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OUT OF AFRICA

June 25th, 2012 1 comment

When I thought of Northern Africa, I expected desert and stifling heat.  What we found is a coastline of world class beaches, resorts and quaint towns dominated by Medinas (old walled cities) and Ribats (forts). 

The Tunisian people have been very welcoming.  They are industrious and hard working. 

Since we are heading west to the Caribbean this winter, it is unlkely that we will return to Tunisia by boat.  But I think a camel trek across the Sahara and camping in a Bedouin tent under the stars may be in our future. 

We’ll soon be passaging to France for Bastille Day, but Tunisia has made a lasting impression.

Categories: North Africa, Tunisia Tags:

PILGRIMAGE TO KAIROUAN

June 24th, 2012 No comments

We don’t venture inland often (not often enough in my opinion) so when our paths crossed with fellow cruisers Paul and Gabriella on BellaNova they inspired us to take a daytrip to the ancient city of Kairouan.  They had worked all the logistics and we went along for the ride.  .  .and what a ride it was!

On busy two lane roads, passing is hair raising.

Kairouan is approximately 90 KM from Monastir.  We took a taxi to the bus station near the center of town, where mini-vans (louages) depart for various locations throughout Tunisia.  There is no scheduled departure, so you wait until the van fills up–5 to 8 passengers depending on the size.  For 5.5 Dinar per person, or about $3.25 we were off to Kairouan.

Although there are some four-lane highways running north and south along the coast, once you head inland it is mostly two lanes, which makes for a very interesting ride.  The driver would ride the bumper of the vehicle ahead, ducking his nose out for a passing opportunity.  Most times there was another vehicle coming right at us, but we were back in our lane in the knick of time.  At times it was just best to close your eyes.

Paul had a philosophical approach.  If the driver didn’t get us to Kairouan in one piece he wouldn’t get paid, and if he wrecked his van he loses his livelihood–so he probably knows what he is doing.

So, having described the trip there, you may be wondering WHY GO?

Kairouan, we were to learn, is the fourth most important city in the Islamic world after Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem and the site of The Great Mosque. 

A first glimpse of the minaret at the Great Mosque made the trip worthwhile.

After paying 8 TD or about $5.00 we had passes to all the major sites in Kairouan.  Permission to take photos was another Dinar, about $.50.

At one end of the large courtyard is the Minaret, which is unsual in its lighthouse shape design. . .

while at the other end the dome of the Mosque is striking against the blue sky.

This is a solemn religious  site, where non-Muslims are expected to exhibit proper decorum in behavior and dress.  Those appearing without the appropriate clothing–no short skirts, shorts or bare arms for women–are given appropriate, but not stylish coverings to wear.

Graphic t-shirts and shorts require covering. . .

in order to peer in the door of the mosque--"infidels" not allowed inside.

The view from the main entrance of the Great Mosque where the faithful gather for prayers five times a day. . .

while just outside swallows swirl about the courtyard. . .

as seen through the many keyhole arches that support the arcades that surround the courtyard.

A friendly Tunisian man,  hoping for a few Dinar tip, offered to show us through the maze-like Medina of narrow streets where artists and craftsmen weave silk scarves on wooden looms, hammer brass into lamps or trays, and cut and hand stitch leather into Aladdin-like shoes with curled toes.   The town has the mythical feel of 1,000 Arabian nights.

Maze-like streets. . .

lead to small cubicles where men weave silk scarves on wooden looms. . .

and a fancy carpet gallery where a woman demonstrates making Kairouan carpets, although most are made at home.

Our “guide”, Ahmed introduces us to a local speciality that we can take back to Destiny–Makroudhs is a date-filled pastry similar to bacalava, but denser than phyllo dough.  First the filled pastry is laid out in long lines, then cut into bite size pieces.  Next, it is cooked in hot oil then soaked in honey.

First the date-filled dough is laid out in long strips, then cut into bite size pieces. . .

and after frying, into the vat of honey.

The candy size pieces soak for hours in a copper vat of honey and then are dusted with sesame seeds or finely chopped nuts.  Every bite oozes the sweet local nectar–heavenly–and no additives or preservatives.

Ahmed not only introduced us to Makroudhs, but told us that Kairouan is called the “town of 300 mosques” some of which are quite small.

The Mosque of Three Doors, is famous. . .

while others are just one of the 300.

He also told us the significance of the highly ornate doors surrounds we saw as we walked through the Old Town.

Doorways like this. . .

with elaborate ornamentation. . .

signify that a family has made a pilgrimage to Mecca

Ahmed was not interested in showing us the “souk” or commercial shopping area which is quite touristy.  We suspect that he was rewarded for taking us to the out of the way spots, in addition to the few Dinar we gave him. 

The ancient walls of the Medina are a backdrop for. . .

Plastic mannequins in Arabian nights garb. . .

uninspired displays of pottery. . .

and carpets. . .lots of carpets.

Since I was a “tourist for the day” I couldn’t resist a set of five olive wood bowls that nested one into the other.  Especially when I successfully negotiated the price from 40 Dinar to 15–about $9.75.  Bargaining is not only acceptable, but expected in the souk, and is considered a sign of respect for the merchant.

