Tunisia Travel Story
This site presents a story about six Finnish travellers, who spent one week in Tunisia, in March 1998. Our group was (and is) interested in history, somewhat more than in sunbathing and/or in drinking beer (well, we think that is fun too!). Originally we made a reservation for a journey to Luxor, Egypt, for the autumn of 1997. The journey was cancelled by the travel agency, because of the terrorist attack, which took place in Luxor that very same winter . We thus were in a hurry to change our plans and to find a new place to travel to. We wanted to have sun, historical monuments, ruins and all that for less than $500 for one week. We did not have a lot of choices, and decided to travel to Tunisia. As it turned out, that was not at all a bad decision .
When we left for our travel to Tunisia we did not have any “deep” knowledge about the country, its history or its culture, but once we made it there we found the country very interesting : lot of things to see, the ruins of Roman empire; the third biggest Amphitheatre of the world, ruined towns of Dougga, Thuburbo Majus, Carthage, Bulla Regia, Sbeitla… . These places are not “just around the corner”, but with a little time and some patience, they offer a lot to see. Best of all, most of the places have almost unrestricted access for a visitor to wander around. If you’re really interested in the history of Roman Empires, Tunisia is well worth a visit.
This site is not intended to be a complete guide with detailed information of Tunisia and its historical sites. The presented historical information, maps and descriptions are combinations of details from various history books, internet sites and travel guides (please see the links, contributions & references page). This page is our personal travel story, with which we want to share our experiences. We hope that this page will be of value for someone who is travelling to Tunisia.
It was a Sunday, March 1st, when we were ready to exchange the snowy Finnish landscape for a (hopefully) warm and sunny Tunisia. We didn’t have to make any special arrangements before the trip: No visa needed (from Finland) and currency can be exchanged only inside Tunisia. Our knowledge about Tunisia was rather limited. From the literature we knew the capital Tunis, we had read about a stomach ailment called the Revenge of Hannibal, about the Islamic religion and finally we knew about the second highest chance to get killed by car accident (UN statistics from 1995, Tunisians have stopped releasing traffic accident statistics). And, of course, the most important thing to our history-hungry party: the knowledge that there are Ruins of the Roman Empire in Tunisia.
The flight was uneventful, and we landed at the Monastir airport at 8 p.m. After quick customs routines we moved to the travel agency bus. On our way to Sousse, our destination, at roll call, our guide found a passenger (apparently British), who did not belong in our bus. The man was totally lost; he didn’t remember his travel agency, his hotel or his destination in Tunisia. We hoped that he was in the right country. It took about 30 minutes to get to Sousse by bus.
Sousse (or ancient Hadrumet for those of you who are history freaks) is a relatively small coast-side town about 140 kilometres south of the capital Tunis (and Carthage). Sousse is clearly divided into modern, old and tourist areas. We found Sousse to be a fairly nice, relatively clean and hospitable town. Some of the local people were clearly there because of the tourists, but if you went into either the modern or the old end of Sousse, then you found that most of the people were just living their everyday lives. In the old town (Medina) and in the bazaars some of the more enthusiastic traders were a nuisance at first, but then you get used to it. We encountered almost no beggars and only one stray pick-pocket (and that specific incident could have been easily avoided). The locals were generally hospitable, the only slight problem was the language, as French is more common than English. But if the question was of money or trade, somehow someone always succeeded to communicate clearly enough.
Samara, our hotel in Sousse, was located in the tourist area. It is an apartment-type hotel, and our reservation included three 2 person rooms. It was a pleasant surprise (although we do not know the reason) that we got three 4 person rooms. This meant that each of us had his own bedroom. The travel agency rates Samara as a three-star hotel, and everything was all right in these rooms: 2 bedrooms, sitting room, bar kitchen, bathroom, television, phone, refrigerator and a large balcony. On this first night we were quite hungry but we did not have any Tunisian currency. It was about 10.30 p.m. and the only chance to get currency was trying to find a Visa ATM or ask in the neighbouring hotels, which have a 24-hour currency exchange (our hotel changed money only during daytime). The neighbouring hotels refused to change money for others than their own customers, so we headed to the centre of town, hoping to find an ATM. We knew that there is at least one ATM there, and we also had the address , but no map. So that was quite impossible to find it at night. Luckily, we found one and got some money. The value of the Tunisian dinar is almost equal to the US$. The next thing to find was a restaurant, which could still offer something to eat. Finally we found one, the kitchen was closed (midnight), but we managed to get something not so Tunisian food to eat: pizza. Well, it tasted as pizza does anywhere, but this was our first chance to taste Tunisian beer. The beer was served in 0.66 litre bottles, and it was called Stella. I did not personally find it very tasty, and this was, in fact, the first and only time we saw Stella beer served here. As we later learned, there are only two beers in Tunisia: Stella and Celtia, both lagers. Celtia was a much better one, though nothing special compared to what we have got used to in Finland. Anyway, we did drink lots of Celtia during the week.
In the morning the hotel served a buffet breakfast, and there was absolutely nothing to complain about. The breakfast included everything you could ask for and even more. After the breakfast we signed up for the travel agency_s Berber party, which was to be in the evening.
Unfortunately modern Sousse seems not to have much left of its glorious history. Hannibal, Pompeius, Julius Caesar and various others have used this town as a base for their campaigns. However, no not even ruins are left, except for some catacombs from later times.
