Buoyed by our early morning visit to the Medina, we were excited to see what the day held out for us. As would be the norm, our driver/guide Ben was perfectly on time. This morning's agenda included a visit to The Mosque of Uqba, otherwise known as the Great Mosque. Considered to be the holiest Islamic site in North Africa and the fourth most holy in Islam, it is both impressive, yet quite understated at the same time. The walls and buttresses are quite imposing.
While we waited for someone to open the mosque up for us, I noticed that some of the buttresses were strangely bent and none of them really matched. Ben told us that many of these were brought from other sites....roman ruins and places like El Djem.
There's an understated grandness to the place. The courtyard look huge in the early morning sun and the minaret soaring over a hundred feet over the mosque.
On the South end, the dome of the portico catches your eye.
The mosque styles here are totally different from what we had got used to seeing in Turkey. But they are no less beautiful.
Since we're not muslim, we aren't allowed into the prayer room. But we were able to view it from the doorway.
Notice the wood topping the pillars. That's because they are of different sizes. These were brought here from places like Carthage and the soon to be seen in an upcoming post, Sbeitla.
As we left the mosque, Ben introduced us to a nice young man who would be our guide through the Medina. We really enjoyed this.....unlike the very touristy.....or to say it like Ben does, "touristic", the medina in Kairouan seemed to be a very functional medina. The winding roads, some of which were fairly wide, housed a number of homes and mosques. There seemed to be quite a few families living here.
We passed many fruit and vegetable stands along the way.
Along the way little details were pointed out to us. Like the "Hand of Fatima" on the doors. You can tell how many families lived in back of these doors by the number of "hands" on the door.
We were also pointed to the different door knockers on each door. Each was indicated for different family members. You could tell who was at the front door based on the knock.
We got to sample some Berber bread.....
During our breakfast in the hotel and earlier the previous day the Missus sampled the semolina based confection called Makroud. Stuffed with a date mixture and drenched in honey, this eggless confection can keep for months. The Missus and I decided that makroud just might make it through our trip, so we decided to get some. Instead of taking us to one of the bakeries along the front of the medina, we were lead to a tiny little shop down one of the alleyways of the medina. In it, a gentleman made makroud by hand, the old fashioned way....probably for decades.
We watched him roll out and fold the confection with an economy of motion.
We didn't realize that once formed the makroud is actually deep fried then drenched in honey.
While our makroud was being made we were taken Dar Hassine Allani an example of a 18th century house in the medina. This was actually quite interesting and fun.
I really enjoyed ducking down the tiny "rabbit hole" of the stairway to the food cellar. The temperature here remains very stable, which helps with the storage of the olive oil and honey.
We were treated to mint tea and makroud on the roof of the museum.
The view wasn't too shabby either.....
There was one last stop before picking our makroudup. We were led up a wide stairway to this contraption.
This is a camel driven "Noria" a water wheel. we were told that if we came back a few hours later, they would be a camel up here working the water wheelof the Bir Barrouta, a holy water well.
A few minutes later we wound our way back to pick up our makroud....which the folks at work actually enjoyed.....almost a month later!
We slept quite well in Kairouan, the previous day was pretty hectic and the La Kasbah Hotel was quite nice. As usual, we got up very early, about 5am or so. We enjoy taking early morning walks when we travel. You get to see a city waking up and also the crowds are less severe. Kairouan's medina is known as being probably the least commercial and touristy of all the larger cities in Tunisia, so I wanted to see what it was like. We asked the doorman where the medina was and he pointed to right around the corner.
The medina looks quite fortified, surrounded by walls over 30 feet high. These walls were erected during the early part of the 18th century, though recorded history of the medina goes back to before the 8th century.
If some of the medina looks somewhat familiar, it might be because it was used to depict Cairo in Raiders of the Lost Ark. It's kinda funny, we were hitting a bunch of movie sites during this trip. One of the stories I heard was that the character "Sallah's" house was an actual house in the medina, but when they did a shot panning across the top of the city, they had residents remove over 300 television antennas for a day so they could shoot.
There is a feeling that the medina here is rather unspoiled....the streets are rather wide, the back avenues consist of residences, I'll show you much more in a later post.
The Missus and I really enjoyed walking through here, it gave us a feel of what daily life might be like in Kairouan. As we made our way through the streets we started to see folks opening their shops and making their way to work in the morning.
It didn't take very long for us to make our way to the other end of the medina.
As we headed back through the medina we came across this little shop doing quite a bit of business.
In the shop, a gentleman sat, legs crossed, above a large cast iron pan, that looked like a wok. He received a ball of dough from a young man with striking green eyes and hair the color of the Grand Erg Oriental. When I asked Ben about this later, I was told that it's not unusual for Berber to have even blue eyes and blond hair!
