The Mediterranean Sea Part 2: Greece to Gibraltar
In the superb protection of land-locked Porto Heli we lay at anchor for the whole winter of 1987-88. While there, along with short trips to the UK, I wrote another book for the BMA, heartened by the news that the book of the previous winter (Living With Risk) had won a supposedly prestigious science book prize in Britain.
We left Porto Heli at the beginning of May 1988. We spent a few weeks moving through the Cyclades islands in the Aegean, and were surprised at how barren they were. It was hard for us to see why they have attracted such a devoted following over the years. Some of the harbours and anchorages are good, and there are some attractive little whitewashed villages in most of the foothills. But provisioning and water supplies are constant problems, and we never saw really pretty or dramatic scenery. Lots of rocks and thorns, though.
We found the island people easier to deal with than those on the mainland, but still unforthcoming unless pressed. Except on the tourist islands, the people tend to be either very young or old – the others are off making money in Athens, Germany, the USA or Australia.
The islands differed one from the other more than we had expected. Practically within sight of each other might be one island packed with young tourists and discos and another with nothing but a simple hamlet and no hotels at all. All the islands were bleak, barren and stony, extremely hard going to walk over, although we gave it a good shot on some. I could never describe them as beautiful in the normal sense, although some of the villages had charm, spilling their cubical white dwellings over craggy outcrops like sugar on a rock cake. The classic “touristy” picture is of snow-white (read, glaring in the sun) houses and churches, steep paved alleys, bunches of flowers, and windmills. These spectacular features are all there, but such views are pastiches that cut out the context, which is rugged, dry, and grey.
Our final island in the Cyclades was a big one, Kos, the birthplace of Hippocrates. We unfolded the bikes, fixed the inevitable puncture, and cycled up to the Asklepion, the place of healing, built by and for his disciples (long after his death). We also duly viewed the tree under which it is said that the great man taught, propped up now by a complex of stone struts, but it is about 800 years too young to have been there at the time. From there, cleared out by a surly Customs and Immigration official who made his disapproval very plain, we sailed to Turkey.
Turkey and Greece nearly came to war over seabed rights in the Aegean only last year (1987), the latest round in a series of disputes which – given changing names for the regions – has gone on for thousands of years. The premiers of Greece and Turkey met together very recently; urged for comment by an optimistic press, Ozal pointed out that anyone who hoped for much progress out of one meeting had little understanding of history. It is strange: here we are in south-west Turkey, Muslim (though a “secular” state) and with an Asian feel, yet the ruins we dutifully trot round are of Greek and Roman settlements, the whole Aegean coast having been “Greek” (although often under non-Greek rule) for nearly 3,000 years.
For example, for a while we were anchored in the harbour of what was in ancient times Knidos, one of the capital cities of the ancient world, and (with Kos) one of the two main centres for the healing arts. There is nothing here now but acres of ruins scattered over the rocky hillsides (plus a tiny restaurant and lots of visiting yachts and cruise boats in the windswept harbour), and there is an all-pervading sense of the passage of civilization after civilization, as the limited excavations have uncovered layer on layer of building upon building, temple upon temple.
The people of the area, however, are firmly “Turkish” (from Lydia and Anatolia, taken over by the Persians before Xerxes was surprisingly thumped by the Greeks). Any remaining Greeks were “exchanged” by Ataturk in the twenties, although there are a few ghost towns which the Turks never took over. It is a great relief to see women dressed brightly, rather than in the black which is so typically Mediterranean. They wear patterned blouses and dresses over coloured baggy pants, with white headscarves, and are out and about, working in the fields and with the animals. We have been a long way off the tourist beat – indeed, Turkey as a whole is only now discovering tourism as an industry. We have found the local people to be charming. They look you in the eye, head up, and always with a spoken greeting, very cheerful and outgoing.
We found some lovely areas for cruising, with many (though often terribly deep) good anchorages. Provisioning was, as in Yugoslavia the previous year, better than we had been led to believe, and water was no problem at all. In many bays it is possible to tie bow-to to a tree, and take water directly on to the boat via a hose connected to a pipe which runs constantly, fed from springs high in the hills. The wine was pretty awful, though.
