Tunis, ancient history in a cosmopolitan capital

Tunis may well be the ancient capital of Carthage, but it is also the cosmopolitan capital city of modern-day Tunisia. Overlooking the turquoise waters of the Mediterranean, brilliant white buildings luminous under the intense sun, the city has many fascinating districts that provide endless opportunities for exploration. Picturesque Sidi Bou Said, upscale La Marsa, the site of ancient Carthage, and the astounding medieval medina in the heart of the city, combine to make this a place to spend several days.

Medina, Tunis, Tunisia

Medina, Tunis, Tunisia

Medina, Tunis, Tunisia

Medina, Tunis, Tunisia

Medina, Tunis, Tunisia

Medina, Tunis, Tunisia

Medina, Tunis, Tunisia

Medina, Tunis, Tunisia

Medina, Tunis, Tunisia

Medina, Tunis, Tunisia

Medina, Tunis, Tunisia

Medina, Tunis, Tunisia

Alas, I had little time to do them justice, spending only a morning in the medina and an afternoon on the coast in Carthage and Sidi Bou Said. The glories of the Bardo Museum were off limits, it was Monday and it was closed. I’ve seen the world’s largest collection of Roman mosaics before, but I’d have liked the chance to see its stunning collection of ancient artefacts again. It gives you a real sense of the history, from ancient Carthage onwards, that forged the modern city.

The birth place of Hannibal (famed for his elephant exploits), Carthage once controlled North Africa and the southern half of the Iberian Peninsular. Three Punic Wars against Rome (264 – 146 BC) would ultimately decide the fate of both the city and the region. Carthage was mercilessly put to the sword by Roman general Scipio in 149BC at the end of the third Punic War. While he burned the city to the ground, destroyed the walls and sold 50,000 Carthaginians into slavery, he almost certainly didn’t salt the land.

This corner of the Mediterranean was the epicentre of the ancient world, the centuries of battle for supremacy between Carthage and Rome one of the defining periods in the history of Western civilisation. It’s worth pondering upon what the world might look like today if Rome had lost the struggle for hegemony over the Mediterranean – we’d probably be eating less pasta and a lot more hummus and harissa. No bad thing to my mind.

In its medieval heyday between the 12th and 16th centuries, Tunis was one of the most important and wealthiest cities in the Mediterranean. During this time the 8th century medina thrived, its maze-like streets filled with palaces, mosques, shops and cafes. In its narrow, atmospheric alleyways, you can (literally and metaphorically) lose yourself. There are over seven hundred historic monuments within the medina, just one reason UNESCO has given it World Heritage status.

It’s impossible to not find yourself lost at some point when you’re weaving through the medina, but that is part of the joy of it. There’s an official walking tour and useful maps, which is fine if you manage to stay on the route. Otherwise, trust to luck and the help of strangers to find your way back to something recognisable. I spent most of the morning in the medina, afterwards I made my way back to the Place de la Victoire and the TGM metro, which takes you to the suburbs of Carthage and Sidi Bou Said – yes, Carthage is a suburb.

I jumped off to visit the eerie Salammbo Tophet, a cemetery where the Carthaginians are believed to have sacrificed children. Tombstones with human figures carved onto them litter the ground have. The claims of ritual child sacrifice were disputed as Greek or Roman propaganda until recently, when research (more or less) conclusively proved it to be true. It was a relief to leave and I set off for a walk through the streets to reach Cathédrale Saint Louis de Carthage, which sits at the heart of ancient Carthage.

Cathédrale Saint Louis de Carthage, Tunis, Tunisia

Cathédrale Saint Louis de Carthage, Tunis, Tunisia

Sidi Bou Said, Tunis, Tunisia

Sidi Bou Said, Tunis, Tunisia

Sidi Bou Said, Tunis, Tunisia

Sidi Bou Said, Tunis, Tunisia

Sidi Bou Said, Tunis, Tunisia

Sidi Bou Said, Tunis, Tunisia

Sidi Bou Said, Tunis, Tunisia

Sidi Bou Said, Tunis, Tunisia

Sidi Bou Said, Tunis, Tunisia

Sidi Bou Said, Tunis, Tunisia

A visit here deserves more time, but I saw a number of Carthaginian and Roman ruins in the archeological park before hopping on the train to my final destination of the day, Sidi Bou Said. If you’ve ever seen a tourist brochure photo of Tunisia, this picturesque blue and white village overlooking the sea was likely featured, and with good reason. Home to an artistic community and several good restaurants and cafes, it makes for a restful place to watch the sunset and to contemplate the reasons why someone would return to Tunisia.

Exploring Houmt Souk on fabled Djerba

The island of Djerba comes with a storied history. In Homer’s ancient Greek epic, The Odyssey, Djerba is the Land of the Lotus Eaters where, after a decade of war with the Trojans, Odysseus – Ulysses as he was known to the Romans – is stranded while trying to return home to Ithaca. On land the islanders feed his crew lotus flowers. Instantly falling into a dream-like state, they forget their desire to return home until Odysseus forces them to sail away.

