We were awaken by the first call to prayer of the day. A man’s voice echoed through the loud speakers but we still got up later than expected. The staff at Les Mimosas still served us the free breakfast of hard-boiled egg, bread, butter, coffee and orange juice. We checked out, sad that we didn’t get to take advantage of the pool with a view of the city, and visited Les Aiguilles, or the Needles. They are spiny pinnacles of rock that jut out of the Old Harbour Bay, but they were less impressive than we originally thought. We drove towards the zone touristique and chose Malibu Beach to set our beach blanket and enjoy the early afternoon. There were a lot of Czech people there, most of them sunbathing topless while young Tunisians gaped from the beach. The Mediterranean was warm enough to swim for more than an hour straight but cool enough to keep us on our toes. We weren’t keen on staying, though, because the beach was littered with cigarette butts.
Back in town, the first day of Ramadan was pretty obvious. All the restaurants and cafes were closed. Grills all around the port looked lonely and unused. We went to one store that was open and bought what would be our usual Ramadan lunch for the rest of our stay: a loaf of fresh bread, canned fish and Coke. This time, we added some pickled olives and vegetables from the market. We parked our car under a big tree back at Les Mimosas because we knew we can’t just eat in front of those who were more pious than us. Our small homemade lunch was pretty good, and we ate knowing that from sunrise to sundown, the Muslims will refrain from eating or drinking for the next forty days.
We drove past Ain Draham, by the Kroumirie Mountains and rolling hills covered in cork trees. We made a detour to Bulla Regia, a Roman site with underground villas intact. We paid the small fee to enter, plus the extra dinar to carry my camera, and a guide followed us to the site to show us around. The Neolithic tombs around the site proved that the area was inhabited before the Romans arrived. “Regia” was added to the town of Bulla after the Byzantines took over. We felt the sun burning our shoulders, but the temperature dropped as soon as we walked underground. (It was difficult to drink from our water bottles in front of a man who hasn’t had a drop since sunrise.) We walked through the House of Treasure, the House of the Peacock, the House of the Hunt and the House of the Amphitrite, where a mosaic of Venus flanked by two centaurs came alive as soon as our guide doused water over the tiles. The baths, the forum and the amphitheater were all equally amazing.
We left and continued our drive to Le Kef, also called El Kef. It didn’t take too long, but the Dr. was tired. We checked in Hotel-Residence Venus. For 40 dinars, we had our own bathroom again in our room. Our blue shutters opened to the mountains behind the medina. No one seemed to be in the hotel except us, even though our guidebook touted September as the beginning of the high season.
As the first day of Ramadan was wrapping up, we noticed the groups of men hanging outside the cafes. Le Kef was absolutely great for people watching. Hundreds of men sit on plastic chairs lined along the streets with nothing to do but talk and hang out. Not one woman can be found outside. As the afternoon call to prayer signaled the end of the day’s fasting, just like that, the streets emptied out and turned into a ghost town. It was eerie to see no one all of a sudden.
We were thankful for a stranger’s recommendation to eat at Ramzi, the only restaurant lit on rue Hedi Chaker. Without any prompting, we joined the staff in breaking the first day’s fast. We were first served shorba, or hot spicy soup. And then a plate of briq was put on the table. This one was the regular kind with chunky potatoes, but still with the ubiquitous runny egg. Traditionally during Ramadan, a meat or pasta course follows the two kemias, or appetizers. We chose the kamounia, a meat and offal stew seasoned with lots of cumin.
But as fast as they all went inside to eat for the first time in twelve hours, the men all stepped back out to resume to their original positions–this time with hot, green mint tea on hand. Still no women around, so it took balls for us to enter one of the cafes and order the same tea that the men were having. To my surprise and delight, a couple of the older men gave up their seats for me. Fresh mint leaves are stewed in hot water for several hours until they turn the water black. The tea is poured in a small glass from high to create a froth and a lot of sugar is added to make it syrupy. It’s strong and painfully sweet at times, but we found ourselves joining the men after dinner throughout our stay in Tunisia.