|TRAY BIEN: Try Tunisian wines, they're|
surprisingly good and very affordable too
The plane was heading for Tunis airport when the turbulence hit. It wasn't too bad, just a bit bumpy for a couple of minutes, nothing to worry about. But the elderly lady sitting next to me clearly thought otherwise. She was as white as a sheet. So was I, but only because I hadn’t seen the sun for a while.
When the senior flight attendant hurried up the aisle to the front and lifted the phone, my nervous neighbour lifted her right hand and blessed herself. She was probably expecting an announcement along the lines of: “Ladies and gentlemen, it’s been nice knowing you.”
Instead, we were advised to “ensure your seatbelts are securely fascinated”, which got a great laugh. It was the best malapropism I’d heard since my primary school pal Vinny Costello told Fr. O’Keeffe the Pope is never wrong because he’s inflammable.
We landed without further hilarity and transferred to the 5-star Hasdrubal Thalassa and Spa Hotel in the seaside resort of Yasmine Hammamet where I bounced on the bed once slept in by Colonel Gaddafi. The late Libyan dictator booked the penthouse suite for a year and stayed just 24 hours. This is no reflection on the hotel (his bagman happily settled the whole bill), which had long been a favourite with Irish and British holidaymakers.
|GADD CHOICE: The 5-star Hasdrubal Thalassa and Spa|
Hotel in Hammamet where Col Gaddafi stayed one night
Then came the popular revolution in January 2011 that ousted the rotten-to-the-core regime of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and triggered the Arab Spring. Ben Ali was a thief and a despot, but he wasn’t daft — he didn’t hang around to face the wrath of the people he had for so long terrorised and robbed. Rather, he and his wife Leila stuffed several suitcases with countless millions of dollars and, with their three adult children, hot-footed it to Saudi Arabia. There they live in the lap of luxury while their countrymen and women struggle to pick up the pieces after 20-odd years of oppression.
In the immediate aftermath of the uprising, visitor numbers plummeted as Tunisia descended into don’t-go-there chaos. But that was then. Today, it’s open for business again and holidaymakers are returning to this safe, sunny and cheap Mediterranean destination. Ben Ali won’t be returning any time soon — he’s been sentenced in his absence to 35 years in prison for money laundering and drug trafficking.
There’s a tangible air of can-do everywhere you go from the moment you step off the plane. It’s clear from the warm welcome visitors receive that a great weight has been lifted from the genuinely friendly and instantly likeable Tunisians. Not that they weren’t welcoming or friendly before. It’s just that they were always cautious, what with having to look over their shoulders all the time. That’s what comes from living in a country where the police used to — and I stress used to — routinely top up their salaries by fleecing their fellow citizens. No one ever ended up in court for a minor traffic offence. On-the-spot fines were pocketed by cops who never issued receipts. They were as corrupt as the regime they represented.
Things are different now. A respected government committed to widespread reform is running things, and instead of looking warily behind them, ordinary decent Tunisians are looking forward to a bright new future.
|QUAY ATTRACTION: Fabulous Hammamet yachting marina|
is one of the biggest and plushest in the Mediterranean
The Hasdrubal is the plushest place to stay in Hammamet, with 211 suites the size of parade grounds, four top-class restaurants, outdoor and indoor pools, a spa, sauna and gym. Better still in these belt-tightening days, its five-star opulence comes at three-star prices, and there’s free wifi throughout. With such a wealth of facilities and the beach just a pebble’s throw away guests could be excused for not wanting to venture far, but Hammamet is worth exploring.
This is where mass tourism began in Tunisia, just as Torremolinos was the first resort in Spain. However, while a risible snootiness often greets the mere mention of the popular Costa del Sol destination, which is a lot larger, no one looks down their nose at Hammamet, which is a lot cheaper.