Hara Kebira, Houmt Souk, Djerba, Tunisia

Hara Kebira, Houmt Souk, Djerba, Tunisia

Houmt Souk, Djerba, Tunisia

Houmt Souk, Djerba, Tunisia

Fish market, Houmt Souk, Djerba, Tunisia

Fish market, Houmt Souk, Djerba, Tunisia

Fish market, Houmt Souk, Djerba, Tunisia

Fish market, Houmt Souk, Djerba, Tunisia

Spanish fort, Houmt Souk, Djerba, Tunisia

Spanish fort, Houmt Souk, Djerba, Tunisia

Houmt Souk, Djerba, Tunisia

Houmt Souk, Djerba, Tunisia

The 19th century English poet, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, described this incident in the poem The Lotos-eaters: “In the afternoon, they came unto a land, in which it seemed always afternoon. All round the coast the languid air did swoon, breathing like one that hath a weary dream.” The general impression is that Djerba’s a place where otherwise industrious individuals are lured to indulge in the sin of sloth (and probably others of the more deadly sins).

Today, it’s charms are much the same, with sandy beaches, clear Mediterranean waters and delicious food luring people to relax and forget the world for a day or two. This had been my plan, but the fates were against me and I arrived on Djerba with only a day to spare. There’s too much history and culture to explore to waste on a day at the beach, so I spent my time wandering around the island’s main town, Houmt Souk, and one of the Arab World’s few remaining Jewish communities, Hara Kebira.

I arrived on the island via the 6th century BC causeway, known as the Roman Road it was originally built by the Carthaginians. This gives a hint of just how ancient human habitation is on the island. It was fought over, conquered and occupied by Romans, Byzantines, Normans, Arabs and Turks until, in 1881, the French arrived. Traces of all these cultures are still found around the island, but it is Djerba’s Jewish history that attracts most attention, mainly because it’s a living history.

The island’s Jewish community dates back 2,500 years, and hosts one of the oldest synagogues in the world. El Ghriba synagogue has been in continuous use for around 2,000 years, and is a focal point for what remains of the Jewish community. Tunisia was once home to over 110,000 Jews, today that number is closer to 1,500, the majority of whom live on Djerba in two distinct areas: Riadh and Hara Kebira. Attacks against the community have occurred, but these days the Tunisian authorities provide protection.

I started my day in the maze-like town centre, this is where the main souk is found and where the city does its shopping. It was early so I sought out coffee and pastries while sitting in the shade watching the world go by. Despite being touristy, this is a relaxed place and there is little of the hassle associated with other tourist areas in this part of the world. I pottered around until I found the fish market where energetic bidding was taking place on strings of fish.

The auctioneer sat on a throne-like high chair so the crowd could see the fish he was holding, and a crush of people placed their bids. A few scrawny cats wandered around. If you feel brave, you can bid on the fish and get them cooked at nearby restaurants. The market was a lot of fun, and afterwards I made my way on foot to the whitewashed buildings decorated with blue symbols in the Hara Kebira area.

Market, Houmt Souk, Djerba, Tunisia

Market, Houmt Souk, Djerba, Tunisia

Market, Houmt Souk, Djerba, Tunisia

Market, Houmt Souk, Djerba, Tunisia

Fish market, Houmt Souk, Djerba, Tunisia

Fish market, Houmt Souk, Djerba, Tunisia

Market, Houmt Souk, Djerba, Tunisia

Market, Houmt Souk, Djerba, Tunisia

Fish market, Houmt Souk, Djerba, Tunisia

Fish market, Houmt Souk, Djerba, Tunisia

Fish market, Houmt Souk, Djerba, Tunisia

Fish market, Houmt Souk, Djerba, Tunisia

It’s a fascinating area, more for the fact that after two and a half millennia Jews still live cheek-by-jowl with the Muslim population. It’s not been an easy peace to achieve, and is constantly threatened, but it continues to exist. Occasionally you see people wearing a kippah, the typical Jewish cap, but the main sign that this is a Jewish area are the fish and Shabbat candlesticks painted on houses. Fish are supposed to ward off the evil eye. I took that as my cue to leave, the next day I’d fly to Tunis and didn’t want to provoke the fates further.

Through the desert to Djerba, the oasis of Ksar Ghilane

Desert nights are shockingly cold. Sleeping in a ‘tent’ offers little protection from the biting temperatures. I covered myself in so many thick, heavy blankets that I could barely move under the weight. Worse still, I had come down with a horrible cold myself, and I spent the night simultaneously freezing and burning up with a fever. If there had been any other tourists staying in my encampment in Ksar Ghilane, they’d have been kept awake by my hacking cough. Sound travels swiftly through the empty desert night.

Oasis of Ksar Ghilane, Grand Erg Oriental, Tunisia

Oasis of Ksar Ghilane, Grand Erg Oriental, Tunisia

Oasis of Ksar Ghilane, Grand Erg Oriental, Tunisia

Oasis of Ksar Ghilane, Grand Erg Oriental, Tunisia

Oasis of Ksar Ghilane, Grand Erg Oriental, Tunisia

Oasis of Ksar Ghilane, Grand Erg Oriental, Tunisia

Berber woman and child near Matmata, Tunisia

Berber woman and child near Matmata, Tunisia

Oasis of Ksar Ghilane, Grand Erg Oriental, Tunisia

Oasis of Ksar Ghilane, Grand Erg Oriental, Tunisia

Oasis of Ksar Ghilane, Grand Erg Oriental, Tunisia

Oasis of Ksar Ghilane, Grand Erg Oriental, Tunisia

Still in pain from the car crash, sleep seemed impossible. Not for the first time, as I stumbled through the dark and cold to find a toilet at some time in the early hours of the morning, I questioned my sanity for making this journey in the first place. Then I looked up. A billion stars were glinting in the clear desert sky, a meteor streaked across the darkness. It almost made it worthwhile. Truth be told, there is little to match the glories of the desert night sky.

