May 24th, 25th
KM START = 15, 674
(Trip = 5,304 )
KM END = 15,933 (Trip
Sete > Ales (!) > Arles > Marseilles
36 hours of
suffering on the ferry and we are released from captivity in Sete, France. A
quick lunch in Sete (never did a ham and cheese baguette taste soooooo good) and
its time to head off to Marseilles, a short trip along the coast to where our
Tunisian ferry awaits.
our desire to stay away from motorways, we set off on the superb Routes
Nationale that criss cross France. A simple job to get to Marseilles via Arles,
but captain compass here misreads a few signs and we end up 10 km south of Ales.
No real drama though as the roads are fantastic - wonderful twisting tarmac
going through some lovely Provencale countryside. Time is a bit tight so we
correct ourselves, resign to the motorways and make it to Marseilles with enough
time to buy our ferry tickets for tomorrow morning.
expectations of Marseilles are of a dodgy port town with a need to keep an eye
on the bikes at all times, probably based on stories my parents told of their
visits to the south of France in the 70's. We are pleasantly surprised to find a
hip and vibrant city which appears to have shaken off its sketchy past: Our
search for hotels is however a reminder of bygone days, with the only 2
available rooms in town that night resembling neglected brothels. We choose for
the one with the padded bedroom door - a nice feature we think!
League Final tonight, so we sit back in a port side brasserie and watch the game
with the company of a few beers. Liverpool vs AC Milan and its the Italians that
triumph after 90 minutes - a disappointment for me, but Pierpaolo is happy with
the result. The paper thin walls of the hotel and the sweatbox room will seek
their revenge on his slumber!
Ferry to Tunis
This is more
like it! A cabin you can actually sit down in, complete with edible food and a
choice of 4 bars!!! The luxury of ocean travel is now within our realm, but
neither of us will go Judas and be a card carrying convert for the cruise ship
holiday idea just yet.
plans for Tunisia are formed hastily on the boat. A quick squiz at the Lonely
Planet and reference to some scribbled notes and a rough itinerary is planned. A
French biker we meet and an expat Tunisian are of limited help, declaring that
everything in the country is magnificent and worth checking out. Comments in our
guide book declare otherwise, but in the interest of Austro-Tunisian relations I
refrain from a counter argument. The litmus test apparently is the word "Djerba".
If your would be travel advisor declares this a "must see" with
"wonderful beaches" and coos about its endless charms, then promptly
disregard all their other advice.
After a decent
meal we repair to the night club on board, and sample a Tunisian disco. It is at
this point that we sympathise with our Middle Eastern sisters who are
campaigning for basic women's rights to be respected in the Moslem world. Yes,
there are all the arguments and emotive Amnesty International type case studies
that, in the Western World, you read with disbelief. But for me there is nothing
quite as sad as an all male disco, a natural repurcussion of keeping all the
ladies on board confined to the intimacy of their cabins. 40 guys drinking
coffee and smoking tabs watching an empty dance floor, with a background music
of someone strangling a cat with a warped electric violin... I'm all for World
Music but tonight is a bridge too far.
KM START = 15, 933
(Trip = 5,563 )
KM END =
16,182 (Trip = 5,812)
Marseilles > Tunis > Cap Bon Peninsula > Hammamet
Roll off the
ferry and through customs and onto the roads of Tunisia. Comparing it to our
previous North African experience, it all feels a bit "Diet Morocco" -
less dirt, less character and with 80% less donkey. We head up to the Cap Bon
Peninsula, on the cunningly engineered coast road void of any coastal views. An
engineering marvel! At least they didn't overdo it on the name and call it Cap
Splendide or Cap Incroiable - Cap Comme Ci, Comme Ca would be about right.
have had the dumb luck of living in an oil rich country, and with only 9 or so
million inhabitants to spread the loot around everyone seems better off than
their Moroccan counterparts. Driving on the roads and its noticeable that the
car ahead, or cutting in front, or double overtaking you on that blind corner is
a few models up from the ubiquitous Mercedes 240D's of Moroccan roads. And
already we miss the old jalopies. We spent 2 weeks in Morocco without having to
honk a horn or grabbing a fistful of brake due to dodgy drivers - the Petit
Taxis, old Mercs and donkey powered carts were polite to the point of
embarassing Jeeves. Its one of the nice points about road tripping in a country
where fast means anytime before next week. But Tunisia is a different case - it
would appear that the drivers have confidence and machinery in excess of their
abilities, and it makes for some "interesting" situations.
