Sufetula and the Long Road to Kairouan

July 16, 2013

Words by // Photography by Nita Breibish

With a long day on the road ahead of us, Nita and I want to get an early start and it’s not hard to get out of bed. All night my dreams have been invaded by a plague of six and eight legged critters running across various body body parts and, when I awake, I find that I’m not alone in those unsettling images. While I can definitely say that getting a room at Camping Alhassan was a mistake, the grounds with their colorful mosaics and ample gardens are a lovely place to wake up to. Next time – and we hope there is – we’ll camp and make our own larvae-free food.

Even with a full day in mind, we’re up early enough to enjoy the cool air, bright sun and a walk to the breakfast area where a simple spread offers clear view of anything that could be hiding on our plates. The food goes down fairly easily and, after a walk around the quiet paths of Al Hassan, we load up the bikes and make our way back towards the streets of Gafsa.

In town we’re unprepared for the gauntlet of traffic that meets us, but our sleepy bodies soon adapt to the weaving and heaving that’s Tunisian riding. Even in it’s chaos there’s a flow – a rhythm to riding here; though this morning it seems a little more messy than normal. Rather than fight it, we settle into frequent stops, fleeting bursts of speed to pass and, always, patience. In my helmet the mantra “We’re guests. Do as the locals do.” plays over and over – not like a skipping CD but rather a slow, meditative groove.

A car stops for no reason. Pass. Forward – don’t hit the pedestrian who’s just stepped into traffic without looking. Gap! Speed up – in! Bus is blocking the intersection. Stop. This guy isn’t really trying to sell me a camel head right now is he? Oh, he is. Is that a Citroen driving on the sidewalk to pass?! Yes. Okay. Into the traffic circle. Avoid the pedestrian who is looking but thinks his hand in my face will magically stop the bike before it hits him. No, I don’t need bread right now even if it is a great deal. Is that a different Citroen going the wrong way? Yes. Okay.

And so it goes with our mantra playing in our heads.

Soon we reach the edge of town and leave behind the chaos with smiles on our faces. After the mania of Gafsa’s streets, our only notable companions are a caged police car (alarming for us), a truck loaded with two levels of caged goats (alarming for them) and a pick-up filled to the brim with a massive cow that threatens to topple the vehicle at every swerve (alarming for everyone involved)! 

Our first stop of the day is Sbeitla and the nearby Roman ruins of Sufetula. Our route takes us northeast past Sidi Bousaid before backtracking about 60km towards Kasserine. Both Sidi Bousaid and Kasserine have been host to a number of riots since the Jasmine Revolution and are both cities we’ve been warned to avoid. Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference between signal and noise – our travels through Tunisia have, at every point, come with warnings but these two places have elicited a reaction from locals that simply can’t be ignored by a couple of starry-eyed kids from Canada.

What a difference a day can make; the gleeful children that ran down the streets with us just the day before are a distant memory along this incredibly nondescript road. Perhaps that’s what is so vividly different – the landscapes retreat into a featureless pool of hues is compounded by a growing sense of detachment we have with the people we’re seeing along the way. For hours we pass along a road whose emptiness occasionally yields to a series of small towns, each leaving us feeling more anonymous than the last.

And anonymity is fine – in fact it’s what we expected when we arrived in Tunisia. The warm welcomes we’ve been greeted with along the way have been a wonderful surprise. But that warmth doesn’t live here. Passing through a town where school has just let-out, the excitement we witnessed in children the day before doesn’t exist. We ride by, watching them completely unnoticed except for one young woman – a teen – who’s visibly angered by our presence and yells furiously at me as we pass, fist held high in the air. Today is a different world in our journey through Tunisia.

It’s possible that all of the warnings we’ve taken in about this region has us putting out an energy that’s drawing something different from the people we see along the way. Or, this is just a different place from what we’ve seen so far. With a growing sense of foreboding, we simply try to keep our heads down as we make our way through the next few towns. Part of me now just wants to get to Sbeitla, see the ruins and make a bee-line to Kariouan without incident. In one of the last towns before our turn west towards Sufetula, a guy waves at Nita and when she waves back his friend gives her the finger – which they both think is hilarious. It’s an act that adequately sums up our travels along the road from Gafsa to Sidi Bousaid.

