Tunisia – Part 3 (Chenini, Tataouine, Sfax, El Jem)

After our tantalizing introduction to the Sahara, we spent a few days on what proved to be the highlight of our visit to Tunisia. Wonderful Chenini…there is nothing bad we can say about you! We LOVED this Berber mountaintop village and are so glad that other travelers raved about it enough for us to take interest. Chenini is truly a special place on earth, and the Residence Kenza (a spectacular cave hotel) is the perfect place to stay while exploring Chenini and its surrounds. It helped that we had an excellent guide who hailed from Chenini to help bring his village to life, but we would have enjoyed it even if we stumbled around exploring it ourselves. If ever in Tunisia, Chenini is not to be missed, there we’ve said it!!!

Our awesome cave hotel room with a whopping 11 beds built into 3 caves; Residence Kenza Robby smiling as we picked out our bed for the night; Residence Kenza (truly one of the most unique hotel accomodations we've ever slept in!) Ali, our Chenini guide, shows us the camel responsible for grinding up the village's olives Sunset view over this obscenely picturesque Berber village Chenini has been inhabited since the 12th century AD. This is the view from the kasbah looking back towards the other side of the mountain Having a local guide showcase Chenini's highlights really helped bring this Berber village to life The ksar of Chenini is still used to store grain Robby and Ali strike a pose in pretty Chenini The zig zag path taken by Berbers up the mountain We enjoyed our 90 minute tour of pretty Chenini Approximately 80 Berber families still inhabit the ancient village of Chenini Becky stands next to a miniscule door (built tiny on purpose to prevent thieves from stealing the owner's jars full of valuable grain) Interior view of a ghorfa (notice the in-ground pots); Chenini's Ksour Becky at the Ksar in Chenini One of Chenini's few souvenir stores Smiling at dinner (included with our stay at Residence Kenza) Dinner was excellent! We thoroughly enjoyed both the food and the room at Residence Kenza. Two huge thumbs up!!! Robby with Dr  Belhedi Habib, the amazing owner of Residence Kenza Still smiling after our hike back up to Residence Kenza (a nice easy workout) Our chef poses next to the security detail charged with our safety; Residence Kenza Chenini's pretty white mosque foto gallery lightboxby VisualLightBox.com v6.1


21 March: We both awoke to the alarm sounding off at 7:30 am. What a great night’s sleep in the cave! While we were having breakfast, our local guide Ismail Degnich (isma-l113@live.com) showed up as promised. We discussed a quick itinerary (Douiret, Ksar Ouled Debbab, Ksar Ouled Soltane, Tataouine, Ksar Megabla) and he called a local driver to see how much it would cost to hire a car for the day. After back and forth negotiations, we got the price down from 120 Dinar to 80 Dinar, and Ismail said we could pay him whatever we felt comfortable with for his guiding services. By 10 am we were on our way to the first destination of the day, the abandoned hill top village of Douiret. Having Ismail as a guide was truly invaluable as he brought the now dead city to life with his vivid descriptions of daily living in this ancient Berber village. The walking tour of this village took about 90 minutes and we were both very pleased with Ishmael. Our next stop was the first Ksar of the day, and Ouled Debbab did not disappoint. Even though its been restored, its still quite picturesque and extremely photogenic. We couldn’t believe we were the only tourists in sight and had the whole place to ourselves. From Ouled Debbab, we drove onward to the granddaddy of all the Ksours, the world famous Ksar Ouled Soltane. If you can only visit one Ksar in Tunisia, make it this one because it is an unbelievable four storeys tall surrounded by two courtyards, with over 400 ghorfas (barrel vaulted grain storage rooms). Pretty awesome place which totally took our breath away…two huge thumbs up. Even our patient driver was eager to check out Ouled Soltane, and all 4 of us (driver and guide) were busy snapping away. It was getting hot by the time we left Ksar Ouled Soltane for the 22 km drive back to Tataouine but Ismail had agreed to take us for a quick walk through the market place (pretty basic, nothing to write home about) and the artisan square which was full of souvenir shops. From Tataouine, we drove to the last Ksar of the day, the nearby Ksar Megabla which dates from 1409. Since none of it has been restored, its is the perfect Ksar to imagine what all the surrounding Ksars looked like in their heyday. Its quite hard to picture what the Ksars looked like originally after undergoing heavy restoration. Our driver flew back on the return trip to Chenini, and we were back in town just after 2 pm. There we met the friendly owner of Residence Kenza, Dr. Belhedi Habib. He spoke excellent English and invited us to join him for a drink at the restaurant. Once he heard we were heading to Sfax, he immediately called up his American friend, Austin, to link us up together. Super nice guy! We were so impressed with his vision of Kenza and hearing the stories about his wife, Nedra Boulila, who is a champion for women’s rights in Tunisia (especially down in the South). Its obvious both Belhedi and Nedra deeply love Tunisia and were very pleased to have run into the good doctor.

Tataouine (called “Tatouine” by the Berbers which means “many eyes” since the town is set in the midst of a hilltop with fantastic 360 degree views in all directions…hence the village was ideally suited to forewarn its inhabitants of any impending danger on the horizon.)

In the afternoon, we briefly debated whether we should work up the effort to see the Jemaa Kedima, an underground mosque of seven sleepers. Relaxing until dinner won out, so we chilled until our excellent meal of lamb and couscous. Sadly, tomorrow we were leaving the south of Tunisia and heading back north, so we had an early night’s sleep.