In the morning we headed for the Christian catacombs, which are located on the south side of Sousse. We took a taxi and found out that a taxi ride is very cheap: a 10 – 15 minute taxi ride to the catacombs costs about 1 dinar. The catacombs were a bit of an disappointment for us. Nothing much to tell : about 30 meters of dungeons, very shady lighting and a couple of skeletons. The rest of the closed catacomb area is huge: 250 galleries containing up to 15000 tombs over a distance of 5 km. Flashlight recommended. Entrance 1 dinar, taking photographs an additional 1 dinar.
From the catacombs we walked to the centre of Sousse, where the old town, the so called Medina, is located. There are lots of bazaars and little shops for travellers, who enjoy to trade, and especially to bargain. We took only quick look at the Medina this time, and decided to come back later to see the Ribat (fort) and the mosque. There was a reason for this: we were hungry. The restaurants are inexpensive everywhere (at least if you have Finland to compare to. A pepper beef steak is about 5 dinars and beer about 2 dinars, and in that was included potatoes (or rice) and salad.
In the evening our travel agency bus took us to the Berber party place, which was located about 20 km from Sousse. In the yard we were introduced to Tunisian “culture” in a very compact package. This included making of ceramics and carpets, in cross sectioned houses. There were also two tired camels: it did not look too promising. Well, there were about 150 tourists in a huge “tent” (partly brick!). The first course of the dinner was tomato soup, which was actually the best thing of the whole party. Free red wine, “drink as much you can” (frankly – you are not able to), and the main course was cous cous with chicken. The “Berber show” was mainly loud traditional Berber music, tired looking dancers, “acrobatics” and a ridiculous belly dancer. Finally outside, there was a horse riding show. The whole thing cost 25 dinars. Not too much, but was it worth it? The answer is a definite no. Clearly made for tourist groups, who do not ask for too much.
Sousse was founded in the 9th century BC by the Phoenicians, who gave it the name Hadrumet. It’s one of the oldest ports of the Mediterranean. Later Hannibal used Hadrumet as his military base at end of the Second Punic War (218-201 BC) and was beaten. During the Third Punic War they changed over to the side of the Romans thus avoiding destruction and gaining status of a free city. In 46 BC Julius Caesar fought against Pompeii in Thapsus and the town of Hadrumet choose the wrong side. Caesar won the battle and imposed heavy taxation on the town. Later under the rule of Emperor Trajan (98-117), the town became a important commerce centre. There are no Roman sites in the town, only an archaeological museum containing mosaics and some statues.
Ribat of Sousse
The second day we decided to take a better look at the forts both in and outside of Medina. First we headed to the older ribat, located inside the Medina. It was built in 820 AD by Muslims (Aghlabites) to secure the town. The architecture is quite simple: a square fort with a single tower. Many small rooms, which were garrisoned by warrior monks, protecting the Muslim population and religious centres against invaders. Nice view from the tower over the town, if you’re not afraid of heights (27 m). The fort is in excellent condition, and we recommend a visit to it. To visit the mosque just next to the ribat requires proper clothes, which we were not wearing, so we had to pass it. To walk through the narrow alleys of the Medina to the south side of the town was an experience in itself. We were lost couple of times, but the Medina is not very large, so we managed to get out of it.
Kasbah & Archaeological museum of Sousse
On the south side (and outside) of the Medina is a larger fort, Kasbah, which was build in later centuries (1100 – 1600, extended several times). There was no access to the actual fortress, only to the museum side of it. The museum was full of beautiful roman mosaics, but nothing much else. In the courtyard there were statues (mostly headless) and the courtyard offered a very nice view over the town. We learned during our visit in Tunisia that museums are filled with mosaics. Tunisians are proud of mosaics, but our personal opinion is that it would have been nice to find something else as well.
If you do not make visits outside the Sousse during your journey, then the ribat museum mosaics are well worth a visit. Elsewhere you can find mosaics in almost every museum or even in their original places at ruins. However, the fortress is impressive and worth to see, even from outside.
A few words about shopping, and especially about shopping in the Medina. For people accustomed to use supermarkets and self service shops, this can be a real eye-opener. The prices seem to be quite high at the start, and even the advice given by the guides to reduce the price to about half of the asked value seem to be paying too much. We offered 1/5, and even 1/10 of the price for cheaper goods and made some good bargains (as well as some poor ones). And nobody (well, to be honest, almost nobody) got angry. A good advice is that when bazaar keeper is getting a “little” angry, you are doing good deal. When he’s happy and offers you something for good measure then for sure you are paying overprice. As a rule of the thumb –always decide beforehand what you want and what is the maximum price you will pay for the thing. Then start from 1/5 of it. Always ask what is his price first and compare that to your starting price. Continue giving counteroffers until your prices start to converge. If the price starts to converge at little too high level, start walking away. Never look too keen to make the deal.
The third day was supposed to be a day for rest, but half of our party got bored of lying in the sun and decided to make a short trip to the neighbouring town, Monastir. Monastir is famous for its huge – surprise, surprise – fortress, ribat. We had read from the travel guide that a couple of movies have been filmed in the fort, for example scenes from “Life of Brian” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark” (the latter was in fact completely filmed in Tunisia). We decided to take the train, which was a good idea, because it was very cheap (about 4.5 dinars for 3 persons, two-way ticket). The train is called “Sahel Metro”, and it transports passengers to neighbouring towns and to Monastir airport. It was a 20-minute ride.