I must have slept at some point because I remember waking up in time to drag myself into the middle of the desert to watch the sunrise. I walked through low dunes to a suitable spot a few hundred meters from the oasis and sat on top of a sand ridge to await the sun. It was still frigidly cold and the sooner the sun made an appearance the better. As the sun rose, the sand began to change colour, from a light brown to glorious pinks and oranges. It was exquisite.

I’d arrived the day before in time to watch the sunset, walking into the dunes as the sun sank and the stars came out. I walked around the settlement, down sandy tracks and between date palms, and was surprised that there seemed to be so few tourists. This is one of the most famous of Tunisia’s oases and I’d been told it could get crowded with visitors, including day tripping convoys of 4x4s. While I was there it seemed deserted (no pun intended).

After my morning walk in the dunes, I headed back to the camp for breakfast before hopping on a camel and riding out into the dunes again. You can see quite a lot more from the back of a camel. In the distance I could see a building, or the ruins of one. This it turned out was the Roman fort of Tisavar, which must have been one of the loneliest and most isolated outposts in the entire Roman Empire.

The fort sits about 2km from the oasis and the plan had been to ride out there, but we were driving back to Djerba the same day, a trip of about 8 hours or more. I decided to skip the fort in favour of a soak in the thermal springs before we set off – also handy for getting rid of the smell of camel. I found my driver, Khaled, sipping a coffee in the shade of a palm tree and after half an hour in the pool we were on our way.

It would take 10 hours to reach Djerba, during which time Khaled educated me on the differences between Algerian, Moroccan and Tunisian music. Algerian was definitely his favourite. We made one stop for refreshments on the way to Djerba, at the house of a friend. I say house, but hole in the ground would be a more accurate description. In the scrubby desert near Matmata, largely hidden from sight, a Berber family live in this traditional troglodyte home.

Troglodyte dwelling near Matmata, Tunisia

Troglodyte dwelling near Matmata, Tunisia

Troglodyte dwelling near Matmata, Tunisia

Troglodyte dwelling near Matmata, Tunisia

Berber woman and child near Matmata, Tunisia

Berber woman and child near Matmata, Tunisia

Troglodyte dwelling near Matmata, Tunisia

Troglodyte dwelling near Matmata, Tunisia

Troglodyte dwelling near Matmata, Tunisia

Troglodyte dwelling near Matmata, Tunisia

Entrance to troglodyte dwelling near Matmata, Tunisia

Entrance to troglodyte dwelling near Matmata, Tunisia

There are many similar homes in this region and although made famous by Star Wars – Luke Skywalker grew up in one on the fictional planet of Tatooine – and despite some being turned into hotels, many are now abandoned. Few young people want the same rural life of their parents and have migrated to the cities. The drop in tourism since the Arab Spring and a couple of terror attacks have speeded up that process. We had food and tea, and then were on our way.

Upside down in the Sahara, the desert oasis of Douz

I arrived in Douz at high speed in a wailing ambulance. After a visit to both the hospital and the police station, I was deposited at the hotel by a police car. The nice policemen waved goodbye, wished me luck and repeated their disbelief that I was still alive. News travels fast in the desert and the hotel owner already knew about the tourist who had crashed a hire car in the middle of the desert. When my car flipped over and came to a juddering halt on its roof, I was conscious but dangling upside down restrained only by my seatbelt.

As I hung there trying to make sense of what had just happened, it occurred to me that things might improve if I wasn’t upside down. Without thinking, I pressed the release button on the seatbelt and instantly bashed my head on the roof of the car. It was at this point a very unlikely thing happened. Three men, who had been camping amongst the sand dunes, had witnessed the accident and ran over to pull me from the car. They also seemed surprised that I was alive.

Grand Erg Oriental, Douz, Tunisia

Grand Erg Oriental, Douz, Tunisia

Grand Erg Oriental, Douz, Tunisia

Grand Erg Oriental, Douz, Tunisia

Date palms, Douz, Tunisia

Date palms, Douz, Tunisia

The route to Douz, Tunisia

The route to Douz, Tunisia

The route to Douz, Tunisia

The route to Douz, Tunisia

Car crash en route to Douz, Tunisia

Car crash en route to Douz, Tunisia

The famed hospitality of desert peoples is said to stem from a simple premise: always allow a stranger to water their camel at your well, because you never know when you might need water for your camel. These three men pulled me from the wreckage, got me water to drink, retrieved my belongings, called an ambulance, called the police, called the (very unhappy) car rental company and gave praise to Allah for saving my life. They stayed with me in the desert until the ambulance arrived.

A day later, one of them came to my hotel – the accident was pretty big news and I was something of a local celebrity – to make sure I was okay. The police came to check on me as well, although I suspect they were just making sure I hadn’t died in their town. I was largely uninjured, although every part of my body seemed to be in pain. Douz is a scruffy but friendly place with few distractions, but I was happy just to be here … and things improved once I discovered Boukha, an unpleasant fig brandy that’s good only for self medicating.

Accidentally, my visit coincided with the date harvest. Douz has over half a million date palms and, walking the sandy tracks between the plantations, I was offered fresh dates. Acts of generosity that made me glad I’d made the journey. I hadn’t come for the dates though. The main attraction here is the Grand Erg Oriental, an utterly beguiling part of the Sahara that spills across the nearby border with Algeria to form Douz’s backyard. I’d planned to drive to the oasis of Ksar Ghilane, but the car crash had made that tricky.

