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krisek Le Kef - A travel report by Krys
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Le Kef,  Tunisia - flag Tunisia -  El Kef
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krisek's travel reports

Tunisia's white & green town on a hilltop. Le Kef.

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Once very significant, today's Le Kef seems compact. But the population is friendly. Particularly kids, who scream 'bon jour' on sight of a visitor, regardless of the time of day or night.

Le Kef travelogue picture
Le Kef was the last stop on my second day in Tunisia, after wandering about the extensive Roman ruins in Dougga and Bulla Regia. I was not quite sure why I selected Le Kef for the itinerary, but it seemed like a very logical place to stay overnight, relatively close to the ruins. It was big enough, and had good facilities. And it had an interesting history. Still, even on the day, I had a few doubts, unsure what I was going to do in the town.

On approach from Tunis, the town looked modern, built up with new blocks of flats. Not particularly attractive at all. But a couple of kilometres into the centre, it became obvious that there was definitely more to Le Kef that it initially might have seemed. Large brown Kasbah on the top of the hill dominated the skyline made of white old buildings, packed close one to another, clinging to the slopes. My doubts about coming to Le Kef dispersed quickly.

The centre of the town was a busy square. Not a very traditional square at all. It was not free from traffic and not geometrically square at all. The main road, liking the town with Tunis and the Algerian border, ran right in the middle of it. The main bus/coach stop was based there too - a simple bus stand, really. The only pedestrianised area was a path running along the edge of the medina, leading to the small Roman ruins (still being excavated), the fruit-and-vegetable market, and a large modern mosque on a hill.

The medina of Le Kef was not easy to navigate, and despite its relatively small size, it was not difficult to lose direction. One of the larger streets leading (and weaving) uphills to the presidential residence, the local museum, and eventually the Kasbah was the longest routes to the top of the town. The only shortcuts were inconspicuous stepped alleys, which were not signposted, but also led to the Kasbah and a small square, which was my favourite spot.

Favourite spots:
Little mosque also known as the Basilique at Place Bou Makhlouf, at the foot of the Kasbah, was my favourite place in Le Kef. It was not terribly easy to find it, even with a map. One route led through a relatively uninteresting weaving road, the other through a combination of narrow streets and stepped alleys. The mosque's little dome was perfectly proportioned to a relatively short minaret. It seemed to me that the minaret was erected not too tall on purpose, since the overall altitude of the temple was doing the rest, adding significant potency to it. So, the calls for prayer executed from the top of the town were going to be heard everywhere.

I reached the spot rather late in the day, and I could not enjoy the outdoor cafe right by it. It would have been even better. But it was so cute. And the massive Kasbah looming in the background with boys kicking a ball at its walls was a great picture to remember.

What's really great:
In fact, the kids and their smiles were Le Kef's main quality! They smiled so affectionately and infectiously. Perhaps they had not seen many foreign visitors around in their town, and their curiosity and affection to strangers were remarkable. They were friendly, relaxed and approachable, and keen to engage in conversation (what a pity my French was not good enough). Some were just running around and shouted 'bon jour'. Some played games on laptops and kindly invited to join them. This created an amazing and unforgettable atmosphere of Le Kef, a welcoming and an exceptionally friendly little town in the mountains.

Roman ruins in excavation
Roman ruins in excavation
There was not that much to see in Le Kef. It was a small town built on a hill, whose history was more significant than its sights. In a nutshell, the town once withstood an Algerian invasion, which in those times was a mission impossible, apparently. Anyway, one of the main sights of the modern Le Kef was the Kasbah. It definitely dominated the skyline. The stronghold was significant in size and in a remarkable condition! Its walls were massive and complete.

The museum of local art, not far from the castle, was another place of interest. It had collection of handicraft from northern Tunisia, traditional costumes, jewellery, ceramics, textiles, from various periods, and beduine tents.

The town was also in the process of excavating small Roman ruins. They were really small, and did not seem very significant. At least not yet. But when the job is completed this little ancient piazza with small arches and other structures may look quite nice, actually.

Hotel Les Pins
Hotel Les Pins
I initially wanted to stay at the reasonable but no frills Residence Venus, not far from the Kasbah, however it was not available. Apparently. Or the management simply wanted me to stay in their more expensive hotel - the Hotel Les Pins. It was located just out of town, some 2-3 kilometres from the centre on the main road to Tunis in the east and Sbeitla in the south.

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.

The hotel had a small central open-air swimming pool within the hotel's walls. And there was wifi available in the reception area.

The room rate included buffet breakfast containing coffee, milk, sugar, boiled eggs, French baguette, butter, preserves, Danish pastries, and watery fruit drink.

Le Kef travelogue picture
Unfortunately, there was nothing particularly obvious about Le Kef's nightlife. The town seemed rather conservative, and if there were places to boogie and throw hands in the air, they must have been very well hidden. Almost as soon as the sun lowered its disc behind the mountains, the town seemed to come to a stop, tools had been being dropped and people appeared to had disappeared behind their household doors. I did not detect much action otherwise, I'm afraid.

Le Kef travelogue picture
Countless barber shops were places to be seen and spend the time. It was so obvious! Nowhere else in Tunisia did I see so many! It was very interesting to see how much attention the local men gave to their appearance. I would have exaggerated if I said the grooming salons occupied every second building, but that was not far off, actually. It surely felt so special about Le Kef. In comparioson, Tunis was dominated by cafes and tea houses, and shops! Le Kef had few of those, and its hangout spots therefore must have been the hairdressers and barber shops!

There were cafes in Le Kef, obviously! And just like the barber shops, they were so male-dominated. And therefore Le Kef's cafe scene was not much different than in any other town of Tunisia.

Le Kef medina
Le Kef medina
Restaurant Venus with 'spoken' menu was superb. It belonged to the same management, who ran the Hotel Les Pins. 'Spoken' menu means that there was no written menu, and the waiter just recited what they had available that day. In a way, that made sense. One could count on it that whatever was being served must have been fresh.

The waiter spoke French, but seemed to understand English a little. It was a very funny conversation, but fortunately my understanding of French was at least as good as his understanding of English, and there were no surprises on my plate. Uh, and it was amusing to order wine, too. The gist of it was:

"About wine... Well, we have three types: white, rose and red. From red, we have two: Magon and Vieux Magon."

I went for the Vieux Magon.

The place was not cheap though! A soup, a salad, le brique, two grilled doradas, two bottles of local wine, three mint teas, and one apple tart were TND112 (€59). Everything, including wine was excellent. The fish was exquisite.

Other recommendations:
Le Kef travelogue picture
Bulla Regia, a very large ancient Roman town with underground villas, complete with subterranean patios and incredible mosaics left in situ, about 60 kilometres north of Le Kef, was an incredible place to visit. It did not receive many visitors at all, according to a local guide. And I found that very strange. The significance of Bulla Regia, as the only ancient Roman site in the world with underground villas should be overwhelming. It should have also been recognised by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. Well, it is not (as of April 2010), but I would not be surprised that it might one day be inscribed as one.

The site was fascinating and apart from being considerable in size, having collection of beautiful underground villas - complete with patios and columns, and a large number of exquisite mosaics both on the ground and underground, it also had great other sights. There was an olive mill, lovely theatre (also with a mosaic), massive baths, cisterns and wells.

Published on Thursday May 6th, 2010

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