Advantages Great Spring weather. Loads to see and not a mozzie in sight
Disadvantages Local dishes a bit thin on the ground and insipid international cuisine
Tunisia’s like that, operating on two levels, one as a ‘holiday destination’ for the “sun, sand and cheap booze” set, and secondly as a North African country with one foot in the past and enough sights to keep even the itchiest-arsed amongst us occupied.It really all depends on whether you can actually be bothered to move away from the pool. Anyway, if it’s a tan and cheap beer your after, why not see if the British Legion can rent you a room to install a sun lamp?
There’s no denying that the sun and sand are superb. I’ve just got back from a week there when Spring temperatures were a gorgeous 25C every day, and the white sandy beach at Port El-Kantaoui stretched all the way back to Sousse, some five miles away.However, there’s only so much relaxation this lad (and his ladette) can stand, so get your sandwiches and vacuum flask ready – this could be a long one!
TUNISIA – WHERE IS IT?Just before we went, an Australian colleague of my wife’s said “Tunisia? – I’ve got NO idea where that is.”
So for him and a few others, here’s a brief description.Tunisia is ‘third country from the left’ in North Africa. These three, including Morocco and Algeria too are known as The Maghreb, i.e. the west in Arabic, I believe. Both the city of Tunis and the country itself are called Tunis in Arabic. It is a smallish country with about the same area as England & Wales, and two coastlines, the north and the east. Its other sides are landlocked with Algeria and Libya. Its northern coastal regions are fertile, looking, in Spring at least, much like the South Of France or southern Spain. Two hundred miles south it’s a different story. Here we find the third largest salt flat in the world after The Great Salt Lake, Utah, and one near Timbuktu. An hour’s drive further south, and you’re in the Sahara itself, and this really is the sand dune variety of desert, not a rock plateau, which would be a real disappointment to a lot of people.
(Pauses for imagery: shades of yearning for a Carlsberg in Alexandria whilst pushing an army ambulance up a hill, or staggering into the Officer’s Mess in Cairo and announcing in your best Peter O’Toole voice ‘I’ve TAKEN Aqaba!’).In relation to Europe, it’s only about 100 miles south of Sicily, and car ferries ply back and forth.
Chief industries, apart from the obvious tourism include:a) Selling olive oil to Italian wholesalers who then re-badge it, and claim an EC subsidy greater than the price paid in Tunisia – Yes, why does the Italian quota of bottled oil exceed the amount pressed?
b) Allowing Libyan trucks access to Tunisian ports, thereby busting any trade sanctions placed on the former. The Libyans even built their own dual carriageway to speed up the process.c) Phosphate mining. The fertiliser is used either at home or by ‘poorer countries’, which can’t afford to worry about what it does to the water table.
d) Various other fruits like dates figs and oranges.The people really are a melting-pot mix of the original Berbers, the Arabs who moved west and settled there, descendants of sub-Saharan slaves brought there up until the French took it over as a colon….sorry, protectorate, the ancient Phoenicians, latterly known as Punic (the creators of Carthage, now a suburb of Tunis itself), the Romans, the French and many others, including the Moors and Jews expelled from Spain several hundred years ago.
The official language is Arabic with French taught as a second language from primary school upwards. The population is 98% Moslem with the other minority mainly made up of Christians and Jews but still Tunisians. Remarkably, religion is banned in Tunisian schools, as is the wearing, by girls, of headscarves. Girls still wear them in the street, but more as a means of not getting a suntan, which is not thought to be the done thing for ladies in these parts. If any of this is wrong, blame Kemal our tour guide!Most numerous tourists are the French, Italians and Germans, with the British and Irish lagging behind by a considerable margin. You could of course view this as a plus point!
WHERE WE STAYEDOur holiday deal with Panorama Tours took us to The Hannibal* Palace at Port El-Kantaoui.
*(Who else, with Carthage just up the road?)This is a man-made resort clustered around a European-style yacht marina. Being around 20 years old now, it doesn’t look so obviously false or brashly new. Whilst this was very pleasant to walk around, once you’d got used to ignoring all the exhortations to take boat rides/hire wetbikes/buy jasmine/ have a henna tattoo, it was not a cheap place to sit and watch the world go by, as you would expect. It is also a very sanitised view of what Tunisia is like – in fact Tunisians holiday there as it feels like going somewhere else – you certainly don’t hear much Arabic spoken, that’s for sure!
Grand though our hotel was, purporting to be 5-star, we only slept and ate breakfast in it, and then only for 6 out of the 7 nights booked. However, it was good enough for Julie Goodyear, erstwhile of Coronation Street fame whilst we were there, and yes, she does smoke using a cigarette holder!As I said earlier, the beach here is superb, although a bit breezy in Spring. I could see this being an advantage in Summer though.
