February 2004: Tunisia

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It is twice the size of Ireland with twice our population, yet it is one of Africa’s smallest states. It is also one of the wealthiest, in olive trees (60 million of them), citrus orchards and as a haven for tourists.

Tunisia boasts some of the North Africa’s most varied landscapes in three distinctive patches, from vast stretches of the Sahara to green valleys and lakes with abundant birdlife. Its coastline, projecting into the Mediterranean towards Sicily, has a proud history from the days Carthage vied with Rome and subsequent occupations by the Phoenicians and the Romans.

Modern Tunisia is a mixture of modern and French colonial architecture (the French ruled 1881-1963), with an amazingly well preserved medieval medinas in many cities.

Hammamet is playground of sunbathers and windsurfers through the summer months. It has seen mammoth development but somehow survived intact, saved by a beautiful medina which separates its two bays, and some deft use of space, architectural finesse and lush horticulture.

To the Romans, Tunisia was a source of grain, wine and olives. They left aquaducts 50 miles long to supply Tunis with water, and dramatic ruins which are less visited and much more impressive than Carthage.

The amphitheatre at El Djem claims to be the third largest in the world and comes complete with lions’ dens, and storage rooms for the bodies of gladiators. In summer it hosts a festival of music. The day trip from Hammamet to Tunis is worth doing for the Roman mosaics in the Bardo Museum.

Even the tourist haven of Cape Bon has more secluded resorts. Kelibia is a small town that survives mainly on its fishing fleet, with a few small, sheltered resorts and beaches and a fabulous sixth century fort that overlooks the harbour. The fabulous caves where the stone to build Carthage was cut can be seen near the village El-Haouaria, with Ras el-Drek beach nearby.

The Roman city of Thuburbo Majus is set high on a hill, among the olive groves. The valleys and woods and bountiful fields show a contrast to the Tunisia of the picture postcard, for this country comes with four separate regions, each with its own microclimate.

The country of the desert oasis and bare mountains also has well-watered championship golf courses within easy reach of Hammamet and Port El Kantoui. Excursions from the resorts include trips to the foothills of the Atlas Mountains and one or two-day ride-a-camel desert safaris to southern oasis of Tozeur and the “gateway to the Sahara” Douz.

But for those with less ambitious programmes in mind, the resorts are good at organising your leisure for you. Hotels have kids clubs, indoor pools, games rooms, discos, saunas, spas and entertainment programmes.

 

Language Arabic, French and English in tourist areas.

Climate Very hot from June to September; December to February much cooler in the north of the country.

Food Spicier than that of neighbouring countries using coriander, saffron and garlic, fish and tasty lamb stews are served with cous cous. Alcoholic drinks are available but often pricey. Wine is produced locally. Old style cafes offer strong Turkish coffee or sweet mint tea, plus the chance to have a puff on a water pipe.

What to Buy Hand-painted ceramics, Bedouin-style jewellery and crafts, copperware, traditional style clothes such as embroidered jackets, or shirts, and colourful woven rugs and carpets.

Events Eid al Adha (the Feast of Sacrifice) in spring. Falconry Festival in El Haouaria in June with competitions, games and music; Ulysses Festival on Djerba in July, the island claims to be the Lotus Eaters’ dwelling place in the Odyssey. Carthage International Festival at the restored Roman theatre in July-August, mixing traditional and modern music, dance and theatre. Camel racing at Douz in November.

Visas No visa required for Irish passport holders for stays of up to 3 months; citizens of Australia, New Zealand and South Africa can purchase visas on arrival.

Health Bilharzia is present in certain still water areas. Bottled water is readily available. Meat and fish should also be fresh, well-cooked and hot, to avoid possible infection.

Currency E1 buys approx. 3 Tunisian dinars (TND).

Time GMT +1.

What to read: Will to Live by national poet Abu el-Kacem el-Chabbi is Tunisia’s most celebrated poem. Few Tunisian writers have been translated into English but Lion Mountain by Mustapha Tlili tells the story of the ravages of tourism on remote mountain villages. Sleepless Nights by Ali Duaji is a series of short stories set in and around Tunis. Paul Theroux’s visit to in the early 1990s was described in The Pillars of Hercules. Susan Raven’s Rome in Africa provides a solid account of Rome’s tussle with Carthage and subsequent conquest of North Africa. Finally The Aeneid by Virgil is required reading if visiting Carthage for the beautifully told story of Dido and Aeneas.

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