It’s partly because Hammamet has one of the biggest and poshest marinas in the Mediterranean. Here you’ll see hundreds of multi-million euro ocean-going yachts and their multi-millionaire owners strolling in and out of the umpteen fancy restaurants, exclusive boutiques and piano and cocktail bars. Many of the yachts, some the size of frigates and with helicopter pads, remain moored from one year’s end to the next, but anyone who can afford one can well afford to keep it permanently berthed and pay the occasional visit while paying a permanent crew.
|SOFA SO GOOD: Suite in Hasdrubal Hotel|
It’s all very glamorous. Talking of which, don’t be surprised if the elegant lady in a big floppy hat and sunglasses sipping a glass of chilled rosé wine at a quayside cafe looks familiar — it’s probably Sophia Loren. The film star regularly stays at her villa just outside of town and, according to a waiter, is very generous when it comes to tipping. The same guy told me — why, I don’t know — that camels are bashful as well as bumpy and never mate in front of other camels.
That’s the sort of fascinating fact that can clinch a pub quiz tiebreaker. And here’s another, based on extensive, exhaustive and exhausting research: Tunisian wines are excellent, especially the rosés which account for 70 per cent of the total production. You can’t go wrong with the Magon label, but if beer’s your tipple the local Celtia lager is every bit as good as Heineken and Carlsberg and costs half the price.
|ROCKS STAR: Stroll below the walls of Hammamet's medina|
In the old part of Hammamet, a short stroll from the marina, visitors to the imposing 13th century seafront fortress and the 15th century medina within its walls step back in time to the days when the only boats on the water were manned by fishermen. Or, on a bad day, Spaniards intent on filleting something more substantial than a net full of sardines. In 1601, more than 300 Spaniards stormed the fortress and took 700 prisoners, mostly women and children (the male defenders did a runner as soon as the sails appeared on the horizon). Four years later the Spaniards came back, but this time the resident Moors turned the tables and massacred 1,200 of them on the beach.
It was on that same stretch of sand that Field Marshall Erwin Rommel took his daily run before breakfast during his ‘visit’ in World War Two (he couldn’t afford to stroll as the Allies were closing in); Paul McCartney wrote Another Girl for the Beatles’ 1965 album Help between bouts of sunbathing; and German-Swiss expressionist painter Paul Klee (1879-1940), whose paintings fetch millions of dollars at auction, found the inspiration during a 1914 sojourn that made him a major player in the art world. Klee’s watercolour, Hammamet With Its Mosque, hangs in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, and prints of it and his other Tunisian works are among the most popular souvenirs on sale in the narrow streets of the medina.
Wannabe Klees sitting on little stools at their easels abound in and around the souk, but it’s the young women who do face painting for the kids (and henna tattoos for their mums and big sisters) who make the most money. Being a child-friendly resort, Hammamet is a smart choice for family holidays, especially as it’s wallet-friendly too. Among the top fun attractions are Carthage Land theme park and Aqua Land water park, and there’s a replica pirate ship that offers half-day cruises with lunch included. Once out in the bay, dolphins will often provide a free show by shooting out of the water ahead of the ship, and when the anchor’s dropped there’s the chance to walk the plank and go for a swim. Rather than buy your tickets from hotel receptions, get them at the quayside kiosk where they’re cheaper.
STAY: 5-star Hasdrubal Thalassa and Spa Hotel Yasmine Hammamet. (www.hasdrubal-thalassa.com). DINNER: Restaurant La Bouillabaisse, La Marina, Yasmine Hammamet (www.labouillabaisse-tn.com).
|TAN-TASTIC: Hammamet's seafront fortress provides the|
backdrop as holidaymakers soak up the rays on the beach
A visit to the real Carthage, 15 kilometres east of Tunis, and the nearby hillside village of Sidi Bou Said is well worth the two-hour round trip from Hammamet.
An address in modern Carthage is the most coveted status symbol in Tunisia. This is where the super-rich live, as was the case 2,000-odd years ago when the city was one of the most prosperous in the Roman empire. But day-trippers don’t come to admire the magnificent mansions of the wealthy, who no doubt own some of the biggest yachts in Hammamet. The ancient ruins are the principal attraction.
Carthage was founded in 814BC by the seafaring Phoenicians who ruled the Mediterranean for hundreds of years from this strategically located port. In 146BC, following the Punic Wars, the Romans sent the Phoenicians packing and demolished everything in sight. They then rubbed salt in the wound in more ways than one by flooding the fertile land with seawater so that for decades no crops could be grown. A century later, in 44BC, Julius Caesar displayed his recycling credentials by telling his lads to get busy with their trowels among the ruins and put all that old rubble their predecessors had created to good use. The city he established became second in importance to Rome itself, and by the early third century AD had a population of 300,000.
|REMAINS OF THE DAYS: Ruins of ancient Carthage and,|
below, the colourful nearby hillside village of Sidi Bou Said
The Vandals conquered Carthage in the fifth century, but despite their name they developed rather than defaced and it continued to flourish. However, by 650 the harbour had lost most of its trade to other Mediterranean ports, and by the time the Arabs took up residence in 698 the city’s glory days were long gone.
