It’s still quiet. We chat with Soussan, who tells us her name means ‘Lily’ like the flower. Her English is impeccable. “At your service’ she says after every request.
Our room has a ‘Roman Bath’ which is a depressed area for a shower. The ceiling looks old. I wonder how old – definitely not the past century. The water is hot which makes up for the fact that there is only a hand sprayer and no overhead.
Today we walk to the Bardo Museum, Tunisia’s most important collection of antiquity and indeed second in North Africa only after the Cairo museum. It’s in the ‘suburbs’ of Bardo but only a 45 minute walk which we start eagerly having gotten a decent night’s sleep. Amanda notices the grey clouds some 15 minutes in, and we realize we should have taken rain jackets.
And indeed it begins to rain, small but steady cold droplets. We duck inside a smoky cafe and order some espresso and water but eat outside under the umbrella of a table. It’s sour and dark, needing sugar to drink and from the taste and effect contains more robusta than arabica. We pay about $2 for 2 coffee and a large water.
The Bardo is sadly known for the 2015 terrorist attack during which 24 people died. That and a similar attack later that year at a resort has reduced tourism significantly. Authorities have secured much of Tunis, especially tourist sites. Everywhere we go there is barbed wire, automatic weapons and sentries.
Inside the Bardo is a modern looking museum that suffers from the opposite problem of the Cairo – it’s too big for what it has to display. But that also makes it accessible and enjoyable. Cairo will lump 30 sarcophagi in one room with no explanation of how they tie together. It makes for a maddening experience because you know you are seeing one of the preeminent museums in the world but it’s impossible to enjoy.
There are quite a few empty areas, one of which the girls got lost in when I closed the door behind them. Behind our laughing teens is the Bardo’s best work, the poet Virgil and two muses in mosaic.
The Roman mosaics are amazing and beautifully displayed. If you hadn’t already figured it out from the pictures – a big part of our enjoyment is being so alone! We pass a dozen people at most. I’d be surprised if they had 100 visitors today.
A pizza and pasta place across the street from the museum does a decent job of early supper and the rains stop for our walk back to the hotel during rush hour. We pack for our departure tomorrow, eat again at the hotel, and call it a night.
I had arranged a car to pick us up at 10am. Apparently the driver was there at 7am, but we are just barely ready by 10:30 – he clearly doesn’t know the Creekmore’s who are always running behind. We say good-bye to Soussen, Palais Beyram and the Tunis Medina.
The ride is cold and rainy along the city streets and eventually the highway. Google maps says it’s a 20 minute ride -HA! It’s an hour at least.
Carthage is basically a tourist suburb of Tunis now. It once was the center of power for the whole Western Mediterranean and was Rome’s only serious rival for dominance. Compared to the many other Mediterranean empires of the ancient age, not as much is known about Carthage. In fact, there are basically no original Punic monuments, only Roman and after. There are a few Punic walls of buildings that exist. Originally Carthage was inhabited by Phoenicians from Syria but they intermarried with local berbers over time.
Our driver has to get out a few times to get directions. We circle the Amphitheater twice before he finds the parking lot. We are, amazingly, the only people here. It’s raining and a bit cold, but after the car ride Emma and Lily do a little dance.
In fact, just about any time we turn around, Emma is doing a little dance. Her latest obsession is K-pop, and she plays the songs constantly, dancing along.
It costs 10 Dinar – about $4 to get into all the Carthage ruins, but it works like a museum pass because they are all in different places. You could almost do it on foot if you felt energetic and the weather is good. Today in the cold rain it would be miserable. The Amphitheater is a tiny version of a colosseum – a theater in the round for gladiator combats and executions. This one was rebuilt at the order of Julius Cesar.
The Carthage museum is built on Byrsa hill, the center of the old city of Carthage and an amazing viewpoint on a clear day. We are treated to a burst of sun, and we can see over the gulf of Tunis and all of Carthage as it exists . It’s so short in duration I can’t even get a photograph. The rain returns and we scoot into the little cafe for a coffee before entering the museum.
