From February 2010 until May 2010 Footside, an Australian travel legend, will be travelling through Canada, USA, England, Morocco, Tunisia and Malta. While representing Travelling Backflip on the road he will be sending back pictures and updates of his journey. Follow along as these exotic destinations should not be missed.

Final report from Footside as he finishes his trip on the Mediterranean island of Malta, late April 2010

Grand Harbour, Malta
Grand Harbour, Malta
Vittoriosa, Valletta, Malta
Vittoriosa, Valletta

Malta is one of those places that seem almost mythical, as if belonging to a different time. A small island, deep in the Mediterranean, once a stronghold of the Order of the Knights of St John, the same Order that occupied the equally monumental cities of Jerusalem and Rhodes. As such Malta has been vested with a rich history of European culture, to match its stunning and pristine natural environment. The centre piece of Malta is its diminutive capital, Valletta. Although being less than one square mile, Valletta boasts one of the finest harbours in Europe and a dense cobblestone historic town reminiscent of those found in southern Italy. The Grand Harbour, as is Valletta, is encased by a complete system of protective walls.

Senglea, Valletta, Malta
Senglea, Valletta

The neighbourhoods of Vittoriosa, Senglea and Rinella which lie on the southern edge of the Harbour are also fortified with huge stone outposts lording over the in-coming ships. These neighbourhoods also hold a wealth of historical buildings, churches and winding alleyways that are littered with small religious devotions and fine examples of Christian artwork. Valletta has also been gifted with a number of parks and vantage points from which to enjoy the Grand Harbour. Typically located on the northern edge they provide stunning panoramas of the opposing Fort St. Angelo and Vittoriosa marina. Valletta itself features an overload of churches, forts and historical points of interest. Those who enjoy the neck-cranking artisanship of the grand churches of Rome will enjoy the offerings of St Johns Cathedral.

Fort St Angelo, Valletta, Malta
Fort St Angelo, Valletta
Blue Grotto, Malta
Blue Grotto

Similarly the state-rooms within the Palace of the Grand Master again highlights an amazing mix of art, architecture and preserved medieval weaponry. Being such a small island, even the far reaches are easily accessible from Valletta. On the southern tip of the island, the towering white cliffs and the crystal blue Mediterranean sea form the famous 'Blue Grotto'. The windswept shores and eroded caverns are accessible through local fisherman who hire out their small row-boats. Only a few kilometres away are the temples of Hagar Qim. Touted as the oldest man made structures on earth, they are believed to pre-date the pyramids. Consisting of stone blocks with carvings that map the solar path, the scattered remains of these temples are a poor-man's version of England's Stonehenge.

Mdina Alley, Mdina, Malta
Mdina Alley

Their location however spectacular, makes them prone to weather damage and unfortunately authorities have covered the site with an enormous protective sail, disappointingly destroying the ambiance. Another easy day trip is the medieval walled town of Mdina. Situated in the centre of the island, Mdina is the highest point in the country, and allows views across the entire island. Again, blessed with a wealth of fine European architecture, the quiet town of Mdina consists of a network of winding alleys which reveal any number of restored churches, museums and statehouses. Due to the manageable size and provincial friendliness of the locals, Malta is one of the easiest and most enjoyable countries to visit. The country has everything from pristine breaches, to genuine top-line historical sites. Valletta and surrounding suburbs are a gold mine of culture and history, and combined with a unique harbour make it easily one of my favourite capital cities.

Vittoriosa Marina, Valletta, Malta
Vittoriosa Marina, Valletta
Marsamxett Harbour, Malta
Marsamxett Harbour
Fort St Angelo, Malta
Fort St Angelo
St Johns Cathedral, Malta
St Johns Cathedral
Vittoriosa, Malta
Vittoriosa
St Pauls Cathedral, Mdina, Malta
St Pauls Cathedral, Mdina
Blue Grotto, Malta
Blue Grotto
Grand Master Palace, Valletta, Malta
Grand Master Palace, Valletta
Senglea Alley, Malta
Senglea Alley
Valletta Port, Malta
Valletta Port
Central Malta, Malta
Central Malta
Valletta at night, Malta
Valletta at night
Vittoriosa Marina, Malta
Vittoriosa Marina
Fort St Angelo, Malta
Fort St Angelo
Grand Harbour vantage point, Malta
Grand Harbour vantage point
Grand Master Palace, Malta
Grand Master Palace
Marsamxett Harbour, Malta
Marsamxett Harbour
Mdina Gate, Malta
Mdina Gate
Mdina Old Town, Malta
Mdina Old Town
Valletta, Malta
Valletta
Valletta, Malta
Valletta
Northern Valletta Harbour, Malta
Northern Valletta Harbour
Senglea, Valletta, Malta
Senglea, Valletta
St Johns Cathedral, Malta
St Johns Cathedral
St Pauls Cathedral, Mdina, Malta
St Pauls Cathedral, Mdina
Valletta Walls, Malta
Valletta Walls
Vittoriosa, Malta
Vittoriosa
Blue Grotto, Malta
Blue Grotto
Mdina Alley, Malta
Mdina Alley
Fort St Elmo, Malta
Fort St Elmo, Malta

Report on the Islamic city of Kairouan, Tunisia, late April 2010

Great Mosque, Kairouan Tunisia
Great Mosque

Having attained the rank of Islam's fourth holiest city, due to the presence of the Great Mosque, I had been informed that Kairouan was one of the few Tunisian towns which had been immune from the tourist hordes and retained it's identity. The town was billed as a treasure trove of Islamic art, architecture and authenticity. The centre piece being the Great Mosque which unlike others in the country was open to non-muslims for a fee. Now, before becoming too excited by this act of inter-faith benevolence, admission only granted entry to the courtyard of the Mosque. This was nothing more than a large cobble stone area, hemmed in by rectangular walls supported by a network of arches. A slight glimpse was permitted of the interior of the mosque, however I must confess there was a patent absence of the craftsmanship I had seen elsewhere. A little disappointed I continued beyond the medina to the cistern complex to the north.

