Tunisia

Tunisia. 18/25 February 2001.

A few impressions

After leaving the airport at Monastir we passed for miles and miles across flat country side with regular rows of Olive trees, presumably planted by the French who left in 1956.  The guide on the coach told us about the coming festival when every family killed sheep -- long pause -- realised he had a coach full of animal loving and squeamish Brits. No they don't kill the sheep, it is done in a very special way.

Half the population of 10 million is below the age of 20 and half or 3 quarters of all the houses seem to be half or 3 quarters built.  Part rendered and part red bricks - very little pointing, steel re-enforcing wires pointing skywards.  Huge satellite dishes were a higher priority than finished houses.   Sheep, olives, bars filled with men drinking and playing cards.  Flat ochre and orange  dried earth.  Especially in and around the Towns and villages there was the need for an enormous litter pick - especially of plastic or rubbish which even the goats had rejected.President Bourguiba  we were told, had done much to improve the lot of women in the Tunisian society, and apparently they did have the vote and could be seen occasionally as policewomen etc, but there was little evidence of girls in public although the ones that were seen were in ordinary western dress.  There were plenty of older women shuffling about in identical white shawls.  A fellow tourist in our hotel told us that when she tried to change some money at a bank in the town they refused to serve her but when she returned with the husband of someone else at the hotel she had no problem at all. One was forced to assume that there was a lot of unemployment by the number of men about the place doing absolutely nothing at all, either standing in the street or sitting in cafés.

Driving was a bit erratic on occasions.  Our first taxi driver drove no more than 2ins from the car in front and even less from the one at the side.  We were warned that pedestrian crossings meant absolutely nothing and we would get sworn at if we walked out on one - if we survived.

The shopkeepers and stall holders were extremely invasive -- which did not help when trying to sell to Europeans.  If you touch it it is yours.   Best to wear dark glasses and avoid eye contact.  Lots of young men trying to sell to you or act as guides etc.  Must have been approached a dozen times with the greeting "Hello do you remember me.  I am the waiter at your hotel".   Was even offered 1000 camels for Tizzie -- not bad after 25 years use.  On the beach the 2nd day we were approached a lot by people selling various things, from trinkets to small Palm trees (they have both red and yellow flowers and will grow perfectly well in England -- no they don't need much light and lack of heat of course would be no problem).   You were left alone if you made it very clear that you did not want, but beware if you showed the slightest hint of interest. 

The Tourist parts of the Towns -- along the coast had many many hotels most of which were extremely luxurious and not imposing very much on the scenery as they were not built any higher than the nearest Mosque or the palm trees.   Most of the Hotels were self contained and allowed guests to spend the whole of their stay in the hotels and grounds, with very good food, in-house entertainment, sports, saunas, massages etc as well as huge swimming pools and of course the beaches which were invariably beautiful with fine white sand and in the summer months the usual beach games, sailing etc.  For an evening meal on our 25th weding anniversary we were recommended an a la carte restaurant in one of the larger hotels, the Phenitsia I think it was called where we had a very good meal indeed. It was changeover time in the hotel and we had the place to ourselves with 3 waiters in constant attention.  The stake that I had was even better than the one I remember having in Belgium many years ago.  This hotel which to us looked like the last word in modernity and luxury we were told was about to be closed down for 10 months for a complete refurbishment

We of course spent  little time in our hotel and sunbathed only for a 2 or 3 hours on the last day unlike, it seemed most of the   guests who spent nearly all the week we were there sunbathing by the pool.   The hotel we stayed in, The Dalia, I would recommend to anyone for its friendly efficient staff. We were on half board and were glad that we were not on full board as the food was very good and the breakfast easily lasted till our evening meal with the plentiful cups of coffee in between. 

Have not had a package holiday since our ski holiday in Austria 25 years ago and I must say, that there is a lot to be said for them if this one was anything to go by.  I found the holiday by looking on the net but had no idea who the operator would be until we arrived in Tunisia.  Panorama, the tour operator was extremely efficient and friendly and everything ran like clockwork.  Peter their representative in our hotel could not have been more help full.  He had detailed local knowledge and gave support and guidance well beyond the call of duty.