Unfortunately, none of this is of any great interest to me, as I don’t go out of my way to swim or sunbathe. This is where the need to get out and about comes in. It didn’t on first (or even last) glance appear to be a very good idea to hire a car, as un-dented ones seemed as rare as rocking horse pooh, so the first full day after our arrival saw us dutifully soaking up all the Panorama ‘rep’ had to tell us about trips out. We booked two in the end, the first, a whole day out touring the Tunis/Carthage area, and the second, starting the following day involved an overnight stay, rather romantically, or so it sounded in the Sahara desert. The total cost for these, for the two of us, including all food but not alcohol and one night’s alternative accommodation, was £170, which for three days out, 1500 miles of travel and very little other expenditure seemed good value.DAY OUT No. 1 – TUNIS BARDO MUSEUM, CARTHAGE AND SIDI BOU SAÏD
Tunis is a fairly short hop up an autoroute from the Sousse area – yes, even Tunisia has motorways (in fact both Sousse and Tunis have electric train Metros too). The Bardo Museum, which was formerly the Turkish Bey’s Palace was designed along the lines of The Prado in Madrid. ‘P’ became ‘B’ as Arabic doesn’t seem to differentiate between the two sounds, and the ‘R’ shifted as Arabic abhors words that start with two consonants, so; Prado to Bardo is two easy stages!The museum is very impressive with just about the most comprehensive display of Roman mosaics you’ll ever see, and although Roman artefacts from Carthage feature very heavily, the museum also plots the history of Tunisia from the Stone Age onwards. Besides now being a museum, the building itself, having been a palace is also very sumptuous in parts, with delicate Arabic carved ceilings and ornate lamps.
The Phoenician/Roman site of Carthage is practically a suburb of Tunis. From the Roman forum atop a hill with a marvellous panoramic view of all Tunis, you can see the two levels of the civilisations that formed this ancient city. The Phoenicians (Punics) that occupied the area prior to the Romans tended to live on the slopes of the hill and many of their building foundations can still be seen. However, when the Romans took the place over, they built brick piers all around the hill top to act as soil stabilisers, and literally shovelled the peak of the hill away as in-fill, levelling off the hill top to create the forum area, effectively burying all the former efforts of the Phoenicians. Thankfully, this has been re-excavated so that both civilisations are in evidence. Even if antiquities aren’t your thing, this trip is worth it for the view of Tunis alone.Lunch was taken at a beachside hotel in the Tunis suburb of La Goulette, close to the Sicily car ferry channel
The afternoon was spent browsing around a pretty hilltop village quite close to Carthage called Sidi Bou Saïd. With its steep cobbled streets and blue-and-white houses, you could almost mistake this for a village on a Greek island. The very hilltop served as a lighthouse. Here we entered a typical house with courtyard, which has been set out as a museum to village life, with many of the rooms equipped with mannequins to depict various aspects of Islamic way of life, including ladies in their wedding finery, and a gentleman ‘doing his accounts’. Well worth the pittance it cost to go in, AND you get a glass of mint tea!As with all ‘picturesque’ locations, the ‘tat’ marketeers are quick to move in on arriving coach-loads of tourists - ‘hey Meester, you want look?’ multiplied 30-fold gets a bit wearing. Actually matey, I never do ‘want look’, so there! Instead of all selling the same stuff, someone should group these guys into a co-op, with one stall for stuffed camels, one for brassware and so on. In the best traditions of a News Of The World reporter, I made my excuses and left (to sit on the coach!).
The travel courier for this trip was a retired history/language teacher so we did feel a little like we were in ‘information overload’ by 5 p.m., at which point one of the Irish contingent at the back of the bus shouted ‘Give us a song!’ – and he did.I got off the bus knowing more about The Punic Wars than bloody Scipio, or so it seemed!
DAYS OUT Nos. 2 & 3This really was the highlight of our holiday. We set out fairly early (6:30 am), requiring us to request an early breakfast in our room. Tediously, we were amongst the first to be picked up and we weren’t really ‘on our way’ for 90 minutes as we dragged around what felt like every hotel in the Sousse area, but at least we were heading south!
