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- Category: Libya (2008)
After several months of planning and preparation, we were finally off on another Big Trip. Right up until the last minute it didn’t quite feel real and on Friday we had a busy day in North Berwick, with me working from home for the day and Ness busily ticking off errands, while we also had the Inside Out team coming and going. Somehow we had managed to get everything done, fitted in a short walk along the beach and a couple of drinks in the convivial Ship Inn, and a tasty home-cooked dinner of Anderson’s bratwurst.
We were both semi-awake before the alarms went off at three o’clock this morning and managed to get ourselves up and out without being in too much of a daze. We had been tightly cuddled up, together with Baloo and Joey. Outside it was dark and freezing cold, and the streets looked icy. We carefully drove to the airport. The temperature readout showed -4°C!
The airport was busy, even at this early hour on a Saturday morning. With my newly acquired BA Executive Club silver status we were able to get into the lounge and had some breakfast before it was time to board our 6.30am flight.
Out of the window I could see the glorious spectrum of early morning colours, from blood red through orange, yellow, greens, and above it the deep blues up to the heavens. The flight was smooth and quick and we both caught some needed sleep. At Heathrow the more exotic aspect of the trip became apparent as we made our way to the international connections. There was that feeling of the world meets here. Again we briefly made use of the BA lounge, because we could, and then it was time to board our flight. It all went very smoothly. At the gate most of the other passengers seemed to consist of ex-pats and people on business travel, not tourists or backpackers.
The seats were good, at the back of the plane, i.e. behind the wing so we still had views, with views over France and Sardinia as we flew south. We caught glimpses of central France, near Clermont-Ferrand, with fields covered in snow. Later on I could see the southern coast of the island of Sardinia, still looking green and sunny. The Med looked fierce, with white foam crests clearly visible. Later again, closer to the North African coast, the Med looked azure blue. Finally, after flying for three hours, we sighted the coast of Africa. Oh, a minor detail, but I had a “special” breakfast served on the plane. I had put “seafood” as preference in my BA profile, ages ago, and this had been picked up so I got an omelette with salmon. I kept the little label in my written diary as a memento. (Yes, I’m a strange one…) By this stage we both switched from “it still doesn’t feel like we’re going on another trip” to “it feels as we’re back/still on our world trip”.
Coming in to land we got better views of the Libyan coastal landscape and it started to look quite different from ordinary European landscapes, with palm trees and sandy plots of land between the cultivated fields, and different styles of buildings, and a few empty modern roads. On the plane the announcements had been in Arabic as well as in English. The landing was smooth. The airport was small and rather dated. Almost as soon as we had come off the plane we were met by someone from the local tour operator, Jannat Tours. A customs or police inspector asked us if we had the required amount of cash with us (Amelia at Simoon Travel had alerted us to this new regulation just the other day, telling us to make sure we had at least $1,000 each with us). The formalities went easily with very little form-filling, and we both got stamps in our passports. Nessie’s is now looking very impressive indeed. Mine no longer as I had to renew after our world trip and the Dutch authorities punched three big holes right through the pages before returning it. In the hall while we were queuing we looked around at all the signs in the unfamiliar Arabic script, and there was our first (no doubt of many) portrair/poster of Colonel Gadaffi, and not far from it hung one of his many exhortations (ref. Green Book): “Partners, not wage workers!”
Once through customs we met our guide, the sympathetic Walid. He spoke good English and immediately came across as someone with a friendly and polite manner. I think he was as relieved as we were, and as we drove from the airport into Tripoli he explained how anxious he had been to find out who/what kind of people he would be accompanying for a whole month. He also explained how this was a rather unique sort of trip, how normally people only come for two weeks, and how our trip is something altogether different! The road from the airport to town was lined with many construction sites, with big new apartment blocks and concrete shells going up. Also lots of basic roadside stalls selling oranges. The traffic was rather chaotic, cars weaving in and out between lanes. Walid was easy to get on with, and will hopefully prove to be a good travel companion and enable us to access local culture and people.
Into Tripoli itself, past concrete walls that enclosed a military compound, where Colonel Gadaffi stays when he is in town. Everywhere we saw posters, and signs with the number “38”, which Walid explained that these referred to the 38th anniversary of the 1969 revolution which brought Gadaffi to power. Entering Tripoli we drove through rather untidy streets, with lots of crumbling and unfinished buildings, or maybe they just looked that way to my eye. I knew we had gone for a comparative (three star) budget hotel. We turned off the main streets, through some rather dirty looking streets with lots of holes and sections in poor repair, and with mixed populations, Arab was well as many African faces. At the airport we had changed currency, exchanging dollars for thick wads of dinar notes. Our hotel, the Al-Deyafa, looked basic but perfectly fit for purpose, not dissimilar from some we have stayed at in China, Malaysia, Vietnam. An airport style security gate had to be passed to get to the small hotel reception. Walid told us the area we had passed through was mostly Tunisians, Algerians, Africans, etc. Even on the short stretch from the airport to here we had started to gather how the Libyans see themselves, as better mannered and more courteous than their neighbours.
