Up at one end it gets like a car-boot sale with lots of second-hand clothes, bikes, household appliances.  We look for one of those heating elements that you can plug in and boil a cup of water with - the kind that nearly took my hand off when the last one blew up on me.  Thankfully none can be found.  The market is especially noticeable for the proportion of female shoppers.  Don't get me wrong, you see women around all the time here, but it's rare to see such numbers collectively. 

We stay for over a week.  We consider our route back to Tunis.  Neither of us wants to wild camp.  I am reminded of a conversation with Dalila when we first arrived.  She asked wouldn't we be afraid of wolves when we camped? We told her we never feared of animals (although Gayle knows I'm frightened of almost all living creatures) - no, we had more to fear from humans. She understood.  But I never actually thought we would not feel like camping here.  What's happened to us?  And then, if we don't camp, we have to get to set places where we know we can stay.  And all of a sudden we go off the idea of cycling any further.  We would if we had to, but we can also take the train back to Tunis.  Bizarrely, we seem to have gone much further on the train with our bikes than actually cycling with them.  Oh well.

With more time on our hands we read much more quickly and finish off our books.  On a hunch we decide to try some of the posh hotels in the tourist zone for left-behind novels.  The big 5-star place has a table in the huge lounge area but it's all rubbish.  Does this tell us anything about the guests in these places? We walk for about an hour around the bay and past hotels in various states: being built, closed, under repair.  It's all a bit dusty and ugly - like a brand new estate not quite finished.  A toy train full of tourists passes us on the way to the medina.  Seems a bit sad.  And then we come to an open hotel.   We waltz in and check out the lounge area.  There's a bookcase in one corner and we amble over.  A small sign says "these books are for the use of SAGA guests only".  We ignore it and stuff four decent books into our bag before checking out the pool area.  The staff address us in German.  We smile stupidly and try to ignore everyone before heading back out the front door.  Gayle wants a go at the ping-pong table but I'm too chicken. Four books! The SAGA guests will be devastated.  This 'Book Liberation' even beats Gayle's dumpster dive behind a supermarket in Corsica which produced two pain au chocolat and a cake.

Friday, 15 March 2013

religion, women and revolutions

Still leery about cycling here, we decide to travel without the bikes for a few days to visit some Roman ruins in Sbeitla and then stop in Kairouan, said to be one of the holiest places in North Africa.  One of the most efficient ways of getting around in Tunisia is by louage - in effect white vans that hold 8 passengers.  They're fairly comfortable because the passenger limit is observed but the critical thing to note is the colour of the van, for the drivers are, indeed, White Van Man.  They all have that Formula One delusion.  What you need to determine with only one look is whether the driver inviting you in to his van is an Alain Prost or an Ayrton Senna.  At the louage station we ask around for a ride to Kairouan and a man invites us to take a seat in an empty van.  From experience, getting into an empty van is never a good thing.  For a start, they don't leave until they're full and secondly, as a tourist, unscrupulous drivers sometimes like to persuade you to hire the whole vehicle in order to leave.  We wait about twenty minutes, in which time a couple of locals join us.  One of them eventually asks us if we've ever been to Sidi Somewhere before.  I say no, we haven't.  So why do want to go now? he asks.  I look confused.  The other passenger tells the man in French to "leave it".  I go back to the driver and ask him if he's going to Kairouan.  He shrugs.  He isn't. The swine.  We change vans to another heading to Sousse where we will have to change.  There a German man and his son get in the same van.  They're on a package holiday but doing some daytrips independently and the dad has a very healthy attitude.  Their hotel is fine apart from things like the toilet not flushing and the major repairs being done. He dutifully complains each morning.  "And what's your price?" he asks Gayle.  He met a sixty year-old Englishwoman who has had two propositions of sex from Tunisians.  This phenomenon is known locally as "bezness".  Tunisian men look to meet (usually older) western women on holiday for sex and possibly a passport.  This is common knowledge in Tunisia and doesn't help the image of Western women travelling the country.
the principle ruins of Sbeitla
Sbeitla lies another 140 km inland from Kairouan but we enjoy the ride because there's a hint of green about the landscape.  There are more hills around and obviously more water for crops.  Here stands the remains of a Roman city which would have been at the heart of a fertile and productive land - supplying Rome with food in the 2nd century AD.  We walk down paved streets through a gridwork of house remains.  They have uncovered a huge thermal baths complex, a theatre, several churches and, on one side of the forum, three grand temples dedicated to Jupiter, Juno and Minerva.  It's interesting to see the temples still standing even after christianity arrived.  There is no-one around save a couple of men who sidle up to us at separate places and pull out of their pockets the identical "original Roman oil-lamp" for sale.  We walk along the streets and try to imagine a bustling Roman town.

