Hannibal didn't get into Rome but it was a must stop for filming, especially as we planned to visit the Quirinale which is the president's palace. Here they have the most famous likeness of Hannibal.
Hannibal keeping an eye on John..
The Quirinale is a very security conscious place - We were first checked out by the police as we filmed in the piazza out the front, then met by the Cuirassiers. The Cuirassiers are the presidents personal guard - to qualify for this, the application says, you have to be over 190cm tall and extremely good looking - only Italians would come up with these prerequisites - nothing about being able to protect the president or be intelligent or capable - as long as you are big and handsome that is all the president needs!
Italians love uniforms too so you can imagine these guys... dressed up poncing about trying to look as big and beautiful as possible. They seemed constantly amazed at their own beauty while we struggled to take them seriously especially when they told us that we were not dressed appropriately, of course this being the prime issue with a security force - no shorts allowed in the president's residence! Luckily they let us off after we promised to tell everyone about them - and the reality is that we have never taken our shorts off in 10 weeks of cycling so to do so, even for the president of Italy was highly unlikely!
The other force we met in Rome was the 12th legion - Caesar's own soldiers, a re-inactment group who paraded around the Roman forum and were great to talk to - no pretensions and seemingly much more capable than their pretty and giant compatriots, they would have made a much more apt guard for the president!
We beat him up after this photo...
And so to the last stage of our trip. Tunisia – a land dominated by President Ben Ali who was fresh from winning a recent election with 90% of the vote. His picture features in every cafe and car and on every street corner. We arrived at the ferry terminal in Tunis under his gaze and got a little worried when Sam was taken away by a dozen Police to get a visa (Sam is the only one of us travelling on his Australian passport I’m embarrassed to admit!). There seemed to be thousands of different sorts of Police and border guards wandering about and we all became a little concerned as to what sort of freedoms the people of Tunisia enjoyed. But then the representative from the Ministry of Culture who met us at customs quoted Kant at us – “free will is inherently unknowable - even a free person could not possibly have knowledge of their own freedom. So we cannot use our failure to find a proof for freedom as evidence for a lack of it.” So I asked if he thought Ben Ali considered the universal necessity of causation, the synthetic nature of mathematics and the Newtonian absoluteness of space and time in his rulings? Luckily Sam arrived intact with his visa at this moment so he couldn’t answer. And seeing as it was getting late, he had filled in my visitor’s card for me and got me through customs without the border guards even looking at me we continued on into Tunisia without an argument.
Typical Tunis skyline
Our first day here was a rest day which we always seem to spend searching for bike shops to restock. We’d got some dodgy inner tubes in southern Italy – the valves would fall out shortly after pumping them up! Unfortunately our new Tunisians ones weren’t much better and a couple of days later we were cursing them as we spent a tense 50kms in the middle of nowhere with no spares praying we didn’t get a puncture. Tunis has a great atmosphere though and the people are very open and friendly. We visited Hannibal’s home town of Carthage most of which is covered in Roman rather than Carthaginian ruins. It also seems to be one of the wealthier suburbs of Tunis. Nice big modern houses ring the ancient Punic twin ports and President Ben Ali’s palace is just to the north. We weren’t allowed to film in that direction and if we strayed too close a bloke with a machine gun would come and tell us off.
Antonine Baths at Carthage
Turkeys in Carthage and some strange birds in the foreground too
We had lunch in a cafe called Uranium – we assumed they named it that as it took the half life of uranium (4.5 billion years) for your order to arrive. So after quite a long wait camera man John endeared himself to the waitress by demanding tomato sauce. She was also about the 4.5 billionth waiter/waitress he had aggravated on our trip so far. After some more filming and riding we had dinner in an amazing restaurant (we are eating a lot) that used to be a sultan’s palace – the resident sitar player asked where we were from and then started playing the Australian national anthem! Impressive, but it is one of the worst national anthems in the world don’t you think??
View from the Byrsa Hill over Carthage
Anyway after a few days of travel, a rest day and some filming days in Carthage and Tunis we were wondering if we would be capable of riding 120kms inland towards Zama – the site of the last battle of the Second Punic War. We had no idea really what the roads where like or whether Tunisian drivers would run us over without a second thought. But after some navigational issues getting out of Tunis and a quick stop at a bike shop where Mehdi, a former cyclo-cross champion of Tunisia sold us some new water bottles – the old ones had gone irretrievably mouldy, we found that Tunisian drivers were actually really good. Not as respectful as Spanish drivers perhaps but certainly better than Italians.