My day had began quite differently and I’d been having a nice time exploring even more Berber fortified granaries. The dramatically located 13th century Ksar Jouamaa sits on an isolated hill a short way from the main road, but blink and you’ll miss it. It seamlessly fuses with the surrounding landscape of hills and valleys. The views from the hilltop are spectacular and, yet again, I had the whole place to myself. So far so good. I visited one more ksar before pointing the car in the direction of the desert.

Ksar Jouamaa, Tunisia

Ksar Jouamaa, Tunisia

Ksar Jouamaa, Tunisia

Ksar Jouamaa, Tunisia

Date palms, Douz, Tunisia

Date palms, Douz, Tunisia

Donkey cart taxi, Douz, Tunisia

Donkey cart taxi, Douz, Tunisia

Ksar, Tataouine, Tunisia

Ksar, Tataouine, Tunisia

Ksar, Tataouine, Tunisia

Ksar, Tataouine, Tunisia

My camera had been flung from the car when I’d crashed, one of my rescuers had found it embedded in the sand. Sand, as the saying goes, gets everywhere, and it had certainly found its way inside the camera. The camera continued to work but every photo I have of Douz, and all the places I visited afterwards, has specks of sand on them. I spent a couple of days mooching around Douz, making alternate plans to get to Ksar Ghilane and then back to Djerba.

Eventually, I found a driver with a 4×4 who’d drop me at Ksar Ghilane and take me the 500 km to Djerba. Fate had conspired to bring me together with an inspired travel companion, who spoke only Arabic and broken French but who managed to teach me more about Algerian music than I’ll ever need to know. I’m still a big fan of Souad Massi. Early one morning we drove for three hours into the heart of the Grand Erg Oriental to Ksar Ghilane, where I hoped to sooth my aches and pains in the thermal springs.

Troglodyte caves and beautiful views, Ksar Guermessa

Of all the unearthly places I visited in the southern Tunisian deserts, the ghostly Berber village of Ksar Guermessa has to count as the most haunting. Founded sometime in the 12th century, it was fortified in response to the growing threat from Arab invaders, and it shares similarities with many of the other Berber hilltop villages in this area: fortified granaries built on top of an original troglodyte settlement, and a brilliant white mosque burning bright in the brown, dusty landscape.

As you approach Guermessa, it’s hard to even tell that there’s a settlement built on and into the hillside, and along a ridge stretching across the skyline. The old village is split into two hilltops connected by a ‘saddle’ where the mosque sits, and if it wasn’t for the telltale white of the mosque you’d be forgiven for not noticing the village amongst the unrelentingly scrubby landscape. I parked the car in a small car park and set off up the hill to explore the abandoned village.

Ksar Guermessa, Tataouine, Tunisia

Ksar Guermessa, Tataouine, Tunisia

Ksar Guermessa, Tataouine, Tunisia

Ksar Guermessa, Tataouine, Tunisia

Ksar Guermessa, Tataouine, Tunisia

Ksar Guermessa, Tataouine, Tunisia

Troglodyte homes, Ksar Guermessa, Tataouine, Tunisia

Troglodyte homes, Ksar Guermessa, Tataouine, Tunisia

Ksar Guermessa, Tataouine, Tunisia

Ksar Guermessa, Tataouine, Tunisia

Troglodyte homes, Ksar Guermessa, Tataouine, Tunisia

Troglodyte homes, Ksar Guermessa, Tataouine, Tunisia

Not for the first time on this trip I found myself wondering where all the other tourists were. Here is an ancient village, easily accessible from Tataouine, that not only offers a glimpse into the lives of generations of Berber inhabitants, but comes with spectacular views. As I walked along the ridge I came across the troglodyte houses for which the village is famed. Each has a surrounding wall with a door into an inner courtyard, more doors then lead inside homes carved into the rock. It’s extraordinary.

I literally got shivers down my spine as I entered these cave homes, the scattering of possessions that had been abandoned by their former inhabitants creating an almost supernatural atmosphere. The eerie silence amidst the ruins of a once thriving village was a surreal experience, and my imagination was conjuring all manner of dark and troubling illusions. I felt like I’d stumbled upon a place where the inhabitants had been forced to flee for their lives – I was expecting Morlocks to leap out from behind walls and drag me to the underworld.

The reality is far more prosaic. I’d passed through the new village of Guermessa on my way here, and from the ridge where I was walking I had fantastic views of it and the surrounding landscape. The government had built a new village with running water, electricity, schools, hospitals and paved roads. People chose to leave their old lives behind and start afresh in the modern world. While I’m sure people are far better off in their new homes, it has lent an air of tragedy to the old village.

I walked the full length of the village and visited a dozen or so houses, noting the small details of inhabitation: palm wood doors stained green with metal studs, a hand print in the mud of a wall, old olive oil jars, a box that had once contained tea. The women and girls of Guermessa were once famous for producing handmade embroidery, known as margoum. Woolen and brightly coloured, sadly the craft seems to be dying out in these communities, although you can still find it for sale.

Ksar Guermessa, Tataouine, Tunisia

Ksar Guermessa, Tataouine, Tunisia

Troglodyte homes, Ksar Guermessa, Tataouine, Tunisia

Troglodyte homes, Ksar Guermessa, Tataouine, Tunisia

Troglodyte homes, Ksar Guermessa, Tataouine, Tunisia

Troglodyte homes, Ksar Guermessa, Tataouine, Tunisia

Troglodyte homes, Ksar Guermessa, Tataouine, Tunisia

Troglodyte homes, Ksar Guermessa, Tataouine, Tunisia

Troglodyte homes, Ksar Guermessa, Tataouine, Tunisia

Troglodyte homes, Ksar Guermessa, Tataouine, Tunisia

Troglodyte homes, Ksar Guermessa, Tataouine, Tunisia

Troglodyte homes, Ksar Guermessa, Tataouine, Tunisia

I made my way back to the mosque, drinking in the views as I went. I thought about visiting the other half of the village, but decided it was too hot and instead headed to the new village to see if I could unearth somewhere to have lunch. I was out of luck. On my way back to Tataouine I spotted an unlikely sight, two dinosaurs striding across a nearby hilltop. After exploring the spectral delights of Guermessa, that didn’t seem so odd.