But we have to return to Kairouan for real bustle.  The city is fairly large, with quite a big medina, at one end of which is a large 9th century mosque.  The guidebook claims this to be the fourth holiest in the Islamic world.  It might be old, but there's a sense of museum about it, unlike say, the Umayyad Mosque in old Damascus which teems with life. And despite being viewed as the most conservative city in Tunisia, there aren't many beards about - am I stereotyping?  We have an odd hotel moment when we arrive.  We check out the cheapest place listed in our guidebook (and admittedly described as a dump) first.  A grumpy man at the desk calls his slimy colleague to show us a couple of rooms.  Mr. Slimy speaks some English and whispers sotto voce that room 6 is much better than room 3.  The guidebook's description is accurate but we want to persuade ourselves differently.  Back at the desk we ask if they can give us a discount. 

Mr. Grumpy won't come down from 30 dinars.  But Mr. Slimy says to us in English that, as there are few tourists, we could have a room for 25 dinars. Okay, but do you have a room higher up, less noise from the street.  Mr. Slimy takes us up and we leave our bags in another room at the back.   The bathroom stinks, there are fag ends in the sink and the door has been jemmied open at some point.  The place has all the look and air of a knocking shop.  Back at the desk we fill in registration cards and then head to the door to find some lunch.  We are called back by Mr. Grumpy and Mr. Slimy to pay now.  "30 dinars" demands Mr. Grumpy.  But you said 25, we reply. He shakes his head and demands "30 dinars".  Well stuff you mate.  We go and grab our bags back and are heading back downstairs with Mr.Slimy saying to us "25 is okay, 25 is okay". When we've gone I imagine them breaking into huge smiles and high-fiving.   Around the corner is a perfectly normal hotel with a reception full of female guests.  We have a very comfortable clean room for 40 dinars.  It's more than we want to pay, but all of a sudden it seems like great value.

Kairouan's medina is mainly residential.  There are a few shops along one street and, as the city is famous for carpet production, a few carpet shops for tourists.  We just want to amble around but keep being accosted by young men who insist on telling us what we are looking at: "Scarves, madame! Restaurant! Mosque! Furry Tartan Slippers!"  As we head off down a little alleyway a man joins us to tell us that way is closed.  He points back - that way for the Grand Mosque. I ask him to leave us alone.  He starts telling us that he respects us, a comment that I can only aliken to a red rag borne aloft in front of a bull.  The bull charges, the man retreats.  We visit a few mausoleums as well as the mosque - everything is quite low-key around the medina.  A small boy with an angelic disposition ambles past on his bike.  He says cheerfully "Sex, sex, sex. Madame, madame, madame." but shows no sign of mischief - as if he is innocent of what he is saying.  On another street another day a drunkard passes us and asks Gayle in quite distinct French if she would like to have sex with him.  Back at the hotel Gayle gets a chance to talk to some female students who are on an agricultural engineering field trip.  Most of them do not wear the hijab, the headscarf.  Do they get comments from men all the time? Yes.  We already know this - we've seen men hissing and commenting to women as they pass by in streets.  It seems that the best a woman can hope for is not to be seen - to be invisible.  What kind of culture could demand this of half it's people?  "Bloody cavemen" Gayle decides.  But the women point out that the dress code is not so conservative - especially in the summer.  This is one of few Arab nations with women's rights enshrined in the constitution and with almost a third of MPs being female, (compared with Pakistan and the UK at about 22%), you'd hope this would translate for more public respect.  And pity the Egyptian women who have the Muslim Brotherhood to deal with - only 2% of their representatives are female.  What they need here, reasons Gayle, is another revolution - by women.