Kairouan Medina, Kairouan Tunisia
Kairouan Medina

A place where royalty would come to avoid the summer heat, the current state of the complex is poor. The area consists of nothing more than some large stone pools of water. There is literally nothing else in the vicinity, and the large pools are hardly capable of holding one's attention. The Kairouan medina is the one redeeming feature of Kairouan. Like all others, it is hemmed in by imposing walls and the labyrinthine of streets allow for some great  discoveries of age-old Islamic art. Original doorways and traditional facades are literally at each corner, and although I had seen countless examples before, I found Kairouan to have the most aesthetically pleasing. Kairouan is a quite place, and come sun set and the reverberating call to prayer, the city descends into a peaceful and respectful hush. The sites were certainly a let down, and although the medina was a pleasant surprise, any traveller who has seen previous examples could be excused for giving the city a miss.

Great Mosque, Kairouan Tunisia
Great Mosque
Great Mosque, Kairouan Tunisia
Great Mosque
Medina, Kairouan Tunisia
Medina
Great Mosque, Kairouan Tunisia
Great Mosque
Cisterns, Kairouan Tunisia
Cisterns
Great Mosque, Kairouan Tunisia
Great Mosque
Medina, Kairouan Tunisia
Medina
 

Report on Sousse and Monastir, Mediterranean coast of Tunisia, late April 2010

Monastir Beach, Monastir Tunisia
Monastir Beach

The east coast of Tunisia is the package tourism heartland of the country. Catering to sun starved europeans, the spotlessly clean streets and manicured sights provide a welcome distraction to the otherwise beer and beach focus. The twin cities of Sousse and Monastir are only 30 minutes apart, and being the primary resort towns of the area, have all the hotels, bars and beach chairs you could possibly want. Having said that, both destinations offer a decent choice of attractions, though most have been sanitized and photogenically restored for the benefit of holiday makers wanting a quick cultural experience in between beach time.

Sousse Mosque and Walls, Sousse Tunisia
Sousse Mosque and Walls

The medina of Sousse is one of the best in the country and certainly the most authentic site in the region. Relatively untouched, the maze of sprawling white washed homes are encased by enormous stone walls. The main gates open up to the Place de Martyrs, which is the epicentre of the medina. All manner of shops and food stalls are dwarfed by the formidable fort-like mosque to the west and the ribat (fortress) to the north. The mosque is closed to non-muslims, however the walls and towers of the ribat can be climbed for a great few over the main square and mosque.

Sousse Medina from the Sousse Kasbah, Sousse Tunisia
Sousse Medina viewed from the Sousse Kasbah
Sousse Kasbah, Sousse Tunisia
Sousse Kasbah

In the far corner of the medina lies the Sousse Kasbah. Apart from a fantastic museum, the inside of the kasbah is quite bare. However the highlight is climbing the main turret which towers over the medina. Now used as a lighthouse the turret is the highest point in the entire city and provides sweeping views across the medina and over the harbour and ocean. The medina of Monastir is absolute rubbish compared to that of Sousse, however it does make up for this with a stunningly positioned ribat.

Monastir Ribat, Monastir Tunisia
Monastir Ribat

Right on the shores of the beach, this islamic fort rises virtually from the sand and provides a great backdrop for the thousands of beach goers and swimmers. Monastir also boasts a scenic harbour and a fine example of islamic architecture in it's mausoleum. Though as with Sousse, there is no doubt that the beach and sun are the main drawcards of this town. Both towns are very understated and relaxed, perhaps in summer the atmosphere changes with the overload of tourists, but in off season it's a great spot to slow the pace and enjoy at one's leisure

Monastir Harbour, Tunisia
Monastir Harbour
Habib Bourguiba Mausoleum Monastir, Tunisia
Habib Bourguiba Mausoleum Monastir
Sousse Medina, Tunisia
Sousse Medina
Monastir Ribat, Tunisia
Monastir Ribat
Monastir Ribat Chambers, Tunisia
Monastir Ribat Chambers
Monastir Ribat, Tunisia
Monastir Ribat
Monastir Beach, Tunisia
Monastir Beach
Monastir Ribat, Tunisia
Monastir Ribat
Sousse Beach, Tunisia
Sousse Beach
Sousse Kasbah, Tunisia
Sousse Kasbah
Sousse Mosque and Walls, Tunisia
Sousse Mosque and Walls
Sousse Walls, Tunisia
Sousse Walls
Sousse Ribat, Tunisia
Sousse Ribat
Place de Martyrs Sousse, Tunisia
Place de Martyrs Sousse
 
 

Report on El Jem, possibly the finest Roman ruins south of Rome, east coast Tunisia, late April 2010

El Jem Roman Colosseum, Tunisia
El Jem Roman Colosseum
Republic Boulevarde Sfax, Tunisia
Republic Boulevarde, Sfax

Cutting across the centre of the country towards the eastern coastline I arrived at Tunisia's second largest city of Sfax. Essentially a smaller version of Tunis, at its heart is a walled medina with the usual ornamental gates that link it to the new town. I found the Sfax medina to be the most authentic in Tunisia, with the covered areas, winding cobblestone paths, cart vendors and general hustle which I have come to expect. The new town is slightly more run-down than Tunis and has very little in the way of tourist attractions. The pedestrianized Republic Boulevard, is the one exception in an otherwise mundane city. Its colonial lamps, white tiling and cafe culture make for a picturesque setting.

Colosseum, El Jem, Tunisia
Colosseum

Perhaps the biggest draw card of Sfax is that it shares a convenient train line with El Jem, whose Colosseum is widely considered the jewel of Tunisian tourism and the greatest Roman artifact anywhere in North Africa. First chance I had, I was headed straight there. Even before the train had stopped, I was struck by the surreal sight outside my window. I certainly didn't need a sign to tell me I had arrived at El Jem. All I could see was this enormous stone stadium, seemingly jutting out of the ground straight towards the heavens, towering over a dwarfed modern city.

Grand Arch, El Jem, Tunisia
Grand Arch

I just couldn't get over how out of place it looked. It's not as though the Colosseum lies on the fringes of the town, it is literally right in the centre. Its monstrous arches casting shadows across the city skyline, and yet for the locals it's all completely normal. Entering through the well preserved southern wall then veering into the Grand Arch, your perspective is suddenly blown away by three and four stories of near vertical archways. Amazingly, access through the interior levels of the Colosseum is relatively unrestricted. And those that don't suffer from vertigo are free to scramble along the outside of the structure as they see fit.

