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krisek Mahdia - A travel report by Krys
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Mahdia,  Tunisia - flag Tunisia -  Mahdia
5726 readers

krisek's travel reports

Could it be Tunisia's loveliest town? Mahdia.

  7 votes
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Mahdia, whose historical centre occupies a narrow peninsula, has a very atmospheric little medina, having perhaps the cosiest ambiance of all medinas in Tunisia.


Cafe Medina
Cafe Medina
When I came to Mahdia, its first impression on me was not great. It did not look special at all. I was driving from El Jem through the new part of town, which appeared chaotic and unorganised to me, busy new town, full of traffic, looking like any regular Tunisian town. As soon as I found myself on the northern coast of the peninsula, I immediately liked the seafront corniche. I gradually began changing my mind, when I took a stroll along the seafront promenade towards the Cap d'Afrique, after I checked into my hotel. The sun was setting and it got dark really quickly. I spotted a few incredibly decorated doorways and pretty houses. But when I entered the little medina, during the hours of darkness, the conversion of my opinion about Mahdia was complete. Little lights on the intricate facades created an unforgettable mood. It was almost mysterious, but calm with inexplicable magnetism. I would not normally enter dark alleys of an unknown medina anywhere in the world, but in Mahdia it simply felt right and safe to do so. I wandered for a couple of hours and I had to force myself to stop, as I had plans for the next day.

In the morning, I knew that it was a perfect decision to stay in the town for two nights! The old town looked equally romantic in the daylight.

Mahdia was split in two, or even three parts, like many Tunisian town in the Sahel region. First part, the original, historical district complete with medina and fortifications. The second part was the new town, where the locals lived, normally in the immediate vicinity of the medina. And the third part was the zone touristique, where the hotels and resorts were erected to cater for the foreign visitors. In Mahdia's case, the old town covered the entire, albeit small peninsula. The new town was located west of the medina's main gate, and the resorts were based farther west, along the northern coast, about 2 kilometres north-west of the central part of the new town.

Favourite spots:
Mahdia's medina in the morning
Mahdia's medina in the morning
The little square, Place Kadhi en Noamine, by the Grand Mosque and at the Cafe Medina, surrounded by perfectly trimmed trees was definitely my favourite spot in town. This was because of the fort-like Grand Mosque, and I always liked forts, and because of the tables under the blue (or starry) sky, and under those fantastic trees! The square looked incredible in the morning, when the sunrays were still low. And even better in the evening, just after the lights came on, and the Ottoman-style minaret of the Slimen Hamza Mosque was illuminated in a bright white light.

Even lovelier and much, much livelier was Place du Caire, a little square tucked between medina's two alleys, which was shaded by densely planted trees and covered entirely with tables and chairs. It was most definitely the medina's centre for socialising.

Medina's main gate, Skifa el-Kahla, was the other spot of Mahdia that I admired the most. It was deep and looked incredibly solid!

What's really great:
Medina's houses at night
Medina's houses at night
Strolling in the medina and along the corniche after sunset was one of the best activities in Mahdia. Most streets were lit at night, and street lighting added the ingredient of mystery to the place. However, the greatest advantage of strolling at night was that the streets were calm. People instead of pestering you about their shops, were greeting by saying 'bon soir' or 'bon nuit'. Or even 'hello' or 'ciao'. Even those, who were whizzing on their mopeds like crazy. One would need to go way off beaten track in Europe to be met with such a curteousy and friendliness these days. The amiability of the population was truly overwhelming. This was undeniably Mahdia's main quality.

Sights:
The fort and the old cemetery
The fort and the old cemetery
Mahdia, given its compact size, had a good number of sights. The main places to visit included:

The Borj el-Kebir Fort, built by the Ottomans in the 16th century, was eventually rebuilt in 200 years later and boasted great bastions and attractive courtyard. Right below the fort, there was an old Muslim cemetery with thousands of white graves facing the direction of Mecca.

The intriguing ruins of the ancient Fatimid Port with fortifications sticking out right by the water's edge, reportedly built on the site of an earlier Punic harbour, were right next door. The size of the walls protecting the port looked massive and definitely stimulated imagination.

The fort-like Grand Mosque dating back to AD 921, in the middle of the medina was very interesting. It did not have a minaret, and one would not guess it was a mosque at all.

Medina's giant castle-like gate, the Skifa el-Kahla, next to the municipal museum, was vast. It was at least 50 meters deep! Sight in its own right, indeed!

