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marianne Mahdia - A travel report by Marianne
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Mahdia,  Tunisia - flag Tunisia -  Mahdia
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marianne's travel reports

Traveller in Mahdia

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Mahdia is an unspoilt little town in spite of the large zone touristique to the north where package tourists come in their thousands to get a suntan. Mahdia's medina sparkles a bright white under a cerrulean sky and is small enough to explore on foot.

View of the medina
View of the medina
Mahdia is on Cape d'Afrique, 50 km south on the coast from Sousse. It is sea-worn maritime town, with stone houses, flaking paint and utterly charming. It is much more laid back than Monastir and Sousse which both seem metropolises compared to this small coastal town.

A stroll through the medina is very worth while. The streets are less crowded with tourists than in Sousse or Monastir. This is amazing because the zone touristique of Mahdia accommodates well over 10,000 tourists in the summer season from June to September.

Like many Tunisian towns and cities Mahdia is divided into the new and the old town. The new town was built during the time that Tunisia was a French protectorate. During this time middle class people moved out of the medina to the new town. The old houses in the medina were neglected, but recently many have been restored so that they need not be pulled down. The result is that the character of the medina has been retained.

Ave Bourguiba in the new town is the main shopping street. (BNA bank and ATM)

The Sahel metro station is in the new town, close to the fishing harbour. There are some 15 trains a day to Monastir and the airport (1 h 15 mins), Sousse (just under 2 hours) and Mahdia's zone touristique (15 mins). The bus station for El Jem and Sfax is on Ave Belhouane, 3 km from the train station.

ZONE TOURISTIQUE is where most tourists stay. It is NW of the centre following Ave 7 November, stretching for 7 km. The last hotel is Thapsus, beyond this is a quiet stretch of beach and salt pans as far as Bekalta, the next village. The beach in front of the hotels is cleaned and raked daily. Each hotel has its own stretch of sand with sun umbrellas and sunbeds.

The Sahel Metro has a station half-way the zone touristique, in front of Nour Palace Hotel. Almost next to the Metro station is a small shopping centre; two café / restaurants, supermarket, Publitel (public telephones) and several souvenir shops.

Favourite spots:
Skifa el Kahla
Skifa el Kahla
There are not many sights in Mahdia and one afternoon is enough to see all. A stroll starts at Skifa el Kahla, a 20th century reconstruction of a 16th century city gate.

The Skifa looks more like a square building than a gate. Skifa el Kahla means dark passage and that's exactly what it is. Each section of this vaulted passage could be closed by lowering a grill. This together with the city walls (all gone now) made Mahdia into a stronghold.

These days the Skifa is the place where merchants set up their stalls and sell anything from safety pins to souvenirs. Friday is market day and the best day for a visit.

What's really great:
Place du Caire. Almost empty because it is ramadan
Place du Caire. Almost empty because it is ramadan
The Skifa leads into a street full of souvenir shops, all selling desert roses and stuffed toy camels. There is no hard sell, no pushy merchants. (This was quite different in on our first visit in 1994 when tourists were almost dragged into the shops. The same holds good for Monastir and Sousse: pushy-selling days are over)

Halfway on the right is the Moustafa Mosque with an elegant minaret. On the right is Place du Caire, an utterly charming place. Two cafés under large leafy trees and lots of old men sipping geranium flavoured coffee or French style café au lait.

The square was almost empty during ramadan, the month of fastening, but it came to life in the evening after sun set when the fast was broken.

Rue du Caire leads off Place du Caire and houses several weaving workshops. The weavers are used to tourists walking in and watching them making bedspreads on their clacking looms. Their speciality is silk bridal wraps with patterns in gold and silver threads

Entrance to the Great Mosque
Entrance to the Great Mosque
The Great Mosque is a short walk beyond Place du Caire. It is easy to miss as it doesn't look like a mosque because it has no big domes and no minarets.

Four square walls surround an inner courtyard, on one side is the prayer hall, non-muslims are not allowed in. The mosque has a monumental entrance with deep niches and two bastions.

It never had a minaret because the mosque was built just outside the defense wall and a minaret would be too much of a target for mauraders. It is not an old building but a 1960 reconstruction as the 9th-century original was in very bad condition.

Hotel Thapsus
Hotel Thapsus
Hotel Thapsus is the last hotel in the zone touristique and 7 km from Mahdia centre. With 370 rooms it is a very large hotel, but the grounds are big enough so that the hotel never seems to be full of people. The animation team organises activities from jeu de boules to evening entertainment.

