The Roman ruins at Utica, the old pirate lair of Ghar el Melh and the beach at Rass Sidi Ali el Mekhi. Overnight stay at the Petit Mousse in Bizerte. A car is essential. Pack your swimming costume. This trip is not designed as a circular tour, but if you prefer to go back to Tunis rather than stay in Bizerte there shouldn’t be any problem covering the return distance in one day.
The peaceful countenance of the coastal region to the north of Tunis belies its long and eventful history at the cutting edge of Tunisian involvement with Europe: the Roman town of Utica sided with Rome rather than Carthage in the Punic Wars and was Pompey’s North African base in the Roman Civil War; Ghar el Melh, lying on a concealed lagoon just north of Utica, was a lair of Barbary coast pirates between the 16th and 18th centuries, and Bizerte was a key base for Axis powers (and a target for Allied bombs) during World War II.
This corner of Tunisia is practically untouched by package tourism; so far only the Tunisians themselves and a handful of French are familiar with its first-rate beaches, the excellent Petit Mousse restaurant/hotel in Bizerte, and Lake Ichkeul, a World Heritage wetland site.
The hoardings and high-rises that line the p8 from Tunis peter out at Pont de Bizerte (25km/15 miles) and the scenery settles into rural patterns, with agricultural workers busy in the fields and children selling produce to passing cars. About 5km (3 miles) beyond here, look out for the sign Utique Ruine, pointing right to the Roman town of Utica. The site (Tuesday to Sunday, winter 8am-5pm, summer 8am-6pm, closed Monday) lies some 2km (1 mile) down the lane, beyond the attendant museum. As a result, it is not unusual to have this peaceful spot all to yourself.
Before the Mejerda river silted up, Utica was on the sea. According to Pliny the Elder, it was founded as a way-station by Phoenician sailors from Tyre in about 1101bc, some 300 years before Carthage. It gained a reputation for treachery: Agothocles of Syracuse used it as a base from which to attack Carthage in 310bc, and in 146bc it was the Roman general Scipio’s base in the Third (and final) Punic War. In return for supporting Rome, Utica was briefly capital of Roman Africa.
Make your way to the Maison de la Cascade (marked by a cluster of cypress trees), the most interesting of the villas. This large and obviously luxurious house (AD69-96) takes its name from the pool gracing its central courtyard. Off to the side of the courtyard, notice the triclinium (dining-room), distinguished by its handsome marble floor: the plain U-shaped border would have been covered by banquettes, obviating the need for any decoration. The house has a set of fish-theme mosaics in situ – lift the wooden lids to view. As you leave the house by the front door (note the notches which would have contained the roof beams), you face the Punic necropolis, the source of many of the grave goods in the museum back up the road.
When you leave Utica, instead of returning to the main Tunis-Bizerte road, carry on along the lane to Ghar el Melh (Cave of Salt) on the peninsula’s tip, turning left at the mosque with a silver dome and right at the following two junctions (both signposted). The one-time pirate lair of Ghar el Melh (formerly known as Porto Farina) lies sandwiched between the hilly ridge of Jebel Nadour and a slumbrous lagoon, the perfect slip for the shallow-draughted vessels of the corsairs. The road through Ghar el Melh proceeds along the densely-farmed edge of the lagoon, from where a left track leads to Rass Sidi Ali el Mekhi, a beach of soft white sands cradled by green headland. The tomb of Sidi Ali el Mekhi draws a thin trickle of old ladies on donkeys. If you fancy a picnic on the beach, buy provisions before leaving Ghar el Melh (the market is off the road tunnel in the village centre). Alternatively, mark the location of Restaurant du Port – it may not look that promising but the proprietor does a terrific chicken stew with good salad and bread – and adjourn here after your swim. The 3-km (2-mile) track to the beach is an easy drive, but muddy out of season.
From Ghar el Melh head for Bizerte via El Alia (turning just before Zouaouine).
Bizerte. a fledgling resort and an important port, underwent rapid development under the French, who wanted to counteract the strength of British bases in Gibraltar and Malta. Jules Ferry, the father of French colonialism, said: ‘If I have taken Tunisia, it is to have Bizerte!’ The Italians described the town as ‘a pistol levelled at the heart of Italy’. It was the last piece of Tunisia to be surrendered by the French.
If you intend to stay the night as I recommend. I suggest you first check in to Le Petit Mousse, overlooking the ocean on the Route de la Corniche on the north side of town, and then drive back to explore the centre ville. The chief attraction of Bizerte for the tourist is the picturesque old port, off to the left at the foot of Avenue Habib Bourguiba, with its peeling colonial-cum-Moorish architecture, painted fishing boats and sheltering kasbah.
After taking tea on the quay, head up Avenue Habib Bourguiba and follow the sign to the Monument of the Martyrs (not to be confused with the Place des Martyrs near the old casino). This gigantic concrete arch rising over a sea of headstones commemorates the Bizerte Crisis of 1961, when 1.365 Tunisians were killed by French troops following escalating disturbances over continued French presence in the town.
The evening is best spent over a meal on the terrace of Le Petit Mousse, cracking open a bottle of Chateau Mornag and listening to the surf breaking on the beach. The high standards of this small hotel and restaurant are rare in Tunisia, so I suggest that you splash out and dine in style (prices are very reasonable in any case). Next morning either head back to Tunis, or set off for the northwest of Tunisia via the lovely Lake Ichkeul, a haven for wintering and migrating birds.