I saw the gentleman get the dough started in the hot oil, which never smoked, I confirmed later on that it was grapeseed oil, which has a high smoke point. He then added an egg. I told the Missus, "man, I wonder if that's how brik is supposed to really be made?" I then asked the woman waiting for her fried dough and a couple of those with eggs by pointing to the dough floating around.....she confirmed it was indeed brik.
Folks were buying this stuff in quantities of four to six. The prices were also pretty cheap, something like 0.4 Dinar (25 cents) for a hefty sized piece of fried dough and 0.6 (35 cents) for one with an egg. Soon the woman had her order filled. The guy behind the pan spoke to another man asking for his order.....he pointed to us, basically informing the "chef" that we were next in line. Folks here in Kairouan were more reserved, but very gracious. So, of course we had to have some brik.
After handing the cook some dough, the young man waved us to the counter in back to have a seat. he also showed us the sink in case we wanted to wash our hands. In a couple of minutes, our brik arrived, steam rising.....
The dough was crisp, light, but still with some substance, and not greasy at all. We soon discovered a very nice thing about the dough, it was studded with caraway seeds, which just brought it up another notch.
The egg was wonderfully runny, it seemed to have been poached. You eat this with your hands, when the young man saw us digging in, he kindly brought us a few more napkins!
This is why we travel....I mean the sights are great and all that, but having brik in the back streets of the medina in Kairouan, well that's like the cherry on the top of the most wonderful ice cream sundae......
Like most of the long trips we take, the Missus submitted a list of places She wanted to visit. It's my job to make that happen. Which what I tried to do. There seemed to be quite a few barriers based on the amount of time we had. First, most of the airports in Tunisia only do international flights.....and the airport at Tozuer only had flights on certain days. Second, we could do public transportation, but it seemed fairly long and somewhat disjointed. Third, we'd be pretty much unable to get to Ksar Ghilaine without at least hiring a driver. At this point I put some feelers out.....doing a "tour group" was out of the question for us, but I started looking into private tours. Some of them were surprisingly expensive....but I finally got an interesting response from Experience It Tours. In fact, Alan Burricks, the company's representative in Tunisia was very responsive usually returning my emails within a day. The company offered a bunch of different tours, but when I submitted my own request/inquiry, they found a way to work in out! We pretty much did a 9-10+ tour in six days. The hotels were all rated 4-5 star, all entrance fees were paid(expet for the 1 dinar "camera fee"), and breakfast and dinner included. So private driver/guide and all that came out to just about 3K......which was worth it in the end. Heck, Alan even called to see how things were going and actually stopped by to see us at the end of our tour in Djerba....really nice guy!
We got down to the lobby of our hotel in Tunis and a few minutes later our driver, "Ben" met us. We loved that he was always early or on time. introductions done, Ben took us for some "cafe express" (espresso) and we headed out. We learned a lot about the people, politics, and culture of Tunisia during our drives. Over the course of our tour, Ben slowly figured out what we were really interested in, and we ended up with a nicely tailored tour.
We headed out from Tunis and stopped in the beach resort city of Hammamet, which is basically a resort town. We stopped briefly at the medina and had a look around.......things looked a bit slow and depressed.
The medina was basically a tourist stop and we aren't really interested in souvenirs and that stuff so we moved on........
Our next stop was the third largest city and home to some mega-resorts, over 40,000 beds, and killer traffic......Sousse.
Right past the traffic jam on the outskirts of the city, Ben stopped here:
Catacombs? Now this was something I hadn't read about. Apparently, in 1888 the French army discovered a network of underground Christian burial galleries. Considered a threat to the Roman Empire, Christians were persecuted, and it is believed that they were not allowed to bury their dead in cemetaries, thus they took to creating the catacombs.
The actual entrance itself is rather unassuming....just a little doorway.
Opening to some stairs leading underground.......
And the underground passageway.
I read that there are over 5 kilometers of catacombs in Sousse with over 15,000 gravesites. Only this short area is open to tourists.
Do you notice something about our photos? There's no one in sight........this is not by design; there wasn't anyone visiting while we were here, which added to our experience and creeped the Missus out. After seeing a grave like this one:
The Missus wanted out.........
Even though the streets above were quite busy; the silence was indeed eerie, and with no one else around, those shadows sure did start to play with your imagination.
After this we headed into Sousse and made a stop at the very touristy medina.......
After which we stopped for lunch....Ben picked a restaurant called....Planet Food????? With US movies playing on the televisions above and photosof Ahh-nold, Angelina, Clint, Bruce, and a whole bunch of movie stars you'd know by just their first names, this was obviously a Planet Hollywood knock-off. So really, Plant Food??? Interesting thing was, the place was full of what seemed like local, or Tunisian tourists...not a European in site. Ben told us that all the tourists just stay in the all-inclusive resorts and places like this now mostly cater to Tunisians.....we were also told it's a favorite date-night place. Kinda cute, I guess....
