Trip Archives: Around Tunisia

Two weeks of cycling in Tunisia in early 2011 during/after the Tunisian Yasmin Revolution.

Bremen – Tunis

Late last year I decided to do another cycling trip this winter and country of choice was Tunisia. Little did I know what it would go through in the following weeks. Yet it posed an interesting chance to see a country in a revolution like this. After spending hours reading online and offline newspapers and articles, I decided it was safe enough to do the trip, despite all the warnings of friends and family.

So I caught the 6am flight to Frankfurt today, and from there to Tunis, where I arrived about half past 1pm. The luggage handling guys put the bike on the luggage conveyor belt in the arrivals hall. Argh!

Put the bike together (just had to screw on pedals, adjust the handlebar, and re-inflate tyres — yay for Lufthansa!) and cycled out of the crowded airport along 4-lane motorways towards the meeting point with Sana, my CS host for the first two nights.

Spent two hours waiting under some kiosk’s roof while it rained heavily. Got a Tunisian SIM card for my phone.

It seems there is no police in the streets. Instead, there’s army vehicles, tanks and personnel positioned outside important governmental or infrastructural offices.

Met Sana and had some delicious semi-Tunisian dinner at her place.

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Sana kindly dropped me off near the city center in the morning, and I spent the day strolling around the medina, the ancient quarter with narrow streets and pathways, filled with stalls and shops and salon de thé’s.

Again, there’s no police anywhere, and also no tourists. Met a guy called Kamel who speaks German and showed me around for a bit and introduced me to lablabi, a traditional Tunisian chickpea soup. All the time I was worried he’d turn around and demand some money for his ‘services’ or otherwise try to lure me into buying something from some relative’s shop. However, he was just genuinely friendly, interested and happy to practice his German.

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Tunis – Bizerte

Woke up way too late, rushed to a supermarket to get some incredibly expensive oat flakes for breakfast, and left Sana’s at 1.30pm(!) for Bizerte. The road was at most hilly, with one or two bigger climbs and green fields of crops alongside it. The headwind was a bit nasty though. The ride was unspectacular and I reached Bizerte after 3.5 hours and shortly before sunset. Checked into the ‘Hotel de la Plage’ and went out to get some dinner. Amazingly, restaurants serve mostly western-style food like pizza and pasta or sandwiches and filled chapatti, and it seems difficult, for me at least, to find authentic Tunisian food.

Bizerte seems like a nice city, from what I saw of it after nightfall, and I decided to stay another day.

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Located about ten kilometers to the north of Bizerte is Cap Blanc, the northernmost point of mainland Africa. Needless to say that I had to see it. So I cycled along the mediteranean coast. The road (called Corniche) is pretty much entirely lined with hotels, restaurants and villas. It was overcast and chilly, with the occasional drizzle.

Apparently, Cap Blanc itself is military area and entry is restricted. At least I guessed so from the “Danger, Danger!” signs at the gate.

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Bizerte – Tabarka

Left Bizerte early in the morning for Tabarka, some 140km to the west and almost at the border with Algeria. I rode mostly on quiet back roads with little traffic and few villages.

At one point I was stopped by three oldish guys who were interested in my trip. Unfortunately, the language barrier kept us from talking much. I did understand, however, that they were kind of warning me about possible assaults.

A few kilometers from Tabarka I visitedthe Ras Rajel WWII memorial cemetery where about 500 allied soldiers – some of them unidentified – are buried.

Reached Tabarka at last light and checked into the ‘Hotel La Plage’. Not without noticing that the recent revolution has caused turmoil here, too: At least one supermarket had been burned down.

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Tabarka – Jendouba

The road to Jendouba goes straight to the south and is flat – for the first 10 kilometers. Then it climbs from sea level to about 900m where the town of Ain Draham is located, then climbs some more. Finally it descents towards Jendouba.

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Jendouba – El Kef

Left Jendouba quite late in the morning, heading further south towards El Kef (the stone in English). The ride was relaxed. A few kilometers from Kef I saw a helicopter that seemed to be circling above the city. A bit later, Kef was just behind a last hill, I heard gun shots in the distance. And from the top of that hill I saw smoke rise from the city.

