topics: Phoenicians, Punic artifacts, El Haouaria, falconry, environment, vegetation; jump to dispatch

BikeAbout Log


Rider Notes: October 24–25, 1997

Breakfast: On Saturday morning, Ethan and Corinne visited the International Cultural Center and sat in the garden café eating tiny, honey-and-date, sugar-drenched cookies, which were called Turkish cakes on the menu. They also observed the artistic exhibitions on the grounds, strolled the length of the gardens, visited the outdoor theater and mini mosque click to view a photographclick to view a photograph, and took in the vista of the sea and Hammamet.

Lunch: At a nearby bakery, andrEa picked up enough interesting bread for everyone. One of the loaves was very crusty and dry, and had been shaped like a wreath, with pinched edges and decorative designs on the top. We would have taken a digital photo, but we ate it all up too quickly. Maybe next time we won't forget before eating it . . .

Dinner: Finding an inexpensive meal in Hammamet was impossible, so we went to a restaurant that had a little of everything and decided we deserved an expensive meal after our first full month of BikingAbout the Mediterranean. The boys had an old favorite: couscous (with lamb) and orange Fanta (the closest thing to Crush). Corinne had spaghetti with tomato sauce, while andrEa had crêpes — one with fruit and two with cheese. Corinne also sampled some of the local citrus products in the form of a fresh-squeezed orange juice.

Food of the Day: Pomegranate

Pomegranates are curious on the outside click to view a photograph and delicious on the inside. click to view a photograph In the U.S. they can be purchased in the winter months, but in Tunisia they are more available in the fall and especially ripe after a hot summer. Reputedly very good for the stomach, you ONLY eat the seeds click to view a photograph of this tart fruit. But be careful! If you drop one on your clothes, it leaves a permanent stain.

Words of the Day: Ah-salaama — "hi"; bi-salaama — "bye"

A casual Tunisian-Arabic greeting is ah-salaama. Saying goodbye sounds similar, but you add a B, making it bi-salaama. It's like saying "hi" and "bye" instead of the more formal assalam u-alaicom and mahas-salama. Knowing these little nuances to the local language can be of great help.

Person of the Day: Mr. Habib Mejdouba click to view a photograph

Mr. Habib Mejdouba, Director of the Auberge de Jeunesse and Maison des Jeunes (Youth Hostel and Youth Center) in Hammamet, has traveled a good deal in his time, and had many stories to share with us about the nature and importance of voyaging abroad and understanding different cultures. Part of his role as director of the Youth Center click to view a photograph is to assist with programs allowing Tunisian youth to travel to foreign countries. In conversation, he mentioned his philosophy, which could easily be a BikeAbout slogan: "Knowledge about one another is the greatest treasure in the world."

Place of the Day: Kerkouane (or Kerkuane) visit the World Heritage Site page click to view a photograph

On Saturday morning, Anthony and Padraic stopped by to visit the ruins of the ancient Phoenicio-Punic city of Kerkouane (or Kerkuane). Because it is the only known Phoenicio-Punic city to have survived the destructive wrath of Rome after the Punic wars, UNESCO has recognized Kerkouane as one of its World Heritage sites. visit the World Heritage Site page Though it lacks the impressive larger structures of some other sites in Tunisia — none of the walls was over five feet high and the tallest thing standing was a solitary pillar — Kerkouane seems in some ways better preserved. It was as if someone had taken off all the roofs (and second stories) from the buildings, but left the walls and doorways intact. You could tell the exact floor plan of every house, and the exact layout of the entire city. From a helicopter it would probably look like a life-sized map of the city. click to view a photograph click to view a photograph

Perhaps the best preserved parts of the site, and that which gave the most insight into how the ancient Phoenicians (and Carthaginians) lived, are the various bathing facilities. Some bathhouses still contain complete mosaics and full sized bathtubs. click to view a photograph

The artifacts inside the Kerkouane museum provided another view of Punic life. The coins, lamps, vases, and jewelry — most crafted with intricate designs — gave some notion of the "things" that this ancient civilization valued. Which of your possessions would give the best insight into your life if discovered 22 centuries from now? (For the IJs it would be spare bicycle parts and some floppy disks.)

The artifacts were also impressive because they show just how interconnected the Mediterranean and its people have always been. The Phoenician inhabitants of Kerkouane had among their possessions items that showed the obvious influence of other great ancient civilizations — for example, pieces of jewelry with Egyptian motifs, and a striking Grecian-style vase that depicts a scene from The Odyssey. Check out the picture click to view a photograph! The first reader to write us an email telling us which scene from the book is shown gets an autographed BikeAbout poster.

Group Dispatch, October 24–25

picture of Corinnepicture of Padraic

In Tunis, despite a late night packing, Anthony and Padraic carried through on their verbal pledge (taken the night before): "At dawn we ride." They had decided they wanted to ride the full coast of the Cap Bon peninsula on the other side of the Bay of Tunis [click to view a map]. So, with the help of a tailwind and a man on a moped (who acted as a guide), they pedaled east into the rising sun and, after 20 km (12.5 mi) and one hour, finally made their way out of the traffic of Tunis to turn northeast towards El Haouaria at the point of the peninsula. Even though the tailwind turned into a sidewind, Anthony broke two more spokes, and they took a couple of long rest stops, freedom from the B.O.B. trailers allowed them to cover the 100 km (62 mi) to El Haouaria by one o'clock in the afternoon. This gave them plenty of time for lunch, a nap, and a quick exploration of the town before dark.

