Saturday, April 2, 2011

more fun in the sun

Yesterday we learned about animal husbandry and today we learned the same about vegetable husbandry or at least about fruit husbandry.  But more on that later.  We started the day by leaving town and driving to the brick factories.  Here we learned about how the bricks are made by hand and fired in small kilns.  One of the things the former president Ben Ali did that didn’t involve stealing from his citizens was to ensure that all buildings in the old town of Tozuer are faced in this brick.  They can be made of the cheap factory bricks but must be faced with these traditional bricks.  Just as we were leaving a horse delivered a load of dead palm fronds to fire the kiln.  So we got a chance to see the team of the horse and driver complete their part of the process as well. 

From there we went to town and picked up two caleches - carriages - for a ride through the oasis.  It is very large and there a number of palm plantations located here.  We stop to visit one and learn all about how they fertilize the female palms with the single male palm that is located on the plantation.  How the flowers are tied together in bundles and nine months later – voila! dates!  
After the sharecropper who works the plantation scaled the palm tree in bare feet, he gave a demonstration of the fertilization process.  There are many crops grown on the plantation as the palms provide the shade needed for fruit trees and they provide shade for grains etc… the whole thing depends upon the palms as the heat of the Sahara would overwhelm the other crops if they didn’t have the palms for protection. 

After we left by horse drawn carriages – we visited the palm museum and date factory where we sampled exquisite date based spreads.  Everyone liked something different in the choices, some lemon and some orange and others chocolate.  Not surprisingly I loved the caramel date spread.  Seriously good!!! So Phil is getting a present from the Sahara (not a surprise but still I know he will enjoy the gift)

Then we went to town to tour the medina and then do a bit of shopping for those who want to buy souvenirs.  There were many picturesque shops in town.  We head to lunch at the Terrain de Golf (golf course) where we have an excellent Tunisian Salad, followed by turkey and lamb brochettes and then dates and oranges for dessert.  We tell Mohamed we are not feeling well – we do this one by one and he becomes more concerned and starts to replan the rest of the day.  Then we laugh and teach him about April Fool’s day.  We are leaving the park where the golf course is located and run across the local swimming hole.  

After lunch an historical museum in a wonderful old house that has been restored to accuracy as well as showing various social rituals (wedding outfits) school children, cooking etc all en tableau.  We head back to the hotel for a brief rest before going out for our Arabian soiree tonight.  By the way I should mention that the food for dinner last night was very good with wonderful salads and some excellent desserts and that breakfast was super as well. 

Yesterday in order to post I had to use Mohamed’s computer so I will limit the photos but have lots to show about another interesting day. 

Well we got home in time to write up about our evening journey.  We headed out of town to a private home on a date plantation out in the desert.  There we were greeted with wine and toured the compound and met the cook.  She demonstrated how to make the brique appetizer and we saw what was for dinner.  Then we toured the grounds of the place and saw all the guest rooms.  They run a little side business of a boutique resort kind of place with lovely cabins and a spa style hot pool and massage rooms.  There were several rooms that could serve as restaurants as well.  We headed towards the rooms where we would have our meal and entertainment.  

The first musician was a lute player.  He was followed by a three musician band and after a few selections from them, they were joined by a belly dancer.  Then the lute player returned and shortly thereafter we had dinner.  A fabulous soup and the brique and flat bread and a meat and couscous dish.  Dates and mint tea for dessert.  Followed by more belly dancing and lute playing and general merriment.  All but Max danced at some point – having been dragged up to the center of the room.  Jennifer and Howard were the most enthusiastic performers and I do have some video to back it up.

When we left to return to town but while we were still in the desert we could see amazing stars.  Two nights from now we will be sleeping in the desert and I hope it will be brighter there than here.  Of course once we got back to town we couldn’t see them as well. 

Tomorrow we head on four wheel drive vehicles to mountain oases towns – three in all and then when we return we get ready for our desert camp adventure.  So stay tuned….

