TUNISIA: PART 1 - A TASTE OF NORTH AFRICA
BY: TRAVIS GILL
We could already feel the early heat of the late spring creeping through our mesh riding jackets. Although it was only early May, the 90-degree (32°C) heat of the northern Africa afternoon was reaching my personal limits of comfortability. “Let’s pull over to that roadside market and grab a cool drink,” I relayed to Chantil via our Bluetooth headsets.
“Good plan,” she replied. “It looks like the market has a refrigerated cooler in front.”
We parked our two motorcycles next to the tiny market and removed our helmets. Even our moderate-sized 650cc mules looked ginormous compared to the standard variety of Chinese-branded small scooters that populate the roadways here. Our modern mesh riding gear, enduro helmets, and boots made us appear to have arrived from another planet. No hiding it – we were obviously tourists.
Before we enter a new country, we try to learn a bit of the local language. We’ve found that the standard phrases of “hello,” “goodbye,” and “thank you” go a long way when greeting locals of a foreign country.
“Aslema,” I said as we approached a young couple who managed the market that was only a bit larger than a storage closet.
The gentleman replied with a smile, “Aslema. You look to be on a long journey. Where are you from?”
Our reply of “The United States,” surprised both of them. “We started our motorcycle journey from California and have been riding throughout Europe over the past few years.”
We purchased two sodas and enjoyed their refreshing coolness in the nearby shade of an olive tree. As we were leaving, we waved to the young couple and thanked them with a friendly smile – “Chokran. Thank you.”
They smiled back, grabbed a pair of oranges and a loaf of flat bread from their market, and followed us to our mules. “Please take these as a gift for visiting our country. We hope you find Tunisia to be welcoming.”
“Thank you so much. I’m sure we’re going to have a wonderfulexperience here in Tunisia.” It was our first day in the country and we were already having some cherished memories.
Tunisia – So Close Yet So Far From Europe
Since leaving North America, our overland travels had focused on the European continent, so we were especially excited to be entering our first African country. We were surprised how different Tunisia is from its neighbor Italy. Although only 85 miles (135km) of Mediterranean Sea separate these two countries, they couldn’t be more contrasting from each other. Tunisia was such a unique experience from anything we had come across in our travels thus far. The religion, architecture, food, and various sites were so different from Europe that it was invigorating and exciting. Each day seemed like a new adventure to discover!
A Country Defined By Religion
Cultures are often defined by their religious beliefs, and Tunisia is no exception. Islam is the state religion with more than 98 percent of the population identifying as Muslim. Mosques of all sizes, stand prominently in the cities and small villages, where the rhythmic chants of the call to prayer, known as Adhān, are recited from the minaret towers five times a day. We noticed that many women wear head scarves, called hijabs, but they were not mandatory. It was especially common to see young women wearing western-styled clothing without a hijab. Tunisia is one of the most progressive Arab countries and we almost always felt comfortable wherever we visited.
We found the religious architecture and design of Tunisia to be refreshing. The symbolism, Arabic typography, and geographic designs, expertly carved on the mosques, ceramic painted tiles, and brightly colored wooden doors was impressive. You could see the dedication and reverence of artisans through their exquisite craftsmanship. One of our favorite activities was walking through the medinas and souks to experience the millennia-old markets. Narrow covered walkways with small shops selling pottery, silver, brass, traditional rugs, silk scarves, oils, perfumes, and unique souvenirs were a delight to the senses. We especially enjoyed walking through the medinas earlier in the morning, before the vendors set up their shops, where we feasted on the vibrant colors and intricate patterns on the doorways, and ceramic tiles.
Maggots – It’s What’s For Dinner
Speaking of feasting – how was the food in Tunisia? We have mixed feelings. First the positives. Food is less expensive in Tunisia compared to Europe – especially bread and locally-grown products. We got plenty of exercise while shopping for meals, because we had to go to numerous markets. Items such as meats, fruits, and vegetables were all purchased at separate specialty shops. Ordering your ground beef while standing next to large meat-flanks hanging in the afternoon sun was a unique experience. We even observed a family ordering a chicken meal, and watched as the live chicken was butchered immediately outside the restaurant. Now that’s about as fresh as you can get!