As I said, Tunisia has a population of 10 million, but in a country the size of Britain there is still a lot of room.  There are hotels being built next door to the one we stayed at,but next door is quarter of a mile away.   None of the towns we saw were what we would call neat, more endearingly chaotic, they have different priorities to ours.  There was very little grass (sheep and goats would soon crop it even in the middle of towns), but this February in places there was lots of Bourganvillia and Mimosa in flower, and in the fields and courtyards (no gardens), Almonds were in blossom.

On one of our trips out we hired a "Grand Taxi" with 2 others to take us to Douga, over half way across the country from Hammamet where we were staying.  Peter found the taxi for us at our request, a large old white Mercedes, and for the whole day from 8 o'clock until 6 in the evening we were charged a total of £60. The country on the way was mostly green and fertile with Olive groves at first, and then as we got further away from the coast, a lot of corn fields.  Lots of flocks of sheep which all seemed very disciplined unlike ours at home.  No sheep dogs or fences but most had several shepherds.  As I explained, there was a forthcoming feast and many of the flocks were by the side of the road in the hope of making a sale to a passing motorist.  The need to have a sheep for this festival must make an enormous hole in the average family budget as I was told that they cost  about the equivalent of £150 to £200 to buy.  Another thing very much in evidence along the roads and tracks or even across the fields, were little groups of children, all ages, smart and reasonably well dressed, trudging along, sometimes even 20 miles from the nearest habitation.   There is compulsory schooling till 15 and as there are so many children the schools have to work in 2 shifts.  Hope all these children find work to do when they leave school.  Suppose the tourist industry will use many of them.  They do at least seem to leave with a good grounding in French (the second language) as well as English and German. At home these children would have been driven in car or Bus, or at least would have had bikes. In Tunisia, there were very few bikes, in fact there were lots more 50cc type scooters - noisy and smelly than there were bicycles.   Still quite a lot of Donkey traffic in the rural areas, for pulling farm produce as well as for personal transport.

On the way to Douga we stopped at Zaghouan a beautiful town in the mountains about 70 kilometers south of Tunis. The Town is in an almost alpine setting with red-roofed houses and green forest slopes.  Outside the town we stopped at a Roman water temple (see photo) a beautiful setting against the side of the mountain overlooking a wide green valley.  This is where the aqueduct begins which goes all the way to Carthage.  I don't think it is still in use but a lot of it is still intact and can be seen snaking away across the country following the contours, for all the world like a large modern above ground sewage pipe which is carried over larger dips in the ground on large arches.

Another stop was at a place called Medjez el Bab, a place many who were in the North African campaign would remember.  Here there was a commonwealth war cemetery with nearly 3000 graves most beautifully tended by Tunisians.   The cemetery was laid out the same as all war graves but every grave was carefully kept and planted with flowers.  The most impressive gardening that I saw in Tunisia.

Douga is the site of a Roman town and is really most impressive.  It covers many acres and at least the layout of the place survives intact, with many temples and buildings in surprisingly good condition.  Unusually for a Roman town it is on a hillside with many levels, but it was built on the site of a Carthaginian town.  Anywhere in Europe, most of the place would have been roped of with with very restricted access and the occasional view point allowed.  Here you were able to wander around and explore the whole place on your own and make your own "discoveries" along streets, into temples, walk over old mosaics in remains of houses and baths, and find inscriptions on discarded stones on the hill side or under Olive trees.

We went on a 2 day trip down to the south. At first we traveled through mile after mile of olive groves  which very gradually gave way to scrub as we got further south.  We stopped off for a brief visit to the Magnificent Amphitheatre at El Jem, some say the most impressive Roman site in North Africa and better preserved than the Colosseum in Rome.  Amazing to see such a huge structure in what is now such an out of the way place.  It could hold 30 to 35000 spectators.  In Roman times the area was very important for supplying Olive oil and it still is to this day.  Passed through various other towns including Sfax and Gebes, after which the country became very barren - no more Olives only palm trees and thorny scrub.  Up over the Atlas mountains to Matmata where there are lots of troglodyte dwellings.  We went into some of them.  Very roomy and dry.  Lots still inhabited.  Must be nice and cool in the summer when temperatures get very hot indeed.  Quite a bit of tourism in the Town of Matmata - good and bad for the locals.  Can't think how they survived in such a barren place, but they must have done for hundreds of years.  Even here you see the occasional herd of sheep or now, more often goats or camels in the middle of nowhere. Also if you looked carefully you saw the entrances of these cave dwellings sometimes inhabited in the most isolated of places  From Matmata we headed west across more extremely rugged mountains which gradually gave way to flat stony desert with very occasional oases until we reached the edge of the vast dry salt lakes of Chott el Jerid. Here we headed south to an oasis called Zaafrane where the proper sandy Sahara begins.  We did the usual tourist thing with a ride out into the dunes on camels and I am glad that I did because it was far more impressive than anything I saw in Morocco or Algeria (see photos).  It was late evening which was a good time to see the dunes with wonderful shadows in the setting sun.  Started to get a bit cold though when the sun disappeared.

