Tunisia: The East Coast

November 1999


We left Jerba and travelled up the east coast to Sfax, as the following afternoon Manfred had to be back in Monastir to catch his afternoon flight back to Berlin. This time we took the ferry back to the mainland from Ajim to Jorf, about a ten-minute sailing and continued back to Gabes. The Libyans were still camped in their corner of the louage station, sitting around drinking tea or sleeping stretched out in their cars waiting for a passenger. We stopped in Gabes only long enough to find transport for the second stage of our journey north to Sfax. Sfax, the second largest city in Tunisia, is a fairly major industrial town with a large port which most of the phosphates mined at Gafsa are exported through. The Arabs founded the city in the 8th century AD and the city walls were erected just over 100 years later, which still stand today surrounding the exceptionally well-preserved medina which was also used as a location to film the Cairo scenes of The English Patient. The package tourism industry, which is rampant along this stretch of Mediterranean coast, mostly ignores Sfax. There are no major attractions or beaches here, but the medina is enough reason to stop here for a night. It is still a fully functional medina full of markets and workshops. Down one street you will find all the cobblers busy manufacturing and repairing all types of shoes and boots. Along another street you find the tailors and fabric merchants. In a covered souq, the jewellery shops, their windows glistening with gold and silver. If you follow your nose you soon find the fish market and all the other food markets, fruit, vegetables, meat, spices etc. Along the main street through the medina, Rue Mongi Slim, you find the consumer shops, selling everything from electrical and household goods to music cassettes, clothes and shoes. As with most medinas the streets were narrow and crowded, only wide enough to get a donkey and cart down.

One problem that we found with Sfax is the lack of acceptable cheap hotels. Yes there were plenty of cheap hotels, but not many that are recommended. Our guidebook listed most as places to avoid. We settled on the Hotel Medina on Rue Mongi Slim, which I think you could describe as the best of the worst. It was ideally situated in the centre of the medina, but that was about all it had going for itself. We had one of those rooms that I hate, no window opening to the outside world. Yes we had a window but it opened to the hallway. There was no fresh air, the room smelled of stale cigarette smoke, it was stuffy and my mattress sagged in the middle so that which ever way you tried to lay you always ended up on your back in the middle. As night fell things got worse. The shower off the hallway outside our room became blocked. As the owner attempted to unblock it all he seemed to do was bring more brown, stinking water up from the drains. During the night the bedbugs dined in style. We were awake well before our alarms went off at six in the morning; in fact by the time our alarms did go off we had packed our bags, checked out and were on our way to the train station. I hadn't been so happy to check out of a hotel at six in the morning for a long time.

This morning Manfred and I said goodbye and went our own separate ways. He took a train to Sousse in order to get back to Monastir to catch his afternoon flight and I walked down to the louage station to find a car going to El-Jem. I had a busy schedule arranged for today. I would be returning to Tunis tonight, but stopping in El-Jem on the way to see the Roman coloseum, which dominates the town and is described as the most outstanding Roman monument in Africa. I found a car going to El-Jem fairly quickly amongst the early morning chaos at the louage station. The only problem was that no one else seemed to want to go there too. Only two other passengers arrived during the next hour and the possibility of any more was looking unlikely. The driver offered to get going now if we paid for the empty seats. I asked to wait a bit longer, but still no more passengers turned up so we agreed to the higher fare to get going straight away. This is standard practice with shared taxis, if you are in a hurry or want more space so that you are comfortable on a long journey you can pay for the extra seats. What is not standard practice is what this driver did next. Along the road between Sfax and El-Jem he picked up and dropped off about half a dozen other passengers. Remember between the two other original passengers and myself we had paid for all the seats for the journey. So, upon our arrival in El-Jem an argument ensued, when the driver didn't refund us the extra money he made on the trip. After gesticulating and arguing for five minutes I gave up, cursed him and walked away. I left my pack at the left luggage office at the train station before wandering down the road to the coloseum.

