When we started planning our sailing around the Med, Africa was never really on our radar (literally and metaphorically). We had come close to the continent when we entered the sea at Gibraltar. The coast of Morocco was clearly visible from there and we hopped on the ferry for A weekend in Tangier. There we had seen them finishing off a nice new marina and had thought about stopping off there again with Pintail on our way out again but we had not given the African coastline, nor seen it, since then. However, as we looked at the charts preparing for our passages to Sicily, there it was again, not quite so close but tantilisingly close enough and over winter a plan to head south to Tunisia for our first stop of the year was born.
Haven’t we been here before?
On arriving in Tunisia we were immediately struck by many similarities with Turkey. There were the obvious things – the minarets of the mosques, the call to prayer, the Islamic design and the carpet shops
but there were other things too – the omnipresent gold statues of an independence hero and an always warm and smiling welcome from the people. Plus a strikingly similar flag. Although shorter than elsewhere, Ottoman rule in Tunisia left a lasting legacy including the familiar crescent and star of the blood red flag.
And then there were the beautiful tiles reminiscent of Andalucia in southern Spain and of Portugal.
All of these things made it easy for us to find ourselves immediately at home there and put final pieces in the puzzle of the Mediterranean histories we have discovered on our travels.
Medinas and souks
After so long in the tiny old streets of Greece’s chora and Italy’s centro storichi you might think that the twisting alleys of Tunisia’s medinas might not hold us in much thrall.
But whether the very lived in lanes of smaller towns like Nefta
or the more upmarket alleys of Tunis we loved wandering around Tunisia’s medinas.
We even managed to escape the souks without buying anything other than the essentials.
Getting lost in all those lanes and finding ourselves at dead ends was part of the charm.
And in the lanes of the medinas we loved all the decorative doors.
Many doors feature the hand of Fatima, a symbol to give protection from the evil eye similar to the Turkish nazar.
Sometimes the doors were left tantilisingly open, revealing just a glimpse of those beautifully tiled interiors.
Getting around in Tunisia was very easy. After the terror of the roads of Sicily Tunisia’s roads were remarkably good. Sure the overtaking was a little impatient and there were a few potholes but we happily shared them with all sorts of users – horses, sheep, heavily laden mopeds.
And we were definitely careful to watch out for camels crossing!
Finding petrol wasn’t hard in the small towns of the south. Every few yards along the main road these tiny stalls dispensed fuel. The new motorway, the A1, however had no petrol stations anywhere along the 200km stretch we drove up and we had to take a detour to find somewhere to fill up.
But by far the best way to get around were the trains. They were such a cheap and easy way to get around. When a 30 minute train ride costs only 50p return there really is no better alternative.
Food and drink
It’s fair to say that the cuisine of Tunisia did not blow us away. Which is a shame because we could eat out so cheaply. We rarely spent more than £20 on a meal for us both and often only £10 but we did not find the variety on the menus particularly inspiring and instead mostly ate at home from a fridge and larder restocked with wonderful new ingredients and a fair few old favourites.
Breakfast in Tunisia was mostly boiled eggs with their lovely flatbread, often flavoured with caraway seeds or a croissant or pain au chocolat reflecting their French colonial past. We loved their orange juice. The oranges were so sweet and it was always freshly squeezed.
At our hotel in Mahdia with its vast array of breakfast choices we were intrigued by a strange brown substance next to the cereals called bsisa. I tried some but found it hard to describe. It had a wheaty flavour but the texture was odd. We asked the friendly omlette cook and he explained that it is made with roasted barley flour mixed with olive oil, water and sugar. He promised to give us some the following day and sure enough he duly delivered a packet of the fine flour. I wasn’t really sure what to do with it so together with some chopped dates I made some of the mixture up into truffle sized balls ready for our long passage to Sardinia – they were after all full of the kind of energy we would need for a sail like that.
Our usual coffee was replaced temporarily with wonderfully sweet (sometimes too sweet) mint tea. Served only after midday and left to stew for a long time we soon learnt that it was a mistake to try to order it before lunch. I also enjoyed local variations of almond tea and pine nut tea whilst Stefan stuck to coffee despite declaring it decidedly French (which is code for not good!).
Lunch in Tunisia introduced us to brik, deep fried filo type pastry usually filled with vegetables and an egg. There were also all sorts of filled flatbreads, pasties and Turkish gozleme-like filled pancakes. This cat certainly took a fancy to the latter when we tried it in Tunis.
When we’d had enough of the uninspiring menus of local restaurants the market in Monastir gave us everything we needed for cooking on board and we stocked up on dates, almonds and spices too.
And at last Stefan was able to find the hot, hot chillies he had been craving for so long in the form of Tunisia’s local harissa paste. Served with olive oil and bread in all restaurants as an appetiser, he seized on this as an alternative to his favourite but illusive fresh chillies and now the bilge has a significant stock pile.
Tunisia is very obviously a country in which Islam predominates and the call to prayer rings out five times a day. Its ancient mosques have stood since the earliest days of the religion and despite attempts to secularise the country 99% of the population are nominally Muslim.
There were also, however, Jews living in Tunisia as far back as the time of Carthage. Centuries old and continuing tensions and wars between Jews and Arabs mean that the Jewish population today is now only about 2000, living largely in Tunis or on the island of Djerba.
And Christianity had an important place in Tunisia too. Introduced by the Romans, it explains the beautifully mosaiced baptismal pool we found in the Bardo museum and the incredibly incongruous life-size mock up of Noah’s Ark complete with animals going in two by two and rain sound effects inside at Chak Wak Park in Tozeur.
The new Constitution of Tunisia, issued following the 2011 revolution recognises Islam as the country’s state religion but grants its citizens freedom of religion and belief.
One of the best things about our land travels (apart from the luxury of a big bed, the occasional bath and a flushing toilet) is that they take us away from the sea and sometimes into some very different landscapes. Tunisia certainly delivered those.
We spend a fair bit of our time on and around sandy beaches but there is nothing like the ever shifting shapes of sand dunes and the silence of staring out into hundreds of kilometres of uninterrupted nothingness.
In the salt lakes the horizon just seemed never ending and the mirages really played tricks with our minds. It’s very easy to see how George Lucas could imagine it as another planet.
However, every now and then those flat landscapes gave way to extraordinary scars seemingly deep into the red earth
Also in that dry landscape we unexpectedly found (and got lost driving through) vast palm forests growing out of the sand. The one at Tozeur has at least 200,000 trees over more than 10 square metres. That’s a lot of dates!
We loved Tunisia.
Its warm and welcoming people, its intoxicating scents of spice and jasmine, its sweet tastes of dates and mint tea, its desert vistas and palm forests, all drew us in. Above all we found it a very easy-going, easy to travel country full of extraordinary sights. Never once were we hassled by sellers in the medinas or asked for backshish by officials. Never once did we feel unsafe. We only hope that the country is able to recover from the devastating terrorist attacks and that the tourists on whom much of the country relies for a living return to experience its delights.