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krisek Jendouba - A travel report by Krys
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Jendouba,  Tunisia - flag Tunisia -  Jendouba
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krisek's travel reports

Superb ancient city of world's unique architecture

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‘Exquisite’ does not even begin to describe the outstanding and exceptional value of the royal city of Bulla Regia. This large site with Punic, Numidian, Roman and Byzantine origins boasts underground villas found nowhere else on Earth. report of the month contest
Jul 2010


Part of the Memmian Baths, and the satellite photograph of the site.
Part of the Memmian Baths, and the satellite photograph of the site.
If I had to choose only one site to visit, out of all ancient ruins in Tunisia, I would have picked Bulla Regia. Available travel literature about Tunisia opts for Dougga, which is also magnificent, but the uniqueness of Bulla Regia was simply matchless. This is how.

The site might have been occupied first by the Berber tribes and then by the Punics, who arrived in the area in the 4th century BC. It was the Berbers, who brought the idea of building houses under the surface of the semi-desert to escape the African heat. After the Second Punic War, around 203 BC, the Romans occupied the city, but it was then inhabited by the Numidians, who in 156 BC declared Bulla Regia their capital. Hence the epithet Regia (Royal). Massinissa, the first King of Numidia, was a Roman ally and subsequently Julius Caesar granted Bulla Regia a status of a free city despite creating the Roman province of Africa Nova. The Romans, who resided in Bulla Regia adopted the the troglodyte style of subterranean houses and developed it further building lavish underground villas. The villas had underground patios with gardens and fountains, spacious rooms complete with colonnades, and all were meticulously decorated with intricate mosaics. On top of the subterranean level, a regular ground level house stood as well. This architecture was not found anywhere else in the entire Roman Empire! And unlike many ancient Roman and Byzantine sites around the country were stripped from the mosaics, which were placed in the Bardo Museum in Tunis, Bulla Regia got to keep many of its own in situ. As the site had been buried under layers of sand, many of the tiny colourful tiles survived in superb condition. The fact that they were laid on the floors of the underground villas also helped.

Bulla Regia was a large city, and although the excavation had been halted in 1990 after some 90 years of work, there was a fair bit to see when I visited (March 2010). And hopefully the digging will resume again soon.

Favourite spots:
The House of Amphitrite - the Venus mosaic to walk on.
The House of Amphitrite - the Venus mosaic to walk on.
The underground villa known as the House of Amphitrite was by far my favourite spot in the city. There was a single reason for it. The villa had the most beautiful mosaic I had ever seen in situ anywhere in the world! This house was an example of one of the types of the underground villas, the so-called ‘second level standard’. It had a staircase connecting upper part of the villa with the underground rooms. It had a hallway connecting three doorless rooms, complete with columns. Some rooms had large windows. The intricate mosaic in the hallway (photo below) depicted a head and torso of a young man wearing a laurel wreath. Its detail and colours were incredible. The other mosaic, depicting naked Venus, the goddess of fertility, surrounded by Tritons, messengers of the sea, was the villa’s main quality. On the bottom of the mosaic, there were two angels riding dolphins, one holding a box, the other a mirror. This is why the mosaic was initially mistaken for Amphitrite, Neptune’s wife.

What's really great:
The House of Amphitrite - the young man mosaic in the hallway.
The House of Amphitrite - the young man mosaic in the hallway.
Unlike in most ancient sites in Europe, one could wander absolutely anywhere in Bulla Regia, touch and climb all the monuments, and, what so hard to believe, walk on the mosaics! There were absolutely no guards around. Visitors were free to explore the villas and the monuments by walking anywhere without being stopped. This way one could develop a very intimate connection with the site and soak the atmosphere to the max, free from chains and ropes prohibiting any close encounters. Bulla Regia was my second ancient Roman site in Tunisia, after Dougga, and I was still impressed with this closeness that was allowed on the site. But I did feel terribly guilty when walking on the 1,800 years old mosaics. I actually tried to avoid stepping on them. Later, I discovered that all ancient sites I visited in Tunisia were like this - no ropes, no chains, no ‘no entry’ signs. I loved it. But I do believe this freedom should be enjoyed responsibly.

Sights:
The House of the Hunt  (or Hunting) mosaic on the ground level floor of the villa.
The House of the Hunt (or Hunting) mosaic on the ground level floor of the villa.
The main sights of Bulla Regia included:

The well preserved theatre (no.1 on the satellite photo above) was a remarkable sight in its own right. Its orchestra had a large mosaic depicting a bear. It was very intriguing since there were no bears in Tunisia! Under the audience seats, there were rooms where small horses were being kept. Holes to tie the horses to the walls and columns still existed when I visited. It was fascinating to see this. The theatre was built at the time of Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus around AD 160.

Four thermal buildings, including the Memmian Baths (no.2), Grand Southern Baths, Theatre Baths, Venantii Baths. But there were many private baths in the city, facilitated by the plentitude of available water nearby.

The mosaics left in situ at the following houses: the House of Hunting (no.3); the House of Fisheries; the House of Amphitrite (no.4); the House of Treasure.

There were also: a forum, market, the Temple of Apollo, the Capitol, and a couple of churches.

