Take a trip to the Tunisian resort of Sousse and you'll find glorious beaches, superb seafood and an historic old city, with the ritzy new marina at Port El Kantaoui just a short ride away
My first visit to Sousse was also my first experience of North Africa, on a cheap package holiday many years ago. Since then I have visited many other cities across the region, but have always held this part of Tunisia in high regard. So much so, that I recently made the effort to return, and see if it really was as good as I remembered.
At first sight, little seemed to have changed in the 20 years since I was last here. A few more hotels, some inviting new shops and restaurants, and a cleaner look to the port area, but otherwise it’s still the same majestic city I recalled. But then Sousse has been here for over 2,000 years, so it’s not going to be a place that evolves quickly.
The old walled medina is huge, and its dominant position looking down on the port area creates an even more impressive image. It is the heart of the city, and seemed busy whatever time of the day or night I was there. Despite its long and troubled history, Sousse is no city dwelling on the past. It’s lively, vibrant, and – for Africa – surprisingly cosmopolitan.
I love the whole atmosphere of the medina. It’s loud, brash, chaotic, and endlessly confusing. Once inside, the initial open area around the Great Mosque and the Ribat quickly descends into a labyrinth of shadowy lanes, where a thousand tiny shops have their wares displayed like a giant treasure chest. Shopkeepers try and entice you inside by thrusting their latest ‘bargains’ in front of you, and talking at breakneck speed in an astonishing number of languages. Everything is there to be bargained for, haggled over, and examined in detail before you choose to part with any cash. I quickly became familiar with the various lines they feed you, and also learned fast how to walk away without feeling guilty if it’s something that is either too pricey, or that you don’t really want.
For all that, it’s a mystical, captivating place to explore, and I thoroughly enjoyed every moment. The area around the Place des Martyrs, at the main entrance to the Medina, has a wonderful array of cafes, bars and restaurants, where you can sit outside and watch the hustle and bustle around you. The Restaurant du Peuple is a good choice, often proved by its lack of free tables. But persevere, and you’ll enjoy the modestly-priced five-course menu, and the delightful surroundings, where diners hang napkins with their comments all around.
The Great Mosque, from the outside at least, could be confused with a medieval fortress. It dates from a time when everything was built with defence in mind, and the nearby Rabat – in reality a kind of monastery – is also very obviously a defendable construction. It was built in the 8th century, when monks doubled as soldiers, and there was a threat of attack from just about every direction. Admission to the Rabat is cheap, although I was disappointed to find that Tunisia has now joined a growing number of countries where charging to use your camera is becoming the norm. However, the views from the top of the tower, across the whole of the old city out to sea, are worth the extra. From here, it’s easy to get a real impression of the size of the walled city, but I was also intrigued by the views along the coast, and out into the desert.
I was staying at the Marhaba Club, a pleasant mid-range hotel, right by the beach, mid-way between Sousse and the manufactured resort of Port el Kantaoui. It is also conveniently on the main road, where buses run frequently in both directions, but there is an alternative form of transport: a small ‘train’ runs along the coast road, and is more comfortable and relaxed than the buses.
I took a ride up to Port el Kantaoui for the afternoon, wandering around the pleasant marina, where small stalls have some intriguing tourist gifts. This is a purpose-designed resort, with hotels, harbour, and a golf course, all built for the tourist market. But I find its clean, fresh atmosphere a welcome break from the constant ageing, dusty appearance of Sousse. The expensive boats bobbing in the marina, and the neat, modern, cobbled roads, add to the ambience of wealth here. At the far end of the port is a rather bizarre-looking fake galleon, which houses a pleasant restaurant. I had a very agreeable meal at the Neptune V, and was surprised how reasonable the seafood menu was.
The beaches in this area are superb, with miles of clean, wide sand, and the clear Mediterranean waters are sheltered by the bay. I walked to the towns along the beach on most days, and also took the opportunity of an hour of horse-riding from one of the casual vendors on the shore. There may be no particular sights on the beach to see, but just a gentle canter through the surf made me appreciate how much I still enjoyed this place. It’s relaxing, welcoming, and has just enough to keep you occupied during your stay. Often, when you return to a place after a number of years, the reality doesn’t tally with the memories. Sousse, however, was one of those rare exceptions that actually exceeded my already pleasant memories.