The station is in the centre of Monastir, and close to its old town, Medina. It takes about 10 – 15 minutes to walk through or around the Medina to the ribat and the large mosque. The Monastir mosque is very important in Tunisian and Islam history: When the Islamic holy town Kairouan was destroyed, Monastir took its place. Later Kairouan was rebuild and it took back its status. Monastir has a beautiful mosque, tourists are allowed only to the courtyard.
Ribat of Monastir
Ruspina as the Romans called it, was founded by the Phoenicians about 700 BC. Later it became a major military base for Julius Caesar, but it does not offer any Roman monuments. Instead there is a magnificent fort, or ribat (built 796 by Harthouma Ibn el Anoyune) located just near the coast. It was one of the largest strongholds built by the Arabs in north Africa. In the same area there are actually three forts, this big one, and two smaller ones, one complete and in good condition (no entrance, at least not that time) and another, which has only parts of the stone foundation left. Both are within a one-hundred-meter distance from the big fort. The entrance fee was the usual 1 dinar plus 1 dinar for taking photographs. This fort is something you absolutely must see. You can spend hours here just walking and exploring this maze-like fort. You can walk almost everywhere, if you dare, because there are not many safety barriers around. The architecture of fort is, to say the least, interesting. Basically it is a square fort with a single tower, like the one in Sousse. But this one has been built during several centuries, expanded many times, and the result is labyrinth-like building. Inside the fort is small but interesting museum, which explains the different phases of the fort at different times.
It took three days to get to the first Roman ruins in Tunisia. But we knew this one was worth waiting for and worth the travel. A well-preserved amphitheatre is located in a small town called El Djem, 60 kilometres south of Sousse. We were thinking of different choices for the transportation: train, long-distance taxi and bus. And we, unfortunately, as you will later understand, took the long-distance taxi, the louage.
Louages have a reputation of driving too fast, but our travel guide also said that they are cheap. So we went to the taxi station (the long distance taxies have only one – a separate one – station on the south side of Sousse) early in the morning to find transportation for us. A German speaking (we do not speak much German) taxi driver offered us a ride to El Djem and back with a two-hour wait there for 18 dinars (for all of us). That made sense, because our travel guide had told us that a ride to Tunis (150 km) would be about 6 dinars each. OK, we confirmed it by writing it on paper, and everything seem to be OK. The travel was fortunately uneventful, even though the driver drove very fast on that narrow “highway”, and it was a bit scary.
The amphitheatre of El Djem is the third largest theatre in world, after Rome’s Colosseum and the ruined theatre of Capua. The town of Thysdrus (El Djem´s Roman name) was, like almost all Roman settlements, built on the former Punic settlements. Thysdrus prospered especially at the time of Emperor Hadrian (117-138 AD), when it became an important centre of olive oil manufacturing. It is in quite good condition, almost similar to Colosseum, but parts of its yellow stone walls were used to build the modern town. The construction started in 238 AD by Emperor Gordie I, who was declared Emperor of Rome here. The theatre was never completed, because of political rivalries and lack of funds within the empire. It was build for 35000 spectators and it really makes you wonder why it was built here (well, Caesar owned the land here), in the middle of nowhere, next to the small town. Stones were quarried from a distance of 50 km and still most of the material was too soft to sculpture. There was no decent water supply available, and water battles were never kept. Later the amphitheatre served for centuries as a stronghold. It was finally the last Berber bastion against Arab invaders.
You can climb the stairs to the highest level of theatre, where you can really get a good picture of how big this place is. You can also go to the dungeons under the theatre, where animals and prisoners were kept. Well, what you can say about this place: It is HUGE and you’ll have to see it yourself. It was almost unbelievable to find such a monument in the middle of small town and fields. There probably would have been problems to populate the amphitheatre to its ancient capacity from contemporary local surroundings. Let the pictures tell the rest.
At the end lies the lesson of the trip. We arrived back in Sousse alive, but our taxi driver ripped us off. The price of the taxi drive was increased to 80 dinars, and we had a “little” debate at the station. At the end we paid, but we learned our lesson: Always make sure what the price is, before you go and write it down. Choose a “leader” for the group if there are many people involved. He will negotiate in problem situations. We did not have a “leader” ready and we were so baffled by the situation that in the end we paid. And another lesson : be hard, if the opponent does not want to understand….start shouting for tourist police.
After the trip to El Djem (4th day) we were looking for a reasonable priced transport to western Tunisia, to the ruined towns of Thuburbo Majus and Dougga. Long distance taxis were out of our plans because of the bad experiences the day before. Taking a train was not possible (the only passenger-train track runs from north to south), buses are cheap, but very slow and we did not want to stay overnight. Almost opposite our hotel was a safari car rental, which we thought would be expensive, but we wanted to try our luck. The manager was very friendly and spoke very good English, so there was no problem. As we guessed, the rate was high, 300 TD. That included a trip to Dougga and back, gasoline, driver’s pay. We had a long conversation about the price, and finally he dropped the price to 225 TD and we agreed. He looked sour and did not shake hands when we left, so we believe we made a relatively good deal. That made about 40 TD each. In addition we would buy the driver one meal.