The coloseum can be seen from miles away and completely dominates the small town of El-Jem. Such a huge building, which measures 138m long, 114m wide by 30m high, looks out of place here. It is estimated that the seating capacity was 30,000 on three tiers of seats. It was originally built around 230AD, although the precise facts have been lost in time; the Roman Emperor Gordian is thought to have built it, as this was his birthplace and he wanted a fitting tribute. This would explain its location, which also lacked the raw materials to build such a large structure; the stone had to be hauled in from quarries 30km away near Salakta on the coast and water had to travel 15km through underground aqueducts from hills to the northwest. It has been well preserved and restored in places, despite being used as a defensive position during rebellions and invasions over the years. The worst damage happened during the 17th century when a large hole was blasted in the western wall, this was again enlarged in 1850 during another rebellion, but thankfully this was the last major damage done to the building. It is now listed as a UN World Heritage site.

I found the tunnels underneath the arena the most intriguing. This is where the animals, gladiators and other victims were kept before being hauled out into the arena to meet their fate. It was a dark and dusty place with only a few rays of sun piercing the gloom through vents in the arena floor. I spent a couple of hours nosing around the place, climbing up the grand stairways to the top tier of seats to enjoy the view looking down on the arena. I had plenty of time as my train to Tunis wasn't due to leave until 14.00, so I also walked to the small museum which houses some impressive mosaics discovered in and around the town. The entrance fee to the museum was included with the ticket to the coloseum, so I wanted to get my monies worth. During Roman times this town, then called Thysdrus, was a wealthy but small place. It became a transport hub with the major Roman roads from the coast converging here and continuing to the towns in the interior. The town prospered on the trade passing along these routes. Hence some fine villas were built in the town, their floors now carefully laid out in the small town museum and the Bardo museum in Tunis. Even after spending plenty of time in the coloseum and museum, I still arrived back at the train station with an hour and a half to spare before my train was due to depart for Tunis. I grabbed some snacks from a local shop, retrieved my pack and found a shady spot on the platform to sit and wait.

The weather today looked like it would finally break, after mostly unbroken sunshine since my arrival in Tunis nearly two weeks ago. One clue was the sudden appearance of umbrella salesmen on the streets of town. All morning cloud had been building up to the north of town. While I waited the skies to the north became greyer and greyer. By two o clock there was no sign of any train, or either at two-thirty or three. The only thing to pass down the tracks past the station was a herd a goats, stopping briefly on their way to nibble at the weeds growing between the sleepers. By now quite a crowd had gathered waiting for this elusive train, including a few tourists who had ventured down here from their hotels in Sousse. Finally, just after four, over two hours late we could see the train in the distance slowly crawl along the tracks through the town. With the train running this late it was packed but I managed to find a spare seat and room to stow my pack, before settling back and watching the scenery go by. It wasn't long before the first drops of rain began to streak across the windows as we winded our way north into a fierce thunderstorm. The water ran off the baked dry earth in sheets, filling the wadis, which had been dry all summer, with brown floodwater. Evening arrived prematurely with this storm and by the time it had passed it was dark. I dozed off for the rest of the journey back to Tunis.

On my arrival back in Tunis I felt something was not right and made my first stop at the toilets at the top of the platform to be greeted by a dose of diarrhoea. It wasn't too bad and I felt I'd manage to walk to the youth hostel in the centre of the medina, which I had now learnt, after my trip around the country, to be the best budget accommodation option in the city. The building the hostel now occupies was originally the Dar Saida Ajoula palace, built 150 years ago. As you can imagine it still had that feeling of aging grandeur, with beautifully tiled walls and ornate plasterwork; this place was a different world from the Bristol Hotel, a hundred times better for half the price! The manager and his wife lived in the hostel and were very welcoming and for a small fee cooked all the guests' dinner in the evening. Unfortunately the annual Tunis marathon took place the next day on Saturday. Because of this the youth hostel was fully booked, so I had to find alternative accommodation for Saturday night. My flight to Casablanca, Morocco was not until Monday morning. Vowing never to stay at the Bristol Hotel again I opted (unwisely in hindsight) to stay at the other recommended cheapie in the city, the Hotel Cirta. My stomach was still not feeling a hundred per cent so I spent Saturday in my hotel room resting. I had a small balcony overlooking Rue Charles de Gaulle where I sat listening to the radio and reading a book between my visits to the toilet at the end of the corridor. It wasn't until the evening that I discovered that the hotel didn't have a shower.

