Saturday, April 10, 2010
Thursday, April 1, 2010
We were picked up by Airways Transit shortly after supper and had an uneventful ride to Pearson Airport, after picking up another passenger in Cambridge (Galt).
I had some apprehension about our ticket because all we had from Turkish Airlines was an “E-Ticket Itinerary.” We went up to the Turkish Airline agent and presented our passports. That’s all we needed to do. The agent put our names into the computer and our seats were assigned. I asked the agent if the plane was full and she said it wasn’t. I was hoping to be able to stretch out and sleep but the plane was quite full, although the seat beside me was empty. Unfortunately we didn’t get window seats (should have asked the agent but forgot) and didn’t see much on takeoff or landing. Our plane was scheduled to leave at 23:50 but took off shortly after midnight.
It was a long, smooth, uneventful flight to Istanbul. Wayne managed to sleep for quite a few hours but I wasn’t so lucky although I did manage to doze off for a short period.
We landed in Istanbul around 5:30 PM. The line-up at passport control was rather chaotic but we lined up and waited, only to discover that Canadians and a few other nationalities had to have visas. So we had to line up to get visas which was nothing more than dropping $60 and then we had to line up again at passport control. By the time we made it to the luggage carrousel our luggage was taken off and waiting along the side. Fortunately our entire luggage was there.
We weren’t sure if the driver from out hotel was there to pick us up but when I saw the sign for Wayne’s name I was relieved that we didn’t miss our ride. Actually, Wayne’s name was announced on the PA system and we were asked to go to the Information Desk but it wasn’t necessary once we saw our driver. We were asked to wait five minutes while the driver waited to pick up other passengers for other hotels. The wait was much longer than five minutes and I was getting irritated, mainly because I was lacking sleep.
Light rain was falling during our ride into the city. Istanbul is this year’s European Capital of Culture (along with Pecs, Hungary and Essen, Germany) and the tulips and primrose were nicely planted along the road next to the sea. There were so many ships in the Sea of Marmora that it was impossible to count. I would guess that there were at least 100. Many had their lights on since it was getting dark.
The van slowly made its way through the narrow, very busy, car-clogged, wet roads to the Alaaddin Hotel in the heart of Sultanahmet, which may as well be called “Tourist Central,” Istanbul.
We were offered complimentary tea while we checked in at the Alaaddin Hotel. The Alaaddin will be our base hotel on this vacation. We will go back there after we tour Tunisia, Turkey and our trip to Budapest.
After checking in we went to our room on the first floor, took a minute to unwind and then went out for a late supper in one of the overpriced restaurants in Sultanahmet.
Both of us had a pide (similar to a pizza) and a beer. The people at the table next to us were speaking German and one of them ordered an interesting looking dish. It came out on a flaming tray with a vase-like container with foil on one end. The server took the foil off carefully because it was very hot and steaming and poured some of the contents onto a plate. He then tapped the container on the bottom, separating it in two and pouring the rest of the contents onto the plate - all this while the tray was flaming. It looked impressive but I have no idea what the food was called or how it tasted.
We went back to the hotel and crashed.
Saturday, April 3, 2010
We got up early and had breakfast before the dining room was open. The helpful staff made a note the night before that we'd be leaving early so we were allowed to start breakfast before the other guests.
A taxi picked us up and drove us to the airport. We got our tickets from an agent who was new to the job but remembered to ask if we wanted a window seat. After clearing security we made our way to one of the far corners of the airport. One of the gates was for people going to Nice, France and the other for those going to Tunis.
We flew over southern Greece, Italy and Sicily. I was surprised to see some snow on the mountain tops in southern Italy. I didn't think they had snow that far south but obviously the mountains were high enough to have snow. I also saw a tiny island in the Mediterranean with two small clouds. It was brilliantly sunny everywhere else.
As the plane approached Tunis I could see that all the buildings were whitewashed. Tunis was also larger than I thought. The city stretched far and wide, with all-white buildings. One of the locals we met said the city had three million people.
After we landed and claimed our luggage we had to go through security again. I don't know why we had to go though the metal detector after we landed but we did and the buzzer sounded on me. The buzzers often sound on me because of the metal in my body from the car accident and heart surgery. I had to go through again and it buzzed again but the security guy was talking to someone else and didn't pay any attention to me.
We had a reservation on Djerba Island and wanted to fly there since it was in the south of Tunisia. I found the SevenAir (the local airline that serves only Tunisia) ticket agent but no flights were available on the days we wanted to go so we had to make other arrangements. We got a taxi to take us to the Carleton Hotel, in the heart of Tuinis, on Avenue Habib Bourguiba. The taxi driver told it would cost 15 Tunisian dinars and we agreed only to find out later that he charged double the metered rate. So what else is new?