The departure would be at 7.30 in front of our hotel. So the next morning we jumped into our safari car, a Toyota Land Cruiser, which had three rows of seats, so we have enough room for comfortable travel. The car was quite new and had air conditioning, although in March that is not a necessity. Our driver did not speak any languages known to our party, so we had to communicate with “sign” language, but this did not cause any trouble. The best thing in our chauffeur was his calm way of driving. Travelling by car you really get a good view of the Tunisian countryside, with its villages, little towns and real Tunisian life, which you do not necessarily see in the tourist towns on the coast.
Thuburbo Majus or Colonia Julia Aurelia Commoda, its Roman name, was originally a Punic town, later founded as a Roman veteran colony by Augustus 27 BC, was our first stop. Emperor Hadrian visited here personally in the 2nd century and declared it a municipality, which made the town really prosper. It was an important town cause it’s strategic situation and trade. Ruins of the town are in the middle of the countryside; there are no towns close to it. This place is not a tourist trap! The only “modern” building at this site is a small house, in which is the ticket office and a small cafe. No other tourists were in sight. Most of the town (or what is left) was built around 150 – 200 AD and restored in the 4th century. At first sight there was not much to see. But when you really get into it, you will find it a very interesting place. There has probably not been done very much excavations, so the place has a kind of “original” feeling. You will have to use your imagination in order to get a picture what kind of town this was 2000 years ago. Slowly you will find a forum, the amphitheatre, temples, baths and other places if you’ll have patience to walk around. This town does not offer impressive restored building, but it does offer an impressive feeling of an old Roman town and the joy of “discovery”.
Dougga, or Thugga (old Punic name) or in its original Latin name: Colonia Licinia Septima Aurelia Alexandriana Thuggensis, is located in the mountains, in the middle of Tunisia. It was originally a Punic town, which allied with Rome against Carthage and as a result of that was granted some degree of independence. Romanization started in 150 AD. Dougga became an influential agricultural centre, controlling important trade routes to the coast (Carthage). Dougga also has important marble quarries and fresh water supplies, which made it prosperous. Dougga became a Roman colony at the end of the 2nd century (at the time of Septimus Severus). The downfall began in the 4th century: Heavy Roman taxes and finally the Vandals caused the fall of this town and slipped it to oblivion.
Dougga was – to our great surprise – a whole ruined town on a beautiful hillside. 30 hectares of temples, theatres, baths and private mansions. This was more then we had expected. The first thing that came to our mind was to compare it to Pompeii. Although Dougga is not as “complete” as Pompeii, it is a real experience. Walking on the well-preserved streets of the town (of which some seemed to be in better condition than the modern roads we just had travelling on), stepping into huge private houses (the biggest private house in Dougga was actually a brothel), sitting in the beautiful theatre, will give you a good picture of ancient Roman town life. Well, what else can I say: take a look of the pictures on this page and find a guidebook to find out more specific details of Dougga. It is a well-preserved ancient town and truly worth a visit. We spent the rest of the day here and some of us would have spent here for couple of days! Our driver got a bit impatient waiting for us, he probably thought we would spend here only an hour or two. Anyway, we got back to Sousse late in the evening to have a couple of relaxing beers with good memories of the day.
On the last day in Tunisia some of our party made a second trip to the Ribat of Monastir. The rest of us spent the day shopping and sunbathing. As you can guess, nothing had changed in Monastir in the last three days, we just had a better look at the labyrinthine fortress. We could have made one more trip to other Roman sites, but most of them were so far away or were so difficult to reach that we had to forget about them. There are simply too many interesting places to see. Maybe next time. The last night before departure was spent in hotel bars and in the nearby full-scale international casino, mostly drinking beer. Watch your wallet here.
We left Tunisia from Monastir airport the next evening at 8 p.m., tired, but satisfied. We saw lots of places, but there would still be much to see: Carthage, Bulla Regia, Sbeitla…Well, maybe next trip to Tunisia isn’t so far away….
Traveling French Canals in September of 2001
By Mary Sagerson
For three years my husband and I had been planning a trip to France in September, 2001. We wanted to spend three weeks, beginning on September 9, on a self-drive barge on the canals in France. Since I am in a wheelchair with MS, it was necessary to find a barge equipped for my needs – possible, but not simple – and let the house move instead of the people. So far, I have found two such barges – this one was in central France, moored in Digoin (pronounced with a hard G) and traveled on the canals in France through the burgundy wine area.
The Best Laid Plans –
We planned to meet different people for each of our three weeks on the barge, partly to introduce friends and family members to canal barging in France, and partly to give us some able-bodied help for taking the barge through the locks.
The first couple, some good friends from way back, met us as planned in Dijon, France, on September 8. The next day we drove together to the town of Digoin, in central France, where the barge was moored. After a short lesson on managing the barge, we headed north. Our plan was to end up after the first week in Nevers, France, to meet the second group.
Several hundred years ago canals were built all around Europe to be used for trade, so barges carrying goods were not required to venture into dangerous open waters. Now they are used mostly for tourists who like to float slowly down the quiet waterways to see the countryside.
One of the especially attractive parts of barging is that the boats come with metal stakes which can be pounded into the shore, allowing the barge to stop and tie up anywhere.