Accommodations:
Room no.308 at the Hotel Le Phenix de Mahdia
Room no.308 at the Hotel Le Phenix de Mahdia
The Phenix de Mahdia was a relatively well appointed hotel that paid attention to detail with regard to the decor. Rooms were clean, and the double rooms had giant super king size beds. The bathrooms were modern and clean. The toiletries were provided. There were phones, small refrigerators, tv sets, and spacious wardrobes. The beds were comfortable, had two bedside cabinets, and the sheets were crispy clean. Single rooms were TND70 (€35) and the doubles were twice that.

The rooftop bar with swimming pool was disused. The water in the pool was green and the pool was infested by seagulls, which were very reluctant to leave.

The downstairs bar and lobby were terrible! The hotel seemed to allow locals to use the venue for business meetings. And they smoked thousands of cigarettes! The air in the lobby was positively grey. Such a shame, because the lobby boasted nicely comfortable armchairs and sofas.

Nightlife:
Main medina gate
Main medina gate
My condition prevented me from going boogie in Mahdia, but as I was wandering about the town at night, I noticed how the locals enjoyed their nightlife. Most of them sat at cafes drinking tea and played cards. Well, I have to say that the cafes were almost (or even exclusively) dominated by guys. This was consistent with the rest of the country - cafes were venues for the men. Ladies did not seem to hang out at the cafes at night. I did spot women strolling in the town, holding hands, but they did not frequent any night venues. But the night cafe scene was lively, if noisy. The lads were very vocal about the stories they were sharing. And the card games appeared to require loud narration or very frequent declarations.

Hangouts:
Corniche's palmtree tops and the end of the peininsula
Corniche's palmtree tops and the end of the peininsula
The northern shore corniche planted with palmtrees, benches and paved with large flat stone blocks, right by the sea was a very pleasant place to walk and take the breeze in the hair. Whether one had broken limbs (like me - well one limb, in fact) or not. The promenade was still being improved when I visited, and when completed it is going to be a great place to sit down and relax by the sea.

The southern seafront was slightly different, but it was equally pleasant for wandering and looking into the Mediterranean, all the way to the horizon. Plus the Borj el-Kebir Fort looked great from there. On the rocks, just on the edge of the old cemetery, some 150 meters west from the fort, there was a small cafe/restaurant, which looked like a perfect spot to chill out. It had a terrace overlooking the sea, and comfortable chairs. Its name was given only in Arabic, so I cannot report what it was called.

Restaurants:
El Hamra Restaurant
El Hamra Restaurant
El Hamra at the Phenix de Mahdia served simple but tasty food. Couscous soup was slightly (e.g. nicely) spicy. Their brik (Tunisia's traditional dish - thin, deep fried pastry filled with fish, vegetables or meat and egg) was fantastic, particularly the one with tuna when sprinkled with lemon juice, and the egg yolk did not run! One of the tasty items was also breaded chicken escalope served with sweet potatoes and some vegetables. The service was swift and professional. The restaurant did not serve coffee, but they were happy to fetch esspresso from the hotel bar. Unfortunately, their wine was seriously overpriced! They charged TND25 (€13) for a bottle of Magon (TND30 for Vieux Magon), while other hotels in the same category across the country got it for TND14!

Mahdia had a number of really decent looking restaurants. Some at the medina and a couple along the corniche. The Restaurant Neptune, along the corniche, looked really good and sophisticated.

Other recommendations:
The oval colosseum in El Jem
The oval colosseum in El Jem
El Jem, North Africa's gem, was just 45 kilometres west from Mahdia. This small town's proud possession was world's third largest Roman amphitheatre. I had been capable to accommodate over 30,000 blood-thirsty spectators. UNESCO listed the colosseum as a World Cultural Heritage Site, and when I visited, the ticket to see the monument was TND8 plus TND1 for a camera. The site would look exceptionally spectacular from the air (as many satellite photographs indicate), but exploring it from the ground was also quite overwheling. The shear size of the arena was impressive! And its obvious oval shape looked incredible. The arena was 65 by 39 meters, and the entire structure measured 148 by 122 meters. Rome's colosseum in comparison is: 85 by 53, and 188 by 155 meters.

The best time to visit the colosseum was at sunset, when the sun gently enters inside the oval through the partially collapsed side.

Frequent and convenient louages served the Mahdia - El Jem route, taking about an hour.

Published on Thursday May 20th, 2010


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Mon, May 24 2010 - 06:40 AM rating by farnaz

amazing report and good pictures! thank you!

Fri, May 21 2010 - 05:35 AM rating by jacko1

An excellent report, all the necessary detail for a foreign visitor to peruse, well done!.

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