The cost of living, on foreign currency, we found to be very low; it is the only country we have been to where Norma concedes that it is possible to eat out for no more than it would cost on board. And the food is excellent, a mixture of European and Asian (like Turkey as a whole).
The coastal towns we have visited have been small ones, not particularly attractive and no attempt has been made to make them so. The villages we have come across on our walks inland have been exceedingly simple places, but clean in comparison with the third world (if that comparison is fair). The countryside around most of this south-west coast is mostly tree-covered, mountainous, lush and green; being on a windward coast, it rains a lot in the winter, and water is no problem.
The main problem with Turkey is that now it is being discovered. Cruising boats are deserting Greek waters in hordes. There are hundreds of charter boats now sailing in Turkey, many in flotillas that are not too much of a threat because they are supervised by (mostly) competent leaders. However, there are also hundreds of chartered bareboats, which can be truly dangerous, because the anchoring conditions are often very tricky – deep, weedy, gusty winds and so on. On top of that, there are hundreds (again) of big local motorsailors, “gulets” (dubbed “goolies” by Norma), very attractive locally-built wooden boats, out for charter. There are over 300 operating out of Bodrum alone, and a much bigger fleet out of Marmaris.
Anchored in the enclosed harbour of Bodrum we rented a car and took it on an engrossing circuit of Anatolia and up to Istanbul, including every ancient pile of rock on the western seaboard. Because the entire west coast was at various times part of the Persian, Greek and Roman empires, there is a feast of fun and entertainment for amateur ruinologists. The most outstanding site is of course Ephesus, where there has been substantial reconstruction of the more important of the ruined buildings. The most famous one is the library, with its glorious facade; we got there early to beat the tourist rush, and had it to ourselves in the magic of the golden early morning sun, which it was built to catch. Although later in the day Ephesus was thronged with tourists, most of the other sites were very quiet, full of atmosphere and romance.
We did the virtually obligatory trip to the tip of the Gallipoli peninsula. Around Anzac Cove and in the hills for half a mile or so around – as far as the doomed assault force got – there are memorials and countless gravestones. It is all very quiet, with typically a few Australians picking their way through the scrub to places with names like “Scotty’s Mount”, and the atmosphere is ghost-ridden. The most incredible thing to us was the manifest unsuitability of the landing area at Anzac Cove itself. The beach is narrow – just 5 or 10 metres across – backed by steep dunes, then there is a short stretch of scrubby plain before the foothills rise steeply to an escarpment. Up there, the Turkish machine-gunners had a superb field of fire, and the resulting slaughter was inevitable. We have never felt so moved by a memorial (the area is a park, now) or more angry at the pointlessness of it all.
And so on to Istanbul, with its seething traffic, noise, crowding, and manifest city ills. Again, we saw most of the recognized sights, including the Blue Mosque (big, but we have seen much more attractive mosques on a smaller scale) and the Saint Sophia basilica/mosque, now a museum. But for us easily the most memorable complex of buildings was Topkapi, the palace of the Ottoman sultans for hundreds of years, and now a collection of museums. They have beautifully restored part of the enormous labyrinth of the harem, centre of court intrigue, and in another part of the palace Norma was especially fascinated by the kitchen buildings. The pots they used were so enormous that she couldn’t even lift the lids of most of them. In the Treasury there is a display of some of the fabulous jewels of the Ottoman empire, said to rival the Crown Jewels in beauty and value. Well, I don’t know about that, but there were so many egg-sized diamonds and much solid gold to be seen that it was easy to become very ho-hum about yet another slab of magnificence. It is an important place in the world of Islam, and Norma received a dirty glare from some Moslem pilgrims when an irrepressible giggle escaped her on being confronted by a hair of the beard of the Prophet.
Like every other tourist we walked around the famous covered market, but in the central part we found the constant hassling from the stall-holders and shop-keepers very trying, especially those selling carpets. “Carpet touts” are pretty pushy all over Turkey (outside Istanbul, the Turks as a whole are not pushy at all), but in that city they are a real pain in the neck. The trouble is, when a pleasant-looking young man comes and offers help or information you have no idea whether he is being friendly or just trying to sell carpets, souvenirs, or in some cases restaurant meals. We found the best policy was to ignore their entreaties totally, but that’s a bit hard when they are standing in front of you and blocking your way! I lost my temper with a restaurant owner who wanted us to try his fish, wouldn’t take no for an answer and started cross-questioning us as to why we wouldn’t come in, and I shouted at him to leave us alone, not like me at all!