Nabeul is our
first targetted night stop, but it's a dump so we push on to Hammamet just down
the road, which is marginally less crap. Our hotel is a communist inspired
concrete bungalow beach resort, which we are assured is jam packed in July and
August with unfortunate European kids that invoked the wrath of Santa last year.
But its beachfront at least, and the manager is a nice old chap, so we debunk
for the evening.
uneventful, save for the shopping extravaganza embarked upon after dinner. Our
firm resolution not to buy anything on this trip is blown away, and we are now
probably the poshest memoir scribbling bikers on the planet. Ewan and Charley
might get free Beemers and a full satellite supported film crew with them, but I
bet they don't scribble down road directions and phone numbers with Genuine
Replica Mont Blanc pens (20 Euro for the pair!)
KM START = 16,182
(Trip = 5,812 )
KM END = 16,575 (Trip
Hammamet > Kerouane > Gabes > Matmata
breakfast, an hour on the beach and its off in search of something interesting.
Which at this end of the country is like Egon Ronay writing his chapter on great
Dutch restaurants. Morocco was a land where Stevie Wonder could be the National
Graphic Landscape Photographer of the Year, but Tunisia is definitely a harder
nut to crack.
consists of gunning down straight featureless roads at 110 km/h, but the last 60
kilometres there is a sudden change and a roasting hot wind is trying
desperately to blow us sideways off the bike. Le Tigre and The Hassellhoff are
useless in these conditions - the heat is unbearable... like an atom caught in
in the crossfire of Dolly Parton and Tina Turner's hair dryers on Grammy night.
has also become interesting - space like, to the point of saying "like the
Set of Star Wars". Which is understandable, because this is actually where
George Lucas shot the first Star Wars film. Rolling bald hills of terracotta,
with occasional stretches of sand and the occasional palm tree. Our hotel for
the night in Matmata is a real hole, in that it's dug 20 feet underground and
all the rooms are caves. And to further stretch the Ewan / Star Wars connection,
the hotel is the same one where they shot the famous bar Scene in Star Wars. Now
for those of you who have not seen Star Wars IV (confusingly the first of the
Star Wars series produced), the bar scene is a famous piece of cinematic history
where our heroes share a drink in a cavern full of wookies, freight pilots and
other odd looking creatures. If you can't be bothered to rent it out and you
live near Brighton, just head on down to The Albert on any given Friday and
you'll get a good idea of what I'm talking about . Disappointingly there is no
Chewie or Luke in sight for our visit today.
KM START = 16,575
(Trip = 6,205 )
KM END = 16,834 (Trip
Matmata > Douz > Tozeur
The road out
of Matmata is a lovely 15km stretch of winding hill climb, and then we are on
the desert plains pointing toward our next destination, Tozeur. The ride today
is across the bottom of the country and across the great salt lake of Chott El
wind was unpleasant, then today is a battle to survive. Crossing the desert (cue
sand) and we estimate the gusts are reaching up to 90km/h. Riding a bike through
this is torture - if you would like to recreate the experience, then take your
ironing board down to your local wind tunnel, pour a semi trailer of ball
bearings in at the top end, and try to hold on to the board at the other end,
dressed only in your swimmers. The sand stings and fills the air, reducing
visibility down to 5 metres. And all the while we are fighting the wind, trying
to prevent it ripping the bikes from the grasp of our arms. This is one of the
But at the
sight of Chott El Jerid, all of Tunisia's shortcomings and disappointments are
forgiven. A seemingly endless stretch of white crusted surface, where the salt
has solidified like quartz crystals. The road cuts across the middle of this
lake 2 metres above either side, and in some patches a river runs alongside us,
a bizarre scarlet incision on the surface. The photos should do justice we hope.
