Colourful new dawn for visitors to Tunisia
After the upheaval of its Arab Spring, Thomas Breathnach visits Tunisia and finds a vibrant, liberal society with all the exotic charm a tourist could wish for
It was a sign of the times. As I stood on the historic Avenue Janvier 14, a street where Tunisians valiantly rallied to oust President Ben Ali in 2011, taxis bustled, lycée students joked and jostled and, right on cue, a tourist train laden with Russians chugged past me.
I was a bystander in the latest chapter of la Tunisie nouvelle.
My friend and I had arrived in the Mediterranean nation with Tunisia an open book. We received a vibrant welcome in Sousse, one of the country's oldest towns, which melds UNESCO world heritage sites with modern Maghreb life.
Strolling along the resort town's chilled-out prom and chaotic high streets, what was perhaps most striking was how secular society appeared.
As one of the most liberal Arab nations, dress was a blend of hijabs and haute couture. Compared to the likes of Egypt or Morocco, women seemed far more engaged in daily life, from working in the souk stalls to sipping espressos on sidewalk bistros.
This, coupled with the heavy tradition of French tourists in the area, gives the town a less foreign feel, even offering grittier urban flashes reminiscent of Marseilles at times.
Sousse's nonpareil, however, is its ancient medina, a labyrinthine walled old town where colourful ceramics and carpet stalls are splashed against ancient ochre ramparts and blue skies.
It made for an intriguing wander, each shabby-chic alleyway yielding a different postcard snapshot: from kids playing kick-about to bearded elders following the afternoon call to prayer towards the grand mosque.
Come lunchtime, we strayed from the typical touristy eateries (note laminated picture-menus and Union Jack translations) towards Café Seles, a charming restaurant-cum-salon du thé, where a delicious plat du jour of fresh whole sea bass, salad and chunky chips (with obligatory dollop of picante harissa chilli) cost just 15 dinars (€7).
Trade in the café was slow but, according to owner, Sami Oubraham, tourist numbers were on the up here in Sousse. "And we're just hoping it will keep improving, Inshallah," he added. Inshallah indeed.
Back in Port El Kantaoui, just a few kilometres away, we were based at the Hasdrubal Hotel; a four-star ivory haven, horse-shoed into the Gulf of Hammamet and surrounded by a veritable Babylon of blooming bougainvillea.
Unsurprisingly, the hotel was largely frequented by French (often more mature) couples who, when swanning around the terraces and lobbies, only added to the overall ambience of Gallic elegance.
The hotel itself sat upon a peaceful beach along which fishermen cast their lines for mackerel in a bay dotted with galleons and catamarans. Tunisia's shores are home to some of the cheapest watersports on the Med and so, enticed by the affable touts with their well-oiled cúpla focail, we harnessed up to try our hand at parasailing (€10).
After being strapped in tandem to our fluorescent chute, a speedboat gently motored off from the strand into the bay, flexing our towline and swelling the canopy before dramatically ballooning us 500ft skywards. Then, for 10 white-knuckle minutes, we dangled and drifted over spectacular panoramas before deflating our way back to terra firma. The Sousse agus Síos package, you could call it.
Come evening in the Hasdrubal, the cravats were crisp and the diamante sparkling as those familiar French faces all descended to the ballroom for evening cocktails.
It made for a fascinating episode of people watching, with each couple, Kir Royale in hand, ceremoniously gathered like a scene finale from 'Poirot'. "Was it Madame Dubois, in the drawing room, with her leopard-print pashmina?"
The conjured suspense was soon cut by the evening's entertainment, as a trio of musicians began a stomping set of Malouf music, a traditional Tunisian genre associated with weddings, circumcisions and, pourquoi pas, hotel cabaret.
We marvelled at the pummelling of hand-drums and strumming of mandoles while a belly dancer balanced a series of beer bottles on her head. "Bravo!"
The next morning, a package costing €85 bought us an all-inclusive and much-awaited overnight trip into Tunisia's Sahara. Tucked into our minibus of fellow Irish couples and single white females, our grand Tour de Tunisie commenced.
Just south of Sousse, our first stop was the ancient, casbah-rocking market town and site of one of the world's largest amphitheatres, El Djem. It was quite the spectacle.
Northern Tunisia was once part of the Roman Empire and El Djem's arcades and underground passages teased us with a tourist-free throwback to its Hadrian heyday.
Our transit continued through a fertile farmland tableau of olive plantations and pomegranate groves until, gradually, the landscape became less lush and the roads more dusty. Now nearing the Libyan and Algerian borders, barren roadsides became mushroomed with black-market petrol stalls, all surrounded by smoke-billowing louages, shipping commuters from one end of nowhere to another.
A souvenir calendar of dramatic scenes followed; from Matmata, the town where the native Berber people still live in cave-like dwellings, to Chebika, a paradise of date palms and waterfalls and on-location oasis from 'The English Patient'.
At Chott el Djerid, the largest salt pan in the Sahara, we pulled up alongside an isolated market shack where a keffiyeh shawl wearing elder appeared like a lost prophet, pitching his wares of fresh dates and fridge magnets. "Sahara Viagra!" he jibed, pointing to his tray of fruit.
Our 1000km excursion would crescendo at the gateway town of Douz, from which the mighty Sahara begins its epic 12-nation colony. Our fellow travellers were en route to an evening camel ride, but as they strode into the distance costumed up like 'Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves', we opted to stay grounded, trekking off in search of a sandy Shangri-la beyond the grunts of camels and dune-bashing ARVs.
Hiking across the blustery sand sea, we soon found our reward, cushioned into a dune and sheltered from the sirocco winds, as a lemony African sunset marked our journey's end. Oh, Tunisia – what a just desert.