Inside the Colosseum, El Jem, Tunisia
Inside the Colosseum, El Jem
Colosseum Corridors, El Jem, Tunisia
Colosseum Corridors

Obviously the top levels provide unparalleled views of the arena and the restored northern amphitheatre. However, it is also possible to inspect the tunnels and chambers that run beneath the arena. A network that was used to facilitate the supply of human and animal combatants to the bloodthirsty crowd. The scale of the Colosseum is massive in every respect, and this is only enhanced in the afternoon as the bus loads of tourists move on. By early afternoon, I more or less had the entire place to myself.

I am relieved to say, my high expectations of El Jem were not only matched but exceeded. Well deserving of it's status as Tunisia's number one attraction, in my opinion one of the greatest Roman ruins in the Mediterranean. Quite possibly the most impressive anywhere south of Rome itself, but admittedly that is a big call. 

El Jem, Tunisia
El Jem, Tunisia
El Jem, Tunisia
El Jem, Tunisia
El Jem, Tunisia
El Jem, Tunisia
El Jem, Tunisia
El Jem, Tunisia
El Jem, Tunisia
El Jem, Tunisia
El Jem, Tunisia
El Jem, Tunisia
El Jem, Tunisia
Sfax, Tunisia
Sfax, Tunisia
Sfax, Tunisia

Report on Sufetula in central Tunisia, mid April 2010

Temple Complex, Sufetula, Tunisia
Temple Complex

Right in the centre of Tunisia, in the absolute middle of nowhere stands the remains of the Roman settlement of Sufetula. The ruins lie on a major east-west highway and it is little wonder that most people choose to visit the site on the way to somewhere else, rather than stay in the neighbouring village. Again, not the most appealing of modern towns, its frontier ambience was only enhanced as a giant dust storm swept in from the dry plains leaving an eerie silence in its wake. Still, for easy access to Sufetula, there is no better option. Which is just as well as I hunkered down and waited for the dust to settle.

Antonine Gate and Market Ruins, Sufetula, Tunisia
Antonine Gate and Market Ruins

It was not until the following morning that the sky cleared and I made the quick 2 kilometre walk to Sufetula. To the surprise of the guardian, I arrived right on opening time. I got the feeling that the usual bus loads of organized day trippers didn't quite make it out this early. The bonus was that the site was absolutely deserted, and it was only some two hours later that I saw the first other visitors trickle in. Early morning is without a doubt the premier time to explore Sufetula. The eastward facing temples glow with the rising sun and the long shadows slowly subside into perfect blue sky.

Temple Complex, Sufetula, Tunisia
Temple Complex
Temple of Minerva, Sufetula, Tunisia
Temple of Minerva

Above all, there is the perfect vista of the mighty temples propped up over the lonely pillared ruins, that really cements a feeling of remote isolation. The centre-piece of Sufetula is the temple complex devoted to the gods of Jupiter, Juno and Minerva. Well preserved due to the protection of the surrounding wall, the complex and associated forum is accessed through the triple arched Antonine Gate. These constructions dominate the otherwise flat landscape and can be seen from all parts of the site. With the temples and forum at the heart of the city, the remaining ruins spread out.

Bath Ruins, Sufetula, Tunisia
Bath Ruins

Directly to the east of the Antonine Gate are the low lying remains of the markets. Slightly further and you come across an artificially restored theatre. Apparently the theatre is used in the summer for performances and unfortunately there is a little too much fresh concrete and exposed wiring for any authenticity. Still it gives great views over the plains to the east. South of the site are some exceptional bath ruins. Intricate mosaics laid down among decapitated pillars are all overlooking the forum and temple complex.

Antonine Gate, Sufetula, Tunisia
Antonine Gate

Further south is the giant Arch of Diocletian. This towering block was the gateway to the city and still remains an imposing sight. The north of the city consist of further foundations and pathways, but quite justifiably I was always drawn back to the forum and temple complex. These are massive structures and still impressive even by today's standards. Often considered 'number three' in the rankings of Tunisian archaeological sites, Sufetula still makes a formidable comparison. Certainly aided by the lack of tour buses which consume Dougga, the whole desert ruin  ambience of Sufetula is appealing. In my opinion, while narrowly subordinate to Dougga, it is still a 'must see' of Tunisia.

Sufetula Forum, Sufetula, Tunisia
Sufetula Forum
Theatre, Sufetula, Tunisia
Theatre
Minerva and Jupiter Temples, Sufetula, Tunisia
Minerva and Jupiter Temples
Temple Complex, Sufetula, Tunisia
Temple Complex
Stone Tablet, Sufetula, Tunisia
Stone Tablet
Antonine Gate, Sufetula, Tunisia
Antonine Gate
Antonine Gate and Market Ruins, Sufetula, Tunisia
Antonine Gate and Market Ruins
Arch of Diocletian, Sufetula, Tunisia
Arch of Diocletian
Bath Ruins, Sufetula, Tunisia
Bath Ruins
Central Sufetula, Sufetula, Tunisia
Central Sufetula
Sufetula Ruins, Sufetula, Tunisia
Sufetula Ruins
Temple of Minerva, Sufetula, Tunisia
Temple of Minerva
Forum, Sufetula, Tunisia
Forum

Report on Le Kef and Maktaris, central Tunisia, mid April 2010

Le Kef, Tunisia
Le Kef

Nothing more than a midway stop between Dougga and Sbeitla further south, Le Kef was chosen more because it was a useful springboard to the Roman city of Maktaris, about 1 hour away. I was quite surprised when the township of Le Kef turned out to be quite a nice little spot. Arriving by bus my attention was firmly on the impressive Kasbah which dominated the skyline. Unfortunately the Kasbah was closed due to renovations but it was possible to walk around the edges and get great views of the town.

Roman Stable, Le Kef, Tunisia
Roman Stable, Le Kef

Within the town there are two minor ruins sites, a Roman bath complex and some neighbouring stables. Both are tucked right in the centre of the action and it was bizarre to be walking down the main road one moment then standing beneath an 1800 year old arch the next. It's refreshing that Le Kef is so far off the tourist radar that both these sites were not even ticketed and I was free to wander as I pleased. A rare occurrence indeed.

