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Archive for the ‘Tunisia’ Category


You will have read in the papers or on the internet or watched on the television the devastating news about the recent terrorist attack in Sousse, Tunisia, where 38 people lost their lives. If you’re European you’ll undoubtedly know where Tunisia is and many of you will have been there on holiday. If you’re from elsewhere in the world you might be less familiar with it.

 

Tunisia is a small country in North Africa. It is situated at Africa’s northern-most tip, a small corner wedged between Algeria and Libya with the sunseeker’s dream of long sandy beaches and the blue Mediterranean sea. It has a long and ancient history of Berbers, Phoenicians, Romans, Vandals, Byzantines, Arabs, Ottoman Turks, Italians, French and many more. Tunisia is also a mainly secular country.

 

Tunisia is a beautiful country and its people are endlessly kind, generous and welcoming. Aside from its popular beaches it contains the eastern end of the Atlas mountains, the northern most part of the Sahara desert, countless film locations – perhaps best known for Star Wars, especially Tatooine, and The English Patient – some wonderful examples of Roman architecture, salt lakes and is the third or second largest producer of olive oil in the world. It is ever popular with European tourists, especially the British. Tourism is its lifeblood. I have holidayed in Tunisia several times – I wrote about my experiences here, here and here – and one day I’d like to return.

 

When you hear in the news about terrorist attacks never think that it won’t ever be you or someone you know. I was horrified to learn that a dear, kind and funny lady who was my boss and colleague a few years ago was killed in the attacks together with her husband. They were on holiday in Sousse.

 

I feel so sad for the people of Tunisia and devastated for the loss of someone who gave me my first ever promotion, was unfailingly understanding and kind to me, and made the best carrot cake I’ve ever tasted. May she and her husband and all those who lost their lives rest in peace. My thoughts are with their families.

 

The British Foreign Office has now issued advice for all Britons to leave Tunisia affecting holidaymakers and ex-pats and, most of all, the brave and fearless Tunisian people (read about what they did to prevent the loss of further life), many of whom rely on the holidaying masses to put food on their tables and roofs over their heads. And there are no easy answers to any of this, nor is there likely to be any end to it any time soon.

 

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Les îles de Kerkennah as seen from space. Source.

 

Finally …

 

I hated leaving Tunisia after that first holiday. I hated leaving behind the dry heat, the dust and the brown landscape. I hated flying back to the UK and seeing the English green fields laid out beneath me like a patchwork quilt. I wanted to go back.

 

I booked another holiday almost immediately. Almost a year to the day since first arriving in Tunisia, I returned. In fact, I returned three times in total. If things hadn’t changed for me at home I might have returned again and again.

 

Each time I returned I had different adventures and rather than try to recall each holiday separately I thought I would try to describe for you some of the things that have remained clearest in my mind.

 

I befriended a little old man who walked down the beach every day selling natural sponges. Very few people bought any, I certainly didn’t, and to start with I was put off by his largely toothless grin. His name, I have since found out, was Sheik Mahsour, and he was lovely. One day he found me chatting to a young man that he knew. He didn’t speak any English and not a lot of French but after telling me that any friend of the person I was talking to was a friend of his he proceeded to greet me every day. The usual exchange was “Aslemma. Lebes?” “Lebes.” It works the same way as “Bonjour. Ça va?” “Ça va.” in French. A little chatter would ensue with me understanding very little and him even less but he was very sweet. I found a photo of him not that long ago but it’s not one I can post here because of copyright issues but you can find it here.

 

There were a couple of occasions when I had the pleasure of sitting out on the beach at night with nothing but the moon and stars lighting up the darkness. I have never seen a more beautiful sky than when I was on Kerkennah. It sparkled and shone and I watched shooting stars streak across the sky. The only sound to be heard was the gentle lapping of the sea on the shore. I can still picture it now.

