Menorca, France, and Family
31 May 2023 | France
Our final days on Paikea Mist were amazing. We had a completely drama-free 2-day passage from Bizerte, Tunisia to Menorca, Spain, with the sails up and the motor off for nearly the entire time, and had a chance in the next few days to anchor in four different places in Menorca - all beautiful for one reason or another. The first was a deep bay near the city of Mahon on the SE end of Menorca, surrounded by colorful, steep cliffs. A huge fort spread out on the hilltop, guarding the entrance to Mahon, build for Queen Isabela in the mid 1850's. As it never saw battle, its walls were perfect, as though it were built yesterday. We arrived a bit late for a tour but had a nice walk around on the hilltop.
The next morning we sailed a few hours around the corner to an anchorage on the back side of a small offshore island where we had a marvelous private corner all to ourselves, save the occasional kayaker that paddled by to swim on the secluded beach. We took the dinghy ashore to see about a hike on the beautiful island, but were met by the first of many signs loaded with "NO's" - "no hiking, no drones, no fires, no petting of geckos, no this, no that, in fact, don't do anything on this island!" But because of all the "no's" the little island was flourishing. Beautiful plants, a huge number of undisturbed nesting sea gulls with their fuzzy brown babies dotting the cliffs, and clear, unspoiled water. My mom taught me to be a "yes" girl, but "no" can be a good thing, too.
Allan did manage a nice swim in the "No" anchorage, and Gloria and I zoomed across the water in the dinghy and took a quick walk around the tiny whitewashed town, which was mostly residential and very quiet.
We moved the next day to another town and picked a great spot to drop the anchor, with nature and green on one side and a slew of nice homes climbing the shallow banks of the town on the other. Gloria pumped up the inflatable kayaks and we took turns exploring. They went first, and came back with some wonderful places for us to check out, including an absolutely gorgeous "secret" pool, a pristine spot encircled by volcanic rock with just a small opening. Inside, we found a woman and her dog just getting ready to start the motor on her large dinghy, leaving us alone to marvel at the beauty and wish we had an illegal drone to shoot some enviable footage from above. As we were getting ready to leave, another boat came in, a little while later they left, and another came in - it seems everyone gives everyone else a short time to see this beautiful secret spot.
We enjoyed another great meal in Paikea Mist's cockpit, and marveled that nobody else had snagged this primo spot, but the next day a local sailor approached us in his big sailboat and in broken English told us we weren't supposed to be there - if we stayed, the port police would come out and - he made a demonstrative slashing motion across his neck - we got the hint and pulled anchor. We moved deeper into the bay, very near the town dock, which was good since Allan and I had to leave the next morning.
We spent our last afternoon riding around on Michael and Gloria's folding Dahon bikes. The island is apparently controlled by 6 families who are largely opposed to encouraging tourism, so unlike Mallorca, there are few areas that accommodate visitors - just some hotels lumped together here and there, otherwise, mostly private homes and very little night life - the antithesis to Ibiza, a party-crazed island. On Menorca, the streets are well-maintained, the homes are beautiful, it's quiet, and clean, there are lots of "No" signs everywhere - and the people who live there like it that way.
Our final night with Michael and Gloria was perfect. We had drinks and dinner in the cockpit as the sun, which sets close to 10pm, glowed warm on the surrounding hills. We finished our packing and made sure we'd shared all the pictures of the last few wonderful weeks with each other, then settled in for our last sleep in the cozy aft bunk that feels like a home-away-from-home. This is the 4th time we've been fortunate to join Michael and Gloria on Paikea Mist - in the last decade we've been with them in Indonesia, Turkey, and Malta, and we always feel so safe and welcome as we build amazing memories together.
The taxi we'd ordered online came exactly at 7am the next morning, but the address was a bit off and the poor taxi driver was knocking on someone's home up the street rather than driving a few feet farther down the hill to where we waited by the marina. Gloria went off on a search and found him before he woke the unsuspecting homeowners, we said our goodbye's, and were off to the next phase of our adventure - a drive from Barcelona to southern France, to see my brother Chris and his wife Sophie.
The flight from Mahon to Barcelona was easy and fast, the car rental thing went just fine, and before we knew it we were on our way to France in a brand-new Opel the color of Mars on a clear night.
We took the coast route for the first half, although we saw little of the coast. The highways all the way up were fabulous, but we paid hefty tolls, especially in France, where one in particular caused us to gasp in disbelief at almost $30 US dollars. In total, round trip, we paid over $100 in tolls. But thanks to those great roads we arrived with few hitches, other than the fact that it was Sunday, an election day in Spain, a holiday in France, and everything was closed. We were hard-pressed to find lunch; even Burger King - a last-ditch resort, was closed. We finally found a small grocery store in Spain and bought bread and cheese and apples.