Our first stop of the day was at El Djem, famous for its magnificent Roman Colosseum, the third largest, and being the most recent, a lot more intact than some. Even the remains of the original marble facia exist around the arena itself. This all goes to make it easier to imagine the finished article, especially since the trap doors to the lions and prisoner’s quarters are still there, although covered with gratings. We were told that parts of it were used to stage scenes in ‘Gladiator’ with the ‘missing’ bits filled in by digital enhancement.Second stop was merely lunch is a fairly non-descript hotel in Gabes, a suitably non-descript city about halfway ‘down’ the east coast. Then we moved inland and further south to Matmata, a town with some rather odd dwellings, caves to be exact, one of which is now a hotel. Such is the off-world appearance of these dwellings that this one was used as Luke Skywalker’s parents house, just before they got murdered in Star Wars. Props left behind by the film crew are still there, but given that these things were never meant to last, it’s all a bit sad now. Outside of Matmata, we were ushered into one of these (largely) Berber house/caves, where the lady of the house proudly pointed to her TV aerial and the string of light bulbs powered from her newly acquired Honda portable generator! Here we were given the only half decent mint tea of the trip – they really were nice people.
After Matmata, we headed west, with the scenery getting more and more barren until, little by little, you realise that the Sahara has already started. The oasis town of Douz, our stop for the night is a VERY welcome sight. The Sunpalm Hotel is a real delight, designed like an Arab house around a shaded courtyard (with swimming pool in this case). Rooms have traditional small shuttered windows, and Air-Con, although we didn’t need it, as it had only peaked at about 27C that day, and, as we are always told, it’s bloody cold in deserts at night. The tour guide gives us time off for good behaviour, but only 30 minutes, mind, before we’re off for our evening adventure, a camel ride into the actual desert, which at this point is giving way to those ‘proper’ sand dunes I mentioned earlier. Personally, I hate camels with a vengeance having been made seasick by one previously. No wonder they’re called ‘ships of the desert’. No matter, I got the pick of the mules (pause for jokes about not getting an ugly one).Sundown in the desert was breathtaking, and I hope my photos go some way to doing it justice.
Next morning, suitably refreshed by the best bed I’ve slept in for ages, we breakfasted and then were carted (quite literally) off into the plantation section of the oasis for a nature ramble. Suitably educated into the delicate habitat of these sanctuaries, we bussed away across the amazing Chott El Djerid, the world’s third largest salt flat. This was an arresting sight, and the midway stop showed the salt to its advantage, glistening like diamonds underfoot against the rising sun. It was easy to imagine some World Land Speed Record attempt streaking across the lake bed, stretching for tens of miles into the distance.Our next main featured stop was in the town of Metlaoui, not a million miles from Algeria. Here, we are told is the heaviest drinking town in Tunisia, but it must all be relative, and it bore no relation at all to Britain at pub chucking-out time! The reason for this visit, not to smell the locals’ breath, was actually to ride the Red Lizard, the restored royal train of Tunisia, now ferrying tourist up a ten-mile branch line ending in a phosphate quarry. The goal might seem a bit utilitarian for tourists to visit, but the ride there was absolutely spectacular, especially standing on the open verandah of the old-time coaches. The train weaves in and out of deep ravines, through half a dozen tunnels and over some very Wild West looking bridges. It was wonderful stuff, even with Italy’s noisiest family standing next to me. Yes, why bother moving close to someone when you can shout from 12 feet away? My wife couldn’t find a seat, so the tour guide borrowed some from the waiting room and put them in the train. Imagine what Her Majesty’s Railways Inspector would say about un-tethered seats!
After this, the day tended to go downhill, and north, all at the same time. We lunched in Gafsa, where they had run out of ‘briques’, the local filo pastry snack. There’s a book in there somewhere – ‘Pie-less In Gafsa’ perhaps?Our last main stop of the day was Kairouan, the fourth holiest place in the Islamic world after Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem. However, our purpose was less of a pilgrimage, rather more a chance to get sold a carpet in a state-controlled carpet warehouse. We didn’t succumb but many fell by the wayside.
Then home to Port El-Kantaoui and a nice long cold drink, having earned it, we felt!The following two days felt a bit flat – I wonder why?
EATING & DRINKING OUTCHARACTERISTIC FOOD – some of this will be familiar to visitors to Morocco also. The main ‘snack’ is the ‘brique’, brik, brick, call it what you like. The most common form is a deep-fried filo pastry puff with a lot of air space in it (not so much a brick as a breeze block, geddit?). Its most famous ingredient, as in ‘brique à l’oeuf’ is an egg that has been broken like you would for frying, before the filo pastry is closed over it and fried. Variations include adding tuna, prawns, herbs, mashed potato. These can vary from totally disappointing to very substantial, depending on your viewpoint and how hungry you are.
Méchoui Berber is a grilled lamb chop dish with the addition of a spicy chipolata-sized sausage tasting very similar to the Greek/Cypriot Bastourma.Tajines are common here, but are completely different to their Moroccan cousins. In Morocco, this is a kind of part-casseroled, part-baked dish served in an earthenware pot with a conical lid. Here, it’s more like a leftovers dish, using bits of lamb set in egg and cheese. The overall effect is like a meat version of a Spanish Omelette or Tortilla.