Next day off across the salt lake for many miles to oasis of Tozeur and then by 4x4 up into the mountains again for some more magnificent scenery around Tamerza.  Started to head North again with the scenery gradually changing in reverse to our journey down.  Always mountains in the distance. Stopped briefly at Holy city of Kairouan where they tried to sell us carpets.  It was explained to us about the emancipation of women and how important it was in this holy city that they were now allowed to travel alone, get divorced, have alimony, a pension, own property etc.   The example of emancipated woman that we were shown was sitting cross legged on the floor at a loom making a carpet! It was the men who were giving us the hard sell next door.   They must have rolled out about 50 of them for us to see.  Lots of these carpets had very fine colours and patterns, but some of the claims of hundreds of stitches per square inch were somewhat exaggerated.  Some could have made beautiful wall hangings but would have fallen to bits long before Persian carpets had shown any sign of wear.

Wish that we had longer in the country.  I have not had the time to describe all that we did. It was a lovely week, but have of course left an awful lot unseen or undone. Perhaps next time we will be brave or foolhardy enough to hire a car and see more.  Would certainly recommend Tunisia as a place for a holiday.  Yes there is a lot of hustling, particularly in the Tourist centers and you have to constantly be tipping people, but with an average wage of about £60 month you don't feel so bad about it, and the pressure is never extreme, unlike my memory of Morocco.  The people are friendly and the country is safer than home, in fact you are probably more likely to be robbed by a fellow tourist than a Tunisian.  Having said that , the country has so far thankfully been spared the larger lout, perhaps because  alcohol is not all that cheap and I imagine that the Police are not altogether renowned for their gentleness.  You do not find many Tunisians talking politics.  Stability is extremely important to them.  Islamic fundamentalism is banned. Tourism plays a very important a role in the country's economy and I don't think they want to risk loosing it.

tunis25.jpg (56178 bytes)  Ruins at Douga.  One of the most complete Roman cities.

tunis10.jpg (34575 bytes)  Douga. Tizie by the temple of Saturn. tunis17.jpg (82228 bytes)  Douga. Tizzie in the Capitol Temple tunis12.jpg (58048 bytes)  Douga. sample of mosaics seen all over the site. tunis13.jpg (12707 bytes)  Douga. Fish mosaic in bath house. tunis16.jpg (53354 bytes)  Douga. View from top of magnificent theatre. tunis18.jpg (38108 bytes)  Nymphaeum at Zaghouan, start of 2nd cent aqueduct  70km to Carthage
tunis15.jpg (64592 bytes)  Nymphaeum at Zaghouan. Can be cold in the early morning. tunis11.jpg (35740 bytes)  Tizzie in the Amphitheatre at El Jem.  More spectacular than the Colosseum in Rome. tunis24.jpg (21844 bytes)  Hammamet. Beautiful sandy beaches. tunis14.jpg (23565 bytes)  Tizzie on beach at Hammamet tunis19.jpg (40951 bytes)  Tourist Tunisia.   The seafront at Hammamet. tunis20.jpg (31892 bytes)  Hammamet. Behind the sea front. A sheep market. tunis26.jpg (28462 bytes)    Hammamet. Every where there are sheep for sale in February
tunis22.jpg (29211 bytes)  Everywhere there is building. Vertical and straight is not important! tunis23.jpg (44551 bytes)  Hammamet. In the Medina.  tunis5.jpg (20433 bytes)  Camels and big horizons in the south.          tunis4.jpg (72785 bytes)              Near Mides     tunis2.jpg (74128 bytes)                     Tizzie on mountain near Tamerza. Tunis1.jpg (37652 bytes)  Tamerza.  Looking towards the South.
     tunis3.jpg (48632 bytes)           Oasis in the mountains near Tamerza     tunis6.jpg (19016 bytes)            At the edge of the Sahara South of Douz.

ã Chris coleman. 2001.

      Last update:       28 October, 2007

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