topics: tajine (food), mosaics, art and artifacts, Punic artifacts, mosque; jump to dispatch

BikeAbout Log


Rider Notes: November 8–9, 1997

Breakfast: Because we woke so early, we waited until we had ridden 20 km (12.5 mi) before we stopped for a light breakfast of muffins and bread.

Lunch: Once again, we didn't have time to make a long lunch stop. Instead we just picked up some bread and munched on it from time to time throughout the day.

Dinner: Tonight we had our first home-cooked meal in a long time after Mongi and his wife Myriam (see the People of the Day), suggested that we eat with them that evening. The base of the meal was a large bowl of yummy-flavored couscous to which was added vegetables, lamb, and a special sauce. The meat-eaters agreed that the lamb was the best by far they had yet tried; the vegetarians said the same about the vegetables.

Food of the Day: Tunisian tagine

You may recall from our previous dispatches that we often ate tagine for dinner in Morocco. In that country, tagine is a stew made of vegetables, fish, or meat. In Tunisia, however, tagines are egg-based dishes with chopped meat, all cooked in the oven like a large cake. Seasoned with parsley, cheese, or grilled peppers, the Tunisian tagines reminded us very much of quiche. Unfortunately, Tunisian tagines proved very hard to find. We wish we had the chance to try more of them.

Person of the Day: Myriam and Mongi click to view a photograph

We would not have gotten far in Tunis without the hospitality and generosity of Mongi, his wife Myriam, and the next-door family of Myriam's brother. Not only did Mongi and Myriam allow us to take over their house, they also offered us Internet access, let us use their washing machine, and fed us. They did all of this while refusing to accept anything in return. The warmth and kindness of people like Mongi and Myriam continue to make the world a better place and are some of the most important reasons why BikeAbout is able to continue its Mediterranean journey. We thank them from the bottoms of our hearts for all that they have done for us.

Place of the Day: Bardo Museum in Tunis

Like Paris's most famous museum, the Louvre, Tunisia's most renowned museum, the Bardo, is located in a former royal palace. One of the most impressive and beautiful buildings in Tunisia, the Bardo palace used to house the Turkish sovereigns, known as the "beys" who ruled Tunisia from the 16th through the 20th century. After Tunisia achieved independence, the splendid rooms in which the royal family once slept, ate, and received guests were emptied of their furniture and then packed from floor to ceiling with ancient artifacts — the most important or valuable material recovered from archaeological sites throughout Tunisia. We couldn't help but notice that many of the items on display were taken from places we had already visited, including Utique, Carthage, Kerkouane, Sousse, and El Jem.

Remarkably well-preserved pieces of Punic pottery and jewelry, as well as statues and other artifacts from the Roman and Byzantine eras fill many of the rooms (including a life-sized carving of Anthony's foot click to view a photograph).

But the Bardo is most famous for its collection of Roman mosaics (see the Tech Fact of the Day). Few of the rooms didn't have at least one mosaic. click to view a photograph Some rooms could hardly have fit any more. click to view a photograph Even the floors on which we walked were used to display mosaics. click to view a photograph The most famous mosaics in the Bardo collection include the only known portrait of the Roman poet Virgil (who wrote the Aeneid), and perhaps the biggest mosaic in the world, an immense 137-sq-m (164-sq-yd) depiction of the activities of Neptune, the Roman god of the sea.

Tech Fact of the Day: Mosaics

Have you ever taken a really close look at pictures in the newspaper? If you do, you'll see that the whole picture consists of thousands of tiny dots, which, once you look from a greater distance, combine to make the image. This is the same idea behind mosaics. Mosaics are assemblies of tiny fragments of colored marble, glass, or terracotta (clay), all fitted together to make pictures. Though some mosaics are quite simple, others are incredibly complex, made up of thousands of little pieces arranged to make a picture as detailed as a painting. From up close, mosaics look like colored rocks, but distance reveals the beauty of a much larger picture. click to view a photograph click to view a photograph

This ancient art form dates back thousands of years but was brought to its height by the Romans and Byzantines. Wealthy Romans would commission artists to make mosaics to adorn the walls, floors, fountains, and even bathtubs of their villas.

