As soon as we drove away from the city, the landscaped changed. Olive trees lined the highway and dry, earthy dust covered the air. We arrived in Bizerte after an hour, parked our car in front of the municipal building and walked to the Old Port.
Bizerte sits on a canal that links the lake to the Mediterranean Sea. Small wooden boats were docked at the port, while the tall fortifications of the kasbah (fort, or citadel) flanked the fishing town. We went inside the market to check out the local goods. There were the usual bananas and grapes, but there were also prickly pears and doughnut peaches. The fish market had only the freshest produce, from the small sardines to the extra large swordfish. The meat market was far more interesting. A cow’s head, with its eyes opened, was hanging; all its innards displayed on the tables. I asked a vendor for permission and he let me take a photo of the head, but wagged his finger at me when I started to take a photo of the stomach lining and the bloody mess on the counter.
Inside the medina (or the old and traditional section of a city), a maze of stone walls guided us from narrow street to narrow street. It was dirty and rundown. We had to step over a few piles of shit. We even saw two dead kittens.
We walked by a restaurant called Marco Polo right outside the medina and noticed an old man grilling fish. It was busy with lunching Tunisian men, and so we immediately knew it was a good place to rest and eat. We sat inside to stay away from the blistering sun. The Dr. was ordered by the owner to buy fresh fish back in the market if we wanted to eat fish. He bought a kilo’s worth of what he thought were sardines. When the owner shook his head, he walked with him back to the market to exchange the fish with the correct type. We waited only a few minutes before we were served two platefuls of the grilled sardines with salad meshouia, a cold plate of roasted vegetables swimming in olive oil. For dessert, we crossed the street and bought mint tea which every Tunisian-Muslim man seemed to drink in lieu of alcohol.
Fortified, we walked back to the municipal building after lunch to find an empty street. Our car was towed! Panicked, we went inside to ask a stranger where and how we can get our car back. We took a cab to the parking lot, paid 30 dinars, and drove away with our rental. It wasn’t as much of a hassle as losing our luggage, but it still freaked us out. Why do we always have to be taught a lesson when we’re traveling? (See speeding ticket in Iceland post.)
It was time to head to our destination for the night, Tabarka. But first, we took a detour to Lake Ichkeul, a World Heritage-listed national park where different species of birds fly by from the Sahara en route across Europe. Apparently, a water buffalo was imported, too. We saw a flock of swallows and heard geese honking, but the only water buffalo we saw was the statue at the park’s entrance, where there was no admission fee, but the guard asked us for a “donation.” (He took out a blank piece of paper when we handed him a couple of dinars and wrote our names down to make us believe that our contribution was going elsewhere besides his lunch allowance.) We did a quick hike around the mountain where the view was so different from the city’s. The marsh was dry and the shallow lake was surrounded by cacti and swarmed with mosquitoes, but it was breezy at the top. We felt immediately better.
The sun started to set, so we left in a hurry and started our drive to Tabarka. The drive from the small town of Sejnane to Tabarka was like being in California. More olive trees surrounded the hills, but figs and eucalyptus also wrapped the valleys with lush greens. It was almost 9pm when we checked in Les Mimosas Hotel. Our bedroom with private bath and a terrace looked down the town center and out to Genoese Castle. It cost us 64 dinars.
After moving our stuff up, we walked to the main street to look for dinner. We found a restaurant with only an Arabic sign. We ate a spicy version of meshouia salad (thank you, hidden Serrano peppers with seeds intact), an overflowing ojja, a stew of tomatoes, chilies and merguez, or sausage, with an egg stirred in before serving, and my first Tunisian briq, a flaky, deep-fried crepe of runny eggs and, curiously, tuna. We also encountered our first harissa, a red chili paste seasoned with garlic and caraway seeds. Harissa is what kimchi is to Koreans–we ended up looking for it every time we sat down for a meal. We also ordered a bowl of hsou, or spicy soup with semolina and capers, but the owner sensed that we were already full and canceled our order.
We went back to our hotel room and enjoyed the night view from our terrace. Tabarka was waiting for us the next day.