So-called ‘international cuisine’ I found to be very lack-lustre with utterly tasteless pizzas (compared to the Pizza Express one I ate the night we got back) and half-arsed attempts at creating posh sounding French dishes. My ‘Turkey In A Mustard Sauce’ eaten at a swanky marina-side restaurant in Port El-Kataoui certainly contained turkey, ‘mais où était le moutard? Pffff! Qui sait?DRINKING – Beer and wine are freely available, and despite what you’d think, many Tunisians are quite heavy drinkers, especially at weddings. Red wines are surprisingly good, with Magon Vieux as my clear favourite, although Coup De Coeur is a worthy substitute. They are quite soft and full-bodied reds with just a hint of that ‘oak-cask dryness’ but not once did my cheeks draw in – well not the ones on my face at least. Whites are a bit of a let down from my limited experience. We bought the dearest bottle in the house, called Château St. Augustin and it was decidedly ordinary, like Pizza Express’ house white.
BEER – You have two choices here. Pay through the nose for an import or drink ‘Celtia’, the local lager, UNLESS you happen to know that Port El-Kantaoui has an excellent German-run home-brew bar called Golf-Bräu. Here you’ll find an excellent lager, wheat beer and dark beer, the latter like a British old ale or strong mild**(Strong Mild? Is that an oxymoron? I may not know what an ‘oxy’ is, but don’t call me ‘moron’!).
You can buy your beer ‘in bulk’ here, by paying for the Bierturm, the tower of beer. This is a five-litre (over a gallon!) glass tube with a tap at the bottom, which is brought to your table with great gusto, and several glasses.Then of course there’s mint tea, but in the whole time we were there, unlike Morocco, not once were we offered the real thing with fresh mint. It was all a bit too much like ‘Lift’ with a dash of mint sauce.
LOGISTICAL THINGIES & SUNDRY DOO-DAHSThe Tunisian Dinar is a closed currency – you can’t buy it before you go, and you have to sell it back as you leave. Make sure that you spend at least 66% of what you buy, since you can only change back up to a third of the total. Anything left over is forfeited since you can’t take it out of the country! In reality this is not a problem – even in ‘baggage reclaim’ you can buy a first few days worth of pocket money, and use hotels and ATMs to top up, being careful to keep receipts. By the way, hotels are NOT allowed to charge above the bank rate for money exchange, how very refreshing, how very un-European!
They drive on the right (most of the time) and on the horn! Taxis must use a meter or negotiate a price before you get in. Sometimes, the old ‘sorry guv’n’r, broken meter’ routine can work in your favour if you get snarled up in traffic.Beware approaches from indignant people claiming to be a waiter from your hotel – ‘Surely you remember ME?’ - they only want to guide you to shops where they get a commission. This REALLY happens – I can confirm it from personal experience.
Barter is the local way. If you hate this (I do), just walk on by. Any attempt to browse will be seen as a reason to start the bidding. Unfortunately, even walking by can label you as a master at bartering! If it’s just a few souvenirs you’re after, ask for the Tourist shops with fixed prices. The one in Sousse known as The Soula Centre has 5 floors of tourist tat all conveniently located, and not a sales enquiry within earshot. Marvellous.Arabian carpets are pretty cheap here in Tunisia (I’m comparing with Morocco last year and previous experience in Turkey). A 2½ x 3 metre Berber wool rug was about £250 from a government-controlled co-operative in Kairouan. Of course, silk comes a ‘little’ dearer! As they explain to you, whilst preparing you for the shock, some of these carpets represent the equivalent of two years work for someone, especially the silk ones with their massive number of knots per inch.
Electricity is 220v AC using European plugs.Beware the water tap marked ‘C’ – that’s for Chaud, not Cold! To compound the confusion, the cold tap frequently isn’t marked.
The drinking water is purported to be safe to drink, but any water with different minerals to those you are used to, is potential upset stomach in the making. Some of the bottled water, particularly the ‘gazeuse’, i.e. fizzy, tastes like Alka-Seltzer or Andrews. Fortunately it doesn’t carry the latter’s laxative properties!CONCLUSION
Glad I went? Yes, definitely.Going again? Mmmmm, not sure. Certainly not straightaway, and definitely NOT 5 times!
Super beaches.Terrific Spring weather.
Great people, especially those with no connection to the tourist trade.Plenty to see and do, at least for a week.
Some knowledge of French is a positive advantage, since you can speak to everyone else then, not just those trying to sell stuff to tourists.Au revoir, Tunisie ma belle.
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