An interesting point that I didn_t realize before is that the canals require a water source, and it is often more convenient (and dependable) to put the barge beside a river, using the river water to fill the canals instead of using the rivers themselves, which may dry up in the summer or flood in the winter. Thus, occasionally, the canal crosses a river. This is done with an aqueduct – a bridge built over the river to carry the canal and the barges. Looking down, the occupants on the barge can see the river flowing below. Always a surprise.
Movement on the canals over uneven ground is made possible with a series of locks, which are really clever as they don_t require any pumps for their operation.
When we were “down-locking” for instance (going down hill), the water the barge is navigating in is at the same level as the water in the lock. So the boat goes into the lock, which is just a small compartment big enough for two to four barges; the front gates are already closed; and the gates behind the barge are then manually closed by turning a winch handle. Water is released through small openings in the front gates so the water in the lock – and any boats on it – sink to the level of the canal beyond the lock. A line (rope), front and back, was handed to the lockkeeper when the barge entered the lock. The lockkeeper wraps them around a stationary bollard and hands the ends back to people on the barge, so when the water has gone down, those people can pull on the ends affixed to the barge, retrieve the lines, and release the boat. When the main front gates are opened, the water in the lock is at the same level as the lower canal and the boat can just go forward.
To “up-lock,” (move upstream, against the water flowing down) the process is simply reversed. The barge moves into a lock where the water is at the same level as that on which the barge has been moving. The lockkeeper is high above but he or she can reach down with a hook attached to a long pole and pull up the lines from the barge, wrap them around bollards and throw the ends back down. Then the small doors at the front of the lock are opened so water can enter, eventually bringing the level of the water in the lock up to the level of the canal ahead. People on the barge are pulling the line in so it is always taut. When the water in the lock (and the barge on the water) are level with the water ahead of the lock, the front gates are opened and the barge proceeds on its way.
There is a lockkeeper at each lock and we found them to be generally friendly and a valuable resource for local knowledge. They could recommend an upcoming restaurant, give us a weather report, and they might even sell homemade wine, preserves, and fresh vegetables.
And Then Came September 11 –
Unfortunately, it was during that first week on the barge that the terrorists crashed into the World Trade towers and the Pentagon. Although they didn_t have us specifically in mind, and lots of people had bigger problems than we did, they did thoroughly mess up our vacation plans. Since all flights were grounded for a while, our barging crews for the last two weeks couldn_t get to Europe. Disappointing for them, and for us!
We heard the news of the attack almost immediately (though it was evening, our time) while we were shopping for groceries in a small town in France. A Dutch fellow who worked at the store and spoke excellent English overheard our conversations and surmised that we were from the United States. He had heard the news before he came to work so he related to us what was known at that time.
Of course our first reaction, like everyone else_s, was disbelief. This was followed quickly with a desire for more details and concern about our families and friends at home. Fortunately, both couples had rented cell phones for the trip, and we were able to get through to people at home (happily they were mostly on the West Coast)-none of whom were hurt, but all of whom were shocked.
After several days we saw pictures on a French televised newscast of the towers being hit, but since the reporting was in French we could only understand occasional words. (They speak so quickly – do we do that?)
We felt so far away, unable to share this tragedy with others from the U.S. One thing we found, however, was that the French people were very compassionate and helpful when they found out where we were from. Of course, we were in rural France so perhaps they are that kind all the time, contrary to their reputation.
Anyway we headed back south in a hurry, planning to leave the barge in Digoin where it started. On the way, my husband, Ron, figured out how he could manage the locks alone so we could keep going, even without help
There are three directions a barge can go by canal from Digoin. Originally we went north-west, both for the scenery and because we thought it would put us in towns that would make it easier for our later companions to find us. Now we had different criteria, so we chose the canal with the fewest locks to tackle alone. Thus, after the attack, we headed south from Digoin paralleling the river Loire toward the town of Roanne. There are only 10 locks in this section of about 60 kilometers (38 miles), and then the canal dead-ends in a harbor at Roanne. We tied up at Roanne and stayed there for several days while we explored the town.
And because we were not able to concentrate on travel, we started noticing other things about the culture .
Time v. Money
One thing that we noticed immediately was that the French seem to understand the principle of Time vs. Money. In most cases you can_t have both, so in the U.S. most people opt for the money, and then complain about not having enough time. A clear example of the French approach is that most commercial establishments close for a day or two each week, a few hours every afternoon, and often much of the month of August or September (the Annuelle Fermeture) when the owners take a vacation. The attitude seems to be that customers need to conform to the proprietor_s schedule instead of vice versa. And they usually do! If there are two bakeries in town, one might be closed for a few weeks so we and everyone else gets fresh bread from the other one during that time. Of course the first proprietor has to have faith that customers will return when the store is reopened, but so far it seems to work pretty well. It_s not always convenient for the customer, who will of course want something from that particular store when it is closed, but most people understand the reason for the closure and return when the establishment is open again.
The daily closure, from noon to 2:00 p.m., for an extended family lunch depends on schools and employment being in walking distance of home, but when it works it_s pretty neat. As towns get bigger, with schools and businesses located further from home, it gets harder to maintain this tradition. But perhaps that is why so many people prefer to live in a small town. At least they seem to know that there is a trade-off for living in a big city even if it has more opportunities for work and entertainment.