Its where we
stop for a drink that a story of Tunisian heartache unfolds. Traffic is very
slow and its not tourist season, so the nice young lad who runs the shop tells
us about his girlfirend problems. Susannah Schmidt from Linz, Austria - you know
not the damage you cause! To cut a long story short, this guy in the middle of
nowhere has had his heart chewed up and spat out by a passing Austrian tourist.
Things were all going rosy but now she no longer sends him post cards or returns
his calls. He asks us to write a postcard to her explaining the situation (he's
100km from the nearest post office and cannot write in English or German) so
Pierpaolo and I play Motocross Cupid and write a real tear jerker for our new
friend with a promise to mail it when we get to Italy. If it works then next
time you visit Chott El Jerid, say hi to the guy with the souveneir stall and
fair skinned wife.
Tozeur, the gateway to the Tunisian Sahara, and after the Moroccan Sahara it's
all a bit of a non event. CRash for the night in a crumbling sweatbox of a room
- a bargain at only 8 Euros!
A quick snack
for the evening is an omelette sandwhich at the coffee shop around the corner.
We are promised that the omelette comes "with the lot" and there was
certainly no dispute as to the accuracy of that statement. Eggs, Cheese,
Peppers, Onions, throw some chicken in, hey those fries have been sitting there
for an hour, they can go...what's this can of tuna doing opened? In she
goes...you get the idea! A
challenging gastronomic melange of scents and sensations is a kind way of saying
a truly horrid meal.
KM START = 16,834
(Trip = 6,464 )
KM END = 17,313 (Trip
Tozeur > Gafsa > Thala > Le Kef > Tabarka
I'm in a World
War II Spitfire aircraft spiralling down towards the earth, the engine's flames
are licking the windshield and the heat is coming straight through the firewall
into the cockpit. Its sweltering, but the only thing I can focus on is the
paralysing wail of the Air Raid siren...
location, location" as the real estate mantra goes. Well we certainly got
this one right at least. The room may be a sauna, but at least its a convenient
10 metre trajectory to the town mosque's loudspeaker which today doubles as our
travel alarm clock. The term "rude awakening" comes to mind, but I
guess 8 Euros doesn't buy you a hotel on the Tozeur equivalent of Mayfair / Park
juice and a pastry before mounting our trusty steeds and heading North towards
the coast. The roads are fast and easy going, but short of memorable. The town
of Gafsa is however worth comment. Riding into this town and there is an armed
miltary checkpoint, followed by 2 separate police checkpoints... you get the
feeling that something strange is perhaps going on in this place. Hummers
passing us on the roads loaded with uniformed officers - then you ride over the
hill and look down upon the town that has a massive dual silo structure taking
up the whole of the Western escarpment, fenced off with handmade signs declaring
it part of the Tunisian State Electricity corporations facilities. Ha Ha! Maybe
I watched "Spies Like Us" a few too many times, but if ever there was
a poor attempt to conceal a nuclear missile bunker and launch site then this has
to be it! Thoughts of including Hans Blix on the travelpod updates come to mind.
300km into the
day and we have had our fill of Tunisia. We know there is a ferry every 2 nights
to Sicily and the idea of getting on it tonight are met with great enthusiasm.
But a phone call to the port reveals that the seas are too rough (read not
enough passengers to make it commercially viable) and this evenings sailing is
Oh well, stick
to the original plan and head up alongside the Algerian border to the coastal
town of Tabarka. This final 100km is actually interesting and enjoyable stuff to
ride - twisty mountain roads through cedar forests and even a spot of rain for a
bit of variety. First impresssions of the beach resort are not great - this
coastal jewel of Tunisia consists of a smelly port and a 50 metre stretch of
dirty sand, but a ride up to the fort overlooking town actually reveals a
slightly more impressive 1km stretch of beachfront on the other side. But it's
very North African and won't be featuring in any Abercrombie & Kent
brochures anytime soon.
Rest Day: Tabarka
The rest day that is
forced upon us as we wait for the next days ferry to Italy in anywhere BUT
Tunis. A chance to walk around the town and make some observations on this
1. Architecture and
Construction - from idea to realisation.