The last 45 minutes of our drive was fun - Google maps took us hither and yon on windy-twisities, and as an apparently lousy navigator, I got us lost. More than once, we ended up on some very questionable, narrow roads in the middle of dark green forests and rural communities, but at last, in time for dinner, we arrived to the waiting hugs of Chris and Sophie and sat down to a fabulous pot of chili.
20 or so years ago, Chris and Sophie relocated from their home in Amsterdam to the French countryside, to a 230-year-old stone farmhouse with a barn big enough to house a family, and another adorable side house that used to be Sophie's art studio. They bought it after looking at over 40 other properties and spent the next 6 years bringing it up to date, creating an absolutely gorgeous, private garden and filling the home with art, humor, and music.
My brother is a musician, a very accomplished jazz flutist and vibraphone player, and a piano tuner by trade. He's my half-brother and bears many of our father Charlie's traits, so seeing him makes me feel happy - I get to spend time with my brother, and also a bit of time with my dad, who also loved jazz and art.
Our time with them was brief but perfect. Unbeknownst to us, it was their 26th wedding anniversary the next day, so we were the beneficiaries of a Chris and Sophie celebration day, which started with a lavish breakfast in the ancient high-ceilinged dining room, followed by 10 o'clock coffee with gorgeous tea cakes. Then we climbed in our cars (theirs is an adorable convertible with a back-seat that only accommodates miniature people) and drove into the green springtime, Chris in the lead in his straw hat and Sophie with her blond hair blowing in the wind. The area is so amazingly gorgeous it's hard to not gush on about - permit me to just throw out a few descriptive words: green, lush, flowery, clean, rustic, glowing, picturesque, perfect.
And then, lunch: they had recently discovered a wonderful place that you would NEVER find on your own, in the middle of what I'd call nowhere, tucked in among the trees. The menu was classic country French with a full meal from starter to main to dessert. As the primary meal of the day, and as it was their anniversary, we pulled out all the stops. Pulling out all the stops is a total blast every now and then, and it felt so good to be there with them, enjoying a special event and a spectacular meal, in no rush to be anywhere else. At the end of the meal, after the big kitchen rush, the chef came out and visited with us a bit, giving us the chance to gush our appreciation.
From there we drove through more stunning scenery to visit their friend Jerry, an American ex-pat we'd met 16 year ago and were anxious to see again. Jerry was a Navy pilot many years ago, and we have much flying stuff to talk about with him. He's incredibly well-read, intelligent, thoughtful, funny, kind, a great cook - and at 95 is truly an amazing example of what I want 95 to look like. Knowing we were coming to visit, he'd spent the previous few days shopping for and preparing the most amazing scones, with home made strawberry jam he'd cooked up that morning ("first time I've ever made scones or jam,") served with a giant bowl of fluffy whipped cream and a huge pot of tea. We sat on his deck overlooking his wild, yet managed garden, with fish ponds and fruit trees and the endless forest beyond. I think we bored Chris and Sophie to death with the pilot-talk, but it was interspersed with stories of his family, and discussions about getting old, and politics, and other interesting stuff. At some point a bottle of brut came out accompanied by a bowl of chips, and at long last, stuffed to the tips of our heads, it was time to go.
Back home, we all agreed there was no need for, nor interest in dinner, so Allan and I delved into an internet shopping spree for a hotel in Barcelona the next night. Chris and Sophie joined in, and the 4 of us were a classic modern-day scene of four people buried in their screens in separate chairs, but united in a joint search. Soon enough, bleary-eyed, it was time for bed.
We had a lovely breakfast on the deck overlooking Chris and Sophie's garden and by 9:30 were off to Barcelona, this time via the Pyrenees, which took us over mountain passes, through thunderstorms, and past snow-capped peaks. And then, a shockingly sudden transition from easy country highways to the chaos of Barcelona, with bicycles, scooters, motorbikes, taxi's, cars and trucks all vying for dominance on the narrow roads and busy streets. Google maps had a hard time trying to get us down to the absolute busiest part of town - La Rambla - where we'd ultimately scored a room using a free-night Marriott stay, right in the heart of it all. At one point, Allan, who was driving the brand-new stick-shift Opel at great peril to our lives, got squished between a bus that wanted to change lanes into us and an uncharacteristically large black SUV that was careening around us to the left. There was a lot of swearing in that moment and we arrived a few minutes later, unscathed but in a shell-shocked state in front of the hotel. Thankfully there was a little spot to park the car while we checked in. And, there was a private parking garage - the biggest part of choosing this hotel beyond that free night. Parking in Barcelona, well, just don't. Don't drive there, don't park there. We got lucky this time, but next time we take a cab. Or the train. Or, we walk.