Trajan Arch, Maktaris, Tunisia
Trajan Arch, Maktaris

The following day I caught a shared taxi to without a doubt the most derelict town I have ever encountered. This dusty, litter filled dump is not only the home to an outrageous amount of drunks, but also the site of the Roman city of Maktaris. Boasting a pretty impressive Trajan Arch and a well preserved Grand Bath system the ruins of Maktaris were unfortunately overshadowed by massive storm clouds which fostered the general feeling of despair in this dilapidated town.

Statue Garden, Maktaris, Tunisia
Statue Garden, Maktaris

The site of Maktaris is certainly nothing special, apart from the Arch and Baths the remainder of the site consists of low lying foundations and a few simple columns and walls. In fact the best part of Maktaris was the museum garden which featured an array of statues and mosaics, all in great condition. Having invested a very generous 2 hours of my time struggling to find merit in Maktaris I returned to the taxi station to wait for onward transport. Literally four hours later, I finally had my back to Maktaris and was thinking of nothing more than my sweet little refuge of Le Kef.

Le Kef, Tunisia
Le Kef

Unfortunately for those without the luxury of private transportation, it just simply is not worth going to Maktaris. You have to either get very lucky with local transport or expect to spend the majority of the day there. And considering the quality of the ruins, again, it would take a die-hard Roman enthusiast to get any real appreciation. On the other hand, Le kef was like a saviour. Not only did it have its fair share of sites, the town was laid back, small, manageable and had all the amenities a traveller could ask for. It was a perfect destination to spend a couple of days after a fairly hectic schedule of constant travel and one night stops.

Basilica Ruins, Maktaris,Tunisia
Basilica Ruins, Maktaris
Forum, Maktaris, Tunisia
Forum, Maktaris
Grand Baths, Maktaris, Tunisia
Grand Baths, Maktaris
Le Kef, Tunisia
Le Kef
Le Kef, Tunisia
Le Kef
Le Kef Kasbah, Tunisia
Le Kef Kasbah
Mosaic, Maktaris, Tunisia
Mosaic, Maktaris
Maktaris, Tunisia
Maktaris
Roman Baths, Le Kef, Tunisia
Roman Baths, Le Kef
Roman Stables, Le Kef, Tunisia
Roman Stables, Le Kef
Statue Garden, Maktaris, Tunisia
Statue Garden, Maktaris
Trajan Arch, Maktaris, Tunisia
Trajan Arch, Maktaris

Report on the Roman city of Dougga, central Tunisia, mid April 2010

Dougga Columns, Dougga Tunisia
Dougga Columns

Billed as the number one tourist destination outside of the legendary coliseum of El-Jem, Dougga certainly commands a high level of expectation. Arriving in the dusty and near-prehistoric village of Terboursouk, it was hard to imagine that only 8 kilometres away were the ruins of one of the most prosperous cities in the Roman Empire.  After swearing to every taxi driver that I would rather walk than pay their extortionate fees, I eventually found a man of reason and within 10 minutes the car had turned the last bend in the serpentine path that traverses the hillside to Dougga.

Big Theatre, Dougga Tunisia
Big Theatre

And wow, what a moment. All of a sudden it was as if the hills had parted and the ruins of the ancient city of Dougga lay exposed. All manner of stone construction seemingly cascading down the entire height of the hillside.  Just past the ticket gate I was drawn to the 3,500 capacity theatre, whose 19 tiers are dug into the side of the earth. Perched over the adjacent valley it is easy to see why some people have described Dougga as "the Roman city with a view".

Capitol, Dougga Tunisia
Capitol

Continuing up and behind the theatre reveals the Temple of Saturn. These lonely pillars survey the vast plains to the east of the city and are in stark contrast to the congested ruins of the city-proper. Right in the midst of this congestion, lies the big and bold centre-piece of Dougga, the Capitol and Forum. Consistent with Roman design, these two constructions dominate the landscape. The monstrous Capitol with 10 metre walls and mighty columns lord over the entire city, its red stone visible from every point on the site. 

Capitol overlooking Dougga, Tunisia
Capitol overlooking Dougga

The forum, sits in a perfect position. Almost as if purpose built as a viewing platform for the valleys and hills beneath. There are also a few broken statues and pillars which suggest the importance of this area. The remainder of the site is a maze of ruins. Just stumbling around I came across additional Temples, subordinate theatres, baths, housing and all types of arches and colonnades. With every new find I noticed myself admiring the exceptional backdrop as much as the architecture itself. Dougga certainly lived up to expectations, the ruins themselves are not only epic but well preserved, all with an unrivalled panoramic landscape.

Dougga Theatre, Dougga, Tunisia
Dougga Theatre

I enjoyed Dougga so much that I actually visited the site a second time - something that I rarely do. It was a 1 hour flying visit right on opening. Just enough time to sit atop the theatre and take in the crisp morning air. Perfect and certainly the highlight of my time in Tunisia so far.

3,500 Capacity Theatre, Dougga Tunisia
3,500 Capacity Theatre
Temple of Saturn, Dougga Tunisia
Temple of Saturn
Big Theatre, Dougga Tunisia
Big Theatre
Dougga Site, Dougga Tunisia
Dougga Site
Forum, Dougga Tunisia
Forum
Bath Ruins, Dougga Tunisia
Bath Ruins
Southern Plain, Dougga Tunisia
Southern Plain
Dougga Colonnades, Dougga Tunisia
Dougga Colonnades
Capitol, Dougga Tunisia
Capitol
Capitol, Dougga Tunisia
Capitol
Columns, Dougga Tunisia
Columns
Big Theatre, Dougga Tunisia
Big Theatre
Dougga Site, Dougga Tunisia
Dougga Site
Small Theatre, Dougga Tunisia
Small Theatre
Temple of Juno, Dougga Tunisia
Temple of Juno
Big Theatre, Dougga Tunisia
Big Theatre

Report on Bulla Regia, central Tunisia, early April 2010

Heading towards the centre of the country, Tunisia reveals itself as a land of the once mighty Roman Empire. Only three hours from Tunis, the dusty town of Jendouba provides the springboard for the nearby Roman site of Bulla Regia. Founded amongst the vibrantly fertile plains of the region, the city was attributed royal status, hence the name 'regia'. Thankfully today, the site is still surrounded by farm land and vacant countryside. The oven-like heat and desolate silence of the country's interior adding to the authenticity.

