Karl’s Chronicles 31; Tunisia, Small Land, Big On Diversity
Tunisia seemed to epitomise the bargain holiday destination for all-inclusive deals, those guaranteeing, sun, sand and long lazy days working up a King Midas tan, slipping casually back and forth for cool dips in the emerald-azure Mediterranean. Residing at any number of resorts spread along the north and eastern coastlines. Deals that rarely required a trajectory beyond the beach, restaurant, and pool-side bar. Where a couple of sundowners welcomed in the night before the groove of the hotel disco reverberated as far as the churning waves.
For years I had side-stepped taking Tunisia seriously, believing the country had little to offer. Unfairly supported by blurred photos, the condemning evidence of a lads drunken night odyssey played between the disco and its exhausted conclusion, kneeling, fully clothed in the midnight surf. Hen dos and bachelor parties that celebrated friendship and sunshine but sidelined the broader attractions.
Unsurprisingly, one didn’t need to venture far to discover the varied faces of Tunisia. The nearest town being an excellent start, presenting people both warm and inviting, their roots in Islam while aligned to modernity. Cosmopolitan and traditional, historical and present, a union which worked remarkably well.
Moulded by so many vehement dynasties over endless centuries. From the construction of the Phoenician capital Carthage in 814BC to the departure of the colonial French in 1956. Tunisia, like the rings in a tree, bares a dynamic and assorted timeline of foreign rulers, each commanding the land from their diagnosed capital. The country governed and plotted from a capital city that shifted location with each successive kingdom. The Romans, after sacking Carthage, ruled the north to secure the Straits of Sicily, safeguarding the power of Rome. When the Arabs arrived in the mid-seventh century, Islam was barely fifty years old. Those religious seeds were sown by Ogba Ibn Nafi, an envoy of an Arab empire controlled in Damascus by the Umayyad caliphs.
Muslim governance continued in a chain of ruling dynasties, taking in The Aghlabids, Fatimids, Zirids, Almohads, Almoravids, The Hafsids, Turkish supremacy during the Ottoman Empire and then the Husaynids. This epic belt of vying, power-hungry leaders spawned architectural programs to parallel, testify and celebrate their legacy, imposed by religious beauty and subjective interpretations of the holy works. Not forgetting grand contributions from the Phoenicians and the Romans, the latter’s demise predating the Arab arrival by two hundred years. All this historical and architectural show-pieces gives Tunisia much of its character and rivals nature in mesmerising diversity. Something that genuinely surprises, often overwhelming the visitor in the grand numeracy of subject matter. Plans and itineraries hastily rewrote or shelved altogether.
Every historical town comprises a Medina, a city within a city that doubles the conjecture of a human-sized puzzle. Where alleyways and passages collide and criss-cross, luring you down darker, thinner corridors, until, passing one final corner, you embrace the charm of a wide sunlit courtyard. Of shrines and mausoleums, of discoveries no map could navigate you to and the disappointing realisation you won’t find them again. Subliminal merchant houses found in Sousse and Sfax to the sweat and pamper of ornately tiled Hammams located in the far South. A paradoxical marriage of the quiet and deserted giving way to the frenzy of thriving commerce. Full of noisy, energetic traders beseeched by a flowing canal of female shoppers. Those few steps that merge the two are an understated gem when exploring the historical Rubik’s cube of a Medina. Beautiful mosques to rival those in the Middle East dominate the skyline, rising above splintered rooftops with the associated wisdom of an aged tree. The Great Mosque of Kairouan, Islam’s fourth holiest city after Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem, exude a benign magnificence. Resembling a medieval fortress with high impenetrable walls shielding Hafsid and Turkish colonnades. At the other end of the scale, a wander around the sleepy southern Berber villages of Offumezret and Douiret unveils glowing milk-white mosques, planted on jagged hill-tops. Looking bizarrely like a candle stuck in a brown pudding when viewed from the desert plane.
Tunisian architecture is far more than merely mosques and Medinas. The abandoned Berber settlements of Chenini and Douriet, play into the realm of Indiana Jones, etched from the mountainside high above the harsh empty desert just outside Tataouine. Tiny white marabouts (shrines for a Muslim holy man) pepper the valleys, often mounted on a rocky podium. If Tataouine sounds familiar, but unplaceable then look to the galaxies far far away. Brought to cinematic exposure by George Lucas’s Star Wars. The desolate landscapes immortalised as Tataouine, a desert planet orbiting twin suns in the Outer Rim. The home-world to Anakin & Skywalker and the spaceports of Mos Eisley & Mos Espa. Filming also occurred in Matmata, further north, known for its subterranean pit dwellings with rooms set around a sunken circular courtyard. The courtyard of the Sidi Idriss hotel was used for both Star Wars and Attack Of The Clones, with props and set-pieces still in position from the seventies. Taking breakfast in a small cavern where Skywalker sat is an unparalleled high-light for fans seized by a mania for all things Star Wars.
