Sailed from: Marsala, Sicily
Distance: 118 NM
We arrived in Tunisia today after a 118-mile overnight passage across the Strait of Sicily.
Our arrival in Tunisia was a bit bizarre. After handing our docklines to the marina attendant and securing Gyatso between a smaller Swedish-flagged sailboat and an abandoned boat, a Health Department inspector appeared at the bow and stuck a thermometer onto each of our foreheads. Dripping with sweat in the 90°+ midday sun, we were amused to learn that we passed the inspection. He handed us a brochure about the H1N1 virus and instructed us to report to his office if we became ill during our stay. We were very surprised by his professionalism and by the contrast with our nine month experience in Italy, where we never saw anyone who cared anything about the global flu pandemic underway.
David then went ashore to complete entrance formalities. He returned awhile later with two customs officials.
Since it was our first experience with an onboard customs inspection, Lisa was very curious about what would happen. The senior official reminded us of a character in the story, Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, while the younger one was straight out of Batman and Robin. Ali Baba stayed in the cockpit while Robin inspected the cabin with us. He asked, “Any guns?” To which we replied, “No.” “Cigarettes?” “No.” “What about liquor?” Again we answered, “No.” In fact, we had no guns, cigarettes or liquor onboard.
By this time, we were sure that the customs official was thinking that we are quite boring and probably weren’t going to try to bribe him. He then asked, “Do you have any wine?” We nervously answered, “Yes.” David offered to show him our wine stores, but he declined, saying, “That’s okay, I see one bottle of wine.” When we tried to correct him that there was about a case of wine onboard, he didn’t seem to care.
We began to warm to inspector Robin when he reached in our produce hammock, picked out the melon, gave it a sniff and said, “Very nice — it’s ready to eat.” Lisa explained that it was from Sicily. He smiled and boasted that Tunisia has very good melons, too.
The only awkward interaction occurred as Lisa escorted the officials off the boat. While they crawled back over the bowsprit and onto the dock, Ali Baba said something in French. The only part that Lisa picked up was “apres” and a hint of sign language which indicated that he might be looking for a token of appreciation later. She played ignorant and waved them good-bye, breathing a big sigh of relief about how smoothly it went.
In the past, Tunisian officials have had the reputation for requesting bribes, but current cruising information indicates that this is no longer the case. We decided against bringing packs of cigarettes and cheap whiskey to Tunisia for this purpose. Somehow it seemed an inappropriate way to begin our stay in a Muslim country. We’re glad we did — David thought the entrance process was handled more professionally than anywhere we have visited so far.
A short while later, we met the young Swedish sailors on the boat next to us. They were a group of friends in their 20’s who had bought the boat together and were sailing it in the Med. The only woman onboard complimented Lisa on her skill at the helm while maneuvering Gyatso into the tight slip. We hadn’t even gone ashore other than to check-in before all five were aboard sipping wine with us. The impromptu gathering lasted into the early morning hours. At one point in the evening when Lisa was offering more wine to our guests, one of the Swedish guys answered, “I’ll have another glass of wine from the bottle with the hand-written label.” She poured out the last of our “home” bottled Sicilian (Inzolia) white wine into his glass.
We did our best that evening to put a dent in the remaining wine from Southern Italy, including some local wines we bought in bulk and decanted into our own bottles, before they baked in the hot summer temperatures. After having sailed through the night from Sicily, sleepiness got the better of us, and we turned in for much needed rest.
07/23/09–We are definitely not in Europe anymore! Sidi Bou Said is our first port-of-call in Africa, and although the marina here is similar to what we found in Southern Spain, the evening dock walkers include people who are speaking Arabic. Many of the women are wearing head scarves in keeping with the Islamic traditions of the Tunisian population. Like the tourists in Spain, they look at us with curiosity as if we are fish in a tank or monkeys at the zoo. We’re sure the women must gossip later about how crazy Lisa is to be living on a boat.
We have found the people here to be friendly and curious about an American-flagged yacht in port which seems to be a very rare occurrence. The ancient city of Carthage is right next door. David’s Phoenician history interests were peaked for a visit there, but first we decided to explore Sidi Bou, formerly a quaint artists’ village and seaside retreat which has turned into a popular tourist destination. The beautifully preserved town of white-washed buildings with bright blue doors is the main attraction as is the nearby city of Tunis with its ancient souk (market).
