GUEST ENTRY: PHILIP STAINTON
Tunisia has two different types of holiday to offer, the ‘all inclusive hotel package “could be anywhere” holiday’ or the ‘backpack guesthouse “experience the country” holiday’. I’m the type of person who prefers Bangkok to Benidorm so naturally I chose the latter.
Having boarded the British Airways flight to Tunis my trip didn’t start the smoothest; we hit very strong turbulence. It was so bad that drinks went flying into the air, passengers held brace positions in their seats and my friend lost all his inhibitions and started clutching a strangers hand extremely tightly for comfort. Once the turbulence had passed, a few glasses of red wine was needed by the whole plane!
First stop on my trip was Tunis and Carth age. Tunis is a wonderful mix of Arabic and European cultures. All hustle and bustle in the medina souks (old town markets) whilst overhead stand modern towers such as the Africa Hotel. The souks are a labyrinth of stalls, shops and market stands selling everything from traditional clothes and rugs to local foods and rather strangely geckos, dead or alive!
A short taxi ride away from Tunis is the Roman ruins of Carthage. Now dilapidated, the ruins are impressive for their size and scale if not for what you actually see. Carthage is definitely a place that requires a bit of imagination to understand what it used to look like. Although if you’re willing to make the trek, the theatre is an impressive venue for live music.
A few hours walking round Carthage in the intense August Summer heat was easily enough so I decided on an afternoon stop off to the coastal town of Sidi Bou Said. With the streets lined with elegant blue and white buildings, Sidi Bou Said is a very picturesque town. Flowers are draped from almost every wall and doorway, but unfortunately it does come with an eyesore, masses of tourists all arriving on their air conditioned coaches. I wish I could go back to Sidi Bou Said out of holiday season to see what the real town is like. It’s beauty and views have inspired numerous artists, however today it’s mainly cheap tour ist souvenirs and ice cream stands on show.
I chose to stay in Gammarth on the North East coast of Tunisia. I had booked a cheap guesthouse online for £10 per night (inc. breakfast and dinner) before I had left. However I found it was an empty hotel with a swimming pool that had 2 water slides flowing into it and an empty beach 30 seconds walk away. As I would find out through my trip, the Tunisians love a good water slide! The surreal nature of my stay took a further turn when quite randomly goats and camels would meander along the beach by themselves without a human in sight.
Having concluded my stay in the North, I made my way South via the train, easy…so I thought! In Tunis the train changed platform last second without any announcement, the air conditioning on board failed (it was 45 degrees), and then the train itself broke down and I had to wait on the side of the tracks for a replacement to appear. None of the Tunisians seemed particularly bothered by these events which makes me believe this must be a regular occurrence. Finally when I made it to Hammamet, I arrived at a station with a non-existent platform with no signs, in the middle of nowhere and with my only reference that I was in the correct place an old man waving his hands frantically to get out.
The town itself has a old fort and a nice medina, but really Hammamet’s main charm is another empty beach with warm clear blue water. The Mediterranean Sea here really is warmer than you’ll find off the coast of Spain, France or Italy and it’s a refreshing change from the intense heat. Occasionally I would feel as if Tunisia was starting to feel quite normal, and then another surreal moment would happen. Yet mor e camels and goats would be on the beach, 19th century looking pirate ships would sail in the sea within view and the occasional naked old couple would stroll along the beach, quite oblivious to anything or anyone. The only real downside to the beach was the occasional begging from local children. With the beach being so empty, I would find myself having to wave them away quite frequently. Still, they soon gave up due to the temperature being above 40 degrees and their energy being reduced by Ramadan.
From Hammamet I took a local minibus a few hours south to Sousse where my guesthouse had a swimming pool this time on the 1st floor of the building. Despite the obvious difficulties of being on the 1st floor, the guesthouse had still quite impressively managed to put water slides into the pool. It all seemed encouraging on first view however I soon realised I was in the tourist central of Tunisia; the package holiday hell! Surrounded by what felt like hundreds of Russians in their luminous speedos and bikinis, I tried to organise as many day trips away from Sousse as possible.
A couple of those trips led me to Port El Kantaoui which is a little modernised haven North from Sousse. If the European influence was ever to be seen in Tunisia, it’s in Port El Kantaoui. A place where the rich leave their boats moored up and eat the fresh fish cooked in the marina side restaurants. It really reminded me of the marinas found in Portugal and Spain. The only difference being that during Ramadan, I had to wait till later in the evening to eat dinner.
The best day trip away from Sousse has to be the town of El Djem. El Djem is what a Tunisian town should look and feel like. Lots of market stalls and local shops thriving on local foods and fabrics, the odd camel and gecko, lots of noise and activity, and finally a spectacular wonder in the middle of the town. In El Djem’s case it’s an impressive amphitheater, the one they used during the filming of Gladiator. It takes 6 flights of stairs to climb to the top of the building for the amazing panoramic views and from the ground floor stairs lead underground to the slaves quarters. Many ancient wonders around the world are cordoned off with the “do not touch” or “do not enter” signs, but the thankfully and amazingly, the El Djem amphitheater is not one of these. I really could go or climb anywhere, touch anything and explore to my hearts content. I even found locals sitting on the outside edge of the building eating their lunch.
After a few more relaxing beach days and a long minibus ride back to Tunis, my time in Tunisia was over and I was traveling home on a thankfully much less eventful flight. I left Tunisia equally happy and sad from my time in the country. Sad that areas such as Sousse have succumbed to the all inclusive family package, sometimes 18-30 style resorts due to touristic demand; but pleased that I made the effort to leave my surroundings to explore and experience Tunisia’s real cultural gems, especially in El Djem.
Philip is a global traveller, trampolinist and musician. To read more from him you can check out his website at www.philipstaintonmusic.com