Sbeitla itself is a different story. The area around the site is full of life and bus-loads of kids visiting on school field trips bring a wonderful warmth to our hearts again. Parking outside a café by the ticket office, the waiter emerges with a tray letting us know we can park by the gate and that he’ll keep an eye on the bikes while we wander Sufetula. We grab a coffee in the courtyard and watch the people come and go – it’s a young group of men and women here, meeting for some afternoon company and it feels great to be surrounded by them.

The waiter lets us know that the ticket counter will happily hold our gear while we walk the ruins and, with the temperature climbing under the noon-hour sun, a hike around the ruins in full-gear doesn’t sound like a great time. An absolutely lovely woman behind the ticket counter takes our kit with a smile, sells us a couple of tickets and we make our way to the entrance where we’re met by a smaller-than-usual gaggle of folks trying to sell tours through the ruins.

The beauty of Roman ruins in Tunisia is simply how quiet they are. Sufetula covers a fair amount of land and yet we’re one of maybe twenty people on the grounds. The morning tours are long gone and we find ourselves mostly alone to enjoy the magnificent arches, pristine mosaics and the three amazing Temples that flank it’s northwestern end. These structures are certainly the highlight of the ruins here – though the baths and the Arch of Antonius Pius is still inspiring. Weathered walls rise skyward and our access to them isn’t hindered by ropes or fences; even with the precarious balancing of column-sections there’s a trust that visitors can use common-sense to safely navigate the ruins. It’s a refreshing change from what we see at home.

By the three temples I’m approached by a young arab man in full Run-D.M.C. Adidas regalia who’s obviously finding it tricky to rock a rhyme, to rock a rhyme that’s right on time (sorry, I couldn’t help myself). As he passes, he asks (looking as suspicious as anyone possibly could) if I’d like some weed. No? Hash? It’s such a strange moment – surrounded by an incredible back drop, being asked if I’d like some dope by the guiltiest looking drug dealer I’ve ever seen. I politely decline and DMC finds a few friends on the Temple of Juno to hang out with while we continue our walk around the site.

With a good ride still ahead of us through uncertain territory we decide to hit the road after about an hour at Sufetula. Grabbing our gear from the ticket booth, we make our way to the bikes where some young men take a moment to pose with our rides – one even choosing to climb aboard! They’re so excited to have their pictures taken that we forget to take pictures for ourselves. It’s a great moment though – their faces are pure joy and we’re happy that the bikes can provide a thrill.

Soon we’re back on the road; the remainder of our route takes us back towards Sidi Bousaid before heading northeast towards our destination, Kairouan. The road from Sbeitla retains the featureless landscape that joined us in the morning and our occasional ride through a rare town along the way continues to leave us feeling as detached as we were earlier. To be honest, the days riding is a bit deflating.

One thing that is keeping us on our toes are the drivers. With cheap fuel in Tunisia (€10 to fill both bikes), some people simply drive as fast as possible – which in a Peugeot 404 truck isn’t a problem. But as we get closer to Kairouan the cars become nicer, faster and, more often than not, occupants of our lane. Ever since Sicily, drivers have had a hard time rounding a corner without entering our lane at least a little, but here the cars are travelling so fast that they’re often fully in our lane – even as far as our curb. It’s a tense couple of hours with every blind corner seemingly occupied by all manner of car, truck and even tour bus – all in our lane. It’s mental. Luckily, an occasional roadside donkey or wandering child keeps the smiles returning to our faces!

By the time we make it to the edge of the city we’re mentally exhausted. As we get closer to Kairouan, we notice that the police are out in force along the highway; we’re not the only ones aware of the driving here. The brown landscape that’s been our riding partner all day is yielding to the bright colours of roadside vendors – especially the dried red-peppers which seem to explode along the road like lines of fireworks. It’s remarkable how good a bright colour can make us feel after being denied for so long!It’s been a trying day on the road and we’re really looking forward to a night in a hotel. The GPS has almost no road data for Kairouan and we only have a vague idea of where we need to go. The city is bustling and, after trying to get to the Hotel la Kasbah using mostly guess-work and a general direction, we stop at a gas station and ask for directions. Reason triumphs!