From our cockpit, we can hear the call to prayer five times a day from the muezzin atop the hill. The afternoon breeze off the turquoise blue waters surrounding the small harbor moderates the heat ever so slightly. Men in straw hats with wide brims paint, polish and varnish some of the larger yachts in the marina. Other boats float abandoned and look lonely with large blooms of stringy brown weeds extending below the waterline.
We spent our first day ashore wandering around the historic town of Sidi Bou Said. Lisa snapped photos of the beautiful blue doors, some studded with intricate designs. We had lunch at one of the two reasonably-priced lunch spots in the new part of Sidi Bou Said where we sampled traditional foods like brik and ojji from the Tunisian section of the menu. Although the restaurant catered mostly to tourists, our lunch was authentically prepared, simply presented, and delicious.
The big parking lot on the edge of the historic town is crammed with buses that bring cruise ship passengers and package holiday-makers from Tunis to Sidi Bou. Throngs of tourists move in hordes through the streets — hot, dazed and stressed. Men in traditional Tunisian dress sell them jasmine flowers. Kiosks and stalls lining the narrow streets sell pottery, tiles, jewelry and other tourist trinkets.
The Café des Nattes bar which attracted artists such as Paul Klee is now mobbed with tourists sitting on carpets around low tables sipping mint tea with pine nuts and taking pictures of themselves and others doing the same. We decided to sit out on the small covered porch perched above the busy pedestrian street to watch it all and to snap a few pictures of our own.
To escape the crowds, we popped into Baron Rudolfe d’Erlanger’s mansion, built between 1912-1922, which now houses the Center for Arab and Mediterranean Music. Perhaps a more fitting name would include the words ‘musical instruments’ since the only music you can hear would be if you attended one of their evening performances. The mansion is a beautifully preserved architectural example of the elaborate summer homes found in this part of Tunisia.
It took a few days of acclimating to Tunisia before we felt ready to visit Carthage. “We should have gotten an earlier start,” said David while wiping the sweat off his forehead. He was right — it was late morning by the time we hailed one of the convenient yellow cabs which regularly swing by the marina and asked him to take us to ancient city.
The taxi ride turned out to be our first lesson in one of the tourist scams in this country. Although the cabs are metered so you are not overcharged, our driver pretended to be confused about the destination we requested. We were thinking, “How could a taxi driver not know where the greatest city of the ancient Mediterranean was located?”
With her keen sense of direction, Lisa became concerned after we passed road signs for sites she knew were in the general vicinity of Carthage. We asked the driver to turn around and explained that he had driven right past the museum, ancient port, etc. He pretended to understand our instructions the second time, but not until after he had overshot the destination by several miles.
It turns out that Carthage is so close to the marina that it must not be enough of a fare to make it worthwhile for him. He was probably going to keep driving until the metered fare was acceptable to him or we protested. At least we stopped him before he emptied our wallets completely.
It takes a great deal of imagination to look at what exists today and understand that Carthage was the greatest city in the world at the time it was destroyed by the Romans in 146 B.C. Starting our visit on Byrsa Hill and in the museum turned out to be a good decision. There is an incredible view of the surrounding area from atop the hill. To the south, modern-day Tunis spreads out over the distant lowlands with Lake Tunis in the foreground. Looking east toward the turquois blue sea, the remains of the great ancient port of Carthage are visible along the shore. Further north along the coast, Sidi Bou Said sits nestled on another hillside.
From this vantage point, it was not hard to superimpose an artist’s rendering of the ancient city in the museum onto the landscape and imagine how huge it was on the eve of its destruction. The Roman legions were ordered to “leave no two stones attached.” To ensure that the city could never be restored, they poured salt on the ruins. Knowing this, we were amazed to learn that archeologists have uncovered the remains of Punic houses on Byrsa Hill.
