We just returned from our week long trip to Tunisia and western Sicily. Last Sunday night I was lying in bed saying over and over, “Wow, we’re going to be in Tunisia tomorrow. We are going to be in North Africa. This is crazy.” Hilah’s only response was, “Dana, you really haven’t traveled that much, have you.” Perhaps now I can consider myself ever so slightly more experienced.
Hannah, Hilah, Kat, Kayla, Phil. Anna and Ben outside the Antonine Baths, Carthage
Monday we drove to Palermo and then flew into Tunis, a city of around two million, quite a change from Catania, and drove to the countryside to visit the ancient sites of Dougga and Bulla Regia. Dougga was beautifully preserved. Though parts of the buildings were used to build local homes, the community seems to have taken a strong interest in maintaining the site. Men were sweeping the steps of the ancient Capitoline temple and weeding the streets. At Bulla Regia we focused on domestic remains and viewed some incredible homes. Due to the African climate many homes had underground rooms. Even in the middle of October it was a relief to walk down the stairs into the arched ceilinged, subterranean rooms. The well preserved mosaic floors helped make the space even more enjoyable. After Bulla Regia we visited Carthage, the ruins of which are intermingled with modern Tunis. We saw the ancient harbors, baths, the National Archaeological Museum and the Bardo Museum (home to some of the most spectacular mosaics from various sites in North Africa).
Capitoline temple, Dougga
Hilah in the House of Amphitrite, Bulla Regia
The focus of the trip in Tunisia was still very much ancient, classical civilizations. The Roman influence was obvious. At points I didn’t feel like I was on another continent, in another culture, because the sites weren’t too far a cry from Herculaneum and Pompei, which Hilah and I visited the weekend before the trip. Certain moments however did give me a bit of an idea of what Tunisia is like. First, of course, the food was so different and delicious. I had forgotten how many different types of food there were besides pasta. The sandwiches filled with French fries and veggies were a pleasant change from panini. Besides food as a lens into Tunisia we got to spend an afternoon wandering the local markets, haggling and perusing through thousands of souvenirs. Perhaps one of my favorite Tunisian memories was when Hilah, Hannah and I were standing outside the baths of Bulla Regia and workers set off explosives in the mountain directly in front of the site around a kilometer away; quite a clash of modern and ancient society.
Craftsman in Tunis
Minor explosion, Bulla Regia
On Thursday we flew into Palermo and drove in the pouring rain to Segesta. I had been eyeing the photos of Segesta in the guide-books and was bummed that the amazing views the temple and theatre have to offer were going to be lost in the rolling clouds. Amazingly, the skies cleared and we maintained our record of seeing every site in decent, if not perfect, weather. On Friday we were off to Mozia where our luck with the weather finally ran out. Mozia is an island off the coast of Marsala where the Phoenicians had a settlement. The small museum on Mozia is also home to an incredible ancient marble charioteer. On the ferry back to Marsala we had to stop because gusts of wind and rain were attacking the sea. After drying off we headed off to see the ruins of a Phoenician warship.
Hannah and Phil on the ferry caught in the rain
Saturday we went to Palermo again and made it past the airport and finally into the city. Palermo felt like a big city compared to Catania with more people, taller buildings, larger shopping centers and wider boulevards. We visited the collection of the Bank of Sicily. It was a pristine space with a great ancient collection and some nineteenth century paintings that were absolutely beautiful. We started a debate about whether or not it was acceptable to take art or artifacts away from their original sites and bring them into larger museums where they would be more visible and better maintained but lose the context of their original site. After the museum we went to Monreale to see the Norman cathedral and cloisters and then we were set loose to explore Palermo.
Sunday we visited the Palazzo dei Normanni to see another spectacular chapel with brilliant mosaics and then drove back to Catania with a brief stop in Cefalu. We were all shocked by how quickly we got from the western to eastern coast. Despite being the largest island in the Mediterranean, Sicily is not all that large. Though its size be small it is fiercely beautiful. Driving out of a rain cloud a rainbow arched over the now glowingly green vineyards and orchards at the foot of Mt. Etna, wreathed in charcoal clouds. Idyllic, positively idyllic. It’s good to be back.
Chapel in the Palazzo dei Normanni