We spent about half an hour in our room, unpacking, repacking, etc. I had forgotten all about the art of packing efficiently and we both had very full backpacks, partly due to the big thick sleeping bags which take up a lot of space. I changed out of my Rohan trousers – I had felt a bit like a retard wearing these as the hems kept sticking to my socks, making me look rather odd. Then we met Walid again in the reception and drove into the centre of town.
Tripoli is not a pretty city at first sight, with lots of concrete, either somewhat dated and crumbling or just generally not very well built, alongside newer constructions, but we also noticed many old “Italian” buildings and houses. We parked somewhere near Al Saaha Alkhadhraa, Green Square, also known as Martyrs Square, and went for a stroll around the centre with Walid. Many people greeted him, and vice versa, with friendly good-humoured exchanges of salaam aleykum (“peace be upon you”) and hand shaking, and we did our best to respond with our best wa-aleykum a salaam’s. The people seemed genuinely friendly. We did attract quite a bit of attention but it was entirely non-intrusive, with surprised smiles creeping across the faces of people when they saw us. We were definitely the only tourists, or “westerners” for that matter.
We walked along Sharia 1 September and headed to Green Square. We stopped here and there to exchange some greetings with Walid’s friends, shop owners or just people along the street. We went into a fantastic local cake shop which sold a colourful variety of baklava and all sorts of other sweet cakes. We shared a slice of pistachio cake with a glass of lemon juice. I am glad we have Walid to help us out with basic phrases and manners, which makes communication a lot easier and we have access to the local culture. The shop owners seemed a little bemused, as well as pleased. We were definitely a bit of a novelty for them!
We carried on walking, talking with Walid, and at Green Square he picked a spot for a good viewpoint to tell us a little about the place, how it was here that the regular processions take place in celebration of the revolution. A large portrait of Gadaffi hung above a wooden stand from which he and other dignitaries would stand to watch or speak. The square is now mostly used as a parking area, but still in regular use for the processions. Along one end were the walls of the medina, the old city, al souq al khadim. The weather was lovely, nice and fresh and bright, with clear skies and sunshine. Perfect Mediterranean weather. By now it was late afternoon and the light was starting to fade. Earlier Walid had told us about prayer times and we now walked up a parallel street, away from Green Square and to the large Jamal Abdul Nasser mosque. At prayer time it was not possible for us to go in and Walid left us with his bag while he went in, and we wandered along and around the square in front, the Maidan al-Jezayir (Algeria Square), and admired the beautifully lit up mosque against the backdrop of intensely blue sky. We didn’t feel at all ill at ease, as we did for example in Lima, although we were aware of the attention, especially from the many police. Under the tall arches opposite the mosque there were little tables where men were sat drinking coffee and tea and smoking fragrant nargileh, water pipes.
We met Walid again after he had done his prayers. The atmosphere reminded me of Kuala Lumpur and Brunei, with the muezzin’s call to prayer and the mood of collective prayer. We bought some stamps at the post office on the square. This was in a large lofty-ceilinged building. The colourful stamps were carefully presented to us. Walid explained how Libyans try to be extra courteous towards foreigners and women. We walked up another street, to the former royal palace, now the National Library, and then back to the square. Along the way we greeted and were greeted by shop owners and pedestrians and were made to feel very welcome.
Back at the square we stopped to have a tea and coffee, sat by the fountain under the tall arches, with the nargileh-smoking men here and there, others watching footie on a television set that had been put out. After the drinks we drove a short distance to the restaurant that had been booked for us, a smart tourist-class affair right next to the impressive old Roman arch of Marcus Aurelius. This was of the traditional four-gated kind and was lit atmospherically. At the Athar restaurant a table had been booked for us. Walid left us while we had dinner. There were only a few other diners and the atmosphere was formal yet relaxed. A musician played some suitably Arabic music on the keyboard, most of it pre-programmed in the keyboard. He wandered off to leave it playing by itself while he got himself a coffee or something. The food was good. Small breads with houmous, olives, harissa and baba ghanoush, followed by tasty lamb soup (made us think of the substantial Hungarian soups), and grilled fish, with an Irn-Bru kind of soft drink, the traditional beverage, from a large jug the waiter kept us topped up with, and a rather disappointing fruit salad to finish. We were both very full.