By the time we walked down the mostly barren hill to the ancient galley port and around its circular perimeter, the afternoon sun was beating down and our circuits were completely blown by what we had seen. We should have gotten an earlier start to our day, but we’re not sure we could have taken in any more in one day. We hailed a cab and had a late lunch at another great, reasonably priced lunch spot next to the supermarket in Sidi Bou.
Later in the week, we ventured into Tunis for a visit. Since we were already in town that day, we decided to take the train to the city. With each stop, the train picked up more and more passengers until it was crammed full of Tunisians. We were the only foreigners and were among the lucky few with seats where we remained firmly planted until we arrived at the final stop 30 minutes later.
When the doors of the train slid open, chaos ensued. Everyone on the train began pushing the crowd out while everyone who wanted to board the train began pushing their way in. Those boarding wanted one of the precious few seats. They were not going to wait for the train to empty first and physically shoved their way aboard. It felt more like a rugby scrum than a train station.
The area around the Medina is bustling with activity. We walked in through the streets lined with stalls and shops selling everything from cheap, Chinese-made shoes and clothing, to raw slabs of meat covered with flies. Just as we stepped aside for a few minutes to study our map, one of the “self appointed” guides appeared to show us around. Feeling a bit overwhelmed ourselves, we followed him for awhile, saw some beautiful examples of architecture tucked away in the small alleys, paid his small fee and decided that we’d seen enough. July is just too hot and busy here for us to really enjoy sightseeing.
That evening, we took a cab back to Sidi Bou Said and dined outdoors on lamb couscous after nearly all of the tourists had returned to their ships. Cats scurried about the patio looking for hand-outs while the waiters tried to shoo them away. Seated at benches fitted out with comfy cushions and pillows, David slid some morsels under the table. The town was slightly quieter and cooler at this time of day. The popular bars and restaurants overlooking the sea were doing a booming business judging by the number of camera flashes we could see lighting up the night sky.
It turns out that we missed friends Stephen and Anne of Wandering Dragon by just a day. They have been in Tunisia all summer on their boat and rented a car with friends to visit Sidi Bou Said and Carthage from their marina. By the time we got connected to the internet, we learned that they had passed through town the day before. Apparently they arrived in town just after the tourist buses, so they didn’t stop. Instead they enjoyed seeing some of the sights from the comfort of their air-conditioned rental car — very smart!
We had a difficult time finding WiFi hotspots or 3G service for our USB modem, so we had to purchase a Tunisian cell phone with a modem adaptor for our laptop. This process took the better part of two days and involved several visits to the Tunisiana cell phone store at the Zephyr shopping center in a neighboring town.
Even though we found a salesperson and technician who spoke perfect English, we somehow didn’t understand that they had not programmed the right usage plan into the phone. When we logged in to download a week’s worth of emails, it used up all of our minutes, and we had to return to the store to buy a whole new usage plan. Of course it was our fault, or was it? What was the technician doing with our phone when we were in the store watching him push all those buttons? With our combined travel and computer experience, we couldn’t help but feel that we’d been ripped off yet again. David always says, “It’s just the cost of doing business.” Perhaps he’s right. Finding a reliable internet connection is just one of those hassles we have to put up with in order to stay connected and to check our favorite news and weather websites.
Other than visiting ancient Carthage, one purpose for our trip to Tunisia was to renew our 90-day tourist visas by leaving the Schengen Zone in Europe and to take the boat out of Europe to re-set our VAT tax clock, before going to Greece where we understand that they implement the rules more strictly than we have experienced in either Spain or Italy. Although we still had plenty of time on our VAT tax clock (3 more months), we didn’t want to have any trouble on our way to Turkey with Greek officials, who are notorious for inconsistencies and hassling foreign yachts.
The intense summer heat sapped our motivation to do much more in the way of sightseeing. The promised peacefulness of anchoring in Siracusa’s harbor in eastern Sicily beckoned as did a possible reunion with friends Alan and Joan of Moonstruck in Malta on the way. After only one pleasant but very hot week, we decided to set sail again and continue on our eastbound voyage.
Here’s a photo gallery of our visit to Tunisia in 2009:
1/2/19 Editor’s Note: Just over a year after our visit, Arab Spring began with protests in Tunisia, including outside the President’s palace, which can be seen from the Sidi Bou Said marina.