Bulla Regia is famed for its underground villas. Purpose built to combat the summer heat, these subterranean quarters contained all the comforts of Roman life. Three of the villas are open for inspection, with the premier House of Amphitrite featuring a well preserved mosaic. With the pre-summer heat already testing me, it was amazing to see the difference in temperature when underground. Only a select few of the villas are embedded underground, with the majority of the town living above ground. Unfortunately there is very little evidence of this, as only the grid-like foundations, paths and some pillars remain.  

Bulla Regia, central Tunisia
Bulla Regia, central Tunisia

A small theatre to the east has been partially restored, however consisting of only a few rows of benches it is relatively unimpressive. A multi-storey bath house to the south of the site gives an insight into why this town was given royal designation. This massive elevated structure featured a catacomb network beneath, in which slaves would work to regulate the temperature and volume of the baths. As a quick and cheap taxi ride from the centre of Jendouba, Bulla Regia is a fantastic half-day trip and a great introduction to the Roman cities further south. Many people have stated their disappointment with the 'lack of substance' or structure with Bulla Regia. Certainly the site is basic, but personally the main drawcard was the surrounding landscape and peaceful isolation.

Underground Villa, Bulla Regia, Tunisia
Underground Villa
Underground Villa, Bulla Regia, Tunisia
Underground Villa
Memmian Baths, Bulla Regia, Tunisia
Memmian Baths
House of Amphitrite Mosaic, Bulla Regia, Tunisia
House of Amphitrite Mosaic
Memmian Baths, Bulla Regia, Tunisia
Memmian Baths
Bulla Regia city foundations, Tunisia
Bulla Regia city foundations
Bulla Regia city foundations, Tunisia
Bulla Regia city foundations
Bulla Regia remains, Tunisia
Bulla Regia remains
Memmian Baths, Tunisia
Memmian Baths
Bulla Regia Theatre, Tunisia
Bulla Regia Theatre
 
 

Report on Tunis, the capital of Tunisia in North Africa, Early April 2010

Tunis, Tunisia
Tunis

For a city with such a provincial feel, it's hard to believe that 90% of the population of Tunisia lives within the boundaries of its capital, Tunis. The relaxed nature of the capital is a refreshing change, where protruding minarets dominate a city skyline unblighted by high rise concrete. At ground level it's easy to see the French colonial influences. Long tree lined boulevards encased with white-washed European facades are the preserves of cafes, patisseries and coffee houses alike.

Tunis Medina, Tunisia
Tunis Medina

A small medina lies to the west, the typical enclosed alleys pulse with activity as vendors vie for the attention of passing patrons. Though as night approaches and the souqs are boarded up, the medina is left eerily desolate. At the northern tip of Tunis lies the remains of the ancient city of Carthage. This near-mythical outpost was a stronghold of the Phoenicians and its inter-generational battles with the Romans were legendary. Having seen what remains of Carthage though, it is clear that the Romans were ruthless victors. Further destroyed by the Vandals upon the withdrawal of Rome, very little is left of this once great city.

Byrsa Hill, Carthage, Tunis, Tunisia
Byrsa Hill, Carthage

The entire Carthage site covers a huge area and easily takes the best part of a day to cover. While there are some highlights, particularly Byrsa Hill, an elevated forum with a stone platform which overlooks the Mediterranean Sea. The bulk of the ruins consist of low lying foundations and broken remains. It seems that the destruction of Carthage was so complete, that archaeologists have been unable to piece together what they have found. Most of the sites are strewn with a collection of shattered pillars and partial mosaics. Nobody seems to quite know what to do with them. The best remains from Carthage however, do not lie within its ancient boundaries. The Bardo Museum, located back within Tunis, houses the finest selection of Roman art taken from all the sites of Tunisia, not just Carthage.

Bardo Museum, Tunis, Tunisia
Bardo Museum

The Bardo Museum is without a doubt the premier museum within Tunisia, it boasts an exceptional catalogue of Roman art. Sculptures, statues and mosaics are justifiably the pride of this gallery and make a visit an absolute must. Having seen the displays within the Bardo, I could not wait to venture into the interior of Tunisia, knowing full well that the region was a gold mine of Roman history. With a somewhat limited time frame, I will concentrate on the three universally accepted jewels of Roman Tunisian architecture - Dougga, Sbeitla and El-Jem. Though obviously, with a landscape peppered with ancient settlements I am sure to come across alot more.

Bardo Museum, Tunisia
Bardo Museum
Carthage Villas, Tunisia
Carthage Villas
Ave de France, Tunisia
Ave de France
Tunis, Tunisia
Tunis
Carthage, Tunisia
Carthage
Cathedral St Vincent de Paul, Tunisia
Cathedral St Vincent de Paul
Carthage, Tunisia
Carthage
Mosiac Stockpile, Tunisia
Mosiac Stockpile
Bardo Museum, Tunisia
Bardo Museum
Byrsa Hill, Carthage, Tunisia
Byrsa Hill, Carthage
Tunis Medina, Tunisia
Tunis Medina
 

Report on Casablanca, Morocco's largest city, Early April 2010

All throughout my travels in Morocco I have spoken to people who have transited through Casablanca. A fairly common theme expressed by these people is that Casablanca is just a big city with little of interest and no appeal. In fact one person I met told me he was robbed twice whilst in Casablanca! My only lure to Casablanca was the international airport and my flight to Tunisia. With that in mind, Casablanca was nothing more than the 12 hours of my life prior to my flight.

The one and only draw for Casablanca is the monumental Hassan II mosque. With a capacity of 30,000 worshipers this epic construction sits upon a rocky outpost on the Atlantic. It is quite surreal that from certain perspectives the Mosque appears like an island in the sea. Enormous vaulted gates facilitate the free-flow of pilgrims and tourists alike, who are truly dwarfed in size. Unfortunately during my one-day visit the Mosque was in a state of preparation and closed to the public. The Hassan II mosque is one of the very few in Morocco that is open to non-muslims and apparently the interior is a sight of pure artistry.