Barcelona: wow. I love this city, and luckily we've been before, so our scant time was well-spent. We started with a quick 20-minute five-star nap, followed by a well-earned cocktail downstairs. Then, a hike up La Rambla to gaze lovingly at some of the Gaudi masterpieces - Casa Batlló and nearby Casa Mila, also known as La Pedera; around the corner for a nice Italian meal (yeah, I know, we're in Spain); followed by an 8pm hike up to Familia Sagrada, the ongoing masterpiece that Gaudi started and a gob of architects have subsequently contributed to. In the fading light, it was spectacular. Currently undergoing what appears to be a lot of exterior sprucing, not to mention the ever-present attempts at "finishing" the structure (it's always in process) it was a marvel of then-now-next, surrounded by tourists standing back and taking copious selfies, including us.
We took the Metro back to the hotel, and by then I was truly falling down. Thank God for the bed, it was huge, and soft, and feathery, and ... zzzzzz.....
And so we come toward the end of this amazing, weird, variety-filled trip, which we will never forget, but not before one final surprise: this morning - after surviving our exit from the city, getting gas, returning the car, checking in for our flight, and clearing security, as we were zipping up and down the Disneyland-ish lanes of passport control, I heard someone say, "Alison Gates???" I turned around, knowing this had to be someone from my long-ago past, since they called me by my maiden name, and there was Jeff Arce, who I hadn't seen since maybe 12th grade! Or maybe our 40th high school reunion, I forget which. But it had been a long time. We've known each other since first grade at Chaparral Elementary School in Claremont, California. So we had a chance to catch up before the flight, I met his wife and youngest daughter, and now as I write, he's sitting behind me on the flight to Newark. Such a small world. Jeff Arce. I told him not to put any gum in my hair.
Dougga and More of Tunis
24 May 2023 | Tunis Medina, Tunisia
"Welcome to Tunisia!"
I've heard "welcome!" more times in the last few weeks than I ever have in any other country I've visited. I can see it in the faces - the recognition that we're foreigners, sometimes a double-take, often followed by a smile and then, those words. The young man that sold Gloria and I fruit and vegetables and then explained the value of their coins using only hand gestures bid us farewell with those words. Yesterday, after we took a photo for a cheerful group of men, they said those words.
We loved our time here, and bid farewell to Tunisia with nothing but great memories. We're bound this morning for the island of Menorca, in the Balearic Islands off Spain.
But first, the final days in Tunisia:
We left Bizerte Friday morning in a beat-up rental car and drove a few hours to the ancient Roman city of Dougga. The drive was reminiscent of southern Italy, or central California - rolling hills with rich red dirt, endless groves of olive trees, shepherds in traditional garb with their goats and sheep, vineyards, small towns, expansive fields of wheat-looking stuff, and some cows. I thought Dougga was in the desert, but I was dead-wrong, the countryside was beautiful.
And Dougga! Wow! I just kept saying wow all day, and I couldn't stop smiling. So many beautiful examples of first-century life, so wonderfully preserved. Set high on a hilltop, overlooking what is now mostly olive groves, and judging by the ancient knobbiness of some of the trees, back then as well, Dougga wanders here and there in a non-grid layout that feels comfortable and friendly. So many of the homes were still evident, you could step inside the doorway, sometimes the entire doorway with steps leading up, a lintel and sides and carved indentations where you could exactly see how a bar of wood was used to lock the door. You could step inside and land on the remains of a detailed tile rug, like the restored ones we saw in El Djem but still there on the floor, as they had been for two thousand years, and in some cases, almost intact. You could see how the home was laid out, even down to carved marble wash basins. Pillars were still partially in place, some placed by restoration people, suggesting a possible layout, and some had just been there since they were first erected. The stone streets wandered among the homes and shops, down to the amphitheater, around to the cistern, up to the temple.
The temple was unbelievable. Huge, gorgeous. It was all gorgeous. I felt like a little kid who had just discovered it for the first time. It was a cool day, with light rain falling occasionally, the grey-blue sky a perfect backdrop for the green pines, ancient olive trees, and the white marble structures. We were practically the only people there. We were all in a state of almost meditative reverence.
"All built by slaves," Gloria reminded us, popping us back to ourselves so we didn't get too-starry-eyed about the beautiful lives we were imagining. History is so harsh. But reality bites, and this country is a juxtaposition of beauty and smiles, political uncertainty, economic woes, and the harsh realities of daily life.
