Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Monastir – Tunisia

15-17 March 2012

The passage from Mahdia to Monastir was a day hop just under fifty miles up the coast and with a light breeze blowing we got the opportunity to raise the huge Code 1 headsail for the first time. Despite heading down wind, Moksha was able to almost match her boat speed to wind speed with the big sail up. Getting along through the water at 10 knots in 11 to 12 knots of breeze is impressive.

Unfortunately what wind we did have disappeared way too soon and we were forced to drop sails and revert to diesel power for much of the trip. With nice smooth seas it was a very relaxing passage.

Wolfgang, who joined the boat in Malta had been having trouble settling in on board. His idealised expectations of life on Moksha turned out to be a lot closer to that which a charter guest would enjoy rather than that of a crewmember sharing the workload and he never really adapted to reality. A German anaesthesiologist who had been working at Mackay Hospital in Australia, Wolfgang seemed to consider the boat cleaning and galley duties a little beneath him saying he usually had nurses to do that sort of work for him. Karen suggested he needed a slight attitude adjustment and Rob used great restraint not to give it to him a couple of times.

In a mutual decision with the owners, he was now going to be leaving the boat when we reached Sardinia. However, shortly after getting underway to Monastir things changed. Karen was stowing fenders through the deck hatch into the dingy garage and was between between the Wolfgang and Richard when he clashed with the owner about how things should be done on the boat one time too many. In a very controlled voice Richard simply said ‘I want you off this boat at the next port’, to which Wolgang answered back testily that yes he was leaving in Sardinia. ‘No. You didn’t understand me Wolfgang. I want you off this boat when we reach port today’ came the appropriately measured response. As an icy silence ensued Karen wished the hatch would close over her head so she could simply disappear for a while. So not long after we docked in Monastir our crew numbers were reduced by one and a new term was born on Moksha. We joked that none of us wanted to be ‘Wolfganged’. To be fair it was a popular decision on board because there’s nothing worse than someone not pulling their weight and creating extra work for others.

Approaching Monastir, the first thing to grab our attention was the large fortress overlooking the modern looking marina. Funnily enough the fort looked familiar for some reason and when we mentioned this, Tim, the movie fanatic, had the explanation. It was used in the Monty Python movie. We knew we’d seen it somewhere in our cultural past.

The other thing that caught our eye was a huge mast towering above all the others in the marina. As we rounded the breakwater, the yacht under the mast came into view. She was a 100 foot Comet called Shadow and we were directed in beside her against the stone wall, right in the centre in front of the trendy restaurants. For the first time since we’d been aboard, Moksha wasn’t the biggest kid in the playground.
Moksha over shadowed in Monastir by the 100 footer

As marinas go, Monastir was quite nice with reasonably good facilities. It was surrounded by holiday apartments and a good range of cafes and restaurants. It was also very close to the city centre and obviously a popular spot for people to leave their boats for the winter as the majority of yachts were stripped of sails etc and secured for the off season with no one aboard. There was however a small core of cruisers who were wintering aboard and had obviously formed a good little community with a lot of social interaction going on.

Next morning Phil joined us for a great day off wandering around the city. First up we headed for the old part of the city. On our way we were befriended by the security guard from the marina who had just finished work. As he was going our way he walked with us. He had reasonably good English and as we headed up the hill towards the main city area he provided a good deal of useful information about what we really should see in the city. He also repeatedly warned us to be careful where we shopped because places without fixed prices often cheated you.

One of the gates of the old city area of Monastir
He showed us to one of the gateways of the old walled city that’s now surrounded by modern metropolis and then pointed out a women weaving on a handloom inside the door of one of the shops and encouraged us to go in to take a closer look. By now alarm bells were starting to tinkle in Rob’s head but, as always, Karen was very interested in anything to do with textiles and eagerly took the bait and was almost instantly seated at the loom getting instruction. Weaving lesson accomplished, we were urged to go upstairs because there was much more to see. Alarm bell volume was steadily increasing but up the stairs we all went anyway to find ourselves suddenly sitting on a couch with a sickly sweet local tea each, surrounded by hundreds of beautiful handmade rugs and in the company of Ahmed, who proved Tunisia’s version of the Demtel man. Everything was ‘top, top quality, take woman months to make, special price just for you because you my friend’s friend, but wait there’s more, buy this rug I give you this free.’ Our security guard friend chimed in with many assurances that we were being offered very, very special deals because tourism has been bad since the revolution and this man needs to get money to feed the weaving ladies who were all going hungry. Going by the not inconsiderable size of the woman at the loom downstairs, this seemed an improbable likelihood to us.

Karen gets a quick weaving lesson
Rob’s repeated statements that the rugs were all very nice and the prices were great but we were on a boat that didn’t need any rugs and couldn’t take anything with us simply produced a change in the sales pitch to offering us smaller mats that we were assured would be perfect for gifts for our family. ‘No’ didn’t seem to be understood in the Tunisian vocabulary and exit plans seemed few and far between for us. We had to get out of there soon or we’d be subjected to more sickening Tunisian tea. Then Phil weakened. He bought a small but exquisite mat for 100 dingbats ($64 Aus) as a gift for his daughter and we thought escape was at hand.