 

I had the honour of being taken out for dinner by a local man. He spoke a little English and fluent French so communicating wasn’t difficult. He took me to the Cercina restaurant which was right on the beach. It was an unusual day because he paid. He was only a fisherman and wouldn’t have had a lot of money but he insisted. I don’t remember what we ate, probably fish or chicken simply cooked and then very sweet mint tea afterwards. The thing that stayed with me most was that we talked about religion. He was Muslim, albeit a little lapsed. I am Christian, also lapsed. I wish I could recall exactly what he told me but I do remember that he related to me a beautiful story from the Koran about Mohammed. He wasn’t trying to convert me, if anything he was simply romancing me. I just remember thinking that this lovely story was a bit like the bible stories I learnt at school like The Good Samaritan or the Feeding of the Five Thousand. The same but different – if you know what I mean.

 

I rode pillion on a motorbike with no helmet on more than one occasion. The bikes on the island were not exactly powerful but I remember holding on to the person in front of me very tightly and not opening my eyes. It did occur to me that my mum would most definitely not approve!

 

I attended some wedding celebrations in a small town called Melitta, a few miles from the hotel. I wasn’t there for very long but I remember feeling very self-conscious as I was led to sit with the men (who sat separately from the women). My companion didn’t seem too concerned and was very probably doing some showing off but I remember, as the only white person there, attracting a little more attention than I would have liked. I was fascinated though – by everything!

 

Of all the amazing experiences I had there is one that surpassed everything else. The last time I returned to Tunisia I was determined to pluck up the courage to take advantage of the organised trip to the mainland that the tour operator put on. Because I was holidaying alone I was understandably nervous about venturing somewhere a little less secluded but I realised that I might never have the opportunity again.

 

The big attraction was the Sahara desert. And the decision to take this overnight trip was one of the best I have ever made!

 

We left very early one morning, by coach, to catch the ferry to the mainland. From there we drove south down the coast to Gabès. We were given some free time to walk around the souks. This was my first experience of mainland Tunisia and I was quite anxious about walking about alone so I asked an older couple if they would mind if I walked around with them. They were more than happy for me to join them and so we wandered.

 

In the depths of the souk we were accosted by a young man. After he tried several times to sell us something I told him to go away, in Arabic. This was how I discovered that the fastest way to stop someone trying to sell you something was to speak to them in their own language. He was so surprised that after that his only interest was in finding out more about me. “Français?” I shook my head. “Deutsch?“, “Italiano?“, “Español?“. This continued for sometime until he’d exhausted his repertoire and finally asked, “English?” We didn’t stick around to have a conversation but I got the distinct impression that an English person speaking even one word of Arabic was something quite unusual.

 

The oasis of Gabès. My photo.

 

We returned to the coach and drove out of the city to what makes Gabès quite unusual – the seaside oasis. For our tour of the oasis we were driven around in horse-drawn traps. We saw the vast array of fruit and vegetables grown to provide for the city and the irrigation systems, and some middle-aged man offered the couple I was with a few camels in return for me – as they were not my parents all deals were off and we continued on our way.

 

From Gabès we travelled to Matmata, famous for its “troglodyte” underground dwellings in which some of the Berbers still live. It is perhaps more famous for being Tatooine, the home of Luke Skywalker in the Star Wars films. We visited the home of Fatima Azouz who seems to be something of a tourist attraction herself if the number of photos of her on the internet are anything to go by! The houses are cool and shady, providing welcome relief from the heat which was a steady 45-50°C (113-122°F) while we were there.

 

Fatima Azouz posing in her “home” in Matmata. My photo.

Inside Fatima’s home. My photo.

Looking down into Fatima’s home from ground level. My photo.

 

After eating lunch we made our way to Douz, the gateway to the Sahara and our home for the night. Before settling in we were outfitted Berber style and driven out into the desert. I have never felt more ridiculous than I did while wearing that outfit but I would do it again in a heartbeat. We were going to ride into the desert on camels and watch the sunset over the sand dunes.

 

Douz has very little going for it, or at least it didn’t when I was there, but it has thousands of camels. And the reason for all the camels is because it’s one of the most popular places from which to visit the Sahara desert. There aren’t many opportunities for your average British holidaymaker staying in a 2-star hotel to take a trip into the world’s hottest desert. An organised trip to Douz is probably the only chance they’ll get. There were camels as far as the eye could see. I did wonder if it was going to be worth it.

