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Tunis Air isn’t quite on a par with Punjab Airways, but it tries its best. When the drinks trolley reached us they’d run out of red wine. The inflight entertainment was provided by the Tunisian national football squad, singing and playing that traditional North African percussion instrument, the Airbus A320.

By the time we’d filled in the forms, waited for the bikes, changed money, re-assembled the bikes, it was nearly 10 pm and we had to find our way to Carthage in the dark with a 1:1,000,000 scale map showing about three roads. In true cycle-tourists’ weight-saving tradition, we’d brought the minimum of two lights between us, one front and one rear. Carthage seemed to be a pleasant suburb with large villas set in gardens, and the occasional Roman pillar looming out of the darkness, but our first night’s sleep was ruined by mosquitos & muezzins. Delenda est Cartago.

The ride into Tunis the next morning along the causeway across the lagoon was a bore, but at least it wasn’t a busy road. The only things to look at were billboards advertising spark plugs, banks and ice-cream, the latter featuring a cartoon eskimo speaking Arabic.

At the station we got tickets for the train at 1305. Colin tried riding his bike through the souks; do not try this yourself. Back at the station, they told us to take the bikes to the baggage office. There they said: you’re too late for the 1305 train, it’s about to leave, you have to fill in these forms and pay 6 dinars, and change your tickets for the train at 1620. The queues at the ticket desks were by now suspiciously long, given the small number of trains running. We stood in the shortest but were told this was the wrong place. The man in the information desk said to try desk 12; this was a bit unconvincing as desk 12 was identical to desks 9 to 16 and they were all labelled Sousse & Sfax. But we did get them changed.

With the bikes left in the baggage office, we could explore the medina more easily. We got lost but helpful people pointed the way to the Zitouna Mosque. Pity it was shut in the afternoon. More helpful people directed us into the inevitable carpet shop; but Tunisia isn’t like Morocco and there isn’t any sell, and the view from the roof terrace was worth seeing. The shopkeeper told us about a sheep festival corning up.

The train was packed, even half an hour before it was due to leave, and people continued to squash themselves on. It trundled off at a leisurely cycling speed through the suburbs and got to Mejez el Bab at 1745. Hardly anyone else got off; it was a mystery as to where they were all going. We made a reasonable pace to Teboursouk and didn’t have to ride too far in the dark. The terrain was flat at first and got more hilly. It wasn’t very exotic-looking, mostly farmland, and more like the Berkshire Downs than the stony olive groves you’d see in other parts around the Mediterranean, let alone deserts with camels.

The reason to stay at Teboursouk is to visit the Roman town of Dougga. It’s everything a ruin should be, set on a hill in the countryside, with an elegant capitol straight out of a painting by Poussin, but it could do with a few nymphs & shepherds instead of the leathery old guides. On the edge of the site is the mausoleum of Ateban: a fine 200BC example of Libyo-Punic post-modernism featuring such architectural quotations as Ionic pilasters, Persian reliefs, vernacular rams’ horns and to top it all a miniature Egyptian pyramid. This unique monument stood for 2000 years before the British Consul in Tunis deconstructed it to get his hands on an inscription. It has since been rebuilt.

We spent most of the morning at Dougga and had to ride over the craggy lump ef Jebel Goraa in the full midday heat. Lunch was a harissa-and-chip butty in a well-concealed cafe in Thibar. It was here the White Fathers once founded a mission to convert the Muslims to Christianity by setting an example: they planted a vineyard. They’ve gone now, but at least the locals got the right idea, and they still make wine.

The rest of the day’s ride in the Mejerda valley was flat and boring. We checked into the hotel in Jendouba and went to look for a restaurant. They were all shut. We were rescued by a friendly man who spoke English; he said that everything was shut because of the sheep festival, and that everything would be shut the next day too. He also said it was impossible to cycle over the road to Tabarka, it’s far too steep. But he persuaded another hotel to feed us. The festival made itself known at 3 am with loudspeakers broadcasting waily music all over town.

He was right about everything being shut: the banks were closed and this was a problem as we were running short of dinars. But the road was all right, and even Colin thought it was quite a pleasant climb, but then he was only carrying 0.1% of the luggage. The road crosses the Khroumir hills which are the end of the Atlas range, but here they only rise to 1000m or so. The lower slopes are pretty, with oleanders and meadows of flowers; higher up are cork forests where people hunt wild boar. The Hôtel Les Chênes is very obviously a boar-hunters’ lair: on the walls there are stuffed boars heads and pictures of boars, and there’s boar on the menu. The advantage of this hotel is that it is 4 miles from the nearest minaret.

