x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

The long route from Tunis to Tangier

Plane, train, bus and boat - Scott MacMillan travels a circuitous route as he travels around Africa.

A man casts his line off the coast of Carthage, now a suburb of Tunis.
A man casts his line off the coast of Carthage, now a suburb of Tunis.

'Algérie," says the woman at the top of the minaret, or a sentence that contains that word, anyway. She points to distant mountains visible through the haze. "Voilà." Apparently this is as close as I'm going to get to Algeria.

The caretaker and I are high above the zaouia, or shrine, of Sidi Bou Makhlouf, the patron saint of Le Kef, this ancient town perched on a rock in western Tunisia. She chatters away at me in French as I circle the minaret, taking in the view and trying to figure out what she's saying.

North Africa is a linguistic conundrum. When people speak to me in French, my first instinct is to answer in Italian - a bit of a problem, since much as I don't speak French, I don't really speak Italian, either. Basic Arabic helps, but just as often it only confuses things further, since Maghrebi Arabic can be incomprehensible to those fluent in standard Arabic (which I'm not) even when dealing with simple things like numbers. The tried and tested approach is all of the above plus English, and pointing. (German, oddly, came in handy once.)

In Tunis, a bookish Frenchman named Xavier helped ease me into the rhythm of local life, taking me to his favourite local coffee houses and cheap restaurants. A Breton mason (the kind who builds walls for a living, not a member of a secret society), Xavier is a self-teaching student of Arabic, spending about half the year travelling in the Arab world, the other half working at home in Rennes.

Xavier strides purposefully through the capital's medina in his Doc Martens, a quiet loner finding his place in a world that isn't his own, seeming to regard all with detachment and bemusement. He's the type of character I like to meet on the road.

There's less hassle here than in other touristy parts of North Africa, and I can see why Xavier has taken to Tunis. I feel the need to get moving, so I've struck out westward, if only to get within eyeshot of Algeria.

It's a pity that wanderers through Africa so often give the continent's second-largest country a miss. Travel writers Paul Theroux and Tim Mackintosh-Smith both skipped Algeria because of its civil war in the 1990s. Even in the 14th century, the Tangier native Ibn Battuta hardly expressed much fascination with the place. I have a tangential person interest: my great-uncle, Gardner W Fay, died when his plane crashed into a mountain in 1942 at Blida, close to Algiers, during the Allies' North Africa campaign.

The problem is, it's next to impossible to get an Algerian visa without travelling back to your home country. Though stories have circulated about getting one in Tunis with the right paperwork and enough time to spare, the news hardly seems encouraging.

I don't leave Tunisia without paying my respects to Uncle Gardner. He's buried at the North Africa American Cemetery and Memorial, an immaculately well-maintained site near the ruins of Carthage, now a suburb of Tunis. I'm the first in the family to visit. The simple marble cross lists only his rank (second lieutenant), home state (Massachusetts), squadron and troop carrier group, and date of death. He was 27.

But onward. It seems the only reasonable way to get to Morocco from Tunisia is via Tunisair's thrice-weekly flight to Madrid. Yes, Madrid. Crossing over to Spain would have been necessary anyway, for even if one does manage to enter Algeria from Tunisia, the Morocco-Algeria border remains closed because of a political dispute so old it has cobwebs.

From Madrid, a super-fast train goes to Seville in two-and-a-half hours; from there a bus goes to Tarifa, on the southern coast; and from there, regular ferries cross the Strait of Gibraltar to Tangier.

At a gob-smacking €123 (Dh625), the Madrid-Seville train proves to be the most uneconomical form of transport I've used in recent memory, costing more than the flight and nearly as much as the rest of the Tunis-Tangier journey combined. Only first-class seats are available - but that includes dinner, the ticket seller tells me with a wry smile. Much as I love trains, I should have looked for a bus, which would have cost €20 (Dh103). At least the Spanish diversion allowed me to see the former Arab land once known as Al Andalus.

I'm back in Africa now, sitting at a cafe next to the Grand Socco of Tangier - the port city so beloved of the Beat writers - having spent the night in the hotel where William S Burroughs wrote Naked Lunch.

Plane, train, bus and boat - it's a circuitous route from one country to the next, but somehow suitable for a continent where things can hardly be expected to go as planned.

 

Scott MacMillan is blogging about his journey on his website, www.wanderingsavage.com.