Back on the road it’s only a few minutes before we’re turning a corner down a street by the medina and covering our last few hundred meters to our home for the night. Of course that’s also when a couple of young lads on rollerblades decide to make a dash for the bikes in their excitement. So far in Tunisia we’ve had a few different kinds of “Bad behaviour” from kids. The most common has to be playing chicken with a scooter – they ride at you as fast as they can with large smiles and veer off at the last moment. Those kids think they’re hilarious. Another is running towards the street as you pass and pretending to jump in front of the bike as you pass. Also hilarious. One we’ve managed to avoid is stone throwing – though we hear that’s more of a Moroccan thing.

These kids however, have created a completely new experience. They bolt for the bikes on their inline skates and make a grab for our bags – though we’re unsure if it’s to take them or simply hitch a ride. These two practically knock a man off of his bike to reach us and, with me having just passed by, one manages to get a hold of Nita’s bike. “DON’T F*@$ING TOUCH ME!” roars through my headset; the calm is gone and the lioness has been awakened! My heart is half-filled with anger while the other half is laughing – as I look back and see the freshly scorned boy whimper off to the side of the road looking incredibly guilty. Nita may be tiny but there’s a fierceness to her that few realize. I love that.

When we arrive at the hotel, we quickly talk about what happened and it’s obvious that Nita’s foremost concern is safety. Because we were stopping at Sbeitla, we’d covered our bags in PacSafe wire mesh – a theft deterrent that allows us to wander without worrying about our gear. Usually we don’t bother, but today we did. If the kids had gotten their fingers under the mesh and Nita had hit the gas – or crashed – the days of these kids tying their own skates would have been over.

The heat in Kairouan is incredible. In no time we’re a sweaty mess but we’re happy to be here and to have the following day off. As we unpack we’re met by The Rock – at least a good representation of him! He’s the guardian for the lot but, dressed in a black suit and sporting an earpiece he’s more FBI than lot attendant. And he’s huge! With a big smile he starts grabbing our bags like they’re tiny dogs and moving them into the shade.

In what should come as no surprise, Nita’s lock on her PacSafe is jammed leaving her bags inaccessible and permanently attached to her bike – ironic since the last person you want to keep your bags safe from is yourself. A healthy dose of WD-40 does little to change the situation and images of asking for bolt-cutters in Arabic start forming in our minds. As we become more and more saturated in sweat, a car pulls up and a woman begins chatting with Nita as I continue to fiddle with the lock. Kathleen’s a Canadian visiting a client in the area and noticed the Maple Leaf on our panniers. After talking briefly we make a plan to meet for breakfast and, once the plan is set, Nita’s lock miraculously opens! Things do seem to happen for a reason sometimes…

The hotel is another deal that Nita’s found online and the rate is ridiculous for the place – it’s far too plush for the likes of us – but we’ll take it. Whereas many hotels are designed to look like a kasbah’s citadel, Hotel La Kasbah actually was one. Located in the medina, the hotel is both imposing and beautiful. We find our way to our room before grabbing a drink in the lobby to shake off the day. We’ve had so many great days in Tunisia but today has been trying and, as the darkness settles, our energy is low. The day though is not done with us yet – there’s a silver shop in the lobby and the salesman wants to make another sale before his day is done. The whole selling-thing here is so foreign to us; if we were in a hotel in Banff being bombarded by offers to buy endlessly while grabbing a bevy in the lobby I’d think us crazy to stay there. Here it’s just par for the course.

His wares are actually really nice, so we buy some gifts for home after plenty of haggling and soon enough we have the peace and quiet we’ve been hoping for. We don’t last long and, after a nice dinner, we fall asleep in the most incredibly dreamy room we’ve seen on our journey. It’s just beautiful.

Our journey the next day is very short – we’re visiting our friends Mudy and Lorena for a couple of nights on our way back to the ferry in Tunis. With only a couple of hours on the road ahead of us, we take our time in the morning enjoying the incredible setting this hotel has afforded us. At breakfast we meet up with Kathleen and Detlev, the folks that we’d met in the parking lot the day before and enjoy some welcome conversation about their travels and projects. Kathleen’s an artist who’s designing mandala’s for a property that Detlev’s been building in northern Tunisia for the past few years. She’s flown out to meet him and to see the place she’s been contributing to. They’re lovely people and breakfast flies by before we all start to make our own ways to into the city.