Friday, April 1, 2011

From the phone

Just a quick try to post from the phone. Something I haven't tried yet. See if it works.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

on the road

So to follow up

Jennifer and I met for dinner somewhat later- seeking catch up time since as friends we see each other at most twice a year.  We ordered a bottle of red wine- a different one this time with another effusive label on the back describing the micro climate.  However, we did manage to drink the whole 750 over the course of our meal.  Jennifer had lamb and I had a seafood frite dish with fish, mussels and prawns.  We had a complete assortment of starters including a really yummy char-grilled eggplant spread that we deemed “worthy’”

We caught up on family matters – especially mother matters. Leaving the problems of the world to be solved another time, we headed off to our rooms and to pack.  In the morning I posted the previous blog entry and went to breakfast.  The breakfasts have gotten worse each and every day – IMO.  The bread and rolls which were excellent in Tunis have now deteriorated into something like Italian bread, it looks like bread but tastes of nothing- desperately needs salt and thank god for the olive oil.  Speaking of olive oil – during the discussion on olive oil pressing and olive growing we learned that Newman’s Own Organic is made of Tunisian olive oil (which is a fun fact to follow up on when we get home.)

Had a yogurt and slice of bread with the meat we are calling bologna but really have no idea what it is… a couple of cups of tepid coffee and we are off for the day. 

Over the last week Mohamed has been describing the Tunisian breed of sheep which is quite unique.  It has a very fat tail and is found only here (although a few were gifted to the US and cross bred with some Pennsylvania sheep.)  These sheep need shepherds to watch over them because they cannot reproduce on their own as the fat tail blocks the ram from inseminating the ewe.  They must be assisted by the shepherd who holds the fat tail off to the side so the ram can mount the ewe.  Needless to say when Mohamed told this story the first time we were all agog.  Mohamed was raised on a farm outside of Hammamet (the Vegas style place) and knows a bit about this.   

 So before we leave the area of the Tunisian sheep and go where only Libyan thin tailed sheep are found we all want to take a photo of the fat tailed sheep.  (I am not making this up- LOL) As we head away from Kairouan towards Sbeitla, Mohamed instructs Hussein the driver to watch out for a good flock of sheep.  Sally spots a flock and calls out and we stop.  Mohamed gets out to talk to the shepherds and then calls us over.  He tells us we are in luck today because not only can we see the sheep, one of the ewes is in heat and he can tell by the way the ram is following her.  He instructs the shepherds to catch the ewe and assist the ram.  This process looks not unlike a Keystone cops movie because we have found inexperienced shepherds who do not know how to do this and were planning on waiting for their dad to come by to assist in the mating.   But, given the audience of American travelers they give it a try.  And although it was unsuccessful we got a lot of photos of the whole thing.

After this excitement we re-board the bus and head to the toilet stop at a gas station along the way. Someday soon this will be a lovely stop for travelers enroute but today it was an unfinished bathroom with no doors on the stalls so we ended up one by one using the facilities.  However that gave us time to peruse the goods at the antique “shop” next door.  Somewhat resembling a junk yard the place had recycled doors and window grills as well as real antiques, some jewelery and some junk from China and India. 

 We are soon off once again and another find brings us to peppers and paprika along the way

 Off again and this time headed to the ruins at Sbeitla, a Roman outpost which is quite well situated near the Kasserine Pass (where WWII fighting took place) and as such was always strategically located. At the ruins we tour a fortified house and the forum and several churches as well as the baths.  Another worthy Roman historical site.   

Then on to lunch.  Surprise! We start with soup- LOL this time a broccoli soup mostly and then we have a chicken dish with a tasty red sauce more chile like than marinara. 

Back on the bus we head out of town and into the Sahara.  Another quick “pit stop” at another hotel with no guests and we move down the road.  As we approach Tozuer our destination for the next three days, we stop at one of numerous camel crossing signs.  We come into the town from above and see the sea of date palms alongside the large salt flat.   Tonight buffet at the nice hotel where we are staying for the next three nights the Ras El Ain.  Free wi-fi in the lobby so I thought to post this right away.  But first must get photos chosen for the post. and I must include one for Jeremy our first recycling center.

Hope you enjoyed following our day.

another day along the way

Off this morning to Monastir.  But first I get up early and drop off laundry as well as buy an internet connection so I can post the last two days on the blog. Joined the others for a kind of bizarre breakfast where the buffet style items were served to the table – so for instance- everyone at the table got a bowl of corn flakes…LOL. Also banana yogurt and there was meat and cheese but no bread – only sweet rolls and cake.  We muddled through and headed out of town. 

