Al Jadid, Vol. 2, No. 7 (May 1996)

Exploring the Ancient and Natural Beauty of Tunisia's Cap Bon

By Habeeb Salloum*

It was a early one warm May morning when we climbed aboard a tour bus in Hammamet for a trip around Cap Bon -- called 'Tunisia's Garden Peninsula'. We had just ended our excursion of the country's south, including its fairytale Island of Djerba, and now we were concluding our Tunisian vacation by exploring this luxuriant part of the country.

Known in Arabic as Al-Watan al-Qabli, Cap Bon, which contains the majority of the country's resort hotels, is a lush segment of the northeastern part of the country, stretching out like a raised hand toward Europe. About 62 miles (100 km) long and 25 miles (40 km) wide, it boasts some of Tunisia's richest farmland.

Our first stop was Nabeul, once the Roman town of Neapolis and today the administrative capital of Cap Bon. The hotels, lining its beach, are cheaper than those in Hammamet. The area is one of the most important handicraft centers in the country, especially for ceramics and pottery, embroidery, wrought-iron work, and the natural distillation of perfumes.

A few minutes after leaving the famous handicraft town we were in Dar Chaabane, where the best stone sculptors in the country were busy at work. With the hands of master craftsmen and talents passed down from their forefathers, it seemed they effortlessly fashioned the attractive stone pillars and door frames found in all parts of Tunisia. It is said that their ancestors cut the stone from which Carthage was built.

Beyond the town of Beni Khiar, noted for its weavers of carpets and woollen fabrics, we made our way through orchards and vineyards until we reached Menzel Temine, a pepper growing center noted for its harisa, a hot pepper sauce much loved by Tunisians. We stopped for refreshment at nearby Ke1ibia, the Roman Clypea, which is dominated by a huge Phoenician-Byzantine fortress rebuilt in the 16th century by the Spaniards. In the shadow of this ancient citadel, which dwarfed the town, we enjoyed our coffee on the edge of the wharf, watching fishermen readying their boats for sea. Beyond Ke1ibia we made our way through grain fields and fields dotted with trees until our bus stopped in Kerkouane -- the most perfectly preserved Punic-Phoenician town in the world. Built on 62 acres (25 ha) in the 6th century B.C., it was suddenly abandoned in 256 B.C. and, in the ensuing centuries, forgotten.

The excavations revealed that Kerkouane's luxurious homes, remarkably like those in Tunisia today, were built for comfort, incorporating underground sewers and stone bathrooms with modern looking bathtubs. Their design was copied by the Romans, as were the mosaic floors -- some found in excellent condition. For those interested in Punic history, it is an exciting site.

After visiting the museum housing Carthaginian exhibits, we drove through cultivated fields, fenced in with pine trees and cactus bushes, to the former Phoenician city of El Haouaria, 87 miles (140 km) from Sicily. Located on the north-western tip of Cap Bon, it has been Tunisia's center of falconry for centuries. Falcons are captured in the nearby mountains and trained to hunt. The peak of the season is in mid-June, when the venerable art of falconry is celebrated.

A short distance from this town, we came to the huge caves of Ghar el Kebir -- a complex of quarries hugging the shore. Mined by the Carthaginians, Romans and Byzantines, their stones were used to build the towns around the Gulf of Carthage. From these quarries, we drove along the northern coast of the Peninsula to the sleepy fishing town of Sidi Daoud.

Dormant for ten months, the hamlet comes alive every year in late spring for the Matanza -- a spectacular but gory tuna fish festival which began in Roman times. The fish are trapped in a enormous net, then killed with clubs and knives.

Passing through a small forest, we climbed upwards on the coastal hills. From our vantage point, the Mediterranean sparkled hundreds of feet below and, in the distance, the ruins of Carthage and beautiful Sidi Bou Said shimmered on the horizon.

At Korbous, a small village well known for its health giving waters, we stopped to stroll along its one long street. Since Roman times, visitors have traveled to the village to be soothed by the therapeutic properties of the springs.

Our next stop was Soliman, a town built by Spanish Muslim refugees whose descendants still practice trades brought by their ancestors from the Iberian Peninsula. A charming Andalusian-type town, it is noted for its 17th century minaret and mosque, topped with Spanish style tiles.

From Soliman, with its air of nostalgia for Andalusia, we turned south through a rich land of olive groves, citrus orchards and endless vineyards, until we reached our hotel in Hammamet. We were tired but content. Our 125 mile (201 km) excursion around Cap Bon -- the playground of Tunisia -- had been a delightful experience.

*Habeeb Salloum, who lives in Canada, writes on Arab Culture and Arts



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