But off the tourist beat the locals were as nice as ever, and where the Turks do their trading in the outer reaches of the enormous market area we were not troubled at all. There is no room in the narrow alleys for even small carts, and most of the heavy wares are carried on the stooped-over backs of specialist porters, who use a sort of cradle strapped to their backs and carry incredible loads, way over 100 kilograms. Many of these men are quite old, with white beards, with a Semitic appearance; this has been a traditional occupation for these people for centuries. Heaven knows what it does to their spines in the long term, although one travel book we read said that no harm results. Personally I doubt it!
We drove on up to have a look at the Black Sea coast, which was surprisingly lovely: green, rolling hillsides, colourful fields, looking very much like the Sussex downs. Then south on to the inland route, climbing through attractive hills to plateau country, with miles and miles of wheat fields. It was harvest time, much of it being done in the traditional manner with scythes and winnowing by hand. Farming is, we observed, very labour-intensive in Turkey; it is not unusual to see one person looking after a single cow as it grazes, and common to see small herds of cows, sheep or goats being led around on strings. The people of the countryside are poor in the sense that they have no money, but they certainly have plenty to eat. Their houses are very simple, mostly wooden dwellings or a mixture of wood and mud brick.
We mostly stayed in small hotels and pensions, all very cheap by European standards, with cleanliness ranging from good to awful. We ate out constantly, on food which was never less than enjoyable and often excellent. Despite also eating from roadside vendor stalls (lunch, on one occasion, was lamb barbecued in strips of innards and cut up into half a loaf of fresh bread – lovely!), we never suffered from any stomach problems. Moslem traditions make for the very clean handling of food.
Turkey would probably justify a whole season on its own, and indeed we regretted not having more seriously considered spending the previous winter there. Fethiye, with its complex of bays, good anchorages and a spellbinding backdrop of cliffs and caves, is very popular in that regard. However, we had to leave after only eight weeks, which included the car trip and also hauling and bottom-painting the boat (in incredible heat) at a yard near Bodrum. We were conscious of a certain ennui – we had had more than enough of sailing in the Mediterranean sea and felt a strong pull west to distant shores, to decent sailing and decent anchorages, fishing, and all the other good maritime things. Also, July and August are no months to sail in the Aegean. The Meltemi, a steady N-NW wind, blows day in and day out at 20 to 35 knots, gusting violently through the anchorages and blowing red dust off the scorched hillsides.
We cleared out from Bodrum, with the usual visits to every conceivable local official, and sailed west, back across the southern Aegean. Faced by headwinds as we approached the southern tip of mainland Greece we called in to a deserted bay – Port Khaio – for a few days, but thereafter “sailed” (that is, motored about half the time) to Malta nonstop. Some of the restrictions on cruising around the Maltese islands have been relaxed, and because the group is such an obvious stopping place en route from one end of the Mediterranean to the other, many more yachts are calling.
We arrived off Valletta Harbour during the morning of July 27, 1988. Having been warned that it was a requirement to do so, we called Valletta Port Control on Channel 12 advising our approach; overseen by supreme bureaucrats, every movement by a yacht inside and in the vicinity of the harbour had to be so advised, although the number of vessels using the port is clearly a small fraction of what it was in the past.
The approach to the harbour, and the entrance, is exceedingly spectacular, because we were overlooked from all sides by forts of every shape and size. It is easily the most highly fortified place we have ever seen. The buildings are all in the same shade of stone, which adds to the impression that the whole of Valletta and the surrounding districts make up one big castle.
Valletta was an interesting city, but exceedingly crowded with tourists, all of whom, like us, looked as though they were suffering from the oppressive heat and would rather be at the beach! There are some lovely old buildings, most of them having had to be rebuilt after the war. But the island itself is just a giant rock pile. Further, it has been extensively quarried for its yellowish stone – “Malta” comes from the old word for honey, melita – and the climate and the absence of topsoil prevents anything of any significance growing. In mid-summer, it looks as though a blowtorch has been waved over it, and there is very little livestock to be seen. Even the goats would find little to eat! The crowding is incredible. Throughout the barren landscape are scattered countless quite large towns, looking from a distance a bit like bunches of bigger versions of the stones which are everywhere, and all marked by a prominent church. This is a very Catholic country, and the population is growing fast. As it is, we have no idea how the island supports itself.
