Away from the madding crowds
Signs that speak of “Fixed Prices” in five different languages are a warning to any self-respecting tourist to stay away. So too, anywhere trying to sell itself on the back of Star Wars. These two lessons I learned quickly on arrival in Tunisia. Thankfully my Tunisian tutorials did not end there and I was pleased to discover that my learning was not just one of self preservation but very much of self advancement - there is much more to Tunisia than the dark side and over enthusiastic salesmen.
Quite simply, away from the package hotels there is a captivating and colourful side to Tunisia. Moorish doorways, mountain scenery and classical ruins are a more compelling and interesting Tunisia that I did not believe that existed until I found them.
I also discovered that, getting serious, or rather political, for a moment, Tunisia has emerged from a history of foreign invasion and occupation as one of Africa’s most politically stable and tolerant Islamic nations. Women hold jobs in a variety of fields, from nurses to republican guards, from judges to government ministers. The country has a comprehensive legal and social security system. It is not rich, lacking the substantial wealth of its nouveau riche oil-rich Libyan neighbour, but you do not see children in rags, there are no signs of abject poverty.
But that doesn’t necessarily make it an interesting country to visit. It does not whet your travel juices. What does? That is a question only you can answer; all I can do is tell you of, or rather highlight, my brief visit and experiences of Tunisia.
Having come form the comparatively barren – both in culture and visitors - LibyaThe early morning light casts a warm glow as Houmt Souq slowly awakes. There is a refreshing simplicity to the white-washed walls and the blue doors and shutters. There is a bucolic honesty to the old men going about their morning chores in their straw hats and ……….. The women are charming, even South American, in their local garb of white with red and orange borders. I worry that the harsher light of late morning will paint a less flattering picture and head away.
The amphitheatre of El Jem is imposing and monumental. It is hard to imagine the scale of the Roman town of Thysdrus, which gave birth to this amphitheatre modelled on Rome’s Coliseum. By the 3rd century Thysdrus had a population of 100,000 – modern day El Jem only musters a meagre few thousand – and was the richest city in North Africa.
Walking in the dungeons beneath the vast arena, shafts of sunlight streaming through, my mind flicks in and out of scenes of ‘Gladiator’
Its prosperity was based on the fact that the Romans, through their exquisite knowledge of water systems, were able to harness the potential of the fertile soil in this otherwise dry region. El Jem stands as a worthy testament to their skill and management of water. The modern town is indicative of our lack of progress since t
Kairouan is Tunisia’s religious heart and the fourth holiest city in Islam (after Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem). The Great Mosque is interesting to see not least for its magnificent cedar doors and the Roman columns that have been re-employed. The Mosque of the Barber, with its lavish and ornate tiling, is worth visiting as too is the medina, which is good to stroll around, getting lost in the maze of alleys, watching cobblers hard at work, old men gossiping.
With such a wealthy classical heritage, there are inevitably going to be some sights that impress in terms of historical resonance if not in the grandeur of the remains. Dougga is certainly not one of them.
Overlooking the fertile valley of Khalled, with cicadas ringing in the background, Dougga is nestled amongst an orchard of olive trees. The setting is enchanting and immediately I wished that I had brought a picnic. I wanted to lie in the shade of the orchard sipping chilled wine as I contemplated the former glories of Dougga.
Judging by the impressive ruins, such glories must have been impressive, for the site of Dougga is considered, for its diversity and beauty, amongst the most spectacular not only of Tunisia but indeed of the whole of North Africa. The theatre, with a capacity of about 3,500, is one of the best preserved in Africa with glorious views out over the valley below. The capitol is grand and imposing.
Enraptured by the delights of the Bardo, where I was so enthralled and absorbed by the mosaics that I did not notice the other tourists, I felt brave enough to venture into the souq. Immediately I was confronted by a gawping group of tourists but thankfully the herd instinct prevails. Lacking imagination or independence, such groups will not deviate from what has been ordained by their guide and I was thus able to avoid them and lose myself in the labyrinthine network of alleys.
I wandered aimlessly through the tangled and tortuous maze.
Seeking refuge from the hustle of Tunis, I set off for Sidi Bou Said. Set up on a hill, with its breeze, cobbled streets, white washed houses with heavy studded doors and blue mashrabiya, balconies, it is delightful. The combination of bougainvillea, birds and blue balconies, is not only attractive and stylish but soothing and calming. I obviously have good taste because this is where the rich and chic of Tunis have colonised.
I ended with what I had been looking for: a private Tunisia that I could enjoy in my own time without being swept alongside by the tourist tide. A haven, from which I could cherry pick at my own pace and leisure what I wanted to do and see. That is the best way to enjoy Tunisia’s rich pickings.