July 2002 : Malta, Tunisia, Algeria



July has been a hectic month, as we have tried, after losing time last month in Sicily, to cram as much as we possibly can into these final months of cruising. We decided on a final fling with the non-European world, and headed towards the southern shores of the Mediterranean to continue our westward progress.

First to Malta – not obviously exotic, given its British colonial past, but in fact an intriguing combination of the strange and the familiar. Nothing more so than the language. While most people speak English, the first language is Malti - a curious mixture of Arabic, Italian and English. We were able to recognise the origin of many words – ‘marsa’, ‘ciaou’, ‘kunsill lokali’, etc! We were berthed in the harbour of Marsamxett to the north of the magnificent mellow honey-coloured capital Valletta. Built by the Knights of St. John in the sixteenth century it occupies a dramatic location on the raised peninsular between two great natural harbours. The fortified city was planned on a grand scale, and built on a grid plan designed to allow the breeze to flow through its streets. One of its most delightful features are the covered balconies on every building. Malta is steeped in history, much of it encompassed in the capital which is obviously extremely proud of its heritage. We were surprised to find remains of an even more ancient past at the prehistoric temples of Hagar Qim, dating back 1,500 years before Stonehenge, and an excellent museum housing some wonderful exhibits – including some rather bizarre statues of large and curvaceous women. Odd to think of prehistoric people enjoying a lifestyle which would allow them to become that shape!

The other thing which Malta is steeped in is religion – Roman Catholicism. This is manifested in the vast number of churches and festas. Every town and village is dominated by an outsize and staggeringly ornate and opulent church. The small town of Mosta, for example, with an otherwise rather small English provincial town high street look and feel, has a church with one of the largest domes in the world! These churches are richly decorated inside with colourful marble, silver candelabra, glass chandeliers and red damask wall hangings, some looking more like rich baroque ballrooms than churches. The church festas were something else. Every church on the island holds one at some time in the year. As luck would have it, it was festa time at the church at Sliema near our berth while we were there. We discovered this by calling into the Tourist Information office, where the enthusiastic assistant told us about it with tears in her eyes. This was her church and she could not contain the deep felt emotion. The church band played a major role in the proceedings with days of marches in the streets around the church – streets decorated with huge bright banners strung across every few yards, and somewhat tackily colourful fake marble statues! The culmination was the parade of the ornate gilt statue from inside the church around the streets – just exactly like the festival we visited in Sicily. These festas appear to be a growing phenomenon. The earliest dates from the eleventh century, but the one at ‘our’ church started only in 1910, while others have started far more recently. Perhaps their most amazing feature is the number and noise of the firework displays involved. Every evening we were in Malta reverberated to the sound of the bangs and thumps of explosions – as if the place was being bombed to smithereens, evoking in our minds the Second World War – which you would think they might want to forget!

Our final couple of days in Malta were enlivened by the arrival of Vagabond. We hadn’t seen Simon and Sarah since April in Egypt, and were very pleased to manage this reunion – the final rendezvous of our circumnavigations. Their struggle up the Red Sea in such a small boat was quite an epic, and they have decided to make their return to the UK via the French canals, rather than bashing up the Portuguese coast like us (the canals being too shallow for us), so our paths will not cross again, although we keep in radio contact. It will be interesting to see who gets home first.

Next Tunisia – which we had to take at quite a pace given our shortage of time. We arrived into the small port of Kelibia – definitely the most active and thriving fishing port we have ever visited - fascinating and incredibly picturesque, with its daily routine of boats leaving for the night’s fishing and returning in the early hours, unloading, the fish market (finished by 6am), net mending, ice-making, etc. etc. Also in Kelibia we found our first intimation of the spectacular wealth of ancient Roman and Carthaginian remains in North Africa. While walking up to the fort which dominates the port, we came upon the remains of a Roman villa – quite unguarded and unattended in any way – with the most fabulous mosaic floors in mint condition. We also visited the site of Kerkouane, an idyllically situated small Carthaginian town – apparently unusual in not having been wrecked beyond recognition by subsequent Roman invaders.