Six centuries of crumbling Berber history, Douiret

It’s hard to imagine as you’re wandering around the ruins of the once glorious Berber village of Douiret, but in the mid-19th century this truly extraordinary place was home to more than three and a half thousand people. As I walked the streets past abandoned former homes, it was as if I was exploring a ghost town. If there are people still living in the village I didn’t see them, although I did spot a single, solitary person walking along a ridge just outside the village.

Founded over 600 years ago, Douiret was once a busy commercial centre on a desert caravan route, and camel trains would spend the night here, inside what was a Berber citadel. Seen from the shallow valley between it and the modern village of the same name, the village rises up like a Pieter Bruegel painting of the Tower of Babel. Houses seem to be stacked on top of each other in a conical shape. Uniformly brown, it blends with the surrounding landscape, the gleaming white mosque the only real sign that it’s a village and not just a hill.

Chenini en route to Douiret, Tunisia

Chenini en route to Douiret, Tunisia

Berber village of Douiret, Tataouine, Tunisia

Berber village of Douiret, Tataouine, Tunisia

Berber village of Douiret, Tataouine, Tunisia

Berber village of Douiret, Tataouine, Tunisia

Beni Barka, Tataouine, Tunisia

Beni Barka, Tataouine, Tunisia

Berber village of Douiret, Tataouine, Tunisia

Berber village of Douiret, Tataouine, Tunisia

The route to Douiret, Tataouine, Tunisia

The route to Douiret, Tataouine, Tunisia

I’d driven through the blasted yet beautiful desert landscape from Chenini to reach the village. It’s only a short journey of around 10km, but it cuts through post-apocalyptic scenery that makes you glad to come across signs of civilisation. Not that Douiret, old or new, really counts as civilisation. I’d passed through the new village to reach the road to old Douiret, other than a few palm trees there was very little evidence of life. You’d have to have a very particular personality type to live out here.

I parked the car at the base of the hill and set off in the heat to climb a steep track into the village. There are a couple of places to stay in the village and I can imagine that it would be a spectacular and atmospheric place to spend a night or two – provided you’d brought sufficient provisions with you. The moment you start to gain some height, the views back down the valley are breathtaking, you can see the new village but also, at the base of the hill, the old village’s cemetery.

The route I took into the village passed a rock formation that, when I turned around to take in the view, looked like a human head. It was the closest I came to seeing an actual human for the next couple of hours. Wandering around the rubble of an ancient culture may not be for everyone, but I find places like Douiret fascinating. Silent in the intense heat, eerie and just a little other-worldly, the history is palpable. Scrambling amongst the broken buildings, the views over the valley are little short of spectacular.

The mosque here is known as Jamaa ennakhla, the ‘palm tree mosque’, and is the most striking feature of the village. I don’t know who paints the holy places of the desert with whitewash, but these buildings have a dramatic effect on the landscape. Brilliant points of light amongst drab surroundings, they almost scream to you that in such an hostile environment you should make your peace with God. I found myself cursing the very same deity as I sweated my way up to the top of the hill, determined to get a full panorama.

Berber village of Douiret, Tataouine, Tunisia

Berber village of Douiret, Tataouine, Tunisia

Berber village of Douiret, Tataouine, Tunisia

Berber village of Douiret, Tataouine, Tunisia

A head rock formation, Berber village of Douiret, Tataouine, Tunisia

A head rock formation, Berber village of Douiret, Tataouine, Tunisia

Berber village of Douiret, Tataouine, Tunisia

Berber village of Douiret, Tataouine, Tunisia

Berber village of Douiret, Tataouine, Tunisia

Berber village of Douiret, Tataouine, Tunisia

Berber village of Douiret, Tataouine, Tunisia

Berber village of Douiret, Tataouine, Tunisia

It was hot work, but I knew that when I returned to Tataouine I’d have access to cold beer and a (not much warmer) swimming pool. Ice Cold in Alex fantasies at the front of my mind, I walked back to the car, tomorrow I’d be leaving early to head into the Grand Erg Oriental and the Berber oasis of Douz, a different but similarly hostile landscape. There would be one final stop though, in Beni Barka, to visit yet another dramatically located and abandoned ksar.

Here I would tear a massive (and embarrassing) hole in my trouser crotch, the start of a streak of bad luck that would end with me dangling upside down in the desert.

The year that brought us to Berlin, 2018 in review

2018 has been a year of upheaval. After four-and-a half-years living in The Hague we relocated 700km east to start a new chapter of life in Berlin. Truth be told, we didn’t want to leave our Dutch lives behind, but circumstances don’t always give you the choice. So, with heavy hearts, we loaded up our belongings for the third time in seven years and headed towards a new beginning.

Six months in Berlin has been enough to underscore the cultural chasm between the two countries – plus it’s over 250km to the beach from here. As we adjust to our new world there will be opportunities to explore Germany’s fascinating regions, and to look further east (Poland is a 100km away) and after sampling Berlin’s winter, I’m already looking forward to the Berlin spring.