I’m tempted to hire the guide, she speaks very good English and comes on confidently. But we don’t have a lot of time. Carthage has to be done in a few hours so we can catch our flight to Tozeur. And it’s a good call. There is basically only two rooms, and the second doesn’t have much of interest.
We love this part of the world in the cold season because there are no crowds, but bad weather does interfere from time to time. Today is one of those times.
It was build in the 19th century under French direction and is now no longer in use except for public music and events. It’s a mix of styles, European and Islamic. We are the only people here!
The baths of Antonius in Carthage (pictured also at top) are the largest Roman baths in North Africa and one of the three largest ever built. (The others were Rome and Trier, Germany). This is the jewel in the crown of Carthage’s excavated sites and luckily for us the rain stops. There are puddles everywhere, adding some realism to our bath visit.
These were built in the 20 years after Carthage was defeated by Rome in the third Punic war. You may remember Hannibal crossing the alps with Elephants and siege weapons? He came within a hair of conquering Rome a half century ahead of it’s demise. He took a huge army across North Africa, through Spain, France and the Alps and kicked the Roman’s ass on the battlefield.
But he was never able to conquer Rome itself and eventually ran out of supplies. If Carthage had been more supportive of him in the 16 years he waged battle against Rome, he might have taken the city and it would be Roman civilization we know less about. Instead, he was defeated and Carthage sacked and destroyed in the third Punic war 50 years later.
The baths are magnificent and huge. We walk around, nearly getting lost, enjoying the quiet and solitude. Emma and Lily feel compelled to take photos of each other for snapchat and instagram. Amanda tries to get closer to the Mediterranean, which is only a few feet away but it’s walled off and secured by more armed police.
Our trip is half over. We have seen Tunis and are heading to a very different experience – Tozeur, an oasis town in the Sahara desert. Our driver takes us to the airport which is only 20 minutes away. It’s a typical experience, one we have done a million times. They don’t have our reservations in the system, the plane is late and we do not realize that we have to pass through some kind of domestic passport control with a new arrival card.
All is well though. The 40 minute flight on Air Tunisia is fine. As we take off, I realize I will need to get in touch with our AirBnB host when we land. Usually I do that ahead of time, but with wifi and even free T-mobile 2g just about everywhere now, I don’t give it a second thought.
Well, I should have given it a second thought. There is no wifi, no t-mobile data and not even mobile access here at the airport! We have no way to contact our host and though there appears to be some kind of address, we don’t know if the host will be there. The man at information tries his hardest to help us, but the contact number I have is a French mobile number and no one can dial it. He huddles with 5 other guys looking at my phone over and over and talking quickly in French of which we only understand 10%.
Amanda and I start to consider alternate plans. The worst case is we stay somewhere else tonight and give up our prepaid airbnb night. That’s not so bad – but there is not one left here at the airport and we will need a taxi and some advice.
And then ‘Voila!’ he says, ‘They are coming to pick you up now.’ Great!. I give him $20 tip – probably far more than needed, but I felt very appreciative. The family is sweet. The apartment is great. They even drive us to the supermarket for some food. As I’m about to put on hot water for pasta, the mom asks ‘How will you pay for this?’ I said ‘I prepaid with AirBnB’ pulling out my phone to show her the reservation.
‘What’s AirBnB?’ she asks. ‘We take cash only.’
Oh crap, we are at the wrong house! This isn’t our reservation at all. The guy at the airport must have misunderstood something and hooked us up with a really nice family. I connect to their wifi, and finally make contact with the real host.
The nice family with the daughter named Sahar drives us over to the new apartment. She wouldn’t even take any money I offered her for the inconvenience. They were so incredibly nice.
Our new apartment is okay, but it and our host are a let down compared to the other. It’s freezing cold, about 50 inside, and there is no heat. We pile blankets on the beds and go to sleep with lots of clothes on. We will not forget tonight.