By Farhad Heydari
On my first trip to Tunisia, an explorative ten-day affair, I was as wide-eyed as a child, with an almost unending sense of exotic fascination. Even before my initial arrival, during the final descent of my Tunisair flight first over the azure of the Mediterranean and then over the low-slung whitewashed buildings of Carthage, I recall being struck by the vivid cornflower blues — of both the water and of the structures’ doors and window shutters.
Following my second trip, where I crisscrossed virtually the entire country in a whirlwind that I shan’t forget, rows of squat century-old olive trees, fine sugar-cane beaches, and the still vastness of the Sahara stuck out in my mind — to say nothing of the smiles on the face of many of the locals I met throughout my fortnight-long journey.
My third sojourn was a lesson in Roman and Punic history juxtaposed with the bustle of Tunis’ busy European-inspired core. But prior to that particular arrival, as my Air France A321 made its final approach this time over land as opposed to the usual sea approach, I remember keenly gazing out of the window and at the automotive traffic, which in a word, was chaotic. Mind you, it wasn’t Cairo, but nonetheless, it was orderless.
The small country that could
Gazing at traffic patterns and how people drive from afar and above is a preoccupation of mine. After all, I live in Germany, the only country in the world where cars on the ground are allowed to, and often do, drive faster than the aircraft coming in for their 140-mph landings. So I was curious as to how it would be to drive this, North Africa’s most Europeanized capital — and moreover Tunisia. And so it was that outfitted with a reliably North African mode of transport, a French-made car, I made for Tunisia’s lush northwestern corner, dubbed appropriately, the African Alps.
It should be said at the outset that most of the travelers to Tunisia are Europeans who, upon arrival, make a beeline for the comfortable confines of their almost comically outsized, beachside package tour complexes. Those who don’t, hang around the cosmopolitan capital. Few if any make for the hills as I was about to, and who can blame them?
As a geographically diverse yet oil-deprived speck in a neighborhood of oil-rich giants, Tunisia has always been the small country that could. And while its geo-political fortunes, which have always been tied to — and integrated with — Europe’s democratized practices, its trade and its cash-cow tourism machine, are decidedly roseate, things on its borders too have been improving: the Algerians just re-elected their president in the first truly open poll in the country’s history and the Libyans just rejoined the international community after 25 years of isolation.
It was with this level of comfort that I made for the African Alps, where two of Tunisia’s best-preserved Roman sites await. I meet Dr. Belguith Hamadi, an archeologist and multilingual Berber Tunisian who spent 14 years at Oxford, first as a doctoral student and then as a lecturer. He will accompany me to Dougga, located two hours and 100 km from Tunis, first on Euro-styled motorways, then by way of two-lane blacktop, which scales the slowly rising foothills of the Teberersouk Mountains in a light drizzle.
Driving in Tunisia demands one’s complete faculties. That’s because road conditions vary from immaculate to absolutely appalling to nonexistent within the span of a mile and depending on the weather. Then there are the slow-moving obstacles: mule-powered lorries, mopeds loaded down with families and 1960s-era Peugeot 404 pickups. Beyond that, it’s a cakewalk and like elsewhere in the developed world all you need to do to find the country’s historical sites, is follow the brown signs.
Dougga — the most complete of the estimated 200 Roman cities in the northern half of Tunisia — is sited on a wind-swept plateau just past Testour on Route P5. It is awe-inspiring; even before you leave the parking lot, you are overwhelmed by the remnants of the 4000-seat amphitheater, carved out of the nearby hillside. Walking beneath the light drizzle, I gingerly infiltrate the remains of this ancient city on a paved Roman road.
Then there are the baths with a complex subterranean heating system and finally, there is the pièce de résistance, the remarkable Capitoline temple. Perhaps the most well-preserved of all the structures at Dougga, it is fronted by a portico of Corinthian columns and was dedicated to Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva.
2000 Chevrolet Monte Carlo
It too is another site to stir the soul, though it is celebrated for something truly extraordinary and unique in the world of antiquities: excavated underground living quarters, which the wealthy grain and olive oil merchants of the time used to beat the excruciating heat of the summer months.
The sumptuous spaces, complete with arched ceilings and a central courtyard encircled by columns, were entombed some six meters beneath the surface for the better part of two-centuries and only recently excavated. As such, the condition of the one-off mosaic floors they contain, which depict elaborately detailed scenes relating to fishing, hunting, or banqueting, are immaculate, detailed, and in mint condition.
In fact, based on X-ray imaging, Mr. Hamadi speculates that Bulla Regia’s still-buried jewels stretch well beyond the limits of the current dig to the foothills of the surrounding peaks, suggesting a valley city of substantial proportions.
A Tunisian St. Tropez
The latter two are located on the eastern side of the country with Hammamet, known rightly as “Tunisian St. Tropez,” more than an hour south from Tunis and Djerba — a jellyfish-shaped island that has been likened to Polynesia and accessible by ferry, air, or via a four-mile long Roman-built causeway — located about 497 kilometers farther to the south.
Situated on a half moon-shaped stretch of the Mediterranean just a stone’s throw north from Bulla Regia, Tabarka is a favorite spot for Germans and where I was headed. With world-class hotels, golf courses, hiking, diving, and watersports galore, the picturesque area, framed by a beautiful tree-covered rim, was the natural place to end a day imbued with a welcome bout of culture.
Over dinner a visitor from Frankfurt asks how I got here. “By car, naturally.”
“And was the drive—”
“Yes, it was: remarkable, in every way,” I interrupt.
What to drive
2003 Renault Megane