For 16 years after independence Malta had a hard-left government more interested in contacts with nations such as Libya than with the west. A change in government has brought about a change in attitude towards tourists, including those arriving on yachts, and the foreign exchange they bring with them. Malta is a overpopulated island, and the tourist industry it is hoped will bring jobs to those who might hitherto have never been assured of work in Valletta’s enormous harbour and dockyard facilities.
As far as yachts are concerned, there is evidence of a change in attitude – no longer are their owners necessarily seen as capitalist warmongers – but the warming of approach had not filtered down to some of the many officials with whom relationships have to be established. Also, facilities for short-term cruising yachts leave a great deal to be desired.
The first problem was what to do when we arrived, made worse by the fact that it was a Sunday. All space adjacent to a prominent sign reading “Guest Berth” was full up, it turned out later with locally-owned boats permanently kept there. The harbour office is shut at the weekends, and even during the week we never heard the office respond to calls from arriving yachts for advice on where to go. We rafted alongside a Canadian boat at the east end of the dock, and when he left the next day, we moved in to his space.
Come Monday, and the berthing master – the only functionary able to allocate berths, and often away from his office on other duties – told us to stay put where we were.
It became clear the “Guest berth” sign meant nothing in practice: the entire wharf frontage (laughingly called a marina) on the south side of Manoel Island is used by short-term and long-term yachts alike, with the latter having to take the chance that the vacant space he pulls in to will not soon be claimed by its permanent or semipermanent user. Some yachts, accordingly, found themselves being reallocated new berths and having to move almost daily, although this fate did not befall us.
Having to move complicated the already rather painful situation in regard to water and electricity. Again, only one man had sufficient authority to make decisions on who was to be connected to what and when; only available in the mornings, many people found this employee of the municipal authorities a somewhat abrasive character.
The reasons for visiting Malta include seeing the extraordinary fortification of this rocky but strategic group of islands, replenishing stores, and getting things done to and for the yacht. The chandleries are generally well stocked, and the Manoel Island yacht yard able to carry out most repairs. We took an enjoyable ferry ride to the nearby island of Gozo, to see yet more honey-coloured ruins. But in the end, we were not sorry to move on.
From Malta we continued due west to Tunisia. This is a country which is usually missed out by circumnavigators, because for most people it is off the track for a one-way transit of the Mediterranean. East-west (or vice versa) passage-makers stick understandably to the popular shores of the countries of the northern Mediterranean, tracking (as we had done) through the Straits of Messina and the fishing harbours of Italy. This could explain why during our cruise of Tunisian waters, the overwhelming majority of boats hailed from Italian or French ports. We hardly saw any English speakers at all.
But the country is trying hard to attract yachts (and other tourists) to its shores. After several weeks there, our conclusion was that the country is well worth a visit, especially if your tastes run to exotica. But how much you’ll enjoy the actual cruising depends a lot on what you like to do. Among the well contented will be those who like marinas and Mediterranean-style fishing ports, and who are prepared (and prosperous enough) to leave the boat for extended travelling inland. Those who enjoy dropping anchor in peaceful and protected coves will need to find satisfaction elsewhere or in other ways.
We entered Tunisia at Monastir, about half way down the eastern coast of the country, where a set of little islands have been connected by a sea wall in order to enclose a brand new marina. The main obstacle on the approach, and one which is to be found at many places round this coast during the summer, is the tuna netting which extends miles off shore, marked by a large buoy but still hard to see against the setting sun.
Formalities were about par for the course in the eastern Mediterranean, with forms having to be completed for the port captain, port police, immigration authorities and Customs, but the officials were cheerfully friendly and keen to help. They had been worked off their black-soled boots that particular afternoon, as we arrived just after a gang of yachts which had raced from Palermo. All the formalities were conducted in offices or on the wharf, not aboard the boat.