We arrived at our hotel and checked into a non-smoking room on the third floor. We unwound and headed out to the medina, a short ten minute walk down the beautiful Avenue Habib Bourguiba. The medina was founded by Arabs (Tunisians are Berbers) in the seventh century and is a Unesco World Heritage site today.
The medina is a different world, full of narrow, crowed streets with merchants selling everything imaginable. There are restaurants and mosques, palaces and mansions. After a while we stopped at a small, far from upscale, family run restaurant to have some water. Some of locals were eating traditional food, mainly couscous and lamb or chicken with their hands, mostly. The young man who served the food reached into two bowls with his bare hands to put some salt and spices on the food. The sanitary conditions are very different from ours. When he brought us our water he rinsed two glasses with tap water but didn't dry them as we would at home. It’s a different culture and different way of doing things.
The first evening in Tunis we had supper at the Grand Café de Theatre, a rather trendy restaurant on Avenue Habib Bourguiba. We both ordered a salad which was much larger than we expected. I also had a strip of grilled beef with mushroom sauce. The sauce was tasty, the meat chewy and the rice that came with it was firm and nutty and very delicious. Later we went into a large tavern on the main street and ordered some cold Beck beer which tasted good. Since every man in Tunisia seems to smoke we decide to have another beer outside, where it was less smoky. That's when we met our first "friend." He chatted us up and wanted some money and offered to sleep with us. (Homosexuality remains illegal under Tunisian law but men are propositioned in hammams and on beaches) We passed up the opportunity and headed back to the Carleton Hotel for the night.
It was very warm in the room and the air conditioning was not yet turned on. We left the window open but the street noise kept me from having a good sleep. It turned out there was a "gentleman bar" across the narrow street from our window and although it wasn't excessively noisy it was noisy enough.
Sunday, April 4, 2010
We had breakfast and took the TGM (light rail) to Carthage and Sidi Bou Said. It's the way the locals travel and we wanted to do the same. And it was cheap.
Carthage turned out to be very interesting. Although it was razed by the Romans enough of it remains and it's worth checking out. I couldn't figure out why there were armed soldiers around the edges. Were they expecting another invasion or were they there to feel important.
The homes around Carthage are beautiful and obviously belong to the well-to-do. They are all whitewashed with enclosed courtyards. The sweet scent of flowers filled the air. Bougainvillea, tall woody geraniums and other summer flowers were everywhere. The palm trees were in bloom. The oleanders were everywhere and often hedged.
Since our return ticket on the TGM didn't include a stop at Carthage we had to get a ticket to go to Sidi Bou Said. The police/ticket guy told us we can get a ticket on the other side of the tracks but when he saw the light train approach he told us to just get on the train. It was a nice gesture and we hurried to catch the train.
We got off the TGM at Sidi Bou Said and made our way up the hill. Huge cacti cascaded down the slopes and orange trees were everywhere. All the buildings in Sidi Bou Said are white, of course, and the doors and windows are blue - no exceptions. Sidi Bou Said is quite charming but it's way too touristy, which, I suppose, is why we were there. From the village we could look out over the Bay of Tunis and see the low mountains of Cap Bon Peninsula. Very pretty. (The picture shows me standing in Sidi Bou Said with the Cap Bon Peninsula in the distance.)
Wayne stopped to look at some decorated tiles and ended up buying two after a mild confrontation with the seller. He wanted more money and looked into Wayne's wallet and saw some Euros which he wanted. But Wayne told him a deal was a deal and we quickly left. We stopped at an outdoor cafe and had some water and crêpes for lunch. Since Tunisia was a French colony, many French dishes are available. After lunch we walked around a bit and made our way back to the TGM stop and Tunis.
Once we got back to Tunis we decided to go back to the tavern for some cold Beck beers. That's when we met our second "friend." He was quite charming and didn't ask for money or any favours, or so we thought. When we finished our beer we asked him if he'd like to have a beer with us and he said yes but Tunisians cannot drink alcohol outdoors. So we went inside and ordered some beer. He wanted a cigarette so we gave him some money so he could buy a small pack. We asked him if he could recommend a good Tunisian restaurant and he suggested a place close to our hotel that specialized in Sfax-ianne cuisine. He walked back towards to the hotel with us and showed us where the restaurant was. He then asked for 10 dinars so he could take a taxi back home. We told him we didn't have any money for his taxi and went into our hotel. When we came out we started heading to the restaurant he suggested but there he was waiting for us. We ended up giving him some money, mainly to make him leave.