Well, there was not much I could do besides cycling on and trying to find a place to sleep. It was around half past 4 in the evening and there was no other town nearby. So I rode on, hoping to get to the hotel I had picked from my guide book.

I had just entered the city when a car stopped next to me and the guy behind the wheel told me there were fights between civilians and the police in the city center. Apparently the head of the local police had slapped a woman in the face and was about to get lynched for that. The guy gave me his cell number and said I should under no circumstances go further into the city.

Went a few hundred meters further to the nearest hotel. There a guy was erecting a brick wall around the glass front of the lobby for fear of vandalism. I asked around if the hotel was open nonetheless, but the owner told me it wasn’t – “I cannot guarantee your safety”. My best bet, according to him, was to get out of Kef entirely, or to seek refuge at the local army base.

I was just about to leave when a friend of the hotel owner’s arrived – himself a hotel owner, too. His establishment was located at the edge of the town and safer. He offered me to let me stay there.

Apart from the guards the place was deserted. No travelers anywhere.

I checked the news and learned that the riots in Kef had been going on since the day before, and that two people had been shot dead when the police ran out of tear gas and had to fire life ammo into the crowd.

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El Kef

Spent the day in the city center of Kef and walking around parts of the old fortress. I didn’t see any of the damage that must have been done in the fights over the past days, except for a burned-down bank. People were looking at me curiously though not aggressively. I didn’t feel uncomfortable at all.

Later that night I went to my favorite fast-food place for dinner, a couple hundred meters down the road. On the way back tanks were rolling past me. The army was now patrolling the town.

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El Kef – Tajerouine

I left Kef early in the morning to go to Tajerouine, just 35km down the road. It has a hotel into which I checked as soon as I arrived in town. My plan was to got to ‘Jugurtha’s Table’, a massive flat-top mountain very close to the Algerian border. Before deciding on the transport – bike or taxi – I wanted to fetch some money from an ATM and get some lunch.

Well, the ATMs were destroyed and robbed. Fortunately, I was not depending on them today. Right outside a bank I met Hatem who started asking about my plans. He showed me a place where I got some (overpriced) food and offered to drive me to Jugurtha’s Table. I was a bit skeptical at first, but he didn’t want any money and even wanted to join in on the climb to the top. So I agreed and we set out to conquer the mountain. Actually, if one insists, like Hatem did, it is possible to drive almost all the way up, and there are stairs covering the last few meters.

The place is really amazing. Go see for yourself!

Later we met up with a friend of Hatem’s, head master at a village school a few kilometers away. They asked whether I wanted to stay one more day and offered to show me around some more the next day, and also offered a real couscous meal with that friend’s family. Again, I was skeptical at first but checked my schedule anyway. It would work out, somehow, and I happily accepted the offer.

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Tajerouine, day 2 … nah 3

This was supposed to be an account of day 2 in Tajerouine – the day I was shown around the countryside around the town and the day I was supposed to experience a couscous dinner in a Tunisian family. Instead I write this on day 3.

Yesterday started out great, Hatem picked me up with his motorbike and we explored the countryside. I was back in the hotel shortly after noon for a tea. I was just about to go to my room to rest a bit, when I noticed that the atmosphere on the street changed. There were fewer people walking around, and everyone who did walked in the same direction, towards the town center. Soon the first helicopter arrived and not much later a couple of army trucks drove past. The guy from the reception locked shut the place from the outside, locking me in in the process. I packed my stuff in case something serious was going on and I had to leave in a hurry. Then I was eager to see what was happening and tried to get to the roof by climbing outside windows facing the inner courtyard and onto terraces, but couldn’t reach it.

In the afternoon Hatem picked me up again and I could see what was going on. I didn’t quite understand what the reason for all the excitement was, though. The army had positioned itself outside the town hall and what seemed like half the town was standing all around the place. The mood seemed to be a wee bit tense but not aggressive.

