It was Tunisian Independence Day, from France in 1956.
We checked out of the hotel, Andrew, Fakhri & me, and set off to drive to El Kef.
I was surprised at the scenery. It was very green and European. So different to the South with date palms and desert! Trees, grass and farms growing vegetables were on both sides of the road. Stalls selling oranges and lemons or vegetables were sometimes artistically set up beside the road. When the rain got too heavy to be out in, or they took a break, the stallholders covered them up with plastic and left them. No-one would dream of stealing anything or vandalising them.
After a while, ahead of us the clouds were getting very black and menacing; not a good omen for a Jazz Festival! Within a short time we drove into heavy rain, and it got gradually heavier as we slowly progressed.
In the countryside of El Kef, Slim our driver spotted the hotel sign, Dar Chennoufi, and slowly made his way along a muddy farm track. He parked outside and we ran to the porch.
Inside, we met Eric Sardinas who was performing that night at the Festival. He said Hello and told us he was from California and he was on his way to bed for the afternoon as he was so tired. He had quite a Mexican look, and I said, Perhaps he’s playing the Inca Pan pipes. Well it was an International Jazz Festival!
Raoudha, the owner, arrived and she brought us glasses of orange juice. Then lunch was served as we had to go out again. There was soup, salad, veal with tuna, and rice with chicken. It gave off a flavour of cardamom, which was lovely and I’m going to copy it!
There were large globe artichokes with a sauce. They were tender and juicy.
The meal was finished with a bowl of fruit. I attacked the large, sweet dates.
We were scheduled to see Jugurtha’s Table, which is protected by the World Cultural and Natural Heritage. It’s quite near the Algerian border and the views from the top are amazing.
The Numidian King Jugurtha climbed to the top with his horse, (which was probably a mule,) to escape from the Romans in 107-105BC. There are steps to the top.
It’s similar to Ayres Rock in Australia and Devil’s Tower in Wyoming, made famous in the film Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
Slim carefully drove the car along the winding mountain track, and stopped at the top, which was the base of the Table Mountain. The rain was so heavy that we couldn’t get out of the car, and the mist completely hid the mountain.
We drove slowly down again, vowing to return at sunrise the next morning…..
A police car waved us down, and escorted us to the bottom, where they waved Goodbye and drove off.
There are usually two or three police on roundabouts and minding possible road blocks. They’re not military, they’re civilian police, and there are plenty of them, always ready to help.
At the hotel, we had an early dinner and drove to the Jazz Festival. The weather was horrendous and a huge marquee had been erected over what had been an open-air festival for the past four years.
I found out later that the whole world was having freaky weather that week.
Raoudha arrived and said Hello to us all, then she went and sat down.
The first group were very professional, but they were playing what I’d call Jazz by Numbers. They didn’t move around and their breath was coming out in clouds as it was so cold. Every time they finished, we could hear the drumming of the rain on the roof, and we became quite worried about the weight of it. The audience seemed cold and deflated.
Then Eric and his group burst onto the stage, and our mild, polite Eric had metamorphosed into a Wild Man! After the first few notes, the audience became awake and alive. They yelled and cheered, and waved their arms in the air.
Eric completely owned the stage. And his double bass player was just as wild. He threw the instrument around like a female Tango partner! He even climbed on it and played while perching like a garden gnome!
Andrew burst out laughing and said, I don’t think he’ll be playing the Pan pipes!
We decided to leave before the end as we were so cold and Slim was falling asleep. He’d driven a long way that day.
Back at the hotel, Slim dropped us off and drove to his hotel. We knocked on the door, but there was no answer. We huddled in the cold and rain, but the hotel was obviously empty.
It was Fakhri’s birthday, and we sang Happy Birthday to You in the freezing cold and the bucketing rain, locked out of out hotel. But he wasn’t very impressed.
10 minutes later, there was a loud knock at the door. Two policemen stood outside in the pouring rain. They’d called to make sure we were OK. How’s that for service? And they phoned in the morning to check that we were still happy.
Raoudha arrived, all apologetic. Where had she been? Cuddling Eric! She thought we were still at the Festival.
We were cold and furious, but she opened a bottle of Magon wine, and we gradually thawed out and forgave her. Magon has healing properties!
Then Raoudha began telling us about the house and the history of El Kef. She was very knowledgeable and we listened, fascinated.
Dar Chennoufi has been in her family since the French Revolution. It was the first private house in Tunisia to become a hotel. There are only five guest rooms, and no keys as they were all lost long ago. It was, and still is, a farm and there are acres of land around the house, growing mainly trees; olives, almonds and oranges.
Then the subject completely changed. El Kef, formerly known as Sicca, is the highest city in Tunisia, at 780mts (2,560ft) above sea level. It has extreme climates of heat and cold. Yet around 66 million years ago, when the massive meteorite, known as the Chicxulub Crater landed in the Mexican Yucatan, tipping the world off its axis and killing the dinosaurs, El Kef was flooded, probably followed by the Ice Age.
There are recent investigations going on, examining marine fossils in the area to discover more information about the meteorite. Apparently they’re revealing a lot of information.
So El Kef was a high, dry area, then under water, and now dry again.
Raoudha then produced several large fossils, including a piece of tree trunk, which had been dug up on her land.
The bottle was empty and it was bed-time. My bed was very cosy and, despite the rain thudding against the window, I slept really well.