These are my 2018 highlights (France features ‘biggly’, to quote the US President) … and here’s to 2019, the Year of the Bear.

Bear in a train station, Berlin

Bear in a train station, Berlin

Leaving the Netherlands

If there’s one thing to be said for leaving a country, it’s that it gives you pause to recall all the wonderful places you’ve visited. For me, it also meant a few days photographing and writing about the city we called home, The Hague. We hadn’t planned to move to the Netherlands, but it is a country that has seared its way into our affections in a big way. Each photo is a place I’d like to return to, at least once I’ve visited the places we missed the first time around.

Arriving in Berlin

Contemporary Berlin comes with huge expectations: history and culture merge with a reputation as one of the coolest cities on the planet. Yet our early impressions were  of dealing with bureaucracy and trying to find an apartment in a hostile housing market. This took place in a heatwave, temperatures hovering around 35ºC. Uncomfortable in our new home in more ways than one, we’re slowly adapting to Berlin life and trying to learn basic German.

Seafaring history in Bremen and Hamburg

An early summer road trip introduced us to two of Germany’s great North Sea port cities, Bremen and Hamburg. I’d never been to either and both left a lasting impression. They suffered massive damage in the war but both have reinvented themselves for the modern era. Bremen mixes Hanseatic history with cultural riches and good food; while Hamburg became my favourite city of 2018, effortlessly cool, relaxed, friendly and full of culture.

Remembering da Vinci in the Loire Valley

The Loire Valley is a place filled with glories. Beautiful landscapes hide magnificent château, ancient towns and world class vineyards. I’d been bouncing around the French countryside and stopped in the utterly beguiling town of Amboise. Dominated by the Château d’Amboise, this is where Leonardo da Vinci spent his final years, dying in the town and buried in the Royal château. My final day was spent at the extraordinary Château de Villandry.

World Cup fever in Metz

Just before we left the Netherlands, there was one final road trip to France – it won’t be so easy to hop in the car and head to Champagne, Burgundy or the Loire from Berlin. It was a trip of firsts that included the city of Metz, home to the Pompidou Centre and where I got to experience the massive street party that was France winning the World Cup. It was a crazy few days of culture, good food and partying.

The wine routes of Alsace

We stopped in the distinctly French town of Nancy en route to Alsace. The difference between it and the decidedly Germanic Alsace region came as a bit of a surprise. That didn’t take away from the rolling landscapes and the even more extraordinary historic villages of timber-framed buildings that we encountered. Our journey through Alsace’s vineyards was fantastic and introduced us to German wine varieties – which, ironically, has subsequently come in handy.

Roman history and foodie heaven, Segovia

Rarely a year goes past without a visit to Spain. 2018 was no different, with a few days in Madrid followed by a trip to nearby Segovia. I’d heard of this historic town but was unprepared for just how beautiful it was, especially coming with a backdrop of snow covered mountains. There is so much to admire in the town, from the 12th century Alcázar to the lamb and suckling pig specialities, but it is the Roman aqueduct that takes centre stage.

24 hours in Copenhagen

It’s been nearly 30 years since I last visited Copenhagen, a few hours of wandering its historic centre had me wondering why it had taken so long to return. It was a shame that, after spending a week in various meetings and at a conference, I only had a day to reacquaint myself with the city. It was enough to make sure we’ll be returning when the weather improves in the spring.

A Sicilian adventure

Italy remains an under-explored country for me. This trip to Sicily was a first visit to the country’s most southerly region. We immersed ourselves in millennia of history while enjoying excellent seafood and local wines; took in ancient hilltop villages that are a byword for baroque architecture; ate fresh fish on the Mediterranean in a former tuna fishing village; and visited the Ancient Greek and Roman ruins of Morgantina and Villa Romana del Casale. The highlight though, was the near-mythical city of Syracuse.

A visit to Berlin’s Winter Markets

One of life’s great truisms is that visiting a Winter Market in daylight is a very bad idea. Nothing spoils the ‘magic of Xmas’ more thoroughly than rampant commercialism pretending to be the magic of Xmas. No, it is far wiser to wait for the cover of darkness, when strategically placed lighting and hot spiced wine can warm even the most cynical of hearts. I can’t stress enough the importance of the hot wine for turning the average Xmas market from endurance test to seasonally acceptable experience.

Charlottenburg Xmas Market, Berlin, Germany

Charlottenburg Xmas Market, Berlin, Germany

Charlottenburg Xmas Market, Berlin, Germany

Charlottenburg Xmas Market, Berlin, Germany

Performers, Gendarmenmarkt Xmas Market, Berlin, Germany

Performers, Gendarmenmarkt Xmas Market, Berlin, Germany

Charlottenburg Xmas Market, Berlin, Germany

Charlottenburg Xmas Market, Berlin, Germany

Stilt walkers, Gendarmenmarkt Xmas Market, Berlin, Germany

Stilt walkers, Gendarmenmarkt Xmas Market, Berlin, Germany

Charlottenburg Xmas Market, Berlin, Germany

Charlottenburg Xmas Market, Berlin, Germany

I’m not a big fan of Xmas markets, but I had high hopes for Berlin. If for no other reason than it’s in Germany, home of the Xmas market. It’s not Bavaria, where they go ‘big’ on the whole Xmas thing, but with about twenty different markets to choose from, there seemed a reasonable chance of hitting the jackpot. Or at least a jackpot. In the end, it was a case of third time lucky, with the Gendarmenmarkt market providing best value. Although that might have been due to taking the sensible precaution of adding a shot of rum to my gluhwein.