Today, Carthage — the place which down the centuries was so fiercely fought over — is again in ruins and a fraction of its previous size, but this sprawling World Heritage Site retains enough architectural gems of days gone by to merit the bus journey. Among the highlights are the imposing remains of the massive Antonine baths which were the biggest the Romans ever built anywhere. You can walk among the underground chambers of the baths where slaves sweated in temperatures of 50C-plus keeping the furnaces stoked while the Roman bigwigs upstairs sweated over their selections for the day’s chariot races.
Sidi Bou Said with its whitewashed houses and vivid blue doors and balconies — even the bouganvillaea clinging to the buildings is blue-ish — is by far, and then some, the most beautiful village I’ve ever set foot in anywhere in the world, which is probably why ambassadors have their residences here. Step inside the lovingly-preserved Family House for a taste of life as it was lived by the well-to-do lawyer who built it in the 18th century — it’s still owned by his descendants, who serve cold drinks, mint tea and snacks to visitors. From the rooftop patio there’s a fabulous vista of the Bay of Tunis far below, but the very best views are from the terraces of Aux Bon Vieuz Temps restaurant and the Cafe Delices.
I didn’t come across the hardware store that sells all that blue and white paint that’s in constant demand, but I’ll bet that if the owner’s car was parked outside it was the flashiest set of wheels in town. He must be the richest guy around.
|BLUE-TIFUL: Balcony and orange trees in Sidi Bou Said|
Tunis’s main boulevard, the Avenue Habib Bourguiba, bears the name of the respected first president of the Republic of Tunisia who served for 30 years from 1957 until he was declared medically unfit and removed by Ben Ali in a bloodless coup.
There was nothing bloodless about Ben Ali’s response to the popular and peaceful uprising that reached its peak in January last year and which at one point saw half-a-million people pack the capital’s principal thoroughfare, which is 60 metres wide and 1,600 metres long. More than 300 civilians died at the hands of the despised police and security forces in the four-week revolution that was triggered by the self-immolation of 26-year-old Mohamed Bouazizi. The young street vendor’s wares and vegetable-weighing scales had been confiscated by police after weeks of harassment and he was allegedly humiliated by a female officer, Faida Hamdi. An investigation that saw Hamdi arrested twice ultimately cleared her when Bouazizi’s heartbroken mother withdrew her complaint.
|ARMOURED CAR-THEDRAL: The Roman Catholic|
Cathedral of St. Vincent de Paul in central Tunis
Stroll along the Avenue Habib Bourguiba today and cops will salute and step out of the way when you pause to take pictures. They might even pose, whereas 18 months ago they’d have insisted on seeing ID and tried to extract a fee for a “photo permit”.
There are still signs that the revolution wasn’t all that long ago. It was odd to see razor-wire barriers, heavily-armed soldiers and armoured cars in front of the splendid Roman Catholic cathedral of Saint Vincent de Paul (1882) until I realised they were guarding the Ministry of Defence across the street. It was odder still to see a guy sitting on the steps of this neo-Romanesque church in a judo suit and wellies — either the poor fella wasn’t the full dinar or he was waiting for the launderette to open so he could collect his washing. He had a black belt around his waist, so I wasn’t going to ask.
Tunis isn’t big on must-see sights (the rest of the country more than makes up for it), but the Finance Ministry as viewed from the fountained garden outside the entrance looks as if it was built with photos in mind. A whitewashed wonder with black and white Moorish arches on pillars, it’s topped by a clock tower from which the red national flag adds a splash of vivid colour against the clear blue sky.
|WONDER-NEATH THE ARCHES: The splendid Ministry of|
Finance and, below, shopping in Tunis's bustling medina
Le Bardo National Museum, in a renovated 13th century palace, contains the world’s biggest collection of Roman mosaics brought from throughout Tunisia and ancient Greece, and is considered one of the two great museums in North Africa along with the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. It’s four kilometres from Avenue Habib Bourguiba, but taxis are cheap and, if you’re feeling adventurous, hop on the metro to Bardo station.
