Retro – Tunisia: Carthage and Sidi Bou Said

Woke up earlier than I wanted to today but managed to find the bus station early so I could buy the overnight ticket down to Tataouine. I’m a bit worried about getting on the right bus on time, since none of the bus signage is in French (only Arabic), but I might have to rely on my “recognize the squiggles” technique that I picked up in Japan. Granted, it’s not really a technique, but since Tataouine is the last stop on the route and that seems to be how the buses are marked, should work.

First snag of the day was that the tram that takes me to the TGV (a whole separate rapid rail system that leads to Carthage, Sidi Bou Said and the suburbs) was out of service between Place Barcelone and Tunis Marine. Contemplated taking a cab but figured “Hey, trams have tracks, I’ll just follow those!” That worked fine until I got to the part of the track that was being torn up and repaired. After that, it was a little bit of trial and error and crossing through parking lots but, eventually, I found the TGV station and was on my way!

So continuing with the theme of “pretty sure locals near me are talking about me”, I hop on the train and two girls keep looking over at me and chatting away with one another. It’s weird, because Arabic is definitely language number one in this country but words of french (or words that sound like french) keep popping in. Maybe I’m just being paranoid, but…

So a word on Carthage – the ruins are basically spread out between four different train stops and it’s walkable if you have a day but with Sidi Bou Said on the horizon, I knew I couldn’t hit everything. The first site I wanted to hit was the Sanctuary of Tophet, right at the start of the line and close to the old Punic Harbour. As I’m jumping off of the train, a random female voice starts talking to me in French, asking me if I’m a tourist. I turn around and – natch – it’s the two girls who were near me on the train. Apparently they work in Carthage and want me to go with them to a co-ed cafe so we can sit and talk. Totally cool with the idea however co-ed cafes are somewhat less common then the male-only cafes in Tunisia (as modern as it is, there is still an old school Muslim sensibility in a few places). I tell the girls up front that I want to look at the ruins but, if there’s a cafe on the way, I’m up for stopping for a coffee.

This is where it starts to get annoying…

As I’m trying to find my way to Tophet, the girls flag down just about everybody they can see, asking if there’s a co-ed cafe someplace nearby. I start heading down some side streets to get to the ruins faster and they start worrying, noting that there’s no cafes down there. I mention that I want to look at ruins and find a cafe on the way, and they follow along.

We get to the sanctuary, which was cool but the least impressive of the ruins I would end up seeing and one of the girls follows me in (she has a student card and can go in for free) and we wander around and chat. On my way out, the guy at the door tells me that the next site I should see is the Punic harbour and the girls immediately chime in “Is there a cafe down there?”, to which he answers “No.” (That part was in Arabic, but I got cafe out of it). They ask me what I want to do next and I tell them “Well, if you want to keep following me you can, but I’m more interested in seeing the ruins than a cafe at the moment. I’m only here for a day and I don’t know if I have the time to go out of my way to find a cafe, but if you want to wander for a bit and then we find one, we can grab a drink.” Apparently, the girls were not used to having the decision put back upon them and they keep going back to “But what do you want us to do?” Hmph…

So after going back and forth three or four times with that (me trying to be polite), I finally say “I think I’m just going to go see the ruins. If there’s not a cafe near, we probably won’t be able to find one so thank you for the company, but it’s probably better if I go on my own.” Well, they weren’t happy about it and you’d think I just dumped them or something (SAD faces) but we said our goodbyes and I continued from there. I’m all about the cultural experience, folks, but when in Carthage, see Carthage.

From there, I was solo and things got decidedly better (and faster). I wandered down to the port, which was more an assortment of old pillars than anything (and said “No, thank you” to the first of many people who would offer to sell me cheap “Roman Coins” which I’m sure were TOTALLY authentic) and I start working my way up to Carthage proper. The main plaza is actually NOT the best preserved part (as I would remember later), but was still really cool to see and there was a nice contrast between the ruins and the Acropolis, a giant french cathedral built right nearby. Great views of the surrounding countryside and the ocean from the ruins and not many people there, either. 