Daily, we took the short walk up to the town of Monastir, past an impressive sandstone fortified monastery, or “ribat”. It is a popular place to make movies. Hard by the ribat is an ugly square box of a building, looking like an aircraft hanger: a peek inside revealed a full-scale mock-up of a Roman temple! The other buildings in the area may or may not be original – it is now very hard to say!
Provisioning in the town is adequate, and nowhere we shopped in the country did we fail to obtain adequate provisions. There is a market, very dependent on what’s growing and going in the countryside: not a lot, in mid-August, when we were there. But basics like potatoes, tomatoes (very ripe ones), onions and pumpkins were all abundant, along with some rather tired lettuce and local spinach. There was no pig meat to be had, of course, in this Moslem country, but chickens and their eggs are massively popular and low-priced, as is excellent goat meat, plus lamb and beef. Typically for the Med, all meat is very fresh, and can be tough unless the cook is familiar with its preparation.
Eating out, Tunisian food is spicy, with lots of chili. The staple is couscous, various stews with semolina, and the snacks freshly cooked by roadside vendors are generally excellent. On the tourist beat, however, the food is bland, even the so-called local dishes; at the more expensive restaurants, the cooking is based on French cuisine.
We had always planned to do some touring round this country, particularly of the south. We looked into hiring a car, but it would have been very expensive and we weren’t at all sure about hotels and the like, so for the first time in our lives we booked a bus tour, for two days away and one night in a hotel, meals and all included.
Among the main “sights” of the tour were the several Roman sites in Tunisia, and because of the lack of earthquakes many of them are in very good condition, having been more damaged in various wars than by natural forces. On the second day we saw a ruined city with an exceptional forum, which was the main square and meeting place, with three magnificent temples in superb condition (for ruins).
On the way the bus regularly stopped at the bigger towns, where we sampled the local delicacies from the roadside vendors. At various times we had: a doughnut filled with hardboiled egg and salad, with chili sauce; french bread stuffed with fish, potatoes and chili; and a thing called “brik a l’oeuf“, apparently unique (it’s in none of Norma’s many books) and absolutely delicious. It is a thin pancake, crisply deep fried, wrapped round a spicy salad and a whole egg which is broken into it and cooks inside – Norma had no idea how or why the egg doesn’t run out first, and had to try making her own later. Things like that were far more tasty than the bland stuff they turn on for bus tours (like ours) at the restaurants and hotels.
A major target on the first day of the trip was a village called Matmata, which like others in the sunbaked area is mostly comprised of underground dwellings which the people have dug out in the sandstone of the hills in order to get away from the summer heat and the winter cold. We had lunch in one such place, now converted into a hotel. We went in down a tunnel, which took us to a central pit, open to the sky. Off this large hole in the ground led more tunnels and cave-like rooms. From a distance, the landscape looks pitted with craters, which are the tops of these central excavations; a few years ago that’s all there was to be seen, but the seething tourist activity at Matmata, and the money this has brought, has led to the building of several above-ground houses, which sort of spoils the effect.
Also, like most “houses” in the south (and in the tradition of Islam), these are ugly, dumpy structures, like blockhouses which haven’t even been finished properly. Centuries ago, all these people lived in tents. Many, the Bedouins, still do – but those who have moved into more solid homes have made no effort to make them attractive in any way.
As intended, we did see a lot of desert! Probably the most impressive was an enormous, dry, salt lake, flat and brown as far as the horizon in all directions, almost like being at sea, except that mirages shimmered in the direction of the sun. Not even Bedouins or their camels could survive out there. On the edge of this expanse are two big collections of oases, attractive hordes of palm trees under the shade of which other plants are cultivated, such as potatoes, chilis, okra and so on. Water springs from underground, and in this arid country it is strange to hear its sound as it is channelled from place to place by a system of ditches and sluice gates.
Being on a bus trip, by definition we were on the tourist beat; but even so, as we walked (usually on our own, as the other passengers went on organised little excursions on camels and horsedrawn carriages) round the markets and back streets of the towns and villages we were able to get a bit of a feel for the way of life in the near-desert. The villagers live a basic existence, to say the least, in their simple houses – we could see very little furniture, and most people seemed to sleep outside on mats and blankets. The village houses are often grouped into little squares, presumably containing families, with a central courtyard and surrounded by a blank and forbidding wall.