Back in the centre, it’s very easy to lose your bearings in the medina once you enter the souk, but ever-smiling guide Kamal was on hand to lead the way through the warren of alleyways to the Dar Bel Hadj restaurant where lunch awaited. As soon as we stepped inside I felt like hugging him. I’ve been in many a fancy place where the food failed to live up to the decor, but Dar Bel Hadj, occupying the 400-year-old former home of a nobleman who was clearly mosaic-mad, scored top marks all round. From the ferociously hot harissa dip containing piri piri, chili peppers and garlic (plus two sticks of dynamite) to the tasty lamb tagine and the best dessert I’ve ever tasted — a rose water-flavoured cold custard topped with crushed pistachios — it was heavenly.
LUNCH: Dar Bel Hadj, 17 Rue des Tamis, La Medina, Tunis (www.darbelhadj.com).
|TREE-MENDOUS: Outdoor pool at El Mouradi Palm Marina|
Sixty kilometres south of Hammamet is the purpose-built tourist resort of Port El Kantaoui, where I spent a couple of very enjoyable nights at the 4-star all-inclusive El Mouradi Palm Marina Hotel that opens on to the long sandy beach. From the shore, if you dare, you can get strapped into a parachute and go up for a bird’s eye view of the area while being towed behind a speedboat.
The resort, which welcomed its first overseas tourists in 1979 while the paint was still wet, is a buzzing modern suburb of historical Sousse and is packed with great-value restaurants plus several more upmarket ones in the marina for a swankier evening out. The Hannibal theme park and the water park provide day-long fun, and for golfers there are two PGA-approved 18-hole courses (green fees from €40/£33, special five-day rate of €172/£139).
A 20-minute ride on the frequent local bus service takes holidaymakers to Sousse for a few hours of gawping and shopping in the souk (vegetarians and camel-lovers should avert their eyes when passing the butchers’ stalls); but the best excursion in all of Tunisia involves a 70-kilometre coach ride from Port El Kantaoui to the third century Roman amphitheatre at El Djem. Pronounced “gem”, it more than lives up to its name. The Monty Python team thought so, as did director Ridley Scott, as it features in The Life Of Brian and Gladiator. Don’t miss the opportunity to sit high up in the steep terraces from where up to 45,000 spectators watched gladiators knocking — and lions biting — lumps out of their unfortunate opponents.
STAY: 4-star El Mouradi Palm Marina Hotel, Port El Kantaoui (www.elmouradi.com). LUNCH: Le Mediterranee (www.lemediterranee.com.tn). DINNER: La Daurade. Both restaurants are in Port El Kantaoui marina.
|GRAND CIRCLE: Ancient Roman amphitheatre at El Djem|
Tunisia has had its well-documented woes. In the aftermath of the revolution, those who’d been visiting for years understandably gave the place a wide berth, and the consequences were sorely felt. Last year, tourism revenue — the country’s lifeblood — almost halved from 2010’s €1,800 million. Happily, the latest official figures show that the peace and stability that followed Ben Ali’s overthrow have encouraged holidaymakers to return.
Long-time visitors are re-acquainting themselves with Tunisia’s many attractions, and first-timers looking for a cheaper option than already-cheap Portugal and increasingly-expensive Spain have been discovering a destination that doesn’t leave them scrimping.
Optimism has replaced oppression. Charter flights are full, hotels are busy and unemployment is coming down. For a country that produces more pink wine than red or white, the future’s definitely looking rosé.
Sunway Holidays offers seven nights all-inclusive at the 4-star El Mouradi Palm Marina in Port El Kantaoui from a bargain basement €619 per person sharing. Seven nights B&B in the 5-star Hasdrubal Thalassa and Spa Hotel, Yasmine Hammamet, costs from €1,099pps. Prices include return flights from Dublin, transfers, free baggage allowance, resort representative service and taxes.
See www.sunway.ie, call 01 288 6828 or contact your travel agent.
See also www.cometotunisia.co.uk