|The Ballards - Tunisia|
Perhaps the most Westernised
of the North African Islamic countries, Tunisia
is rapidly expanding it's tourist infrastructure.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
Like traditional France, the men sit around outside cafés
a lot of the time. It must be a strange, disconnected, life.
Tunisia's main exports are oil and gas, iron and phosphates,
plus light mechanical goods.
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 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...
Then we went on to Sfax
(what a great name!), which is Tunisia's second biggest city and famous
for it's olive oil.
Driving in Tunisia is interesting. They aren't bad drivers
and the roads are reasonable (if narrow).
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
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 slept at a hotel near Douz.
Early in the morning we left to watch the sun come up
over the dunes. Now that was impressive.
But of course they did use this for a
certain film series' locations, although finding them is hard without
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
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.
Visiting Tunisia's capital Tunis was an experience.
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.
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
North of Cathage is the modern-day Tunisian equivalent
of Nice: Sidi-bou-Said.
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).
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.