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CYRENICA

RUINS AND RIFLES

I never feel quite as enthusiastic about travelling when it means being ready by 8 on a Friday morning, but at least we didn't have to drive ourselves to the airport. We didn't even have to check in and were able to sip our bland cappuccinos until our flight to Benghazi was called.

I wasn't sure what to expect of Libyan Arab Airlines but in fact the flight was operated by NouvelAir of Tunisia and we arrived pretty much on time to be greeted by Said, our guide. Our first stop was the site of Tolmeita (the Greek/Roman city of Ptolemais – see www.livius.org for up-to-date information on ancient sites) where we had lunch (Libyan soup, couscous and grilled chicken). Our two boys (14 and 11) were keen to share their lunch with an interested cat.

It wasn't that obvious where the ancient ruins were … good we had a guide who knew his way around, even though his knowledge wasn't deep. This was late March and the weather was windy and chilly. By the time we reached the gigantic cisterns underneath the forum or possibly agora, our kids had disappeared, so they missed the part they would have liked best: poking about underground and crouching to get through small doorways. We couldn't find our kids, but we did come across groups of local picnickers, the groups in general consisting of several young women with one young man, and I assume this was a brother or else he was strangely lucky. One such group insisted on pouring us glasses of Pepsi (not my favourite drink …) and used their phones to take photos of us while we drank it. I’m sure they took their litter home with them.

I also found a tortoise having a stretch in the sun, tucked away in a sheltered spot amongst ancient stones.

The boys having reappeared we got back in the car and continued to Qasr Libya and drizzle. Again this spot would be hard to find if you didn't know it was there. The mosaics are amazing, slightly primitive in style and including strange subjects, such as an armed merman and, perhaps, the fabled lighthouse of Alexandria. I loved them, as did my husband Tim, but the boys were having more fun with the giant cactus spines they had found outside. (Even the geraniums were gigantic. But the poppies were tiny and red as blood.) Said began to talk about the altar in the church where they 'made the sacrifice'. 'Don't you mean sacrament?' 'No, the animal sacrifice.' I assume he is confusing his vocabulary, but I'll check on livius.org, just to make sure.

The next stop, at Wadi Al Kuf, met with even the boys' approval. Jerome had the night before watched 'The Lion of the Desert' and Justin had seen it some time ago at school. You recognize straightaway the caves where Omar Al Mukhtar's resistance fighters used to hide and then you encounter the old metal bridge with shock, because it is above you and you are on the road in the wadi bottom. It comes as another surprise to then see the new white bridge which reaches up into the sky. Unfortunately coming back down to earth we found ourselves surrounded by heaps of rubbish and an evil smell which turned out to be coming from a dead cow, not in fact the rubbish as we had first thought! The dead cow was a big success with Justin, as was the poor donkey being ridden hard by a long-legged boy, whereas Jerome was impressed to see someone about his own age marching along with a rifle in his hand. At this point we became aware of Khalid the driver's very annoying reluctance to switch off the engine. He came out with some story about the car needing 30 minutes to warm up! This seemed very unlikely as the car was a modern Mercedes, but wherever we stopped, we were accompanied by the chug of his engine.

We were ready for a rest when we finally reached the Cyrene Resort which was clean but would have been so much nicer in good weather. We only spotted the fantastic view for a few minutes during our stay there. Said ordered our dinner for us, but his pronouncement that the restaurant was open from 7 to 10 was optimistic, as we didn’t begin to eat till around 8.

The next day, Saturday 29 March, was unfortunately cool, drizzly and misty, but Apollonia (the former port for Cyrene) was nonetheless beautiful and atmospheric. Certainly not busy! Jerome did a good job of filling me in on the history of the Byzantine Empire. Next stop was the Byantine church at L'Atrun which is accessed by walking through a muddy field. Sadly this was locked and there was no sign of a caretaker. Khalid helpfully sloshed water over my muddy shoes so that I ended up with clean shoes but wet feet.

The Byzantine church at Ras Al Hillal was forlorn but tranquil, with the remainder of its mosaic and marbled tiled floors open to the elements. Someone had even lit a fire on one of the mosaic floors, thereby hastening nature's slow work of destruction. Returning to the car I nearly jumped on a tortoise, thinking it was a rock.

Back at the hotel for lunch we had a chance to dry off. Lunch was a variation on last night's and every other dinner. Eating out is definitely one of the disadvantages of travelling in Libya. These set meals of soup, salad and grilled meat are too slow and big for lunch. A felafel and salad wrap never seems to be an option. For a few precious moments after lunch we sat in the sun and enjoyed the view over the coast. Inspired by the blue sky, we returned to Ras Al Hillal and travelled up the mountain to find the waterfall (nothing exciting). Over the road are the ruins of a house apparently once occupied by the infamous General Graziani. We decided to walk the 2.5 km up the road to see the Greek tombs. This seemed to be problematical. First Said said it would be 'too difficult' for me. I am a 48-year-old woman but am undoubtedly fitter than the average Libyan male. We wanted to go alone but he insisted on coming along too. Worse was when Khalid then decided to tail us in the car. Luckily we managed to convince him that he could go ahead and we would catch him up. It was very similar to being up on the North York Moors (including the weather). Both Khalid and Said seemed delighted when it finally started to rain and they could get us back into the car. We returned to the hotel where we realized that we now had two sets of wet clothes and the only solution was to hang them all up and go to bed to keep warm while they dried off.

We hoped against hope that the weather on the third and final day would be different, but sadly it wasn't. Cyrene is the city you need to save till last. Our first stop was the Temple of Zeus, a huge and magnificent Greek temple which seemed to have been plonked down in an English field. Those classical follies in Britain will no longer seem so odd to me. Next to the restaurant to order lunch (Libyan or lentil soup? Couscous, rice or pasta? Chicken or meat?) which was prepared while we looked round the museum, smart thinking on Said’s part. Despite the weather, we spent a happy morning wandering amongst the ruins of Cyrene. My favourite bit was the Baths of Paris, where you see individual bathing spots cut out of the rock, each with a little niche for placing personal possessions. I’ve never seen anything quite like it.

By the way, I would rate the meal here the best out of the three places we ate, although it still followed the same format.

Back in the car we all had a little snooze during the drive to Slonta. The door to the shrine was locked, but Said disappeared for a few minutes to return with a little boy and the key. We went in and soon the little boy had brought us all mint tea. The original cave has collapsed, but what is left is fascinating: a long snake, four pigs on an altar, lots of figures who look scared or despondent. There is the stump of a Graeco-Roman column, but archaeologists think that the old Libyan (i.e. they don't look Mediterranean but rather African) faces close to the ground are older than the column. It's a very small site, but definitely one not to be missed!

Back down to earth at a kind of service station en route to the airport. Espresso good, toilets not. We arrived way too early to check in at the airport, but Said and Khalid waited until our flight was called, and we were duly met at the other end and brought safely back home, tired but satisfied. Even better, the kids now appreciate the benefits of living in Tripoli.

www.fezzantours.com





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by Kate Minogue

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Published April 2010

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