El Haouaria is famous for its tradition of falconry. For hundreds of years the inhabitants of this small coastal community have been renowned as great trainers of birds of prey — in this case Sparrow hawks and Peregrine falcons. Every spring these birds migrate to El Haouaria and are caught by the local falconers, who then spend the next few months honing the hunting skills of these natural predators. By June, the birds are ready to compete in a falconry festival. The trainers of the winning hawks (those that catch the most game) gain great prestige. After the festival, the hawks are all released to continue their migration north for the summer. Very few return year after year. They are probably satisfied to hunt for themselves.

Although Anthony and Padraic missed the falconry festival, they saw plenty of evidence of the importance this town places on birds of prey: Nearly every large building had murals of hawks. One of the restaurants they ate at even had a picture of a hawk eating on its wall!

Weary from their long day and aware that they had another 100 km (62 mi) to ride the next day, the boys returned to their deserted pension (no one else was staying there and the last visitors had left weeks before — evidently El Haouaria is pretty quiet outside of the June Falconry festival) and turned in early.

Back in Tunis, Ethan, andrEa, and Corinne didn't even wake up until the boys were long gone. Then it was a matter of collecting breakfast and travel foods, sending e-mails and dispatches, leaving a thankyou note for our hosts, and visiting the bank and the post office. By that point it was already time for lunch!

They needed to grab a fast lunch in order to get to Hammamet by sunset, but all they saw were pastry shops and a fast-food pizzeria. In her best, but laughable French, Corinne tried ordering one piece of pizza for each for the small group so they could eat and run: vegetarian slices for the ladies, and tuna for Ethan. Somehow she ended up with a whole pizza — but no one complained!

Luckily, since they did not have a moped guide like Padraic and Anthony did, they were able to find an off-the-main-road route toward their destination that more or less followed the main highway, but without the terrible noise, dangerously speedy big trucks, and icky smell. Of course this meant stopping and checking (and re-checking) the map more than they like to, and confirming their guesses with locals more often than usual, but the landscape made it worth the slowed pace. The view from the bikes is, as always, astounding.

And green.

In fact, throughout northern Tunisia, everyone on the BikeAbout team has been struck by the greenness of the hills and farm areas. If not for the many and large cactus plants that stand as borders between crops, and without the knowledge that the desert is a mere week away from us, everyone would be fooled as to the location. Ethan says it reminds him of Maine, andrEa thinks it looked like the wine vineyards of northern Italy, and Padraic and Anthony both have compared the recent surroundings to parts of France. It's just not what one thinks of about Africa . . .

Anyway, the ride through the green hills finally deposited the group of three on the heavily touristed sandy coast near Hammamet. The setting sun gave everything a special glow click to view a photograph and hid the reality from BikeAbout, a reality they discovered the next day.

It's important to acknowledge that all of the BikeAbouters come to these countries with limited previous knowledge about the culture and people. However, they are in the fortunate position of visiting these places not so much as tourists (though that can't be avoided sometimes), but to learn as much as possible about the local culture and share as much as possible about their own cultures with the locals. In a place like Hammamet — a huge tourist attraction, like much of the Tunisian coast so far — it was disturbing to see the extent to which the tourist industry has taken over the town and perhaps altered the culture. Some parts of Hammamet feel like a Tunisian section of a German city: All the signs are in German and all the businesses seemed to be geared towards the tourists rather than the locals. For example, bars and discos are often hard to find in Islamic countries (there were very few bars and no discos in Morocco or other parts of Tunisia). Hammamet, by contrast, is full of them. One can't help but wonder how the city used to look before the resort hotels were built and the tourists arrived. And if it is trapped by what it has become. click to view a photograph

Meanwhile back in El Haouaria (now on Saturday), the boys again rode at dawn. Their early departure got them the 20 km (12.5 mi) to the World Heritage site of Kerkouane visit the World Heritage Site page about an hour before it opened. Not discouraged, they stretched out on the rocky beach next to the archaeological site and enjoyed a breakfast of cookies and water. click to view a photograph click to view a photograph When the site finally opened, they explored the ancient city and the museum thoroughly (see the Place of the Day) before jumping back on their saddles to rejoin the rest of the group in Hammamet. Fortunately, yesterday's sidewind had slackened and they were able to make good time, reuniting with Ethan, andrEa, and Corinne to take part in the presentation given to the students at the Maison des Jeunes (Youth Center) attached to the Auberge de Jeunesse where they were staying.

This occurred late in the afternoon, after Corinne and andrEa made a visit to the neighboring secondary school — the Mixed Secondary School of Hammamet — to annouce the afternoon meeting. Mr. Habib Mejdouba (see the Person of the Day), the jovial and helpful director of the Maison des Jeunes, had helpfully allowed BikeAbout to use some space at the Maison for a talk with a group of youngsters from the school. click to view a photograph The BikeAbout team got to learn first-hand what it is like to grow up in a town so overwhelmed with tourists. They were surprised by the response. None of the teenagers seemed to mind the rampant tourism. They said they have little or no contact with the tourists who visit and stay at the 90+ resort and hotel complexes in the area. They did however admit that there are many ways of looking at the situation. Some people feel exposure to foreigners is good no matter what and that tourism provides jobs. Also, the tourist season is mostly in the summer, so it's not so bad overall. However, others believe that tourism has made Hammamet terribly expensive and that now it is difficult to find fresh produce before it is all purchased at inflated prices by the hotels. Regardless, the students seemed less shocked than the members of the BikeAbout team.

After the meeting, the BikeAbout group went out for a reunion dinner in an expensive and touristy restaurant before turning in, again exhausted from yet another full day.

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