Sometimes we found an example of inefficiency that was difficult to ignore. An obvious example to us was the managing of the canal locks.
The part we never got used to was that the lockkeeper would manually close one gate in the back, then go over to the other side (sometimes requiring a walk to the other end of the lock), and manually close the gate on that side. Surely, I thought, this could be motorized so that both gates could be shut or opened at the same time with the flick of a switch. We found a few gates that were automatic, but in that case the driver of the barge was required to get in just the right position so someone on board could twist a pole hanging over the water to let the machine know that we wanted to go through the lock. This, though it worked, did not seem like an ideal solution.
The manual locks did give us a chance to practice our French and sometimes help the lockkeeper, but it certainly seemed inefficient. And often, if two or three locks were close together, the same person would manage all of them. So as soon as we were out of the lock, he or she would jump in a car and go to the next one where we would go through the routine again with our new friend the lockkeeper.
We also often found that paperwork was duplicated, and we were asked to provide answers to the same questions several times. We were on vacation, so we had time and didn_t mind this very much. But it might get a little old if it were an everyday thing.
Another system that seemed outdated came up when our friends from the first week on the barge were leaving. Their plan was to visit relatives in Prague, Slovokia. At this point we were back in Digoin with access to our rental car, so we decided to drive them to Luzy, a small town nearby where we were told they could get a train to Paris and then transfer to Prague. The drive was spectacular, through rural French countryside, and the town itself was delightful: very old buildings, cobbled streets, and just what a small French town should be. Even the train station was charming. But here_s the trade off. The fellow who was running the train station had a very old computer to coordinate with other train stations, and probably he knew where Prague was but it is also likely that he had never had this request in Luzy before so he wasn_t absolutely sure they could get there from here. Everyone was tired – and it looked fairly complicated so our friends decided to stay overnight in a charming old hotel, and figure it all out the next day. They did.
The French people are known, and rightly so, for having an inborn sense of style. The small size and funny-looking aspect of French cars, however, couldn_t be overlooked – at least not by us. One car we saw was so small that it was stored on a barge which was moored for the winter, and we did occasionally get caught by the owner of one of these as we tried to document the phenomenon by taking a photograph. In their defense it must be admitted that the price of gasoline was exorbitant by U.S. standards (about $4 / gallon) Also some roads still go through arches in rock walls that were originally made for pedestrians or possibly horseback riders, so small, efficient cars have definite advantages. Nevertheless, while the French are famous for their style in clothes and food, their cars are often pretty funny-looking and it was hard not to laugh at some of the tiny vehicles.
One thing that quickly became obvious was that the uniform for laborers of all kinds includes bright blue pants. Workers also wore jeans and overalls, but these were more likely saved for a more special occasion, with the bright blue pants worn for work.
Sometimes a business needs a truck, but even these were excessively small. Trucks were almost always seen with a small canopy, and almost always painted white. The white truck seemed to be to be in the same category as the bright blue pants – they apparently indicated a hard-working person.
Probably this is also related to the fact that there were no sweatshirts for sale. I wanted to purchase a souvenir sweatshirt, but they were simply not available in the stores. Even out in the country, it is France. Style and food are apparently never taken lightly. And sweatshirts just don_t make it.
The French People
We found people to be generally friendly and sympathetic to Americans in this time of crisis, but it was still clear that they have a very different idea of “friendly” than you find in the U.S. For example, when we walked around small towns we often found sidewalks to be bordered with brick walls. If a gate were open, a garden could often be seen behind the wall – with flowers running riot, some vegetables planted in neat rows, and occasionally a patch of grass. Clearly these people had grown up in a crowded environment and wanted people who ventured into their yard to be invited. The front porch “let_s see what_s going on in this neighborhood” U.S. mentality was not apparent at all. People were friendly and patient with our efforts to speak their language but they were not quick to use first names or the familiar form of verbs. No backslapping here.
The fact that there is a formal and informal form for the verb “you” says something all by itself.
Food – Serious Business
The French have a well-earned reputation for having some of the best food anywhere. We knew this, and it was one reason we wanted to go back to France.
Eating out, for instance, is an all-night ritual, often incorporating four or five courses. My first reaction to this was that there was no way I could put away that many courses. What I quickly discovered however was that no one was expected to take our table after us – so we had all night to get through the various parts of this meal (in fact, the bill isn_t presented unless it is requested). Also, each course is fairly small, beautifully presented, and of course delicious. Somehow, a small (especially chocolate) morsel at the end of an evening of eating wonderful things seemed just right.
We did learn that we could appreciate a several course dinner best if we took a day or two off in between. So we would eat something minor (but still delicious) on the barge for a day or two after a big meal out, while we decided where to go next time. And if we found a great place on the canal while barging one direction, we would plan to stop there for dinner again on our way back, going the other way.
And coffee is served AFTER dinner, not with dessert. In fact, cafe au lait or cappucino is a breakfast thing and generally available only in the morning. Once I tried insisting that I wanted a cafe au lait with my dessert, and I eventually got this, but it was considered so weird that I never tried it again. Eating and cooking are clearly considered much too important to be taken lightly or done out of sequence.