 

Me and my camel. My photo.

 

We were introduced to our camels. Mine was white. Of course, strictly speaking they’re dromedaries as they only have one hump, a fact that became all too obvious when I was eventually called upon to straddle my camel and it stood up. The seat (padding and blankets) was strapped behind its hump and I was convinced, especially when the camel was in the process of standing or sitting, that this seat was the most precarious I had ever sat upon. There’s not a huge amount to hold onto when you’re sat astride a camel and I’m not ashamed to admit that I squealed and screeched and made all manner of horrified noises for the entire journey into the desert and the entire journey back. The man leading my camel just thought I was hilarious!

 

As we rode up into the sand dunes the sea of camels (well they do call them ships of the desert) gradually dispersed and thinned until all we could see were more dunes, miles and miles of sand dunes. It was one of the most beautiful views I’ve ever seen. We dismounted (to more squeals from me) and settled down in the dunes to watch the sunset over Douz. There was a young man doing some impressive stunts on horseback vying for money but nothing could distract me from the beauty of the Sahara. It’s a memory that will stay with me forever.

 

Waiting for the sun to set in the Sahara. My photo.

 

The following day we again had a very early start. The reason for the early morning was to see the sun rise over the Chott El Djerid. Apart from also being a Star Wars filming location it is the largest salt pan of the Sahara. It was largely dry because of the time of year but in winter it is possible to sail across it. After the sand dunes of the previous day the lake seemed impossibly flat.

 

We moved on to Chebika in the Djebel el Negueb mountains, an offshoot of the Atlas mountains, near to the Algerian border. We did actually see the border from the coach but were advised under no circumstances should we take photos. Chebika is a mountain oasis and it is beautiful. In a pair of unsuitable sandals I followed the man-made watercourse channelling water to the oasis up high into the mountains to see the view of the Chott El Djerid and Algeria. It was stunning.

 

Looking out over Chebika from the mountains. My photo.

Up in the mountains over Chebika. My photo.

 

We travelled via stunning views of landscapes used in the filming of The English Patient to a couple of waterfalls where you could hear lots of frogs croaking in the deep pools that formed underneath and then onto another mountain oasis, Tamerza, where we saw a ruined village that had been washed away in a single downpour in the 1960s.

 

The English Patient landscape. My photo.

The English Patient landscape. My photo.

The ruins at Tamerza. My photo.

 

We made it back to Kerkennah later that evening after a very long coach journey from the Algerian border to the Mediterranean coast. It had been a very standard and commonplace tourist trip around some of the sights of Tunisia but I wouldn’t have missed it for the world!

 

I never returned to Tunisia. I exchanged a few letters with a couple of people and gradually got over the heartbreak of leaving the country and people behind me. I’m sure I would have returned if it hadn’t been for me meeting someone at home. My next holiday took me to a 5-star resort in Jamaica – but nowhere else has given me an experience quite like the ones I had in my Tunisian idyll.

 

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The Kerkennah Isles are flat, featureless and flooded, coloured by that combination of white sand, green palms and varying intensities of blue sky and blue-green sea that immediately melts the northern soul.”

This was the description that persuaded me to pick Kerkennah as my holiday destination. I copied it into my photo album from the holiday brochure and reading it now I’m reminded that sometimes they actually get these things right. They go on to say

 

Ten thousand years ago they were part of the mainland, but now they form an archipelago, set in a shallow sea and pierced by tidal lagoons. The highest point on the islands is under 12 metres, which strengthens the impression that they are within an ace of permanently submerging into the marine horizon.

Good cooking and the amicable nature of the islanders conspire to make them the perfect antidote to a week spent scampering around the Sahel cities or just life in general.

Quiet and peaceful with no crowds, few shops and hardly any traffic. First impressions of Kerkennah are a hypnotic expanse of wind-blown palms and a totally flat sandy landscape. The sea is so shallow that a hundred metres from the shore, the clear and unpolluted water is still below waist level. Night life is limited and the only bright lights you are likely to find are the brilliant stars which appear nightly overhead!

