Written 22nd December 2011. Posted 05th January 2012.
Our Christmas will be a very different one in quite a few ways – but before I tell you about our activities I will fill you in on the happenings of the last few months.
I will say …. that I have written a fair bit about Tunisia – mainly because I know many of you – like us – were concerned about us coming here. I hope you will enjoy our impressions.
The last episode ended around mid September in Sardinia – just after we farewelled our son Mark and daughter-in-law Jaimie in Olbia. We were travelling down the east coast of Sardinia and with at least three weeks to get to Tunisia, where we will rest “In Tune” (‘IT’) for the winter – we can take our time.
There are plenty of places to anchor and we are now so practised that we even anchor in bays not shown in our pilot books. I am impressed- it is unusual for David to take chances in ‘uncharted waters’.
It is so lovely to just relax and take our time, sailing with the wind and even without the wind. At one point, we are happy to just stay ’becalmed’ and drift – that is until we start going backwards…. !
The beaches are much quieter now too and many are totally deserted except for the occasional walker or bather (or the poor Africans trying to sell their wares). Only a few beach umbrellas dot the sand. There are still a few motor homes about though and they seem to have the luxury of parking anywhere – there is certainly no shortage of quiet, isolated beaches.
It is a lovely time to be sailing – with the clear skies and water still warm enough for swimming. The shorter days are becoming more noticeable though.
We arrive at Arbatax – still in Sardinia – and shelter in the marina from a strong mistral wind. This gives us a great opportunity to take the “Little Green Train” to Niala – through some lovely mountain villages and ride our bikes to ancient, 1500BC nuraghe sites which resemble the Talayots of Menorca. We spend 5 enjoyable days here, including my Birthday, which we celebrate in a lovely restaurant, while listening to a very pleasant duo perform their own arrangements of some beautiful songs.
A few more quiet anchorages brings us to Villasimius and then we have a very pleasant overnight sail across to Trapani in Sicily.
A number of people have mentioned the beautiful Sicilian countryside as well as some exceptionally well preserved Roman ruins, so we decide to stay for a week and see for ourselves.
Trapani itself, is a lovely place and we anchor in the harbour for two nights, to ‘check things out’ – then settle ‘IT” into a marina and hire a car. It is a little blue/mauve Fiat Panda and we like it immediately. David quickly adjusts to the driving and with the map stretched out on my lap we find our way out of town, to the freeway and along the country roads very easily.
The Doric Temple at Segesta is our first stop. This majestic 430 – 420 BC temple, stands alone on a solitary hill. Apparently, it never had a roof and some say it was never finished. Whatever its history, it is one of the best preserved temples of classic Sicily and it is easy to see why it was built here – the surrounding countryside with its gently sloping hills and distant mountains is beautiful.
The nearby amphitheatre is less well preserved but no less impressive. We sit and absorb – being early and beating the tourists, gives us time to really enjoy the lovely atmosphere in the blissful silence.
A cloudless sky helps create the perfect picture – we have added some to our album for you to view.
Enna, at 943 metres above sea-level, is the highest major town in Sicily and will be our night destination – but as we get closer, the sky changes dramatically – resulting in a super heavy downpour. Peering through the windscreen, we wind our way up the steep, mountain side to the ancient town perched incredibly on top. In the pelting rain , the labyrinth of narrow streets presents a further challenge but we somehow manage to find ourselves in the centre of town and spot a travel agency.
As I’d hoped, she speaks English and even books us into a very comfortable hotel where we enjoy a lovely, long, hot shower.
The rain has cleared by morning and we make our way to Piazza Armerina and the Roman Villa de Casale. This 3rd century AD villa is the most important archaeological site in Sicily and a world heritage site. It covers an area of 3,500 square metres with 40 rooms, so we are eager to see it. Disappointingly, most are closed off for further restoration but there are still enough open for us to marvel at the amazing precision and beauty of the unbelievably, well-preserved mosaics. One, very famous one of ‘girls in bikinis ‘ working out in the gym is of special interest.
We stay the night in Pergusa and are the only guests at the large hotel. The tourist season is really winding down. Tomorrow it is back to Trapani and then off to Tunisia.
Up at 7.30am and off at 8am – it is a perfect day (well for me anyway )…… light winds – up to 8 knots, and polished seas – lovely. The sails are up but to keep to our 5 knot speed we need to motor a bit. The 29hour journey to Port Yasmine Hammamet, gives us plenty of time for reflection.