22 March: After packing up our gear, we locked up our cave room and bathroom and headed down to the restaurant for breakfast. Ismail had promised to have a louage waiting for us at 8:30 am so we wanted to be at the base of Chenini by then. The weather was kicking today with winds over 30 miles an hour! Sand blew everywhere and we bundled up with our scarves and sunglasses. The louage was long gone by the time we made it downhill, and a nearby souvenir vendor told us that Ismail had been waiting as promised for us. We settled down to wait for the next louage and Robby befriended an elderly local who was also waiting near by. His ride showed up and we looked on in jealously as they turned around to drive off to Tataouine when the driver suddenly slammed on his brakes and offered to give us a ride. Awesome! We were more than happy to hitchhike. Our driver hailed from Tunis and was a University professor teaching physics. He was in Chenini because of the 2 week school break and made for great conversation for the 18 km ride. We were so grateful for our new friends’ generosity because they went out of their way to drop us off at the louage station for vehicles heading north. When we offered to compensate them for the gas, they immediately waved it off and told us it was their pleasure to help us out. Yet another example of why we love Tunisians so much. Lucky for us, a driver was standing outside the louage station yelling “SFAX, SFAX, SFAX”…we were the last 2 seats he needed to fill so we paid 15 Dinar each at the ticket counter and immediately set off for the long drive.

The weather grew worse as the day wore on with visibility severely restricted. At the town of Medenine we saw a horrible accident involving an SUV that had been crushed. Today was not the day to speed considering how horrible the wind and sand storm was. Our louage had set off at 10 am and it took a lot longer than we had anticipated to reach Sfax because of the numerous police checkpoints where everyone’s identification cards were collected by the driver and scrutinized by the police. We rolled into Sfax by 2:45 pm and were happy to finally get here. Thanks to google maps, finding our way to the medina was a breeze, and we checked into the first hotel we stumbled upon, the Hotel Medina. One of the friendly staff spoke good English and he offered to show us the rooms first before we made up our minds. At a price of 15 Dinar a night for the both of us, we quickly picked out a room and opted to pay an extra 1 Dinar each for a hot shower….17 Dinar to stay in the heart of the medina. What a bargain! The wind was blowing sand and dirt particles furiously which put a damper on our sightseeing. We did brave the elements for a few photos with our phones (no moving parts) but after being constantly pummeled by sand, we finally decided to call it quits and have an early dinner (rotisserie chicken, chips and salad for $3 each). Our hot water showers made us feel human again and we spent the rest of the night in our room enjoying the respite from the sand storm.

23 March: Since we were in the medina, the light just outside our room was never turned off, but Robby managed to hang one of the spare blankets over the window. The hotel was pretty noisy though and we were up by 6 am. One look out the window instantly brightened our spirits…it was shaping up to be another lovely day. Sand storm was finally over! We checked out of the hotel and took a couple more photos of Sfax’s Bab Diwan before heading over to the louage station. We were passengers 2 and 3 to show up to El Jem (4.6 Dinar each), and settled in for a long wait. It only took another 40 minutes before the van was full (8 passengers) and we were on our way. Seeing the Colosseum of El Jem off in the distance is enough to make anyone’s pulse quicken. We were dropped off at the louage station in El Jem by 10 am, and we made a beeline to the ticket office at the Colosseum (10 Dinar each with entrance to the nearby archaeology museum). The morning light was hitting the barren side of the Colosseum, so we decided to linger until noon when both sides were equally lit up, despite the harshness of the midday light. Amazingly, we had the entire complex to ourselves for about the first 30 minutes, and then bus loads of local tourists started appearing. El Jem was one of the few places Becky remembered visiting as a cadet, so it must have left an impression. Walking under the amphitheater to view the underground chambers that housed the gladiators and wild beasts was a bit spine tingling…perhaps we’ve watched too many episodes of Spartacus? The panoramic photos of El Jem were magnificent and we sullenly pulled ourselves away to check out the nearby museum (cool mosaics but good thing it was included in the amphitheater ticket). Catching a louage to Sousse was easier than we expected. We walked up and became passengers 6 and 7 and the last passenger hopped in just a few seconds later so we were off in an instant (9,500 Dinar for both of us). The police were being very thorough inspecting traffic into Sousse and all of our IDs were scrutinized. The louage station is several kms south of the medina, so we hopped in a taxi for the ride, which was well worth the 3 Dinar fee. Our hotel for the next 3 nights, Hotel Medina, was lovely and located right next to the Great Mosque. We had reserved the rooms in advance on booking.com but could have scored the hotel a bit cheaper in person (40 Dinar walk in rate versus 46 Dinar for the online rate). Breakfast was an additional 6 Dinar each but we decided to eat up the stockpile of dates that we’ve been lugging around from city to city. The view from the rooftop is phenomenal…definitely worth staying here for the view alone. Late afternoon saw us walking down the waterfront and wondering what had happened to the seafront hotels…why were they run down and in a state of disrepair? Had the hit on tourism really had that much of an impact? Very sad to see the once glamorous hotels all in a shoddy state today. For dinner we were craving non-Tunisian food so pizza it was. Note to self: do not order the Salami pizza in Tunisia. It is nothing like the salami you think of in the States! Robby’s shawarma chicken pizza was freaking tasty though! Back at the hotel, we hopped on free WiFi and found out that Brussels had been attacked yesterday (airport and metro station). Horrible news. Makes us wonder why we even go online anymore?

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