In Sousse I was told that I could get a bus to Monastir just outside the Medina, but what a chaotic scene! I asked lots of people for the “boos a Monastir?” and seemed to get conflicting information. Some pointed ‘here’, some ‘there’, one said ‘no.” After half an hour of asking and looking, a man called to me and pointed to a bus way over THERE and said “Monastir.” I would have missed it if he hadn’t helped me—it pays to ask—and ask! I was the last to jump on a very full bus.
About two miles later the bus stopped and couldn’t be started again. So everybody got off and about 20 minutes later, a replacement bus came which we all got on. I had to stand during the 40 minute ride to Monastir, but there was a place on the floor to put my pack.
Monastir is a lovely small town with a laid-back atmosphere and a few things to see. I visited the 8th-11th C. Rabat (fortress) and made the obligatory climb up the tower. This Rabat apparently figured prominently in “Monty Python’s Life of Brian”, as well as a couple of other films, “Life of Christ” and “Jesus of Nazareth.”
Then I visited the tomb (and showplace) of Habib Bourghiba, the father of their country—president from ’56 when they got their independence from France, until ’92. It is a great big marble, tile, domed and towered layout in the middle of a cemetery, well worth seeing. But what good does it do him now, he’s dead?
I took a walk around the port and came upon this French sign, “Centre de Plongee”—it’s the Diving Center. And then since the local restaurants where I like to eat Tunisian food are closed during the day because of Ramadan, or are serving only a couple of tourists, I went to the supermarket and bought Tunisian sardines in lemon, grapes, a baguette and then asked for wine. The clerk showed me where it was, behind a curtain in a big glass case which only a certain clerk could unlock. So I had my little feast on my balcony with a bottle of Chateau Mornag, while viewing the blue, blue Sea and the blue, blue sky.
Later I went swimming in the Sea right below the Rabat. I’ve never seen such clear water—just lovely except for all the cigarette butts on the beautiful white, fine sand beach. I wonder if the people in 800 A.D. ever took a dip?
Sunday I took the train to Mahdia, a small interesting town further down the coast. This place had such a nice ambiance—in the evenings the men all turned out again as the coffee shops opened after sundown. I became acquainted with a young American couple from San Diego with whom I had dinner and then later at the coffee shop, drank mint tea with pine nuts—delicious.
Next I took a louage to El Jem which is small (15,000) and very rural, but which has the 3rd largest Roman amphitheater ever built. It’s longer than 1 1/2 football fields (138 X 114 meters), seated 30,000 spectators and is somewhat intact. I went down below and saw where the wild animals and gladiators/Christians/criminals spent their last minutes.
The museum in this small town is five-star! It was situated next to the ruins of two VERY large 2nd C. Roman houses (half a football field apiece) that had two-foot high ruined walls, but many, many beautiful mosaics still on the floors. The most outstanding mosaics had been removed to the walls of the museum. This town was the Roman Thysdrus and they got very rich on olive oil.
The clothing is interesting—the grandmothers often wear a white ‘tablecloth’ draped around them that they hold together with their teeth; the mothers often wear western dress or a caftan covering and usually with a headscarf covering their hair; the young girls wear blue jeans and sneakers and carry backpacks. Similarly the older men wear either a fez, a white or red skullcap, or a straw hat; the young men wear jeans and tee shirts that say things like ‘Nike’ or ‘Shell Oil’—one had a baseball cap that said ‘Minnesota’. So in another 15 years, I think you will rarely see anything except western clothing.
Wednesday I took the train to Sfax, again further down the coast; and Tunisia’s second largest city. This city is very untouristed so the large medina remains very original with its Great Mosque, a caravanserai, the Borj Ennar (a small fort added in the 17th C. —new!)—and the 14th C. Mausoleum of Sidi Amar Kammoun. In between all the star attractions are the shops, including the Souq des Etoffes which was used as the setting for the Cairo markets in “The English Patient”. Obviously Tunisia is a great place for making movies—we’re not done yet—there are more “English Patient” scenes and much from the “Star Wars” series.
Ramadan really is putting a damper on the trip at this point—no tourists to talk to and no restaurants open during the daytime. Still there is a lot to see and experience, and there are always the hotels to eat and drink in (actually only some of them) and the supermarket, and I do get my pick of hotel rooms!
Tomorrow I head way south to Tataquine—a different landscape and climate, I think.
Hope you’re all fine—