The local people seemed friendly enough, and the children all waved and said “bonjour” (French is the second language here). But the older women are all heavily veiled, although this is no longer compulsory, and turn their heads away if you look at them. The guide insisted that in Tunisia huge steps have been taken towards female emancipation, but from my reading of the history of Islam, it will take more than a few government decrees to change attitudes ingrained over centuries. All in all, we were pleased we did this trip, as we could not have got near the Sahara at reasonable cost otherwise, but it will be some time before we take another bus tour! We got taken only to the more “touristy” places, got fed some pretty terrible meals, and had to put up with some heavy smokers in the bus.
From Monastir we sailed the few miles past Sousse, a huge commercial harbour, to Port El Kantoui, the first of the marinas built as one of a series of planned tourist developments. It has a long way to go before being finished, as we found when touching bottom about half-way into the basin, groping around looking for a berth in what had become a screaming afternoon sou-easter, which as it happen blows straight in the entrance. The El Kantaoui development, Tunisia’s answer to Spain’s Puerto Banus, is nicely done, with attractive buildings of a reasonable height, not overwhelming. It is, of course, entirely artificial: typical Tunisia, it is not! Surprisingly, we found it quieter than Monastir, perhaps because the comparatively up-market and established restaurants did not find it necessary to blare loud music from outside speakers in order to attract customers. There is no local town, and a ride into the port of Sousse is required to see anything of the real world or buy stores which include anything much in the way of fresh produce.
From El Kantaoui we sailed north to the port of Kelibia, which had been well spoken of by the few we had met who had been there: quiet and friendly, they said. Well, August is no time to be cruising anywhere in the Mediterranean, so it was probably not surprising that the wharf newly set aside for the use of yachts was crammed, with a crazy mixture of stern-to mooring, the great Med raft-up alongside, and long lines cobwebbed to an adjacent wharf. A typically European situation, we thought, but not one which made for peaceful days and nights.
There is a village with basics just up the way, and a bigger town a couple of miles further. The local people come to the port for the evening walkabout, whole families, and a row of stalls caters for their snack needs including our favourite, the brik a l’oeuf. A favourite game in Kelibia is moving the boats around, and when we found one morning that we would have to move because a ferry was coming, we decided at short notice to sail to Sidi Bou Said, in the Bay of Tunis, around Cape Bon.
Sidi Bou Said is the place to be seen in Tunisia, we were told. On the top of the hill behind the marina is an enchanting little Moorish village, all white with blue trim, now a centre for tourist-oriented crafts and a target for bus tours. Beyond this “old” part is a new town with the usual supply of stores and an idiosyncratic approach to the selling of liquor. Hard spirits and expensive wine can be obtained at any time, but ordinary wine and beer can only be bought from a tucked-away shop after four in the afternoon. We were conscious, not for the first time in the country, that ex-President Bourguiba’s efforts to ease the strictures of Islam have met with patchy acceptance over the years.
We did a day trip into the city of Tunis from here. It was a Sunday, which is a weekend holiday day, so despite this being a Moslem country most of the shops were shut. But that didn’t matter, we weren’t there for the shopping, and we had a much more relaxed wander through the market areas than usual because most of the stalls and little shops were closed up and we were free from the incessant hassling which normally accompanies a stroll through these areas. And we could see the decorated arches of the souks (the covered market areas), with pretty painted decorations – and masses of horrifically exposed electrical wiring! These people, like so many in the Third World, live dangerous lives by western standards!
The main target of this trip was the national museum of Tunisia, the Bardo, which is famous for its collection of mosaics from the many Roman ruins in the country. To get there we had first to find the bus station and establish which was the correct bus; having done this, we joined the vague mob of people waiting for the same bus. When it arrived, we were involved in the most extraordinarily vicious scramble to get on, during which I felt wriggling fingers exploring a pocket in which I had some money. I slapped that hand down, and as it turned out there was plenty of room on the bus anyway! We have since learnt that this unseemly scramble is normal. They can keep it.