The drive to Tunis was also beautiful, but as we neared Tunis the energy changed, with the large-city feel of widening roads, taller buildings, modern signage, cars. We drove in, in, into the city, right to it's very core in front of the ancient medina and the huge arch that led to the plaza. We chose to stay for two nights in the opulent Royal Victoria, the former British Embassy overlooking the plaza and surprisingly affordable. Michael pulled up in front of the plaza, and Allan and I jumped out to ask the hotel where we should park. We'd been assured by the hotel that "The hotel has a parking, you are welcome" so we sort of expected a parking garage or something, but instead the hotel clerk sent a waiter out who enthusiastically flagged Michael down in the waiting car, shooed pedestrians and taxis out of his way, and led him through the huge arch and into the actual square, pigeons flying and people skirting. He then directed Michael to back the little red beat-up car against the arch wall, facing the pineapple vendor, surrounded by tourists and shoppers and more pigeons, slipped a xerox'ed piece of paper with the hotel's logo onto the dash and ran back to continue his work in the restaurant. That was hotel parking. We were the only car. Over the next few days, as we peered out from our little balconies overlooking the plaza, we'd see people leaning against the front of it, resting, watching the scene, eating a gelato.
The former embassy was quite amazing, with lots of royal red velvet and finely hand-painted doors, walls, carpentry. The beds were hard as a rock and the pillows were worse, but we made some creative adaptations and were charmed by the nice hotel clerks, and loved being steps away from the huge medina and the ancient souks.
We spent the next two days wandering that part of town, enjoying the cool air, and eating good food. I can highly recommend a delicious restaurant in the medina for traditional Tunisian food, should you ever find yourselves hungry in downtown Tunis: Restaurant Dar Slah. ("dar" means "house" so a lot of restaurants start with that.) The staff and owner were attentive and friendly, with wonderful senses of humor, and spoke very good English. The meal was expansive and beautifully served, and they were responsive to my vegetarian requests.
The next morning we headed back to the marina in Bizerte, passing through more small towns on a busy market Sunday. We were amused and shocked and grossed-out by the hides and carcasses of cows and sheep that hung in front of the shops, and often, the entire cow's head, dripping into a bucket, almost an advertisement for the freshness of the meat. The vegetable and fruit markets were a tonic to the carnivorous gore, with piles of carrots, beets, lettuce, green beans, onions, tomatoes, huge squash, and sweet fruit that actually tastes like fruit - apricots, nectarines, loquats, citrus, and occasionally a bunch of hanging bananas. Piles of dates and crisp, fresh nuts round out the fare.
Back in Bizerte we took a quick wander through the ancient walled medina, absorbing the happy energy of the young couples and groups of people drinking afternoon tea from shiny ornate tea pots, stopped for a gelato, then back to meet the car rental guy to get our 100 dinar and 200 Euro's that we'd left with him as a deposit. We had a bit of classic language-barrier-misunderstandings on both the front and back end of our car rental, all resolved, with fun pictures of our rental agent receiving, and returning our deposit, bills fanned out while he grinned.
The next morning, finally, after a very satisfying 2 weeks in Tunisia, it was time to set sail for Spain. So I need to dump the few words I learned in Arabic and French and re-awaken the Spanish. I'll miss the scowly faces of the Tunisian men, the low brows that shield their bright, friendly eyes and contrast their quick smiles. We loved Tunisia. Now, we look forward to hearing "Welcome to Spain!"
Tunisia: Hammamet, and Passage to Bizerte
20 May 2023 | Bizerte, Tunisia
Our last morning at the Villa des Palmes was easy, with more rain during breakfast, a lot of packing and organizing, and, when the rain abated, a Bolt ride to the louage station.
Louages - a brilliant idea, similar to the many shared ride vehicles in other parts of the world. A louage is a van that, for hardly any dinars, takes you and about 8 other passengers close to where you want to go. The Tunis station is huge, filled with the red-striped vans, all in orderly lines under signs listing their destinations. Not every city has a station, but you can cover a lot of this small country in a louage. You buy a ticket at the ticket booth, and Tunisian men holler at each other and usher you around the big garage, handing you off, pointing over there, moving you along until you reach the correct van. Once aboard you wait for the van to fill up, and then you go. The drivers are merciless, but still seem quite excellent at what they do, honking their horns, cursing at each other, cramming themselves between cars and trucks, often ignoring the painted lines. There are no seatbelts. The windows may or may or may not open. The roads are excellent, at least what we saw. Soon enough, you're disembarking in another noisy station, or, in the case of Hammamet, on the side of the road.
We arrived in Hammamet around 3pm and dragged our stuff toward the marina, past eerily abandoned hotels and condo units, past empty storefronts and vacant ice cream stores. Curious - this must have all been something at some time, or meant to be something that never fully happened - many of the structures look like they were never even finished. The marina itself is pretty cool, though, with good docks and a number of cheerful restaurants and tourist boats, including a fleet of huge pirate ships.
We settled in to the guest cabin on s/v Paikea Mist and spent some time catching up with our friends, then took a walk on the beach. The soft, white sand was littered with the oddest thing I've seen on a beach - thousands of natural felt balls dotted the sand, from one inch to several inches across, looking like tiny loofa's. Allan surmised it was something from the sea that breaks up and then gets churned into these little spongy things, quite adorable. We later learned he was spot-on.