a revolutionary hero?
he thinks so

Friday, 8 March 2013

feeling the breeze

Stepping off the train in El Jem you can't miss it - a bloody huge Roman colisseum looking far mightier and permanent than anything surrounding it.  It's the third largest uncovered in the world and it is grandly surrounded by a few tourist restaurants, shops and houses.  Locals walk past without giving it a second glance.  It's such an impressive sight in such an incongruous setting.  It needs to be sitting alone on a raised plateau. Never mind.  Down the road is the archaeological museum with possibly the best collection of mosaics in the country.  We are greeted by a man looking stern and wagging his finger 'no! no! no!' at us.  Charming.  He means we can't take our loaded bikes inside, but I'm so thrilled by his warm welcome and quality customer care that I refuse to enter.  So I sit outside minding the bikes, my cut-off nose spiting my face.
We then pedal hell-for-leather along the road to Mahdia for two hours before sunset.  We pass through lots of small villages and get catcalls and 'Bonjours!' in equal measure.  Gee, not many lady cyclists in these parts.  At one point two boys on a scooter join us.  So entertained are they that they follow close behind us for a kilometre or so, sometimes just sitting on my shoulder, not quite alongside.  At one point they are so close to us that I can reach across and just tip them off balance.  Instead I shake my hand in their faces and growl.  We exchange incomprehensible insults as we ride along and eventually they leave us alone.  Oh what fun it is and what an impatient irritable fool I've become.  

Happily we get to Mahdia just before dark and head straight for the little hotel just inside the medina which Faith recommended to us.  It's tucked away down a little alley lined with pots.  At a table outside sits the proprietor - a stately tall thin old gentleman wearing a red felt hat, like a fez without the tassle - it's the hat that all old respectable-looking men seem to wear.  We ask if he has a room.  He produces registration cards for us to fill in.  But can we see the room first?  Have we reserved? he asks.  And how much is it? we respond. Have we reserved? he counters. We're tired and worried that he hasn't got a decent room for us - but it turns out we're his only punters.  He keeps asking obsessively if we have reserved, despite us saying no.  Much later a couple from Tunis turn up - they have reserved.

The old walled town, the medina, sits on a peninsula jutting out into the sea.  It was the base for the Fatimids who went on to capture Egypt in the 9th century AD.  Now all that remains is a huge tunnel-like gateway and the old kasbah sitting on a high point overlooking the narrow streets and houses. The old town is not big - but it's blissfully peaceful and perfect for ambling around.  There's an old port used by fishermen on one side.  If you look up the coast you can see a row of big hotels - the zone touristique. The town is fairly quiet, with some daytrippers at the weekend, and we are happy to just potter about.
picking the catch out of the nets