One experience that brought this home to me dramatically was when I tried to buy a new car cup. Sometimes my MS causes my hands to shake making it hard to hold a cup without spilling. So I brought with me a “car cup,” which was a pottery cup with a plastic lid. Unfortunately, about halfway through the trip I broke the cup so I went looking for another at the next town. What I discovered was that they were nowhere to be found in France, even in a Western-style supermarket. Then I started looking in the windows of parked cars and found that cup holders were also missing. Eventually it came to me that snacking, i.e. drinking and eating on the run, is not a part of the French culture. Their idea of eating is to sit down at a table and devote the appropriate time and attention to the food (and drinks).
This fit with the fact that there was little “fast food” available in the stores or at many restaurants.
Speaking of stores, it has always been a custom in France (and Europe in general) that individual small shops sell individual things – like bread or milk or cheese. This is still somewhat true, but supermarkets are creeping in and appearing in even small towns. Even the supermarkets, however, are adapted to the French system and tend to be HUGE, basically incorporating the individual shops under one roof. So there will be very big cheese, chocolate, and seafood etc. departments. I hate to see supermarkets take over, but it was convenient and I can see why it might appeal to busy French people. (One seafood display we saw included a beautiful arrangement of skinned eels. I_m not sure what one does with a skinned eel, but they certainly were displayed attractively.)
Bread is still unbelievably good and purchased fresh every day by most people. The part that I had not noticed before is that sometimes the bread is not actually baked on site, but is made in some big bakery and then delivered daily to the small shops.
One morning, we decided to go out for breakfast. We ordered a cafe au lait and a croissant at a local cafe, but it was after 9:00 a.m. so breakfast time was actually past (hey, we were on vacation!). The proprietor appreciated our problem, however, so she ran across the street to the bakery and bought a couple of fresh croissants for us.
The most dramatic example of the French attitude toward food came to us when we got on the barge. The barge was equipped with all necessary supplies and tools, including a salad spinner for washing lettuce, and a corkscrew, but not with a pizza cutter. It is assumed, apparently, that if you are going to cook on the barge, you are going to COOK.
We have sometimes made fun of the French for trying to keep language pollution out. But I must admit I was somewhat shocked when I saw how prevalent English words were in signs and conversation. Looking around and listening – they were everywhere! BAR, CASINO, SPORT, TOP TEN, PICNIC, WEEKEND. Of course it goes the other way too somewhat with things like b?te noir, cafe, and menage a trois – but I could see that it might be perceived as a problem by the powers that be in France, and I had a little more sympathy for them.
In the end I still love France and I have to admit that I want the quaint French towns and way of life to stay just the same for when I next visit. But some things will change and it became clear on this visit:
1. People everywhere will adopt a convenient way to live and shop no matter what we think.
2. The Taliban (like the French government) ultimately cannot legislate what people think and how they speak.
3. We are very lucky in this country to be isolated from most wars. Every small town in France has a central monument honoring and usually listing the casualties from the First and Second World Wars. No doubt they were always there, but I could overlook them before.
Time Flies in Hungary
By Elizabeth Neville
After seeing the eclipse under Sumeg castle, we cycled to the station and took our bikes on the train to Lake Balaton. We got off at Badacsonytomaj and peddled towards the shoreline, into a campsite area. Stopping, we sat on a raised bank to watch the end of the eclipse. A man sitting on the bank spoke to us, he was Australian, living in Bensheim (between Frankfurt and Stuttgart). He had driven all night from there, because the weather over southern Germany and Austria had turned stormy the previous evening. We watched until the moon had completely crossed the sun: it was 14.14.
We sat and talked with this traveller, Bill Pearce; a teacher who also travels each year with his teenage son. Daniel sat with us, then peddled his bike around the grass circle in front of us. I recommended Hotel Var, in Sumeg, to him; he was in need of somewhere to stay before setting off on the long drive home. (He sent a postcard in the autumn saying he_d stayed there and found it wonderful.)
After saying goodbye we headed towards the water, which lay beyond the trees, to find this was an area of Strand with a charge. I knew there were parts that were open, so we_d go further up the shore. Daniel wasn_t happy about this and he cycled off up the path. I felt instinctively that it wasn_t the place for us to go bathing. Yet without knowing, this was why:
Catching up to Daniel, I could hear a faint whoosh-whoosh behind the trees. The Station came back into view on our left; and there on the track was the source of the whooshing: a big, black dragon with steam pouring out of its nostrils.
People were dotted around filming, photographing, and all admiring the grand black engine. We parked our bikes and approached it; Daniel ahead of me, enjoying this new experience. Full of curiosity, he walked down the platform to the coal truck; I joined him. He turned again to face the engine, looking up at the steam above it. Walking towards the drivers, they invited him up. He smiled broadly as they helped him climb in. They gestured for me to join him as I came up level with them. Inside, I inquired if they were going to Tapolca? Yes. When? In five minutes. They spoke no English; my Hungarian stretched to three words, none of which applied here. Daniel was enthralled with the workings of the engine and as five minutes approached, I made for us to leave. The drivers shook their heads. No, we were going with them. No, I pointed, we have our bicycles. Two minutes later they_d had a guard put them in his carriage, and away we flew with the dragon, it_s fiery breath engulfing us.
The Station Master two stops farther down the track looked at the engine_s occupants with a not too pleased expression, accompanied with words of a similar tone; maybe he_d wanted a ride all the years the steam engine had skirted his Lake? He looked happier moments later as the fireman placed money in his palm, and choo-choo we continued.