Walid came back to collect us after the meal and drove us back to the hotel and then he headed home himself. The air felt wonderfully fresh. Back in our room we spent some time writing our diaries before getting into bed and promptly nodding off.
Impressions of day one? Very positive, but we’re also aware that Libya is a still a poor and developing country, with all the familiar signs of poor buildings, concrete shells and rubbish and litter scattered freely, and roads in poor repair. Somewhat chaotic and haphazard. On the other hand, it feels very welcoming and friendly. We’re hopeless at understanding the language but we’re making do with salaam aleykum and shokran, “thank you”, for now. It does feel as if we are simply still continuing our world trip, with the familiar routines of life out of backpack and budget hotel rooms coming straight back.
- Category: Libya (2008)
We slept very well in the comfortable bed and both kept hitting snooze to cuddle up for a little longer. The shower was cold but we pretended it was nice and warm and felt refreshed. At breakfast we were the only westerners. We spent some time writing our diaries in the breakfast room and then went downstairs to meet Walid at nine o’clock. The car was parked a few streets away and we walked past the shops selling car hi-fi systems and parts, and to Walid’s car.
It was a drive of about an hour and a half to Leptis Magna. Getting out of our part town we passed a rather chaotic junction where cars and minibuses were clamouring for passengers, à la Peru, calling out the names of their destinations, and with lots of people around, mostly black Africans, with packs and parcels, trying to load luggage on the roofs of already full minibuses. We also saw quite a few very new big blocks, apartments, offices, hotels. Coming out of Tripoli, the wide road was actually built on reclaimed land, with the old corniche still visible on our right, but now just representing a walkway along a busy road. However, a new corniche had been built, and at various points there were kiosks.
The wide road led out of Tripoli and took us eastward. We cruised along comfortably and Ness even nodded off at one point. Walid was always happy to talk. I looked left and right, taking in the new sights, although mostly they were of the littered roadside variety, with many workshops, unfinished concrete constructions, but beyond, to the south, we could see a greener landscape and some hills. The road was wide and generally smooth, but with some potholes and sections in poor repair. Traffic weaved in and out with no regard for western notions of “lanes”. We passed many police checkpoints but only had to show our papers at one of them.
At some point we passed an area where orange vendors had set up stalls along the road. I wish I had asked Walid to stop –the blue tarpaulin provided a colourful backdrop for the large numbers of orange fruit. Further on still we passed improvised stalls selling olive oil and honey, which looked clear and colourful in the sunlight. Again, I didn’t ask Walid to stop in time, but on the way back I did remember to do so. I bought a jar of honey, “to earn the picture”. The stall keeper was a little wary of me taking a picture of his stall, worried that the local farmer or dignitary would notice from a distance and ask him why he had let foreigners photograph his stall. On our left, for parts of the drive we saw the clear blue waters of the Mediterranean.
We turned off the main road and after a few more crossings we reached the entrance to Leptis Magna. There was a small open car park, around which there were some offices and tourist shops and a café under the trees. All very modest in scale and without any hint of “grown up” western-style tourism. Walid located a guide for us and we got tickets to take photographs. Salah, our local guide, was about the same as Walid, 20’s-30’s, and softly spoken, and carried a waft of some kind of perfume, not sure what it was. We entered the site and were immediately impressed with the large arch of Septimus Severus, a grand introduction to the city. The arch was a faithfully reconstructed version of the original and consisted of four imposing pillars which supported a domed roof (see Lonely Planet, page 112).
Salah provided explanations, answered our questions, and took us on a tour of the various architectural highlights of the city as we walked along the old Roman city streets and through the ruins. We went to the Hadrianic baths, the Nymphaeum, the Severan (new) forum, which we reached by walking along the once colonnaded Via Colonnata. On towards the old forum, the market (originally Phoenician traders, or so), and the theatre. All this was set against a backdrop of a lovely clear blue sky and a pleasant breeze, with the sounds of the waves lapping. Leptis Magna is set right on the Mediterranean coast. There were puddles of rainwater left from the rains of a few days ago. These added even more to the already stunning scenery by adding reflections. It was a fantastic “bit of Roman”, rivalling the Forum in Rome for grandeur.
Most of the site is in fact still unexplored, covered in sand. Excavations only started in 1921, during the Italian period, and have so far uncovered a good section of the city, but there is far more yet to be explored. We met a few other tourists but mostly had the site all to ourselves. We returned to the entrance and stopped for a drink, some shahi (tea), with mint leaves, and chatted with some other people, Libyan guides, most of whom have other jobs as teachers, as did Salah. Then we drove a short distance, about a kilometre, to the amphitheatre and circus. These were on the other side of the former Roman harbour (now silted up, but the outlines and quays were still visible in parts where they had been excavated).
The amphitheatre was spectacular, built into the ground rather than a building on top of it, and in a very good state. We sat on the top steps while Salah explained all about the “gory games”, an expression he kept repeating, and he accompanied it with coloured line-drawings from his folder. He had used the latter to very good effect throughout the city to show how the various places and forums would have looked during Roman times, such as a nice drawing of the inside of the Hadrianic baths. These reminded me in a small way of the Gellert baths in Budapest. The backdrop to the amphitheatre was the Mediterranean, just behind the circus, which lay next to the amphitheatre. Adjoining the amphitheatre was a deep complex where wild animals and slaves used to be held.
The circus was right on the coast, partly overrun by the sea. The circus was a long straight race course. Think of Ben Hur (or Star Wars!). It had a spina along the middle. Most of it was now in ruins and Salah explained how big this would have been originally. Beyond it, in the sea, we could see darker patches against paler ones in the water, indicating where there lay other remains of the old Roman city on the sand. A big earthquake had hit North Africa in AD364 and caused massive destruction, moving the coastline inland to where it is now.
We returned to the entrance and then Salah took us round the Leptis museum which housed a large collection of Roman statues, coins, pottery, etc. Mostly finely carved Roman statues. Also a little bit on modern Libya, with a funny model of a new factory with little toy trucks. The central hall was dominated by a large portrait of a smiling Gadaffi in a white suit. After the museum we had another cup of tea (it was the only thing I knew how to order!) and then got back in the car and drove back to Tripoli. Along the way Walid helped to negotiate a picture from the roadside honey and oil vendor, or at least of his stall.
Driving back to Tripoli along the main road, at one point we got stuck in the traffic and cars that were parked on the motorway, close by a cemetery. Walid explained that many people all wanted to come in person to someone’s funeral to show their respect and to help the family over, or with, their grieving. Back at our hotel we relaxed briefly in our room, 45 minutes, and then met Walid again in the lobby, to go out to the old town.
We parked in the centre and walked to Green Square and then entered the walled old town, the medina, through one of the gates. We had immediately entered an altogether different part of town, with its narrow little streets that led here and there, and with the bustle of a thriving market. Well, the tail end at least. Many of the little shops were beginning to close. There was really only one tourist shop, close to the entrance, but for the rest most of the shops and stalls simply sold clothes, food, household items, spices, jewellery, and so on. There was a huge variety of goods and colours, both in terms of the wares as well as of the people themselves, women with black veils, men in “Mustafa dresses” (jallabiyah’s) and slippers, as well as many negroes selling from street corners and stalls. As it was already getting dark it was very hard to take pictures, and people, especially women, scattered at the sight of the camera, which explains the empty-looking streets in the few blurry pictures I did manage to take! We wandered and meandered, chatted with some stall and shop owners, with Walid’s help. The spice vendors said “BBC!” There were all sorts of wedding gifts and accessories on sale, and a large number of jewellers with lots of yellow gold on display. We soaked up the atmosphere. There were coffee shops with men smoking the fragrant nargileh and playing cards. The latter didn’t seem to be Walid’s scene though and my prompts weren’t very successful. “Maybe when we’re back in Tripoli in a couple of weeks”, Walid promised.
We headed back towards Green Square and the streets beyond, where Walid took us to a Turkish restaurant. It was a simple kebab shop and the food was decent if a little predictable, but it was good to share the meal and not have the “three star tourist” option forced on us. Walid paid for the meal too, which was unexpected and very kind of him. Oh, the mezze for starters with the flat bread was excellent. In the medina, as here, we were the only tourists. Well, we saw two western women in the medina but they had the air of ex-pats. After the meal Walid drove us back to our hotel, where we wrote our diaries in our room briefly (there is nowhere else to go, no lounge or anything) and then cuddled up in bed, very snug and comfortable!
- Category: Libya (2008)
Ness had managed to rig the button on the water heater to keep it on (cellotape) and we had less cold showers than yesterday. At breakfast again no other tourists. I tried halwa (halwa shamiya) and found it very tasty. It tasted like some kind of sesame paste. (Correct! I only learned this later though…) Nessie’s leg is very swollen but doesn’t seem to give her any trouble.
We met Issam, our driver, a friendly guy about Walid’s age, and our transportation, a comfortable Mercedes van. We drove out of Tripoli and headed west. Along the way there were many police checkpoints, but we only were stopped to show our papers at one. Yesterday the same had happened and I remember Walid still had to fill in the form he was carrying with him.
The drive took us past concrete villages, and there was no “landscape” as such, but the Mediterranean was never far away in the background. Around Az Zawiyah (a.k.a. Al Zawi, etc.), Walid’s family town, we turned off to Sabratha, to the coast. At the entrance to Sabratha we met the same group we had met yesterday, with the Aussies, but for the rest of the visit we did not see them again. Our guide, Mohammed, was an affable middle-aged man. He took us round the site which, like Leptis Magna, was large and mostly still unexcavated, and consisted of an incredible and well-preserved (or well-restored) Roman city. There were merchants streets, e.g. one they had named “oil street” after all the olive oil presses and stores along one side, with the small merchants houses opposite. There were forums, temples, baths, and so on. There was a tall, rather curious-looking monument, the reconstructed old Phoenician mausoleum. Sabratha was originally a Phoenician port, a supply point, before the Romans came.
We spent several hours walking all over the site, in no hurry, and only saw one or two other visitors, a couple of Japanese in their suits. There were some stunning and very well-preserved floor mosaics in some houses, colourful and with a large variety of different patterns. Many of the best statues and mosaics have been removed to the Tripoli museum, which we’ll visit in due course. The grand finale was the theatre, a faithfully restored large Roman theatre which backed onto the sea so that the wind off the sea could help to carry the voices of the actors and the musicians playing towards the audience. You could almost imagine what a grand affair an evening at the Roman theatre must have been in its heyday, with the VIP’s sat on their private chairs on the front rows, with a low dividing wall separating them from the general public in the rows behind. You just had to imagine all the pomp and circumstance, the statues, etc. With the Mediterranean providing the backdrop to the city, it was a fantastic place. Many of the buildings in Sabratha had been made of sandstone, unlike those in Leptis Magna, and had weathered heavily. In many places the marble cladding (walls, floors) remained, just giving you a hint of the luxury of Sabratha. The site was also covered in a lot of greenery, which made the buildings stand out, and together with the deep blue of the Mediterranean it made for a very picturesque setting. Mohammed told us that normally the ground would be brown, and so would the stones. He also told us stories of gods and heroes, as Salah had done yesterday. Hercules and Bacchus featured largely yesterday, the latter as “patron” god of Leptis Magna.
We returned to the entrance. Mohammed had become very friendly with us, clearly feeling at ease and feeling free to joke and pay Ness compliments. It was sweet and while in the UK it would have been OTT, here it came across as warm and well-intentioned. We have his card somewhere. We met Walid and Issam and drove into Al Zawi to get some food for a picnic on the beach. Walid had asked us what our preference was – tourist restaurant, sandwiches or a Libyan picnic. I think he has already realised that our taste is more for the local, the real, even if it’s less “exotic”, rather than for the tourist “package”, which also seems to put him and Issam more at ease. On a street in Al Zawi we found a little shop that sold delicious Libyan food to take with us. We bought a selection of “mbatun”, “rosbaan” (a local speciality, a spicy sausage of loose texture and filled with rice and liver, delicious), “briouak” (a potato and meat samosa thing), “tagine” (layered tortilla-type squares with potato, meat and veggies), “brak” (rather like Greek dolmades, stuffed vine leaves), kebab sandwiches, and some delicious sweet “maghrood” (sweet pastries/biscuits with a date filling) and some fruit juice cartons. We took the food on polystyrene trays with us and drove to find an access to the beach between the couple of concrete houses. We parked the van, and Issam went to ask the owners of the nearest house it it would be ok for us to picnic on the beach.
There was some rubbish strewn around, plastic bottles and the like, but it was comparatively little and only at the back of the beach. By the waterline we sat on some sharp lava rocks and had our picnic. The water was lovely, clear and nicely refreshing. Of course I promptly got my shoes and socks off and rolled up my trousers and got my feet wet. It was an idyllic lunch, with the Roman ruins and Sabratha in full view nearby, with the lovely Mediterranean waters, the tasty food, and the informal atmosphere. Even though Issam speaks no English, we’re still managing to communicate. While I was paddling through the waters, eating my tagine, I walked on the soft sand and stood on stones which must have been from the Roman ruins.
After our picnic we started to drive inland, towards Jebel Nafusa. Initially the roads were nondescript, lined with concrete workshops, and lots of rubbish and litter along the road, and the landscape was “scrubby”, still predominantly green with the low bushes, but as we headed inland the landscape opened up more, became flatter, with some low undulations, and the bushes and scrub became more patchy. We both nodded off on the comfortable drive, and woke up now and then to notice the gradual changes to the landscape, and the mountain range of the Jebel Nafusa appearing on the horizon. In between the bushes and scrub we could spot the odd parked car and families having a picnic. And then, further on again, Issam suddenly said “Look, camels!” and there they were, camels wandering freely in small groups. We continued to see more as we drove on. We made a picture stop. Some camels were very near to the road and there were more, in larger groups, off in the distance.
The plain was now wide and open, gravel, like the open spaces of Namibia. This was taking us into Berber country, or the amazigh (“free men”) as Walid explained they prefer to be called. We started to climb into the hills of the Jebel Nafusa, the rocks brown and dry, and the road wound up and up until we arrived at the town of Yefren which was perched right on the top. The air was lovely, fresh and clear, up here. Our hotel was positioned perfectly at the front of the mountain, overlooking the endless rocky plains which stretched away to the north. There seemed to be nothing in the landscape ahead of us. The Yefren Hotel was friendly and welcoming. We checked into our room. A bit of hilarity at reception about the rooms – we though Walid and Issam had ended up with the one with the double bed! We were in adjoining rooms, with fantastic views from the little balcony.
We relaxed for an hour in our room, writing diary/reading/leg up, and then met Walid and Issam again, leaving our rooms at exactly the same time. The atmosphere up here was invigorating, with fresh and clear skies. We drove through Yefren town to the remains of the old Berber village perched on the rocks. It was now abandoned and mainly consisted of the picturesque empty shells constructed out of rocks and gypsum. It made for a very picturesque setting, with great angles for photos, although the light was beginning to fade. It was also a rather hollow sight, devoid of life and activity, although very interesting. Walid provided some explanations and pointed out the former grinding stones and holes, stores, etc. A barking dog stopped us from walking all the way round but we had seen enough anyway and returned to the car and drove on a little further, towards another rocky summit. We parked nearby and climbed the slope to the old little mosque at the top, with the last of the day’s sunlight just lighting up the mosque. From the top we had yet more great views over the large plains to the north, as well as over the Jebel Nafusa mountains stretching away to the west and south. We waited at the top and chatted while waiting for the sun to set behind the flat tops of the Jebel Nafusa. We could see where there were other Berber/amazigh villages on the mountain tops, which was more a plateau.
We made our way back down the hill to the car and then drove back a short distance to have tea in a traditional Berber house. It was dusk, slowly getting dark, and lights were going on. Walid located the street where the house in question was. It was among other ordinary houses that we found the more organic forms and partly whitewashed walls of the house, which was set on a slope overlooking the valley and plains, with small plots of vegetables. The house was a grouping of several rooms around a small courtyard, and the rooms had been decorated with Berber motifs, cushions, matting, tools, grain bags, woven baskets and more, hung on the walls. There were no inhabitants though, but a little later a young man showed up, dressed in modern clothes. We took some pictures and then went round a little further to find a more traditional old Berber house, almost a cave.
In front there was an area to sit, a “patio” or “veranda” in a way, and inside there were cosy lights and cushions and matting. We went in and sat down, tailor’s fashion (kleermakerszit in Dutch) and the young man, Madi, came with some Libyan tea with mint. Issam also come in to join us, and it turned out that Madi and Issam knew each other from internet chat rooms although they had not met before. The ice was broken (not that there was any, just an expression) and the atmosphere was convivial. We chatted, exchanged email addresses, drank tea, laughed. Walid explained how he and his friends would sometimes get together here and you could just imagine them sat around here, having a good time among friends.
When we left it was already very dark outside. We drove back to the hotel and had dinner in the restaurant. Walid and Issam preferred to get a pizza from across the road, while we had a slap-up dinner in the hotel’s restaurant. There were a few other diners, either locals or Arab visitors, but no other tourists. The meal was delicious, the sorts of flavours Ness really likes. There was soup, salad, something else (?), lamb tail’s stew with chickpeas – quite spicy. We toddled off to bed feeling very full and satisfied. It has been a wonderful day and the bed was very comfortable!
- Category: Libya (2008)
We were both very comfortable in the big bed and kept hitting snooze on our mobile phone alarms, while outside it was still dark and we could hear the evocative sounds of the muezzin’s calls to prayer: Allahu Akbar (“God is great”). At breakfast there were some other Libyans/Arabs but no westerners, again. We met Walid and Issam and checked out of the hotel. It was lovely, fresh, clear, bright weather and air, with great views over the plains. We got back in the Mercedes van and drove to nearby Qasr el-Haj. “Qasr” literally means “castle” or “fortress” but the term is used here to refer to the grain stores.