The pressure was really on by the time I arrived at the Gendarmenmarkt, and not just because they charge you a €1 entrance fee. Despite having a very exciting miniature train and being the biggest of the three I visited, the market at Alexanderplatz was a bit low rent and didn’t really provide good shopping. It has a skating rink and a ferris wheel though. Making it an odd mixture of travelling funfair and Xmas market. One colleague claimed they had the best gluhwein in Berlin. They didn’t (see previous point about the rum).

I’d anticipated that Charlottenburg market would be an upmarket affair, based solely on the fact that it takes place in the courtyard of an old palace. True, the backdrop was glamorous, and the ‘winter wonderland’ projections onto the palace were great. Again though there wasn’t much in the way of shopping beyond food and drink, but there was some entertainment. This market stands out because it actually snowed when we were there. I heard an English woman on the phone say, “it’s magical”. It wasn’t.

Which leaves Gendarmenmarkt. It’s just around the corner from where we live and has a setting almost as dramatic as Charlottenburg, in a square that is bookended by two of the city’s most pleasant churches, the Deutscher Dom and the Französischer Dom. The attractive Berlin Konzerthaus sits along one side. As usual, there were plenty of eating and drinking options, but also quite a lot of good stalls selling actual gifts for those who might have left present shopping a little late.

Best of all though, and what set this market apart, was the entertainment. In front of the Konzerthaus was a stage that, at first, just had someone playing songs on a piano, but, as things started to warm up, there was a dance troop and later a children’s choir, both of which were fantastic. There was even a master of ceremonies dressed as the Kaiser. What could be more German than that?

The youth choir – some of the kids could only have been 4 or 5 years old – was the star attraction, and a large crowd had assembled by the time they’d got into the third or fourth song. It was only late afternoon but the place was packed with families, I did a final sweep of the stalls to see if I could pick up any last minute gifts and, just as the rain began to fall, I headed into the Berlin night filled with what I can only assume was Xmas spirit … although that may have been a side effect of the rum.

Performers, Gendarmenmarkt Xmas Market, Berlin, Germany

Performers, Gendarmenmarkt Xmas Market, Berlin, Germany

Performers, Gendarmenmarkt Xmas Market, Berlin, Germany

Performers, Gendarmenmarkt Xmas Market, Berlin, Germany

Charlottenburg Xmas Market, Berlin, Germany

Charlottenburg Xmas Market, Berlin, Germany

Charlottenburg Xmas Market, Berlin, Germany

Charlottenburg Xmas Market, Berlin, Germany

Sausages, Gendarmenmarkt Xmas Market, Berlin, Germany

Sausages, Gendarmenmarkt Xmas Market, Berlin, Germany

Charlottenburg Xmas Market, Berlin, Germany

Charlottenburg Xmas Market, Berlin, Germany

Catania, a city of surprises

If we’d left Catania twenty-four hours earlier, we’d have left feeling underwhelmed by this attractive and dynamic city. The Catania we encountered during the first day and a half of our stay was grey, damp and dreary. On Saturday night though, grubby streets with graffitied buildings that made us feel a bit depressed in daylight, suddenly burst into life. Metal shutters were unfurled to reveal hip cafes, bars and restaurants. People crowded the pavements, and formerly quiet streets pulsated to the sound of music and conversation.

Catania successfully combines the stylish with the gritty and down-at-heel, modern life happily coexists with ancient history. It was a relief to see this other side of the city because I badly wanted to like it … and not only because I was expected to report back my impressions to an Italian colleague who is from here. This is a legendary city built at the foot of Mount Etna, and its destiny, from ancient history to the modern day, has been intertwined with Europe’s most active volcano.

Piazza del Duomo, Catania, Sicily, Italy

Piazza del Duomo, Catania, Sicily, Italy

Catania, Sicily, Italy

Catania, Sicily, Italy

Benedictine Monastery, Catania, Sicily, Italy

Benedictine Monastery, Catania, Sicily, Italy

Catania, Sicily, Italy

Catania, Sicily, Italy

Catania, Sicily, Italy

Catania, Sicily, Italy

Mount Etna, Catania, Sicily, Italy

Mount Etna, Catania, Sicily, Italy

That history includes the devastating earthquake of 1693, which left an indelible mark on the whole region, and left Catania in ruins. The city was rebuilt in the baroque style seen so often throughout this region for exactly the same reason. It has bequeathed the city some magnificent buildings. Other earthquakes have caused severe damage to the city over its more than 2,800 year history*, which dates back to the 8th century BC and includes centuries of Ancient Greek and Roman rule.

Regular volcanic eruptions have done their worst, only for the city to be reborn, but all that volcanic activity has also produced rich, fertile soils, especially good for growing grapes. An upside that can still be tasted in the excellent wines grown on the slopes of Mount Etna. The Sicilian wine business has been around for over 6,000 years according to research published last year, but it really took off when the Ancient Greeks arrived and began cultivation in earnest.

The Romans valued Sicilian wines for their distinctive flavour, and traded them around the Mediterranean. No visit to Catania would be complete without sitting in a square sipping a local wine. Viticulture though, isn’t the only wonder to survive from Greek and Roman times. We left the lovely Piazza del Duomo with its massive Cattedrale di Sant’Agata and delightful Fontana dell’Elefante, a Roman-era volcanic rock elephant topped by an Egyptian obelisk, and wandered along the Via Vittorio Emanuele II.