Later we picked up another friend of Hatem’s and drove around in his car. Half past 4pm we had some tea at some road-side shop and drove to a river to walk around there. I felt a bit tired and stumbled along.

The next thing I remember is waking up in my hotel room the next morning – that is, today – at 11am when Hatem knocked at the door. Yesterday we’d agreed to meet at 10am to drive to Sbeitla, a town some 90km away with some noteworthy Roman ruins.

I noticed more or less immediately that something was wrong. I couldn’t find my phone, and about USD 100 and EUR 50 were missing, too. Also, the memory card from my camera as well as one(!) of the two AA batteries from my camera were gone. I still had my credit cards and passports, as well as the Tunisian money.

The only explanation I have for the loss of memory of the previous evening and the loss of my belongings is that someone had put something nasty into my tea right before we set out to that river. Retrospectively, the whole situation was a bit strange and now that I think about it, the tea was kind of forced on me. I should have paid more attention. Interestingly, the prime suspect in this case was now in the hotel lobby waiting for me.

I didn’t think confronting him directly would get me anywhere. So I tried to find out somewhat discreetly what had happened last night. He said I had been more or less normal and when they dropped me off at the hotel after the excursion to the river I wanted to stop at the tea house next door for some coffee, and they had left me there. The hotel staff said I had been drunk and didn’t care much about my being robbed.

There’s no point in going to the police. There is no police. We’ve driven past the burned down police station a couple of times. The army is the only power in the country. All they can do is prevent fights between the police and civilians, and make way for the fire fighters, but they don’t care about tourists being robbed. Actually, there’s not much of a difference to Germany here. Reporting a phone, or a bike, for that matter, as stolen doesn’t usually help in recovering these things.

I told Hatem I’d be willing to buy my phone back in case he found out what had happened or who considered himself the new owner of my phone. I don’t know if I got to him. I never got it back.

Later we visited his friend’s school. o.O

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Tajerouine, day 4

I’m still in Tajerouine. For some reason I haven’t given up on the phone yet.

Hatem and I drove back to El Kef to get some money from a working ATM. Over there army presence was massive. And now I also saw the damages the recent riots had caused. Had another look at the old fortress.

We also drove down to the town of Haidra and the ruins of ancient Ammædara next to it.

Back in Tajerouine, we went to the commanding army officer and told him about my situation. He wrote down my name and passport number and then advised me to leave Tajerouine immediately. I promised to do that soon. Well, it was too late for that today anyway, there were no louages going anymore.

Instead, Hatem and I visited that other friend’s (the guy that was there when I got that special tea) family’s neighbours, an elderly couple with two beautiful daughters to one of which they tried to marry me. They live across a hill from Tajerouine and where shepherds, as it seemed. Quite interesting.

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Tajerouine – Tunis

Hatem picked me up early in the morning, brought me to the louage station and helped me find a bus that went to Tunis. Strapped the bike to the roof and departed soon thereafter. The journey itself was uneventful.

Arrived in Tunis some time in the afternoon, cycled to the city center, checked into a hotel and … relaxed. Later I strolled around the Ville Nouvelle and paid a visit to Tunisiana, my ex cell provider, and had them lock my ex phone out of their network.

The weather was fine and an amazing lot of people was out and about. The streets around my hotel were packed with street markets where they sold mostly cheap rubbish.

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Tunis – Bremen

During the night I decided to leave Tunisia as soon as possible. That is, after breakfast I packed my stuff and cycled to the airport. There was a Lufthansa flight scheduled for the afternoon and I wanted to try and change my booking to that one today.

Lots of people around there. It turned out Tunisair employees were on strike and everyone going to Frankfurt was being booked on the Lufthansa machine. The Lufthansa office was still closed, though, with a long queue in front of it.

The one alternative flight was via Paris, cost around EUR 450, and they wouldn’t even take the bike.

To make a long story short, only minutes before departure I managed to get a seat on that Lufthansa plane! And it cost me only a minor re-booking fee.

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