The next morning I checked out and walked back to the youth hostel, dropped off my pack and then took a taxi to the Bardo museum, which is about 4km west of the city centre in the suburb of Le Bardo. The Bardo museum was one of the main reasons I chose to visit Tunisia, after reading an article about the mosaics on display here in the weekend papers. I wasn't disappointed after spending a few hours wandering around the three floors of the museum. The museum has the finest display of Roman mosaics any where in the world, the highlight being the depiction of the poet Virgil. It is worth coming out to the museum just to see the building itself, another former palace, the Bardo Palace built towards the end of the 17th century on a site first built on during the 13th century. It was converted into a museum in 1888. The gardens were very peaceful, an oasis of calm away from the chaotic traffic outside. In the afternoon I found a bench under a shady tree and spent an hour or two sleeping before taking a taxi back to the medina.

Walking back through the crowds in the medina I saw some chaos up ahead as someone with a large motorbike, laden down with luggage, was trying to walk the bike up the narrow alleyway. A family pushing bicycles, including a trailer to carry one of their kids in, followed close behind making their way to the youth hostel through the throngs of people along Rue Jemaa Zitouna. The weekly ferry looked as though it had arrived on time this evening. I stopped at a small café for a cup of tea before returning to the hostel. When I walked through the door I found the hallway packed with bicycles and also the motorbike. The family on the bicycles were Dutch and the guy on the motorbike was an American who had been working in Italy. He was between jobs and decided on the spur of the moment to take the ferry from Sicily. A couple from Alaska had also arrived today and were trying to acclimatise themselves after leaving the first winter snows behind only a day ago. There were also a few other travellers who had returned to Tunis waiting for either the ferry or, like me, a flight from the airport. There was an Australian, he was flying to Cairo tomorrow and had been in Tunisia for a month. There was one Japanese lad who had travelled from Egypt through Libya and was on his way to tour around Europe. Tonight was a busy night at the hostel.

That evening the hostel manager and his wife made us all dinner. We spent the rest of the evening talking about our experiences travelling around Tunisia and offering the new arrivals advice on places to go, places to avoid, where to stay and hotels to steer clear of. Someone else had already stayed at the Bristol Hotel last night because the hostel was full and agreed with my thoughts on the place. This is what I hoped to find on the evening I arrived in Tunisia, a hotel with a group of travellers parting with useful information on where they had been. It was a shame that it had happened at the wrong end of my trip. I solved the mystery of my bout of diarrhoea that evening as well. The Australian traveller was also suffering and he blamed a pastry he had eaten that morning. I remembered that while waiting for the train in El-Jem I had also bought some pastries to snack on from a local shop. When I asked him to describe this pastry he had eaten he came up with an exact description of the pastry I had snacked on in El-Jem.

The next morning we all set off in our own directions, the Japanese lad went off to the port to catch the ferry to Sicily, the Australian caught a flight to Cairo, the Alaskans headed west to El Kef, the Dutch south along the east coast and the American biker went straight down to the deserts around Tozeur. Meanwhile I made an early start for the airport to catch my flight to Casablanca that departed at 08.35. I walked through the unusually quite medina, treading carefully so as not to slip on the highly polished paving slabs which had been washed down overnight. I emerged at the Bab Bhar from where it didn't take long to flag down a taxi. The taxi was metered and the fare to the airport came to 2.8D, proving my negotiating skills on the night I arrived, just over a fortnight ago, to be found wanting.

I continued this journey in Morocco.

Continue reading this journey: The Marrakesh Express