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

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