The hotel was built in 1992 and started life at more stars than the 3 it has today. The lobby, restaurant, garden, swimmingpool are spacious but it is clear that things are no longer new. Mosts guests are from Eastern Europe on an all inclusive package. The rooms are large, all have balconies and stallite television.

The buffet meals offer fish meat and vegetable dishes. Once a week Tunisian specialties are on the menu.

The hotel beach is kept clean. Three rows of sun umbrellas offer shade for 250 people, quite a crowd in a small space. Sun beds are provided but no mattrasses or towels.

The Sahel Metro Station and a small shopping centre is a 15-min walk.

Mosaic floor in ancient Thapsus
Mosaic floor in ancient Thapsus
We were staying in hotel Thapsus that's why we wanted to know more about ancient Thapsus.

The ancient city of Thapsus is on the coast near the village of Bekalta, north of Mahdia and 7 km away from our hotel, past the salt lake. The site is slightly difficult to find but Mr Salem, the owner of a beach café Le Parc des Princes will show the way in return for a beer in one of tourist hotels in Mahdia.

(when you walk along the beach towards Bekalta you will pass Le Parc des Princes)

Ancient Thapsus was founded by the Phoenicians and was a market place. In 46 BC Julius Caesar won the battle of Thapsus and the city and surrounding area became a Roman colony.

Parts of the city have been excavated but the work has stopped because of lack of funding. The caretaker let us in and we were free to explore vaulted underground chambers. Large parts of mosaic floors, pipes, marble slabs, heating systems it was all there and lots more waiting to be excavated.

Street in the medina
Street in the medina
Beyond the Grand Mosque begins the medina. Its two main streets are Rue Haj Mohamed Abessalem and Rue Sidi Jabeur. Both lead to Borj el Kebir, a rectangular fort on Cape d'Afrique surrounded by a muslim cemetery with white graves all pointing into the direction of Mecca. At the far end is the old port and home to a few weary looking fishing boats.

The houses in the medina have hardly any windows looking out on to the streets. Tunisian homes are centred around an inner courtyard. The entrance from the street leads into a hall with benches against the wall.

This is the place where the men of the house received guests. The women could go about their daily tasks without being seen by the male guests. The rooms are centred around an inner courtyard that provided air and shade. In contrast to the plain walls facing the street, the walls of the living quarters are extravagantly decorated with colourful tiles and ornate stuccowork.

Restaurant Le Lido
Restaurant Le Lido
Only one restaurant in Mahdia is open during ramadan: Restaurant Lido opposite the harbour (near the Sahel Metro Station). It is open because it is a so-called tourist restaurant.

Restaurants in the tourist hotels in the Zone Touristique are all open. They are the only ones that serve alcohol.

Grocery stores and bakers are open during ramadan so that it is always possible to buy food. However, it shouldn't be eaten openly. There are many places on the beach where tourists can eat without being seen by others.

More photos in my slide show: Mahdia: Tourists and Locals

Other recommendations:
Museum Dar Sghir
Museum Dar Sghir
Museum Dar Sghir is in Rue Haj Mohamed Abessalem, one of the two main streets in the medina. It is a renovated traditional house wher an extended family used to live but now open to the public.

The inner courtyard, the tiled walls, crammed rooms. It is amazing to realise that more than one family lived here. One of the rooms is now a small café where visitors can buy soft drinks. The front room is a souvenir shop selling Tunisian products such as olive soap, geranium and orange blossom water and lots more

Published on Tuesday October 30th, 2007

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Wed, Nov 14 2007 - 10:59 PM rating by downundergal

Fantastic report - it reminds me of when I visited Malaysia during Ramadan, some of your pictures echo of greece with the blue and white architecture. Enjoyable reading and beautiful pics.

Mon, Nov 05 2007 - 11:13 PM rating by bineba

Great report. reminds me of our holiday in Hammamet a few years ago.

Wed, Oct 31 2007 - 08:18 AM rating by rangutan

I experienced Tunisia too, you describe it far better that I could ever! Perfect!

Tue, Oct 30 2007 - 01:08 PM rating by zrusseff

Marianne, I enjoyed your report - I never heard of that place. Love this website - great for learning. The sky is so blue!

Tue, Oct 30 2007 - 01:01 PM rating by chretien

Geweldig, wat een prestatie....voor mij nog wel even oefenen....

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