From Kelibia we moved on to Sidi Bou Said, on the outskirts of Tunis – a gorgeously pretty cliff top village of narrow cobbled streets and whitewashed houses with blue studded doors and shutters. It must once have been an ordinary village, but is now something of an upmarket artists colony – very nice too. The other local attraction is the archeological site of Carthage. The scale of this site is quite something - it spans six stations on the metro which runs from this posh suburban area into the capital Tunis. We didn’t have the energy, never mind the time, for all of this, so focussed on two sites close to the evocatively named ‘Carthage-Hannibal’ stop. The Antonine Baths are an impressive and magnificent complex of internal and external baths of every temperature – ‘figidarium’, ‘tepidarium’, and so on. The residential area of Roman villas is a direct parallel to the swanky homes of the area as it is today, with fabulous views out over the blue waters of the Bay of Tunis to mountains beyond. Tunis itself was something of a disappointment. With the exception of several very gracious art nouveau buildings, the place is dominated by crass 1960s architecture in all its hideous and tacky concrete glory. The medina – old town – was also a little disappointing. We have definitely been spoilt by the wonders of Cairo for other Arabic cities. The jewel of Tunis, as far as we were concerned, was the magnificent Bardo Museum – a rich and fabulous exhibition of Roman statuary and mosaics – the world’s largest, housed in a fantastic fourteenth century Moorish palace.

Our final stop in Tunisia was in the westernmost port of Tabarka. We were driven in here by strong adverse winds, to find a friendly mix of fishing and low-key tourism. Here we attended a live concert by a very popular Arabic singer and 14 piece band. The music is fascinatingly exotic with structures and forms so different to western music – compelling and hypnotic. The concerted started after 10pm and looked set to carry on indefinitely when we left after midnight, with the audience madly gyrating and singing along. This was the most secular Muslim country we had visited so far – hardly a headscarf in sight or muezzin to be heard. Nevertheless, it was still impossible to find a meal with alcohol – although we did spy the alcohol section of a supermarket – a small room discreetly off to one side! We didn’t have anything like enough time for Tunisia – just enough to be aware of all the things we didn’t see, but it was a good ‘taster’.

Finally Algeria – a curious destination you might think, in view of the volatile and violent state of the country over the past few years – and indeed its whole history as we now realise. Still, ever keen on visiting the more obscure locations, we were drawn to Algeria by the fact that Chris’ friend Naomi has lived in Algiers for very many years, and we have always found visits to places where we have had friends ashore especially rewarding and enjoyable. Simply getting there proved an almost unsurmountable task. We needed visas and a special permit to allow us and the boat to enter Algerian territory. Our first attempt to obtain these in the Algerian Embassy in Cairo met with dismal failure. The visa section there was a small booth opening directly on to the street, where we spent a hot afternoon huddled pathetically with the other applicants, unable to persuade the official to read our prepared letter explaining our request and circumstances. Had it not been for Naomi pulling out all the stops and calling on a number of her very impressive contacts in Algiers we would probably have been defeated. However, she managed to fix things whereby we were able to obtain the visas and boat permit in the space of a week, from the embassy in Tunis – a somewhat more civilised establishment than its Cairo counterpart. The next hurdle was the drastically negative reputation of Algeria amongst the very few yachties we met with any recent knowledge of the country. In a quest for up to date information on harbours and so forth, we met with an solidly disheartening response, meeting no one with a good word to say about the place. Remarks such as "eet was horrible", "a disaster…" muttered grimly in thick French accents were discouraging. People obviously thought we were mad – or more likely just stupid – even to consider wasting our time going there. Finally, just as we were ready to leave, the weather turned severely against us, and for a time it looked as though we wouldn’t make it to Algiers before Naomi was due to leave on holiday. We hammered hard into a strong wind for the first 90 miles or so at an average of 3 knots, and had more or less decided it was no go, when the wind miraculously changed for us and we enjoyed our best sail for months making a very fast time for the final 280 miles.