At night the Mosque is so brightly lit up it acts as a lighthouse, and a green lazer beam points from the minaret towards Mecca. I can see the point of view from all those people I spoke to, Casablanca is just a big city. And when compared to other destinations in Morocco it certainly appears that there is little to attract a lengthy stay. Ironically the absence of any sites afforded me the time to sit and relax. Certainly one of the more novel experiences was being the only foreigner in a packed Moroccan tea house. Anyway, with the 12 hours of Casablanca more than sufficient my next destination is the capital of Tunisia, the creatively named Tunis.

Report on Fez and Meknes in the mountains of Morocco, Early April 2010

Meknes Medina

The Imperial cities of Meknes and Fez, although only separated by 30 minutes worth of train tracks, are almost a world apart. Both are huge sprawling cities, but while Meknes is concreted suburbia clinging to its past, Fez is a mud-brick metropolis with no interest in modernising. Although Meknes was the seat of power for the legendary Moroccan ruler Moulay Ismail and was subsequently endowed with a formidable perimeter of protective walls, there are disappointingly few historical sites of interest in the city. 

Bab El-Mansour, Meknes

The premier attraction, Bab El-Mansour, is an enormous gateway to the southern part of the Medina. More reminiscent of the grand arches of Central Asia, the fine detail and colouring -although somewhat faded- comes to life in the afternoon sun. A few hundred meters behind the gate lies the mausoleum of Moulay Ismail. The tiled entry leads through a series of chambers to the tomb itself. The simple fountain in the centre is in stark contrast to the intensely detailed woodcarvings and tiled mosaics that line the room.

Mausoleum of Moulay Ismail, Meknes

The northern section of the medina is typically uninspiring and quite standard when compared to others. As with most medinas in Morocco, the cobble stone alleys wind their way unpredictably through a repetition of small shop fronts and laneways. Traditionally the medina was the lifeblood of a settlement, with heaving souqs and markets trading all of life’s essentials. Unfortunately in Meknes and most other medinas, these elements have given way to a tiresome overkill of multi-lingual schemers whose sole purpose is to offload extortionately priced trash to the unrelenting swell of tourists that funnel through. Of course, there are small pockets of peace and authenticity, just don't expect to find them easily.

With most mosques closed to non-muslims, the only other sources of interest within the medina are the religious schools or Medersas. The Bou Inania Medersa is one of the oldest in Meknes, though unfortunately only the front courtyard is open to the public, which again features a small fountain and extensive tile work.

Fez Medina and City
Central Gate, Fez

The medina of Fez suffers from precisely the same shortcomings as Meknes. The laneways are at times a torturous labyrinth, the mosques are closed and the medersas afford limited access. The main difference between the two however, is that the medina of Fez is simply massive. It is guaranteed that you will get hopelessly lost within Fez. So you have the choice of hiring a local guide (which I regret not doing) or just keep on walking until hopefully you reach the outer limits and the medina walls. The walls are pierced by a number of huge domed gates, standing from the outside and looking in, their confines appear like portals in a time warp.

Tanneries, Fez

The best-known sight and smell for that matter within Fez are the famed tanneries. In what must be one of the world's toughest jobs, men work waist deep in huge vats of dye, tanning various animal skins, which are tailored into leather products. The smell of the dye as it simmers beneath the hot sun is indescribably foul and can be smelt from beyond the medina walls.

Fez Medina

If the immensity of the Fez medina starts to become an irritation (as it did to me), one of the best ways to appreciate its epic size is to head for an elevated viewing point outside the city. Borj Sud is a hill on the southern tip of the medina and provides a stunning panorama of the old town sprawling across the green valley. It is from this perspective that you really grasp how ancient and densely populated the medina is.
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Having spent countless hours and walked far too many kilometers through the old towns of both cities, I am happy to have my days of medina wandering behind me. They offer an interesting insight into life centuries ago; just make sure you have your patience shoes on. Some very comfortable patience shoes at that.
Final stop in Morocco is Casablanca before I fly out to Tunisia.

Palace Gates, Fez, Morocco
Palace Gates, Fez
Northern Gates, Meknes, Morocco
Northern Gates, Meknes
Bou Inania Medersa, Meknes, Morocco
Bou Inania Medersa, Meknes
Bab El-Mansour, Meknes, Morocco
Bab El-Mansour, Meknes
Tanneries, Fez, Morocco
Tanneries, Fez
Bab El-Mansour, Meknes, Morocco
Bab El-Mansour, Meknes
Fez Walls, Morocco
Fez Walls
Bab Semmarine, Fez, Morocco
Bab Semmarine, Fez
Bagdadhi Gate, Fez, Morocco
Bagdadhi Gate, Fez
Bou Inania Medersa, Meknes, Morocco
Bou Inania Medersa, Meknes
Fez Medina, Morocco
Fez Medina
Fez Medina, Morocco
Fez Medina
Bab El-Mansour, Meknes, Morocco
Bab El-Mansour, Meknes
Mausoleum of Moulay Ismail, Meknes, Morocco
Mausoleum of Moulay Ismail, Meknes
Tanneries, Fez, Morocco
Tanneries, Fez
Tanneries, Fez, Morocco
Tanneries, Fez
Central Gate, Fez, Morocco
Central Gate, Fez
Meknes Medina, Morocco
Meknes Medina
Mausoleum of Moulay Ismail, Meknes, Morocco
Mausoleum of Moulay Ismail, Meknes
Medersa as-Saffarine, Fez, Morocco
Medersa as-Saffarine, Fez
Fez Tanneries, Morocco
Fez Tanneries

Report on Moulay Idriss and the ruins of Volubilis in the mountains of Morocco, Early April 2010

Moulay Idriss, Morocco
Moulay Idriss

Only 20 minutes from Meknes, the whitewashed town of Moulay Idriss proudly looks down upon a vast green landscape of rich plains and rolling hills. Until the mid 20th Century it was forbidden for non-muslims to stay overnight in this religious settlement. Home to the mausoleum of its namesake, Moulay Idriss was the great grandson of the Prophet Mohammed. There is a certain air of purity and serenity here: the town sits atop a glorious hilltop, with fresh white housing offsetting the clean blue sky above.