Wednesday, 6 March 2013

feeling the force

We wander around the sleepy little town of Douz.  There are workshops where men are making sandals from camel leather, but we’re not sure who buys them – this winter’s de rigeur fashion item for men appears to be a pair of furry tartan carpet slippers.  Our hotel is cheap and cheerful – well at least Mahmoud the manager is normal – and the locals’ restaurant down the street is run by a chatty fella who tries his best to make our dining experience special – with paper napkins and a big dollop of harissa to go with the freshly sliced baguette.  Harissa is ubiquitous, although sometimes we don’t get it because we are tourists – tourists don’t like ground red chilli dips.  We keep going back to the same restaurant because he’s charging normal prices and the chicken’s good.  We’re eating a lot of chicken – sometimes we cluck.  One evening two drunks come in and sit down chain smoking.  One of them keeps getting calls on his mobile – presumably from his wife, demanding when he will be home.  He shouts down the phone and slams the phone on the table.  The men carry on talking in loud voices until the phone rings again.  It strikes us that with Arabic we’re not quite sure if people are arguing or not.  It seems a harsh sounding language and is spoken at high volume all the time.  Or maybe Tunisian men just like to shout a lot.
On the edge of the palmeraie are the luxury tourist hotels – some looking a bit forlorn.  There’s a huge dune behind them which we’ve come to climb.  From here we can look south across the real Sahara.  Somewhere south of us is the desert’s highest point – a 3,000 metre mountain in northern Chad.  We look long and hard but can’t see it.  Walking back we pass a tourist café.  A busload of Chinese tourists alights and enters the café garden to don robe and headgear in preparation for a ride on a camel for an hour.  When people ask us where we’re from we say we’re Chinese but the touts won’t believe us now they’ve seen the real McCoy.
We head eastwards on another deserted desert road towards Matmata.  This time we have a headwind so it’s hard work.  But there are no annoying young men around so that’s a plus.  And the desert is not entirely flat so we get some views from very low rises.   After a hard effort we find ourselves climbing off the plain into hills and decide to camp in a side valley where some palms are planted.  There’s no-one around and we make a dash for cover so that no passing cars will see us.  Maybe we’re paranoid, but we’ve become a bit leery of being seen.  The wind whips up in the night and in the morning our porch is full of dust.  After a quick hoover we knock off the remaining kilometres to Matmata.  On the approach we notice a very well built pavement.  It is probably never used by anyone as it’s on the edge of town and not leading to any houses – but it looks nice if you are driving through.  A bit further along we pass about fifteen men all sat on the wall on either side of the road taking a fag break from their hard labour of, uh, fixing some small holes in said pavement.  We ‘salaam’ a few of them but no-one says a word to us – they just stare.  You can’t beat a friendly welcome.  Unphased, we settle down for an early lunch in the town’s only restaurant.  Matmata is a small place renowned for the traditional Berber houses that have been dug out of the ground – like a series of interconnecting open bunkers.  You enter through a tunnel into an open patio off which there are one or two tiers of cave-like rooms.  There may be more connecting patios.  All this is done to create a cool house in the summer heat.  Three of these houses have been turned into hotels and we stay in one.  There are no other guests at first but a steady stream of tour buses stop and unload their passengers for lunch.  Did I mention Star Wars? I’m trying not to. Scenes from the original films were filmed here.  I nip back to the centre of town for water and fruit and stop at the only café for a coffee.  The restaurant owner approaches me and invites me to eat lunch at his establishment.  But I’ve just eaten there, I exclaim.  It was only an hour ago – how could he forget my pained countenance when he charged us a tourist price for our chicken dinner?
In the afternoon Faith turns up at our hotel.  She’s come along way today but she gets no rest as we’re hungry to talk.  She is the first real traveller we’ve met on this journey – by which I mean she’s not on a short or long holiday.  She left home in the US five years ago and has spent the last year coming up from South Africa. She’s travelling alone and, I hope she doesn’t mind me saying, she’s 72.  She is a remarkable woman on many counts and a great talker.  We have such a good time with her that we stay another day to spend more time with her.  
Our next ride is out of the hills and across to the coast to the city of Gabes.  It’s an easy and uneventful ride and we’re delighted to find that, as the city is not a tourist destination, we are completely ignored by everyone.  Even better, as we’re not so keen on the idea of camping along the way, we can take a train north tomorrow to El Jem and skip a lot of flat dusty roads through olive groves.  Eee, this cycling lark’s a breeze.

Sunday, 3 March 2013

francais! deutsch! italiano!

Our stay with Faten and Slim is very peaceful and relaxing.  We get to meet their daughter, Aysha, and have regular chats with her grandmother Dalila, who wants to know all about the Queen.  Did she really kill Diana?  What do we think of Charles?  We tell her she should come to London and visit Buckingham Palace.  Didn’t she know that the Queen greets all the paying visitors with a handshake as they enter?  

We’ve had a few days to work out a route through the country.  We’ve opted to take the train southwards to Tozeur in the desert and then cycle out to the coast and then back up to Tunis.  The first challenge is getting the bikes onto the train.  We ask at the Information desk in the station and are referred to Tourist Information.  Tourist Information is closed so we try at the ticket counter.  They don’t know either and refer us back to the Information Desk.  Eventually we are introduced to the Chef de Gare, a smooth well-dressed man in shades.  He has a well-trimmed moustache and for some reason makes me think of a pimp.  The impression isn’t helped when a badly-dressed heavily-made-up woman holding out a mobile phone interrupts us in mid-conversation, presumably complaining about a client.  He mutters orders into the phone and hands it back to his employee.  Finally we get to the baggage office and all is sorted.   When the train pulls in its chaos – we get our bikes loaded but we can’t get a seat.  Someone has suitcases all over two seats.  We’re about to have a fight with the suitcase people when a young woman and her friend offer us their seats.  It’s 9 hours to Tozeur, so we find it hard to say no to her kind offer.