When I arrived at the hotel, hot, dusty and tired, I was less inclined towards poetic descriptions. On alighting from the bus a glass of something pink, sickly sweet, and pretty nasty was thrust into my hand and I joined the queue for reception. There was a bank (man behind a glass screen) where I cashed some travellers cheques and then I was shown to my room.

 

The biggest pitfall when travelling alone is the single room. Not to put too fine a point on it, they suck, and this one was a prime example. It was little more than a cell. The small room had a tiny shuttered window, a single bed, a small table, a built-in wardrobe with doors that had long since given up their ability to slide, and a rather dim overhead light and one, yes one, power point so there was a constant battle over bedside lamp (which helped with the dim one overhead), fan or hairdryer! The bathroom had a toilet, sink and a shower. All the pipes had rusted, been painted over and then rusted again. But, and this is important, it was clean.

 

I had a banging headache that first night, a consequence of an extremely long day combined with relentless heat. I picked at my dinner in the restaurant and then went to bed. I was seriously beginning to wonder if I’d made a horrible mistake. In truth I was more than a little scared. I was stuck here for two weeks. What if I hated it?

 

The next morning, headache gone, I investigated breakfast. French bread and jam, shortbread dipped in chocolate (yum!) and some mildly suspicious looking cold meat and cheese. I soon learnt that the tea was best drunk black as the milk was hot, disgusting and made me ill.

 

Having eaten it was time to relax but I was shy and nervous of lounging around on the beach alone. Also, because I have very pale skin, I was worried about getting sunburnt and prickly heat. I hadn’t really thought this through at all, had I? I stayed in the shade all day, on the terrace, wearing shorts and a t-shirt. I felt a bit silly. I still wasn’t convinced that I hadn’t made a mistake.

 

That night at dinner I was invited to join another table by a group of women who, as I found out, had also all travelled alone. We fast became friends and over the next two weeks proceeded to explore the few delights that Kerkennah had to offer, made friends with the locals, laughed lots and shared our life stories. I was relieved to find that my solo holiday was far from the mistake I thought it might be.

 

Me looking very pasty but happy with wet hair – guess the fan won the battle that evening!
My photo.

 

The room was never going to be anything other than somewhere to sleep but I found its cool, dark interior a frequent and welcome relief from the heat. I got used to the spartan facilities and slept soundly at night between sheets that were changed daily: perfect when everything was covered in sand.

 

I liked the food which was a cross between French, Italian and Tunisian and pretty basic. There was often couscous and pasta, always fish and meat and usually something in tomato sauce. And then there were briks. Briks are a traditional Tunisian dish consisting of thin warka pastry around a filling of egg and fish or meat. They are deep-fried and delicious. I loved them! I was disappointed that we didn’t have any octopus, the fishing of which is a major industry on the islands, but it wasn’t the season for them.

 

The exploits of our little group of single women led me to experience things I’d never done before and, now all these years later, probably never will again. We took a horse and cart to a souvenir shop and tasted prickly pear (sadly I have no recollection of the taste), we made friends with the driver of the cart and chatted to him again and again throughout our holiday. We went for a picnic on a beautiful sailing boat eating the most delicious freshly cooked fish, chicken, and briks. And we went on a dolphin spotting trip on another boat which involved me swimming off the side of the boat in the middle of the mediterranean and then eating watermelon to quench my salted thirst. I was hosed down too to get rid of the salt which was better than it sounds!

 

The beautiful boat we sailed on. My photo.

Cooking fish on the boat. My photo.

 

Despite the company I read a lot of books whilst lying on the beach. I remember quite clearly reading Richard Branson’s Losing My Virginity and sniggering over Virgin’s decision to brand their condoms as Mates and not Virgin! I forget what else I read but having all that time to do nothing but read was wonderful.

 
We swam a lot too. Swimming in the sea was like taking a warm salty bath. I’ve never swum in water so warm which I suppose must have been a consequence of it being very shallow and calm. You could swim out a long way, over 100 metres, and the water would still only reach waist height. There were a couple of weedy patches that were best circumnavigated as they sometimes hid jellyfish that stung and the weeds themselves were none too kind on the skin. We were told that if we were stung we should hot-foot it to the bar and ask for some fresh tomato as apparently it would relieve the sting. I never found out if this was true.

