As we drove northwards from Kasserine, along the western edge of Tunisia, near the Algerian border, we were surprised and delighted to find that the region was not dry, barren and deserted, but surprisingly green and fertile. In fact, this area was the most beautiful we had seen in all of Tunisia so far and we were stunned to find that the hills were green in all directions, carpeted with spring crops just beginning to emerge from the soil.
I hesitate to describe this as the most beautiful we have seen, because I have always loved desert landscapes, but I think that most people prefer to see an abundance of crops, trees and flowers, so others might think this was beautiful where as the desert is only ‘empty’. I’ve mentioned this before, and will again here. I have never thought that nature makes ‘ugly’ or ‘boring’; it takes the carelessness or deliberateness of humans to make a hideous landscape.
And so, we enjoyed the drive to El Kef to the fullest. In one small town we passed through, I looked at the style of the minaret on the mosque, as I always tend to do, and was started to see a huge black and white stork standing on the edge of a massive ratty nest, stretching his wings. What a sight! I immediately thought of some long ago story I must have read as a child, about storks nesting in the tall chimneys in Holland. I was fascinated with all things Dutch when I was young, you know, wooden shoes, windmills, dykes, silver skates, etc. If my memory serves me well, I think it was the migrating storks, large enough to carry a load in their long beaks, that inspired the myth that babies are delivered to young parents, tied in a blanket, by a stork.
As last we rolled into the city of El Kef, our destination for the night. We could see the white buildings cascading down the southern face of the tallest hill in the broad valley. I looked closely to see if I could spot the fortress sitting defiantly at the top. Sure enough, there it was. I do love forts. Always will.
We didn’t like the hotel which seemed the best mid-range option from the description in the Lonely Planet. As my brother David has often said, it was ‘Good from far, but far from good’. We had passed another hotel on the edge of a pine forest, closer to the edge of the city, so we went there and chose a room for the night.
Again, we were offered the option of a rate that included dinner, and knowing that outside of Tunis, it’s often best to eat at the hotel where you are staying, we agreed to the ‘half-board’ plan. I know I haven’t mentioned this before, but Tunisians don’t really seem to have a culture of eating out in restaurants. There are plenty of what you can only call fast food options for people to grab a quick meal at lunch, but the kind of restaurants we are used to seeing in other countries all over the world, are very scarce here.
We dropped off our bags and headed into the heart of the city to try and find an internet café. We had also found that many hotels charge five to eight times the price per hour for internet use, compared to internet cafes. Sometimes this makes sense, and other times it just doesn’t seem worth the extra charge. We parked the car in a busy square hoping that it would be safe in full view of the crowds, and walked off on our quest. There didn’t seem to be any place to access the net, and then I saw two young men walking by, one with a laptop bag on his shoulder.
I stopped him and somehow explained, using my limited French, and a lot of hand gestures, that I wanted to check my email. They smiled and suggested we should walk with them. They took us along several streets into a nicer area of the town and then pointed to the internet café. I was relieved to see they weren’t scamming us, but was surprised to find that they weren’t coming along too. I just imagined that they were headed to the café themselves, but it turned out they just went out of their way to help us.
I had noticed one of the young men speaking on his mobile, but when we entered the café, I realized that he had called ahead to explain that we wanted two computers and the fellow managing the place was all ready for us and pointed to two computers without us even asking .
It was great to get on-line and learn that all was well with family and friends and to check that my Visa payment had gone through properly. I love being able to do all our banking on-line, it makes being away for so many months at a time easy and secure. Thank goodness for ATMs, Skype and internet banking. I can’t even think of travelling without them as I did almost 40 years ago.
When we returned to our hotel, tired and ready for dinner, our room looked much better to us than it did at first glance. The sun was setting and the view out our window was lovely. I got to see the green fields of sprouting grain, with soft hills in the distance. We had a fabulous meal and there and then, decided to stay a second night. After all, we had ‘found’ an extra day and there would now be enough time to make a 66km diversion to the east to visit the Roman ruins at Dougga. They are reputed to be one of the most popular tourist sites in northern Tunisia, and though they were ruins, I didn’t want to miss seeing them.
Dougga was incredible; don’t miss having a look at the photographs I’ve included in another entry. The ruins there surpass those in Rome in my opinion and I will never forget our visit there. They deserve a journal entry of their own, so I won’t go into any detail here. Instead I will tell you a little about our quest to visit the Hamman Mellegue. If you have been following my ramblings since we arrived in Spain in September, you will know that I have been raving about the hammams (public baths) we visited in Cordova, Spain and Cappadocia, Turkey.
When I read about this real Roman bath in a stunning, natural setting, I just had to make the trip 15km west of Le Kef to experience it for myself. Our guidebook said that the bathhouse is ‘hidden away at the base of a dramatic escarpment surrounded by reddish bluffs dotted with pine trees’. It continues by saying that ‘though much of the 2nd century bath complex is little more that a roofless jumble of walls and arches, the caldarium (hot room) is an extraordinary place that remains virtually unchanged more that 1800 years after it was built’.