About an hour later we arrived at the seaside town of Monastir and started our sightseeing at the Ribat (fortress) which overlooks the Mediterranean.  We heard about the history of the fortress, visited a small museum there and then climbed the walls to the overlooks.  Howard and Carol climbed the 88 towers steps – we will all have to rely upon their photos as no one else ventured up.  From there we went to the mausoleum of the first president of Tunisia – Habib Bourghia (may not have spelled that correctly so will have to check it later.)

Then back on the bus and head out to El Jem.  Along the way we stop at the mosaic factory where they still do the handmade mosaics in traditional ways.  From there we headed into town – clearly visible from our approach is the amphitheater which is taller and larger than anything else in the town.  We stop first at the Museum but just for bathrooms.  Then we go on to the restaurant where we had a tagine for a starter and then a grilled/roasted rabbit or lamb with vegetables stewed in a red chile sauce which was quite zippy.

After lunch we walked to the amphitheater – alleged to be the biggest one outside of Italy.  It held 33,000 spectators for its grisly entertainment.  And by the way was located in a town of 9,000 inhabitants when built (can you say boondoggle? – or maybe pork barrel? LOL)

After touring the sight and some free time we head back on the bus and go to the museum.  This is an exquisite museum of moderate size with an outstanding collection of mosaics – easily rivaling the ones we saw in the Bardo.  We are granted time to see the museum at our own pace and to visit the roman villa on the grounds.  Really first rate and a great way to end the day.

Back to Kairouan and to dinner at the hotel (the only game in town apparently.)  We leave in the morning to go into the south and west to the Sahara.  Our next three nights will be in the oasis town of Tozuer. 

Will go through the photos and see what I can get posted tomorrow AM before we leave.  I know there will be wifi in the lobby there as well so I should be able to keep up for a few more days.   Off to meet Jen for dinner.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

amazing fun

Today – fabulous day in the classic OAT manner (that is the acronym of the travel company- Overseas Adventure Travel) – we leave the horrid Vegas style town and head to Kairouan.  Along the way we hear a lot about olive oil as the road is solidly lined with olive groves pretty much the whole way.  Tunisia is the fourth largest olive oil producer in the world (second if you count the EU as one per Mohamed – LOL)

Our first stop has nothing to do with olive oil as we stop at the butcher shop where we learn that the heads of the butchered animals hang out front so everyone will know it is freshly slaughtered and butchered.  We see several camel heads – Max gets ill  and goes to the bus – the rest of us walk next door to the “sweet shop” where they sell various middle eastern sweets similar in style to baklava. We try two kinds and head onward.

Then we get to the outskirts of town and stop for a photo op- La Bib (the Tunisian “Smokey the bear”) greets everyone in many locations throughout the country.  He is a cartoon style character of a desert fox I think – will have to double check that one to be sure.  Also there are giant carpets in a sculpture.  This is the Tunisian carpet making center.  Here is where Persian settled centuries ago and the craft has been handed down through generations. 

After a quick stop for camera tickets we go to the Great Mosque for a tour and a discussion with the Imam.  We spent 90 minutes with him and he was a reasonable man but had a tough crowd of working women to deal with.  We have a retired professor, two business consultants and a lawyer in the four women of the group – the four men are retired business man/engineer and a banker, a teacher and a doctor.  The discussion was lively and very open.  All left feeling positive about the interchange.  We are off to our home hosted lunch.

The family that is hosting us has a grandmother and her son (who owns a café in town) his wife and their daughter who is 15.  They have three other children – one married daughter who has two children and two sons who help in the father’s business.  Our lunch starts with vegetable soup which is very flavorful and then brique (a pastry of sorts – this one with tuna and parsley and egg.) Then we are served a couscous with beef and vegetables and fruit for dessert. 