We’re excited to head out and wander the streets of the medina in Kairouan; the city is less travelled by tourists than the coastal regions and the medina is mostly free of the vendors we saw in Hammamet. Just a short walk and we’re within the high-brick walls that provided protection for the city in years long past. The bricks used to build these walls were fabricated and shipped from Tozeur – the city we left only days earlier – and are famous in the region. Considered by many to be the fourth holiest city in Islam, the mosque Uqba is part of the reason we’ve chosen to visit Kairouans busy streets.

The few vendors we do see are far from pushy which makes for a nice change. There’s a small fee for entering Uqba and soon enough a young man has attached himself to us as a tour guide and reassures us over and over his services are included in the ticket price. I hate that my instant response is one of distrust – like Pavlovs dog we’ve been trained to know that what he’s saying simply isn’t true and that at some point a question of “The Fee” will come to pass. Interestingly though, it all comes with a level of understanding – our economic realities are different and we’re aware that our role here as tourists is different from the role we see ourselves in – as travellers. It’s a subtle difference between how we see ourselves and how we’re perceived but the balance that allows us to move in foreign lands is sometimes difficult to reach and frustrating to learn.

I keep the young man with me while Nita meanders and photographs the mosque which is truly beautiful. An open courtyard leads to the main area for prayers, one side for men and the other for women. The carpets draped over the floors are handmade locally and the wonderfully bricked walls climb upward – second in height to the tower, which regularly calls followers to prayer. A sundial on a raised platform sets the times of the days calls and, while the guide attempts to move us through the grounds as fast as possible, Nita’s leisurely pace happily slows us down. Eventually, the young man leaves us for a while; the pace is not to his liking and the lure of more fertile pastures at the gate is too great.

With prayers starting soon, we pass the rooms that house the school before being rejoined by our guide. Nita’s got plenty of photographs in hand and the young man assures us he has a great spot for pictures of the mosques exterior. Around the way we enter the stairs to what looks like a residence and soon enough we’re on the roof looking back at Uqba. He’s not wrong – the view of the building and indeed the entire medina is stunning. On our way down we’re hurried into a rug store even as we protest – but sometimes there’s no fighting it.

We enter out of respect and hear the usual “Look. Don’t buy.” We’re led to the back and offered seats – it’s a play we’ve seen a thousand times here. We decline the seat as Thé a la Menthe is brought from around the corner. There are four or five men all stroking rugs and speaking to us at the same time – my incessant “No’s” have changed the mood from “Look. Don’t buy.” to “Buy. Buy. BUY! Great deal. BUY!” My hand is suddenly in the air and all attempts to be polite suddenly vanish; We decline the tea and make our way to the door ignoring the sales pitches that continue even as we make our way onto the street.

We feel badly but, honestly, we can only say “Thank you, no” so many times. Walking away, we both comment on what a shame it is that the pushiness overwhelms the experience. Their shop is beautiful and had one of the best selections of carpets we’ve seen – but it’s almost a case of sensory overload. If we’d been able to simply walk through the store, tea in hand, we likely would have bought something. On another day, it may have happened anyway.

It’s a brisk walk back to the hotel and after a catching our breath in the lobby we begin to pack the bikes for our trip to Sousse and a visit with Mudy and Lorena. The temperature is well into the thirties and our gear feels heavy as we finish up loading our own pack mules. As I’m plotting the days route I hear an almighty crash – turning around I see Nita’s bike on it’s side. The side-stand is too tall for her bike and, while cinching her straps the bikes fallen away from her. It’s not the first time and certainly wont be the last we get to admire our bikes snoozing. The Rock runs from the shade of the giant doors that lead visitors into the hotel and, in what seems like a super-human feat of strength, lifts the bike onto it’s stand again before I’ve even moved from my own machine. He’s pretty awesome.