We talk about what we‘ll do for the next seven months. We need to leave Tunisia in January – when our three month visa runs out – so what will we do?
One option is to go to the UK – even though Ian no longer lives there but the cold and rain is less than appealing. We could visit Ian in Chicago but the minus 40 degrees doesn’t appeal too much either.
Then there is my knee……..
I fell off my bike, landing heavily on my right knee about two months ago – it mainly recovered but a slight twist in Sicily, going down steps, now causes it to ‘pop-out’ and lock frequently with a lot of pain. It is unlikely to get better on its own.
Going back to Oz. to have it fixed, seems a sensible solution.
I reluctantly begin to plan the trip in my head – it is 9pm. and my turn for night watch while David is resting. I don’t mind night watch when the weather is fine. I love the silence but also enjoy my Ipod – it has been a great entertainer and keeps me awake as well as mildly exercised. I’m glad I am invisible as I bop my arms and torso and lift my legs in time to the music. I finish my shift at 2am. and David takes over – a stronger wind has swung around onto our nose forcing us to motor again.
It is early afternoon by the time Hammamet comes into view and our thoughts are quickly diverted to contacting the marina for instructions. We also ring Kim at ‘Yacht Services’. Due to the hassles that Coralie and Allan experienced when they arrived here a month ago, when they felt intimidated by customs officials and police demanding gifts – we organise for a ‘Yacht Services” rep to meet us on arrival.
This English-speaking, Tunisian is a tremendous help. He helps us moor, gathers our documents, takes us to the marina and immigration police and customs, where he helps us fill out all of our forms and sort our visas. Our boat is checked by customs while he supervises – everything is so easy and we have no hassles – it does cost us 35 euro but we feel it is worth it.
We meet Kim and her husband Duncan (the owners of YS), who invite us to join them and all the other English-speaking ‘winterers’ at a Happy Hour gathering this evening in a local bar. There are at least a dozen others in the gathering – mostly from the UK though some are ‘permanents’ who have wintered here for years and love it. Kim also gives us a map to show where we can find any and all of the things we will need. With lots of advice and enthusiasm we are pointed in all the right directions.
After two hours we head back to ‘IT’ – it has been a long two days and a sleep is beckoning strongly. David is beaming and our steps are light as we walk down the long, palm-lined promenade – not only have our concerns been cleared but we feel very welcomed and positive about staying here, for perhaps, the whole 7 months.
There even seems to be a solution to my knee problem. Kim had her knee operated on by a yachting friend who is also a top orthopaedic surgeon trained in France. She organizes an appointment and Duncan drives us to the specialist in Nabeul ( 20km away) and shows us around the area.
Within a week I have seen the specialist, have an MRI done ( in Tunis) – which confirms his diagnosis of a torn meniscus (cartilage) and the need for an arthroscopy. The following week I find myself in one of the cleanest, best run hospitals we have seen, watching my cartilage being trimmed on a TV monitor while I am anaesthetised from the waist down. I stay the night and a nurse organises my pharmacy prescriptions ( anti-coagulant injections and antibiotics). He also offers to drive us home. A physiotherapist organises crutches but I only need them to walk to ‘IT’ that evening.
“IT’ is berthed right at the end of the pontoon – a bit of a walk – but it also means we have no neighbours with squeaky fenders or people walking past and our view out to the entrance of the marina always provides some interest. Four big “pirate” galleons are berthed in the marina and pass us most days on their way out to pick up tourists on the visitors’ pontoon. They start up with pirates swinging on the masts and return with everyone singing “ I will Survive”. I am determined to drag David along later in our stay.
It is two and a half months now since we arrived and the time has passed amazingly quickly – also, our positive impressions of Tunisia have only increased. So many friends and family were worried about us coming here and we certainly had our own doubts. But, as usual, our fears were ungrounded and we are now very happy to be here and will stay for the whole 7 months.
We have seen no signs of animosity in any form and feel very welcome and certainly safe. Our marina is also very secure and well run and we have only been treated with respect and friendliness wherever we go.
The visa won’t be a problem either, as apparently we can stay as long as we like. We will be “fined” 10 dinar ( about $7) per week each but we have to pay this anyway. UK folk pay nothing and can go back to the UK or leave here for a day to renew their visa. Our government must have annoyed the Tunisians somehow. New Zealanders are even worse off – they have to apply for a visa before even coming here!