After lunch we move to the courtyard for the giving of gifts and discussions with the family.  The wife brings out photos of the grandchildren and the grandmother brings out newspaper clippings about the former president and his family and makes some remarks about them which are negative in general but with sympathy for the six year old son who is now uprooted (with only several billion of assets to live on for the rest of his life – per Mohamed)  Then the grandmother disappears and we all think she has tired as she is quite old.  WE go on to show on a map where we each come from and discuss the gifts we have brought for them.  Just as we are finishing up the grandmother returns and she is wrapped up in a headscarf and she starts to talk very loudly and with great force and she tells us this is how Khadafi sounds – she is like a standup comic.   We all absolutely crack up and then she goes on and does an Elvis imitation that she calls Michael Jackson (it is the name she knows) and has us howling.  I have photos to verify this.  We are all delighted with the home hosted segment and leave very pleased with our fun time at lunch.

Then we head to the hotel to make a toilet stop in the lobby before running back out to head to the carpet workshop.  We all are aware of the need to help these people get their tourism industry backup and running and so four of six buy including me – a small rug for the bathroom in terra cotta and dark blue.  Dick buys a larger and even more lovely carpet and Jennifer buys small and lovely one and Howard & Carol find the one they think will be a perfect wall hanging.   So we help out the economy and Mohamed says it is very much appreciated as our small group bought four items when most will have only one sale. 

Back to the hotel for another 20 minutes or so to get settled in before leaving for a walk around town to see the copper smiths and then a medina tour.  Lots to see and absorb.  This medina is quite a bit livelier than the one in Tunis.  While not everything is open and bustling there are still artisans working making shoes and barbers still cutting hair and shaving men.  On the way back to the hotel we run into our family hosts heading to the medina and we greet each other warmly – they get a chance to meet Max who didn’t come for lunch. 

We head back to the hotel and have another 30 -35 minutes before our 7:30 dinner hour.  Dinner is here in the hotel and we have veg soup and brique – LOL - along with bread Mohamed bought in the medina from a street vendor.  Then the meal is choice of swordfish or turkey or hamburger.  Five of us take the fish – Jim and Howard take turkey and Max does the burger.
The finish is a crème caramel which is nice but we are stuffed at this point.  Upstairs to get some of these notes typed up for later posting and to make backup copies of photos and also to prepare for the journey to Monastir  and El Jem tomorrow. 

Since there is no internet here I will do the posts alone in the lobby on wifi in the morning and then come back later and add photos when I get both more time and a better connection (don’t know when that will be…)

the day before

Cap Bon peninsula- left hotel around 8 and headed out of town – traveled through lush beautiful farm land and orchards and groves.  Atlas Mountains in the distance are on one side and the Mediterranean on the other side all day long.  We stop for some oranges at a road side stand to buy from a guy with one eye and no teeth (not kidding) Mohamed says “he cheated us” LOL we say you cannot be cheated by a guy with one eye and no teeth. LOL

Head to Punic ruins of Kerkouane- these are ruins at the tip of Cap Bon and it is a peaceful serene setting right on the sea.  We explore ruins with no one else visiting – in Dougga there were a few others in the site with us – here no one else.  Then we go on for lunch at the Toro fish restaurant in Kelibia.  We start with an EXCELLENT barley soup with lots of seafood in the soup.   Then swordfish and finally Chocolate Mousse.  From lunch we got to the commercial fishing port where we see the boats- obviously the fishermen have all gone home by 2PM – then on to Nabeul.

This is the place for pottery making- but first and important stop at Mohamed’s favorite ice cream shop where he treats for gelato for all. Very good!  Then we visit the pottery studio where they are throwing all kinds of pots on wheels and firing in the kilns and glazing after decorating by hand. Jennifer and I support local economy with small purchases. 

From there we traveled to Hammamet. A horrible place – kind of like the Vegas of Tunisia- casino and big resort hotels that bill themselves as five stars but barely meet three star standards.  Place is focused to holiday makers not travelers.  Some of the group hates the place (myself included) – they have built a fake medina in Hammamet Yasime one of three resort areas in town.  It is so awful they have fake camels outside and fake elephants etc..

However, Jennifer and I had to change rooms because at 4:30 in the afternoon the rooms had not been cleaned and then when they said they had cleaned them there was still garbage on the balcony.  It reminded me very much of our hotel in the Dead Sea area in Israel.  Awful smoking low life tourists who got a bargain off season price for a decent hotel who come and smoke up the lobby while talking very loudly.  The safe costs 2.500 dinars for one night- and the place hadn’t seen a vacuum in a week or more.  Thank god it is only a stay of a single night.