After a brief stop for tea in the souk, we were off for the bus station for our return to Monastir.  The return trip was equally exciting.  We arrived safely with the aroma of onion clinging to our skin.

Yes, onions. . .lots of onions enroute to Monastir.

Au revoir.

Categories: North Africa, Tunisia Tags:

MONASTIR: Monuments, Mosques & Markets

June 17th, 2012 No comments
Unlike Hammamet which is the largest tourist resort area in Tunisia, Monastir is the birth place of its first President, Habib Bourguiba, and is a small town with a rich history.

From the sea the Ribat dominates the shore.

The Ribat of Monastir, an impressive fortification, that dominates the seaside was begun in 796 A.D. and enlarged between then and the 11th Century. It is the most complete fortification that we have seen anywhere in the Med which we attribute to its location in North Africa and the absence of earthquakes which ravaged other ancient venues further north.

Approaching the entrance, you get a sense of how massive the structure is. . .

which includes a museum.

There is a tall round tower surrounded by massive walls. From the tower you have sweeping views of the town, a palm lined square between the Ribat and Mosque with its green tile minaret roof.

The tower is imposing, but worth the dizzying climb. . .

for the stunning views of the shore. . .

and the Mosque.

The Ribat is the site of an International Summer Festival and has been the location of numerous movies, including Monte Python’s Life of Brian.

The Ribat will accommodate many festival visitors inside its walls. . .

but people also gather outside the walls in the evening to gaze at the sea.

In the distance across a Muslim cemetary from the Ribat you see the second most important monument in Monastir–the Mausoleum of Habib Bourguiba.

The Bourguiba Mausoleum is a tourist attraction. . .

and where there are tourists. . .there are vendors.

Bourguiba was president of the independent Republic of Tunisia from 1957 until 1987 when he was ousted from power allegedly because he had become incompetent. He lived out his final days in Monastir, and while still President had built the “Taj Mahal” like mausoleum that houses his remains.

Bourguiba had two wives (not at the same time) so each wife gets a dome, but he gets the BIG dome. . .

and a ceremonial entrance to his crypt.

While photographing the mausoleum, I was approached by an elderly Tunisian man in a well worn black suit, who spoke excellent English. He gave me the “local view” and history of the monument to Bourguiba.

Some 25 years before his death in 2000 at age 96, Bourguiba “desecrated” a Muslim cemetary, according to my guide, in order to construct this opulent tribute to himself. Money that many thought would be put to better use on the country’s behalf.

Muslim graves were moved. . .

to make room for minarets and porticos.

Indeed, the swath of land upon which the Mausoleum is situated cuts through an ancient cemetary with modest tombs on both sides

It was explained that Muslim graves all face toward Mecca, and have simple Arabic lettering (no French). By tradition, flowers are not used to decorate graves, but on Fridays after prayers, families visit the graves of relatives and leave money and bread which is collected by the poor.

Muslims bury their dead in simple white crypts with Arabic lettering, facing Mecca.

I didn’t notice any bread crumbs on Bourguiba’s elaborately carved marble tomb, which my guide says is not the “Muslim” way.

President Bourguiba has a palatial resting place. . .

under a massive crystal chandelier. . .

in a carved marble crypt.

The Mosque is centrally located near the Medina, but is not open to the public.

98% of the Tunisian population is Muslim and the Mosque is in the center of the Medina. . .

but only Muslims can enter.

Within the Medina (old town) walls, Monastir has a souk or daily market where you can buy fresh fruits and vegetables.

There are numerous gates into the Medina.

The Medina has narrow, maze-like streets lined with stalls. . .

with "in season" crops like watermelons.

Farmers bring truckloads of produce, including far more garlic than I have ever seen in one place.

It's very hard to buy one or two garlic heads--they want to sell by the kilo.

Most Tunisians shop at the souk on a daily basis.  There are fish vendors and butchers, and depending on how “fresh” you want your food, you can carry home a live bunny or chicken to slaughter yourself.

The souk is crowded with local shoppers. . .

some of whom will take home a live hen. . .

cock rooster. . .

or bunny (oh,no!) for DINNER.

I don’t like to look my dinner in the eye, and  even the butchers are a little too up close and personal.  I prefer to buy my meat or chicken wrapped in cellophane from the Mono-Prix supermarket.

I don't know what this is and from the smell certainly don't want it for dinner.

Monastir is a “real” Tunisian town, as opposed to the Port Yasmine.  We enjoyed meeting Tunisian people who live and work there.  One experience that stands out is our conversation with a young Tunisian man who was selling jasmine bouquets on the quay in the marina.  We commented on his excellent English, and he grinned broadly as he told us he was 18, had just graduated from high school.  He speaks Arabic as his native language, fluent French and English and is now learning Polish through Facebook.  And we struggle with a few words of French or Spanish.  Au revoir for now.

Categories: North Africa, Tunisia Tags:

TUNISIA ON THE HARD

June 16th, 2012 No comments

When we left Sicily for Tunisia, in addition to sightseeing,  we had two things in mind:  a clean bottom for Destiny and filling our tanks with diesel for the equivalent of $2.50 per U.S. gallon.  Diesel fuel in the Med has averaged $8.00 per gallon, so this was a big incentive.