Volubilis Basilica, Morocco
Volubilis Basilica

Unfortunately the mausoleum remains closed to non-muslims, who are only afforded a narrow peak of the entrance via the approaching alley. A pleasant 4 kilometer walk back down the hillside not only enables a stunning panoramic of a sundrenched Moulay Idriss, but just happens to be the location of the ruined Roman city of Volubilis. The term 'ruin' is certainly adept, however it is by no means intended as a derogatory description.

Volubilis Ruins at Sunset, Morocco
Volubilis Ruins at Sunset
Volubilis Roman Mosiac, Morocco
Volubilis Roman Mosiac

The majority of the site is rubble, with only the foundations remaining. Even so, the general layout of the city is obvious and some well preserved mosaics have been unearthed. Portions of the main colonnade are still standing; however the centre piece is without doubt the basilica.  The adjacent Capitol, originally dedicated to Jupiter, consists of a stepped platform with columns, topped with nesting storks.

Volubilis Triumphal Roman Arch, Morocco
Volubilis Triumphal Roman Arch

To the north stands the solidly built Triumphal Arch which provided the gateway to the city. Volubilis attracts few tourists, and outside of popular tour bus times, the site stands as peacefully isolated as Moulay Idriss.  Whilst basic compared to other Roman ruins, the spectacular backdrop of fertile hills and deep sunsets gives Volubilis the aura of an abandoned outpost. Though an easy day trip from Meknes, Moulay Idriss is best appreciated without time constraints and is highly recommended as a destination in and of itself.

Report on El Jadida on the Atlantic Coast of Morocco, Late March 2010

5 hours north along the coast sits the small town of El-Jadida. With its sweeping beaches and Portuguese influenced citadel it was easy to draw comparisons with Essaouira. No doubt this unfair expectation was the root of my initial dissapointment. Much smaller than Essaouria, the Portuguese built fort was constructed around a maze of alleys which still retain a very cosmopolitan ambience. Most striking was the close proximity of both European inspired churches and traditional mosques. Listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site, I was shocked to see the citadel's state of disrepair.

Whilst the walls and ramparts remained accessible and in good condition, the outside was littered with rubbish, debris and graffiti. In addition some of the buildings within the walls were crumbling and obviously abandoned. Clearly the citadel of El-Jadida does not receive the funding or attention of Essaouira, and in that sense the lack of investment has preserved the integrity of the site. Walking along the walls is a pleasant experience and provides some great views of the Atlantic and neighbouring shipyard. Although early illusions of a second Essaouria were quickly dispelled, El-Jadida remains a quiet and simple town. A perfect point to break the long journey north.
Next stop Fez and Meknes

 

Report on Essaouira on the Atlantic Coast of Morocco, Late March 2010

Essaouira Median Morocco
Essaouira Median Morocco

With the dust and hassle of Marrakesh to my back, I followed the clear blue sky west to the Atlantic Ocean and the small fishing town of Essaouira. Rightly seen as one of Morocco's premier tourist destinations, Essaouira boasts long stretches of uninterrupted surf beach, a photogenic blend of french era fortifications and understated white-washed facades. The medina, perched right on the rocks of the Atlantic is completely enclosed by a series of walls and turrets.

The western walls feature a number of restored colonial cannons, and provides a spectacular platform for viewing an oceanic sunset. The whole tone of Essaouira is refreshingly low-key, with days easily spent reading newspapers and drinking coffee by the beach. During late afternoon, there is a buzz of activity as huge swarms of seaguls follow the returning fishing trawlers into port. The fisherman then lay out their catch under gas powered lights, which can then be taken to nearby stands and freshly grilled for a small fee. A perfect way to finish the day.

Next stop is El Jadida

Essaouira, Morocco
Essaouira, Morocco
Essaouira, Morocco
Essaouira, Morocco
Essaouira, Morocco
Essaouira, Morocco
Essaouira, Morocco
Essaouira, Morocco
Essaouira, Morocco
Essaouira, Morocco
Essaouira, Morocco
Essaouira, Morocco
Essaouira Port Morocco
Essaouira Port

Report on Eastern Morocco and the Sahara Desert, Late March 2010

Ait Benhaddou
Quarzazate

The vast area east of Marrakesh contains some of the country's finest landscapes and historical architecture. A four hour bus ride to the regional outpost of Ourzazate winds through countless valleys and mountain passes. The journey delivers exceptional vistas provided you can bare the inch perfect driving and perilous heights. The kasbah located on the eastern edge of Ourzazate, has fortunately not been subjected to the 'Hollywood' restoration of its more famous neighbour. The Kasbah sprawls across the hillside and has enveloped nearby mud brick houses to form one massive complex. Although only a small section within the Kasbah towers are open to the public, the surrounding alleys are full with local vendors.

Skoura

As a small town used primarily as a staging point for ventures further east, Ouarzazte sadly sees few independent travellers. It does however, remain one of the last points to pick up a tour into the desert. Only a short distance further east, the small mud brick community of Skoura sits just off the highway. Renowned for its Kasbah which features on the 50 dirham bank note, it sits amongst the palm trees of an emaciated river. The Kasbah is certainly picture-perfect, but ultimately the clinical restoration effort has taken away any authenticity. Driving in a north eastern direction, the Rose Valley, famous for the colouring of its rock formations again provides amazing landscapes.

Rose Valley
Kasbah

Dotted throughout this region, are an enormous number of crumbling Kasbahs, perched upon cliffs or surrounded and incorporated by new, smaller towns. The northern parts of Morocco have recently been hammered by unprecedented rainfall, and combined with melting of the spring snow; certain parts of this region have been cut off by flooding. Unfortunately, our journey into the base of the Dades Valley was cut short, as the adjacent river had claimed the only road. Returning south, the Todra Gorge reminded me just how small I was. These epic mountain walls almost collide within a tight, shadow filled valley. Walking the length of this valley was a fantastic experience. Ironically, the remoteness of this location does not discourage visitors, as the place was full of tourists and locals alike.

Sahara Desert

I continued south to Merzouga and the last point of civilization before the Sahara and the Algerian border. This is the jumping off point for camel treks into the desert. The standard itinerary involves an immaculately timed, 2 hour sunset camel journey into the dunes followed by a night in a traditional berber tent. However the highlight was certainly sunrise and watching the light slowly wash over the golden sands. Having travelled so far east, and literally being the end of the line in Morocco, it was a regrettable reality that I would have a long day of return travel. Arriving late in Ouarzazate, the next day I would stay in the dusty town of Ait Benhhadou, only 30km to the west.