The menu was a mixed bag of stuff like pizza, which Tunisians claim is not Italian, but Berber in origin, so it belongs here.......kebabs, meat, and seafood.
We started with some salade mechouia, which turned out to be not bad.
This was actually seasoned and had some flavor.
Of course there was harissa provided....along with some very sweet ketchup and mayo.
The Missus ordered the clams and mussels which was cooked nicely, but the sauce had cream in it, which made it a bit too rich for the Missus.
It really messed up the really sweet and delicate flavor of the mussels and clams. As you can tell, the portion size was pretty hefty.
I went with the Veal Merguez and was once again stunned at the "three starch" standard......rice(overcook - bleh), frites (soggy and limp), and more potatoes. Oh, make that four starch, I forgot to mention the bread!
The merguez had a nice combination of seasonings and was very lean. However, I missed the gamey flavor of lamb.
This was a interesting combination or European and Tunisian flavors with a very Western theme. It seemed a bit strange at first, but after a while it attained a kind of kitschiness with us......
After Sousse, we headed South about 45 miles to the town of El-Djem with a population of about 18,000. Arriving in the little town of El Djem is pretty amazing. Why you ask? Well, towering above the little town is the thrid largest Roman Colosseum known.
It's an impressive sight.
It is estimated that the Colosseum could hold as many as 35,000 people, or almost twice the population of modern El Djem. It was built by Gordian who was declared Emperor of Rome during a rebellion against Maximus I and lastede a total of 31 days. The structure was built between 230 and 238 AD. At the time, the city and area was known as Thysdrus and was extremely wealthy because of olive oil. It is said that Gordian committed suicide within the Colosseum when it became obvious that the rebellion had been thwarted.
Much of the coliseum remains intact, though stones were removed in the 17th century to build the Great Mosque at Kairouan. It's the North side that looks the most impressive, the Ottomans shelled the South side in a rebellion.
You are also able to enter and walk through the underground passages.....
Here you pass chambers which held animals and gladiators.
Who were led down these passageways to daylight above to either meet their maker or perhaps live to see another day. It's probably appropriate that some of the scenes from the movie Gladiator were filmed here.
As you can tell, there were no other people here but us. It was very cool in some ways, but also depressing as well. We were told that Europeans spent all their time at the "all-inclusives" and Americans were too afraid to come.......
After our visit, Ben drove us a short way to the El Djem Archaeological Museum.
Before entering, Ben asked us if we had been to the Bardo Museum. When we told him we had, he asked us to compare the frescoes here to those in the Bardo.
Like the Bardo, we put on shoe covers, and just as before, I felt very uncomfortable walking on frescoes.
As for the frescoes, we both thought the collection here were in much better condition than those at the Bardo.
There's also a street of Roman Villas being excavated as part of the museum.
There's also a first century Roman Villa that was moved here for display called the House of Africa.
If visiting El Djem, making a stop here is worth the time.
From El Djem, we headed the 45-50 miles to the city of Kairouan. The Great Mosque here is considered the fourth most holy site in Islam. Thus, seven visits here is equal to one visit ot Mecca...or something like that.
As we entered the city and passed the Great Mosque, we saw a large number of men....all men, with long beards and dressed in conservative Muslim attire. There seemed to be a rally going on. Ben turned to us and said, "Salafis and Al Qaeda......" Really??? Apparently, 3 thousand conservative Muslims had been bussed in from all corners of Tunisia for a show of power to hold this rally.
It was fairly interesting, perhaps a bit unsettling....but of course we stayed at the fortress like El Kasbah. Not too many accommodations in Kairouan and La Kasbah is the only five star in the city.
We were told that La Kasbah had actually been a French Fort, that had been converted into a pretty nice looking hotel.
Our room here was the Missus' favorite on this tour......
Of course since breakfast and dinner were included, it was sure to be the buffet. La Kasbah's offerings and execution left a bit to be desired......even as buffet food, under-flavored, over-cooked, and just dumped out on the line.
Thus we kept our dinner small and to a minimum.
There was one thing I just had to try, however. I just couldn't figure out why Tunisians loved pasta...overcooked pasta. There was a line for the spaghetti so I thought I should give it a try.....egads, this was bad. It wasn't overcooked, but that sauce was just plain....well.....think of the dude with the toque whose photo is on a can....
The Missus on the other hand, found something She loved:
It's called Makroud, a pastry of fairly course semolina flour, filled with a date mixture, deep fried, then glazed with honey. It's pretty hefty for it's tiny size.....the Missus just loved this stuff and we'd go hunting for more later on......
It had been a pretty long day.Which meant that we just pretty much crashed out fairly quickly that night....with dreams of frescoes in my head.
I know this is a long one....if you hung around till the end, I thank you for reading!