But no, Ahmed was not going to rest until we’d also provided sustenance for the poor starving weavers. He launched in to even more animated offerings with a flurry of new mats being rolled out all over the floor. ‘Buy this rug and I’ll give you this prayer mat free. I don’t want your friend to be angry for missing out so here, he can have one too’ and he stuffed a small mat into Phil’s shopping bag to go with his previous purchase. No amount of reasoning or excuses proved acceptable and in the end Rob stood up and said ‘Sorry, we are not buying anything. We don’t want to offend you any further so we’ll leave now,’ and we all headed for the door. At which Ahmed, with a great show of indignation grabbed Phil’s shopping bag and took back his bonus prayer mat. Priceless!

How to look rediculous in one easy lesson
 As we headed down the street, we couldn’t believe our security guard friend was again at our side. Karen made the mistake of stopping for a moment to look at a traditional style dress hanging at the doorway of a shop. Next moment she was inside, wearing one of them over her clothes while our friend was assuring us was ‘no need to buy, good for photo’. With the intention of taking a quick snap to shut him up Rob entered the scene and instantly had a man’s version of the local garb thrust over his clothes and a fez plonked on his head with security guard friend in charge of the camera taking photos of us, well, looking ridiculous. After we disrobed we tried a hasty getaway but were chased well down the street by the woman shop keeper desperately begging us to buy the outfits with the price progressively dropping from 80 dingbats each to 20 and guess-who also trailing along chiming in that we should buy them to help the poor lady.

Rob’s patience ran out. He bluntly told security guard friend, ‘We’re not buying anything, go away, we want to be left alone’. We were all a bit flabbergasted when he replied ‘OK. I go home now but first you give me money for being friend and a good guide.’ With a few small coins thrust into his hand in disgust, he hot footed it back towards the rug shop. No doubt to collect his cut of Phil’s 100 dingbats.

The mausoleum of President Habib Bourguiba is amazing

We then enjoyed a very pleasant stroll through the old city and around all the shops without fixed prices where no one tried to cheat us at all. We ran across Richard and Jayatma touring the city on their fold up bicycles they carry on board and compared notes on who’d seen what. We also found mats like Phil’s for twenty dingbats and outfits like we were photographed in for eight to ten. Apart from Phil getting ripped, the whole charade was almost worth going through just for the experience and the laughs we’ve had about it ever since.

Monastir was the birthplace of Tunisia’s first President Habib Bourguiba who is widely revered for leading the country to independence from France. An indication of the high esteem in which he is held is the incredible mausoleum right in the centre of the city his body now rests in. It’s opulence is incredible and clearly must have cost many millions to build. Visitors can go through the mausoleum and the official on the door was only too happy to take us beyond the velvet ropes, into the funeral chamber itself and right up to the marble sarcophagus itself. (For a small, back pocket donation of course). He explained how the president lies on his side, with his face looking to the holy city of Mecca.
Karen & Phil get the sotry of the bronze doors from our man.

Every afternoon at the right time, the massive, solid bronze doors are opened so the sun shines directly into the tomb and onto his remains. He was very proud of the huge doors and even opened one a little so we could feel the incredible weight of them. Adjoining rooms contain the remains of his family at one end and his wife’s family at the other. We’re not sure if that meant that didn’t get along in life or was just some sort of protocol. There was also a small museum of Presidential memorabilia. It was a really amazing place to visit.

Directly over the road from the mausoleum is a park the recently deposed President Ben Ali had built in his own honour. In it we came across what is left of his statue after the people had finished modifying it during the overthrow. It’s safe to say he’s not all that well thought of.

Atop the watchtower made famous by Monty Python

We couldn’t not visit the Monty Python castle. The fortress is actually very well preserved, complete with museum section and well worth the couple of hours we spent exploring its many chambers, walls and watchtower. Climbing up and down different sections also provided a very good workout, particularly the very tight, steep and rough stone spiral staircase leading up the tower. The views over the marina and south down the coast were superb.

When we returned to the boat we witnessed the very surreal sight of a large pirate ship coming in to the marina with a load of local tourists on boards and music absolutely blaring on their PA system. Somehow the sound of the Village People’s YMCA just didn’t fit with the vision in front of us.

Monastir is a very attractive place and apparently usually very popular with European tourists in the summer. There are a number of ancient sites within close proximity and we could of happily spent a lot longer here exploring wider but Moksha’s on a schedule to reach the UK by mid-May so next morning the lines were cast off again and after filling Moksha’s fuel expansive tanks with very cheap Tunisian diesel we headed north towards Port Yasmine, Hammermet.

Passage - 14 March Mahdia to Monastir 48 nautical miles


We loved Monastir and could of happily stayed there a while.

Solid bronze doors let the sun in on the President once a day

Karen wandering about to climb the watchtower

Views from the watchtower

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  1. Good writing and excellent info about how not to get drawn into buying things you don't want. Thank you.

    1. Our Apologies for the late reply. Yes it was certainly an experience we learnt from 😂 Cheers Rob and Karen


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