Seeking a destination that’s easy to reach, not too harsh on your bank account and offers something for almost everyone? Try Tunisia! (Just watch out for the country’s many answers to Del Boy)
“Ah, you from London!” exclaimed an excited stall-holder as I browsed a tray of silver (plated) rings. “This one veeeery nice,” he continued, thrusting a ring with a turquoise stone in my direction. “Ees real silver. Ees pukka!”
Pukka? I suppressed a grin. I half expected to see a yellow three-wheeled van parked along the road. Well, had there been any room for a yellow three-wheeled van in the crowded, cobbled streets of Tunis’ medina…
Tunisia’s popularity has soared during the last couple of years, and AITO (Association of Independent Tour Operators) recently tipped Tunisia to be the ‘hot’ destination of 2010. Around three hours from London, boasting attractions for most ages and not too likely to leave you bankrupt (providing you’re alert to the country’s many answers to Del Boy, that is!), it’s not difficult to understand why tourists flock here in droves.
“Miss, come back!” The stallholder hurried after my boyfriend and I, still brandishing the ring. “I give you nice price! I give you advice!” I didn’t really want the ring – or advice - but as it was slashed to a fifth of its (massively inflated) original, the price was indeed nice. I relented. “Cushty!” he exclaimed in his amusing blend of Arabic-tinged Cockney-English.
The ring was a bargain, but shopping was of minor significance for us. Tunisia’s abundance of culture, history and other attractions ranked far higher on our ‘to do’ list.
Whatever the motivation for your trip, the key is to find a good, well-situated resort in which you can either spend lazy days at the beach and local amenities or active days on far-flung excursions. Having signed up for pretty much everything on offer – our tour rep looked as though she didn’t know whether to laugh or cry at our foolishness / irrepressible sense of adventure (the latter, obviously!) - we covered much of the country in less than a (totally exhausting) week! And for us, the good, well-situated resort was Port El Kantaoui.
Where to stay
Situated on the central coast, Port El Kantaoui (http://www.cometotunisia.co.uk/regions-cities/cities/port-el-kantaoui) is a convenient half-hour drive from Monastir airport. Having celebrated its 30th birthday in 2009, this extensive custom-built complex offers a wide choice of quality hotels. The five-star El Mouradi Palace, with its bright, clean, spacious rooms and impressive buffet breakfast got the thumbs-up from us.
A thriving marina functions as the resort’s centrepiece. Take a trip on one of the jaunty mock pirate ships, or lose yourself in retail heaven – souvenir shops and boutiques are ubiquitous. Just remember to switch to ‘haggle’ mode within a 30-foot radius of them!
Sandy beaches, a 36-hole golf course, a water park and a Happy Noddy train ensure that most ages won’t be left twiddling their thumbs. But for anyone after a glimpse of the more raucous side of Tunisia, the bustling city of Sousse is just a 10-minute taxi ride away.
Where to eat
Rumbling stomach? No problem! Countless restaurants border both the marina and square, offering a reasonably-priced selection of pizzas, pastas and burgers as well as more authentic Tunisian fare. Briq, speciality seafood dishes and the delicious ‘chicken in a pot’ - chicken marinated in spices for 24 hours, then cooked slowly in a clay pot - all prove irresistible! La Nafoura (http://www.travbuddy.com/La-Nafoura-v192615) can be recommended for its very generous portions and good-humoured waiting staff. “Remember me, the handsome waiter, when you come back!” quipped one. Free of the slightest trace of arrogance or 'slime', this guy possessed the rare gift of being able to win over virtually everyone - and see them return time and again to the restaurant!
WHERE TO VISIT
If time is limited, three main regions of Tunisia are particularly worth exploring.
