Tunisia: The Medjerda Valley

November 1999


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The train departed almost on time at one-o-clock that afternoon and wound its way through the suburbs of Tunis. The train was comfortable and efficient, although rather crowded. Once out of the city the track followed the Oued Medjerda along the valley between the Kroumirie Mountains to the north and the Tebersouk Mountains to the south. This area is the main agricultural region of the country. The valley floor and surrounding hillsides were all bare and brown, the fields freshly ploughed ready for the winters crop of wheat. Despite large areas of the country being desert nearly 50% of the land is cultivated, but this is still not enough to feed the population and about 40% of food is imported.

I decided my destination for the day would be the small mountain town of Ain Draham in the Kroumirie Mountains about 40km north of Jendouba. I wanted to visit the nearby ruins of the Roman town of Bulla Regia and thought the mountain atmosphere would be more pleasant than that of Jendouba, situated on the hot and dusty valley floor. I dozed on the train as it rambled its way west past fields and olive groves and the many small towns and villages, until we arrived in Jendouba in the middle of the afternoon. Jendouba is an ordinary town and is a regional centre and transport hub. It owes its existence to the surrounding wheat industry rather than any major tourist attraction.

To complete the final leg of my journey to Ain Draham I needed to find a louage. A louage is a shared taxi and is a popular form of transport in the developing world. The taxis don't run to a timetable but when they are full of passengers they depart, you just pay for a seat, which is generally a fixed fare. Finding your way around Jendouba is quite simple as there is only one main street, Avenue Hedi Chaker. The train station was on this street and the louage station was also at the western end of this street, near a big roundabout. I walked out of the station and turned right and carried on until I found the roundabout, which I did after about five minutes. There were many louages parked on various vacant lots on the roads leading onto the roundabout. As Ain Draham is north of Jendouba I decided to take the road north of the roundabout and ask there for my destination. I was soon lead by the hand to a waiting louage where I didn't have to wait long for the remaining passengers to arrive. Louages are licensed to carry six passengers and it appeared that the drivers were sticking to this law, which made a pleasant change from other countries I had visited where ten people in a shared taxi was common. Within about twenty minutes of arriving in Jendouba I was leaving.

The road went straight north out of the town. On the way we passed the junction to Bulla Regia, which I planned to return to the following day. The road began to twist its way up the hillside into the Kroumirie Mountains. The surrounding countryside became greener and greener as we journeyed further up into the mountains until the fields gave way to forests. The Cork Oak is the dominant tree here and cover all the hillsides. Their trunks bare the scars of the local cork industry that is based in the coastal town of Tabarka that exports tonnes of cork from the surrounding forests each year. It took about half an hour to get to Ain Draham, which is situated to the west of Jebel Biri (1014m), the highest peak in the Kroumirie Mountains. The town had some unique architecture for Tunisia, with the houses having steep red-tiled roofs, as this was the only place in the country to receive regular winter snowfalls. During the colonial period the surrounding forests were popular with hunters who built their hunting lodges here. Unfortunately this pastime cost the lives of Tunisia's last leopards and lions.

I was dropped off at the bottom of the town and had only written directions from my guidebook and a poor knowledge of French to find the Maison des Jeunes where I planned to spend the next couple of nights. Eventually I worked out my bearings and found the hostel at the top of the hill and checked in. The place seemed fairly empty, even though the dormitory block I was in, looked as though it could sleep about a hundred people. My room was quite spacious with an en-suite shower-room, complete with drains that smelt. Outside the building was a bench, so I sat down that evening to watch the sun set behind the mountains in Algeria, the border being only about 10km away. I was also hoping to meet other travellers who might be staying there that night, but I didn't see anyone and concluded that I was the only guest that night. In the evening I wandered down the road to find a restaurant. Only one looked welcoming, but then they only had two items on the menu, chicken or beef. I opted for the beef, which came grilled with fries and a salad, and so began my evening routine, which I would repeat on many nights of this trip. By the time I left the restaurant the town was dead and so was the hostel. I sat in the communal room where the staff were watching television and spent an hour reading. Conversation was limited to 'Bonjour' and 'Ca va?' about the limit of my French. I retired to my room at eight to listen to the news from the BBC World Service on my short wave radio. After the news was Bookshelf, a fifteen-minute programme reading from a book. I tuned in to part four of Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austin, an adaptation in twenty-two parts.