Accommodations:
Le Kef's Hotel Les Pins - the open air central swimming pool.
Le Kef's Hotel Les Pins - the open air central swimming pool.
The closest place to stay near Bulla Regia was Jendouba. There were two reasonable options in town. One, called the Atlas, was a simple pension nearby the railway station - convenient for the trains to Tunis. The other, called the Simitthu, was the best hotel in town, but it was still a no-frills option. It had clean en-suite rooms with satellite TV, and there was even a bar, but it was nothing to write home about it. It was close to the bus and minibus station, convenient for the trips to Bulla Regia - a modern town of the same name, next to the ruins.

I did not stay there. Instead, I travelled about 60 km south to Le Kef and stayed there at the Hotel Les Pins. They charged TND25 (€13) per twin room. The rooms were very comfortable and of good size, and had tiled floors. The bathrooms were modern and squeaky clean, however had no toiletries and I had to claim towels from the reception. At night, the heating in the rooms came on, as it was bit chilly in the mountains.

Nightlife:
Lower level of a villa
Lower level of a villa
The ruins were closing down about an hour before sunset (1 April to 15 September at 7 p.m.; 16 September to 31 March at 5:30 p.m.), and therefore there was no nightlife available in the city. However, Bulla Regia seemed accessible at any time of day and night, and there were no guards. Yet, one would be completely on their own securing night time activities amongst the ruins. The nearby Jendouba (9 kilometres south) had cafes and tearooms, but offered nothing obvious in terms of night activities. It was rather a conservative little place.

Hangouts:
Arches next to the baths' palaestra.
Arches next to the baths' palaestra.
In the past, it must have been either the public park or one of the three baths’s site, where the ancients had spent their time relaxing and catching up on their gossip. When I visited, I thought that the baths, particularly the relatively well preserved Memmian Baths (AD 190), named after Julia Memmia, the wife of an emperor, were still a pretty fabulous place to wander around. The unique set of arches near the palaestra and the gymnasium was a neat spot to let the imagination go wild and picture how the Romans kept fit. Palaestra was a room or a set of small rooms within the baths, which were used for wrestling, boxing or playing games with a ball. It was often adjacent to a gymnasium, used for sports and exercising required more room. Whilst palaestra could exist without a gymnasium, the latter could not exist without the former. It was because, a palaestra was the place to change clothes.

Restaurants:
Olive oil mill.
Olive oil mill.
Alternatively, one could relax under the parasols of a small restaurant across the main road leading to Jendouba or Bulla Regia, across the Southern Baths, opposite the ticket office. They served teas and coffees (good and bad, respectively) and a range of simple meals for very reasonable prices. Their vegetable salads and the tuna salad were the best! They were made fresh and in very good sizes. I am not sure about the tuna, though. I suspect it was a tinned tuna, since I could not imagine fresh fish being delivered there from the coast. The service was slow, as there was only one waiter/cook, who did not speak much English, but it was worth waiting for. The sugary mint tea was less sticky than in most places around the country.

An adjacent kiosk, literally next door to the restaurant, served simple snacks and also served teas. It was in direct competition with the restaurant and it was funny how the lads tried to convince clients that the other’s tea was worse, much worse...

Other recommendations:
The theatre and its bear mosaic at the orchestra.
The theatre and its bear mosaic at the orchestra.
Bulla Regia was relatively easily accessible, compared to some other ancient Roman cities, yet it did not receive many visitors at all. According to the local guide at the site, about 30 people a day visited the ruins.

The railway station in Jendouba, 9 kilometres south of the ruins, had six daily trains to Tunis taking up to 3 hours. The first train departed Jendouba at 05:43, then there were trains at: 11:29; 12:48; 14:10; 14:57; and 17:23. The last train from Jendouba arrived in the capital at 20:21. The 14:10 express train, which took 2.5 hours cost TND10.100 (€5.50) and the last train was the cheapest costing TND7.000. Trains from Tunis for Jendouba departed at: 6:30 (the express train); 07:00; 11:00; 13:00; 15:00; and 17:00.

Taxis from Jendouba should not cost more than TND8 (€4.30) one way, but it was always better to arrange for one to wait for the return journey.

Entry fee to the site was TND5 plus TND1 for a camera. I recommend to take a guide, as the mosaics were well hidden.

Published on Saturday July 24th, 2010


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Wed, Dec 15 2010 - 10:36 PM rating by rmoss

I remember staying in El kef back in September 1995. It was cold at night even then. There was also an excavation of mosaics within the town, near the bus and taxi station I think. It had been uncovered by an Italian archeological dig a few years earlier, and was unfortunately beginning to degrade due to being left exposed to the elements again, after 1600 years or so of protection. The mosaics included depictions of Christ on the Cross, so I suppose the site was Byzantine. I stayed in El Kef to visit Jugurtha's Table. This is an unimaginably huge block of Nummulitic Limestone, that somewhat resembles "Table Mountain" dropped from the sky into the desolate wastes of the North African Steppe. The empty silence in the shelter of the cliffs was almost a physical force against my ears.

Mon, Aug 09 2010 - 04:34 PM rating by eirekay

Krys, I am so glad to see this get RoM - your whole series on Tunisia has opened up a much forgotten place to all of us! I would have never thought to go there but now I know I have to!!! Beautifully done!

Sun, Jul 25 2010 - 09:45 AM rating by pesu

Krys, this is incredibely beautiful! Thanks a lot for this stunning piece of history and the intriguing photos.

Sat, Jul 24 2010 - 06:31 PM rating by aufgehts

Really fascinating report, Krys. I love the fact that there are no barriers but I agree with you, these place should be treated with respect. In a way, I suppose it's a good thing only 30 people a day visit, keeping the site more pristine. And gorgeous mosaic pics!

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