Night was closing in on the Sicilian port of Messina when our cruise ship, MSC Preziosa, headed out through the narrow straits and turned towards North Africa. By the following morning, passengers were on deck watching a gutsy Tunisian tug boat guide our goliath of a ship into the port of La Goulette.
Spreading beyond massive fuel tanks, cargo vessels and fishing boats was the city of Tunis. And on its northern flank lay Carthage, the ancient Phoenician city founded in the 9th century BC, which controlled the western Mediterranean until defeated by the Romans in the Punic wars. Our overnight voyage of about 500km brought home the proximity to Italy of the once powerful centre of the Carthaginian empire and conjured up images of its brilliant general, Hannibal, charging to battle the Romans on one of his elephants.
Costumed musicians and dancers at the entrance to the cruise ship terminal enticed disembarking passengers to be photographed with them for 5 ($8).
Some of us were happy to oblige. The bus that took us off on a day tour of the city passed from a district of grand houses into one full of occupied but unfinished houses.
"You pay less tax if your house is unfinished. But all those half-finished houses have satellite dishes and great views of the sea," laughed our guide.
Tunisia's relationship with the Mediterranean is embedded in its art as well as its history. In the Bardo Museum are superb mosaics, painstakingly pieced together from the excavated ruins of ancient dwellings. Having the previous night sailed through the Straits of Messina where mythical sirens awaited their prey I was fascinated by a mosaic depicting the Greek hero Ulysses from Homer's Odyssey who had tied himself to the mast of his ship after blocking his sailors' ears to the seductive calls of the treacherous sirens.
The Mediterranean shone deep blue as we drove on round the Gulf of Tunis to Carthage. Today, the forlorn remains are Roman. The great seafaring civilisation of Carthage was finally conquered by the Romans in 146BC after Hannibal's 15-year occupation of much of Italy. They razed the city and, on the rubble, rebuilt Carthage to become the centre of the Roman province of Africa.
Today, visitors wander among the ruins of what had been a monumental Roman bath house. Here and there nature is reclaiming the remains. I resisted the urge to pull out a sapling fig tree that had taken root in the base of granite column. Trinket sellers draped with necklaces of lapis lazuli, turquoise and amber pursued us as we exited the Roman remains of Carthage.
"Look lady, no plastic," they urged, flicking cigarette lighter flame on the stones to prove they were real.
En route back to Tunis we stopped at Sidi Bou Said, an enchanting town where white houses with blue-framed windows, doors and fences lined the streets. Their colours mirrored the shining Mediterranean they overlooked. The hill-top palace of Dar Ennejma Ezzhara (Arabic for "the Star of Venus") has divine views. The town attracted early 20th century French artists and became a Paris equivalent of Montmartre for Parisian cognoscenti who delved into the labyrinth of streets, hidden gardens and courtyards filled with the fragrance of honeysuckle. On one of those cobbled courtyards I bought a box of fresh dates filled with a pistachio paste.
Half the box had been emptied by the time our bus pulled up at Tunis' medina. I had primed myself not succumb to rug sellers. Perfumes, yes. But I didn't need another rug. Until a vendor flicked open a camel hair specimen in blue and white. Its colours reflected the white sailing boats on the aquamarine sea that had accompanied most of our day's journey in the Gulf of Tunis. I handed over the equivalent of a two-course dinner in Auckland and sailed home with it.
GETTING THERE: Emirates Airlines flies from Auckland to Milan's Malpensa Airport. Trains and buses depart from Malpensa and Milan Central Station to Genoa.
DETAILS: MSC Preziosa's seven-day cruises of the western Mediterranean operate each year from March until the Northern Hemisphere autumn.
msccruises.com.au; Freephone 0508 4 278473
: Susan Buckland's cruise of the Mediterranean and air travel was assisted by MSC Cruises and Emirates Airlines.