 

The calm sea was like a warm salty bath … with boats. My photo.

 

Every evening I watched the sun set on the horizon and one very early morning I got to see it rise. The stars at night shone like diamonds in the sky and a few metres away from the hotel, with no light pollution, the sky was simply stunning.

 

Sunset on Kerkennah. My photo.

Sunrise on Kerkennah. My photo.

 

Over the course of my two-week holiday Kerkennah slowly seeped into my soul. The kindness and friendliness of its inhabitants, one young man in particular springs to mind (we shall call him Banana Man – a reference to the banana boat trips he ran and nothing else), together with the good company I kept, meant that I really didn’t want to leave.

 

Me and “Banana Man” as drawn by one of the lovely women I met on holiday. Thanks Lynn. My image.

The beach on the last evening. My photo.

 

I returned to Tunisia a further three times over the following two years, always to Kerkennah and each time I fell a little deeper in love with the place and the people. I even had a trip to the mainland. I shall continue this with one more post … hopefully without the hideously long gap in-between! Until then…

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Back in 1999 I had a moment of uncharacteristic bravery and embarked on an adventure. The adventure started with me deciding that I really wanted to go on holiday – a proper holiday.

 

Growing up I had lots of family holidays. We used to tour France, first with a tent and then later a folding caravan. We would board the ferry at Dover, wave goodbye to the White Cliffs, although it was usually the middle of the night, and then spend three or four weeks travelling around La Belle France. Once or twice we also went to Germany, Austria, Switzerland and even, very briefly, Italy. We almost always ended up in Provence. When we camped in a tent there was inevitably a point where we had some torrential rain in the middle of the night and my brother and I would be hastily dressed in our swimming costumes, kagouls and flip-flops, and bundled into the car to wait for my parents to strike the camp. We would drive through the night and arrive in Arles in the early hours of the morning, catching up on some sleep while parked on the street in the ancient city. We would wake with the sun and watch the street cafés coming to life before making our way into a park where we knew there was an old water pump with a handle on the top you had to spin at some speed to get any water and some toilets that seemed to me to be as ancient as the city. This annual arrival (in reality it probably only happened twice) in Provence is one of my most vivid memories of our family holidays. It heralded a trip through the Camargue to the beach, the smell of lavender, rosemary and olives, and endless scorchingly hot sunny days.

 

Arènes d’Arles – the Roman amphitheatre in Arles built in 90AD. Source.

Chapelle Notre-Dame de l’Assomption à Entrevennes, village de Provence.
Source: Charlotte Ségurel.

 

That sounds like a proper holiday right? It wasn’t like the holidays that many of my school friends went on. They went to Skegness on the Lincolnshire coast or other UK “resorts” synonymous with fish and chips, deckchairs and Mr Whippy ice cream. Those who went further afield went to Benidorm or the Costa del Sol in Spain, maybe Majorca in the Mediterranean. I don’t remember ever being jealous. The sort of holidays where you went abroad and still spoke English and ate English food have never appealed to me and I’ve never been very interested in the usual holiday destinations at home. But, I’d never been in an aeroplane, I’d never had a beach holiday and I’d never been anywhere I considered to be exotic.

 

So I did some research. I pored over holiday brochures and rather surprisingly I found I was continually drawn to North Africa. I had some romantic notion about stepping foot on the African continent. I’d read a lot of Wilbur Smith and fallen in love with the land he wrote about in his novels. Of course my funds wouldn’t stretch to Kenya or South Africa and even if they had I’m not sure I’d have wanted to go there alone. I was drawn first to Morocco and then to Tunisia. I chose Tunisia.

 

Why Tunisia? When I visited it was very popular with British tourists looking for a beach holiday. It was relatively cheap and you were pretty much guaranteed good weather. The price was a factor for me but I stumbled across one particular destination that caught my imagination. A small group of islands that most people have never heard of just off the coast of Sfax – Les îles de Kerkennah.