On the way down to Tabarka we passed another cyclist going up; a Tunisian on a racing bike, the first serious cyclist we’d seen. Later on, near Tunis, we saw two more, but that’s all, although there are plenty of one-speed utility bikes. But there must be some bike racing here; we saw the evidence ‘ARRIVÉ’ and ‘1000m’ painted on roads.

Tabarka is – or was – a quiet beach resort; but already the concrete shells of big fancy hotels have begun to appear on the waterfront. Colin looked at them hopefully but I insisted we stay at the Hôtel de France because it has a wisteria and plenty of character (meaning historic plumbing and a rather motheaten whole stuffed boar in the restaurant). The banks were still shut: there was a festival on, of course.

The banks opened the next day so we escaped the fate of the hotel’s boar. Things seemed to be back to normal; kiddies were on their way to school. In fact whatever time it was, there were kiddies walking along the road either going to school, or coming out, but never actually in school. You can’t stop for a laze around without a bunch of them appearing from nowhere, waving and running and shouting.

The hills along the north coast are quiet and attractive but a bit short on places to stay so we headed inland again. In Nefza, we stopped for lunch in the maT’am baghdad which is decorated with pictures of important people: the Tunisian President, the Tunisian football team, and Saddam Hussein. We must have been the only foreigners staying in Beja, a large but friendly town with an old medina rambling up the hill to the kasbah. The thrill of being the only tourists wore off when we couldn’t find any restaurants, and we had a boozeless meal in the hotel.

The road to Mateur follows a railway line but it’s quite a roller-coaster and the tarmac hadn’t been applied too generously. The land was mostly cultivated, but there weren’t any real villages, just scattered farms. In Mateur the only place we could find serving food was a pâtisserie and we scoffed its entire stock of pizza and cheese pies. Pâtisseries are one of the good things the French gave to Tunisia, as well as wine, a second language that’s easy, and decent food in the tourist resorts. The rest of the day’s ride to Bizerte was straight into a fierce headwind, sharing the road with traffic for the ironworks at Menzel Bourguiba. Colin remained unconvinced that it was character-building; horrible is horrible.

There are a few big resort hotels on the Corniche, the narrow beach to the north of Bizerte, but the town hasn’t been exploited as a tourist attraction; it seems they don’t realise how nice the old harbour and medina are. The beaches north of the Corniche were almost empty and perfect for some serious loafing and re-reading our book ration for the nth time. The guidebook belatedly revealed the festival mystery – there had in fact been two: National Day and the more significant sheep festival of ‘Aid el Kebir. This is one of the major Muslim festivals, and very like our own turkey festival, Christmas. Everyone goes to visit their relatives, which explained why the trains had been so full. The Muslim year is 11 days shorter than the solar year, so you have to beware of festivals creeping up on you when you’re not expecting them. Colin should be the expert on this, having once gone on holiday to Turkey and found no food available in the daytime.

We thought we had the railways sorted out. We got to the station 45 minutes before the train to Tunis left, and asked if we could take bikes on it. They said we could, so we bought tickets, and the man said to wait a minute. Nothing happened. The people in the office appeared to be consulting the rule book. With 10 minutes to go, they asked us for 3 dinars. We wheeled the bikes to the train and the guard hung them on meat hooks. A couple of minutes before the train was due to go, some officials said we’d only paid for one bike, and Colin had to go back to the office to pay for the other. I frantically hopped on and off the train wondering what to do if it set off before Colin got back, but it didn’t.

It’s impossible to ride out of a capital city without getting lost and ending up on some sort of motorway; Tunis is no exception. It was a relief to get to Sidi Bou Said which is a real gem of a resort; whitewashed houses with blue shutters and ornate window grilles, bougainvillea spilling out of gardens secluded behind walls, studded doors with black, white and yellow painted surrounds. Best of all was the Dar Said hotel, an old palace with rooms arranged around a blue-and-green tiled courtyard, canopied by trees. Sidi Bou Said attracts a lot of day trippers from Tunis and inevitably there are souvenir shops selling fluffy camels and the local speciality of birdcages.

The last day followed the usual last-day pattern: back through the suburbs, sprint finish at the airport, dismantling bikes, posing around and being superior to the crowd of package-tourists checking in, writing postcards, spending our last dinars in the restaurant, very cool and relaxed, and nearly missing the plane. Unfortunately we didn’t.

TCM. 1993

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