I had visited ‘jumbly’ hammams when I passed through North Africa before, but on this trip, the ones we had visited were modern examples of the age-old spas. I wanted to experience an authentic hammam once again, and I wanted Anil to try one for the very first time. The reason we hadn’t gone to an ancient one in Turkey, Lebanon, or in the Tunis Medina, was that men and women bathe at different times of the day and neither of us wanted to ‘go it alone’. If this were in a natural setting, we would soak together wearing our bathing suits. In fact, our book told us to bring everything we would need; towels, soap, shampoo, and bathing suits for modesty.
We were back in El Kef from our morning trip to Dougga, and after lunch and a short rest, we drove on the brand new paved road to Hamman Mellegue. We were a little concerned about the description of the road to the baths, in the Lonely Planet, but had learned that the road had just been finished and though it was no longer necessary to have 4WD, the road was steep, and winding as it descended down to the Oued (river) Mellegue, and that we should drive with care.
What luck! A road that we doubted our rental car could handle was now modern and safe. It was a beautiful drive through the small villages that dotted the landscape between El Kef and the river. The descent to the baths was dramatic, steep, and would have been impassable for us before the new construction. It came to an abrupt end, at a cluster of stone buildings, looking for all intents and purposes like the ruins we had visited that morning at Dougga.
There were several people clustered around the only small building with a roof, but to our dismay we learned that the baths had been closed for some time and no one knew if and when they would re-open. Several young girls were just emerging from having taken a bath in the hot water that poured from the spring that once fed the baths. They seemed undeterred by the litter of plastic bottles and potato chips bags that had been thrown in the small pool that formed under the spouting water.
There were several teenage boys hanging around, probably there to try and get a peek at the girls as they washed in the hot spring water, though none of them would ever have removed all their clothing. The boys didn’t seem to be disappointed and I think the girls liked the attention too. It was still the school holidays, and there wasn’t much to do anyway. Our arrival certainly created a diversion, and suddenly we were the center of attention.
I walked around the site and took some photos, but it was hard to hide my disappointment. One boy said there was talk of work to restore the baths, and I can’t imagine that the government would build this new road to the edge of the Mellegue without a plan to make this a tourist destination. The road down the embankment must have cost a fortune to build, and there is nothing but the baths at the bottom. We made a move towards our car and a woman who had come for a bath gestured to ask for a lift up the road.
I was only too happy to give her a ride, and she quickly called her young son and another woman to join her. Before we pulled away, they had managed to squeeze in an older man who held his arm out the window in order to bring along his fishing pole. Unfortunately for him, but luckily for us, he hadn’t caught any fish that afternoon. We wouldn’t have liked the smell of fish stinking up the car as we drove them home.
Now you have to remember that these villagers work the farms and live with sheep and goats. While they looked relatively well-dressed and clean (they had just bathed at the hot springs), the smell of the animals had permeated their clothing. As we drove, I lowered the front windows of the car to get fresh air. Thank goodness it had been a relatively warm and sunny day, or I would have chilled them to the bone, the windows had to be down, just had to be. We drove on and on, past many small farms and I couldn’t believe that they didn’t ask us to stop. We drove for at least 8km before the woman with the son signalled us to stop.
When I asked to take their photo, they were only too happy to oblige, but the woman ran to get her husband to pose with the group. What wonderful people, they couldn’t speak a work of English and our French was meager, but smiles and handshakes always speak louder than words anyway. The angler and his wife carried on with us for at least another two kilometres.
They must have walked to the river because I doubt that the louages (shared taxis that carry people around Tunisia from one village to the other) would have a route in this direction. Either way, we had saved them from a long walk, the beginning of which was a very steep uphill climb or else the expense of the louage. It was wonderful to interact with some rural Tunisians; these moments always make our travel more meaningful.
After another great meal at our hotel in El Kef, one in which we were served a whole artichoke for the very first time, and another great sleep, we left and toured a little of the older parts of the city before setting off towards Tabarka on the Mediterranean coast. There were several places I wanted to see along the way; Anil was a little skeptical about fitting them all in, but I felt it was unlikely we would be back in this part of the world and didn’t want to miss anything.
We were going at quite a pace, feeling the pressure of having the added expense of a rental car each day in addition to the basic costs of hotel, meals and entrance fees. This was new territory for us; we had never rented a car outside of North America before, choosing to use public transportation to get from one place to another within a country, to sometimes hire a car and driver, or else to fly. Our rental car in Lebanon took us outside our comfort zone so to speak. It gave us a new freedom we hadn’t experienced overseas before and it was addictive. Like any addict, I wanted to see more, and more and more… Poor Anil.