In the restaurant we ordered couscous with lamb and some sweet, mint tea, which is the most common drink in Tunisia. I thought it was pretty tasty but Wayne didn't care for the couscous. He's more of a meat and potatoes kind of guy.
Monday, April 5, 2010
We woke early, had breakfast and hired a driver to take us to Dougga. It cost us 170 dinars which was quite a bit of money but the driver had a good, clean car and we essentially had his services for the whole day.
It was a long drive to Dougga but well worth it. It is located on a hilltop in the foothills of the Atlas Mountains. The countryside was quite green with lots of sheep and goats their shepherds. Along the way we saw a louage (shared taxi) overturned with the windows smashed and dazed passengers standing around. Two dead sheep lay on the road about 10 meters away. Our driver explained that the louage drivers speed all the time in order to make as much money as possible.
Dougga was a mid-sized Roman city that once had 5,000 inhabitants. An aqueduct brought in water from the mountain. The temple, gym, dormitories and theatre were still in fairly good shape, certainly in better shape than Carthage. The view from the hilltop was almost as impressive as the ruins of the city. After a good walk around the site we went back to the entrance to meet our driver. We bought some water at the small kiosk and gave the driver a bottle. When we were ready to leave the driver crushed his empty plastic bottle and just threw it on the ground. He had absolutely no consciousness that this is an historic site.
Once we were back in Tunis we took a short walk to find the train station because the following day we would be taking the train to Djerba Island. It was only five short blocks away.
We had supper in a fairly popular restaurant on Avenue Habib Bourguiba. Both of us ordered a salad and a pizza. Unfortunately the pizza was not as tasty as I would have liked. I ordered the "pizza fungi" but it was nothing more than a cheese pizza with some canned mushroom slices and a few olives thrown on top, after it came out of the oven. Wayne had a "Mexican pizza," which, while tastier than mine, was prepared with some pre-cooked ground beef that was put on top after it came out of the oven. We ended our supper with a glass of hot, sweet, mint tea.
Tuesday, April 6, 2010
After breakfast we went to the train station to catch our train to Djerba. Actually, the train only went as far as Gabes and it took about six hours. We got a 1st class car and it was nice and clean, except the toilet. No surprise there! For lunch both of us got an omelet baguette. I was hesitant at first, not knowing how old it was, but it turned out to be one of the tastiest snacks I ever had on a train.
Along the way I noticed the soil was orange-red and very sandy with olive groves almost everywhere. The cacti fences, shrubs and trees, were covered with bits of plastic bags and whatnot, throughout the trip. Although plastic has some good uses it is the curse of our age. As the train went further south there were less olive groves, less shrubs and almost no palm trees. We were on the edge of the Sahara Desert!
The train stopped at small and large towns along the way. I didn't know if it would stop at El-Djem, site of the third largest colosseum in the Roman Empire, but it did and I got a good view. It was very impressive and in very good shape. I asked Wayne to take a picture but, as we discovered, his camera was pick-pocketed as we got on the train in Tunis. (Once we get back to Istanbul he'll buy a new, more powerful, camera and will be able to post photos on his Blog.)
We arrived in Gabes but Djerba was still far away and we had to figure out how to get there. I was willing to pay a taxi to take us there but at a "taxiphone," which seem to be everywhere, we were told to take a taxi to the "gare de louage" and take a louage to Houmt Souq and from there to take a taxi to the Djerba Beach Hotel, about 10km, in the "Zone Touristique." Two dead sheep, overturned louage and dazed passengers popped into my mind.
The taxi took us to the gare de louage and we were instantly shown the louage that was going to Djerba. The louage holds eight passengers, plus the driver, so we had to wait about 20 minutes until all the seats were sold. It turned out to be a very affordable way to travel. Most Tunisians travel by louage since they go more often than trains and buses and they go everywhere in Tunisia. Luckily for us the driver didn't kill any sheep along the way!
The louage had to take a ferry to Djerba Island but the wait wasn't long, but it was dark and getting late. Some of the young, local passengers had to show ID but security didn't seem interested in tourists. Tourism is big money in Tunisia and they don't want to alienate the tourists. And they can tell who the tourists are just by looking at us. Our pasty-white European faces told them who we were.
Once we were on Djerba Island the louage made it to the Houmt Souq gare de louage in about fifteen minutes. From there it was a ten minute taxi ride to the Djerba Beach Hotel.