The next day we all decided to louage to El Djem to see the fabulous UNESCO World Heritage coliseum, the third largest in the world after Rome and Verona, Italy.
It went thusly: we spent 5 hours on 4 louages with 3 hours in El Djem visiting 2 sites in 1 day. The coliseum was truly magnificent. Nicely restored thanks to its World Heritage status, you get an excellent feel for what it was like in its time. Gloria said the coliseum in Rome doesn't compare - partly due to the lack of pollution in the air here vs Rome, whose coliseum sits surrounded by a huge, bustling city. El Djem's coliseum isn't overrun with people either, and you can take your time clambering around its many levels. We hired a guide that our friend Jenny recommended, a history teacher who has been guiding at the coliseum for 20+ years. He helped make it come alive, describing the gladiators, the lions, and how that all was back then, and ugh. Not a sport I'd likely get hooked on.
The price of our ticket included entrance to an excellent tile museum a few blocks away, and I thoroughly enjoyed my time there. Detailed, complex mosaic tiles in mostly neutral colors adorned the floors of the homes in ancient Carthage, the more affluent the homeowner, the larger and more elaborate the floor. The process of removing those huge tile "carpets" and hanging them on walls for display in a museum is an amazing feat I don't have room to explain here, but I appreciated the expanse of the museum's collection and the effort involved.
I could have lingered much longer, but our tour guide, Fahti, had warned us to get to the louage station by 3pm for our ride home, so we didn't spend much time in the town of El Djem. Back at the boat, we had a scrumptious dinner and then, inspired by our visit to the coliseum, made a lame attempt at watching the movie "Gladiator," but we were all too pooped to get through it.
And now for the part of this Sailblog that's actually about sailing: we leave tomorrow for an 18-ish hour sailing trip to the town of Bizerte! Finally, some sea time.
Hammamet to Bizerte
After a busy morning of pre-departure preparations, which included checking out with the Port Captain and the marina office, getting fuel, getting money to pay cash for the fuel (cash is king here in Tunisia) we left the fuel dock for our 20-hour passage to Bizerte, Tunisia. What would be less than a 2-hour drive was, for us, 20 hours, an overnight trip north around the big point near Tunis, west past beautiful cliffs and a huge and rusted shipwreck, and arriving Bizerte in time for lunch.
The passage was easy: the seas were well-behaved, which is good, but the wind kept to itself, which is bad, because, well, obviously, we couldn't sail. It was all rather uneventful ... except for the fishing boats ...
We had just finished a nice dinner of chicken in chutney, green beans and cous cous. The light was fading, and we were about to start our 4-person watch schedule (3 hours each), when we were approached by a fishing boat with 5 or 6 men who obviously wanted our attention - waving their arms, waving towels and rags, and pointing towards shore. Not sure what was happening, we all prepared for some sort of encounter - did they want water? Food? Beer? Were they trying to tell us something about our boat? Or, maybe there was a big party on the beach we were missing?
We speculated and discussed and agreed and disagreed, and meanwhile, they sped up, drew nearer, waved and pointed, waved and pointed, and we finally surmised they were trying to steer us clear of a longline fishing net, common around the world and a general hazard to navigation. Now, understanding their objective, we turned left, and then more left, and then more left - 2 degrees, 4 degrees, 5 degrees at a time until they finally stopped waving and pointing. They pulled ahead of us and led us on until we finally saw a float marked by a flag: the end of their net. They stopped, we cleared the float, waved farewell, and anxiously resumed course as we were getting closer and closer to shore.
And then, up ahead, another fishing boat started waving and pointing, urging us back toward shore. Good grief. So, again, they pulled in front of us and guided us to the next float, stopped, and waved us off, but not without a very clear gesture of "look ahead" from one fisherman, pointing both fingers first at his eyes, and then straight ahead, which implied more long lines awaited us. At some point in all of this we figured out this line they had us tracking was along a sea bottom contour of 20 meters (about 65 feet) of depth. Somehow this was the magic number for the fish population they sought. By then the light was mostly gone, but luckily the boats and their marker floats were very well lit, and since we'd figured out the game, things got easier. The next fishing boat employed a green laser light in lieu of waving towels and rags, and it all went well. As we passed the boat they were hauling up the net, sparkling in the bright lights they were shining into the water. We assumed we were in the clear for awhile and turned back to sea to resume course. It was a challenging guessing game, and after we realized they did NOT intend to board, rape, pillage and steal our snacks, it was great fun.
We got back to fine-tuning our watch schedule. Allan was on from 8-11, then Michael, so I went down for my nap, ready to relieve Michael at 2am.
