The Ballards - Tunisia


Perhaps the most Westernised of the North African Islamic countries, Tunisia is rapidly expanding it's tourist infrastructure.
Perceived in Europe as a relatively safe Islamic country, it has in recent years, like Jordan (now there's a tightrope act...) steered a studiously middle ground between the Islamic extremism of Algeria, the peculiarities of Libya, and Western excesses.

As a result it's standard of living is higher than most Islamic countries and indeed, most oil producing countries.

Interestingly the last 50 years have shown that, in practice, the possession of abundant oil within a country's borders has not, in most cases, resulted in a sustained higher standard of living for the average person, which you would suppose it would.
It is a savage indictment on the quality of politicians in the majority of these countries that the vast majority of this "found" wealth has fallen either in to foreign hands or in to a small kleptocratic elite.

Following independence from France in 1956, President Habib Bourgida ruled for 31 years and carefully navigated the country to an era of independent, diverse, secular economic stability, a pleasant exception to the more common disaster scenario.
Everyday life, however, remains surprisingly French, although perhaps more in a colonial Beau Geste manner than in any way representing the steel and glass of modern France.


We stayed in Hammamet on the Northern coast, where during July (ah, for those long-lost days of holidaying cheaply during school holidays...) and, despite dire warnings to the contrary, it was hot but not painfully so due to the moderating influence of the Mediterranean sea.
Further inland, we were to discover, this was not the case...

Hammamet is a crazy mish-mash of old Arab maze-like streets, suitable only for pedestrian traffic, a surprisingly well-maintained French-designed civil infrastructure and Government-funded civil engineering schemes designed to prettify places like the harbour, with mixed success.
On the whole, it's pretty forgettable, but the souk is colourful and a great view is to be had across the harbour from the top of the old battlements.

The mixture of traditional Arab wares and French cuisine makes for a cultural collision harking back to French colonial days. This was the first ex-French colony I had visited, and the contrast with ex-British colonies was stark.
Ex-English colonies play cricket and have strong judicial systems, ex-French colonies eat baguettes and have great railways.
To this day, even new Tunisian phosphate carriages are stamped with SNCFT (Société National Chemin de Fer Tunisiens).
A powerful legacy.

Like traditional France, the men sit around outside cafés a lot of the time. It must be a strange, disconnected, life.
The women keep the company of women the whole time, the men the company of men.
So unlike the UK and America.

Tunisia's main exports are oil and gas, iron and phosphates, plus light mechanical goods.
It also produces a lot of citrus fruit, and the markets are full of small growers and vendors with some healthy-looking fruit.

We don't normally take coach tours, preferring to be independent travellers, but for once we relented and visited El Gem to see the Roman amphitheatre.
It is better preserved than the similar structure in Rome (less pollution and fewer stone thieves, one suspects) and has recently seen extensive renovations.

It is very impressive, if only for the way it dominates the skyline for many miles around and the very fact that it is still standing after 2,000 years.

Apparently a 100Km tunnel led to the port at Sousse to transport slaves and Christians for the Games held here. The Romans sure did build things to last...
I mean, what have the Romans ever done for us?
However, the views from the top are awesome...

Then we went on to Sfax (what a great name!), which is Tunisia's second biggest city and famous for it's olive oil.
It must have been memorable because apart from this street sweeper I took no other pictures of it!

Driving in Tunisia is interesting. They aren't bad drivers and the roads are reasonable (if narrow).
But the traffic Police (known as "Scorpions") are prone to pulling people over for no apparent reason and accusing them of speeding with no evidence whatsoever, in order to extract a "speeding fine" in cash.
If you do get stopped, smile and offer to pay, but demand a written receipt for the money. That usually stops them...

The coach, with absolutely brilliant female German tour guide (who spoke exellent English), continued to Gabès, then inland to Matmata to see the troglodyte villages made famous by a certain film maker.
On the way, I noticed signs to the small town of Tataouine - now we know where the name of Luke Skywalker's planet came from...

In Matmata we ate lunch in an underground restaurant: the only way, before air-conditioning, to escape the midday heat, then headed off in to the desert for some sightseeing.

This wasn't the "real" desert of sand dunes and bleached bones, but sub-desert of rocks and parched plants. For real dunes we had to wait until the following morning.
We did get to ride on camels, though, which is just like riding a horse with all it's legs on the wrong corners.
So long as you roll with it, it's fine.

We slept at a hotel near Douz.
I thought the desert was meant to be cold at night, but our our hut was nearly 100°F at 2am.
The locals slept outside on tables to catch the cool night winds, but we were too scared of rolling off in our sleep.
We were warned to shake out our shoes in the morning in case scorpions had curled up inside. You can bet we did that...