The highlight of our time there was definitely dinner at the fabulous Charlemagne.  Our starters of shrimp bisque and moules which we shared were first rate.  I had the St. Pierre and Jen had grilled lamb- both were excellent! And beautiful enough for photos.  Our dessert was a lemon mousse with mint – also very good.  The wine was Magon again but this time the reserve.  All in all it made the trip to Hammamet about 30% worthwhile may be even more because when we arrived at the restaurant they graciously turned on the TV for us.  We asked for it to be turned off.  We were the only ones there.  The good waiter then offered the piano which apparently runs on software that must have lists to choose from.  For us he chose the list for two middle aged American women and it played the Eagles songbook followed by the Simon & Garfunkel songbook.  It was a perfect background for our extended discussions of what various things are called en Francais.  We leave the restaurant perked up by an excellent meal. 

After doing some money changing we retire to our chambers and agree to meet in the AM - Tomorrow on to Kairouan.

Sunday, March 27, 2011


of things to do today. and since I have to pack I do not have a ton of time to monkey around with this post- which for osme reason is having a problem linking photos- so I will have to come back to the photos later and hopefully get them inserted at some point. 

Early start today but before hand Mohamed took me over to Le Central Marche to see the morning market.  I spend about 20 minutes there before we had to be on the bus.  Some good photos. 

Then we were off to Carthage which is now the leafy seaside suburb of Tunis.  We traveled over the causeway between two halves of Lake Tunis which is slated to be filled in and developed for city growth (probably not immediately) and right now is somewhat industrial.  We ended up at a section of Carthage which was believed to be a temple for human sacrifices.  This is under debate and the site is fairly small although quite serene.  From there we journey mere moments to the former military port and the former commercial port for the Phoenicians which later was renovated for the Romans.  Our next stop is the fabulously huge Roman baths and then a visit to the cisterns and aqueduct. 

Finally before our lunch we toured the American military cemetery for those who lost their lives in the North Africa campaigns on WWII.  It is a beautiful peaceful place with a lovely chapel and quite amazing mosaics of the entire step by step battles in the war. 

Lunch was at the last kosher restaurant in Tunisia and the Jewish owner made quite the impassioned plea for the return of the Jews to Tunis with the new found freedoms.  They are down to the last 1400 Jews – most of whom live in Djerba where we will go at the end of the trip.  The meal consisted of a nice soup followed by a less nice chicken dish in a sauce that tasted suspiciously like the soup along with rice and horrid gray canned peas.  Less than stellar.  Actually so far the worst meal we have had and not surprisingly so.  (got to love those canned peas!)

 I think the chicken was served in the left over soup (below) what do you think???? LOL
 Here is the "chef" preparing the chicken to be mixed with the soup (oops I mean sauce!)

After lunch we headed to the beautiful village of Sidi Bou Said.  Perched over the Mediterranean it is whitewashed villas trimmed in sky blue doors and shutters and extremely picturesque.  We toured through the alleys and skipped the tourist tchochkes (which Mohamed said were made in China) and then left for the fabulous Bardo Museum.

At least we think it will be fabulous again soon it is undergoing a huge renovation and addition of new wing.  I will say they have an amazing collection of mosaics that is undoubtedly as billed – the finest in the world.  Jennifer and I got shanghaied for a private tour behind the scenes of the renovation- a bit of silver crossing palms worked for the look at some of the original palace rooms.

Then on to the medina (old town) which was virtually deserted.  Less than a percent of the shops were open and the ones who were could hardly be eking out a living.  This led us back to our hotel and after a quick nap Jen and I left to find dinner.  A challenge on Sunday night but we mastered it.  Found a place where she had lamb and couscous and I have escalope cordon bleu.  Having the menu in French and Arabic helped us a lot (not the Arabic of course- LOL).  Today Mohamed told us not many people here speak Arabic –they learn it in school but French is their first language and the language of business and government here.  It he wants to talk to a Moroccan they must speak French as the dialects vary so greatly across the Arabic speakers.  One time he had an encounter with a Syrian and ended up speaking English to each other as that was the only commonly understood means of communicating. 

So tomorrow we leave Tunis and tour the Cap Bon peninsula heading to Hammamet and the beach-y area.  So bags out at 7:30 on the bus at 8AM.