A bottom scrubbing in Malta by a diver proved not to be effective.  We needed new bottom paint.  So after arriving in Tunisia and consulting with Duncan who runs Yacht Services at Port Yasmine we made arrangements to haul Destiny at the Monastir Fishing Port about 40 NM south for bottom painting.  We first visited the boat yard by car to check it out.

Fishing dominates the harbor, as one would expect. . .

but the super size travel lift could accommodate boats much larger than Destiny.

For the equivalent of about $580 we had the boat hauled, blocked, the bottom sanded and two coats of paint applied–and that included 9 days on the hard.  Kent worked on other boat projects, including routine maintenance and replacement of a worn cutlass bearing.  Similar work in Italy would have been three to four times that cost. 

In the meantime, Jolie and I relaxed in an apartment at Monastir Cap Marina ($35 per night) a couple of kilometers away watching the local pirate ships come and go and viewing magnificent sunsets.

Kent left for the fishing harbor in Destiny. . .

while Jolie and I settled into a tri-level apartment at the Marina Cap Monastir Hotel. . .

with a terrace on one side. . .

overlooking the marina and the local pirate ship. . .

and stunning sunsets on the other.

As a special treat I had a haircut, manicure and pedicure for 54 Dinar (about $30) at a 4-star hotel nearby.

Finally after nine days, Destiny was ready to launch, and I was ready to give up the luxury of our apartment with bathtub to move back on board.

Finally, Destiny is ready to go in the slings. . .

which are pretty worn from being dragged through the boatyard.

While supervising the work, Kent became friendly with a young Tunisian boatyard worker named, Abdul.  Abdul is 27 years old and has a degree in electrical engineering from a University.  The only work he can find is painting and launching boats for which he makes 30 Dinar per day, the equivalent of 15 euros or less than $20 US.  This is considered good pay by Tunisian standards, which accounts for the “bargain” rates compared to the E.U.

Kent oversees Abdul, whose work is meticulous, earning him some extra Dinar from us.

Of course, the launch day coincided with the first nasty weather we had in two weeks which made for a wet ride back to Monastir Cap Marina.

Time to go back in the water. . .now if nothing leaks and the engine starts, we're in good shape.

It's a sloppy ride outside, but with luck. . .

we beat the rain and strong wind back to Monastir Cap Marina.

As nice as it was to be land based for a while, it was equally nice to be back “home.”

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BARBARY COAST MEETS DISNEYLAND

June 16th, 2012 No comments

We had been forewarned that Port Yasmine, just south of the town of Hammamet, situated on a long stretch of white sand beach that outlines the Gulf of Hammamet was very much like Fort Lauderdale.

White hotels line white sand beaches. . .

that lure primarily European vacationers.

Interestingly, between the 16-19th Centuries this coast was controlled by Barbary pirates who made frequent raids into northern Mediterranean countries to capture Christians for sale as slaves for the Islamic and Middle Eastern markets of North Africa.

Modern Tunisians have capitalized on this history by offering vacationers a “pirate experience” that rivals Disneyland.  In Port Yasmine there are three pirate ship excursions to choose from.

Each of the three "pirate" ships has. . .

plastic faux trim. . .

including plastic bow sculptures. . .BTW the unicorn has anatomical features not appearing on children's toys.

Along with faux ships, there are faux pirates.

Some faux "pirates" swing from rigging for the amusement of passengers. . .

while others stand sentry at restaurants on shore.

The 700 slip marina rivals those in other parts of the Med in size, but the parallel to Florida extends to the land based activities as well.  Port Yasmine is an insular vacation mecca on the North African coast that is filled with tourists, doing all the touristy things that tourists do.

Destiny (center) amid the many masts. . .

only risk parasailors in the rigging.

Like Disneyland, Port Yasmine and the surrounding area is an all-inclusive vacation spot.

Disney size hotel complexes with all inclusive rates. . .

have faux castles. . .although smaller than Cinderella's.

Once outside the hotel you have your choice of transportation.

Horse drawn carriages decorated with flowers. . .

mini motorcycle taxis. . .

The Islamic influence is evident in the absence of alcohol from the pirate ships and even the cafes adjacent to the marina.  Fresh juice drinks and gelato dominate the daytime cafe menus, with wine and spirits only available at restaurants.

One of the many cafes in the marina. . .

specializes in fresh squeezed orange juice. . .no ice.

Not all the tourists who flock to Port Yasmine are European.  It is also visited by native Tunisian families and tourists from Middle Eastern countries.   Many of the women wear head scarfs and are covered head to foot–but not in the traditional black or white.  This style of dress appears to be a fashion statement, as designer logo wear is prevalent especially among young women.

Notice the difference in dress between the two women, one older and one younger.

The Tunisians we have met have been friendly and welcoming.  Tourism is big business along the North Africa coast, although we are anxious to see beyond the plastic environment of Port Yasmine to the “real” Tunisia.

Categories: North Africa, Tunisia, Uncategorized Tags: