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!