The seed of travelling to Tunisia was sown back in September when we were exploring Genoa and caught sight of a Tunisia Ferries boat in the harbour. The idea grew as we headed south through Italy towards Sicily, watered by learning that we could also get a ferry to Tunis from Palermo or Trapani. Doubts remained about the wisdom of visiting a newly post revolution country, but the Foreign Office website gave us the green light, and it seemed the obvious next step for us.
It wasn’t without trepidation that we boarded the boat. We have experience of driving in North Africa, and of the lengthy procedures of entering countries, potentially with the unwanted ‘help’ of hustlers. Furthermore we were going to arrive at night. Once we easily cleared the port gates into the country though, we didn’t look back. Tunisia kept on giving.
Its people so friendly, the scenery diverse, and with an unexpectedly rich culture and heritage revealing influences from the Phoenicians, the Romans, the Turks and Analusians, as well as the Arabs, and of course the French colonists. The first toe in the water moment lead to us diving straight in and we wouldn’t have missed it for the world.
You can spend up to three months in Tunisia without a visa and not knowing how long we would want to stay, we opted to book the ferry for a stay of two months, being prepared to shorten or extend it. Two months turned out to be just the right amount of time for us to leave hardly a sight or site unvisited, without rushing. The weather wasn’t always in our favour, the harsh European winter took a southern sweep through Tunisia too, so we would suggest a visit in spring rather than winter. The desert areas were baskingly warm in the middle of the day, while night temperatures dropped to around freezing.
Most people speak French and as we were surrounded by people who wanted to talk to us, we practised our language skills much more than we ever have done in France. Our few words of Arabic took us a long way too. It was obvious that people were surprised and appreciative of our efforts. We rarely encountered anyone who wasn’t welcoming and engaging with the people gave us many heartwarming and rewarding times, from the waves and kiss-blowing, to the bored teenagers saying ‘bienvenue’ to the checkpoint officers sharing biscuits and the roadworkers sharing tea, such genuine curiousity and hospitality.
There was the odd bit of hustling and toutage, and some demands for ‘stylos’ from children, but no where near as much as we expected and who can blame a few people in a poor country from trying every opportunity to earn a little cash? It’s par for the course. The only downside is that it makes you more suspicious of those who want to help you without the expectation of anything in return. We felt safe everywhere we went, and even our dealings with the police at checkpoints and when wild camping were jovial and welcoming, and no cadeaux were expected.
The Tunisian tourist industry is primarily geared up to package tourism where a lot of the money would go to multi-nationals rather than to Tunisians, and although there is great potential to promote independent travel and ethical and eco tourism, this hasn’t been fully exploited yet. The industry has been hit hard, firstly as a result of the revolution putting people off, then by the economic crises affecting much of Europe. Numbers are way down and in some areas non-existent, so if things don’t pick up later in the year many more jobs and businesses will disappear and it will be the local Tunisian owners and workers who will suffer.
Tunisia’s low costs have enabled us to stay in some remarkable accommodation, from camping within a ksar compound, to sleeping in a ghorfa – one of the individual storage rooms of a ksar, to a snug cave room in a troglodyte settlement, and a tiled fondouk inn room to faded colonial grandeur. As we return to expensive Europe, we’ll miss the meals out and cheap petrol. We recognise though that while costs may be low for visiting Europeans, they have risen sharply in recent months, making things ever harder for local people.
Our memories of Tunisia stay with us … the many moments that assaulted all our senses and touched our hearts: the haunting melodious and live calls to prayer that reverberate in rounds from minaret to minaret. Easing out of sleep to the 5am call before slumbering on.
The messy enthralling markets, the rank gutters of Tunis and the fragrant steam of chicha pipes, heady perfumes and spices, the stench of cats, the unoiled screechy donkey noises, eggs hastily cracked and an omelette frying on a street stall griddle plate. Discordant radios blaring ever so slightly off station arabic music. Café flat screens with the floaty cheesey romance of overproduced music videos. The old man stopping us in a Gabès street to give us oranges, the tentative ‘bonjours’ from small children on front steps. The shy but knowing smiles between women of different cultures, a tattooed face and curls peeking out from a floral headscarf.
Arabic phrases lilting and guttural by turn, its curling script on ancient velum, courtyards opening from tiled hallways, sacred places, melted icing mosques, abandoned ancient desert mountain settlements, the Douz animal market with its chaotic bleeting and bartering Souk touts ‘come inside five dinars’, ‘come inside for to looking not buying’, ‘I make for you a very good price, madame’. Sweet mint tea on cushioned stone benches.
The extraordinary ksour, old communal grain stores, their rounded comforting shapes the same for centuries, the mysterious symbols in their plaster from many generations past about to crumble into dust.
Shepherds with their flocks strolling around for every blade, baby camels in the desert waiting to be captured by herders. Overloaded tired donkeys trit trotting along the roads, horses ploughing deep red earth, fieldworkers bent low over their tasks, fishermen netmending on harbour walls, coloured flakes litter the ground where boats have been repainted.
The impossibly blue azure turquoise seas, thousand acre olive groves, arid hills and the humid palmeries of the oases.
Every city, town and village lined with bare tiled cafés where men chew the fat of a seemingly endless coffee break. It’s always time to go to and from school, the hordes of children and young people stream along the roads of every town. Louages speed dangerously picking up passengers as they fly, sometimes so crowded that peoples’ heads are forced out thruogh the windows.
Thin plastic flyaway bags, whispering on the winds and catching on trees, a blighting blossom. The elegant young women of Tunis, their grandmothers, perhaps, some of the elderly women we saw bent double under 20 litre water carriers out in the country. Washing their clothes in the local stream.
Hole-in-the-wall stores crammed with eggs and tins of jam, baguettes in the cabinet outside. Tiny one room forges, age old sweat and soot of toil, wrought iron gates and grilles leaning against passageway walls.
Sounds from behind curtain obscured rooms, sewing machines, hammers, laughter and children’s cries, a cockerel crowing, or a horse’s whinny. Scraggy cats slinking under bins and mewing outside faded flaking blue doors.
The poignant red chechia’d old men, strolling along, their dignity palpable. A quiet card-playing time in the hat makers’ shop.
Birdsong from the elaborate curliqued cages. Barber shops hoping that Adrian will grace them with his now longer hair.
Red harissa hot soups in clattering souk eateries and wives selling round breads on the edge of the market.
The northern spring landscape so impossibly green, belying the cruel weather-wrought damage to homes and roads. The unimagined wealth of antiquity set against the package tour cheap sun image. And ancient is always meeting modern head on like the horse cart driver with his mobile phone tucked firmly to his ear.
It’s a country in the midst of great change with expectations running high. Now it has its freedom, there are many more problems to address, not least poverty and unemployment.
Tunisia is proud to be the cradle of the Arab spring, where the revolution wasn’t without martyrs, but was over quickly. We wish them a peaceful and successful future.
Travelling to Tunisia was an immensely rewarding and important part of the trip for us. We pushed past our comfort zone and learnt a lot about ourselves, about why we’re travelling, the way we travel and how much we’ve absorbed of the country, its people and culture. We want to travel to more countries like this – little known areas and out of the way places. It’s disappointing not to be able to continue onward on the African continent at this stage, but after a bit of recalibration back in Sicily and a bit of mainland Italy, we will be crossing the Adriatic wherever the road goes eastwards.