“Time flies by when you_re the driver of a train, and you ride on the footplate there and back again; Under bridges, over bridges, through the dusty lanes; de de de de, de de de de, de de de de de (!) Time flies by when you_re the driver of a train, and you ride on the footplate there and back again.” I sang to myself (from Chigley, many moons ago) and was never happier.
All the way to Tapolca on the footplate, hugging the Lake until turning inland, waving to the bystanders; Daniel being held up to pull the whistle and me given a well received bottle of beer (After my year of planning had delivered us such a glorious day, and now this out of the blue I felt I deserved a little treat!)
At Tapolca the drivers hugged us and said a sad farewell. We watched them turn the engine around, then couple up again and head south once more, waving to us; and I was able to film some more. We took the next train back down to the Lake, to Zanka and cycled from track to Strand, which took all of one minute! The bikes went in the rack and we found a spot on the grass feet away from the water. Daniel wanted a snorkel and ball from the shop. Armed with these and changed, into the silky Lake we ventured.
We started to play with the ball; it was thrown past one of us and continued, gently to drift away from the shore. I swam a good way after it, yet it skimmed the surface at a greater rate of knots than I. Daniel was upset; me too, but it hadn_t been attached to us for long, so we soon got over it. We swam and chased, Daniel snorkelled, I sat on the bank intermittently: the vista out over the lake was glorious – shimmering and serene.
It shone, silvery blue, dotted with colour – balls, peddle boats, passenger cruisers in the distance and later, ducks and swans. As it cooled, we dressed and discovered trampolines as we made to collect our bikes; and there, on the shores of Lake Balaton, we bounced, blissfully into the sunset.
We_d swam in the silky water in the late afternoon sun and trampolined on its bank as dusk descended. What a perfect day. 11th August 1999.
And even then it wasn_t over. With not a care in the world, the day had snuck by. Pushing our bikes over the track, we wonder if there will be a train up to Sumeg. Overhearing, a man speaks to us, before turning to his wife in Hungarian. We all go back to the ticket hall and whilst she inquires, I buy the local paper with a front page picture of a black moon blotting out the sun whose only light was a silver crown around its vanquisher.
The trains only go up to Tapolca now, and it is a long, dark cycle from there to Sumeg; we can stay with them, a few stops down the shore. They live in London; he_s a Haringey councillor and his wife an economist and a native to the area. Of the two girls with them, the eldest is their daughter and the younger, her cousin who lives locally. It turns out we have mutual acquaintances from the church, St. James Muswell Hill. Fergus will know him, he taught the vicar_s son. We take the train two stops back down the Lake to Balaton Szepezd.
One hundred metres up the lane from the station we go through an old wooden gate into a dark, wild garden. We come to the home of an elderly local woman, an old family friend. She_s not there, but the house is so much the abode of an old lady. Its two rooms seem both to be bedrooms. Dans and I sleep in one, head to head in single beds with layers of blankets and quilts. There is a tiny kitchen and shower room and the front porch the loveliest of dining rooms. The outside toilet is a veritable storeroom and abode for many large spiders. I learned to live with bugs during my tour of Europe.
Daniel and the daughter excitedly exchanged eclipse stories: Had she seen the diamond ring effect? Had he seen the cosmic waves, purple, glide across the ground? Did she see the crescent moon shadows through the trees leaves? Had he felt the cold and heard the silence of all the birds and animals? They have had very differing experiences: She up in the wooded hills high above the north shore; Daniel on a bare hill overlooking the plain as far as the horizon, to the north and west.
We are given supper and sit enjoying the warm evening. Daniel has company, the daughter Antonia and her cousin Sophie, whose mother has a new baby. Daniel and the children play for an hour or so until the little one falls asleep, then he and Antonia sit with us and eat before I tuck him into bed. Then the daughter retires and us adults last.
I hadn_t noted the time much that day; morning had become mid-afternoon; afternoon, late evening. Having worked for a year with the time of the eclipse as 11.11 in most articles, obviously pertaining to Cornwall, the lateness of the hour had not sunk in. And I had calculated, in February, that Totality over Sumeg would be approximately 1 hour (for Central European Time) and 37 minutes (for eastern trajectory) later than Cornwall. However, I had a feeling of it being midday as the moon finally departed from the sun; and just early afternoon as we rode with the drivers down the lake and up to Tapolca. As we came to Zanka Strand, I thought it no later than teatime.
It had been disorienting, which is no surprise when the sun disappears in the middle of the day and every creature except humans react instinctively and go to sleep, then re-awake. Maybe our body clocks reset and counted 12.50 as dawn? Or maybe it was because time really does fly by once you set foot on the plate of a steam train?
It could have been before midnight or well after when I retired to my bed. I_d eaten enough to satisfy my hunger, we_d had a very energetic day: cycling, swimming and trampolining, without the exhilaration of the events that unfolded in front of our eyes. And what a sight for sore eyes, and legs and arms they had been. My sore eyes – and legs and arms – closed, curled and folded, sinking into sleep as satisfied and serenely as the sun had sank over Lake Balaton.
And still another day on Lake Balaton, three days of the Grand Prix and the Orient Express to come. Before mentioning our triumphant return to Paris…
Date Entered: 4/24/2001