It’s apparently tourist high season for the south of Tunisia, as the weather is not too hot to visit the desert, but Tozeur looks bereft of visitors.  Whenever we leave our hotel and walk around the centre of town we are greeted with assertions from men of all ages: “Francais!”  “Deutsch!”   “Italiano!No bienvenue or nothing.  There’s no sales technique, no charm, no how’s your father.  We soon learn to ignore anyone who approaches us because those who do are invariably trying to sell us something that we don’t want.  We’re quite happy saying hello to people as we wander the old quarter, it’s a different thing.  The old town has houses built with decorative brick patterns.   Alongside the town is a huge palmeraie fed from desert springs - the water flowing through it is crystal clear.  As with all tourist destinations in Tunisia, there’s a slew of expensive hotels built about 2 km out of the town where package holiday-makers stay.  It seems like a weird set up to us.  But there are barely any tourists around.  Many have stopped coming since the revolution two years ago.  Who wants to holiday in a North African democracy?  Goodness knows what might happen.  The Zone Touristique is full of sad, dusty, closed-up hotels - a ghost town appendage.
siesta time in Tozeur
After a couple of days we have adjusted to this backdrop and take a 50km return ride to another oasis town with a palmerie.  The cycling is a bit of a warm-up for us and we get a close up of the desolate landscape all around.  The desert is not all wavy dunes and palm trees.  It’s mostly scrubland and dust.  We are trying to imagine camping en route.  Mmmm.  The daytrip is fine until we hit the headwind on the way back.  The landscape is fairly flat and featureless.  The wind makes it feel like we’re cycling uphill.  As the wind is worse the next day we decide to delay our departure.  The town is covered in dust.  The sky is filled with it.  If you walk around in it for too long, your eyes, nose and mouth are filled with it.  The sun disappears and so does the end of the street.  It seems such a harsh environment to live in.

looking for salt
Our first day’s ride takes us over the salt flats of Chott el-Jerid to Kelibia.  The salt flats have neither water nor salt because, as we discover later, it hasn’t rained since November   -  the only rain in a year.  What we do have is a tailwind and we arrive after 100 km with enough energy to carry on to Douz, another 30km.  We pass through a string of one-horse villages always with just a couple of shops and a couple of cafes.  Young men are lounging outside the cafes and they shout out as we pass.  Some of it is friendly, some of it seems less so.  Stupid kids think it’s fun to cycle as fast and as hard as they can alongside us, towards us, behind us.  It starts to get tiresome.  Then, on an empty stretch of road two young guys wave us down to stop.  Gayle is in front and when they realise she’s not really stopping, one of them goes to grab the back of the bike, but as I’m following close behind and looking a bit narked he steps back.  What do they want?  Do they want to know where we are from? Where we are going? Shoot the breeze, liven up a dull day, and then wave us on our way?  We don’t know.  We’re tired and we don’t want to stop. We put on a little sprint and look back.  One of them is picking up a rock.  But we are too far gone.  We are happy to get to Douz after a long day but neither of us is particularly happy about the cycling ahead.  The experience has been a bit unnerving.  We need a rest and time to reflect and rationalise - many people were friendly but it only takes a handful of fools to spoil our mood.

Friday, 1 March 2013


The sea is glittering with sunlight as the boat approaches the port.  A handful of Tunisians are knocking back their beers before it’s time to head for the car deck.  The boat is three hours late so it’s after midday when we emerge outside from the port buildings.  At customs our bikes had to go through the x-ray machine, I still don’t know why.  But at least we hadn’t had to open up all our bags.     We wonder how long it would take the cars to pass through with their roofs overloaded with fridges and TVs and all kinds of other household goods, but Slim later explains that each Tunisian can, once in their lifetime, import stuff from abroad without paying duties, which suddenly explains all those overloaded cars.  A bit like Crackerjack, without the cabbage.