I love night watches. I love the solitude, the responsibility of being alone, the happy feeling knowing that Michael and Gloria trust me enough to sleep as I take the helm of their boat in unknown waters, keeping my eye on the course, the current and wind, the buoys and hazards to navigation, the radar, and AIS. Sipping tea, reading a bit, listening to the rain fall on the canvas cockpit cover above me, the blanket keeping my legs warm, my down jacket keeping the rest of me warm, the watch passed quickly.
Gloria got up early to relieve me and I slept mostly well in the noise of the aft cabin, which snugs up next to the 70hp Volvo diesel, reliably and steadily pushing us westward. I awoke around 9:30 to the smell of coffee brewing. Rain was still falling lightly, off and on, and we talked about the uncharacteristically cold weather in the Med this year, something echoed by other sailors Michael and Gloria are in touch with. We pulled into the harbor at Bizerte around noon, checked in, ate another nice lunch in Paikea Mist's cockpit while we admired our great docking spot in the marina and made plans.
That uncharacteristic weather in the Med is delaying our departure for the Balearics, so we're staying here to wait it out until Monday, we think. We'll rent a car tomorrow and go back ... to Tunis! Michael and Gloria haven't seen it, and it's only 40 miles south of here, so we'll stay a few nights, explore the Medina, get some groceries, do whatever, and then Sunday we'll head into the desert to Dougga, which has more antiquities to explore.
18 May 2023 | Carthage
Jet lag has the best of us. Another lumpy night of sleep meant we woke at 2:30am, gave up tossing and turning by 3, turned on the lights and read, and before we knew it, the sun was coming up. We got an hour or two of sleep before the alarm went off. Alarm, you may ask? Aren't we retired? Aren't we on vacation?? Yes, but we told our hostess we'd be down for breakfast at 8am. So up for a quick shower, down for more olives and Tunisian bread, and brownies, a bit of research on the day, and then back up the spiral staircase for ... a nap!
By 11am we were actually ready to start the day - a trip to Carthage. According to Wiki, Carthage was "one of the most important trading hubs of the Ancient Mediterranean and one of the most affluent cities of the classical world" which, in case you didn't know, spanned from the 8th century BC to the 5th century AD. So it was a hot spot, sporting lavish homes, baths, a creative circular port, lots of tile, and an amphitheatre, to name a few of its attributes. Our GPSMyCity walking tour started at the big Catholic church, built in later years, which was unfortunately closed for renovations, and the museum, which was also closed for unknown reasons. We meandered through the ruins of homes on the hillside, attempting to read descriptions on the old signs, which were pretty decrepit.
From there, we followed our walking tour through a lovely neighborhood, across a field, down a thorny path, up a road, and finally to the next site in the Carthage collection, the amphitheatre, which is still used today for concerts. Imagine sitting amongst some of the crumbling ancient stones in a 2000-year-old amphitheatre, listening to a concert under the stars, with modern equipment and lighting, on a huge metal stage - it was quite a juxtaposition, but very cool that it's still in use today. From there, to the baths, which were stunning. A HUGE area - the Carthaginian's and their visitors must have been quite clean. And architecturally quite beautiful, with arches and angles, located right on the cliff looking over the gorgeous sea.
For a late lunch we Bolted up to an area called Sidi Bou Said, a trendy touristy hilly area with white buildings all trimmed in identical blue paint, selling all the usual Tunisian tourist stuff - colorful pottery, leather goods, refrigerator magnets (sold the world over), little stuffed camels. At our friend Jenny's suggestion, we ate at a small cafe and had beet hummus and a big salad with gorgeous fizzy drinks, then wandered up the road past the guys who want to perch falcons on your arms and shoulders and take your picture for a fee, past more pottery ("just take a look, no buy!") and settled onto a small hotel lobby balcony high above the sea for a cup of Tunisian coffee, which is like Turkish coffee, thick and strong, served in tiny glasses. But Allan went for the American, in which they add water and serve it in a mug, but it's still 10X stronger than we're used to. I had fresh mint tea in a little glass cup, which was perfect.
And then it was time to try the train, the TGM local train that goes crosstown. Old and ratty but efficient, the train had us close to our home neighborhood in no time for virtually no money, and from there we took another Bolt home. The Bolt's are often driven by taxi drivers, in their yellow taxi's, and we hear they're not a competition to the taxi companies. What they do, though, is make getting around much easier because of the app, just like Lyft and Uber, et al. You pay the driver in cash, but it's all laid out in the app ahead of time and there's no worrying about communication or money. And, they're required to follow the route planned by the app, so you can follow along.
We spent the evening in "our" neighborhood, in an area called Lafayette, wandering the shops (most of which had closed) and looking for some sox to replace the cruddy ones I brought. Dinner at a local restaurant on the sidewalk while Tunisian's gathered in growing and shrinking groups, pulling up chairs lighting cigarettes, drinking little cups of coffee, laughing jovially. The men pat each other on the back in a very kind-seeming way, and the milieu is very comfortable.