The next morning I awoke early after a far more comfortable nights sleep in the cooler mountain air and after breakfast walked back into town to find a louage going to Jendouba which could drop me off at the turn off to Bulla Regia. The ruins are about 3km from the turn off. The hot and humid weather of the past couple of days had now gone so I decided it would be pleasant to walk to the ruins along this quiet tree lined road.

The Romans first gained control of what is now Tunisia, after the Third Punic War in 149BC. The Romans laid siege to Carthage for three years before finally over-running the city and razing it to the ground in 146BC. The Romans didn't show much interest in this new territory, now the Roman Province of Africa Pronconsularis and left it in control of the Numidians who established a kingdom stretching from the west of Algeria to Libya. In 44BC the Roman emperor Augustus re-established the city of Carthage and regained complete control of the province from the Numidian Kings. Agriculture became the major industry, especially along the Medjerda Valley, where wheat was the dominant crop, much as it still is today. The first settlement to be established at Bulla Regia was during the 5th century BC, but it was not until the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD, under Roman rule, that the town grew rich on the income from wheat and reached its peak of prosperity. The town was finally abandoned in the 7th century AD after the Arab invasion.

Bulla Regia is also unique as the place where the Romans built underground to escape from the heat and was why I had chosen to visit these ruins rather than those of other Roman towns along the Medjerda Valley and surrounding plains.

As you entered the site you passed the water cisterns to the left. After walking about 50m you reached one of the main streets in the town. Turning right you walked past the Memmian Baths, the largest above ground buildings still standing on the site. This road took you along to the theatre. It was not a very large theatre, with only about sixteen tiers of seats, but it had a marvellously well-preserved mosaic of a bear on the stage. North of here is the market, the Forum and Temple of Apollo. The wealthy quarter, where the underground houses are, was a couple of hundred metres north west of the Forum. This is the main feature of this site.

Seven villas have been excavated so far and all are built around the same plan with various levels of refinement. From above ground the villas would of looked like any other Roman house, a one level dwelling built around a courtyard. This central courtyard was open to the sky and was excavated to create a second floor of rooms underground. A narrow staircase, cut into the rock, lead from the corner of the courtyard to approximately five metres below ground. It was an impressive sight to be standing in the subterranean colonnaded courtyard with the rooms leading off on all sides. The area within the columns, supporting the ground above, formed a shallow pool, which would of gathered rainwater. In one corner of this pool a drain lead to a pipe that disappeared under the floor. I presume this fed a water cistern for the house. It made a change to be able to stand in the rooms of a Roman house, complete with ceilings and mosaic floors, rather than standing in ruins with walls only reaching up to your waist. It really gave you an idea as to what life living here would have been like. Some of the finer mosaics in the houses had been removed to the Bardo museum, leaving unsightly blank spaces in the floor, but enough had been left in situ to make them the highlight of my visit to Bulla Regia. Looking at mosaics in a museum is one thing but to see them in place, in the original rooms they were laid in, is really quite something else.

After visiting the small museum across the road from the entrance and also stopping at the café for a cup of tea I made my way back to Ain Draham. I walked again the 3km back to the main road, picking up a couple of followers from the village school I passed, who pestered me for the rest of my walk. I decided it would be easier to return to Jendouba to find a louage, as all the cars passing me were already full with passengers and the drivers were sticking to their six passenger limit. I managed to hitch a ride from the junction back to Jendouba within about ten minutes, leaving behind the two irksome schoolboys. By late afternoon I was back at the hostel in Ain Draham and found myself repeating last nights routine again. I was once more the only paying guest. I decided that the following morning I would continue my journey on to Le Kef about 100km south of where I was now.

Again I took a louage back into Jendouba; you can see why this place is a transport hub, and found another car on the road leading west from the roundabout, which was going to Le Kef. In Arabic Le Kef means 'The Rock', which is a very suitable name, as the town is perched on a rocky spur on the southern side of Jebel Dyr (1084m), an isolated peak rising above the surrounding plains. The Kasbah is the dominant feature of the town, which sits at an altitude of 800m. Due to its strategic position people have lived here since prehistoric times, the first known town, called Sicca, was founded here in about 500BC by Carthage. Since then every invading army, new kingdom or empire has come to this town. Not many tourists venture out to this far west, as there is no one major tourist attraction here. This was part of the appeal for me, to see a Tunisian town unspoilt by the trappings of the modern mass tourism industry.