Early in the morning we left to watch the sun come up over the dunes. Now that was impressive.
Then we headed over the Chott El Jerid, a large salt flat across which a causeway has been laid.
Like the Bonneville salt flats, there really isn't much to see unless someone is breaking a land-speed record, but the Chott isn't really flat enough for that so they don't do anything at all with it.
If it wasn't for satellite reconnaisance, it would be a great place for a Bond arch-villain secret base, with rockets and little electric carts like in Austin Powers.
So I photographed the tarmac...

But of course they did use this for a certain film series' locations, although finding them is hard without a GPS.
Tozeur is a market town, and that's all you can say for it.

It was full of endless carpet salesmen and other tourist tat, at least the food market was genuine and untarted-up.

It was a strange mix of the ancient and modern - where else would you see a man riding a donkey at the end of the 20th Century?

We left the coach to take the Red Lizard train from Metlaoui up the Selja Gorge to Redeyef. This is a restored beylical train (no, I don't know either), and the views are great.
The train stops for lots of Kodak moments, and apart from the very bright light (poor little Olympus meter) and the incredible heat (it was well over 110°F in the shade), it was well worth the ride.

After that, the return to the relative cool of the coastal region at Hammamet was a welcome relief.

We spent a lot of our fortnight on the beach at Hammamet, where the sand was too hot to walk on and the beach hawkers sold everything from ice-creams to jewellery to cannabis.
We never felt threatened, although some people had stuff pinched: we are pretty careful when travelling.

Visiting Tunisia's capital Tunis was an experience.
We opted for the local bus to Tunis as it was cheaper than the air-conditioned tourist bus.
This turned out to be a foul-smelling and badly-tuned 1970s MAN bendi-bus in very poor condition (I refused to sit anywhere near the bendy joint) which quickly filled with locals toting fruit, vegetables and live chickens with legs and wings trussed.
This bus dropped us off at the Tunis bus station well outside the centre, so we picked up another bus in to Tunis which filled up until there was standing room only, then another 50 people got on.
I've never felt so constrained in my life: I felt hands feeling for my wallet, which I didn't mind because I didn't have one (money belt and shoes are the only safe places for cash) and bent a few fingers back to deter the would-be pickpocket.
A satisfying click and a strangled yelp from further down the bus showed the effectiveness of my manoeuvre.
He wouldn't be picking pockets for a while.

I held on to my camera for dear life as we inched through the dense traffic. The only thing I don't like about toting the Olympus (or rather now the Sony) is that whilst they take "better than your average" pictures, they are not exactly pocket-sized, and do tend to get noticed by people.
Fortunately, being 6'2", I don't often get hassled, but any potential mugger will get more than they bargain for when 2 Kilos of OM-2SP and lens catches them full in the teeth repeatedly until they learn the lesson. Ultimately, though, you have to assume that the camera is expendable and your life isn't.
It isn't worth dying for 128Mb of replaceable images.

More and more people got on, and no one got off. In the end, neither of us could stand the crush any more and we left the wounded pickpocket and his associates to their mobile sauna.

Tunis is big, hot, crowded, noisy and has a great souk - so big, it is divided up in to sections, like a department store. It sells everything from fruit to baby buggies. We avoided the attentions of the many carpet-sellers (carpet-baggers?) and had a great time.


Apart from the souk, the The Grand Mosque is worth seeing, if only for the view from the top (ever wanted to know what a souk looks like from the top?)

Apart from that, Tunis is like any modern African city, with lots of street vendors, goggling North Africans (look, I'm English, OK? I'm not from Mars) and the heat.

We escaped to Carthage, which I always expected was in the middle of the desert but is in fact in a suburb of Tunis, reachable by a rather pleasant electric railway.
Bearing in mind that Cathage used to be a world power until Rome took over, there really is bugger all left. I suppose Rome decided to wipe it out good and proper when they did it.
Worth a visit, though. No one seems to go - it was absolutely deserted when we went. Sic transit gloria.

North of Cathage is the modern-day Tunisian equivalent of Nice: Sidi-bou-Said.
Oh yuck: new money.

So we went back to Hammamet on the bus with the clucking chickens and baskets of vegetables.

On reflection, Tunisia is a great place (for a man).
Nessa said the men pinched her bum in the souk (so maybe not so good for a woman).
I was offered 5 camels for her (which I understand is a pretty good deal).

As in most African countries, we were hassled by the traders. Westerners are not made of money, and we like to browse unruffled. Leave us alone when we shop.

On the last night of the holiday we had dinner in a restaurant up on the old Hammamet city walls, overlooking the harbour, and the sun went down behind the Atlas mountains, and our dinner arrived, and I went down on one knee and asked Nessie to marry me.

And she said "yes".

Which was nice.