I keep hiking and end up checking out the old amphitheatre (which is still used to this day for concerts and festivals) and run into a few tourists doing the independent backpack thing, including one Scottish tourist who was sweating through his clothes and turning pink in the sun. Made my way to the old Roman villas and saw a beautiful mosque surrounded by dandylions.

Sidi Bou Said was just gorgeous. As soon as I jumped off the train I sat down at a restaurant called Tam Tam and had the BEST fish couscous I’ve ever tasted before jumping into the town. It’s an artists’ town up on a cliff with beautiful blue doors and white building and, with the blue skies in the background, it made for some awesome photos.

As I’m walking through the town and checking out the local artisans, I keep seeing postcards of Carthage with awesome pictures that I hadn’t seen before. At first I’m like “Well, they obviously found a better vantage point of the ruins than I did.” As I kept walking, though, I started to see postcards of Carthage by the sea with shots that couldn’t have been taken at the sites that I went to. I grab one of the postcards, turn it over and, sure enough read “Antoinine Baths, Carthage”.

Yeah, D’oh!

I look at my watch and it’s after four and the sites close at either 4:30 or 5:00. I double time it back to the station, not running because I don’t want to be that guy but walking fast enough that if I had brushed past anybody small, they would have been down and out. The train pulls in to the station and I get on without a ticket – it’s a POP system, which means you just have to show your ticket if somebody asks and nobody ever does so you really could ride for free most of the time, but it didn’t stop me from feeling a little bit guilty about not putting down a few millimes – and hop off at the station nearest to the baths (Carthage Hannibal, I think). There’s a GIANT walkway leading to the ruins which I saw earlier but didn’t think was important (where was my brain) and I follow it to the entrance and I’m luck – ruins close at 5, so I’ve got some time. I start wandering through and get pissed off at a few Spanish tourist who’ve jumped caution tape to get a pose in close to some ruins that are being restored (DOUCHES!) and start to think “Okay, these baths aren’t that impressive.” And then I turn towards the water….
The pictures don’t really do the site (or sight) justice and you need to see all of them to get the scope of it, but basically these baths were about the size of a football field. And nobody was there. With the exception of the spanish, who came and went pretty quickly, and this group of four other tourists, I was all alone in one of the most famous sites of the ancient world. 

I mean, just as I was leaving, a group of school kids came in (how long were they going to be allowed to stay?) but it was insane to be wandering around a site like this with nobody in it on a beautiful plus twenty day. Ridiculous.

After getting a good fill and wandering into one last site (an old villa) during it’s last ten minutes of operational time, I hop back on the train and get to watch the pass time of the youth of Tunisia – getting on the train, propping the door open and leaning outside of the train with the wind going through their hair. It was kind of cool to see and contemplate, but also led to one of those “You know you’re old when…” moments as I alternatively thought “They’re going to hurt themselves,” “Young punks” and “I’m surprised that the train doesn’t have a system installed to stop when the doors are propped open.” Made it back to Tunis proper and wandered down the promenade of Ville Nouveaux , going past the cool clock tower

See, I had left my luggage at the hotel and was leaving my big bag (or “sac” in French) at the hotel while I was down south, taking my smaller bag (or “sac”) with me to Tataouine. Not wanting a repeat of my Athens-Crete-Athens-Milan incident of several years back (which involved fourty-eight hours of 35 degree temperature, walking, sweat, salt water, a hobo shower in the Greek Burger King equivalent, two ferry rides and a flight to Italy with no real soap and water shower in between where I ended up smelling like dead seaweed wrapped around a hooker’s corpse), I decided it would be a good idea for me to have a shower at the hotel before heading into the desert. Those of you who speak French have probably already figured out that my next few minutes involved telling the hotel staff that I needed to grab things out of my big sack so I could have a douche, asking them to watch both of my sacks while I was douching and being directed to where the douche was. All I needed was a seal… (see because a seal in French is… nevermind…)

Anyway, first full day was a great one and now it’s on to the overnight bus to Tataouine. Hoping hiring a cab to get around is as easy as the Lonely Planet says it is in off season and hoping that the price is about what they say it is – I’ll do sixty dinar for a day but I’m shopping around if they go above that.

A l’autobus de nuit!!!

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