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Sahara

Day 81: Tobruk to Benghazi

Tobruk to Benghazi, Libya 
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Apollonia. Remains of a 2000-year-old mosaic flooring, showing palm trees and wild animals.
Michael Palin - SaharaThis morning we part company with the Rats of Tobruk. They are going east, to Egypt, and we are turning west, across the northern edge of the Sahara, all the way to Tripoli and the Tunisian frontier, 1200 miles away.

Our coach is big and pink and accommodates not only ourselves but also a half-dozen Libyan escorts, including two government minders and a video cameraman whose job it is to record our every move. The staff from Apollonia Tours are attentive, regularly plying us with refreshments, coffee, tea, water, biscuits and sweeties, when really the only thing we want them to do is to turn off the Richard Clayderman tape.

Once we're past the port of Darnah, the immaculately surfaced, virtually empty road rises and falls and snakes around pretty bays, as we run along the knuckle of land that brings Libya to within 250 miles of mainland Europe. Almost at the apex of this chunky headland are the remains of Apollonia, once the port for the Roman city of Cyrene, high up on the hills behind it. I'm not a great one for archaeological sites - I think I lack the patience required to imagine so much from so little - but Apollonia is enchanting. A strong offshore wind has swept away the murky humidity of Tobruk and turned the Mediterranean a glamorous, white-flecked blue. Beside it, along a mile of coastline, rise a series of graceful ruins. One of them, the Eastern Basilica, is especially elegant. A grove of slender columns made from green and white cipolin marble outlined against an azure sky. Between them are traces of a superb mosaic floor, with images of Africa, wild animals and palm trees. Such treasures would be dazzling enough in a museum, but to find them, intact and largely unspoiled, where they were laid 2000 years ago is almost unbelievable, and has me worrying immediately that they are not sufficiently protected. Not that there are any crowds here. A scattering of Italians, a few Dutch, otherwise we have it to ourselves.
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PALIN'S GUIDES

  • Series: Sahara
  • Day: 81
  • Country/sea: Libya
  • Place: Tobruk
  • Book page no: 216

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