It was common to see locals selling seasonal fruits and vegetables from wooden carts pulled by donkeys or mules. We purchased a watermelon that was easily the sweetest and most crisp we’ve ever tasted – It truly was heavenly!
Now for the bad news. Tunisia will officially go down as the first country in which we were served maggots. Nope, we didn’t order them – they came free of charge with our lamb stew dinner! They were conveniently hiding in the poor-quality meat, and thankfully Chantil noticed them before we took a bite. Pretty disgusting! The crazy thing is that the restaurant was rated 5-stars on Google Maps!
Diverse Sites To Explore
Tunisia has a lot to offer for those looking to explore and learn more about the history and culture. Some of our favorites included military ribats, century old mosques, Roman ruins, Berber villages, and the most northern point of the African continent.
A huge advantage of riding in Tunisia is that it’s not widely visited. Tourism is still in its infancy, especially compared to other north African countries like Morocco and Egypt. Most of the places we visited were hardly occupied, and in a few cases, we were the only visitors.
Ancient Ribats and Mosques
While riding through the coastal city of Monastir, we stopped to explore the impressive military ribat. This Islamic defensive structure was originally built in 796. Throughout its 15-century lifespan it’s undergone improvements and changes to include watchtowers for artillery and the addition of two mosques. It was especially enjoyable to walk to each of the watchtowers that offer wonderful views of the city and nearby seaside.
Another site worth visiting is the Great Mosque of Kairouan. This mosque was first established in 670 AD and is considered to be a masterpiece of Islamic architecture. Its first use of the horseshoe arched walkway is a notable design feature that has continued to nearly all future mosques. The majestic and decorative minaret continues to be the oldest surviving minaret in the world and has become a model for all future minarets of western Islam.
Preserved Roman History
Do you want to visit some of the most preserved Roman ruins in the world without the insanity of overabundant crowds? Tunisia’s got you covered with three Roman-era UNESCO World Heritage Sites: Carthage, the Roman Theatre of Dougga, and El Jem Amphitheater. There are many others that are notable as well, including the Roman Forum of Sufetula and the Mactaris Archaeological Site. We relished in the relaxed pace of these ruins, where we could enjoy taking photographs without tourists and the bumptiousness of large tour groups.
The Berber Region
The south of Tunisia is where the green fields of the north fade into the brown desert canyons and orange sands of the Sahara. Wild camels dot the countryside, often roaming across the sand-covered roadways. Dwellings are made of stone or thick-walled mud to protect the occupants from the harsh desert heat and regular sandstorms. This region is home to the indigenous Berber peoples, a distinct ethnic group that are direct descendants of stone-aged civilizations that predate the arrival of the Arab migration.
While visiting the town of Douiret, we had the pleasure of spending a night in a unique Berber settlement that was dug out of the earth. These 23 ft (7m) deep homes are built around a large pit that becomes a central courtyard with various sized rooms tunneled around the circumference. The cave rooms were surprisingly cool, despite the hot temperatures of the surface.
We are both fascinated with geography and geographical extremes. One of our goals is to reach the rideable geographical extremes of each continent. The Americas have Prudhoe Bay, Alaska in the north, and the end of the Pan-America Highway in Ushuaia, Argentina to the south. Europe has North Cape, Norway and Tarifa, Spain. In Africa the extremes are Cape Angela, Tunisia and Cape Agulhas, South Africa.
We were surprised by the remoteness of this region of northern Tunisia, despite only being a 30-minute ride from the coastal city of Bizerte. The final kilometer (0.6 miles), to reach Cape Angela, required navigating dirt roads – easily accomplished with our dual sport pack-mules. Upon reaching the northern-most coast, we were greeted with a cool sea breeze and the well-crafted aluminum monument of the African continent. The whole experience was definitely worth the detour, especially the afternoon swim in the Mediterranean Sea.
More of Tunisia to Come
As interesting as all of these sites were, there were a few more places that we wanted to visit before returning to Italy. These sites were the main reason for us visiting Tunisia in the first place, and they all stem from a summer blockbuster movie from 1977. More adventure awaits…
Travis and Chantil Gill started full-time motorcycle overlanding in early 2020 with the hopes of seeing and experiencing the different countries and cultures of the world. You can follow them on their website at www.viajarMOTO.com.