The Bardo was well worth the visit. It is an old palace, with masses of Islamic decoration almost worthy of the Alhambra, and the Roman mosaics were staggering, among the most interesting being those that depicted all aspects of Roman life. The mosaics are exceptionally good in this country because wherever else the Romans settled they painted the walls of their houses; here, they used mosaics for all their decoration, walls and floors.
We left early one morning for what turned out to be a tough sail against the common north-west wind, not assisted by the current swirling around Cape Farina, finally reaching the harbour at Bizerta late that evening. We anchored in the spacious reaches of the outer harbour, despite the entreaties – and, within a few minutes, the apoplectic waving – of a fat man in an amateur admiral’s hat, standing at the end of the wharf of the Club Nautique. Having for so long looked forward to lying once more to our own anchor, we were glad to hear from a German boat already doing so that to stay where we were would be “no problem”.
Bizerta is a fine town for taking on provisions, the main reason we were there at all. All stores are available within an easy walk of the harbour beach, and the market, Norma found, was an exceptionally good one. The fish were of a size and quality we had not seen since the markets of Spain and Portugal, and the meat we bought there was among the best we had sampled in the Mediterranean. It was a bit of a shock to our sensitive souls, however, to have a chicken killed and plucked before our very eyes, especially as we had asked – wholly illogically – for one of the dead ones on the counter.
We had been intending to leave Tunisia from Bizerta, but a prolonged period of westerly winds set in which would have meant an awful passage – the Mediterranean Sea being what it is – to our next destination, Gibraltar. One day, it seemed that we had the change were waiting for; but once on our way, the weatherfax map showed a new set of fronts approaching, and so we called unexpectedly into the “last” port in Tunisia, Tabarka, only five miles or so from the border with Algeria.
During that day we had sailed along the north coast of Tunisia, which is very pretty indeed: green and wooded hills, with golden sandy beaches between bunches of rocky cliffs. All completely deserted, as far as we could see. The approach to Tabarka was attractive, too, with a Genoese fort set high on a little island which forms part of the protection for the harbour. We arrived to this unscheduled port late in the evening, and although tired and hungry we then had to go through the runaround with the officials, particularly bureaucratic here, perhaps because of the proximity to the border with Algeria. But, as usual, they were pleasant enough as individuals.
Tabarka is quite an isolated place, very “Tunisian”, which tends to mean block-like houses, rubbish strewn everywhere, and smells of all kinds. (Especially in the harbour, as it happened, into which the town sewer runs, although they were in the process of diverting it – to a nearby beach). Sure enough, the westerlies set in again, blowing red dust all over us, and Norma continued to battle with the problem of keeping the boat stocked with enough for a week or ten days at sea, with daily doubt as to when we would actually be going!
In these more isolated, non-touristy areas the Moslem faith is stronger, and I had my own battle getting some wine and beer, drinking which the faith officially forbids. These beverages are only sold from an unmarked hideaway in a back street, for just about an hour a day, and there was an indescribable scrum of the most scruffy and villainous-looking Arabs fighting to get service at the tiny counter before the booze ran out. Wine was pretty awful rosé, with no choice. The problem was to get my hands on any of it at all, and I used my elbows and feet to keep my place in what we would laughingly call a queue. The local men surreptitiously stuffed their purchases into zipper bags or under their other shopping, and I saw one fellow stick a whole lot of bottles of beer into the waistband of his trousers. I felt as if I was buying bootleg liquor during Prohibition!
The people in these northern regions are mostly Berbers, generally pale skinned, and in Tabarka the women were dressed in very colourful patterned clothes, often interwoven with gold and silver threads, and very few were wearing the white shrouds and veil which are so common further south. They also sell carved animals at the handicraft stalls at the market – elsewhere in the Moslem world any depiction of the human or animal form is strictly forbidden.
We left the shores of Tunisia, most interesting and mainly enjoyable as the country had been, conscious that the cruising offered was not the cruising we most enjoy. “Anchorages” are mostly good for lunch stops only, although there are some holes in the sandy and tidal southern part of the coastline where shoal-draft yachts could find all-round protection. The all-pervading presence of armed officialdom made us uneasy, and the paperwork required when entering each and every port was a pain. Those who, unlike us, enjoy being parked in crowded full-service marinas which could really be anywhere in the world, will have a much better time than we did.