A leisurely morning in the seaside resort of Tabarka, followed by a seafood lunch and an afternoon drive through the Khroumiria mountains to the Roman site of Bulla Regia. A car is essential. Pack a bathing costume for the morning in Tabarka.
The wealth of early Christian mosaics from Thrabaca, the Roman forerunner of Tabarka, have been transplanted to a special room in the Bardo Museum in Tunis, so sights in the town are few, but it is easy enough to while away a morning; once you have explored the fort, taken a dip and priced the coral jewellery in the shops on Avenue Habib Bourguiba, it will be time for lunch.
Begin when temperatures are still reasonably cool with a walk up to the Genoese Fort. A causeway now connects the island with the mainland, but the easiest way to get to the top is to cross the small beach and scramble up one of the paths (they join the broad road leading to the fort’s entrance). A notice in Arabic forbids entry (the fort belongs to the Ministry of Defence), but anyone I have ever encoutered up here – usually the keeper of the lighthouse that occupies a section of the fort – has encouraged me to wander round providing I don’t take photographs.
This island was acquired by the Lomellini and Grimaldi families in 1542, when it was traded for Draghut, the ‘drawn sword of Islam’, a corsair captured by a Genoese galley some years before. The Genoese wanted the island on account of the highly lucrative coral reefs that lie off these shores. In spite of the proximity of the Muslim mainland, a community of some 1,200 Christians held the island until 1741, when they were expelled by Ali Pasha.
The peace and pine-scented breezes are soothing. If you fancy a cooling swim and an hour or so lying in the sun, clamber down the hill on the far side of the fort, where you will find good bathing off the rocks (beware urchins), or rejoin the beach and walk through the surf towards the new hotel developments across the bay. On your way back to town, follow the shore round to the right to see Les Aiguilles, a pack of needle-shaped stacks.
Tabarka’s main street is Avenue Habib Bourguiba, which runs to the harbour. The ex-president Bourguiba was, as a young nationalist, placed under house arrest in Tabarka’s Hotel de France. Coral shops dominate the street. Their keepers exert surprisingly slight pressure on potential customers and it is possible to browse at leisure. Asking prices begin at around $50 for a simple bracelet to $500 for a multi-stranded cut and polished necklace. If you are serious about buying, bargain hard.
Ready for lunch? Claim a table on the terrace of the restaurant of Hotel les Aiguilles (corner of avenues Habib Bourguiba and Hedi Chaker) which has a very reasonable menu offish and Tunisian specialities.
Afterwards set off for Ain Draham (Spring of Money), along the Babouch/Ain Draham road (signposted). The road runs straight as a die for the first 12km (7 miles), then spirals into the hills, nudging the Algerian border at Babouch. Watch out for kamikaze vendors of wooden bowls, ornamental hatstands and pine nuts/walnuts/strawberries (depending on season). At Ain Draham, the heart of the Khroumiria, stop off at Hotel Beau Sejour, an ivy-clad hunting lodge, for coffee and fresh air on the terrace. Past Fernana the sylvan scenery yields to the wheatland of the Tell. Bulla Regia (daily, winter 8.30am-5.30pm, summer 8am-7pm) is signposted off to the left about 10km (6 miles) before Jendouba. After a few more kilometres the site comes into view on the left-hand side of the lane.
Entering the site, proceed straight ahead, between the walls of two buildings. At the yellow signposts turn right. The entrance to the baths of Julia Memnia (3rd century ad), named after the wife of the Libyan-born Emperor Septimius Severus, are now on your right. As you step down into the complex, examine the vaulting where remnants of clay piping, an architectural device used to fashion vaulted ceilings and arches, can still be seen. Continuing along the main street beside the baths, you come to the Bibliotheque (library), complete with moat, and then the Temple of Isis (both on the right). The main route continues to a gem of a theatre, complete with a bear mosaic (restored).
Leaving the theatre, retrace your steps for a few metres and then take the route branching up towards the hillside behind the site. You will pass the market on the left and emerge at the forum with the Temple of Apollo up ahead and the basilica on your right. Bearing left past the capitol, continue until you come to another right-turn towards the hills. This leads to Bulla Regia’s most remarkable remains, the underground villas.
Why Bulla Regia’s inhabitants built underground can only be surmised. Respite from the heat is the most logical explanation, though hotter places in the Roman empire did not follow suit. One of the most splendid villas is the Maison de la Chasse (House of the Hunt) next to a small mound on the right-hand side. Note the well and the remains of an oil press inside the entrance. The flight of steps leading to the underground chambers emerges in a colonnaded atrium that is handsomely decorated with geometric mosaics.
Regain the main street and continue to the top. Here, turn right and at the next junction follow the yellow sign to the Maison de la Peche (House of the Fish), notable for its fish mosaics in situ. Afterwards proceed to the Maison d’Am-phitrite (signposted from the junction), which contains the lovely Triumph of Venus, a mosaic depicting Venus borne by Tritons and attended by Amor, astride a dolphin, carrying her crown, mirror and jewel box.