Tomorrow we head south on a louage, a shared-ride van, for Hammamet where we'll join Michael and Gloria on Paikea Mist and wait out a day or two of rain.
Tunis & the Medina
16 May 2023 | Tunis, Tunisia
After a long 4-leg journey from Los Angeles to Tunis, we arrived at our 1906 4-story Bed & Breakfast right near the "Medina" - the old part of town. We had the choice of some very well-priced AirBnB's near, or on the beach, a number of excellent hotels, or something in the Medina, and we chose to be in with all the noise and homeless cats and be part of the energy of the city. Our room is on the "second" floor, as our host Ali called it, but it's actually the third, up a narrow, winding spiral staircase with thin, worn carpet that skips the second altogether. The second is where the owners live, accessed from a separate staircase. Our room looks out over the lush garden, a rarity in the city, our hostess Olfa tells me. Most of the gardens were lost to expansion. Tunis is home to gajillions of feral cats, and a few of them have found a safe haven in this garden.
We had a fitful, jet-lagged night and arose to have our pre-arranged 7:30 breakfast in the lovely dining room, while a torrential rain doused the garden. The eclectic furnishings feel safe and familiar to me, I think the ghost of my mother is here - this place just screams "Margy" at every turn, even down to the colorfully painted bamboo used as decorations. The interior is filled with color and whimsy. Breakfast, thoughtfully prepared by Olfa, was a lovely compilation of olives, dates, homemade Tunisian flatbread, toast, fresh mozzarella cheese, tomatoes, cucumbers, and chocolate cake (dessert for breakfast!) accompanied by rich, dark and delicious coffee.
We had perused Trip Advisor, Viator, and any number of other sites to put together a tour itinerary for seeing this interesting place, but in the end we opted to download the GPSMyCity app and upgrade to the full monty for links to articles on all the places suggested on the walking tours. We have an acquaintance here who has been generously sharing her favorite places to go for coffee, lunch, dinner, sightseeing and museuming, so we included some of her suggestions into the day.
The rain politely abated at 9am, so we set out with phone in hand for a self-guided tour of the Medina, which was absolutely delightful. The walking tour suggested by the app took us down the main tree-lined boulevard and through a few of the "souks" (markets) but also detoured us through some narrow alleyways here and there to round out the experience.
At one point deep in the souk, wedging ourselves between shoppers in the narrow alleyways lined with ceramic, clothing, shoe, purse, tile and food shops, we were commandeered by a friendly Tunisian to see the "panoramic view." A bit dubious, we followed him nonetheless, down through the narrow, crowded halls of the souk, and as we tagged along we wondered if we were going to be forced to endure a pushy carpet pitch, as is so common in Istanbul, or maybe something worse. At last he politely handed us off to the proprietor of a shop (which did sell carpets) who graciously escorted us to the staircase and left us to climb up to see that panoramic view.
It was not disappointing: from the tiled rooftop terrace we had a wonderful view of Tunis, sprawled out and looking very white and off-white and chaotic and messy and beautiful. We stayed for a while, gazing down at the fascinating rooftops, the pyramid skylights that let light into the souk, and cats mincing about from ledge to ledge. It felt very James Bond. On the way down we were diverted into a large room - uh oh - lined with carpets, here it comes ... but instead of a carpet pitch, we were encouraged to admire and take pictures of the ornate "King's Bed," a golden monstrosity that dominated the room. After the requisite photo of me attempting to emulate a beautiful Tunisian woman sprawled on the lavish mattress, we were asked if we wanted to look at - yes, finally - carpets. "Merci, but no" we said, trying to inch toward the door, "we live on a boat!" Without missing a beat, he smiled and made a diminutive gesture with his hands, "A very small carpet?" he asked, then patted Allan genially on the back and sent us on our way. Great sense of humor, and throughout the day we discovered that the salesmen here are not pushy and annoying like in so many countries we've visited, but surprisingly easy-going. They try to get you in to look at their wares, but if you smile and say no, they usually step back and let go.
For lunch we splurged on a $2 sandwich from a food cart being heavily trafficked by locals. We ate it 10 feet away, leaning up against an alley wall, dropping bits for a little cat who deemed the leavings too spicy for his taste. The cats don't look starving - while their numbers seem uncontrolled, they do help keep the rat, mouse, and cockroach population at bay.
Our afternoon goal was to visit the highly-touted Bardo National Museum, which houses some really great stuff, but after a 15-minute "Bolt" ride across town (Tunis's ride-share app) we found it guarded by cranky police, who shoo'd us away and told us it was closed. As we scratched our heads over that, re-referencing our sources on The Google, a group of Greek tourists came up and asked us what we knew about it. One of them had a friend who claimed he had visited the museum just 6 months ago, but we were told it had been closed for over two years. More Googling led us to the facts of the story: a political clash of sorts had, indeed, closed this amazing place over two years ago.
