Exploring Tunisia's Garden Peninsula – Cap Bon
By: Habeeb Salloum/Arab America Contributing Writer
It was a warm early 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 completing our Tunisian vacation by exploring this luxuriant part of the country.
Known in Arabic as Al-Watan al-Qabli, Cap Bon, which contains a good portion 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 100 km (62 mi) long and 40 km (25 mi) wide, it boasts some of Tunisia’s richest farmland.
Sidi Abderrahman Mountain, an extension of the Atlas Mountains, divides the peninsula into two equal parts. Both sections are rich in orchards, vegetable farms, and vineyards whose produce was often depicted on Roman mosaics. In spring, the whole countryside is engulfed in a sea of flowers – the jasmine and the rose, diffusing their perfumes amid the lemon, orange, plum Sidi Abderrahman Mountain, an extension of the Atlas Mountains, divides the peninsula into two equal parts. Both sections are rich in orchards, vegetable farms, and vineyards whose produce was often depicted on Roman mosaics. In spring, the whole countryside is engulfed in a sea of flowers – the jasmine and the rose, diffusing their perfumes amid the lemon, orange, plum and pomegranate blossoms.
Our first stop was Nabeul, once the Roman town of Néapolis and today the largest town and the administrative capital of Cap Bon. It is one of the most important handicraft centers in the country when it comes to embroidery, wrought-iron, natural distillation of perfumes, and, overwhelming them all, ceramics and pottery. The town encompasses hundreds of workshops which produce these hand-made products, especially the excellent colorful ceramics, glazed pottery, and tiles, with prices among the lowest in the world.
A few minutes after leaving that famous handicraft town, we were in Nabeul outskirts’ town of Dar Chaâbane where the best stone sculptors in the country were busy at work. With hands of master craftsmen and talents inherited from their forefathers, it seemed effortless for them to fashion 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 Béni Khiar, noted for its weavers of carpets and woolen fabrics, we made our way through orchards and vineyards until we passed the city of Korba, noted as tomato and hot pepper center. Moving across grain and vegetable fields, then a tree-filled countryside.
We passed Menzel Témine, another pepper growing center, noted for its harisa – a hot pepper sauce, much-loved by the Tunisians.
At next door Kélibia, the Roman Clypea, dominated by a huge Phoenician-Byzantine fortress, rebuilt in the 16th century by the Spaniards, who had for a short time conquered the area. Here, in the shadow of this ancient citadel, dwarfing the town, we stopped for refreshment enjoying our coffee on the edge of the wharf while we watched fishermen, in this largest fishing port in Tunisia, readying their boats for the sea.
One of the quietest resorts on the east coast of Cap Bon, the town has a unique curiosity. A good number of its inhabitants carry the family name Inglees (Englishmen). Some say that they are descendants of an Englishman who came during the Ottoman period and converted to Islam, while others claim descent from shipwrecked English sailors.
Beyond Kélibia we made our way through farmland edged by trees until we reached Kerkouane – the oldest city in Tunisia and the most perfectly preserved Punic/Phoenician town in the world. Built on 25 ha (62 ac) of land in the 6th century B.C., it was destroyed by the Romans in 256 B.C. and, in the ensuing centuries, was forgotten. For some unexplained reason, it was never built over as had been the fate of all the other North African Punic cities. In 1887, the sand covered site was discovered by French archaeologists and digging began.
The excavations revealed that Kerkorian’s luxurious homes, remarkably like those in Tunisia today, were built for comfort, incorporating courtyards, underground sewers, water reservoirs and stone bathrooms with modern-looking bathtubs. Their design was copied by the Romans, as were the mosaic floors – some found in excellent condition. However, even though the Romans were noted for their public baths, it was only in 400 A.D. that baths were installed in Roman homes. For those interested in Punic history, not written by their conquerors, it is an exciting site.
Leaving Kerkouane, we drove through cultivated fields, fenced in with pine trees and cactus bushes, to the once Phoenician city of El Haouaria, 140 km (87 mi) from Sicily. Located on the north-western tip of Cap Bon, it has been for centuries Tunisia’s center of falconry. Falcons are captured in the nearby mountains and trained for the hunt which reaches its peak is mid-June when the venerable art of falconry is celebrated.
From the town, we were taken 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.
Along with another set of caves, full of bats, in the edging mountains, they have been drawing visitors for centuries.
After viewing a huge camel sculptured by nature in the rock, we drove westward along the northern coast of the Peninsula past the sleepy fishing town of Sidi Daoud. Dormant for ten months of the year, this 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 an enormous net, then killed by hand with clubs and knives. After this grisly slaughter, the tuna gets canned in the town’s factory.
The road cut through a rugged sparsely inhabited land, only relieved by a scattering of shrub and olive and other trees. 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 skyline. The view was breathtaking.
On the outskirts of Korbous, a small village well-known for its health-giving waters, we stopped at one of its mineral springs. Since Roman times, visitors have traveled to be soothed and healed by the therapeutic properties of Korbous’s waters.
Driving onward we passed Soliman, a town built by Spanish Muslim refugees whose descendants still practice the 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 rich hard wheat farmland, olive groves, fruit orchards, and endless vineyards, especially around Grombalia – the capital of Tunisian wine. The countryside, once inhabited by French and Italian settlers, was, after independence, taken over by the Tunisians who greatly expanded the vineyards and the fruit orchards.
These luxuriant farms stayed with us until we reached our hotel in Hammamet, tired but content. Our 200 km (124 ) excursion around Cap Bon – the playground of Tunisia – had been a delightful experience.