Our time in Algeria was weird and wonderful – we have not experienced anything like it. The security situation there is so tight that, despite having visas, we would not have been permitted to leave the port had it not been for Naomi, who had literally to sign for us, undertaking to keep us under her wing so that we could not stray into any trouble. We had looked forward to exploring the kasbah of Algiers – but were firmly told that such an idea was quite out of the question – far too dangerous. What we saw of Algiers was mainly from the car – in fact a very lovely city built like an amphitheatre, in green hills rising up around the large port. The French colonial buildings running all along the sea front in white, with blue shutters and balconies, are quite delightful and the whole place was in a far better condition than we had imagined from all the horror stories. We would love to have been able to stroll freely around and to explore the city properly. However, disappointing though it was to be denied our independence, this was overwhelmingly made up for by our meeting, through Naomi, of a fascinating range of people. So often, our experience of the local people in countries we visit is limited to fishermen, taxi drivers, shop-keepers, etc. In Algeria we met and talked properly to people from all walks of life. Naomi is a keen rider, so we visited her stables/riding club and met the cream of the Algerian equestrian scene. Their trainer Tawfik – an elegant and charming character we initially took to be French - invited us to his home for a traditional Algerian meal – huge and delicious – cooked for us by his little old, very traditional Algerian mother, who stayed out of sight in the kitchen throughout! We visited the British Embassy and met the Ambassador who was rather keen to come with us for a sail we were planning along the coast. However, his staff were less than enthusiastic about the security implications of this, so it didn’t happen. Another of Naomi’s friends was a delightful high-powered female lawyer, Yasmina who delighted in telling us she had just arrested a ship! We had a drink and chat in the home of Fatima, who very kindly did our washing – a delightful and bubbly lady – it was sobering to hear of the members of her family lost in the violence of the past years. We also, over the course of our visit, encountered large numbers of officials and policemen. French is spoken interchangeably with Arabic, and English also widely spoken and so we were able to communicate with everyone we met far better than is often the case. We found the Algerian people to be possessed of a most appealing combination of Arab hospitality and Gallic charm.

Naomi left Algiers a few days after our arrival and the following day we moved on to Tipaza – a safe coastal resort. This was quite a revelation – an ex Club Med village – very tasteful, designed in the style of a Saharan village, and teeming with happy holidaymakers – guarded by a heavy security force and high fences. Here we were very generously and kindly looked after by members of the Diving Club and also the director of the resort, who took us to visit the fabulously pretty site of Roman remains nearby .

It was a fascinating, curious and very special visit. We attracted great interest, being such rare visitors to the country – especially by yacht, and enormous security. The boat was kept under 24 hour armed surveillance whilst we were in the port of Algiers. When we left, a Coastguard vessel accompanied us for several hours of the passage to Tipaza, and then visited us there each day of our visit. Our short final stop in the little port of Cherchell where we formally departed from Algeria required two car loads of policemen turning up at our berth, right outside the heavily guarded Coastguard Headquarters! What we saw of the country looked and felt normal, happy and peaceful – but then so did London when IRA bombs were a regular event. It was hard to know what to make of it. It was obviously very difficult for the people we met – including the officials – to reconcile their love and pride in their country, with the acknowledged danger for us in travelling around freely and seeing much of it. Everyone we met was so welcoming and wanted us to see so much, but felt they couldn’t let us. Very sad. We would love to return there some day.

Less than two months of our adventure left now. Most of what is left will be hard sailing northwards, culminating in the dreaded Bay of Biscay. We are feeling a little apprehensive about our return generally. How will we find the static lifestyle, the weather? Will we find work? Does anyone back home remember us?