The Hamada – a stony desert of strewn rock dominates the South, briefly shadowed by the romanticised dunes befitting of Lawrence of Arabia. Clarifying a stark beauty, pleasantly magnified by the dense palm oases scattered throughout. Shaded islands against the merciless scorching sand sea that is the Great Eastern Erg. Labelled as the Gateway to the Sahara, the oasis town of Douz offers greater accessibility to the smaller, less crowded oases of Zaafrane, El Faouar and Sabria. The latter, home to people of the same name, Arabized Berbers who form part of the Ghrib confederation.
It could be easy to dismiss Tunisia as another desert country, harbouring terrain identical to Egypt and its immediate neighbours Libya and Algeria. Heading northwest into The Tell, a gigantic swathe of green arable land, the similarities to Europe’s fields and fertile planes quickly take form. The scenic open country that gives rise to the prominent Dorsale mountains striding southwards. Such tranquillity wasn’t lost on the Romans who constructed several cities such as Sbeitla, Haidra and Dougga, the most extensive of them all. Each with their central forum, temples to Juno, Jupiter and Minerva who proudly looked through marble pillars to the lush countryside beyond. A mosaic of wheat fields, olive groves and citrus orchards which afford the most stunning backdrop when seen from the high rows of the open-air theatre.
At the heart of The Tell, still viewed as the unofficial capital of western Tunisia is Le Kef. Its old town clinging just below the cliff of Jebel Dyr where the mountain flattens out. South of Avenue Habib Bourguiba (named after the country’s first president) the new districts roll down the hillside to the fields below. The views are just as incredible as the town’s charm, busy with the kaleidoscopic bent of a frantic little market that bleeds across several roads and white-walled alleyways. Looked upon by older men in dark suits as they sip strong coffee from several pavement cafes. The smell of fresh baguettes duels with the heady scent of tobacco here and cafe culture is ordained by socialising and people watching. Women aren’t forbidden, but culturally and socially, it remains a male domain, one replicated across Muslim North Africa and the Middle East.
Ascending through the warren of old town brings you to the Kasbah, a defiant, slightly intimidating fortress, in command of the most threatening location. It was extended by Hammoud Bey in the early 19th century to bolster security against Algerian ideas of taking Le Kef. Around mid-July, the Kasbah comes alive with the two week festival of Sidi Bou Makhlouf, the patron saint of the town who originally came from Fez in Morocco. Just beneath the Kasbah is the mosque of the same name. One of the most beautiful in Tunisia, a cluster of white ribbed domes beside an octagonal minaret. It seems to set a eulogy to the country, quiet, dramatic, unquestionably beautiful, creative and endearing. For Tunisia, one of Africa’s smallest countries assuredly rivals her bigger brothers in the intoxicating array of places to visit. As an old edition of the Rough Guide notes, ‘it offers an experience you can generally call an adventure.’
Facts: For most nationalities, a visa for Tunisia isn’t necessary, but it’s always worth checking with the embassy for the latest information. Allow one passport page for the stamp and ensure it has at least six months validity.
Moving around is straight forward, supported by a reliable transport system. For the most part, the small yellow-banded minivans known as a louage, cover most of the country. Departing when full, which is generally quick as they only hold a dozen passengers, from the towns central transport park. The capital Tunis is served both by a frequent and dependable (if a little slow) metro network and intercity buses. Arriving by air, its more straight forward to take a taxi into the city but yellow buses pass the airport taking thirty minutes to reach Avenue Jean Jaures, from where it’s possible to walk to Avenue Habib Bourgiba, the main thoroughfare in the city. National rail (SNCFT) connects the coastal town of Bizerte in the north to Tunis as well as southern services to Sousse and Sfax. It was possible, (though services are infrequent and slow) to head inland to Gafsa and Tozeur, central west of the country. Regular (Sonotrak) ferries ply the 20km route across the Mediterranean to connect Sfax with Sidi Youssef, the main disembarkation point on the Kerkennah Islands. From eight crossings per day rising to sixteen during the peak tourist months of summer.
Both the Rough Guide (www.roughguides.com) and Lonely Planet (www.lonelyplanet.com) cover Tunisia in depth. Though for the most up-to-date post coronavirus information, you would be better with the internet. I haven’t listed information regarding accommodation as it will be anyone’s guess to which places have survived the ordeal. Air BnB (www.airbnb.co.uk) and Booking.com (www.booking.com) will resume quicker than most other companies and will be an ideal place to browse for ideas.
Tunisian currency is the Dinar which can be pre-ordered by your bank, though ATM’s and Forex bureaus are common throughout the country. Travellers Cheques are a thing of the past, and if you are lucky enough to find a bank that will accept them, be prepared for a lengthy bureaucratic wait. Commission charges will prove no more favourable than bank charges plied on an ATM transaction.