If you are a bodgy
handyman who failed the "Spice Rack 101" course and find IKEA
furniture a challenging DIY Project with variable results, then Tabarka is THE
place to come for your next holiday. A short stroll around the buildings of town
will fill you with a newly found confidence in your own abilities. Pierpaolo and
I fail to find one straight angle on any of the towns newly erected apartment
buildings, and the alleged cement holding it all together looks like what they
served us for dinner on the Tangier - Sete ferry, with similar cohesive
properties. Only this stuff is rusting days after being served. Labour is cheap
in Tunisia, and boy does it show.
2. Cafe Society and
the modern economy
Judging by the amount
of blokes sitting in cafes doing sod all but drinking tea, smoking tabs and
sucking on a hubbly bubbly then Tunisia is THE new cafe society, a burgeoning
economy where labour productivity is so high that most lads don't have to work
Well at least they're
not out labouring to destroy the coloective vision of the nation's architects.
The evening starts
off promising, as we share a sheesha pipe with some locals in an outdoor cafe.
They are two nice guys that are keen to practice their English, so we oblige and
spend an hour talking the usual rubbish with them. Then they have the idea to
head off to a local disco bar (the magic words!) so we pile into a taxi and head
3km out of town to one of the resort hotels. What unfolds is a sad tale of
Nightlife Lost in Translation. The happening disco bar has a decent DJ and some
good music coming out, but the only dance floor inhabitants are a pair of Mid
50's European women strutting on the dance floor with 4 very obliging local men
all at least 25 years their junior. Without passing judgement they have the
appearance of toy boys, and by their movements and the assessed seductive
abilities of their captors, you have to at least give the lads credit for being
professional and committed in their chosen career.
It's an easy decision
to pay for the beers and grab a taxi back to town with haste. But not before our
2 friends have tried the old "Can you give me 20 Euro to catch a taxi back
to my place?". They have already told us they are locals that live 5
minutes from the town centre! We drop them off at the cafe where we met them and
tell them to pedal home on the bikes they came in on.
I can already feel
the makings of a Blues song for this part of the trip - a simple 12-bar ditty
titled "Tunisia, I won't miss Ya".
KM START = 17,313
(Trip = 6,943)
KM END = 17,602 (Trip
Tabarka > Mateur > Sidi Bou Said
The ferry is
held up again? Arrggggghhhh, this country is holding us captive!!! Tonight's
planned crossing has been rescheduled to tomorrow morning, but rather than stay
in Tabarka we opt to head for Sidi Bou Said, a reputedly nice whitewashed town
just 10km from Tunis itself.
To spice it up
we take a few back roads and get a little bit lost in the hills around Mateur,
but the country is lovely and an indication on why these lands were referred to
as the bread basket of the Roman Empire. Rolling fields of golden wheat, and
endless stretches of orchard and erupting vegetable gardens.
get beeped at and brushed past by manic people giving us the thumbs up... is it
acceptable to reply with a single raised middle digit? Too late! Buy the ferry
tickets and head off to our night stop. Sidi Bou Said actually lives up to its
billing and is a good place to spend an evening. And the hotel is a waterfront
timewarp marvel! There's space for 500 odd guests and the decor is all
completely intact (or just tacky?!) early 1970's. Not to everyones taste even
then, but its fun to giggle at some of the features scattered liberally
throughout the building.
KM START = 17,602
(Trip = 7,232)
KM END = 17,614 (Trip
Sidi Bou Said > Tunis > Trapani (Italy)
A large luxy
ferry withan open deck to Sicily, and the chance for us to get our first
Its a short
day hop, with the only hiccup in the voyage being the dinner menu options on
board. The pizzettas we choose are, on analysis, a NASA developed polymer of
cardboard and styrofoam infused with the pungent stench of stale anchovie.
Inedible yet memorable!
Land in Trapani and we are surprised to find a very relaxed town with a friendly bustle of life in the air. Check into our hotel and head out for a pizza and a beer - truly magnificent after its predecessor! After 3 weeks of Northern Africa it feels good to be back on European soil, and we are happy to trade the infrequently lethal driving of the Tunisians for the frequently poor driving of the Sicilians.