Arriving in Monastir on New Years Eve we saw in the New Year with long time cruising friends “Sweetie” sharing a meal out (early at 5:30pm as the covid curfew meant restaurants shut at 7pm) then back to “Sweetie” for games, laughter and of course a few drinks to see in 2021.
Our plan was to stay maybe 2 months to cover the worst of winter here in the Mediterranean, reset our Schengen time for re-entry into Europe, do all our winter jobs and maintenance and then cruise off again around March. BUT as they say, Sailors write their plans in the sand at low tide … it is now May and we hope to leave by the end of the month. The delays have actually worked in our favour in more ways than one – it seems the unsettled weather saved itself for April so we were glad not to be out at anchor or making passages in the frequent high winds and also the delay in our boat parts coming from from France for our haul out put us back nearly 6 weeks which has allowed Phil to receive the 2 Pfizer Covid Vaccines here in Tunisia – A Big Win!!! (I am too young to get mine in the Tunisian roll out so will have to keep trying as we move onto other countries).
One of the highlights of our time in Monastir Marina has been the large and wonderful cruisers community here. We have never wintered before with so many other liveaboards/cruisers and we found ourselves quite popular with a full social calendar – most enjoyable making new friends and learning of their adventures.
The City of Monastir is a pleasant place to be with the main square, the Ribat, the Mausoleum and the old and new Grand Mosque all adjacent to the marina making it a very pleasant short walk to town as you pass these magnificent sites. These sites are the top sites for town and the remainder of the streets are very much working class Tunisia (dirty, cracked concrete, and full of character and chaos).
We have found everything we need and more in this city with Phil becoming quite the expert with what you can buy and where (boat bits) around town or get made in the industrial/commercial fishing port. Maree has found a wonderland of fabric stores for both boat projects (canvas, plastic etc) as well as general notions and fabric for other “non boat related” sewing fun (shhhhh, don’t tell Phil). Nearly all items and the metal fabrication is significantly cheaper than Europe.
There are two supermarkets which have everything we want (with the exception of anything Pork related – being a Muslim country it’s not available here), however we do almost all of our shopping in the produce markets, which are a colourful, busy, noisy, and have many tastes and smells for the senses (when busy it can be scary in Covid times so we shop in the quieter hours), however a lot of the stands are actually in the street outside, the fresh food is super fresh, delicious and incredibly cheap. You can only buy what’s in season and been harvested the day prior as there is no such thing as cold storage or frozen goods and we have enjoyed a variety of in-season treats whilst here; peas in the pod, strawberries, grape fruit, dates, oranges, garlic, as well as year round vegetables (the carrots are amazing – best we have ever eaten).
During our time in Monastir we did a couple of day trips from the marina to visit nearby attractions. We visited El Jem and Sousse with another lovely cruising couple Terry and Mike who had sailed to Tunisia from Australia via the Indian Ocean and Red Sea.
El Jem has in its centre an ancient Roman Colosseum constructed between AD 230 and 238. It was the third largest in the Roman world and the arena measures 138m long by 114m wide.
There is three tiers of seating reaching to 30 meters high with a seating capacity of 30,000. The construction wasn’t easy with the stone being hauled from the coast 30km away and water brought 15 km by an underground aqueduct. It is still to this day mostly intact, and being there walking around and standing in the arena is pretty moving.
My imagination went into overdrive dreaming up the animals, gladiators, battle scenes and crowds. The four of us plus another four were the only visitors to this amazing historical building.
We also visited the El Jem Archaeological Museum which had fabulous Roman mosaics and a reproduction Roman villa built on the original foundations.
Sousse is Tunisia’s third largest city and is just a 40 minute (50 cent AUD) train ride north of Monastir. It is spoken of for its Medina, with its maze like cobblestone streets through the Souks for shopping and also many sights of historical and religious interest. Built in AD 859 the walls of the Medina stretch 2.25km at a height of 8m and are fortified with a series of solid square turrets.
Within the Medina walls there are 24 mosques (12 for men and 12 for women). It was very obvious we were the only tourists in town that day (and maybe all year), but it was really pleasant and we were hardly hassled at all by the store holders (however there were many closed up shops, we assume owing to the huge impact of COVID).
We also visited the Sousse archaeological museum which is home to some breathtaking Roman mosaics of equal quality to the El Jem museum.
