The north coast of Tunisia is covered by forests clothing the rugged hills that drop dramatically down to the sea. The beaches are largely inaccessible, but here and there, a small road takes determined travellers into the largely uninhabited region. I read that even the few maps that exist are not particularly accurate, so if one has their own car, and doesn’t mind getting a little lost, there is some dramatic scenery waiting to be enjoyed.
South of the highway that cuts east-west across the top of the country, the land is undulating and sown with wheat, beans and other crops I was unable to identify. I am fairly certain that one of the crops was chick peas (garbanzo beans), but when I stopped to ask a woman working near her home, she used a name for the crop that I didn’t recognize. I took some photos and compared them with photos on the internet and I’m fairly certain it was the major ingredient for one of my favorite dips, hummus.
We missed a turn at one point and followed a road that took us south east instead of northeast, but it only delayed us a little. However, we were rewarded with the sight of a major stone railway trestle built between to large hills. The only way it could have been more beautiful, was if a train happening to be crossing the bridge as we drove under it.
We drove into Bizerte and had another lukewarm coffee at another five-star hotel. It was another disappointing waste of time. At least we weren’t subjecting ourselves to the smoky bowels of a salon de thé (café with tea and water pipes) frequented by men with too much time on their hands. We carried on down to the old port and medina and I was able to convince Anil that it was small enough for us to walk around in less that a half-hour. We needed to stretch our legs for a while, at least I did. He had spent the morning on the golf course and was more than a little tired from the unusual exertion.
The old port was constructed by the Phoenicians in the 8th century BC and was later enlarged as a canal to link Lake Bizerte to the sea, thus opening up one of the finest harbours in the western Mediterranean. Over the centuries, it saw conquest by the Romans, Vandals, Byzantines, Arabs, the Spanish, and the Ottomans. Pirates used the port as a base for attacking the Christian ships passing through the Mediterranean.
It fell into disuse during the 1800s but the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 breathed new life as more and more ships from northern Europe began to pass on their way to trade with India and beyond. France held on to Bizerte after independence in 1956 and more than 1000 Tunisians lost their lives here when the new Prime Minister Habib Bourguiba demanded that the French leave in 1961. The French finally withdrew two years later.
There is so much potential for visitors in this picturesque little port, with the old fortresses guarding either side of the entrance to the sea. However, the buildings along the quay have been poorly maintained or have fallen into complete disuse. There are dozens of colourful working fishing boats in the harbour, but there’s so much litter floating in the foul and stinking water I can’t imagine why anyone would want to sit at a café table near the water’s edge.
I realize that this is not the prime season for visitors to come to Bizerte, and that most of them are happy to spend all their time on the beaches that stretch out along the coast north of the city. However, I just can’t understand why the fishermen are not bothered by the stench of the water, nor the sight of plastic bottles floating in the green scum. Perhaps their sense of smell was long ago damaged by the odour of their trade, but they spend so much of their time at sea, where the air is fresh and the water clean. How can they stand to come home after a long time at sea and look at the mess surrounding their boats?
Our visit was salvaged by the sight of a father and his young son, rowing into the entrance of the old port as the sun was dimming and the light reflected on the surface. At this point, the seawater is still relatively clean and it’s this picture I will choose to carry with me when I remember Bizerte. If we ever come back to Tunisia one day, I would like nothing better than to learn that this little port has become the darling of the north coast once again.