We descended from Yefren to the plain, drove west for a short period in front of us the mountain range and then turned off to a small village in the plains below the hills, where we visited the Berber granary stores. There was a small gate and an attendant, nothing more. The granary itself was a circular construction, several storeys high, with lots of little ventilation windows on the outside, and was constructed of rocks and gypsum, repaired and maintained over the ages. Walid told us that it was about 900 years old. We entered the “fortress” through the gate in the side, with some Berber tools on display. Inside, the fortress was a fantastical space, circular, with lots and lots of little rooms, individual stores, all around the inside, with doors fashioned out of broad planks of fibrous palm tree wood. It was a photographer’s dream, with its film set picturesqueness (?) Half of it was still in the shade, so I was happy to linger for a while and wait for the light to improve. A Star Wars film set would be an appropriate way of summing it up. One set of steep, narrow and uneven steps led up to the top of the wall and after several hesitant attempts I plucked up the courage to climb to the top.
As we left the fortress some other visitors arrived, a rather odd grouping of a few middle-aged Greek women in city clothes with a small very black man who I think was their guide and a somewhat more coffee-coloured large man wearing Gadaffi-style sunglasses and a blue Loden-type coat. We had a short stroll around the other parts of the Berber village and returned to the main entrance. A Berber man was sat by one of the walls on some matting and had a big brass (aluminium, made in China, actually…) teapot on the go on a fire. We stood around, talking with the tea man and the two Libyans, who turned out to be very friendly and polite. Walid knew the large man. Ness “kali spera’d” one of the Greek women as they walked by and this got a smile. We had some small glasses of the sweet thyme tea and then got back in our van.
We drove on towards Nalut, following the road which headed west, staying to the north of the Jebel Nafusa range still. The landscape was still mostly open plain, sandy and rocky, with signs here and there of seasonal streams but otherwise dry. There was some limited traffic on the road. It was big open landscape with some low bushes dotted around. We passed some camels. Now and then as we drove on a slight elevation we got an impression of how wide open and empty the landscape around us was. We did stick close to the Jebel Nafusa though and near Nalut we turned south to re-enter the hills, and followed a valley which led to a climb at the end, to the flat top of the range where Nalut was situated.
Somewhere before we reached Nalut, we pulled over at a petrol station to fill up. There were many Tunisians queuing up in clapped out cars, filling up with cheaper Libyan fuel. Walid negotiated straight to the front of the queue and we were away again in no time. On the green concrete protective barriers along the road, i.e. against the mountain side, there was lettering with quotations from the Green Book. Across the valley was written in white “Welcome to Nalut”. We drove through the small town towards the Berber fortress here. Here, as in Yefren, we could see many people in traditional Arab/Berber clothes, long dresses of dark brown wool, with pointy hoods. Also their faces, dark brown and grooved. I actually find faces far more interesting than buildings but am still not adept at getting good “people pictures”. Men wearing the typical “pork pie” type hats, women in veils, details like this which really define where you are more than a pile of stones can. Also the sounds and smells, impossible to capture.
The granaries here at Nalut were different from those at Qasr el Haj. The outer wall betrayed very little of what lay inside, which was a densely packed collection of grain stores built on top of one another, with crazy organic angles all over, as if a child had built a giant sand castle. It was a fantastic construction, and Walid left us free to wander around it at leisure. We clambered up and down the narrow little steps, and marvelled at the other-worldliness of the sights. Now no longer in use but being maintained by the local community for tourism. Around the granary lay the old Berber village, with olive oil presses and other farm buildings. We toured through the village and back round and visited the small gift shop the owner/caretaker had set up in one of the former Berber homes, decorated with rugs and wall hangings and lights, as it would have been, and with sandstone carvings for sale. We bought a small “2008”, feeling obliged but under no pressure to buy. We left Nalut to begin the long drive to Ghadames.
From here the landscape started to change as we left behind the Jebel Nafusa and started to head south. We were still on a high plateau with endless horizons – well, certainly they were very wide open! There were fewer bushes, only some small ones scattered very loosely, and there were more sand drifts that had built up in places. On the horizons we could see the eroded piles of rubble and rocks which surrounded the low flat hills. There was a good atmosphere in the car, some conversation, some jokes, but not feeling the need to talk all the time and quite happy to spend a lot of the time simply looking at the landscape. Somewhere after Nalut we stopped at a service station for lunch. It was basic but had been set up as a waypoint for tour buses, with two dining rooms with long tables. We had lunch together – soup, salad, lamb stew, rice, beans, courgettes, oranges – and then Walid and Issam went for their prayers at the small mosque that had been built in a corner of the service station. We waited outside and sat on a bench consisting of a palm tree log. We saw another man perform his prayers on a mat by the low wall.