The local shops mainly sell giftware, although there are some supermarkets. To buy fresh produce, I need to go to the local towns. The bus stop, where the 25mtre bendy buses leave on the half hour, is only a short walk from the marina. I really enjoy these trips and travel into town a couple of times a week
The fruit and vegetables here are totally unadulterated – no pesticides and although they may not be perfectly unblemished they taste wonderful. Of course you can only buy what is in season but there is still plenty of variety. Eggs are all free-range and the dried foods, nuts and spices etc. are still sold in shops lined with massive hessian bags and scoops. Local farmers bring their cart-loads of produce and park on the footpaths. At present mandarins and oranges are in plentiful supply adding vivid colour to the display and they taste delicious. The meat is quite something else – the butcher advertises his fresh kill by hanging the poor animal’s head outside his shop. On these occasions, I lower my head and quickly walk past.
There are also plenty of supermarkets where I can buy anything else I need. I even found brown sugar and coconut for my apple crumble! And everything is so cheap!
The bus fare is 70 cents return, a baguette costs 15 cents, filling our 2.5 kg camping gaz bottle costs $3, the full, inclusive cost of my knee operation was $ 1400 ( the specialist visit – $ 25 )
Due to reduced tourist numbers since the revolution (which was very hyped up by the foreign media and affected no tourists at the time I might add ), the shops have been struggling. This is very evident in the medina, tourist shop areas where the pushy, over- anxious tactics of the sellers is very annoying when you just want to browse. I am used to it now and have a few Tunisian words to help me though these places are easy to avoid.
Kim and Duncan, who have lived here for 8 years, also recommended various places of interest and things we ‘must do’. So with maps and a ‘Lonely Planet Guide” we plan a 7 day tour into Southern Tunisia – the desert area.
There are many car hire places and we book a Renault Symbol at $28 per day. We also book our first two hotels which are in 400 year old Berber troglodyte homes. These are homes based around a circular pit with vertical walls 7m deep and 10m in diameter. Caves are then dug out of the soft sandstone to form rooms. These pit dwellings have a natural temperature control and we find them very comfortable. Prices amaze us – $15 to $20 each for bed, breakfast and a lovely dinner.
The second one is an old cliff dwelling and is run by two women. We are their only guests for the night. They make us very welcome, book our following nights accommodation and join us for dinner. When we leave they present us with a large bag of wild rosemary from the mountain with which they made the beautiful tea we really enjoyed the night before.
Our 1750 km trip takes us through some spectacular scenery – vast stretches of stony flatness to undulating hills, then canyons and gorges sculptured against a backdrop of mountains and vivid sky. Bright green patches of date palms, happy in their protected oasis, add a colourful contrast to the desert landscape. We are fortunate to have beautiful blue skies for the first few days and the well-maintained roads are excellent and very well sign-posted. Ten minutes can pass before we see another car – it is very, very still and quiet and we thoroughly enjoy the drive.
On the fourth day we travel to Ksar Ghilane on the edge of the Sahara. Here we experience a camel (dromedary) ride into the desert and in the evening, snuggle down in thick, camel hair blankets in a Bedouin tent. A sand storm the following day adds interest to our drive as we watch a little apprehensively while the desert sand begins to cover our road. Sky meets sand somewhere – it is difficult to tell where. Fortunately the wind eases but the ochre sky remains for the rest of the day.
It has cleared by morning as we cross a massive salt lake producing mirages in the far distance. We are now close to the Algerian border where there are many camel trails leading through the sculptured gorges into the natural springs of the oasis. We visit a few of these – they are a favourite and truly amazing while the natural spring settings are stunning. We wish we had more time to just sit and absorb the beauty.
At the last one, a local man follows us and begins offering information. I’ll let David continue the story, he is not quite as charitable as I am.
If someone approaches you and offers help, particularly in a tourist area, inevitably they will want to be paid. Even if the information they might give is unsolicited and of no use to you, they consider they have provided a service. There is always someone who wants to be your guide or sell you something, and you have to be very definite about saying “no thank you” a number of times before you have any chance of putting them off. If you do decide to take a guide, it is very important to decide on a price beforehand. We were caught on this occasion, when this guy just kept walking along with us, completely unasked, and started talking to us about the area and pointing out various things. We realized he would want money but he was helpful and informative, found and cracked open some rocks to reveal quartz “caves” which he gave to us, and we thought we would give him about 20 dinar, the going rate for an hour of “guiding”. The trouble was he wanted 60 dinar, which meant a confrontation and haggling – best avoided.