Mehdi Thameur outside his shop kindly greasing our chains
It turned out to be a very long day but completely different riding to anything we had done previously. Riding through dirt poor towns on a bike that would probably feed the entire village for a year if they sold it wasn’t the best feeling. But the kids would scream at you – usually in a friendly way we thought until a rock bounced between me and Danny and then we started to wonder! No really everyone seemed very friendly and lunch was at a roadside restaurant. A kilogram of barbeque sheep and a very spicy mixture of tomato and chilli was on the menu. The next sheep in line was tethered to the bbq – waiting for his turn while his brother cooked!
We passed an amazing ruined Roman aqueduct that seemed to go for miles in either direction and the last 10km of the day were really very hard work...but only a few days of riding left...
The morning of our second day of riding in Tunisia was spent at a spectacular ancient Roman ruin: Dougga. There seemed to be no-one there except us and an army of caretakers restoring old walls. Dougga is on top of a hill and as you enter the site you hit the very well preserved Roman theatre. But there are a lot of good Carthaginian related remnants as well. Beyond the temple, next to a tethered donkey, was a big Temple of Saturn-Baal with its large front columns and stone structure and floor slabs intact. An interesting mixture of gods! – Saturn the Roman god of the harvests and Baal, the supreme god of the Carthaginians. Then we curved back to the centre of the site past more temple ruins, a gathering of feeding sheep whose heads were invisible because they were shoved inside a bail of hay (quite strange), the remains of the forum and also dozens of houses and shopfronts along paved roads, with their lower walls heavily restored but still standing. Peeping over the top of an olive grove there was also an impressive tower like mausoleum, described as in the ancient Libyo-Phoenician style. A great way to start the day! But we had to get going, partly because we hadn’t had breakfast yet! That was causing something of a minor panic and there wasn’t much around to be eaten – or at least not that we could find quickly and easily. We ended up with that spicy mixture of fresh tomatoes and chiles on bread and a bowel of olives. It was served by a man with few teeth, who showed us his black gaps when he was warning us to be careful eating the olives. One of my teeth fell out into my cereal on the trip so I considered comparing my hole to his but thought better of it. After that challenging breakfast, we cycled on a little warily.
The theatre at Dougga
The Temple of Saturn-Baal
These last days on the road felt very good, partly because of the new landscapes we were enjoying. The countryside in Tunisia is like being in the middle ages and reminded me of those delicately painted scenes that you can see on paper room dividers in Asian houses where one man is in the field scattering seeds, another is riding up a track, a couple are on the balcony of their wooden house, to the left of them, a river running through a wood. That was what the landscapes were like in Tunisia – lots of simultaneous activities were visible from the seat of the bicycle that looked like they should have been happening a thousand years ago.
We also felt happy because we were coming to the end of our epic. However amazing the trip, ten weeks is a long time and the prospect of home and being still for a while was very appealing.
But the action wasn’t over yet. Near the town of Siliana, adjacent to Zama, the police took an interest in us and escorted us into town in their green and white jeep and then tried to make us continue riding towards the next town that was a good 15 km away, when all we wanted to do was stop, rest and have a drink. There wasn’t a lot of logic to their argument except the insistence that further on was much nicer than Siliana. Ben politely conversed with them in broken French for a while and we managed to extricate ourselves.
In the end, our visit to the last important part of the Hannibal story, the battlefield of Zama, was very memorable. Zama, or Jama, is a little village about 140 km south west of the city of Tunes that is thought to be on the site of, or at least near where the Battle of Zama was fought. This is the historic battle Hannibal lost to the Roman general Scipio, ending the Second Punic War with Carthage surrendering. It was very strange to be gazing over this battlefield after thinking about it for a couple of years. We didn’t really have any expectations about what it would be like when we got here – the dusty farmland, olive groves and mountains in the distance seemed to fit the bill. But I don’t think any of us have ever heard a donkey, sheep, chickens and a dog all making noise at once. Zama is the battle that changed the course of history, but the battle changed little at Zama. The locals were still riding donkeys and seemed to own a few scattered cows and little else. The cluster of white houses were dusty and without windows. Water was fetched from a fountain down the hill. Little children chased us and laughed us past. You felt a world away from Europe, but only a few hours away in a car another name that belongs to the past, Carthage - described by Ben in the last blog - was now a wealthy suburb of the capital with palacial houses that you would see in any prosperous Mediterranean city. The contrasts were really stark in Tunisia.
The battlefield at Zama?
The Jama locals
This is being written from a comfortable chair in the sitting room of my Granny’s home in London. The trip seems like a dream. But we are back from something real, and it was great.
Attack dog or escort?
Final day of filming with cameraman John and Hamet our Tunisian fixer (in white)