We drove on towards Dirj, south and heading into the desert. Around us the landscape was huge and empty. That is, except for the pylons carrying the power lines and the construction works of the Great Man-made River, a hugely ambitious construction project which is laying pipelines to transport water from the deep desert reservoirs to the cities of Libya. We could see the concrete sections of the pipeline lined up for a very long stretch and the works continued on and on and on. But further on we lost sight of them and all there was, was the road, stretching ahead as far as the eye could see, and the desert all around us, and above it the big African sky, with only some wispy clouds. The drive became faintly hypnotic and the scale of the landscape was massive. [I neary forgot to mention the minor accident we had somewhere before Nalut. A young lad in a clapped out Peugeot pulled out in front of our van, I saw it in slow-motion but Issam couldn’t avoid him in time. No great harm done, just some scrapes and dents. At Nalut Issam had managed with some sand to remove the worst traces of the incident.]
We stopped for some photos now and then, of camels, of the sky, etc. We were definitely starting to get the feeling that we were heading into remote and empty places now. After several hours we reached the small town of Dirj, no more than a cross-roads with some houses and shops and a petrol station. The people looked different, darker and dustier, and this was the start of Tuareg country. There were clearly also some long-distance lorries and people from other parts of Africa. We stopped for some tea/coffee at one of the cafés to take a break and then continued the drive, turning west to head to Ghadames. At a few intervals there had been police checkpoints where Walid had to hand over a copy of the forms showing our itinerary and the tour operator’s details. The most remote one of these was on the stretch between Nalut and Dirj, a lonely outpost with a couple of soldiers and a pot of tea on the boil. Driving west to Dirj meant that the late afternoon sun was shining directly in our faces, which must have made it very hard for Issam driving. We watched the sun set behind the flat-topped hills in the distance and later ahead of us started to see the lights of Ghadames as dusk started to set in. The sunset lit up the few clouds and provided a glorious finale to the day.
We drove into Ghadames, which felt remote, out of the way, and was rather dusty. It had been a significant trading post and caravan town for a long period stretching back to before Roman times and through to the present day. So, while it is remote it was certainly not the “back of beyond” but more a long-standing hub in the Sahara, on the major trading routes. Best refer to Lonely Planet for the rest of the story. Walid and Issam drove through the blocks of the town, along the wide empty streets lined with modern two-storey concrete houses, to drop us at our hotel, the rather bland-looking but functional Kafila. We checked in, with Walid just doing a quick pre-check to make sure all was in order (e.g. hot water) before we dumped our bags.
It was basic but clean and fit for purpose. It turned out that we were the only hotel guests. I was hoping to see a bit of the town in the evening, but dinner had already been arranged for us at the hotel so we agreed to meet Walid after dinner at the hotel, for a “paseo” into town. The friendly waiter was a smiling man from Gambia. A bit before eight o’clock he called us in our room to say “hello my friend, the dinna is reddy”. We were the only diners and a place setting had been set for us at the very end of a long table. Dinner was served and consisted of soup, spaghetti with a meatball and orange peel, etc. Afterwards we sat in the “lounge”, an empty room with a few Chinese-style chairs, tables and settees, and wrote our diaries for a while before Walid and Issam, who were staying in a different hotel, came back to meet us again at nine o’clock. We drove the short distance of a couple of streets back to the centre. Along the way we passed a large mosque with its big dome and twin minarets, of which I had taken a nice picture earlier, as it stood outlined, silhouetted against the deep blue late dusk sky. Earlier on we had heard the muezzin’s calls ringing out across town from multiple mosques. Now it was dark and quiet although there was the odd car or pick-up that spluttered along the street, and some shops were open, with household goods, CD’s and DVD’s, and barbershops. We walked around with Walid, while Issam had gone to the internet café to catch up on his internet chat. Earlier during the day he shown us some pictures of him together with candidates at the local version of a “Let me be famous” kind of programme. One of them was with a pretty girl who I think he said was the winner, or he knew, or something. We strolled through the streets of Ghadames. The shop making the famous local slippers was still open and we went to have a look. It was a simple workshop with a few leather goods on display in the window. Inside the workshop several young boys were working on the slippers. It was clearly a family business. We took a look and observed the handiwork for a while and resolved to come back tomorrow.
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