 

Why Kerkennah? There was only one international hotel there, there was nothing to do except lie on the beach all day, but apparently people returned year after year after year because they loved it so much. I would be travelling alone and I was keen to go somewhere I would feel comfortable doing nothing but reading all day and where I wouldn’t feel obliged to join in. I thought I’d feel safe.

 

The travel agent was horrified. “You know they sell women for camels out there don’t you? Wouldn’t you rather go to Spain where they speak English and you can eat English food?”

 

I think I rolled my eyes.

 

So £500 poorer (for a two-week holiday with full board – I’m still astounded at that price) I persuaded my dad to make a 300 mile round trip to take me to Gatwick Airport in the middle of the night to board my flight to Sfax. I was nervous about the holiday but incredibly excited about travelling by aeroplane.

 

The boarding pass for my first ever flight. My image.

 

My first ever flight could not have been more perfect. It took 3-4 hours, the skies were clear the entire way and I had a window seat. I saw the snow-peaked Alps and watched in fascination as Sardinia passed beneath me. And then there it was. The beautiful and endless North African coast which, from my position high in the sky, appeared to be devoid of any civilisation. It stretched as far as I could see and was green and lush with a white sandy shore.

 

The plane landed in Tabarka just east of the Algerian border in a heavily forested part of Tunisia where some passengers disembarked and others boarded, bound for home after the rest of us had been dropped off in Sfax.

 

As the plane flew further south to Sfax the land got increasingly browner. As it started to descend for landing I could see that there were olive trees in all directions stretching out across the arid land. There were houses under the flight path and I could almost see the whites of people’s eyes as we flew over them. I was shocked at how close to the runway people were living.

 

Stepping off the plane the heat hit me like a body blow. It was like stepping into a wall of hot air. I felt as if I’d been shoved into a huge industrial oven and was being slowly cooked. But it was a dry heat not a humid one and surprisingly, even at 35-40C, the dryness made it bearable.

 

Customs was a very slow affair. Ours was the only plane at the airport, it was a charter flight from the UK and we’d already filled out the compulsory paperwork while we were on the plane. There were three queues. I ended up in the one they’d opened to speed things up – the queue that usually only dealt with arrivals from within the Maghreb. He probably dealt with the UK flight every week but he was still very slow. He painstakingly asked each of us the purpose of our visit and then after much deliberation stamped our passports. I was so excited! My passport had never been stamped before.

 

Once through customs and with baggage claimed I made my way to the front of the airport where there were several coaches and a minibus. Someone from the tour operator ticked me off on a list, told me to leave my case with a white van and then get on the minibus. A Tunisian man, who seemed to expect a reward, took my case and threw it into the van. Having no currency, the Tunisian Dinar is a closed currency and can only be bought inside Tunisia, I don’t think I gave him anything. I seem to remember he was quite keen on the idea of being paid in sterling.

 

Once on the minibus my nerves set in a little but as we drove through the streets of Sfax I found myself fascinated by the city. I was momentarily confused because I could read all the road signs – then I realised that’s because they were all in French and I was automatically translating them in my head. (I should point out that my French isn’t really that good but I’ve seen a lot of French road signs.) Everything seemed so surreal. I remember driving past a butcher’s shop with animal carcasses hanging in the entrance, and many of the shops just seemed to be little more than concrete shells with open fronts. The overriding sound was that of car horns. The holiday rep talked to us during the journey, covering all the salient points of Tunisian history and some other bits of trivia. If you think the UK is a football mad then you have no idea; when the local team plays in Sfax the entire city shuts down.

 

We ended up at the ferry terminal to catch the ferry to Kerkennah, a journey that took roughly an hour. The ferry was the first place I became truly aware of the Tunisians. There were no women or at least very few, and the men stared. I’d never been stared at quite like that before but strangely it didn’t bother me. I knew enough to know that the staring was to be expected and I wasn’t concerned about what they were looking at because I was fairly well covered. Pale skin that burns easily has its upsides.

 

Les îles de Kerkennah. Source.

 

Kerkennah was flat, very flat, no more than 15m above sea level, and covered in a lot of date palms and not a lot else. It was to be my home for the next two weeks and I would fall in love with the place and its people.

 

To be continued…

 

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