I was tired, getting really deeply bone-tired after our 27-hour sojourn yesterday followed by that lumpy night of sleep, and also, I don't really love museums. I was anxious to see THIS one, but when someone suggested we go to the Kings Museum around the corner, filled with opulent King stuff, we opted to Bolt home for a nap.
The nap was one of those deep, world's-away naps I used to have on lay overs in foreign countries when I flew internationally, and restored me to mostly full functioning, so we gathered ourselves and went a few blocks down to meet Jenny, our new friend in Tunisia, for dinner at a chic French restaurant whose walls were decorated with an abundance of odd and humorous classical art reproductions that had been defaced in one way or another: Renaissance Lords and Ladies with Botox-plumped lips balancing pencils under their noses; Queens with their heads blurred; lavishly-dressed subjects with brightly colored slashes of color across their eyes.
Jenny works for a company that endeavors to develop sustainable tourism in third-world countries, and has fascinating stories. Really amazing what people do for a living in this world. Her insight on the politics here was a bit disheartening - Tunisia is a new democracy, a result of the Arab Spring in 2016, which actually started here in Tunisia. The new government is apparently having some serious growing pains, so fingers crossed they figure things out. But Jenny loves this country and loves living in Tunis, and I can see why - affordable, great food, lovely weather, amazing history, good proximity to all things in the Med, beautiful beaches, friendly people. Armed with more great information and a nice collection of Jenny-supplied "pins" for places to see and eat, we parted ways and walked home to tackle the jet lag.
Tunisia and the Balearics
14 May 2023 | Tunis, Tunisia
One of the things I love about the cruising we've done on sailboats over the last decade + is the people we've met. There's something very unique and interesting about folks who sell all their stuff, or stash everything they own in a 10x20' box and rent out their homes, or who leave their businesses in the hands of trusted others, move onto their boats and go off to sea. To carpe diem while the diem is now. There are as many stories behind these people as there are people, and everyone has a different version of "we want something ... else."
Two of the people we've met and remained friends with for over thirteen years are Michael and Gloria, with whom we sailed across the Pacific in 2010, then shared cars and campers in New Zealand for two months. We sold our boat in Australia and returned to our jobs and "normal" lives in 2011, while Michael and Gloria continued on, ending up in the Mediterranean, where they've had the boat now for the last 8 years. We've had the pleasure of joining them on their boat, Paikea Mist three times in the last decade: in Indonesia, Turkey, and Malta. Each time we grow closer to them and fonder of Paikea Mist, a beautiful blue-hulled Beneteau Custom 50 sailboat that is more loved and cared for than almost any boat I know.
Michael and Gloria have also returned to their jobs and "normal" lives, but spend a few months each year on their boat somewhere in the Med - Greece, Italy, Turkey, Croatia, Malta. Of course, the pandemic kept them away for almost two years, but they're back in the swing of things, and we are now on our way, as I write, to meet them in Tunisia.
Tunisia. I had to Google it. I knew it was in Africa, I knew it was probably somewhere on the north end, but I wasn't completely sure whatwherewhenwhyhow. Wikipedia brought me up to date, and after a bit more research I was convinced: Tunisia is a pretty cool place to go. But my first question was, is it safe? Family in the military and friends in the US government confirmed we should be fine if we avoid the Libyan border and a few other areas tangental to hostile neighbors. We will - we'll only be in the very tip-top of Tunisia, in the capital city of Tunis for a few days, and then a jaunt 100 miles south to meet up with Paikea Mist, on her way from Malta right about now. The plan: sail to the Balearics, those cool islands south of Spain, one of which is my origin: Ibiza, where I was conceived in 1957. Of course, this is sailing - it could all change. Michael and Gloria need to make it to Tunisia. Then, we need a weather window of about 4 days to sail to Menorca, the eastern-most island in the Balaerics. We'll see how it all goes.
Back to Tunis, which includes Carthage. If you're a classical era history buff, you've heard of it; if you're into geography, you surely have. And if you're into the history of early Christianity, you probably know Carthage. It's 10km east of the city of Tunis, and was the center of trade in the Ancient Mediterranean during the Classical era. In its speckled history, it's been occupied by the Romans, the Catholics, the French, and off-and-on, the Muslims. Now, it's a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
In the next few days we look forward to exploring the history of the city, and the remains of Carthage. And after that, we look forward to our sail to the Balearics. Rain is in the forecast, and the overall daytime temperature for the trip looks like the low 70's F, so we have long sleeves and umbrellas and hoodies. Yes, low 70's is COLD to those of us who are temperature wimps.
(As I post this, we've arrived and all is well - will update in a day or two.)