Tunis. When our boat parts from France eventually arrived in Tunisia we hired a car to collect them (3 hours north of Monastir) and used it as a good opportunity to also visit the countries capital city Tunis. Our agenda for the day in the big smoke was to visit the Medina (old walled in city which are the souks (markets) and houses), the museum and also the much talked about Sidi Bou Siad (coastal tourist zone). We didn’t really rate Sidi Bou Said, it was pretty but nothing special. We enjoyed the huge Medina but didn’t find it anything extra special to others we have visited in both Morocco or Tunisia, however in saying that we will continue to always visit them as they are a hugely stimulating place to experience and visit and you never know what you will find (I don’t mean to sound blaise, but I think maybe we are a little put off spending much time in these places at the moment due to the confined spaces of the Medinas and the covid pandemic risks associated with it).
What we did sincerely enjoy was our visit to the Bardo Museum. It is filled with the superb Roman mosaics that once adorned Roman Africa’s most lavish villas. Not only is collection extraordinary the museum itself is housed in one of Tunisias finest palaces. We wandered the palace and mosaics for hours with our mouths open in awe. Who would ever want carpets in their house when your floor could be works of art!
It hasn’t been all day jollies and socialising, we have accomplished most of our winter jobs lists, and of course added a lot more to keep us busy during the year. Some of the bigger items ticked off the list include;
During our stay we also lived through our first entire Ramadan which is practiced by those of the Muslim faith. The basic principle is a month of fasting, prayer, reflection and community. Those who observe Ramadan fast between the hours of 4am and 7pm daily (this changes slightly by minutes each day based on the moon), and by fasting we mean everything, no water, no drinks, no fruit, no food, which in effect impacts the day to day workings of the country quite severely. There are no restaurants or cafes serving food for the entire month, meaning a lot of people are out of work for the month, and for all other business that don’t function around food most are shut by lunch time or early afternoon due to the fatigue staff suffer from fasting. Food and drink can still be bought from the markets and supermarkets for home consumption outside the hours of fasting. The start and end of fasting daily is signalled by an extremely loud “cannon shot” and lightening flash from the fireworks used. Being so near the grand mosque and with the water reflecting sound we had the pleasure of being woken from our bed most mornings with this cannon, a very good heart starter. The evening meals after 7pm are said to be quite the celebration and feasts in the homes, with many people travelling to spend the month with family (due to limited work). Alcohol is also banned for the month and can’t be sold or purchased. Luckily we knew of this and stocked up accordingly, and when the final cannon sounded (a double banger) at the end of Ramadan we still had 1 bottle of wine left and a dozen beers – good planning! What was a surprise is the amount of people in the community who don’t observe Ramadan or strictly adhere to fasting all day. The only coffee shops open in the city were the three here at the marina to cater for westerners. On a normal day you would be lucky to see 2 patrons at any of these establishments [due to covid restrictions] but come lunchtime during Ramadan they were full with very few vacant seats. It seemed a lot took advantage of the reduced work day and turned it into a social afternoon. The marina cafes are also almost hidden from the town so the risk of being seen by others is minimised.
We have sincerely enjoyed our time in Tunisia and despite the very real struggles, worries and impact from Covid we have felt very safe. We take covid very seriously and take full responsibility to manage our own exposure and safety. The impact on the people here in Tunisia is very evident and heartbreaking, and whilst as individuals they can’t control the restrictions or the economical impact it has had, it can be frustrating to see them not take steps to control their own safety. Masks are mainly used as neck warmers if they have them at all. Funnily enough one of the safest activities we have enjoyed has been doing some sight seeing of their biggest tourism places in the country and having it entirely to ourselves – great for us but again crippling for those that make their living from the tourist trade.
We find the Tunisian people in general friendly and mostly patient and helpful to us outsiders trying to speak their language and understand their ways. Although Tunisian Arabic is the main language it seems like the majority of Tunisians speak French and a lot know some English also. They are always asking where we are from and welcoming us to their country (on almost a daily basis). Our general observations also note that they seem mostly very respectful and trustful with most businesses leaving equipment, tables and chairs outside even goods with just a towel over them and you never see any theft or vandalism. We like and highly recommend a visit to Tunisia for anyone who is interested in experiencing a different culture and visiting some amazing places.