This ordinary-looking street hides an extraordinary secret, one easily missed if you’re not paying attention. The entrance comes with little fanfare, but once you’re inside a truly wondrous sight reveals itself, a 2,300 year-old Roman theatre. It’s utterly and completely spellbinding. You could walk around this area and never know the theatre existed, surrounded as it is by houses, churches and a former palace. We arrived early in the morning and had this atmospheric place to ourselves.

In the centre of the theatre’s semi-circle is a pond, into which runs a stream containing fish. The Romans used it to stage water ballets. There’s a small practice theatre behind the main event. From here we walked through streets lined with beautiful baroque churches and palaces to find a Benedictine Monastery, today a 16th century UNESCO World Heritage Site that today houses part of the University of Catania. We were out of luck for an English language tour, but were able to go inside and wander around.

We popped inside the huge, but unfinished, Church of Saint Nicolò. Destroyed by a lava flow from a Mount Etna eruption in 1669, reconstruction began in 1687, just in time for the 1693 earthquake. The interior’s an immense space of white marble. Afterwards we headed north through interesting streets to an area close to Park Villa Bellini – the composer was born in Catania – where there are plenty of bars and restaurants for a lazy lunch.

Piazza del Duomo, Catania, Sicily, Italy

Piazza del Duomo, Catania, Sicily, Italy

Catania, Sicily, Italy

Catania, Sicily, Italy

Mermaid, Catania, Sicily, Italy

Mermaid, Catania, Sicily, Italy

Catania, Sicily, Italy

Catania, Sicily, Italy

Ursino Castle, Catania, Sicily, Italy

Ursino Castle, Catania, Sicily, Italy

Harbour, Catania, Sicily, Italy

Harbour, Catania, Sicily, Italy

The maze of streets in this area are filled with old palaces and baroque churches, not many of which were open. We simply didn’t have the time to fully appreciate it, but the little we saw was fascinating. Our last few hours were spent pottering, before heading back to the Piazza del Duomo to do some people watching over a coffee. Catania in the sun was a much more attractive proposition, we really need to come back in Spring.

 

* This includes the recent volcanic activity and earthquake that has damaged villages and towns, and injured several people.

Sicilian Street Art, Catania

A little like the city which acts as their canvas, street art in Catania feels a little rough around the edges. The streets of Sicily’s second city are undoubtedly gritty. Crumbling plaster falls from many historic buildings, rubbish collects on corners or in doorways, dirt and grime are ubiquitous. Look hard enough though, and it’s not difficult to find spots of brightness where street art illuminates dark nooks and crannies, and brings light to grey buildings.

As we walked around, we saw a lot of graffiti that made use of the decay found in the urban landscape. This made it all the more poignant. At one point I found myself taking a photo in a side street unaware that I’d strayed into San Berillo, Catania’s red light district. An area of unofficial brothels packed into a warren of narrow lanes where women sit on chairs outside doorways, wielding a camera seems inappropriate and can attract unwanted attention.

Street art, Catania, Sicily, Italy

Street art, Catania, Sicily, Italy

Street art, Catania, Sicily, Italy

Street art, Catania, Sicily, Italy

Street art, Catania, Sicily, Italy

Street art, Catania, Sicily, Italy

Street art, Catania, Sicily, Italy

Street art, Catania, Sicily, Italy

Ironically, San Berillo is a hotspot of street art, and the handful of pictures I took before realising where I was, were all faces of young women. The area itself has a fascinating history, once an upmarket area that includes old palaces of Sicilian aristocracy, it fell into decay and was gradually abandoned from the 1950s onwards. A lot of the original houses were destroyed for a redevelopment project that never materialised, leaving a physical hole in the city.

As people left the area, sex workers moved in and have never left. In the 1990s, things were so bad that this was considered one of the largest red light districts in Europe. In response, a project called Red Line Distreet has brought street art to many walls in the district. I left the area behind and within a few minutes was in the heart of Catania’s commercial district, the Via Etna. It seemed a world away from San Berillo’s streets, but in reality these areas rub shoulders with each other.

I found myself in San Berillo after failing to reach the one area where I knew there were several massive pieces of street art, the Art Silos found in Catania harbour. This was a project that dates back to 2015, when the I-ART Festival commissioned pieces to be painted onto eight disused wheat and corn silos on the docks. At 28 metres high, the silos are pretty imposing, and I could see them in the distance as I made my way down an access road.

Unfortunately, I was stopped at a security check where the pleasant police officer told me it was far too dangerous for pedestrians to go any further. As a large lorry roared past, I understood what he meant. My only other option was to walk down a busy dual carriageway, which seemed about as appealing as being run over by a lorry. So I made my way back into town, checking out the small fishing boats in the publicly accessible parts of the harbour en route.

Street art, Catania, Sicily, Italy

Street art, Catania, Sicily, Italy

Street art, Catania, Sicily, Italy

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Street art, Catania, Sicily, Italy

Street art, Catania, Sicily, Italy

Street art, Catania, Sicily, Italy

Street art, Catania, Sicily, Italy

Street art, Catania, Sicily, Italy

Street art, Catania, Sicily, Italy

Street art, Catania, Sicily, Italy

Street art, Catania, Sicily, Italy

Catania does have a lot of street art, but I only found a few building-sized pieces, and most of those were two or three years old and often faded. A few artists appear over and over though – one in particular who has a line in fanged creatures and balls. Local art occasionally mingles with international art, but I didn’t recognise any of the artists with whom I’ve become familiar. Perhaps next time I’ll have more luck.