Slim and his wife Faten are hosting us and as they live out of the city we are saved the shock of riding into Tunis centre.  Instead we mooch up the coastal road through other suburbs to La Marsa.  At some point we ride past Roman ruins dotted amongst houses set inside walled compounds.  Those soldiers we see are guarding the President’s palace.  This is Carthage, what once was the mighty Carthage, capital of the Phoenician’s western Mediterranean empire, until the Romans finally thumped them, and made it a base for their African exploits.   We realise that this little coastal stretch is the wealthiest part of the nation.   We’d read that Tunisia is probably the most progressive nation in the Maghreb/Arab World and of course everyone is waiting to see how the revolution here will change things.  Two years on and the new government has yet to agree on a new constitution, there’s talk of a rise in Islamic fundamentalism and only two weeks ago one of the main opposition leaders, Chokri Belaid, was assassinated. As we roll into La Marsa we pass students milling around.  But they’re not burning tyres or waving banners.  Just chatting, joking, holding hands.  Whoah! Holding hands! Could this be a revolutionary gesture in itself?
We are greeted by Faten’s delightful mum, Dalila, who invites us into their house, a cool ground floor apartment on a low-rise block, tucked behind some greenery.   She chatters away in French and it takes us a little while to catch up with her.  After a cup of tea and a little conversation and time to shower we take a wander around to the cornice.   The neighbourhood is very tranquil and relaxed.  Late afternoon call to prayer sounds.  We take a mint tea on the front.  On the way back I get a haircut.  The fellas in the barbers look surprised when Gayle sits down to wait.  Women’s rights may be enshrined in law here, but some public places are still male preserves.  When Slim gets home in the evening we go with him down to the shop to fetch some snacks and beer.  He’s very relaxed and talkative and we try not to bombard him with questions.  He’s working in a consultancy firm that advises on building projects.  Faten, who works for the Red Cross, gets home a little later in the evening and the TV is switched on to catch the news.  The Prime Minister has said he would resign if he could not get agreement to dissolve the existing government and form one of technocrats until fresh elections are held.   His own party does not agree with him. The assassination seems to have worked – stalling any political progress and emphasising the divide between the majority Islamic party of Ennahda and the centre left secularists.  Each evening a political talk show broadcasts, discussing current and past episodes in the political history of the nation.  Slim tells us that before the revolution all that was shown on TV was folk singing and dancing.  He and Faten speak excellent English so they are saved from our lousy French.

not just mosaics in the Bardo
We do a little sight-seeing, wandering the old medina of Tunis and visiting the Bardo museum which lays claim to the largest collection of Roman mosaics in the world.  The mosaic collection is fabulous, with an enormous piece displayed from the ceiling to the floor in the entrance.  There are rooms full of mosaics illustrating the sea world and all kinds of animals, Roman gods and Christian references, life on the farming estates, mythical beasts and classical legends.  This part of the Roman Empire was an agricultural centre that provided food for Rome.  Trade was good, and the wealth is shown in the buildings and mosaics left behind.  For some reason the best part of the collection is very hard to find – only one unmarked staircase leads to it.  We almost leave without finding it.   
in the medina
In the busy centre we pass through the square in front of the train station.  I notice a shifty fella clocking us and comment to Gayle about how hard it is to spot the dodgy geezers – there are so many young men hanging around with nothing to do.  As we walk down a narrow street a man tries to shove past me – unusual because even in busy places there seems to be no physical contact.  I instinctively reach down to the zip pocket on my trousers where all my cash is – the zip is half undone but the cash is still there.  I quickly turn around and one man slips behind me whilst another makes a show of dropping his lighter and going to pick it up.  I step out into the road and they disappear into the crowd.

Another day we visit Sidi Bou Said, probably the prettiest village in the best location in Tunisia – with a view over the sea to the hilly peninsula of Cap Bon.  August Macke and Paul Klee stayed here around a hundred years ago, and I can’t imagine much has changed.  Spread over a hill are the traditional houses, mostly bright white with blue paintwork, overlooking the ruins of Carthage and Tunis in the distance.  There’s a traditional merchant’s house to look around and an elegant old palace built by a wealthy American, full of traditional stucco and wood carving, tile work and marble.  The village is a nice place to hang out - there are a few cafes and quite a lot of couples wandering the pedestrianized streets.  Not much noise, just the wind in our ears.  And I’m sure Paul and August will also have come away with a stuffed toy camel or a gaudily-painted ceramic hand of Fatima as a souvenir.