Ait Benhaddou

If you have ever seen a postcard from Morocco, there is a good chance it featured an image of the Ait Benhhadou Kasbah. Certainly the most famous Kasbah in the country, it is a mandatory stop for all package tours. As such it is a shameful consequence that few people spend more than one hour here. The Kasbah, slopes down the side of a small hill like a series of stairs, and opens up a network of alleys, buildings and towers to explore. There are also a number of spectacular vantage points around the valley from which to view the Kasbah. As the pictures from this portion of my trip to Morocco can attest, it was well worth the long uncomfortable bus rides and sacrifice. These experiences are the great rewards for traveling.

Quarzazate
Sahara Desert
Sahara Desert
Ait Benhaddou
Ait Benhaddou
Ait Benhaddou
Ait Benhaddou
Shop
Shop
Eastern Highway
Eastern Highway
Dades Valley
Dades Valley
Kasbah
Kasbah
Todra Gorge
Todra Gorge
Ait Benhaddou
Ait Benhaddou
Ait Benhaddou
Ait Benhaddou
Ait Benhaddou
Ait Benhaddou
Quarzazate
Quarzazate
Kasbah
Kasbah
Kasbah
Kasbah
Sahara Desert
Sahara Desert
Skoura
Skoura

Report on Marrakesh Morocco, Week of March 21 2010

Personally, the mere name of 'Marrakesh' has always been associated with imagery of exotic mysticism. In keeping with this, my late arrival coincided with the setting of the sun and the 'call to prayer' reverberating around this walled city. My journey into Morocco had started perfectly. My first introduction to this city was the famed 'Jemaa El Fna', a square that sits in the centre of the Marrakesh medina, and at night transforms into a heaving mass of people. All manner of food huts and teacarts entice locals and travellers alike, while entertainers, singers, musicians and even tattooists compete for the attention of those drawn to the spectacle.

Jemaa El Fna is without doubt the centerpiece of Marrakesh, and contrary to the advice of hesitant doom-sayers I indulged in the local dishes of couscous and tagine without incident -meaning that the local food really is OK to eat or that I just have an iron gut. When visiting Jemaa El Fna, as anywhere in Marrakesh, one has to accept a degree of hustle and jovial harassment from local vendors. Entertainers however will not be shy about demanding payment if a foreigner participates or even lingers at a show. By day Jemaa El Fna is far more sanitized, with the food stores cleared away, the square maintains its life with everything from snake charmers to musicians performing with monkeys.

While Jemaa El Fna is the throbbing heart of the medina, the maze of alleys act as arteries to funnel both goods and people to the outer reaches. Navigating the medina is difficult, the narrow alleys all look the same, and their towering height blocks the sight of any natural landmarks. Expect to get lost, and likewise, expect a young local to help guide you out - for a small tip of course. The medina is enclosed by red earth walls, and although not spectacular, they are occasionally punctuated by intricate gates which allow access to the newer parts of Marrakesh. Bab Er Rob, on the southwestern edge of the medina is one such example.

The southern half of the medina holds the Badi Palace, a mighty structure at one time that apparently took 25 years to destroy. Now, only the outer walls and a small network of underground tunnels remain. The Bahai Palace, a royal retreat, remains unfortunately bare  with the exception of some exquisite tile mosaics, which have an almost hypnotic effect. The souqs, tanneries and hammans give further life to the deep reaches of the medina, but do not be surprised if you are constantly drawn back to Jemaa El Fna. The Koutoubia Minaret which lords over the square is a further draw card to this area, and as the evening 'call to prayer' washes over the madness it provides a prelude to the night - certainly the time when Marrakesh comes into its own.

Jemaa El Fna
Jemaa El Fna
Bahai Palace
Bahai Palace
Jemaa El Fna
Jemaa El Fna
Jemaa El Fna
Jemaa El Fna
Koutoubia Minaret
Koutoubia Minaret
Jemaa El Fna
Jemaa El Fna
Badi Palace
Badi Palace
Old Walls
Old Walls
Bab Er Rob
Bab Er Rob
Jemaa El Fna
Jemaa El Fna
Jemaa El Fna
Jemaa El Fna
Jemaa El Fna
Jemaa El Fna

Report on New York City, Mid March 2010

After 5 weeks in Canada, and surviving the sub-zero temperatures of Quebec it was time to fly south to New York City. With a short train ride from the airport I emerged from the underground world of New York Penn Station to be greeted with sunshine and blue sky creeping between the glass and steel monsters around me. With limited time, I confined myself to Manhattan Island, which is designed in a grid pattern. The continuous stretch of towering buildings creates a corridor effect which neatly funnels traffic. First stop was the iconic Madison Square Garden to see the local NY Rangers take on their regional rivals Buffalo. The food and beverage stalls of MSG are second to none; nothing caught my attention more than the selection of 8 different beers on tap! The game went to overtime and an early goal by Buffalo ended the game without a shootout.

I was even more impressed by this versatile stadium when the following night, some 24 hours later I was watching the New York Knicks pound the boards and hold off a surging Atlanta. Switching the arena from ice to hard court overnight is impressive. The key factor in New York City is the notion of 'big' or rather 'biggest'. In this area NYC has few peers and this is attested with everything from the super-wattage display in Times Square to the towering excess of the Empire State or Rockefeller Buildings. A super express (one floor per second) elevator rockets you to the viewing platform known as the 'Top of the Rock' for spectacular panoramic views of Manhattan, particularly Central Park in the north and a distant Statue of Liberty lording over the harbour to the south.

The 'Statue' can also be viewed via the Staten Island ferry, which while also providing phenomenal views of the Manhattan skyline, remains, surprisingly, a means for commuters to travel to and from work. You'll find few tourists here. By the time you've walked the streets, sampled local delights within the ethnic neighbourhoods and thrown in a few 'gimmicky' visits to Grand Central Station and the like, to paraphrase, 'your time has flashed by faster than a New York Minute'. With so much to do, even in a 24 hour city, I left feeling both exhausted and disappointed that I could not have crammed in more of what this great city has to offer.