Tuesday, 28 April 2009

Tunisia - Matmata

We hadn't really planned on taking a Star Wars tour of Tunisia, but it's kind of hard to escape the frequency of movie-related locations. In fact the more time you spend in Tunisia the more you realise that the fantastic scenes, place names and costumes came more from Tunisian reality, than the imagination of the film makers.

So we visited Matmata to see the troglodyte houses, and not because these houses were Luke's home on Tatooine (Tataouine is the name of a nearby town).

We visited a few of the troglodyte houses, which felt a bit odd in parts because people actually still live in these houses, but it was very interesting to see nevertheless.

In fact we didn't just see the houses, we actually spent the night in one of the rooms in one of the houses converted to a hotel. Certainly one night was enough - the mosquitos and minimalistic bedding ensured that.

Apart from the houses, Matmata is set in quite amazing surrounds - with dry, rocky , terraced hills, and splashes of green where somehow moisture had been retained in the soil.

The plan was to use Matmata as a base to visit some of the old Berber towns in the area, and our second night was in more civilised accommodation. Although we couldn't escape the Tunisian staple dinners of Harissa, Briks and Couscous.

Monday, 27 April 2009

Tunisia - El Jem and Mahdia

Well it's taken me a long time to get around to blogging our trip to Tunisia over Easter, with parents visiting and a busy time at work I simply haven't had the time to organise the photos and write some words.

Anyway, enough with the excuses. On the 4th April we flew out to Tunisia for 8 days of 'holiday' driving around the country to see what it had to offer.

Originally we saw Tunisia as a place with great potential for Roman ruins etc., given it's history as one-time competition for Rome in the region, but the more we read the more we became interested instead in the Berber and Arabic cultures in Tunisia.

This was put aside somewhat when we arrived at El Jem, south of Tunisia, which has an amazing Roman Amphitheatre, only slightly smaller than the Colosseum in Rome, and somewhat more accessible (once you'd navigated your way through the town itself, which didn't seem that interested in directing tourists in the right direction).

We stayed in El Jem until sunset, taking in the contrasting sights of the Roman ruins and the arabic styled town, before heading on to the fishing town of Mahdia where we planned to stay the night. We had the first of many dinners of white baguette bread, Harissa and Couscous.

The next morning in Mahdia we wandered around the town, getting our first taste of a Medina (old town centre) and wandering around the mosque before checking out the coastline.

The weather was very nice, but not nice enough to tempt us into the water!

Sunday, 26 April 2009


Next stop after Annecy was Lyon. My trusty GPS lead us into town without too much trouble, but the train station where we were meeting Linda wasn't on our Lonely Planet map so I didn't have a street address for the station - rendering the GPS somewhat inadequate for the task of tracking her down. After a few stumbles, we did manage to meet: inside a giant shopping complex - a fact that means we are now planning to go back to Lyon shopping some time.

Anyway, after dropping our bags at the hotel, we headed straight into the Vieux Lyon (the old town) with it's medieval and Renaissance houses.

In Lyon, and particularly in Vieux Lyon, there are a number of traboules - doored passage-ways that lead behind and between the large apartment blocks. Apparently these were built to give the silk industry a way to transport their product without getting wet on the streets, but today they are interesting because you are taken into the 'back yard' of the apartment blocks, and it's quite fun finding the right button to push to open the doors to the passage ways.

We also took the funicular up to the Basilic Notre Dame de Fourviere at the top of the hill, which is impressive, but quite gaudy. There is also a fantastic view over the town.

A little further around the hill is a Theatre Romain and odeon which were well worth the visit.

We kept our energy levels up with frequent stops for cafe and pastries, which were pretty universally excellent (the pastries more than the coffee - it's hard to beat the Italian variety).

The next day we headed straight into the Croix Rousse district, which was meant to be the original silk production area of Lyon but today the silk factories have been built into fashionable apartment blocks. We weren't actually that impressed with the area, having been spoiled by the lovely old town, but we were there primarily for the food markets, since Lyon is meant to be the gastronomic centre of of France (no small claim).

The food markets were pretty amazing - a long strip of food stalls with all sorts of exotic fruits, cheeses, meats and baked goods. In fact we managed to lose each other in the excitement of all the fresh produce and it took some time to relocate successfully in the busy markets.

From the markets (and after a delicious breakfast) we walked down the hill towards the Hotel de Ville, where we planned to visit the nearby Musee des Beaux-Arts. We spent a fair amount of time wandering through the Museum, and about as much time having a late lunch, before deciding it was probably about time to head back to Switzerland.

My parents had bought some cheese and bread at the markets, so we had that for dinner - drawing to an end a few busy but fun and interesting days with them.

Saturday, 25 April 2009


Last weekend my parents came to Switzerland to visit, so of course the first thing we did was leave Switzerland for France.

I'd been eyeing off Annecy for a while - it is a relatively small lakeside town in France not far from Geneva and on the edge of the French Alps. The road there is amazing; brand new, smooth, and practically empty, so we were there in very little time at all.

This was not the original plan. Originally I was going to take my parents through the mountains and past Chamonix-Mont-Blanc, but half-way up the Valais I realised I did not have my passport. This is not a problem for border crossing any more, since Switzerland is part of the passport-free area of Europe, but I feared I would get asked for my passport at the hotel and not be allowed to stay.

We had to back-track to Vevey to pick it up, leaving us with an hour less in the day and eliminating the chance to go via Mont-Blanc. Anyway I was still absolutely exhausted after our week in Tunisia and subsequent scrambling to get re-organised, so it's probably just as well we went the shorter and simpler route to France.

In the end no-one asked for my passport the whole time we were in France.

Annecy has a very attractive old town, with some interesting museums in the Chateau and an old prison to visit, and the weather was better than forecast so we took a ferry ride around the lake (strangely, we were hit with a hail storm half-way through the trip).

Linda wasn't with us for this part of the trip, as she was stuck at work, so we'll certainly come back for another look at Annecy!