Inland from the central coast
Approximately 50km south of Port El Kantaoui lies El Jem (http://www.tourismtunisia.com/togo/eljem/eljem.html) – and more specifically, the remains of its majestic, World-Heritage listed Roman colosseum. The third largest in the Roman Empire and once capable of seating 30 000 people, it’s believed to have been constructed some time between AD 230 and AD 238. The ruins alone are immense; in its glory days it must have been a truly magnificent sight!
West of Port El Kantaoui lies the Great Mosque of Kairouan (http://www.sacred-destinations.com/tunisia/kairouan-great-mosque) Dating from 863 AD, it’s the oldest mosque in North Africa and the fourth holiest site in Islam after Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem. The buttressed outer walls and 115-foot minaret stand imposing against an azure sky. Kairouan is also renowned for its carpet trade - the selection is vast - and for selling both leather and brass goods.
Tunis and the north
On heading north-east to the country’s capital, Tunis (http://www.tourismtunisia.com/togo/tunis/tunis.html), the relatively dry landscape of the central region gradually gives way to a greener, fresher look. Boulevards lined with cafés characterise the ‘new’ section of the city, founded in the 19th century by French colonials. The ‘old’ part, meanwhile, was constructed eleven centuries earlier by the Arabs. The potent aromas of incense and tobacco pervade the narrow, cobbled, maze-like streets of the medina. It’s worth making a mental note of your route; the bustling crowds, haggling salesmen and stall after stall of jewellery, hookah pipes, and other souvenirs can quickly become disorientating!
Art lovers will find plenty to whet their appetite at the nearby Bardo Museum (http://www.tourismtunisia.com/culture/bardo.html). Browse statues, urns and intricate, multi-coloured mosaics which once adorned the villas of Roman Africa.
Also of interest will be the pretty blue-and-white themed artists’ village of Sidi Bou Said (http://www.tourismtunisia.com/togo/sidibousaid/sidibou.html), 20km north-east of Tunis. Here cliffs offer the kind of jaw-dropping coastal views usually only seen in holiday brochures!
A couple of miles away lies the great ancient city Carthage (http://www.tourismtunisia.com/togo/carthage/carthage.html) – or what’s left of it. Allegedly founded by the Phoenicians in 814 BC, the burgeoning city became the core of a prosperous trading empire stretching across the Mediterranean. Defeated and destroyed by the Romans in 146 BC, the city was rebuilt a century later by Augustus – only for the Vandals to later demolish it. Ambling among its statuesque remains, the aura of the city’s dramatic history is almost tangible.
The Sahara Desert and the south
No adventurous visitor should leave Tunisia without experiencing at least the outskirts of the mighty Sahara. Many tour operators offer two-day excursions for those staying in the northern-based resorts, stopping at various points of interest on both the journey south to Douz and the return trip.
Matmata (http://www.tourismtunisia.com/togo/matmata/matmata.html), with its cool, whitewashed, underground troglodyte homes offers a glimpse of the everyday lifestyles of the indigenous, traditionally-dressed Berber inhabitants. Star Wars fans, meanwhile, will love the lunar-like landscape of both Matmata and Tataouine, where, along with various other locations in southern Tunisia, filming took place (although this is sometimes disputed!)
As for the desert itself, who could resist a camel ride? Hour-long rides are usually included in the price of an excursion, and for an extra couple of dinars, Arab headwear – a keffiyeh - and a robe can be hired for a more authentic experience. Hang on tight, watch out for camel-spit missiles and don’t eat too soon beforehand - the rocking motion won’t be kind to a full stomach!
“You from London? This bracelet will go veeeeery nice with your ring! Ees real silver! I give you nice price!” I’d heard similar sales pitches all week at almost every place we’d visited. I played the haggling game – and was rewarded with a ‘nice price’. Admiring my matching ring and bracelet on the way back to Monastir Airport - both bought for a ‘veeeery nice price’ – I felt a sense of accomplishment at our whirlwind tour of Tunisia.
All I wanted do now was sleep. As Del – and his Tunisian counterparts – would say, Cushty!