I arrived at the louage station, next door to the bus station, on Avenue Mongi Slim. From here it was about a twenty-minute walk up a steep hill to the medina and to the Hotel El-Medina on Rue Farhat Hached where I checked in for a night. I was put in a room at the back of the hotel, away from the noise of the main street, with stunning views looking down the hill across the newer suburbs of the town and the plains stretching off into the distance. I spent an hour or so dozing in my room before picking myself up and going out to find some lunch and to explore the medina and markets. I was on the hunt for some bananas which I hadn't seen since I left Tunis three days ago. I scoured the local market but there wasn't a banana in sight. I walked around the labyrinth of streets in the medina that afternoon and finally ended up at the gates of the Kasbah. There was a small square outside the gates, so I found a quite spot and sat down on a wall overlooking the town. It wasn't long until the local people found me sitting there. Every now and then someone would come pass, stop and say bonjour, practice their French on me and then there very limited English. In return I practiced my inadequate Arabic, which brought a good response. After an hour or so there was a hardcore group of two students sitting with me on the wall enjoying the views. The peace was broken when three people walked up into the square and up to the Kasbah gates with a small entourage of school children. I overheard them speaking English. I had at last found the other elusive travellers in Tunisia.

Danielle was from Paris, Manfred from Berlin and Shaun from New Zealand. Manfred was in the country for two weeks. He had started his journey in Monastir after catching a cheap charter flight from Germany. He was travelling in an anti-clockwise direction around the country, the same as me. He had met Danielle, who had just flown in from France and Shaun who had arrived by ferry from Sicily, at the International Youth Hostel in Tunis. I now had a chance to catch up on the travelling gossip on Tunisia. They hadn't seen any other people travelling independently around the country either. In fact we were the only three travellers Manfred had met since arriving in Monastir four days ago. So it wasn't only me who was wondering where all the other travellers were.

Tunisia is not a major travellers destination as it is landlocked between Libya and Algeria. It's only very recently that westerners have again managed to cross through Libya from Egypt and into Tunisia. It is not easy though with all the red tape surrounding the application for Libyan visas and I think it will be a while before this route through North Africa becomes really popular. The majority of travellers come to Tunisia while touring around Europe and stay for either one or two weeks, using the weekly ferry service from Sicily that arrives in Tunis on Sunday night. There are plenty of tourists here though, sunning themselves at the beach resorts along the east coast, but today we were the only four foreigners in Le Kef.

We knocked on the door of the Kasbah and the guardian let us in and showed us around. His tour was rather quick and really just involved a walk through the courtyards and up to the ramparts. We thanked him and gave him a small tip before leaving. Opposite the Kasbah entrance are two mosques, the great mosque, which is now disused and the mosque of Sidi Boumakhlouf. Mystery surrounds the origins of the Great Mosque. It is built to a plan of a cross, much like your average church in England. It is thought to have been either a monastery or other public building, built by the Byzantines in the 6th century, before being converted into a mosque after the Arab invasion. It is a shame that this historic building is now lying disused and neglected. A little further up an alleyway from the Great Mosque is the entrance to the Mosque of Sidi Boumakhlouf. Just inside the entrance the Imam was sitting on a small wooden stool reading a Koran. He probably looked older than he really was huddled in the corner wrapped in his robes. We greeted him in Arabic and asked in gestures and broken Arabic if we could look around the Mosque's enclosure. He welcomed us in and showed us to a door at the base of the minaret, which he unlocked, and allowed us to climb to the top. After all by travels over the years in the Arab world, this was only the second time I'd managed to climb to the top of a minaret. The only other time was back in 1992 while I was in the Golan Heights in the Israeli Occupied Territories when I climbed an abandoned, war damaged mosque in a deserted Syrian village. On leaving we thanked him and gave him some baksheesh.

Danielle, Manfred and Shaun were staying at the other budget hotel in town, the Hotel de la Source, by the town spring a couple of hundred metres down the road from where I was staying. They had the best hotel room in the town, the 'family room'. My guidebook describes this room's incredibly ornate stucco ceiling as the owners pride and joy. On our way to dinner that night I stopped by to appreciate it for myself. It was more like a room from a sultan's palace. Over dinner we discussed our various plans and finally agreed to travel together the next day, south to the desert oasis town of Tozeur.

Continue reading this journey: The Desert Oases