Group Dispatch, November 8–9

picture of Padraic

After our long stay on Djerba, we were all looking forward to getting back on the bikes. And, because we wanted to catch an afternoon train back to Tunis from Gabès, we woke up before dawn to pack up and go.

However, there is a common saying that once you've stayed in Djerba, you will find it very hard to leave. We figured that the tourist board had cooked this up — probably based on Odysseus's difficulty forcing his men to leave the land of the Lotus-Eaters. Little did we realize just how much truth there was behind it, because it seemed as if the forces of nature were conspiring to keep us on the island. Even before we got out of bed, we heard the wind whistling outside our window. A quick glance at the wind direction confirmed our worst fears — the wind was blowing at gale force from the south and southwest, exactly the direction we would have to cycle to leave the island.

As if the winds weren't bad enough, we had barely made it out of Houmt Souk before Anthony got another flat, again on his unlucky back wheel. As we waited for him to repair it, the wind became stronger still. By the time we had reached the ferry that took us off the island, the wind had become so fierce that we were forced to use gears we hadn't resorted to since climbing the Rif Mountains in Morocco. Our pace slowed to a crawl. It seemed to take hours to cycle the distance between the kilometer markings on the road.

Corinne and andrEa took advantage of the kindness of strangers and loaded their bikes into a huge truck whose driver thought they might need some help. Protected from the wind by the front windshield of the truck, they made the last 40 km (25 mi) in about 30 minutes. The boys, however, pressed on using human power. It took them about two hours for the final stretch. Unfortunately, despite unflagging determination — they stopped only twice during the last 90 km (56 mi), once to fix two more spokes on Anthony's devilish back wheel click to view a photographit became increasingly clear they would not reach Gabès in time to take the afternoon train. With one last burst of energy, they tried to pick up the pace, but arrived at the train station, exhausted, 20 minutes too late for the train. Now the whole group would have to wait seven hours for the next train.

Unwilling to sit around the train station, we found a quiet restaurant at which we could both eat and work (though what we really wanted to do was sleep). When we returned to the station to check our bikes onto the train, we were surprised to find it crowded with people and luggage. After the national holiday, many Tunisians were returning to work or school in Tunis. Thankful that we had reserved seats, we jumped on the train early and settled into our reclining chairs for the overnight ride ahead.

After an uneventful, if not particularly restful trip, we arrived in Tunis before 6 a.m. click to view a photograph, reloaded the bikes and headed to a café for breakfast.

Once again, we enjoyed Mongi and Myriam's seemingly unlimited hospitality (see the People of the Day). Once again, they kindly offered us the use of their house and urged us to make ourselves at home. We unpacked our piles of very dirty clothes in their living room and spread literature and computers throughout the house.

After short naps, Anthony and Padraic decided to visit Tunisia's premier museum, the Bardo (see the Place of the Day), while the others continued to catch up on backlogged work. Soon after the guys' return, the group enjoyed a huge home-cooked meal before turning in early to catch up on their sleep.

The next morning, the group took time off from their preparations to leave Tunisia and made one last expedition into Tunis's Medina. Their destination was the Ez Zitouna (or "olive tree") central mosque, the biggest and most important mosque in Tunis. Built in the seventh century, the mosque used to be the religious and political center of Tunis. Although it has lost its political significance, the schools (medersas) attached to it have maintained Ez Zitouna's reputation as an important center of learning. It remains a premier forum for Islamic law and theology. Unfortunately, unlike the Great Mosque of Sousse and Great Mosque of Kairouan, only a small portion of the Ez Zitouna mosque is open to the public. We had to be satisfied with looking out onto the mosque's courtyard from a fenced-off walkway. click to view a photograph click to view a photograph

Disappointed, we consoled ourselves by exploring the narrow alleys of the Medina click to view a photograph one last time before heading home to pack up. We will miss the color, hustle, and bustle of this great city. We can only hope that our next destination will be as fascinating and hospitable.

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