Tunisia is big on sights, but most visitors head for well-known resorts such as Port El Kantaoui. A wonderfully different world awaits intrepid travellers who head for the northern hills
As Citrine picked her way through the cork plantation, and the early morning sun broke through the trees, the Sahara Desert could have been on another planet, not just 250 or so miles away.
Tunisia, the smallest nation in North Africa, is big on sights, but most visitors head for the southern desert region or well-known resorts such as Hammamet, Port El Kantaoui and Sousse, south of Tunis. The north of the country, as we were soon to find out, lies virtually undiscovered.
Houssem Ben Azouz, who managed London’s Tunisian National Tourist Office from 1996 to 2000, is well aware that his country has more to offer than sun, sea and sand - so much so that he set up the outdoor activity company Siroko Travel to showcase the hidden side of Tunisia, on horseback, camel or on foot.
We opted for the former and got the first taste of our four-legged adventure on a morning trek at Houssem’s stables on the Carthage coast. From here, he runs short breaks and half-day rides, which are perfect for those who don’t want to spend their entire holiday in the saddle. Matched with our mounts, an impressive selection of surefooted Arab horses and their larger native Berber counterparts, it wasn’t long before we were on the beach and had the thrill of cantering across the sand and through the sea.
At the end of our trip, we checked into The Residence, one of Tunisia’s flagship hotels, for some five-star rest and relaxation. Whilst we cut an incongruous sight arriving in our dusty horse-riding gear, we soon scrubbed up for a night dining on traditional delicacies in the colourful El Dar restaurant. And the blissful thalassotherapy spa certainly did the trick when it came to getting rid of the last vestiges of saddle soreness before the 15-minute drive to the airport!
But that’s putting the cart before the proverbial horse, so rewind to the preceding days spent on the trail between Tabarka and the region near the Feidja National Park. For seasoned riders, a busman’s holiday abroad can be spoiled by ropey tack and horses that don’t get the TLC of their equine cousins back home. This certainly wasn’t the case with Siroko and everyone in the group commented on the quality of the horses and their tack. The Tunisian grooms, who slept in Bedouin tents alongside the horses at night, were proud of their charges and paid plenty of attention to detail.
Responsive and forward-going, the horses are not suitable for novices but offer riding at all paces for those who have progressed through the riding school ranks and are reasonably confident about hacking out. Leisurely walks through olive groves, eucalyptus and pine forests were interspersed with long canters over varied terrain, and my chestnut mare, Citrine, didn’t put a hoof wrong. In true My Little Pony style, we were all sad to say a final farewell to our trusty steeds at the end of the week.
The riding and trekking holidays are a great choice for open-minded independent travellers who want to shun mass tourism and get a real taste of Tunisia. One day, far off the beaten track, we rode through tiny villages where women ran out to offer us cakes, even though they were not eating because it was the fasting month of Ramadan. Curious youngsters rode up on donkeys to wave at us while their parents variously herded flocks of ducks, goats and sheep across the pastures.
Diverse, and surprisingly green, the landscape changed on a daily basis during the trail. Each day the grooms appeared, seemingly out of nowhere in the most remote spots, to prepare lunchtime feasts for both two and four-legged travellers, under the shade of forest trees. For Tunisian food, think Middle East meets Mediterranean, with typical dishes including fiery harissa and fresh bread, couscous served with meat, fish and wonderfully fresh vegetables and the signature briq a l’oeuf, a deep-fried egg in a pastry triangle. Helpful hint for the uninitiated: it’s a good idea to cover yourself liberally with a napkin before taking the first bite!
In between rides we had time to explore local sights such as the Bulla Regia Roman site outside Jendouba, with its unique ‘air conditioned’ underground villas.
That night we pulled off our boots and swapped stories of our day in the saddle at the rustic Hotel Rihana, in the heart of the Khroumirie Mountains. Set high on the hillside in Ain Draham, the hill station where lions and leopards once roamed the surrounding forests, it is as far as you could get from a lookalike beach resort hotel. Walls lined with hunting trophies - or possibly the welcome gin and tonics that slipped down so easily - distorted our own sightings of fresh wild boar tracks into tall tales of galloping away from a hairy herd. Well, who needs to watch Star Wars and The English Patient, both filmed in the southern desert region, when you can play a starring role in your very own Tunisian adventure?
Tunisair flies from Heathrow to Tunis, from around £184 return. British Airways flies from Gatwick to Tunis with return fares from £128.
Siroko Travel offers a variety of trekking and riding excursions, ranging from half a day to 15 days. Available from April to October, the all-inclusive seven-night Coral Coast and Atlas Mountains horse trek costs from £990 per person. The price includes airport transfers to and from Tunis, English speaking guides, full-board hotel accommodation and two nights VIP camping, with breakfast and dinner in hotels and meals during the rides. From October to April, Siroko offers a Sahara and mountain oasis horse trail.
Where to stay
The Residence, Tunis, is one of Tunisia’s most luxurious hotels with extensive dining, sporting and spa facilities.