With heart rates returning to safe levels and the last of our things loaded, we slip the bikes off the curb and wave a goodbye to Kairouan as we begin our days journey north towards Sousse and the familiar faces of our friends. It’s the last stretch of the unknown for us in Tunisia and, as the road passes beneath our tires, we’re both feeling a bit sad that our time here is quickly coming to an end. Soon though the rumble of our engines and the gentle hum of the road settles our hearts and the warmth of the sun leaves us happy.


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I’m a Canadian writer, adventure motorcyclist and world traveller of British and Libyan descent. I’ve spent the past two and a half years travelling the globe by motorcycle as one-half of We Love Motogeo, following a route that makes little sense to anyone else, while supporting our non-profit organization, the Lost for Good Project. I’ve been chased by all manner of animal, detained as a spy in North Africa and waited out a hurricane in the bowels of a ferry. While I’m no spy (honestly), I am a lover of decent coffee and great yarns sewn around a campfire.


  1. Comment by Kathleen Kinasewich

    Kathleen Kinasewich July 14, 2013 at 4:24 pm

    Thank you for this lovely story, I was the Kathleen you met in Tunisia …It was truly a pleasure to read this whole page with my mind saying yes, yes, that is exactly how i would describe that experience thank you again for your story as it is also mine , less the motorcycles. I keep following your travels…Blessings and stay safe.

    • Comment by Issa Breibish

      Issa Breibish July 18, 2013 at 12:49 am

      Hi Kathleen! Thank you for the lovely comments – we’re glad it the story helped capture some of your experience too. It was great to meet you in Kairouan!

  2. Comment by Beela

    Beela July 14, 2013 at 3:11 pm

    As usual, gorgeous pictures!

    People seemed a bit unfriendly/unwelcoming at first? I wonder why.

    What were those black obelisk like objects at the mosque?

    Being there (or any Islamic country) during Ramadan should be amazing. The vibe is usually more upbeat and just full of life.

    Ramadan Kareem!

    • Comment by Issa Breibish

      Issa Breibish July 14, 2013 at 3:20 pm

      Hi Beela!

      Thanks again for stopping by :) From what we heard locally – the interior between Kasserine and Sidi Bousaid is going through hard times post-revolution and after the rioting in the region people are just more on edge. Plus we’re outsiders which can sometimes make an uneasy situation even more-so.

      I originally wrote this a while ago and I’ve been thinking that the extreme beauty of the previous day may have made this day seem darker than it actually was. But that’s looking back on it which is always rosier. It definitely felt quite dodgy that day :)

      The obelisks are actually a close up of the sun-dial used to set the call to prayer at Uqba – it was really beautiful. It’s funny, that pic makes them look huge but they’re not :)

      This stretch was a total anomaly in our Tunisia journey – the country is amazing and filled with truly beautiful people. Just, beautiful!!

      Ramadan Kareem!

  3. Comment by peter

    peter July 15, 2013 at 6:19 pm

    “Is that a Citroen driving on the sidewalk to pass?! Yes. Okay.” – all this made me laugh out loud :) Probably wasn’t total fun riding through that for you, but made for an awesome read!

    • Comment by Issa Breibish

      Issa Breibish July 18, 2013 at 12:55 am

      Peter! Glad you enjoyed it :) It was a pretty funny morning – like all the strangest driving and events you could witness in one spot – and in about 30 minutes! Bonkers but fun…

  4. Comment by Jan Thain

    Jan Thain July 16, 2013 at 7:09 pm

    So glad to see that Breibish sense of humor amid all the the chaos! I laughed so much especially the piece with the police cage and goats etc.
    I love love love the pic of Nita with the blue and white shawl – should be in National Geographic!
    The textures in the pictures, of the land and of the people, friendly or not was a really great read. Keep each other safe and warm…. Love you both! xoxo

    • Comment by Issa Breibish

      Issa Breibish July 18, 2013 at 12:52 am

      Mum – I laughed pretty hard while I was writing it :) I felt for the goats all stacked on top of one another but that quickly passed when the swerving cow-carrier came into view… it’s quite something!

      Those pics of Nita are some of my favorite. That’s inside the Mosque Uqba at Kairouan – which is a beautiful place…

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