Immigration/customs officials put pressure on you when they want a “gift”, usually asked for when they are on your boat during an inspection. The problem is, they have a position of authority and they could make things very awkward for you if you refuse. I think I will save up a very cheap, hopefully rancid old bottle of wine to give them when the time comes for us to leave.
Of course, Tunisia is not the only country where people hassle tourists for money and business. It is a shame but I guess you just have to learn to deal with it, in whatever way is most comfortable and convenient for you. At least once you have negotiated a guide, you do learn something, you are not hassled by others and the kids wanting dinars and pens are kept at bay.
I must add … it is sad that the thought “ What does he want” springs to mind whenever someone ( usually a man) approaches you and wants to be friendly. Too often payment or a ‘gift’ of some sort is expected.
We are happy to give or reward effort, but not when we feel pressured to do so.
Having said that … anytime I have asked for directions or help it is always happily given with good grace.
On our final day we visit the Roman Sufetula ruins which boast the best preserved complex of Forum temples in the country and has a huge Roman baths area with amazing mosaics.
It is a very enjoyable week and we are already planning our next one to the Northern part of Tunisia. Here lush gardens and vineyards add green to the landscape and cork forests hug the mountain sides which could well be covered in snow. This trip will be one of many we hope to make in the new year. It is such a fascinating country.
Although now deposed – the former president, Ben Ali, in his 30 years in office can be credited with providing free education, which is compulsory for the first 6 years. University is also free and 40% of enrolments are women. 90 % of Tunisians now have at least a basic education. He also established equal legal rights for women – the veil, for example, is optional and there are many women in high ranking positions – such as the head of customs police here in the marina. Although it is predominantly a Muslim country, other religions are very well tolerated and differences accepted. For example – there are Christmas things on sale in many shops and the hotels all have Christmas trees and tasteful decorations creating a lovely warm atmosphere.
So to end ….
The decision to winter our boat in Tunisia turned out to be an excellent choice. We also had to take ‘IT’ out of the EU for VAT reasons. The 7 months will pass very quickly – “boredom” is not a word yachties understand. We even declined satellite TV! We were offered 25 English-speaking channels (at only $175 full cost) – but have not felt the need. We have our guitar and also – I know many of you will relate to this – I am not sure whether I have reached the ‘tolerance-level’ necessary to cope with David channel-hopping that many channels!!!!!
This year has certainly been a very steep learning curve again, but many more grey areas have been well and truly illuminated. We have faced some difficulties but there is always a solution and an end – eventually – and afterwards, the strength and confidence gained only adds to the long list of benefits. We know the financial risks for us are great – especially as the world economy flounders but we are not ready to give up yet – sensibly, we probably should, but then, not being too sensible is all part of the adventure.
On that note I will leave you and say…..
We wish you a really Wonderful Christmas.
And for the new year…..
May it be one filled with all that gives you happiness and peace
and offers many precious moments.
I still feel so grateful for this opportunity.
Yes we need to live in the present – and we do – but it doesn’t hurt to reflect on the past or to look to what might be in the future and realize that what we have right now is mighty wonderful.
Love and blessings to you all – always.
Louise ( Lucy) and David
Tuning In ….. notes for No. 10
Yasmine Hammamet is in a ‘ Touristique” zone which means the kilometres of beaches are lined with modern though tasteful hotel complexes. Most are deserted at present and it is very quiet. This means the lovely, long beaches are not being cleaned up and there is more litter than usual. Litter is probably one of the few Tunisian problems but it is very easy to look past this and just see the beauty. They are trying to fix the problem.
I really enjoy the bus trips now that I have mastered the technique of getting on super quickly at the back (or you get left behind, or worse) – where you pay – then balancing carefully from one foot to the other as I go from seat to seat to the front – where you get off.
It is such a pity that any help offered or kindness shown, or even someone being friendly, leads to the immediate thought of “what do they want?”
Too often payment or a ‘gift’ of some sort is expected.
We are happy to give or reward effort, but not when we feel pressured to do so.
The Tunisians are a very attractive race with their beautiful ebony skin and huge dark eyes that light up so readily when they look at you. Most of the older women wear headscarves ( very sensible in the cold weather and on ‘bad-hair’ days) and fashionable clothing which covers their arms and legs but emphasises their lovely curves. The ‘short –back-and-sides’ is in for men – with ample gel to emphasise their black curls. . I love watching them –especially on the buses